Wednesday, December 06, 2006


The Baker Commission’s realist take on the Middle East is unrealistic. WSJ editors claim here that Iran’s track record demonstrates that the realist’s Holy Grail of directly engaging Iran diplomatically won’t work.

Washington Times writer Joel Himmelfarb asserts here that the entire basis for the Baker Commission’s deliberations “is absolutely false.” Himmelfarb notes that we have had direct diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria for six decades, but that this has never overcome even our small differences with these regimes, let alone our major differences. Our multi-decade attempt to get these regimes to renounce terrorism has had zero success. In fact, it has had inverse success. (That’s a euphemism for abject failure.)

WSJ Editor James Taranto critiques the Baker Commission’s recommendations here. He believes the plan has some good suggestions, but he also believes that it has major flaws. One flaw is that the realists in Baker’s group conclude that the only way for the U.S. to achieve its goals in the Middle East is to employ all of its capabilities to achieve Arab-Israeli peace.

After noting that we have actually been seriously working on Arab-Israeli peace using the methods prescribed by the realists for decades with no satisfactory results, Taranto asks, “Why is it "realistic" to think that more of the same will magically transform the region now?”

Taranto claims that the “the so-called realists make two unrealistic assumptions.” The first violates principles of realism (i.e. that nations act only in their own self interest). The realists assume “that Arab nations, far from being concerned only with their own interests, have a sentimental attachment to the Palestinian cause.” They do not. They only use it as an excuse. If they were truly concerned, they would open their own borders and work to relieve Palestinians rather than making sure their plight remains desperate.

Taranto writes, “The second goes to a fundamental problem with realism: a failure to distinguish between nations and regimes. It’s obvious that it would be in the interest of Arab nations--especially the currently nonexistent Palestinian one--to coexist peacefully with Israel. But the regimes that rule those nations are concerned above all with self-preservation.”

One self-preservation tactic is to deflect criticism by using Jews as scapegoats for their own problems. (Sound familiar?) Thus, the Arab regimes act in their own interests rather than in the interest of the nations they rule. Regardless of what would be good for the nations they rule, it would be antithetical to the interests of these regimes to actually resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The solution, as Taranto sees it, is democracy. “Democratic regimes are far from perfect, but by providing for popular accountability, they align the interests of the regime with the interests of the nation better than any other system that has been devised.” Thus, Taranto appears to promote the Bush policy of creating a sustainable democratic regime in Iraq.

There has been a veritable love fest for the Baker Commission’s suggestions by the MSM and gushing politicians on both sides of the aisle for weeks. And the report was only released today! I am grateful that the administration has no requirement to actually follow the commission’s suggestions.

I believe it is important for our leaders to get good input so that they can make the best possible decisions. However, they did not run and we did not elect them to merely rubber stamp ideas and decisions made by unelected independent commissions. We hired them to lead and to make the hard decisions. (We also didn't elect them to pass the buck and say that the generals are making all of the decisions. That's not leadership.)

We have gotten into the habit of thinking that independent commissions are good things because they remove the issue at hand from the heat of politics. The MSM assiduously supports unelected independent commissions. We have come to believe that politics is bad whenever there is heated debate, impasse, or power struggles.

But kicking decisions to unelected groups passes the buck and reduces accountability. The Founders intended for us to have spirited debate and even exercise of political power. They felt that this would go a long way toward providing the checks and balances required for good government. Although it might not always be pretty, the decisions should be left in the hands of those that are accountable to the voters.


Charles D said...

I happen to agree with you that the Baker Commission is a waste of time, but for very different reasons.

They are correct that the US needs to work with other nations in the region instead of unilaterally. This administration has avoided diplomacy all along unless you think that meeting with someone and dictating terms to them is diplomacy.

It is also correct that we cannot achieve peace in the Middle East unless the Israel/Palestine problem is resolved. The Arab nations do not have just a "sentimental attachment to the Palestinian cause" nor are they using it as an excuse. The oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli government is strongly resented by virtually all Arab people and if Arab governments do not join in resisting that oppression they will be overthrown by their citizens.

Democracy is also not the solution. If we have democratic governments in the Middle East, they will be strongly anti-Israel and (due to the Iraq debacle and US support of Israel) strongly anti-American.

