I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The principal sin of the Baker-Hamilton Report

Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Steele identifies the most pernicious aspect of the Baker-Hamilton Report (h/t Zack):

The country's political elite wants to ignore the American people's doubts and build a new consensus behind a strategy of staying in Iraq on an open-ended basis, with no exit in sight.

Americans are done with this war. They have given up on it and want it over with. But the B-H Report has somehow supplanted the views of the vast majority of American voters as the "mainstream position." The B-H Report single-handedly cancelled out the results of the last election by purporting to identify as the "center" a position which is squarely at odds with the emphatically anti-war views of the American public that is the real mainstream.

This is what the real centrist, mainstream view is in the United States regarding the war (via Atrios):

Americans are overwhelmingly resigned to something less than clear-cut victory in Iraq and growing numbers doubt the country will achieve a stable, democratic government no matter how the U.S. gets out, according to an AP poll. . . .

Seventy-one percent said they would favor a two-year timeline from now until sometime in 2008, but when people are asked instead about a six-month timeline for withdrawal that number drops to 60 percent.

They phrase support for a six-month withdraw plan as "dropping to 60 percent" -- but 60 percent, for the American electorate, constitutes a decisive and solid majority. It isn't that most Americans have grown "weary" from the war or that they are "frustrated" and "impatient" because they like to win. Put simply, they have given up on this war, and favor withdrawal -- now. That just has to be the first, clear premise for every one of these discussions.

This is what the B-H Report (.pdf) has to say about what is, in fact, the centrist, mainstream view in America -- a view which the Report condescendingly refers to as "Precipitate Withdrawal":

1. Precipitate Withdrawal

Because of the importance of Iraq, the potential for catastrophe, and the role and commitments of the United States in initiating events that have led to the current situation, we believe it would be wrong for the United States to abandon the country through a precipitate withdrawal of troops and support.

A premature American departure from Iraq would almost certainly produce greater sectarian violence and further deterioration of conditions, leading to a number of the adverse consequences outlined above. The near-term results would be a significant power vacuum, greater human suffering, regional destabilization, and a threat to the global economy. Al Qaeda would depict our withdrawal as a historic victory. If we leave and Iraq descends into chaos, the long-range consequences could eventually require the United States to return.

That is all the Report has to say about the position that is favored overwhelmingly by Americans -- it offers nothing more than a brief, patronizing and irrational dismissal of that option ("irrational" because the argument in favor of leaving is that all of the harms which the Report claims will result if we leave -- even if true -- will be worse if we stay for a year or two more and then leave).

There is something profoundly undemocratic about what Establishment Washington is doing here. As always, they begin from the premise that their physical presence in Washington and their greater information about the inner workings of the Beltway bestow upon them not just greater information, but superior wisdom, elevated judgment (and the fact that they bear substantial responsibility for what has happened here doesn't seem to have diluted that abundant self-regard in the slighest).

They now recognize that Americans have given up on the war but they believe that that view is rash, uninformed, emotional -- "precipitous," to use the condescending label assigned to that view by the Report. The crazed and lowly masses need the steady, sober hand of the Washington Establishment -- symbolized by the old Washington relics dragged out to put their stern seal of approval on the next two years of our occupation (despite the fact that they were the ones who helped bring about this disaster). And before the ink was dry on the Report, all of the entrenched propagandists for the Washington Establishment fell all over themselves praising its great wisdom and pronouncing it to be the solemn duty of all serious people to endorse it.

There is something for everyone to love and hate in this Report. That was necessary to attract the approval stamps of the "bipartisan" members and, more importantly, to provoke the wrath from "extremists" on both sides -- always the most convincing "proof" for the simple-minded Beltway elite that they struck the sensible center ("hey, both sides hate it, so we must be doing something right").

But the rhetoric and specific claims in the Report matter little. What matters most -- really exclusively -- is that this Report (in the eyes of the Beltway media and related types) has become the defining position of the Center. And the Report unmistakably endorses our ongoing occupation of Iraq, and emphatically rejects the notion of withdrawing any time soon.

We just had an election where Americans repudiated this war and made clear that they want to withdraw. Yet somehow, within a matter of weeks, Washington power circles were able to shoo that election result away like the annoying mosquito that it is and supplant their own pro-war judgment as the "mainstream" view to which all serious people, by definition, pledge their allegiance.

When 2008 comes around and we still have between 130,000-150,000 troops occupying Iraq (at the cost of $8 billion per month) -- and another 20,000 or 30,000 American soldiers are dead or maimed and a few hundred thousand or so more Iraqi civilians are dead -- we can look back at this moment when the Washington Establishment, yet again, blocked the path of withdrawal.

And none of that damage will be mitigated because the Report included some "candid" assessments of how badly things have gone, suggested "negotiations" with Iran or Syria, "recommended" that we try harder to solve the Israel-Palestine problem, or any of the other nice ideas it included, all so that the Report will feel "reasonable," even while it hands George Bush free rein to stay in Iraq through the end of his presidency -- exactly what Americans do not want.

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