Look Who's Cutting and Running Now
James Baker is the last guy we should listen to about Iraq.
According to the Associated Press, Henry Kissinger made it official Sunday morning in London, when he told a BBC interviewer that military victory was not possible in Iraq. Actually, what he said was this:
If you mean by "military victory" an Iraqi government that can be established and whose writ runs across the whole country, that gets the civil war under control and sectarian violence under control in a time period that the political processes of the democracies will support, I don't believe that is possible.
There are a couple of qualifications in there, and what Kissinger is describing is really more the definition of a political victory than a military one, but say what you will about our Henry, he wasn't born yesterday. He must have known that the question would come up, what his answer would be, and what the ensuing AP headline ("Kissinger: Iraq Military Win Impossible") would look like.
Taken together with the dismissal of Donald Rumsfeld, the nomination of Robert Gates, and the holy awe with which the findings of the Iraq Study Group are now expected, this means that the Bush administration, or large parts of it, is now cutting if not actually running, and it is looking for partners in the process. (You have to admit that it was clever of the president to make it appear that Rumsfeld had been fired by the electorate rather than by him.) It seems that Kissinger has been giving his "realist" advice even to the supposedly most hawkish member of the administration, namely the vice president, and at a dinner in honor of the president-elect of Mexico a few nights ago, I saw him mixing easily with such ISG elders as former Rep. Lee Hamilton. Members of this wing or tendency were all over the New York Times on Sunday as well, imputing near-ethereal qualities of leadership to Robert Gates, so a sort of self-reinforcing feedback loop appears to be in place.
The summa of wisdom in these circles is the need for consultation with Iraq's immediate neighbors in Syria and Iran. Given that these two regimes have recently succeeded in destroying the other most hopeful democratic experiment in the region—the brief emergence of a self-determined Lebanon that was free of foreign occupation—and are busily engaged in promoting their own version of sectarian mayhem there, through the trusty medium of Hezbollah, it looks as if a distinctly unsentimental process is under way.
This will present few difficulties to Baker, who supported the Syrian near-annexation of Lebanon. In order to recruit the Baathist regime of Hafez Assad to his coalition of the cynical against Saddam in the Kuwait war, Baker and Bush senior both acquiesced in the obliteration of Lebanese sovereignty. "I believe in talking to your enemies," said Baker last month—invoking what is certainly a principle of diplomacy. In this instance, however, it will surely seem to him to be more like talking to old friends—who just happen to be supplying the sinews of war to those who kill American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. Is it likely that they will stop doing this once they become convinced that an American withdrawal is only a matter of time?
At around the same time he made this statement, Baker was quoted as saying, with great self-satisfaction, that nobody ever asks him any more about the decision to leave Saddam Hussein in power in 1991. It's interesting to know that he still feels himself invested in that grand bargain of realpolitik, which, contrary to what he may think, has not by any means been forgotten. It's also interesting in shedding light on the sort of conversations he has been having in Baghdad. For millions of Iraqis, the betrayal of their uprising against Saddam in 1991 is something that they can never forget. They tend to bring it up, too, and to fear a repetition of it. This apprehension about another sellout is especially strong among the Shiite and Kurdish elements who together make up a majority of the population, but it seems from its public reports so far that the ISG has not visited the Kurdish north of the country. If Baker thinks that the episode is a closed subject, it shows us something of what the quality of his "listening" must be like.
In 1991, for those who keep insisting on the importance of sending enough troops, there were half a million already-triumphant Allied soldiers on the scene. Iraq was stuffed with weapons of mass destruction, just waiting to be discovered by the inspectors of UNSCOM. The mass graves were fresh. The strength of sectarian militias was slight. The influence of Iran, still recovering from the devastating aggression of Saddam Hussein, was limited. Syria was—let's give Baker his due—"on side." The Iraqi Baathists were demoralized by the sheer speed and ignominy of their eviction from Kuwait and completely isolated even from their usual protectors in Moscow, Paris, and Beijing. There would never have been a better opportunity to "address the root cause" and to remove a dictator who was a permanent menace to his subjects, his neighbors, and the world beyond. Instead, he was shamefully confirmed in power and a miserable 12-year period of sanctions helped him to enrich himself and to create the immiserated, uneducated, unemployed underclass that is now one of the "root causes" of a new social breakdown in Iraq. It seems a bit much that the man principally responsible for all this should be so pleased with himself and that he should be hailed on all sides as the very model of the statesmanship we now need.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of James Baker on Slate's home page by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.