Changing Course in Iraq…and in America.

December 10, 2006

Changing Course in Iraq…and in America.

December 10, 2006

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, December 10, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: It was Baker-Hamilton Day on the talk shows, actually Baker-Hamilton week in the capital. James Baker laid out the following premise: ‘We’re not going to win militarily in Iraq. There has to be a political victory. How do you define a political victory? There has to be some kind of national reconciliation. The focus has to be on a political and diplomatic resolution. There’s no military resolution there.’ Let me start by asking you what’s your reaction to his premise?

Newman: Speaking in logical terms, it appears to me that it’s never the case that there can’t be a military solution. You could decide to kill everybody. I assume we have the hardware to accomplish that. Now, many people say, Well, that’s not what’s meant by a military solution. I’ll tell you why it might be. Because that’s an option the other side considers. In the context of the jihadist mentality, you have more than a handful of people who are ready to kill everybody, including themselves, if they have to. The fact that my remarks could even be construed as serious remarks are a measure of the utter absurdity of the situation into which, arguably, everybody has gotten themselves. But the people who it bothers least are the so-called terrorists because terrorists always regard themselves as in that situation, namely fighting to the death. That’s their frame of reference. Not to insult Islam, but there’s a way in which the jihadist position could be described as Let’s get on to Heaven as quickly as possible. I’m not even saying that’s the wrong position, I find it sometimes very tempting indeed. But, it does introduce a level of absurdity that makes it hard to have a rational discussion about these things.

Salit: Baker’s position is that there is a political solution. So let’s focus on that.

Newman: Maybe yes, maybe no. I don’t know that the evidence is overwhelming that there’s a basis for a political solution. At least some forces in Iraq are prepared to fight a religious war indefinitely. I take that to be equivalent to there is no political solution.

Salit: Some critics of the Baker-Hamilton report argue that there is no inherent connection between how dire things are and the ability to win a diplomatic and political initiative. Their criticism of the report’s findings is that a connection is assumed, but it’s not sensible to assume one.

Newman: Everyone agrees that things are bad in Iraq. The underlying assumption is that this is a vaguely modern, rational society where if everything is bad, you’re going to get something of a consensus among most people around doing things that can improve the situation. Well, I don’t know if you have that there.

Salit: Somebody made a comment along the following lines: ‘If the Baker-Hamilton report had been issued three years ago, it might have been a worthwhile intervention or a worthwhile course correction. But now it may be too late.’

Newman: There’s something of a logical incoherency to that formulation.

Salit: What is it?

Newman: If the Baker-Hamilton report were issued three years ago, then what would have been said three years ago was that the situation there was a complete failure. So, how would that have been of any value?

Salit: The argument would be that it would have turned the U.S. towards diplomacy and the search for a political solution while there was still a basis for doing that. I guess the point is that you can’t show up at any old time and say we want a political and diplomatic solution, that certain conditions have to obtain for that to be a realistic approach. And that was the case, or might have been the case, three years ago, but it’s not necessarily the case today.

Newman: Look, Bush and his people have had the same position all along. Stay the course, no matter what happens. Well, that’s a fundamentally religious position. Not only do we not have reason to believe that the Iraqis will entertain a political solution, but it’s not transparently obvious that George Bush and his regime in Washington will entertain a political solution. I don’t know what it means to say that the only thing that we could possibly have is a political solution, if neither side agrees to having a political solution.

Salit: I guess that raises the question as to whether we have sufficient influence over Bush to change course. We, the American people and the institutions that make up American governance and policy-making, do we have more of a capacity to impact on Bush than we do on the Iraqi fighters?

Newman: Some people are inclined to say that the American people do have that capacity because they get to vote for president every four years. But that doesn’t engage what has always been, in my opinion, the most basic of questions about U.S. democracy: do the American people have any capacity to influence the president after he’s elected. Well, that’s the hard end of the question. So far, I don’t think we really know.

Salit: Richard Haass, head of the Council on Foreign Relations was on “Meet the Press.” He said that as important as what happens in Iraq in the months and years to come, is how what happens in Iraq is understood. The critical issue that hangs in the balance, he argues, is whether what happens in Iraq is going to be understood as an American failure or an Iraqi failure. He argues, of course, from the American point of view that it has to be understood as an Iraqi failure. And the challenge now is not simply to make the moves that are going to be made, but to make them so that the way the outcome is cast internationally is that America is leaving Iraq – not because we failed – but because the Iraqis failed.

Newman: Which is really going to help our political dealings with Iraq. We’re already in a rocky relationship there. But, I don’t think that’s accurate. I think there is a stronger statement to be made.

Salit: Tell me.

Newman: I don’t think the issue is whether this is seen as an Iraqi failure or an American failure. I think the issue is whether it turns out to be both an Iraqi failure and an American failure. There are material consequences, not just, if you will, epistemological consequences, to what’s going on. The neo-con position, the U.S. occupation of Iraq, could be the immediate cause of major changes in American political life. I think that’s the underlying and real concern of Haas and others.

