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.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

What rational person would listen to people like James Baker?

(Updated below - Update II - Update III)

Atrios posted an excerpt of Russ Feingold making a vitally important though barely-recognized point last night on MSNBC (C&L has the video here):

The fact is this commission was composed apparently entirely of people who did not have the judgment to oppose this Iraq war in the first place, and did not have the judgment to realize it was not a wise move in the fight against terrorism. So that's who is doing this report.

Then I looked at the list of who testified before them. There is virtually no one who opposed the war in the first place. Virtually no one who has been really calling for a different strategy that goes for a global approach to the war on terrorism. . . .

This report does not do the job and it's because it was not composed of a real representative group of Americans who believe what the American people showed in the election, which is that it's time for us to have a timetable to bring the troops out of Iraq.

The reason it is worthwhile -- actually imperative -- to continuously document what war advocates said in the past is because they have proven themselves to be completely bereft of judgment and insight and, in most cases, lacking any sort of moral compass. And yet, these same war advocates -- and only they -- are deemed even today, as Iraq lies in ruins, to be the responsible leaders who have a monopoly on worthwhile wisdom. Conversely, those who exhibited great judgment and foresight are as mocked and stigmatized as much as ever (just a little bit less overtly, but only a little), and are excluded entirely from the process of determining what we should do now.

This matters for so many reasons, beginning with the fact that the people who brought us into the disaster we are in have not accepted responsibility and, consequently, have not changed their mentality or premises any. Where are the mea culpas for Iraq? With very rare exception, they are nonexistent, because nobody believes that they were at fault for what happened. Virtually all of the people who advocated this invasion have all created their own private rationalizations as to why they were right and other people failed to implement their plan.

As a result -- like everyone who thinks they were right in the past -- war advocates of every stripe believe not only that they were right originally, but that the solution now -- not just in Iraq but in the Greater Epic War of Civilization -- lies in doing more, not less, of what they advocated originally, that we need to listen even more to what they believe. The principal excuse for war advocates as to why we have failed was that their advice was not followed enough, not that it was followed too much. Thus, continuing to treat these individuals as wise and responsible cannot achieve anything other than leading us further into disaster. It is vital that they be discredited the way they deserve, based on their prior, towering errors.

From the start, the Baker-Hamilton Commission was a travesty waiting to happen. Its composition ensured that it could be nothing else, for exactly the reason Russ Feingold said. James Baker exhibited absolutely horrendous, amoral judgment on Iraq prior to the war, yet here he is, hauled in as the responsible savior, as though his past was really the opposite of what it is. As a war advocate, Baker is driven by a compelling and vested interest to make this war look like the right choice from the start, not in finding a way to end our involvement in it (and thereby confirming that it was a mistake).

In August, 2002, just as the public debate over Iraq was really taking shape, Baker wrote a New York Times Op-Ed in which he advocated -- not opposed -- the invasion of Iraq. And although he included all sorts of Friedman-esque caveats about how we should try to do it with as many allies as possible and how the costs would be substantial, he made absolutely clear that he supported the invasion as a necessary and wise measure to depose Saddam Hussein.

What possible rationale exists for listening to someone who urged us to pursue a course that is the greatest strategic disaster in our country's history? A person who said this should be shunned, not idolized:

Peace-loving nations have a moral responsibility to fight against the development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by rogues like Saddam Hussein. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to do so, and leading that fight is, and must continue to be, an important foreign policy priority for America. . . .

The only realistic way to effect regime change in Iraq is through the application of military force, including sufficient ground troops to occupy the country (including Baghdad), depose the current leadership and install a successor government. Anyone who thinks we can effect regime change in Iraq with anything less than this is simply not realistic.

Although it is technically true that the United Nations already has sufficient legal authority to deal with Iraq, the failure to act when Saddam Hussein ejected the inspectors has weakened that authority. Seeking new authorization now is necessary, politically and practically, and will help build international support. . . .

And even if the administration fails in the Security Council, it is still free -- citing Iraq's flouting of the international community's resolutions and perhaps Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which guarantees a nation's right to self-defense -- to weigh the costs versus the benefit of going forward alone.

Others will argue that this approach would give Saddam Hussein a way out because he might agree and then begin the ''cheat-and-retreat'' tactics he used during the first inspection regime. And so we must not be deterred. The first time he resorts to these tactics, we should apply whatever means are necessary to change the regime. And the international community must know during the Security Council debate that this will be our policy.

If we are to change the regime in Iraq, we will have to occupy the country militarily. The costs of doing so, politically, economically and in terms of casualties, could be great. They will be lessened if the president brings together an international coalition behind the effort. Doing so would also help in achieving the continuing support of the American people, a necessary prerequisite for any successful foreign policy.

