The Washington Times
A literary agent once told me that when you are trying to sell a book to a publisher, you should always keep in mind that it’s not really the book you’re selling; it’s the idea of the book. Your objective is to get people excited about what’s to come. The finished book, even if it’s a very good book, ought to be almost anti-climactic. Otherwise, you haven’t managed to get people as excited as you should have in the first place.
In this respect, indeed only in this respect, the report of the Iraq Study Group was exemplary. The idea that a bipartisan council of eminent persons would take an unvarnished look at
Iraq and offer their collective wisdom on a fresh approach to extricate ourselves from our troubles was one whose time had come.
In the first place, we have the obvious fact of a policy that isn’t working, at least if by “success” you mean a reduction in the violence in Iraq. So what’s the new policy?
In the second place, the party of the president of the United States just suffered a big electoral defeat triggered by the perception of incompetence in handling the war. It’s therefore a season of comeuppance and accountability, and the Iraq Study Group was perfectly positioned to crystallize the inchoate dissent voters were expressing into a comprehensive repudiation of past policy and the embrace of a coherent alternative.
In the third place, many Americans, including those most vocal in electing a Democratic Congress, want out of Iraq, preferably right now, but in any case sooner rather than later, and not on George W. Bush’s indefinite schedule but in accordance with some timetable. Here was the chance to respond to their concerns.
Fourth, and most broadly, the report of the Iraq Study Group was to represent the end of the Bush administration as we know it. At last, a stake would be driven through the heart of what critics see as a naive and messianic mission of democracy promotion. The Iraq Study Group would represent the return of Washington to a sense of realistic seriousness and bring the final curtain down on the neoconservatives.
So, that’s why so many people found the idea of the Iraq Study Group to be so exciting. Now as it happens, the “The Iraq Study Group Report” was not like a book deal. It was a book deal: Vintage brought it out. We are accordingly entitled to ask to what extent the anticipation surrounding the release of the report, including the selective leaks of some of its supposed recommendations and the photo portrait sessions for its co-chairs, was in fact manufactured or at least tweaked up by Vintage publicists in order to sell more books.
In any case, now we have our report and um, er, well, it’s a flop. Oh, to the extent that it put a powerful wallop on the Bush administration for the “grave and deteriorating” situation in
Iraq, it delivered on one of its promises. But, let’s face it, we are not exactly short on studies, reports, articles and books admiring the problem. What we are short on is serious proposals about where we go from here, and the more people got a look at the actual recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report, the clearer it became that the ISG didn’t have one.
The elements of the report’s big proposal for regional dialogue, engagement with Syria and Iran, and reactivation of the Arab-Israeli peace process may or may not be good ideas, but the notion that they would produce measurable results on the ground in Iraq is fanciful. If it is indeed true that the problems of Iraq can be solved only in the context of a broader settlement of Middle East security and identity politics, then that’s a just a fancier way to conceive of inevitable failure.
As for the recommendations internal to Iraq, how come nobody before now ever thought of training up Iraqi military and police forces so that they can do more to provide security for the country? Oh, wait, that’s already Bush administration policy. And it’s hard to imagine that anybody who’s seriously against the war at this point will find any satisfaction in a drawdown of forces as partial, contingent and far down the road as the ISG proposes.
As for the return of realism, it turns out realism has nothing much to say. The report is vaguely pro-Sunni and unambiguously pro-Saudi, but it evidently couldn’t muster the nerve to say that what we really need is a good, pro-Riyadh strongman to take over the place and cut deals with our special envoy.
Yes, the ISG report will sell a few copies. How could it not, given the buildup? But as for policy, its main effect is to defer withdrawal pressure for a year as Mr. Bush claims to be implementing its bipartisan recommendations. Which means he’s still going to have to figure Iraq out for himself. So once again, the reports of his demise have been exaggerated.