The report of the Iraq Study Group was eagerly awaited by many Americans, but no one was more thrilled to get it than staunch supporters of the Iraq war. Not because they agreed with what it said, but because they didn’t. After all these years of haplessly defending a war that has been a dismal failure, they leaped at the chance to go on the attack.
Richard Perle, a leading neoconservative advocate of the invasion, sneered at the Baker-Hamilton commission for daring to propose negotiations with Iran and Syria. Middle Eastern scholar Fouad Ajami ridiculed its suggestion that we address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Johns Hopkins University professor Eliot Cohen accused the panel of "sheer fantasy" and said all we need to prevail in Iraq is "energy and competence in fighting the fight."
Energy and competence from an administration that stumbled into this quagmire with no idea what lay in store? Well, look who’s fantasizing. He might as well invite Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia to join the struggle.
The amazing thing is that these great thinkers still have the nerve to show themselves in public, much less feign wisdom about how to conduct the war. Three long years ago, Perle airily assured an interviewer that "we will soon be turning Iraq over to the Iraqis" and that "they are capable of, with our help, handling their own security."
Ajami predicted that when we invaded, the streets of Iraq would "erupt in joy." Last winter, Cohen announced that in Iraq, "we have the right people at the top and the right policies in effect — and even more importantly, the right philosophy behind it all." And they accuse the Iraq Study Group of not having a clue?
It should come as no surprise that having been given a pig, the commission has no formula for turning it into a princess. Its members don’t pretend that our mistakes in Iraq can be undone easily, if they can be undone at all. The panel merely made a game effort to separate the bad options from the worse ones.
Any of the panel’s 79 recommendations can be derided, but they deserve to be weighed against the alternatives. During the time we’ve spurned negotiations, Iran and Syria have fomented considerable violence in Iraq, and Tehran has made great progress toward a nuclear arsenal. Maybe we could do worse by talking to them, but it would be hard. And ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — gee, that’s worked out swell for everybody, hasn’t it?
If the group’s proposals are not likely to produce a happy outcome, that’s only because nothing is likely to produce a happy outcome. Had supporters of the war been right about Iraq, we wouldn’t need outside advice.
The administration is contemplating disaster partly because it screwed up so many things along the way, but mainly because the invasion was a doomed enterprise from the start. One thing we should have learned from the last century is that people generally detest foreign occupation. Another is that when resistance to occupation flares into full-fledged war or insurgency, the resistance almost always prevails in the end.
Look at the French in Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam, the Israelis in Lebanon (in the 1980s and ’90s) or the Soviets in Afghanistan. Each had huge advantages in military might, but all failed.
The administration and its allies learned nothing from this history. So the United States now finds itself in a familiar dilemma. It can withdraw from Iraq, accepting failure and leaving chaos and civil war behind. Or it can stay and keep spending lives and money in a lost cause that has forfeited public support.
Supporters of the war think that’s the fault of the public. Former House Republican Leader Tom DeLay complained that what happened in Korea and Vietnam may be happening in Iraq as well: "Our nation lost the will to fight the war."
But you can hardly expect the people to favor a war that is protracted, costly, launched on mistaken premises and so far unsuccessful — especially when they were told it would be quick and easy. If the administration lacks public support, that’s because the public can no longer believe this war will have a happy ending.
On that point, the public is right. The Iraq Study Group can be criticized for not offering a reliable path to victory. But that’s like blaming Noah for the flood.