Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Iraq Study Group and Credible Government

The odd imperative of bi-partisanship. As Matthew Yglesias has emphasized, the Iraq Study is an effort by Washington Wise Men to re-establish some sort of bi-partisan elite reconciliation in the United States. It's an important point. In fact, the Iraq Study Group is about the United States as much at least as much as it is about Iraq and the leaders of the Iraq Study Group are putting a strong emphasis on bi-partisanship. However, Yglesias is mistaken in thinking that the Iraq Study Group is simply trying to exclude the left (although they did that). He is also mistaken to think that James Baker, Lee Hamilton, and David Broder are trying to create bipartisan harmony for it's own sake. American government is confronting a real, difficult, and under-appreciated problem right now.

The Perils of Presidential Government. In fact, the U. S. is undergoing the most serious crisis of presidential government since Watergate. The Bush administration has been almost as universally repudiated in the United States as it is in world opinion. Bush policy in Iraq has been repudiated in the polls for months, a repudiation that was reinforced by the heavy losses of the Republicans in the Congressional elections. On top of that President Bush's conduct of the war has lost the support of the neo-conservative policy elite after first losing the loyalty of the CIA, State Department, and military bureaucracies. If Bush were a prime minister in a parliamentary system, his own party would have forced him to resign and make way for a different leader. Because the U. S. has a presidential system where even the worst leaders serve their full terms, we are stuck with an administration that has been repudiated by the public, the government apparatus, and opinion elites of all ideological persuasions. Having a government that has been almost universally rejected is a dangerous thing in a time of war because it prevents the various elements of our enormous society from coalescing around one or two approaches to conducting the war. That's what's happening in the U. S. in relation to Iraq right now. There is a broad sense that the situation in Iraq is deteriorating, but not the least bit of consensus about how to understand that deterioration or what to do about it.

A Substitute for Credible Government. Given that the Bush administration is no longer credible on Iraq and that the Democratic opposition has not found its voice, the Iraq Study Group is serving as an elite substitute for credible government. The fact that such a fragile mechanism is necessary constitutes one more embarrassing measure of the foreign policy and defense failures of the Bush administration. Nevertheless, the Iraq Study Group succeeded in a very basic sense. They re-asserted a sober sense of the reality on the ground in Iraq as the basis for mapping out future policy, a sense of reality initially developed on the left. For years, anti-war commenters have emphasized the failure to get Iraq's economy functioning at more than pre-war levels, Iraq's explosive sectarianism, and the general ineffectiveness of the Iraqi government, army, and police. All of these conclusions and more were adapted by the Iraq Study Group and now have the character of a bi-partisan, elite conclusion. With the work of the Iraq study group, we can have a national consensus about how bad the situation is in Iraq and how ineffective the Bush administration has been in addressing that situation.

Forward Movement. The Iraq Study Group has defined the problems in Iraq in termsthat Disaffected Republicans, the Democrats, and anti-war people can mostly agree on. The only question is whether the Bush administration and the right-wing will continue in their hyper-aggressive denial of reality. I suspect that the answer to that question will be "yes" and that the Bush administration will find themselves increasingly marginal to public debate.

What to do? The weak point of the Iraq Study Group was their suggestions for addressing the many dimensions of the problem in Iraq. Launching a new international initiative, challenging the Maliki government to engage in a broad national reconciliation, and concentrating more on embedding American advisers into Iraqi units are all worthwhile recommendations. However, these ideas don't provide the ballast needed for a comprehensive solution to Iraq's problems. The Iraq Study group wants to reach out to Syria and Iran but provides little reason for Syria and Iran to respond. Likewise, they demand that Maliki embark on broad national reconciliation but provide no idea on how that could happen. Here, the Iraq Study Group has not being able to prioritize Iraq in relation to other American priorities on Iran, Syria, and Israel. If the U. S. is going to seek to integrate Iran and Syria into efforts to stabilize Iraq, it might have to accommodate Iran on nuclear weapons and accomodate Syria on Lebanon. If the Iraq Study Group wants the Maliki administration to become a more forceful presence, it will have to allow Maliki to build on his strongest assets, the Shiite militias.

The Iraq Study Group could not come up with a magic bullet for making the Iraq situation better. However, the members of that group deserve a great deal of credit for agreeing on the nature of the target in Iraq. At a time when the U. S. desperately needed a substitute for credible government, the Iraq Study Group provided one.

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