From the 'New Yorker'
Issue of 2006-12-18
Moments after the report of the Iraq Study Group descended on George W. Bush like a safe from a penthouse, its ten members fanned out in bipartisan squads to assure the world that they weren’t blaming anybody. “In our report we say we are not going to review the past, we’re going to be looking at where we go from here in the future,” Lawrence Eagleburger, who was Secretary of State under Father Bush, told CNN. “We wanted to take the situation as it exists
today,” Chuck Robb, the former Virginia governor and senator, explained over at MSNBC. “As Senator Robb explained, we made a decision early on not to look back but to look forward,” Sandra Day O’Connor, the retired Supreme Court Justice, concurred. “We wanted to describe the situation as we found it.”
Given the provenance, authorship, and purpose of “The Iraq Study Group Report,” no one need be astonished that it eschews the language of overt culpability. But because it does indeed “take the situation as it exists,” and because the present is simply the past’s ever-moving outer edge, it cannot help looking back. The indictment is there to see, and it is devastating. The Report’s introductory “Letter from the Co-Chairs”—James A. Baker III, Republican, the former Secretary of State (under Bush I), and Lee H. Hamilton, Democrat, the former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee—frames what follows with the bureaucratic equivalent of “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”:
No one can guarantee that any course of action in Iraq at this point will stop sectarian warfare, growing violence, or a slide toward chaos.
The “Executive Summary” opens with this statement: “The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.” And the “Assessment” section—forty pages of relentlessly declarative sentences—confirms what many capable journalists have reported. It lists what it sees as some of the consequences of a continuation of current policy: greater chaos; greater suffering for the Iraqi people; a humanitarian catastrophe; escalated ethnic cleansing; a broader regional war; Sunni-Shia clashes across the Islamic world; a sharp increase in the price of oil; a still stronger base of operations for terrorists; a reduction in America’s global influence; increased chances for failure in Afghanistan; greater polarization within the United States. It lists the “basic services” with which “the Iraqi government is not effectively providing its people,” and they are basic indeed: “electricity, drinking water, sewage, health care, and education.” And that’s the good news, relatively speaking: “In Baghdad and other unstable areas, the situation is much worse.”
The Study Group summarizes what it calls the “significant challenges” facing the Iraqi Army in a series of bullet points: “Units lack leadership.” “Units lack equipment.” “Units lack personnel.” “Units lack logistics and support.” All of which may be just as well, since there are “significant questions” about whether these units “will carry out missions on behalf of national goals instead of a sectarian agenda.” Sound bad? Well, the dolorous accounting of the Army’s condition is immediately followed by this:
The Iraqi Police
The state of the Iraqi police is substantially worse than that of the Iraqi Army.
Bada-boom. You can almost hear the rim shot. But there is nothing comic about the details: “Iraqi police cannot control crime, and they routinely engage in sectarian violence, including the unnecessary detention, torture, and targeted execution of Sunni Arab civilians.” As for Iraq’s Facilities Protection Services, which are charged with guarding government ministries, they are merely, in the words of a “senior U.S. official” quoted in the Report, “incompetent, dysfunctional, or subversive.”
Further appalling nuggets lie buried in the recommendations section, which is titled, more hopefully than it reads, “The Way Forward—A New Approach.” We are told, for example, that “a continuing Iraqi commitment of American ground forces at present levels will leave no reserve”—none—“available to meet other contingencies,” including urgently needed reinforcements in Afghanistan. We are told that, five years after the 9/11 attacks, our one-thousand-strong Embassy in Baghdad has just six fluent speakers of Arabic, plus twenty-seven who aren’t fluent. (As the Report does not mention, fifty-five Arabic language specialists have been cashiered from the military for being gay.) And we are told that while eleven hundred attacks took place one day last July, the number officially reported was ninety-three, because “information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.”
The Report’s narrative passages add up to a comprehensive condemnation not only of the conduct and consequences of the Iraq war but also of the Administration’s over-all foreign policy, a condemnation all the more stunning coming from a panel led by Baker and including O’Connor, who, perhaps more than any other two people on earth, were responsible six years ago for promoting Bush from loser of the popular vote to President of the United States. But when the Study Group presents its actual recommendations—seventy-nine of them, neatly numbered and italicized—it loses its vigor and coherence. Some of its suggestions are sensible and to the point (use diplomacy, forswear permanent bases), others sensible but beside the point (be honest about budgeting, renew negotiations over the Israel-Palestine problem), and still others so bland as to be risible (“remain in close and frequent touch with the Iraqi leadership”). Yet if the Study Group’s pitiless description of America’s dilemma in Iraq is to be believed—and it is—then the hope of anything resembling a positive outcome is extremely slim. The Report promises no such outcome. It contends only that what it offers is less bad than the alternatives (though its case against one alternative—what it calls, a little tendentiously, “precipitate” or “premature” withdrawal—is more asserted than argued). That Bush’s war in Iraq is an unmitigated catastrophe has been known for some time. What the Iraq Study Group has done is to make it official.
The day after the Report was issued, President Bush held a joint news conference with a visitor, Prime Minister Tony Blair. The President took the opportunity, as the Times put it, to “distance himself” from “the central recommendations” of the Study Group—specifically, its calls for diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria and for pulling back American combat brigades. That was no great surprise. More alarmingly, Bush also distanced himself from the cold shower of reality the Study Group had aimed at him. “I think the analysis of the situation is not really in dispute,” Blair said. But it was in dispute. “The thing I liked about the Baker-Hamilton approach is it discussed the way forward in Iraq,” Bush said—which was to say the thing he didn’t like about it is it discussed what is actually happening in Iraq. When a correspondent suggested that he was “still in denial about how bad things are in Iraq,” the President replied, “It’s bad in Iraq. Does that help?” When another reporter noted that the Study Group wants leaders to be “candid and forthright with people,” he tried. “We have not succeeded as fast as we wanted to succeed,” he said. “Progress is not as rapid as I had hoped,” he said. His problem is success that is insufficiently fast, progress that is insufficiently rapid. Our problem is that he sees it that way.
— Hendrik Hertzberg