Friday, October 13, 2006

Vote first, get answers later

Since Iraq is deemed to be the most important issue in the ’06 congressional elections, one might reasonably argue that prospective voters deserve to know as much as possible about what’s really going on – not just in the bloody precincts of Baghdad, but in the minds of esteemed Washingtonians who are trying to assess that war with fresh eyes.

Well, that won’t happen. Americans who are still trying to sort out their feelings about President Bush’s Iraq adventure would probably be curious to know, for instance, whether longtime Bush family fixer James Baker believes that Bush has essentially screwed up the war big time. But Baker, who served the senior George Bush as secretary of state and who now co-chairs the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group, has decreed (along with his Democratic co-chair Lee Hamilton) that this bipartisan panel of Washington players will not talk straight about what needs to be done in Iraq until after the voters have spoken.

As Baker insisted last night on PBS’ The News Hour, “we really have to take it out of politics. It cannot be seen to be politically inspired or politically motivated or politically directed, and we couldn’t do that if we reported before the election.” The counter-argument, of course, is that an election is supposed to be (in Bush’s phrase) “an accountability moment,” and that voters make their best accountability decisions when armed with maximum information. Especially when some notables vow that, in Baker's words,) they will be "telling it like it is."

That would seem to be particularly urgent at the moment, with a civil war seemingly on the horizon, and with the Iraqi government (“the young democracy,” in Bush’s phrase) seemingly unwilling to confront the murderous sectarian militias that operate on the inside. Indeed, Hamilton even told PBS that “I still have real questions in my mind as to the capacity, the will of the Iraqi government to move.”

The Baker-Hamilton panel was formed last March, as mandated by the Republican Congress, in one of its own rare attempts to give Bush an accountability moment. (Congress said at the time that it wanted “to help the president chart a new course.”) Baker and Hamilton have since visited Iraq, but the violence in the young democracy has been so intense that they have heeded their minders’ advice and stayed within the Green Zone, wearing their heavy helmets and their 35 pounds of armor. They talked about that experience on PBS – which, by itself, is a signal that their mood is grim and that their post-election findings might not necessarily please the White House.

Other signals have surfaced. A conservative newspaper, the New York Sun, reported yesterday that the panel is toying the idea of telling Bush a lot of things that he might not want to hear. An early draft was leaked to the paper. The draft suggests that it might be wise to pull out some U.S. troops (as part of a “redeployment,” the same word used these days by congressional Democrats); that the Iraqi government should be “representative” of its people, and “not necessarily democracy”; that Bush should stop promising a victory (“The United States should aim for stability…rather than victory”); and that any move to “stabilize” Iraq will require opening a dialogue with Syria and Iran – both of which Bush has refused to talk to.

Baker hit this latter point hard on PBS, rebuking Bush: “I personally believe in talking to your enemies. When I was secretary of state, I made 15 trips to Syria when they were on the state sponsors of terrorism list. And on the 16th trip, they changed their 25 years of policy and came to the table and sat across the table from Israel and negotiated peace with Israel.”

Would Bush accept this kind of advice? Here’s where the intricate Bush family dynamics come into play. Baker was one of the loyalists who saved Bush’s candidacy in December 2000, by helping to pull him across the finish line in Florida. But Baker’s advice about talking to the enemy, and about potentially dumping the democratization dream in favor of “stability,” sounds suspiciously like the kind of adverse advice that Bush would expect to get from his father’s retinue – and, as evidenced by the reporting in Bob Woodward’s new book, as well as many others – the Bush 41 team is not exactly popular within the Bush 43 coterie. And vice versa.

Anyway, on PBS, Baker was asked, “What gives you confidence that (members of the coterie) are ready to embrace recommendations to chart some kind of new course?” And Baker replied: “We have no assurance whatsoever.”

Stay tuned, but cast your ballots first. The answer to that key question won’t be available until after the election.


By the way, if Baker winds up endorsing some form of troop "redeployment," he will be merely reflecting American mainstream of public opinion. According to the latest survey by the pollsters at Fox News, 41 percent of Americans want to "get out" of Iraq, and 39 percent want to "stay in." The margin for getting out is notably wider among independent swing voters, 43 to 29 percent.

And if you still don't think that's the mainstream opinion, consider the latest remarks on Iraq offered by Hillary Clinton, who, during her early manuevers for 2008, has spent much of her time positioning herself in the middle of the electorate. Here's what she told the New York Daily News editorial board the other day:

"The administration has this mantra: 'We'll stand down when they stand up.' Well, 350,000 of them have stood up — but standing up does not mean they will fight and defend anything.
The appropriate formula is, 'We will stand down anyway, and you will fight to defend Iraq.' Because (right now) they are basically able to just allow us to take the brunt of the impact. There are certain groups of the Iraqis that will fight, but the vast majority of the 350,000 are not prepared to stand up and fight for Iraq. They might stand up and fight for their tribe or for their family or for their religious affiliation. And that's not going to change unless they have to face the reality that, guess what, we are going to start, what we call, in the Democratic alternative, a phased redeployment.

"Now, that doesn't mean initially, out of Iraq. It could be just moving to the North, because I do think we have an extra obligation to the Kurds not to desert them once again. It could certainly mean just over the horizon in Kuwait. But what we've been doing is not working."