Reading the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq reminds me of a weird experience I once had. Ive never told anyone about it before, but Im going to share it with you to show the underlying problem with the panels conclusions.
Many years ago, I was participating in a blue-ribbon panel on future U.S. foreign policy. This groups bipartisan members came up with a report that was a compromise but with a strong strategic theme. Best of all, it recognized how the regions actual situation ensured that not much could be accomplished there.
We were all staying at a country conference center, and the evening before the press conference announced the conclusions, I went to my little room. To my astonishment, the walls were paper thin and I could hear everything happening in the next room.
It just so happened that the rooms occupant was a man hoping to be the next president of the United States. (Dont try guessing, it isnt who you think.) He was deep in conversation with another person, a senior consultant to the group who pretended to be knowledgeable about the Middle East.
The basic point of the dialogue was that the consultant was urging him to spin the reports conclusions in a direction that would benefit him politically. Sure enough, the next day, at the press conference, the politician totally distorted all the thinking that went into the report. The other participants were startled, but nobody said anything. The politician never got to be president, but the advisor did get a very senior ambassadorship in the next administration.
Im not suggesting that former Secretary of State Jim Baker or former Congressman Lee Hamilton distorted the Iraq group report. Far from it.
But I am suggesting that Baker has learned nothing in the dozen years since he left office, and also I am pointing out that such reports are far more the result of maneuver than of either common sense or creative thinking. And they have a lot more to do with Washington debates than about Middle East realities.
Lets focus on what the report says about the Arab-Israeli conflict. What the report does is ignore the experience of the last dozen years and throw in just about every mistaken clich on the issue.
One would think the conflict has remained unresolved simply because the United States has not tried hard enough.
The section on this issue is just silly. The great minds, the senior statesmen, the best and brightest get together and, on this question at least (Im leaving the issue of Iraq itself out of the discussion for the moment) the result is drivel. Not because it is politically bad, but because it is a bunch of slogans with limited links to reality.
The report concludes that:
- The Arab-Israeli conflict is inextricably linked to Iraq.
Really? I cant think of a single issue in the region it is less linked to.
Iraq is about an internal struggle for power. The radicals are not extremists because of the Arab-Israeli conflict. By regional standards, nobody in Iraq even talks much about the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is repeating a mantra, not looking at the facts.
- The most important thing right now is for everyone to negotiate, since it was the breakdown in talks that led to violence.
Wrong again. It was the refusal to make an agreement that led to the breakdown in talks and to violence. The extremists dont want serious talks because they want victory, not compromise; or, to put it another way, the kind of gains they want are not those achieved by bargaining (West Bank/Gaza Palestinian state, return of the Golan Heights) but by fighting (demagoguery, holding power, destroying Israel.)
In this context, negotiations lead to violence because the extremists want to ensure the talks dont succeed. Unfortunately, those radicals include both the Palestinian and Syrian leaderships. Like it or not, there can be no diplomatic progress until the radicals are defeated.
- A negotiated peace would strengthen Abu Mazin (Mahmoud Abbas).
Do these people pay any attention to the Middle East? To obtain peace, Abu Mazin would have to make concessions. Yet, making the needed concessions would destroy him.
To make peace, Abu Mazin would have to enforce law and order as well as stop terrorism. He is incapable of doing that. To get a peace treaty, Abu Mazin would need to suppress Hamas, which he can neither do nor is he capable of even trying. Is that so hard to understand?
- It is good to have a Palestinian national unity government.
Get it? Have Hamas in power, have Fatah and Hamas competing to show which can be the more militant and successful in terrorism and, on top of that, have successful peace talks? No wonder this kind of policy recommendation gains a consensus. It promises everything and leaves out all the problems.
- The key to moderating Syrian policy in Lebanon is giving Syria the Golan Heights.
If Syria had wanted the Golan Heights, it could have had them long ago. Syria wants Lebanon, which is far more valuable than the Golan. And since the Baker-Hamilton reporters are pushing for U.S. niceness toward Syria, Damascus knows it does not have to fear American pressure if it continues its aggressive subversion in trying to take over Lebanon.
Any college undergraduate who has taken a couple of courses on the Middle East should understand the futility of the points above. (They probably dont because of the way the region is taught in universities, but you get my point.)
What is really needed is a policy that would effectively fight the radicals and help either real moderates or those states whose interests coincide with those of the United States and the West. Instead, the report suggests that what is most important is to get everybody talking.
The only way this kind of thinking is going to damage the radical forces is if they fall down and hurt themselves from laughing so hard.