" The Boys Are Back in Town" avers Howard Fineman in Newsweek, by which he means the Wise Men who surround Bush the Father. When Bush the Son came to power, he hooked up with his new friends – the neocons – and put them in positions of power and influence. Now that they’ve left the place a shambles, the Wise Men are back, and they have a job to do. James Baker III, the Old Man’s grand vizier, is heading up what is naturally being called the Baker Commission, charged with coming up with a solution to the Iraqi conundrum, while Robert Gates – head of the CIA in the Bush I administration – takes Rummy’s place at Defense. The neocons are out, the "realists" – sometimes called "pragmatists" – are in, and it’s a New Era in Washington.
Or is it?
This interview with Fritz W. Ermarth, who worked closely with the new secretary of defense for two decades, is not a reason for hope:
"TNI: Please give use your perspective as to what this change of leadership at the Pentagon might mean in terms of U.S. strategy in Iraq and beyond.
"FWE: Well, from everything the president has said, the strategy won’t basically change. Now, I can’t guarantee that sitting here in my study, but the execution you can count on will be very thoughtful and careful. That’s the kind of person Gates is. But until the president signals it, I don’t think you ought to look for a change of strategy.
"TNI: Indeed, it seems from the president’s statements that Gates was chosen not only for his expertise but also for a compliance with a ‘defeat is not an option’ mentality in Iraq. How assertive do you think Gates would be in advocating a redirection of policy in Iraq, and do you think he’s ideologically predisposed to a stay-the-course policy?
"FWE: Well, you’re picking loaded buzzwords for an interview like this. These have become bumper stickers. I think he appreciates, strategically, that for us to just bail out of there and leave it to the Iraqis alone to sort out the problem would be a disaster for all kinds of reasons – terrorism, regional stability and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. If you call that ‘stay the course,’ I’m sure he’s going to support that. I strongly believe that he will examine the situation carefully, and if it calls for a change of tactics or even strategy, he won’t hesitate to recommend that."
"Defeat is not an option" – that’s the operative principle shared by all the major Washington factions, from neocon to realist. Whatever the arguments were for or against the invasion of Iraq, that debate is now water under the bridge, and the question is: what now?
It’s all so self-consciously hardheaded and "realistic" – yet it doesn’t take into consideration the underlying reality of the American occupation: we’ve already lost. Defeat is not optional – it is already in the past. The only question now is how we will engineer an orderly retreat.
This administration and its rapidly shrinking cheering section in the neoconservative media have been babbling on about "victory" without bothering to define what that might mean. The creation of a Jeffersonian republic in Mesopotamia? The end of sectarian killing? A unified nation? The formal surrender of the insurgents followed by the installation of a Starbucks in every town? "Victory" is elusive precisely because it cannot be defined, but defeat – ah, defeat! – we know what that looks like.
As those helicopters pulled away from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, with people clinging to them for dear life, the American public became intimately acquainted with defeat – and it wasn’t pretty. In the decades since that traumatic event, Americans shied away from foreign adventurism, whether undertaken in the name of "democracy" or a coldly calculated American interest, haunted by the memory of what happened in Vietnam.
There was even a name for this shyness, this reluctance to involve the nation in overseas wars: the Vietnam Syndrome. Would-be crusaders and interventionists champing at the bit referred to this syndrome with disdain , as if it were a disability of some sort, the foreign policy equivalent of agoraphobia or an unnatural fear of heights. The elites were not so afflicted, however, and this was frustrating for them: it was only the people, the great unwashed masses, who flinched from their duty to make the world a better place and insisted on selfishly minding their own business.
During the Clinton years, the White House and its do-gooder liberal friends cautiously but persistently stretched the limits of the Syndrome, launching more "humanitarian" interventions in eight eventful years than had occurred in the previous 50. In Kosovo, they perfected their propagandistic arts and managed to convince the public that it was necessary to bomb some of the oldest cities in Europe – to stop " genocide." Yet not a single American soldier occupied the former Yugoslavia, and those sent to the "liberated" province of Kosovo in the guise of UN " peacekeepers" were soon reduced to an absolute minimum. It was like Bill Clinton’s sexual trysts – quick, easy, and nothing too serious. Although a precedent of sorts had been set, the Syndrome still lurked censoriously in the background, limiting the scope of do-gooding and exerting inexorable pressure on our rulers to rein in their world-saving instincts.
