Been There, Done That

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006 8:00 AM

It sure feels like the Baker commission has come and gone, doesn't it?

It's an only-in-Washington phenomenon: A bipartisan group of wise men is assembled to solve a problem. A huge publicity buildup surrounds their deliberations. At the height of this speculation sweepstakes, their recommendations dribble out through leaks. These proposals get dissected and denounced by just about everyone, even though panel members haven't uttered a word in public. And now, when the group's report finally comes out next week, it will feel not just like old news but non-news. I mean, why even cover it? We've already had the debate and pronounced the Baker-Hamilton venture a failure.

Of course, it doesn't help that the president seems to have foreclosed most of what this outfit, headed by his father's Secretary of State, is going to push.

This whole notion of outsourcing foreign policy has always seemed kinda weird. Isn't that what we pay our politicians for? But even stranger is debating these leaked findings. In fact, we've been awash in leaks this week. Steve Hadley's leaked memo about what the White House really thinks of the Iraqi PM kind of undercut Bush's assurances at yesterday's meeting. Is his full confidence in Nouri al-Maliki akin to his full confidence in Don Rumsfeld a week before the election?

It's almost as if the real action of the Iraq Study Grope takes place among the chattering classes, and then Jim Baker, Lee Hamilton et al stage a reprise for the television cameras.

Besides, W. is already preempting the commission:

"President Bush said Thursday that American troops would stay in Iraq unless its government asks them to leave, using a joint news conference with the Iraqi prime minister to push back against a reported decision by an independent bipartisan panel to call for a gradual withdrawal," says the New York Times.

And there was this: "The president, who returned to Washington later on Thursday, sought to play down tensions between him and Mr. Maliki, calling the prime minister 'the right guy for Iraq.'"

Except that the Hadley memo pretty much called him the wrong guy.

Boston Globe: "President Bush and Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, met yesterday for the first time since sectarian killings in Iraq surged to record levels but offered no new blueprint for quelling the chaos, thwarting the hopes of those pushing for a dramatic shift in US policy."

Bill Scher disses the commission on the Huffington Post:

"Prediction: The Iraq Study Group report, which will be formally released Wednesday Dec. 6, will be largely forgotten by Monday Dec. 11.

"Because if Wednesday's New York Times report previewing the main recommendations is truly indicative, this report will be incredibly lame.

"It appears to be drowning in split-the-difference silliness.

"It recommends a 'gradual pullback', but with no clear timetables.

"And more importantly, 'gradual pullback' is not necessarily 'withdrawal.' The NYT reports that the ISG 'leaves unstated' if troops would be 'brought home, or simply pulled back to bases in Iraq or in neighboring countries.'...

"What should be put to rest after this sorry spectacle is the notion that the only way to solve the Iraq crisis is through a glorious centrist bipartisan solution.

"Here's your bipartisan solution: mush. Utterly worthless committee product mush."

Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum is underwhelmed:

"So, um, the Baker-Hamilton commission is going to propose withdrawing combat troops from Iraq over the next year or so, as well as starting up talks with Iran and Syria. But Cheney and Bush are dead set against both, so I guess that's a dead letter. Apparently, there's still a light at the end of this particular tunnel."

Newsweek's Michael Hirsh sees a marketing failure in the making:

"The forthcoming report by James Baker's Iraq Study Group has enjoyed the biggest public buildup since the Segway. And it is likely to be just as big of a bust.

"Here's why the Baker-Hamilton report is destined to land with a thud, after weeks of messianic hype. According to sources who have seen the draft report introduced this week, the group will recommend deeper engagement with Iran and Syria in hopes these countries can help us quell the violence in Iraq. But George W. Bush, who remains a true neocon believer--'It's the regime, stupid'--is very unlikely to cut deals with such evil states, except in the most foot-dragging way. In any case, with each passing week Iraq's sectarian fratricide makes these neighboring countries less and less relevant. One doesn't have to be trained by Hizbullah or the Iranian secret service to grab a few Sunnis off the street every night and shoot them in the head. But until those killings stop, the yes-it-is-a-civil war-no-it's-not-a-civil-war in Iraq will continue to rage out of control.