What we do need is to scrap this idea of creating some kind of phony bipartisan commission of Washington insiders to cover the collective asses of the political elite, and debate these issues openly and honestly in the Congress. Thank God we are beginning to have a few courageous leaders like former President Carter who are telling the truth about the Middle East.

NonArab-Arab said...

Another fine example of how virtually nobody in the US even gets the terms of the debate in the US. To the US right-wing it's all about the "MSM" or our obsession with Nazis which we then transfer onto Arabs or any other lot of self-centered nonsense which completely ignores the issues people in the Middle East face every day. Whatever, go right ahead debating meaningless rubbish amongst ourselves. In case nobody has noticed, all this self-debate has been completely ignored in Iraq where we are more and more not just losing, but becoming completely irrelevant (other than our own comparatively small body count -- small compared to the orders of magnitude greater Iraqi body count). A decade (or maybe less?) we'll be having a debate over "who lost Iraq". Right-wingers will say the lefties did it, lefties will say the right-wingers did it, the truth will remain completely unknown to most Americans but duh-obvious to everyone in the Middle East. We lost because we stuck our noses and bombs and bullets into a place where we weren't wanted, we killed a lot of people, we incited ethnic hatred inside Iraq, we tried to force them to love Apartheid Israel, and we just plain brought chaos via incompetence and arrogance and ignorance while spouting off about democracy.

NonArab-Arab said...

And by the way, the Baker Commission Report -- I know at least one guy on the commission, very knowledgeable and capable fellow for whom I have immense respect. The report has a couple basic sensible notions (Iran and Syria can't be ignored, Israeli-Palestinian conflict can't be ignored or as is more common stoked by the US), but ultimately it's another piece of US politicians and pundits compromising for the sake of US domestic political arguments. The right-wingers and the left-wingers each had to be thrown a bone and they got it ("get out, but not too fast"), but it's ultimately meaningless. As Abu Aardvark ( has put it so well lately, these political reports are ultimately like asking for a pony for Christmas. Everybody wants a pony, everybody asks for a pony, but let's face it, getting a pony is basically impossible for most of us. So the report says it wants "the administration to use diplomacy" and get a pony. It wants to "disband militias" and get a pony. It wants to "engage Sistani and Sadr" and get a pony. Might as well ask for a pink pony with wings and purple polka dots while you're at it. All nice things, utterly impossible to achieve. The war is over, the US lost, but geez have we ever sinned. A former mission comp of mine is back (or about to go back) on yet another tour in Iraq, this time in the so-called Triangle of Death south of Baghdad. I feel bad for him, I hope he's safe, his wife and kid don't deserve a dead dad. And yet I can't help but feel nowhere near as bad for him as I do my Iraqi friends. My mission comp volunteered for the Army and didn't know the immoral mess he would be sent into, but my Iraqi friends are getting mortared every night in their homes, are watching their neighbors corpses literally rot in the street, are seeing their best friends killed before their eyes, are seeing their sisters kidnapped and raped, their fathers tortured with drills to their heads and headless bodies dumped in the sewers, and on and on. They live in constant fear not just for their own lives, but the lives of all their family members. Iraq's smaller minorities such as the Chaldeans and Assyrians (from whom much of the Middle Eastern LDS church membership comes including a Sister missionary I served with) may well be completely wiped out as a result of this war. The Baker Commission is basically designed to say "in a perfect world, things should be like this" or maybe "if you bozos would have done this three years ago maybe we wouldn't be in this mess". All of that is impossible today, so the best it can manage is to provide a face-saving measure for how to get out and leave Americans mumbling to themselves with their own silly arguments that have nothing to do with Iraq, but everything to do about domestic US politics and silly culture wars. Meanwhile tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of Iraqis lie dead, their families ripped literally to pieces, and hundreds of thousands more if not millions have become refugees. Syria and Jordan are fast filling up with Iraqi refugee communities not unlike the Andalusian refugees from Spain of five centuries before. But then I suppose that's a reference most Americans wouldn't get either, that would require us to understand the lives and history of Arabs and not just our own petty self-interest and bickering.

Scott Hinrichs said...