Salit: That it will be the cause of changes?

Newman: That it could be. That it could be not just seen that way, but that it could be that way.

Salit: What do those changes look like?

Newman: Michael Bloomberg or some other wealthy American or some grouping of influential Americans come together and say “this has gone too far.” If they watched the talk shows today they might conclude that this form of government, unaltered, is simply failing and that there have to be radical changes. Does that mean an overthrow of the U.S. government? Almost certainly not. But does it potentially mean a radical shift in American voting patterns in the direction of a truly independent president? And maybe a host of new Senators and congress people and so on? Could that happen over the course of a season, a relatively short period of time? What would be the impact of that on American stability? Well, it could be overwhelming.

Salit: Baker’s posture today was not to lay blame. Tim Russert asked him ‘Well, you say we’re in a mess. Who’s responsible for that?’ And Baker says everyone agreed from the beginning that the orientation of the commission was going to be forward looking…

Newman: What I’m talking about is forward looking. I’m not raising the issue of whether there were WMD’s. That’s a non-issue. Is the stability of the United States of America a possible consequence of what’s happening in Iraq? I don’t think a crazy, ideologically oriented independent like me is the only one who’s talking about that. I think that’s a thing that a lot of people in important places are thinking about. Is that the main thing they’re thinking about? No. But I think it pervades a lot of their thinking.

Salit: The reason I was pursuing the “who’s responsible” question and the “where you lay the blame” question is that it’s connected to there being a fertile environment for the “this has gone far enough” scenario. You watch the shows today and you have to say to yourself, who was looking out for American interests? And the answer is nobody. The neo-cons have their ideological quest and their geo-political re-ordering of the Middle East framework that they were shoehorning into this situation from day one. You had the Democrats who were too cowardly and too stupid to speak out in response. And here we are.

Newman: But that only sticks, Jack, if something real happens. It’s not just a question of blame. Blaming and/or deciding who’s right or who’s wrong is not going to produce the kind of radical change that I’m talking about. We do blame and who’s right or wrong all the time. This country has endless debates on that.

Salit: Like who lost China? Who lost Iraq?

Newman: Yes. That can all keep going on. But something has to happen that transforms the situation. Is it hard to imagine, no less to do? Yes. But could it happen? Yes. That’s a pre-condition for anything resembling the kind of radical change we’re talking about.

Salit: How did you react to Lee Hamilton’s comment: ‘Surely we’re not going to make our strategic judgment on Iraq based on domestic political considerations.’

Newman: To tell you the truth, I think that it should be that way. In fact, if you take his position to its extreme, what is he saying? That American public opinion shouldn’t count at all?

Salit: Exactly.

Newman: What are we counting on? Are we counting on the word of God?

Salit: Speaking of domestic political considerations, tell me your thoughts about McCain’s role in this. McCain’s argument is that the Baker-Hamilton approach, the political/diplomatic approach – without strong military ramp up leading the way – is a recipe for failure and defeat in Iraq. We’ve got to send more troops. We’ve got to refocus the military strategy. This is what we need to do.

Newman: I think it’s very exposing of who McCain really is – with his nice guy image and all that. He’s like a lot of the neo-cons. We just became the #1 power and what it means to be the #1 power is that, in the final analysis, you can always play the military card. The issue for me is not even whether it’s morally correct – because I don’t think it is – but I think it’s politically unsound. One of the things we can say with some degree of certainty about the political history of civilizations is that the ones that become dominant always fall apart. Fukuyama tried to spare the neo-cons that difficulty by urging that we’d come to the end of history. That was his technique.

Salit: Right.

Newman: But even he no longer holds to that opinion. Nobody in their right mind can hold to that kind of position, but that’s who McCain is showing himself to be. That’s what he believes. Now, this is an issue that the American people should be having some dialogue on. And indeed we are starting to have some dialogue on it. The pundits-that-be, elitists all (left, right and center) think that discussion would be too hard for the American people to handle. I don’t think it is too hard for the American people to handle. I think it’s exactly the discussion that the American people could easily handle. It’s they – the pundits – who can’t handle it. For one thing, the broader and more active that dialogue gets outside the Beltway, the closer they are to being out of a job. But, there needs to be a discussion on whether we want to be #1. Those discussions include acknowledging the serious possibility that being #1 means totally destroying who we are. Alternatively, are Americans willing to settle for another kind of position of great influence without running that risk? That’s the discussion that you could have. I think it would be a worthwhile discussion. I’m betting that rationality would win, even if the stakes are high. And rationality dictates that you could accept #2, or, no number at all. What this country needs is a good public philosophical discussion.

Salit: Better than a five cent cigar.

Newman: Better and healthier.