"The James Baker-Lee Hamilton group will also recommend tackling the problem of Israeli-Palestinian peace. But this central issue of Islamist discontent no longer has much to do with the violence in Iraq, just as the violence has less and less to do with Al Qaeda. The neocon fantasists, in their headiest days, used to say that 'the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad.' This meant that somehow, in ways they could never spell out, the Israeli-Palestinian issue would be resolved after democracy was achieved in Iraq. Now Baker's thought seems to be that the road to Baghdad goes through Jerusalem. This is just as silly as the earlier idea. Take this down: the road to Baghdad goes through Iraq.

"Above all, sources indicate the Baker-Hamilton group will fudge the issue of what the size of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq should be, and what a specific timetable for withdrawal should look like. This means that, almost as soon as the report comes out in early December, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will be able to ignore it, and he likely will. Prominent Democrats like Sens. Carl Levin, Jack Reed and Joseph Biden will begin to dismiss it and reintroduce their own plans. Biden, for example, plans to hold six weeks of hearings in January, after he takes over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that will quickly turn Baker-Hamilton into a relic of that long-ago autumn of 2006."

I guess that takes care of that.

Betsy's Page scoffs at the redeployment idea:

"Well, what a shocking conclusion to reach! Just exactly what most everyone else, except some Democrats who want an immediate pullout, have been saying. But their other recommendation is some sort of massive diplomatic meeting of countries in the area including Iran and Syria.

"Yeah, like Iran is suddenly going to say, 'Oops, I guess we shouldn't have been supporting al-Sadr's militia operation in Baghdad, and we're going to tell him to play nice now.' And Syria will say, 'Ya know, you're right and we shouldn't have been helping the Sunnis out and letting terrorists cross our border to go into Iraq. We just don't know what we were thinking, but now that we've all talked nicey-nice like this, we'll stop.' What leverage do we have to get Syria and Iran to help us out? Hmmmm. Let me think. Oh, I know. We can pressure Israel to do whatever it is that Syria and Iran are demanding from Israel this week."

Captain Ed also turns thumbs down:

"The ISG clearly weighed the competing visions for Iraq, withdrawal and commitment, and came up with something that satisfies no one. They suggest the gradual withdrawal of American troops, but won't say whether they should stay elsewhere in Iraq, in a neighboring country (if any would host them), or sent home altogether. The ISG wants to put pressure on Nouri al-Maliki, but apparently not by applying any specific timetables . . .

"In the end, the ISG will turn out to be a footnote in the policy battles over Iraq."

I thought this was some sort of Onion-like prank, but here's the story, in the New Haven Advocate:

"A collective 'I told you so' will ripple through the world of Bush-bashers once news of Christopher Lohse's study gets out.

"Lohse, a social work master's student at Southern Connecticut State University, says he has proven what many progressives have probably suspected for years: a direct link between mental illness and support for President Bush.

"Lohse says his study is no joke. The thesis draws on a survey of 69 psychiatric outpatients in three Connecticut locations during the 2004 presidential election. Lohse's study . . . found a correlation between the severity of a person's psychosis and their preferences for president: The more psychotic the voter, the more likely they were to vote for Bush."

So half the nation is psychotic, and only the Kerry voters are sane?

Conservatives (such as George Will) are applled by the way that Jim Webb mouthed off to Bush when the president asked about his son at a White House reception, but many on the left, including Nation Editor Katrina van den Heuvel, are saying right on:

"Will considers the incident on the White House reception line and concludes that Webb is a 'boor' and has shown a 'patent disrespect for the presidency.'

"I'd argue that Webb--as Senator Chuck Schumer put it the other day (perhaps failing to understand the irony of his statement)--is 'not a typical politician. He really has deep convictions.'

"And conviction and courage and, yes, a maverick Senator who's willing to upend the false civility of inside-the-beltway rituals are what's needed in these times.

"President Bush's war of choice has put Webb's son's in harm's way. Why shouldn't Webb refuse to shake that man's hand--or seek to be used in a photo-op?"

Nora Ephron seconds that emotion:

"This is truly Washington, in case you wonder what Washington truly is. Washington is a place where politics is just something you do all day. You lie, you send kids to war, you give them inadequate equipment, they're wounded and permanently maimed, they die, whatever. Then night falls, and you actually think you get to pretend that none of it matters. 'How's your boy?' That, according to George Will, is a civil and caring question, one parent to another? It seems to me that it's exactly the sort of guy talk that passes for conversation in Bushworld, just one-up from the frat-boy banter that is usually so seductive to Bush's guests. George Bush once said to someone I know, 'How old is that seersucker suit anyway?' and my friend (who should know better) went for it lock stock and barrel.