DL, I agree that the need/wants of Iran and Syria cannot be ignored, but it is unrealistic to even hope that these regimes will negotiate in good faith. They have repeatedly demonstrated an unwillingness to do so. I agree with NAA, that the study group's report is a wish for something that simply cannot be.

DL, I disagree that resolving the Israel-Palestine issue is the key to peace in the Middle East. If Hamas and Ahmadinejad got their way, and Israel was completely annihilated, the most significant problems faced by Middle Eastern nations and the problems we have with the Middle East would not be resolved, even a little bit.

You also spew the anti-Israeli rhetoric that recognizes (and overemphasizes) only Israel's mistakes in dealing with Palestinians and their neighbors, while seemingly holding Palestinians and their neighbors completely harmless and without responsibility in the conflict. This myopic view will never lead to any kind of resolution.

You are also quick to suggest that people in the Middle East are unworthy of the benefits you enjoy from living in a democratic society. That smacks of the same kind of attitude that permitted Jim Crow laws to proliferate for a century after the Civil War.

NAA, you are keen to tout the day to day concerns of people in the Middle East and you are extremely critical of Americans for failing to address those needs. You are very critical of the U.S. for being only self concerned.

But this cuts both ways. Middle Easterners don't give a tinker's dam about our daily concerns either. Why is that?

It is because nations must necessarily be primarily concerned with their own issues. All national concerns are ultimately domestic. That does not mean that nations ignore threats to their interests that occur outside of their borders. But most of their decisions end up being colored only by domestic concerns.

However, I agree with Taranto, that it is the national regime which acts in its own self-interest, rather than acting in the interest of its people. In a democratic society, the people are the regime, so the actions of the regime more closely aligns with the will of the people.

Almost every single argument you present could have been presented with regard to the European Theater in WWII. We had not been attacked directly by the Axis. We stuck our noses in where they didn't belong. We killed untold numbers of people, all with very little to show for it. At many points during the conflict, we appeared to be completely outflanked, outmaneuvered, and over-stretched. We didn't give a darn about the day-to-day needs of the people in the Axis countries. Our actions resulted in massive refugee situations.

I'm not defending the Bush administration's mistakes. Nor am I saying that our course of action has been and is unflawed. In fact, I maintain that we went to war more or less illegally in Iraq, since Congress did not declare war. I'm just saying that the problems you note do not necessarily support the conclusions you draw.

Only history will be able to fully address that issue.

Charles D said...

Now don't read in things that aren't there. Recognizing that Israel illegally occupies Palestine and has made life miserable for the original occupants of their land and their descendants does not imply that suicide bombing is an appropriate response. Certainly both sides must compromise if any solution is to be reached. I do not believe we can achieve peace in the Middle East until the Israel-Palestine conflict is resolved.

As for Iran and Syria, like any other nation, they can be expected to act in their national self-interest. They do not want an unstable failed state on their borders spreading conflict throughout the region. They have every incentive to work toward a resolution of the Iraq mess, although they might well have different ideas about how to do it.

Far from suggesting that Middle Eastern people should not enjoy the democracy that we enjoy, I would applaud a change to true democracy in every nation in the region. What I am saying is that democracy is not going to solve the Iraq mess, nor will it be favorable to either the US or Israel. Democracy means that the people rule and the people by a large majority in that region are virulently anti-American and anti-Israel. Overthrowing their monarchs and dictators will be good for them, but it would not accomplish what you seem to want - a solution that is in the best interests of the US elites.

The comparison to WWII is an affront to the men and women who suffered through that horrible war. In WWII, we had rampant aggression against other nations including our closest allies. In Iraq, there had been no aggression for over 10 years and the government there had no means to pursue aggressive ends against their neighbors. This was an outright invasion and occupation on trumped up justification - in other words, a war

NonArab-Arab said...

