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Meditations in a Time of Delusions and Lies – 16: The Iraq Study Group: Shattering the Elite

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The Iraq Study Group: Shattering the Elite

Hilton Obenzinger

December 12, 2006


The Baker-Hamilton study group offers "realist" suggestions to deal with the grim situation in Iraq, such as opening avenues for diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors, including Syria and Iran, and they acknowledge what all Arab leaders have told them: in order to alleviate tensions throughout the entire region, the United States must deal with the festering open wound of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

No matter how "rational" or "realist" these suggestions may be, many of them have already been rebuffed by President Bush, and most of them were dismissed with scorn by neocons and other extremists. "Surrender Monkeys" the New York Post blasted on its front cover, and others from Richard Perle to Rush Limbaugh have lambasted the study's conclusions, especially the notion of talking with Syria and Iran. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert immediately rejected the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the heart of instability in the Middle East.

At the very least, the Baker-Hamilton report seems to have split the ruling elite, at least the Republicans, into two major camps: what many characterize as "realists" and "idealists." The report has opened up a more healthy debate in the United States, there is clamor among the elite to look at grim facts and not fantasies, and there is a general glumness among pundits that the outcome cannot be a "victory," just a less painful disaster.

The president awaits other reports from the State Department and the Pentagon to pick and chose his options. No matter the "realism" of the Baker-Hamilton report, Bush will ignore most of its suggestions. The one thing he probably will agree with is the idea of sending even more troops in one more big push to stabilize the country. And he'll continue trying to "train" Iraqis to do the job themselves. (Besides sounding so much like Vietnamization, have you noticed how the U.S. is always "training" people who do not ever seem to learn? They're not stupid. They don't have political leadership, and they'll never be "trained" before they do.)

Nonetheless, the study group and most of its critics share common goals: the need to maintain America's imperial control of the Middle East. Both the "realism" and "idealism" flow from the same imperative to keep the United States as the sole super-power whose empire dominates the world, with the oil-producing Middle East as a linchpin. (This is often expressed as defending the country against terrorists or spreading democracy - although imperial policy only endangers Americans even more and has little to do with real democracy.) The differences may be between those who regard Saudi Arabia as key and those who put all their bets on Israel and perhaps those, more enlightened or naïve or cunning, who want to juggle the interests of both in the old troika of Zionists, Arab reactionaries, and the U.S. empire.

Other vantage points hardly make it to CNN, much less the New York Post. Jimmy Carter has recently unsettled standard discourse with some frank talk about Israeli apartheid on the West Bank - and the pro-Israel apparatus has swung into full gear to discredit him - but I hardly see other, even more perceptive alternatives. I have yet to see Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies or Professors Rashid Khalidi, Joel Beinin or Noam Chomsky joining the gang on Meet the Press - or if they do appear it's infrequent or in cameo roles.

Clearly, the general public is way ahead of the official experts on this: they may not have all of Middle East policy figured out, and they can't tell Sunni from Shiite, but the vast majority of Americans just want the United States to disentangle itself altogether from Iraq as quickly as possible. They are disgusted by the waste and the incomprehensible incompetence (soldiers still drive around without proper armor, only six out of a thousand who work in the American embassy in Baghdad can speak fluent Arabic, etc.), and they are hurt by the senseless death of young men and women who they believe are honorably doing their duty to protect the country. Those of us who were pilloried as traitors for rejecting the war in the first place can feel some vindication - we can join the Dixie Chicks in singing "I told you so" - but we still should not keep our mouths shut.

Very likely, the catastrophe in Iraq will end in a familiar scene: American soldiers and Iraqi allies hastily climbing up to the roof of the American embassy in Baghdad to be spirited away by helicopters. There will be no "victory," although there can be plenty more harm.

For example, Seymour Hersh reveals, there are those in the Bush administration who still seek to solve their problems through expanding the war, no matter what any study group suggests. In the Nov. 27, 2006 issue of The New Yorker, Hersh reports that "many in the White House and the Pentagon insist that getting tough with Iran is the only way to salvage Iraq. 'It's a clear case of "failure forward,"' a Pentagon consultant said. 'They believe that by tipping over Iran they would recover their losses in Iraq - like doubling your bet.'" This may be hard to believe - or to swallow - but Hersh believes these next two years, with Bush not facing any election, are the most dangerous of all.

As Hersh points out, Israel could very well be the one to do the job - not necessarily a full-scale invasion, but a massive bombing campaign. Indeed, Israel has long considered Iran as a threat - the Israeli leadership has been eyeing Iran since the fall of the Shah as a competing regional power, long before any nuclear power programs or any of the recent hateful, threatening rhetoric coming from Iran's demagogic president. Israeli leaders, in fact, may not even be too unhappy with the way things are going in Iraq. For many years, at least since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Israel has sought to fragment the Middle East along religious and ethnic lines. In 1982 one of Israel's goals was to split Lebanon into Christian and Muslim (and Druze) states, and in the last war to foment sectarian opposition to Hezbollah. Israeli leaders have encouraged Kurdish separatism in Iraq, Iran and Syria for years, and they would probably not mind if Iraq were to split into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish states. And Iran into Kurdish and Azeri and Persian and . . . You get the idea. When Jordan's King Abdullah recently warned that the Middle East could face three civil wars - among Lebanese, Palestinians, and Iraqis - this probably did not worry Israeli leaders too much. The more fragmentation, the easier it would be for Israel to be the regional super-power, and the easier to destroy, scatter, or subdue the Palestinians.

In all of this, the only good news is, once again, the American people. Gullible as they can be, when the people realize they have been taken for a ride, the anger can become a powerful storm. The last election sent a message, and opinion polls show the rising revulsion to Bush's military adventure. But will Americans demand real alternatives to avoid another 9/11 catastrophe? To stop military aggression that provokes the mounting hatred for America around the world? Can Democrats be forced to run in 2008 on an anti-war plank, even hawks like Hillary Clinton? While Americans seek safety for Israelis, can the United States put real pressure on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, not just simply start a fraudulent wild-goose-chase "peace process" once more? Can a stronger, validated peace movement pressure the administration to stop threatening Syria and Iran with invasion and "regime change" and actually talk? Can Bush, Cheney, and the rest be put on trial for war crimes? Can the American people insist that our country stop being the bully of the planet and seek a positive, leading role for the United States in a multi-polar world?

Can any of this happen? I don't know. Probably a long shot at best. More likely is disaster and bloodshed in various forms. But it's worth cherishing a little hope during the dark nights of winter. After all, this is supposed to be the season for miracles. We could use one.

Hilton Obenzinger
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Hilton Obenzinger is the author of "American Palestine: Melville, Twain and the Holy Land Mania" (Princeton), among many other books of criticism, poetry and fiction, and the recipient of the American Book Award. His most recent book is the (more...)
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