9/11 supposedly changed all that, at least for a while: it gave the War Party a free hand, albeit a temporary one, to indulge its wildest fantasies. The laptop bombardiers were unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, and the results are what Jim Baker and Robert Gates are tasked with cleaning up.
Now the Syndrome is back with a vengeance, with major symptoms manifesting themselves in the 2006 congressional elections. Baker and Gates are faced with the job of masking our continued presence in Iraq, and the wider Middle East, in the guise of a "withdrawal," or, at least, a drawing-down. Diverted by the possibility of light at the end of the tunnel, the American people may just be willing to endure a long trek through the dark and the dank – or so the Wise Men hope.
The problem is that, for all their alleged wisdom, these miracle-making realists have failed to recognize reality – even though they are staring it in the face. They can’t undo what the invasion has done: broken the Iraqi nation into its constituent parts and handed the biggest piece over to neighboring Iran. That was accomplished the moment the Ba’athist regime cracked, and all of Bush’s Wise Men can’t put it back together again.
Eddie Haskell and his friends sure made a mess of things: the Iranians were quick to fill the power vacuum created by the Americans, and their proxy parties now constitute the ruling coalition, with the Iraqi federal "government" a de facto extension of the Iranian mullahocracy. The invasion created a Shi’ite super-state, alarming everyone in the region, and neatly setting us up for the next conflict, with Tehran fixed firmly in the War Party’s sights.
The Wise Men can’t do much about Iraq: that one is already lost. They can, however, avoid a confrontation with Iran, and some of their ideas are outlined here (you’ll note Robert Gates is a co-author). Yet the problem with the conciliatory proposals contained therein is that the authors reject a "grand bargain" with Tehran, and instead advance an agenda of cautious, incremental negotiations that would draw out the process – and give the War Party plenty of time and opportunity to throw a monkey-wrench in the works.
These " realists" harbor a temperamental horror of boldness, but boldness is precisely what’s required in dealing with the volatile situation created by the Iraq disaster. Because there isn’t much time. While American policy wonks argue over whether Iraq has reached a state that can properly be defined as a civil war, the killings mount and the country descends into sectarian chaos. In this condition, borders dissolve along with national cohesion and long-standing social and commercial ties; as it stands now, we are a border incident or two away from a regional conflagration in the Middle East.
Add to this several X-factors – the Israelis, the Kurds, the Mahdi Army – any one of which could spark a wider conflict, and the realization dawns: it’s only a matter of time, and not much at that, before the whole joint goes up. Can the Wise Men, with their inherent caution, their unwillingness to withdraw from the region, and their internationalist mindset, prevent the near-inevitable?
It isn’t just the Iranians, the Syrians, the Saudis, the Israelis, the Kurds, and the Lebanese factions that the Wise Men have to deal with. There are also domestic roadblocks to a comprehensive – or incremental – settlement of the Middle Eastern question, notably what John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt call "the Lobby" in their seminal study of Israel’s lobby in the U.S. It was the Lobby that, in large part, lured us into the Iraqi quagmire, and this same concatenation of forces stands in the way of an orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces.
The Lobby opposes a Middle East settlement: they stand for expanding Israeli interests, at the expense of the Arabs and the Persians, and their goal [.pdf] – the atomization of existing Middle Eastern states down to a more manageable stature – is being rapidly accomplished in Iraq. Their goal is to duplicate the process throughout the region, and this means more "regime change" – in Lebanon, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Iran.
In any contest pitting the Baker Commission against the Lobby, the outcome is going to be problematic – but I’d put my money on the latter. Especially as the neocons ditch their old Republican allies and attach themselves to a new host – the Democratic Party – it is hard to see how the War Party is going to be stopped. Unless, of course, the American people wake up in time – there’s always that possibility. The recent election is proof that they haven’t fallen permanently asleep: they can be roused, if only there’s the right stimulus.
It remains to be seen what the Wise Men are up to, but I wouldn’t put much store in it: whatever it is, it’s likely to proceed at a snail’s pace, and, for the reasons given above, the clock is ticking…