"So finally someone said to George Bush, Don't think that what you stand for is beside the point. Don't think that because you're President you're entitled to my good opinion. Don't think that asking about my boy means that I believe for even one second that you care. If you did, you'd be doing something about bringing the troops home.

"George Will thinks this is bad manners.

"I don't.

"I think it's too bad it doesn't happen more often."

Andrew Sullivan has a fervent plea for Hillary Clinton:

"She really shouldn't run. It would divide and polarize the country; she's dreadful on the stump; she has very high negatives; most Democrats only like her; almost no-one loves her; and do we really want 20 years of two families in the White House? Besides: what do you do with Bill? . . . I think she'd make a great Supreme Court Justice or Senate Majority Leader. I had a chat recently with a senior Republican and former presidential candidate. We were discussing how deeply divided the Republicans are. I asked him: what could unite them again at this point? He answered in one word: Hillary. She's the last hope for the far right. Please, Senator Clinton. Don't do it."

Tom Vilsack, accusing Bush of a "divide and conquer" strategy, is the first Democrat to jump into the race.

Crooks and Liars goes after a GOP strategist:

"Ed Rogers one of these wingnuts (a Lee Atwater man) that MSNBC constantly puts on the air and allows him to relentlessly smear people."

Rogers's offense? Using Obama's middle name, as in Barack Hussein Obama.

I guess the oppo researchers are already at work.

Former Roll Call reporter Ethan Wallison reflects on his not-so-pleasant dealings with Nancy Pelosi:

"Because her intentions were always pure, she assumed that 'negative' coverage was driven by malice. On one occasion, she complained bitterly about a blind quote I had included in an earlier article about her campaign committee. Basically the committee had failed to file reports for two straight quarters, and the person quoted - an aide to a political rival - had suggested that perhaps this 'oversight' was in fact intentional, since it enabled Pelosi to hide her spending from the opposition. Fairly standard stuff, the kind of lame innuendo that passes for politics in Washington every day. And in truth, it was no different from what Pelosi would herself have suggested of an adversary who had run afoul of the campaign finance rules.

"But Pelosi felt that her honesty was being questioned - and not so much by the person who was quoted, but by the person who included the quote in the article (which, by the way, was buried by the editors). This turned into an accusation that I was in bed with her rival Steny Hoyer. In a final flourish, Pelosi noted I was 'still very young' and had a 'long career ahead' of me and would certainly 'grow' as time passes, but unfortunately this would all have to occur without the access that I might have enjoyed if I weren't such a jerk. Yes, the tone was more one of pity than of anger. Did I mention that she could be a wee bit condescending at times?"

Now Wallison is gone from Roll Call and living in Ukraine. Coincidence?

Are the Pulitzers hopelessly outmoded? Jeff Jarvis thinks so:

"The Pulitzer Prize has long been a dangerous influence in American journalism, and it's only getting worse.

"For too long, newspapers have been edited for prize juries not their publics, taking resources away from local reporting to write long, show-off pieces that don't necessarily serve their communities and that skew the priorities of newsrooms. Of course, I'm not saying that all Pulitzer-winning journalism is bad; of course, not. But I am saying that pandering to the Pulitzers is a perversion of the intent of the prize and of newspaper reporting as well.

"Last year, the Pulitzers allowed just a little bit of online content to qualify for a prize. This year, they open that up to include 'a full array of online material-such as databases, interactive graphics, and streaming video.' But they still insist, stubbornly, to award only journalism from newspapers.

"Eligibility for entering the competition will continue to be restricted to newspapers published daily, Sunday, or at least once a week during the calendar year . . .

"I thought the Pulitzers existed to award journalism, not printing. And the more newspapers continue to define themselves narrowly, as a club, the worse their fate will be in a world of expanding journalism."

Finally, Adam Nagourney uncovers a devastating statistic:

"Google now estimates that the average blog is read by one person.

"One person.

"Hello? Is anyone out there? Mom?"

I'm sure I'm in double digits.

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