So that was the brilliant Baker's advice in 2002 -- we should try to get as many countries as possible to help us and should try to get U.N. authorization if we can for the invasion (as though anyone didn't realize that). But, argued Baker, if we can't do that, we should invade anyway.

And we followed Baker's advice exactly. The administration did try to get as many countries as possible to help and did try to get U.N. authorization. And when it largely failed at the former and failed completely at the latter, it invaded anyway, just as Baker advocated. And unimaginable disaster resulted. And now Establishment Washington says that the wise, responsible, revered expert to lead us to safety is the same James Baker who urged us to embark upon this course in the first place. Deeper irrationality is hard to fathom.

Compare the profound wrongness of Baker's pre-war arguments to the pre-war prescience and insight of war opponents such as Howard Dean, Jim Webb, Russ Feingold Al Gore, and Nancy Pelosi, or the statements over a year ago from crazy, insane, cut-and-run-coward Jack Murtha about what would happen in Iraq if we stayed. The incoherence of viewing the former as some sort of responsible and wise foreign policy expert, while viewing the latter as frivolous and irresponsible radicals, is so intense that it makes one almost dizzy to contemplate.

If you go to a doctor for an operation and he completely botches your surgery and you lose an organ due to his abject ineptitude and recklessness, you don't go back to that doctor for repair surgery; you find another one. If you go to a lawyer who almost destroys your company through complete ignorance of your basic legal obligations, you don't stay with that lawyer in the hope that he will get you out of the disaster he created for you; you retain another one. All of that is just basic common sense.

Yet here we are, revering and listening to and following the same dense, amoral people who could not have been more wrong about everything they recommended and asserted prior to this war, while we scorn or (at best) ignore those who were so right. As but one example, one of the appointees on the Commission was the wildly extremist, warmongering American Enterprise Institute's Michael Rubin, though he is really different only in degree, not in kind, from most of the other Commission members and "experts" on whom they relied.

Worse, the people to whom we are listening do not recognize they were wrong. They believe they were right and that what we need is more of their great wisdom and advice, in greater doses. As a result, they are using exactly the same premises and assumptions and moral calculus that they used to bring about this tragedy, and astoundingly, there seem to be enough people -- at least in Washington -- willing to embrace the fantasy that somehow, this time around, listening to them will bring about better results.

UPDATE: Some commenters seem to be trying to find some good in what James Baker did here -- as though the Baker-Hamilton Report will help end the war. It won't.

In 2002, it was clear that the President was intent on invading and occupying Iraq, and all sorts of people endorsed that central idea but then -- like James Baker or Tom Friedman -- added their own caveats about how they thought it should be done. That didn't matter. Anything other than unambiguous, emphatic opposition to the invasion counted as support for the war. It fueled, rather than impeded, Bush's ability to invade at will.

Exactly the same is true now. Anyone who does not clearly advocate withdrawal sooner rather than later in accordance with a clear timetable is, in effect, endorsing the status quo. Anything muddled or any "plan" which calls for our ongoing, indefinite presence in Iraq (as the Report does) is tantamount to support for Bush to have license to do what he wants. There is clear language in the Baker-Hamilton Report that warns against the dangers of withdrawal (just as one would expect from a Commission comprised of war advocates).

Therefore, the Report will be used as an instrument against withdrawal and thus, by definition, in support of our ongoing occupation -- exactly what the President wants to do and will do. Just as was true for those who failed to oppose the invasion, by failing to loudly and clearly oppose our ongoing occupation (and, if anything, by clearly endorsing it, even if lamentably), the Report does nothing other than enable the ongoing occupation. Under the circumstances, one either advocates withdrawal or one does not. The Report did not. It's really just as simple as that.

UPDATE II: I agree completely with Jonah Goldberg, who makes the point I just made in the Update above:

The report undercuts the Murtha crowd by delegitimizing the quick bug-out (AKA redeployment) option and makes staying in Iraq at least until '08 the "conventional" or "mainstream" point of view.

For Bush, isn't this the only part of the ISG report that matters? And when it comes to the actual situation in Iraq, the report basically confirms established policies of the White House and the Pentagon. So, in effect, doesn't the heralded bipartisan commission in effect give Bush the leeway to — ahem — stay the course?

That's exactly what the Baker-Hamilton Report does. By undercutting real, definitive withdrawal -- the only real competitor to staying the course under Bush -- it endorses staying the course, which is now what is going to happen (that was going to happen anyway, but that option now has the cover of the Baker-Hamilton Report).

UPDATE III: Hilzoy has two in-depth posts about all of this which are highly worth reading -- this one, an analysis of Iran and Syria's interests, and this one a general analysis of the Baker-Hamilton Report. Both posts have convincing insights not readily available elsewhere.

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