Barely two weeks old, the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report is viewed by many as having already suffered crib death. Those who shaped the initial disastrous policy in Iraq and the broader Middle East have waged a tenacious and effective counter-attack against the 79 Report recommendations.
Somehow, we have now reached a place where the most likely next step on Iraq will be a combination of troop escalation ("surge" in language-massaged neocon speak) and an even more stubborn refusal to talk with the country's neighbors, notably Syria and Iran. While the main culprits continue to be the neocon echo chamber and the apparently immovable ideological blinkers they have applied to this administration, elements of the Democrat and progressive foreign policy community can hardly chalk this up as having been a fortnight of strategically smart behavior.
The ISG continues to be the best tool available in trying to drive both the existing administration's Iraq policy and the neocon stranglehold on regional mischief-making onto the defensive. One can understand and sympathize with those on the progressive side — Matt Yglesias and Spencer Ackerman here on TAP included — who expressed their disappointment with the lack of a clear-cut ISG exit strategy. But they and much of the liberal blog community should have appreciated that, politically, one could read between the lines of the Report and appropriate it to push for a new direction on internal Iraq policy. One might also have warmly embraced the regional approach of reengagement and peace promotion that appears in the New Diplomatic Offensive outlined in the Report (to be fair, Yglesias did do this).
The Democratic and progressive foreign policy community responses to the ISG recommendations roughly fell into three categories: knee-jerk rejection, not-invented-here condescension, and strategic embrace. The rejectionists on the left, commenters ranging from Dennis Kucinich to Suzanne Nossel to Atrios to AmericaBlog's writers, failed to appreciate that the report contained ingredients which, if deftly handled, could be spun into a potent mix for a genuine new direction not only for Iraq but also for broader U.S. policy in the region. Meanwhile, some Democratic foreign policy establishment elites kept an aloof distance from the report's recommendations. In a New York Times op-ed page given over to short commentary pieces on the ISG, the two featuring Democrat elder statesman — Madeleine Albright and Leslie Gelb — lacked any kind of endorsement.
The smart response — strategic embrace — was led by the Center for American Progress, which called on the day of the Report's release for the president "to adopt the recommendations put forth by the Iraq Study Group." A number of Democratic politicians did the same, in particular the senators — Nelson, Dodd and Kerry — who voted with their feet and visited Damascus in the last week. In thumbing their noses at the administration, these senators gave a practical demonstration of what following the recommendations of the report might look like by engaging (not endorsing) America's adversaries in the region. Meanwhile, on the substance-heavy foreign policy side, the International Crisis Group has built on the recommendations in its new "After Baker-Hamilton: What To Do In Iraq" report.
The strategic embrace consists not only of adopting the strategy outlined in the Report, but also of making this adoption a strategy in itself. In political terms, a Democrat push for the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton approach could build alliances with many significant Republicans and thereby wrong-foot the administration, the neocons, and perhaps the congressional GOP leadership. (Senator Hagel as ever led the smart Republican response, building on the ISG in a keynote Middle East address at Johns Hopkins.) Instead we are on the verge of an effective neocon/administration jujitsu move in which Baker-Hamilton is replaced by a troop escalation in Iraq combined with a general increase in U.S. armed forces that may send the new Democratic congress into an apoplexy of infighting and defensiveness. An aggressive Democrat congressional strategy of hearings on the ISG, cross-party alliance-building, and demonstrative actions (like the senatorial Damascus visits) could drive political and public debate and ultimately even policy — if the administration is ever forced to a crossroads.
The tepid Democrat and progressive foreign policy community response to Baker-Hamilton is all the more surprising given the relish with which neoconservative bastions like the American Enterprise Institute and their minions savaged the Report. If the legions of the Prince of Darkness were so against this, there must be something good in it. The AEI immediately published its "Choosing Victory" counter-proposal. Prince Perle himself described the report as "democracy defeated." Frank Gaffney derided what he called "the Iraq Surrender Group," nicely echoed by The New York Post's depiction of Baker and Hamilton as the Surrender Monkeys. Any neocon miscreant not busy tapping a keyboard in the hours following the Report's publication had apparently been promised a hunting trip with Vice-President Cheney. This was a well-orchestrated campaign and it was partly designed to ensure that the president himself did not go off-reservation.
There has not yet been a concerted counter-offensive; this despite the fact that American public opinion seems to favor the Baker-Hamilton recommendations. In a Pew poll of those who were in any way familiar with the report (52 percent of those surveyed), 60 percent agreed with the recommendations, 17 percent disagreed, and 23 percent didn't know. That same poll showed 69 percent favoring U.S. talks with Iran and Syria, a figure that went up to 75 percent in a WorldPublicOpinionPoll.org survey.
So, over the holiday period, kick back and give the ISG report a second reading, best digested with a helping of the International Crisis Group paper on the side. (ICG makes explicit and develops much of what is implied in Baker-Hamilton.) It's not too late for progressives to change their outlook on this debate.