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December 19, 2006

Appearance is everything: the Iraq Study Group Report represents the triumph of style over substance, argues John Bew

Posted by John Bew

John Bew - Research Fellow in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge and an editor of The British Moment: The Case for Democratic Geopolitics in the Twenty-first Century - argues that the Baker/Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report has very little to offer. Instead, the report represents the triumph of style over substance.

At New York's Museum of Modern Art, until the end of January of 2007, there is an exhibition of some of the work of Edouard Manet (1832-1883), on loan from the National Gallery in London. The centrepiece is a series of paintings by the Parisian artist of the execution of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian who had been installed in Mexico as a puppet emperor by Napoleon III in 1864, partly as a response to French anxiety about growing American interference in the region.

Maximilian had been placed under the protection of the occupying French army. But when Napoleon III became concerned about the extent of Mexican resistance to the enterprise and withdrew his troops, Maximilian was captured by Mexican forces who were loyal to the displaced republican government. On 19th June 1867, he was executed alongside two of his generals, causing political shockwaves across the Atlantic.

Through a collection of contemporary evidence, draft sketches and four main paintings, the exhibition demonstrates how Manet incrementally pieced together a picture of Maximilian's murder, as details slowly emerged in the Parisian press. He was a republican and a strong political opponent of Napoleon III under whose regime, among many other grievances, the work of the Impressionists received little official patronage. It mattered little that he had no other source for his painting than French newspapers and word of mouth; his ire was directed at his political rulers in France. In offering his interpretation of the execution of Maximilian, Manet, who is often attributed a central role in the transition from "realism" to "impressionism", was mainly concerned about drawing lessons about things closer to home.

Just two blocks away from MOMA, in Barnes and Noble bookshop, one can buy the Iraq Study Group Report of James Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton for just over ten dollars, helpfully published by Vintage Books, a division of Random House. On both sides of the Atlantic, those who have hailed the report as the return to "realism" in matters of international affairs have been cooing relentlessly since the report went to press.

These were the same people who declared that America had finally woken up to itself in last month's mid-term elections, delivering a comprehensive spanking to Bush's "neo-cons". That Joseph Lieberman, the most hawkish of the Democrats, recovered from a scare earlier in the year to heavily defeat his anti-war opponents in Connecticut seemed to escape notice.

Like Manet in 1867, these observers see troubles abroad in narcissistic terms, simply as a rebuke to their leaders at home: a "lame duck" President in Washington or a discredited Prime Minister in London. It would seem that the overwhelming priority is to express delight that these men and their administrations have got their fingers severely burnt. Moreover, that prominent voices of the establishment - former "Cold Warriors", no less, in James Baker and Lee Hamilton - have now added their voices to the crescendo of criticism would appear to be the penultimate nail in the coffin.

In explaining the logic behind their report at the outset, Baker and Hamilton do make an important point. The debate over Iraq has been conducted in a narrowly partisan and sectarian manner and there is a need for a recalibration. Hawkish policy wonks in Washington are fond of saying that the United States is, at the bottom line, engaged in a "fight for the free world". For many of those who are sympathetic to this line, it has been a source of irritation that the American administration has, even at moments of strength, made virtues of domestic party political sectarianism and international isolationism in this fight. Not because the UN or France ever offered a serious alternative path: but because, at the times of weakness that occur in any war, the inevitable process of falling back on others for support looks like the march of retreat.

It is also worth remembering that the authors have their own agenda. Baker was part of the George Bush Senior administration during the first Gulf War, which drove Saddam out of Kuwait. Having urged Saddam's opponents within Iraq to rise up in anticipation of American support, they packed up and went home, leaving the dictator a free rein to settle scores with his oppressed Kurdish and Shi'ite populations. In the run up to this report, Baker gave a series of interviews defending his wisdom on that occasion, despite wilful neglect of a problem that was always going to cascade out of control sometime in the near future. "Realism", in this instance, seems to be about making a virtue of postponing problems for the next generation to deal with.

Indeed, on reading the Baker/Hamilton report, one becomes rather impatient in finding familiar ideas regurgitated as new "recommendations", 79 of them in total. Train the Iraqi troops to fight for themselves and get out of Iraq as soon as possible - a logical suggestion but haven't we been here before? From the beginning of this venture, this has been Donald Rumsfeld's priority above all others, to the extent that he made the costly decision to reject calls for more troops to be put into the country at the outset of the invasion, when winning the peace seemed much more possible to accomplish.

Predictably, where notions of "regional stability" permeate the 96 pages, the word "democracy" is given short shrift: out with the baby out with the bathwater. In the short-term, democracy has not proved the intoxicating and transforming force that many hoped it would be. In the long-term, the existence of a functioning and secure democratic state at the heart of the Middle East is the one thing that can still be rescued from this project. Western "realists" are ready to abandon this idea at precisely the moment that extremists are looking to seize the momentum in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Many of those who live in the Middle East - including the brave Iranian students who recently protested against President Ahmadinejad in Tehran - see themselves as at the beginning of a much longer and dangerous road.

In places, the Baker/Hamilton report gives the impression of wanting to roll back the years and to replace the lid on the Pandora's box, blown apart on 9/11. One is left with more questions than answers. As a recommendation for a negotiated entente with Syria, the report suggests that America could demand:

A Syrian commitment to help obtain from Hamas an acknowledgement of Israel's right to exist.
Isn't the very raison d'etre of Hamas the refusal to acknowledge Israel's right to exist?

When the British government has just once more skirted around their rather dubious connections with the House of Saud, some will be surprised to read Baker recommending that the Saudis could be endeavoured upon to:

use their Islamic credentials to help reconcile differences between Iraqi factions.
Are these the same Islamic credentials that Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda have been using as a stick to beat the Saudi regime for over a decade? On a number of occasions, the report claims that
no country in the region will benefit in the long term from a chaotic Iraq.
In that case, how can we explain the actions of Syria and Iran, in aiding and abetting the crisis thus far?

On the idea that Syria and Iran will come to America's rescue, Simon Jenkins, writing in the Sunday Times (10th December 2006), has declared that:

Baker/Hamilton seems to inhabit a different planet.
And yet, for Jenkins, as an outspoken opponent of the war in the first place, it matters little that the report, contains a mixture of:
mad ...[and] very bad [suggestions, whose] ...relevance to the conflict tearing Iraq apart is minimal.
What is to be welcomed is the "silver lining" it represents - America has learnt what Britain learnt at Suez, that:
the intoxicating vapour of imperial intervention soon turns sour.
Thus, "realism" is still the stuff of foreign policy fetish, even when it fails to offer any realistic alternatives.

Jenkins admitted, perceptively:

In this war of imaginings, appearance is all.
The jubilant response to Baker/Hamilton in some quarters represents nothing like a new departure. This is a triumph of style over substance. The much-celebrated return to American "realism" is nothing of the sort. Then again, for many of those who have invested so much in the Iraq Study Group Report, that has never been the point.

John Bew is a Research Fellow in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He is an editor of The British Moment: The Case for Democratic Geopolitics in the Twenty-first Century.

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