October 22, 2006
Rubin's Distortions of the Baker-Hamilton Commission
I’ve been noticing Michael Rubin more and more these days, increasingly taking pen to paper to issue pitiable little epingles in the direction of those horrible realists, in neo-con cadre party outlets like the WSJ editorial page and the Weekly Standard. His latest is a preemptive attack on the Baker-Hamilton commission. It’s a classic Rubin type piece, full of wooly-headed intimations that we must expand the war theater to new Middle Eastern fronts, that the realists are but Neville-like appeasers tiresomely recycling old ideas, stabbing us in the back really, so as to preclude the glorious, total victory that would be ours but for a lack of resolve crippling the cocktail-swilling Foggy Bottom set, or those horrid leakers at Langley, or whatever other bogeyman du jour. Basically the usual fare that his ilk of weenie clowns (still, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, feted amidst the provincial echo chambers of varied Washington “think-tanks”) feed the remaining gaggles of true believers who still get all excited amidst the navel-gazing (is there still hope we might persuade Bush to summon the courage to go on to Teheran!?!). But this piece stood out, in its cheapness and shamelessness and solipsism, so I’ve decided to address his “arguments” in these cyber-pages.
First, however, allow me a confession. What really got my goat was Rubin’s suggestion that the Baker-Hamilton Commission’s recent trip to Baghdad (it was four days, not three, Michael) suffered egregiously because only Chuck Robb ventured into the Red Zone (Ramadi, specifically), while the other members of the working group remained safely ensconced sunning themselves amidst the pool cabanas of the Green Zone. We are told by Michael that the U.S. Embassy would have been happy to facilitate any further travels (doubtless soldier grunts would have been particularly eager to escort a bunch of VIPs through the alley-ways of Fallujah and Ramadi too, yes?). And despite the fact that the ISG members met with actors across the Iraqi political spectrum while in Baghdad, reportedly including a Sadr representative, secular leaders like the head of the Iraqi Communist Party, President Talabani, Prime Minister Maliki, Abdul-Aziz Hakim and so on and on—Michael informs us from his Washington cubicle that they would have gained better access to “unvarnished opinion” if they had “embedded with U.S. servicemen on patrol.” But these aren’t journalists out for a scoop or story in Ramadi. They’re former high ranking government officials gathering information directly from the key players—all of whom were more than happy to meet with them in Baghdad.
Now, it’s painfully clear, Michael desperately wants someone to take his bait, and query how many times he ventured into the Red Zone during his service with the CPA. Doubtless a few, one suspects, because otherwise even he would not have the gall to lob this kind of lame attack at people with decades more government experience than he. But here’s the rub. Sources tell me that for most of the time Rubin was in Iraq, it was still quite safe to venture out of the Green Zone (it started getting more dangerous around November/December of 2003). And while it is true that Rubin’s AEI bio states he was in Iraq until March of ’04—forgive me if I hazard a guess that his time spent in the Sunni Triangle (rather than Kurdistan, say) for those few months after the Fall of ’03 was, shall we say, rather on the de minimis side.
But let’s leave such pissing matches about Green Zone/Red Zone travel-time logged aside, shall we (before I bore you with tales of my time spent in war-torn Bosnia!). Here’s what we should really keep in mind for purposes of this discussion. Rubin was part of a group associated with Doug Feith at the Pentagon that were, in the main, Chalabi-cheerleaders, and swallowed with alacrity the kool-aid that the "liberation" would be swift and welcomed by the Iraqis and that the U.S. government would be able to hand off the governance quickly and without much pain to Chalabi and Co. Putting it plainly then, and I hope I’m not hurting anyone’s feelings here, Rubin had a significant responsibility for the strategic and operational decisions made after the invasion. In effect he could well be called to task for this major U.S. policy failure and all the tragic mess our government and nation is now facing with so much blood and treasure spilled. And now, to add insult to injury, all he can do is snipe and provide no viable solutions in the pages of the Standard. Indeed friends, one is compelled to ask how guys like him responsible for the decision-making on Iraq can so cavalierly dispense advice given the over 2,700 US soldiers killed, thousands more maimed and wounded and tens of thousands (if not hundreds) of Iraqis dead. They should be very wary indeed of criticizing those Americans who have been tasked by Congress with finding a way out between staying the course and cutting and running, especially when all they can apparently muster up instead is wailing from the sidelines cheerleading new adventures like reckless blowhards.
But I digress. Shall we turn to Rubin’s piece in the Standard, and take a look at it in more detail?
