Published: November 17 2006
Has anyone told the president? Word in Washington is that the grown-ups have taken charge. Every conversation is about the terms and timing of US disengagement from Iraq. That is the polite way of saying retreat. There is, though, a snag. From what I hear, George W. Bush does not accept the basic premise. The commander-in-chief still thinks the war can be won.
The grown-ups in this context, of course, are veterans of the administration of the first President Bush. James Baker, former secretary of state and long-time consigliere to the Bush family, heads the Iraq Study Group, charged by Congress to find the least inelegant exit route.
Robert Gates, secretary of defence-designate, hails from the same stable of “Bush 41” foreign policy realists. Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to George W’s father and an early critic of the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein, dispenses hard-headed pragmatism from the shadows.
Mr Baker and his team have been talking to anyone who is anyone. The group’s discussions this week with Mr Bush and, by video-link, with Britain’s Tony Blair have been bracketed with meetings with Bill Clinton, Richard Holbrooke, Warren Christopher and just about everyone else with a membership card for Washington’s foreign policy establishment.
On the face of it, the group is bipartisan. Lee Hamilton, Mr Baker’s co-chair, is a former Democratic congressional leader. Several others also wear the Democrats’ blue. But they have scant experience or expertise in foreign policy. The final report will be Mr Baker’s call.
The one thing we know for certain is that he cannot possibly meet the soaring and often conflicting expectations for the report. Republicans want political cover for an unspecified change of course that will settle things before the 2008 presidential campaign. Democrats want validation of their pledge in the mid-term elections to start bringing the troops home. Iraq, meanwhile, slides in to civil war.
Mr Baker probably has several of his own objectives. One shrewd member of the foreign policy club says that the former secretary of state probably has three overlapping motives. He is a patriot, so he will want to advance America’s national interest. But he will also be seeking to salvage the reputation of the Bush dynasty. Mr Baker would be a saint not a politician if he did not have somewhere in mind his own place in history.
The relative weight he attaches to these goals may be critical to the report’s conclusions. Marrying the politics of Washington to a diminishing number of less-than-attractive options in Iraq was never going to be easy. But how tough is Mr Baker ready to be with the White House if he concludes that the best chance lies with a 180 degree turn by the president?
There is no mystery, of course, about the ideas being weighed by the group. They include, inter alia, pressure on the Iraqi government to reach a political accommodation with Sunnis, concentration of US forces in the most troubled areas, a step change in the reconstruction effort, dialogue with Syria and Iran, a regional conference of neighbouring states and new talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Senator John McCain is not entirely isolated in saying that to have a chance of winning the war the US should increase troop levels before it starts to reduce them. Some retired generals agree that US forces must regain control of Baghdad and surrounding areas if the Iraqis are to have any chance of assuming responsibility for security.
Such arguments, though, are the exception to the rule. Almost everyone else expects the study group to marshal its ideas to a single purpose: to allow the US to begin a staged withdrawal of its troops. Middle America has lost faith in the war, so fixing the politics in Washington comes ahead of whatever slim change there might remain to fix Iraq. It is just possible, of course, a dwindling band of optimists say, that the one might serve the other.
Far less evident is how the administration will respond to the idea that it should seize what might be a last opportunity to redefine defeat as victory. I am not talking just about the irascible Dick Cheney, the vice-president.
Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, is often characterised as more open-minded than the president. I wonder. Ms Rice, too, has invested just about everything in the idea that Iraq can be turned into a beacon for the Arab world. She is fond of drawing parallels with the Truman administration, describing this administration’s commitment to the spread of democracy through the Middle East as a generational challenge comparable to the fight against communism. Is she ready now to admit failure?
Those around Ms Rice also make a point not often heard above the political melee. Having broken Iraq, the US has a responsibility to mend it, and for now at least most Iraqis want America to stay.
Which takes us back to the commander-in-chief. Mr Bush’s appearances since the Republicans’ election defeat have been a study in equivocation. His pronouncements come in two parts. A first, scripted, section speaks to the political reality that the voters want a change of course. This Mr Bush professes himself open to new ideas, ready to take advice. It is the one who sacked Donald Rumsfeld the day after the elections.
Once he starts answering questions, though, the second, unscripted, Mr Bush strikes a decidedly different note. This president is not thinking about withdrawal, staged or otherwise. He is eager for strategies to deliver victory, fresh thinking to help America win. This Mr Bush does not sound ready to join the how-to-manage-defeat conversation.
Perhaps he will change his mind. Perhaps he will begin to have nightmares about Americans scrambling on to helicopters from the roof of the US embassy in Baghdad. I have heard informed insiders say that reality will impose itself on the White House as it has already done in middle America.
Maybe. But as things stand it seems unlikely that Mr Baker’s report will produce the clean, decisive break with past policy that most people in Washington seem to be hoping for. The end-game looks more likely to be protracted and messy. The US, I heard one veteran diplomat say this week, may still be able to avoid that Saigon moment. But no one is too sure.