The Great Divide Over Iraq
On the 65th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the pieces moved into place for a foreign policy and national security debate as consequential as any this nation and its allies have faced since the start of World War II.
The Iraq Study Group -- 10 senior statesmen, equally divided between the political parties -- threw down the challenge in a unanimous report that showed no signs of being compromised or softened in the interests of bipartisan comity. This was not a happy-talk report.
The next day, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, heirs to the roles of Roosevelt and Churchill, responded in equally forceful tones -- and the debate was on.
Bush and Blair described the government they are trying to save in Baghdad as a democratic reflection of the essentially moderate mainstream of Iraqi society, weak in military strength and beset by extremist Shiite and Sunni forces that are financed and armed by neighboring dictators in Syria and Iran.
Bush approvingly quoted Blair as saying, "The violence is not an accident or a result of faulty planning. It is a deliberate strategy. It is the direct result of outside extremists teaming up with internal extremists -- al-Qaeda with the Sunni insurgents and Iran with the Shia militia."
The Iraq Study Group -- a self-selected group of longtime pre-Bush officials -- came right back to insist that this view was a fundamental mischaracterization of the situation. The problem in Iraq, according to an interview Thursday with the panel's co-chairmen, James A. Baker III, the former Republican secretary of state, and Lee Hamilton, the former Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, is something almost entirely different. They contend that the Iraqi politicians, chosen from religious communities, have been unwilling to make the political trade-offs necessary to build support among the public and in the army and security services for the secular state promised by the Iraqi constitution. The Iraqi politicians procrastinate on dividing up the oil revenue to include the Sunni minority, and they drag their feet on setting up regional governments.
These widely different diagnoses of what ails Iraq, plagues the Iraqi people and vexes the American and British forces lead to very different conclusions. Bush wants to step up the training and assistance for the nascent Iraqi army. The Iraq Study Group would offer more help -- economic, military and diplomatic -- only if the government in Baghdad began soon to repair its factional fights. Otherwise, it would gradually reduce that aid and, in any case, redeploy most allied combat brigades by the first quarter of 2008.
The different strategies appear most vividly when it comes to Iran and Syria. In a passionate response to a question about the ISG suggestion that those two nations be invited to participate in seeking a settlement in Iraq and the broader Middle East, Bush said, "In Iraq, they support terrorists and death squads who are fomenting sectarian violence . . . . In Lebanon, they're supporting Hezbollah . . . . In Afghanistan, they're supporting remnants of the Taliban . . . . In the Palestinian territories, they are working to stop moderate leaders . . . . In each of these places, radicals and extremists are using terror to stop the spread of freedom. And they do so because they want to spread their ideologies -- their ideologies of hate -- and impose their rule on this vital part of the world . . . . And should they succeed, history will look back on our time with unforgiving clarity and demand to know, what happened?"
Agree with Bush's policy or not, there is a theory of history -- and of political science -- behind it. You may label it as neoconservative, but that does not denigrate it.
Baker, who was running diplomacy when this Bush was still part owner of the Texas Rangers baseball club, looks at Syria and sees a country that wanted to be helpful to the West and that aided us in Afghanistan. He looks at Iran and sees a complex society, with nothing to be lost by reaching out to any moderate elements in its government.
The Iraq Study Group report has been embraced by most congressional Democrats. It has been greeted warily by most congressional Republicans. The president has asked for -- and deserves -- time to take in all its recommendations and absorb its chilling picture of what faces us in Iraq.
But one thing is clear. As Baker and Hamilton say, there is no other bipartisan blueprint for the future. Bush will reject it at his peril.