POLICYMAKERS ARE ABUZZ with the explosive recommendations for U.S. policy toward Iraq soon to be released by the Baker-Hamilton Commission: Abandon democracy, seek political compromise with the Sunni insurgents, and engage Tehran and Damascus as partners to secure stability in their neighbor. While former secretary of state James Baker and former representative Lee Hamilton said they would withhold their report until after the elections on November 7 to avoid its politicization, they have discussed their findings with the press. On October 8, for example, Baker appeared on ABC's This Week, and the next day he discussed the group's findings with Charlie Rose. On October 12, both Baker and Hamilton appeared on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Both men are master inside-the-Beltway operators. Rather than prime the debate, they sought to stifle it. While on March 15, 2006, Baker said, "Chairman Hamilton and I have the same objective . . . to make an honest assessment of where we are and how we go forward and take this issue to the extent that we can out of politics," both chairmen designed the commission to affirm preordained conclusions that are neither new nor wise.
Clever verbiage, Michael, that Baker and Hamilton “discussed their findings with the press”. Sure, they’ve made the television rounds some, and hinted at directions here or there, but the reality is no one knows what their recommendations are going to be exactly, as they haven’t even been written yet as far as anyone knows. I challenge Michael to comb through the Lehrer transcript, or Baker’s appearance on This Week, or on Charlie Rose—and share with us how, in anything approaching a comprehensive fashion, they’ve shared their findings with the public. They haven’t, of course. If anyone is trying to “stifle” the debate—it’s disingenuous commentators like Rubin who are emitting these preemptive shots across the bow. But with their credibility in tatters, it won’t matter. People want to see what Baker and Hamilton are going to recommend, because the direction the Michael Rubin’s have pointed us towards have us knee-deep in a cluster-fuck of rather significant proportions, in case I need to remind anyone, which apparently I do.
Take the four subordinate expert working groups: Baker and Hamilton gerrymandered these advisory panels to ratify predetermined recommendations. While bipartisan, the groups are anything but representative of the policy debate. I personally withdrew from an expert working group after concluding that I was meant to contribute token diversity rather than my substantive views.
Michael Rubin “personally withdrew from an expert working group”. Say it ain’t so! James Baker and Lee Hamilton, doubtless, must have been crushed--that the penetrating insights Rubin would have brought to bear are now lost forever, amidst his protest resignation (a resignation, one suspects, mostly borne of a dreary sense of self-importance rather than any legitimate grievance about “token diversity”). More seriously, note how Rubin has reached a conclusion about the judgment of the ISG Commissioners before even waiting for them to reach theirs! Rather unfair, wouldn’t you say? But no, as I said, dreary solipsism, rather than any serious attempt at analyzing the situation we find ourselves in and confronting reality. Instead, as is the wont with this crowd, he pisses on selected members of the ISG, trying to smear the group with some tar brush of being conspiracy theorists and other beyond the pale types. But I’m afraid that’s not going to work so easily dear Michael. You see, the members of the ISG include (apart from Baker and Hamilton) Bob Gates, Vernon Jordan, Ed Meese, Sandra Day O'Connor, Leon Panetta, Bill Perry, Chuck Robb, and Alan Simpson. Each of these persons (in equal number Democrats and Republicans) might view Michael as something akin to a little cherub in diapers, given how much more experience they each have individually than him, let alone as a group.
But, you protest, what of the working groups?!? Michael says they are infested by conspiracy-theorists and such rabble! Again kiddies, not so quick! Here is a link to members of each working group. These include people of strong reputation like James Dobbins (Rand), Geoffrey Kemp (Nixon Center), Mike Eisenstadt (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), Jon Alterman (CSIS), and Reuel Marc Gerecht (of, drum-roll please….AEI!). Now, putting aside Gerecht (whom I’m surprised hasn’t fled the ISG before he is tarred as a deviationist traitor in the hallways of AEI, but who knows, perhaps he has?), this is a serious bunch of individuals, as are people like Dan Kurtzer and Phebe Marr. Are they all chumps, and Michael Rubin the noble preserver of the Torch of Freedom? C’mon! As for his cheap attack on Chas Freeman, suffice it to say Freeman could run circles around Rubin in his sleep when it comes to knowledge of the region, at least of the non-Chalabi-spoon-fed variety, that is.
Even if the eight other commissioners--all distinguished retired government officials--approached their work with honesty, they had little opportunity to get an independent look at developments in Iraq. U.S. evaluations of Iraq have long suffered from an overemphasis on both PowerPoint presentations and conversations with a limited circle of Green Zone interlocutors. During the commission's three-day visit to Iraq, only former senator Charles Robb left the Green Zone, despite the embassy's willingness to facilitate excursions. Had commission members embedded with U.S. servicemen on patrol, each in a separate area of the country, they might have expanded their contacts, broadened their collective expertise, and gained access to unvarnished opinion.
