Baker-Hamilton panel can solve domestic issues, not win wars

Now that the graybeards on the Baker-Hamilton commission have proposed consensus solutions for the Iraq war, they should be kept on to tackle entitlements, energy policy, health care and education – domestic issues more appropriate to bipartisan deal-making. Seriously.

The prestigious Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., did a magnificent job of reaching unanimous agreement by splitting differences and finding middle-ground solutions.

A bipartisan panel of such distinguished elder statesmen could very well outline the “grand bargains” it will take to break domestic logjams.

For instance, to finance the retirement of the baby-boom generation and achieve long-term fiscal balance, we need a deal by which Democrats agree to shave promised Medicare and Social Security benefits and Republicans agree to increase revenues.

It’s just the sort of thing that former Democratic White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson (Wyo.) could put their minds to. The same goes for education. Democratic lawyer Vernon Jordan and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor could fashion and sell the bargain under which teachers get more pay but have to accept being promoted, hired and fired on the basis of performance.

War is another matter. The Iraq Study Group – composed entirely of civilians – basically produced a plan designed to split the differences between America’s hostile political factions, not produce victory in Iraq.

By design, in fact, the group’s report does not mention President Bush’s oft-repeated goal – “victory” – or the common Democratic term, “quagmire.” It proposes to achieve “success” in Iraq, using Bush’s new definition: an Iraq that can sustain, defend and govern itself and serve as an ally in the war on terror. It avoids Bush’s old goal, democratizing the Middle East.

The panel dismisses all three of the most politically disputed strategies for Iraq – “precipitate withdrawal,” “staying the course” and “more troops for Iraq” – in exactly 14 lines of type each.

Then, it recommends a “way forward” that calls for removal of all U.S. combat troops by early 2008, “subject to unexpected developments in the country.”

But it also envisions maintaining a “considerable military presence in the region,” including unspecified numbers of combat troops in Iraq for force-protection, training and anti-terrorist activity.

The evident, but unstated, purpose of the troop withdrawals is to lower American casualty rates and prevent a total collapse of domestic support for the war, which in turn could lead to “precipitate withdrawal” and a series of dire consequences that the group foresees, including regional civil war and a triumph for Iran and other radical Islamists.

The group tried to buy time and patience among Americans for a one-year transfer of combat responsibility to Iraqis and to prod the Iraqi government into making the reforms necessary to avoid all-out civil war. Members of the panel observed correctly that a president can’t run a war without domestic support.

However, in war, what’s more important than consensus is decisive leadership. You win wars or you lose them. You advance or retreat. By muddling that choice and by providing the media with opportunities to say that Bush’s policies were “repudiated,” the group has made the president’s task more difficult.

As Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said when the report came out, it is really recommending “retreat – the most difficult military maneuver of all to execute.” McCain – along with an impressive list of retired generals, some of whom opposed the war in the first place – contend that what’s needed is an increase in American troop levels to decisively establish security, as well as a declaration that the United States will not abandon the mission until Iraq is stable, something that could take five or more years to occur.

Buried on page 73 of the group’s report is the statement that while the panel rejects sending in 100,000 or 200,000 more U.S. troops, “we could, however, support a short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to stabilize Baghdad or speed up the training and equipping mission.”

I hope that Bush, when he starts picking and choosing among the group’s recommendations, selects that one and runs with it, trying – for what’s likely to be one last time – to pacify Baghdad and show Iraqis that they can have a secure future.

Bush also should accept the group’s recommendation to significantly increase military aid to Iraq. One of the most damning paragraphs in the report says, “Congress has been generous in supporting requests for U.S. troops, but it has resisted fully funding Iraqi forces.

“The entire appropriation for Iraqi defense forces for FY 2006 ($3 billion) is less than the United States currently spends in Iraq every two weeks.”

As the report suggests, Bush needs to gain leverage over the Iraqi government to induce it to work toward national reconciliation and to eliminate sectarian militias from its security forces. The Iraq Study Group wants to use threats of withdrawal of economic, political or military support.

In the end, that may be necessary. But first Bush should try – and is trying – to persuade Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to reform his government and oust radical Moktada al-Sadr in favor of moderate Shiites. And when Bush meets with Sunni leaders, he should tell them: If we have to, we will side with the Shiites and Kurds, who account for 80 percent of the population, so you had better cooperate with the government rather than trying to bring it down.

On the diplomatic front, Baker believes that it’s possible to “flip” Syria from being an enemy of the United States and an ally of Iran and turning it into a force for peace in the region.

Baker told me in an interview that he believes Syria would give up trying to topple the government of Lebanon, stop supporting Hezbollah and persuade Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist if it could get back the Golan Heights, which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war.

Bush should appoint Baker as a special envoy to Damascus to see if he can bring that deal to fruition. I doubt Syria would trade its territorial ambitions in Lebanon for the Golan, but Baker would deserve a Nobel Peace Prize if he could produce a lasting agreement.

Even Baker and Hamilton admit that Iran is not likely to be a constructive player on Iraq, but they nonetheless advocate “dialogue.” It won’t work.

Bush was right to welcome the Iraq Study Group report. It was the politic thing to say. But he has to fashion a new policy to try to win this war. Retreat – and failure – will be catastrophic.

(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)

Copyright 2006, Roll Call Newspaper

Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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