I’ve already dealt with this business about travel outside the Green Zone above. But to suggest that the ISG’s conclusions would be different, so as to lead them away from potential calls for increased engagement with Iran and Syria—if only they had left the Green Zone—well, it’s just risible. Regardless, someone will doubtless have an opportunity to ask Chuck Robb if his trip to Ramadi has him eager to expand the war to Syria and Iran as Rubin would cheerlead like a dim, faith-based adventurer. As for Rubin’s so clever use of quotes around “new approach”, what could our devilishly clever little Beltway maven mean? Have we had direct, sustained high-level discussions on a wide stable of issues with the Islamic Republic since 1979? Nope, so it would seem to be a “new approach,” no? And if Rubin is so petrified Baker and Hamilton are going to recommend that, it sure sounds like a “new approach” to me. If anything, the “old approach” of supremely naïve democracy exportation exercises like that Rubin and his gaggles of fellow-believers still recommend like gross naifs has failed, dismally in fact, so that a “new approach” is desperately needed.
The problem is that this "new approach" hasn't been good for U.S. national security. After Secretary of State Madeleine Albright extended an olive branch to the Islamic Republic in March 2000, the Iranian leadership facilitated anti-U.S. terrorists. As the 9/11 Commission found, "There is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers."
Putting aside whether James Baker, say, needs lessons from Michael Rubin on what may or may not constitute “effective realism”, and putting aside further the rich irony of Michael spouting on about “utopian conviction”, what to say about a reference to the Bob Woodward of Iranian journalists?!? Well game over then, eh? Point proven! Michael has great sources, you see, or more precisely, he seems breathlessly eager to get played for a dumb sucker once again (le plus ca change…). Of course, it’s true, some al-Qaeda have transited and found relative safe harbor in Iran. And yes, it is true, the Iranians are trouble-making, and quite a bit, in Iraq. Does this mean then that we should march into said country post-haste too, so as to resuscitate the moribund Bush Doctrine? Does this mean that any dialogue with Iran on the Iraq issue is doomed to failure? Of course not.
While Baker and Hamilton themselves may be sincere in their convictions [ed. note: How generous of you Michael, this concession will doubtless mean a lot to them!], conclusions absent acknowledgment of historical context will backfire. In Iraq, perception trumps reality [ed. note: And in Washington too, dear Boy]. Sunni insurgents, former military officers, and Shiite tribal leaders each voiced one common complaint in a meeting last month: They believe Washington is ready to hand primacy in Iraq over to Iran. "You [Ed. Note: Does the “you” here include YOU, Michael?] have allowed the Iranians to rape us," a former general said. Just as Iraqis believe the coalition's failure to restore electricity to be deliberate--if NASA can land a man on the moon, who would believe that USAID cannot turn on the lights in Baghdad?--so Iraqis across the ethnic and sectarian divide are convinced the White House has blessed a paramount role for Iran. Why else would we allow Moktada al-Sadr and the Badr Corps to expand their influence unchecked? Such conspiracy theories may appear ridiculous to an American audience accustomed to government ineptitude, but in Iraq they have real consequences: If Washington has blessed Iranian ambitions in Iraq, then Washington is to blame for outrages perpetuated by Iranian militias.
Excuse me while I stifle a chuckle with regard to this straw man. Even if Baker and Hamilton call for dialogue with Iran on the Iraq issue (or on other issues besides, perhaps), how is this tantamount to having “blessed Iranian ambitions in Iraq”? Because we want to talk to our adversaries and persuade them to change tack and lessen support to problematic Iraqi factions (both Sunni and Shi'a ones, as the Iranians are allegedly hedging their bets and supporting, not only Shi’a militias, but Sunni insurgents too), we are blessing their lebensraum in Iraq? Poor Michael is petrified of diplomacy, as it might interfere in the next campaign his ilk is eager to gin up from points Washington. But Michael, people are on to your gig, and they’re very tired of it. They won’t be snookered again by the likes of you peddling around the usual snake-oil.
When Rep. Frank R. Wolf conceived of the Iraq Study Group, he chose Baker and Hamilton to lead it in recognition of their extensive diplomatic experience. But it is this experience that may not only condemn the commission's recommendations to failure, but also further inflame Iraq. In the Middle East, Baker's legacy is twofold. As secretary of state, he presided over the 1989 Taif Accords, which ended Lebanon's civil war. By blessing Syrian military occupation, he sacrificed Lebanese independence on the altar of short-term pragmatism. Many Iraqis--Sunni elites and former officers especially--fear Washington may repeat the episode in their country. They fear Baker's cold realist calculations may surrender Iraq to Iranian suzerainty. While Americans may nonetheless welcome short-term calm, in terms of U.S. security, the Taif model failed: Damascus used its free hand to gut civil society and turn Lebanon into a safe haven for terror.
Oh my! Was it really only post-Taif that Lebanon became a "safe haven for terror", to employ Rubin's hyberbolic (and simultaneously banal) use of ye olde 'safe haven' verbiage? Michael, did the PLO exist in Lebanon pre-Taif? Did Hezbollah exist in Lebanon pre-Taif? In short, what the bloody hell are you talking about?
Baker's other legacy may be harder to shake: Iraqis remember him for his role in Operation Desert Storm. On February 15, 1991, President George H.W. Bush called upon Iraqis to "take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside." Iraqis did rise up, but Baker counseled U.S. forces to stand aside as Saddam turned his helicopter gunships on the rebellious Kurds and Shiites. Had more commission members exited the Green Zone, they might have found that among the greatest impediments U.S. forces and diplomats face in Iraq is the experience of betrayal that Baker imprinted on their country. Washington's adversaries have capitalized on this legacy. The foolishness of Iraqis' trusting Washington has been a constant theme in Iranian propaganda. Should the Baker-Hamilton Commission also recommend abandoning democracy--which the Shiites understand as their right to power--and urge a political accord with Sunni insurgents, they would push 16 million Iraqi Shiites beyond possibility of accord and into the waiting embrace of an Iranian regime that, paid militias aside, most Iraqis resent.
Er, memo to Michael: we’re already reportedly talking to Sunni insurgents, right now in fact, in precincts Amman—trying to reach the “political accord” that so disturbs you. If Michael is worried that complex power sharing arrangements with Sunnis will hold the crude majoritarianism of the Shi’a at bay (throwing them into the eager clutches of the dastardly Mullahs!), well, he might ring John Bolton or Elliot Abrams to ask what the hell is going on, rather than bitch about the Baker-Hamilton commission.
Iraq is a bipartisan problem. Regardless of the outcome of the 2006, and even 2008, elections, the legacy of Iraq is going to impact U.S. policy and security for years to come. It is unfortunate, then, that the commission has bypassed its responsibility to seek a new approach and instead has embraced the old.
So many delicious passages here, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps Michael’s desperately lame spin that the fact that the tens of thousands of middle class Iraqis fleeing for their lives from Iraq showcases how, if only we had handed Chalabi the reins or some such, democracy would have sprouted up in Iraq? Or is it perhaps the arrogance to suggest that it is men like Baker who “construct…smoke and mirrors”, given the great damage people like Rubin have wrought by doing this very thing, big time, as they say. A friend, who knew I’d be blogging Rubin having finally been pushed to spend a couple hours writing about his disingenuous recent output, sends an E-mail:
Another aspect you might want to consider is that, as far as I can see, the narrative of people like Rubin is based almost entirely on conspiracies and counter-factuals. The conspiracy aspect is most visible in his Weekly Standard [piece], where Baker has brought in 'the left.' This is familiar. It was the common coin of people in which people like Feith, Wurmser, and Luti at the OSD and the Vice-President and those around him traded at their height (it was also echoed by people like Hitchens and Kristol from the outside). The basic view was that the State Department and the CIA were basically seditious centers of resistance to the GWOT, objectively (and how trippingly that Old Bolshevik phrase tripped from neo-conservative tongues) the allies of liberals if not, indeed, of our country's enemies. But alongside this has arisen the counterfactual---to whit that if the neo-cons had been allowed to install Chalabi as they had wanted to, all would have been well. Forget the facts on the ground in Iraq, which were that the Shi'a were determined to have their day whatever happened and that secularism had already become a dead letter in sanctions-era Iraq (though of course one of our signal accomplishments in Iraq has been to destroy forever Christianity there). For the neo-cons, the war can't have simply been a bad idea. No, the good idea was somehow screwed up, whether by Powell, Rumsfeld, CIA, or the liberal media. You will never hear a David Frum say the book he wrote with Perle has simply turned out to be flat wrong in its essence or a Michael Rubin to admit that the invasion he championed was a mistake. Like the Trotskyists of yore, these people are never wrong IF ONLY they had been listened to and allowed to follow their mad utopian schemes to their limit.
Indeed. Another way to put it, perhaps, is that the Republic would likely have been better served, putting Cheney and Rummy and Bush’s role aside, for the moment at least, if intellectual enablers had pursued different avenues in life. Say, perhaps, Wolfowitz had stuck to mathematics (his undergrad major), Feith to lawyering, and Rubin to biology (his undergrad major). But at least Wolfowitz is trying to make amends at the World Bank, and Feith is keeping a relatively low profile. Where does Rubin get off spouting off like this? Perhaps it’s his youth. But let’s clue him in, shall we—that we view his foreign policy prescriptions with little more than scorn and contempt. Maybe he’ll pipe down some if he hears the message loud and clear, from enough of us.
UPDATE: Thanks to all the readers who sent in this hilarious byline via E-mail: "Michael Rubin, a former CPA political officer — the only one who lived outside the American security bubble —is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute."Posted by Gregory at October 22, 2006 05:29 PM
About Belgravia Dispatch
Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.
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