Without doing a point by point response, which from experience I find just bogs down into hyper-minutiae, let me just address key points:

-The US has never seriously tried to fix the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, Americans need to understand that in reality we are the third party in the conflict and that we (thanks in large part to erroneous politico-theological beliefs) fuel the conflict. I recommend this book for more on the topic:

-Iran and Syria cannot simply be tossed out the window because US politicians don't like them. They're not going anywhere and they have many advantages here the US as an invading foreign entity in the region lacks. The US government ignores them to its own peril. Nor do they have a laundry list of unreasonable demands. To put it bluntly, Iran wants nukes because Israel has them. A key reason it is currently impossible to get them to back down (though there are others, this is ultimately the biggie) is because the US refuses to acknowledge that Israel's nukes are a threat to its neighbors. Neither Israel nor Iran wants nukes to wipe its neighbors out (despite the rhetoric, and there are just as many statements from nutzo top-level Israeli and American politicians as there are from Iranian politicians, even if we ignore the fact that Ahmadinejad is largely powerless on key strategic issues in Iran and the main Iranian leadership has remained circumspect), they want them to prevent their neighbors from blackmailing them. The fact that only one power in the region (Israel) has them is *the* source of nuclear instability in the region. The best thing would be for no one to have them, but the US has acquiesced to Israel's possession of nukes (and bio and chem weapons) for decades and created a serious power imbalance in the hope that all Israel's neighbors would just accept domination. That hasn't happened (not that there haven't been plenty of powers trying to be US and Israeli lapdogs) and instead instability has increased. Just as if an Indian Sub-Continent where only India or only Pakistan having nukes would be far more dangerous than both having, so too the Middle East today is extremely dangerous with Israel possessing nukes and lording them over their neighbors on a constant basis while simultaneously carrying out frequent acts of mass murder and ethnic cleansing in the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon knowing that no military power (conventional or otherwise) exists to constrain them. They learned some of the limits of that power against Hizbullah this summer, which is the real reason the US and Israel are struggling so hard against the peaceful democratic protests at present in Lebanon: they couldn't care less about genuine democracy, what they care about is trying to ensure/create absolute US-Israeli military dominance of the region. They are struggling for the impossible. As for Syria, the top item on their agenda for over a decade has been a genuine peace agreement with Israel, but on fair terms (full return of all occupied Syrian lands). The Israelis ever since Rabin was assassinated have simply been gutless, whiny cowards. Barak backed out, Clinton didn't pressure, Sharon was a bloodthirsty war criminal who wouldn't give up anything unless forced to (he didn't give up Gaza, he simply shifted the style of occupation), and Olmert is a spineless whiner fighting for his political survival. Get an Israeli leader with sense and backbone, and there will be Syrian-Israeli peace tomorrow (regardless of whether or not the Syrian populace wants it, very akin to Egypt -- genuine peace would require a genuinely fair settlement for the Palestinians).

-Neither Arabs or Muslims owe the US any deference. Their armies haven't invaded and occupied and ethnically cleansed and set off civil wars and instigated coups in the United States for the past half century. The US has done or supported all of the above on a virtually non-stop basis. Americans frequently point to 9/11 as if justifies all of the above, but ignore the facts that (1) we have done far worse and killed orders of magnitude more people for far longer, and (2) the people who committed 9/11 were a bizarre-o fringe minority. It would be like trying to judge America on the basis of the Branch Davidians.

NonArab-Arab said...

Oh, and yes, the WW2 analogy is ridiculous. Nazi Germany was a modern industrialized state with an army and political structure that had the capability and will to create a massive totalitarian empire. Al-Qaeda is a fringe freak minority group of criminals with only a tiny fanatic following which only attracts further sympathy when it downplays its most extreme elements and focuses on broader issues of genuine injustice committed against the broader public. By playing them up and using this ridiculous "war on terrorism" rhetoric, all Bush has done is allowed Qaeda to pretend to be robin-hood types. And even so, they are mostly despised as violent whackos. No comparison whatsoever to WW2.

Scott Hinrichs said...

mxgyqtgDL, You are correct that democracy will work the way the people in those nations want it to and not necessarily in favor of U.S. interests (check out the Palestinian election results). However, in the long run it will likely work out best for everyone. It's not a quick answer, but a long term answer. Just look at how long it took the U.S. to gain its own footing after becoming a democratic society.

I believe it's myopic to think that Iran and Syria cannot see any benefit in an unstable Iraq. However, that does not mean that we should not try to get whatever help we can get from them.

Saddam had engaged in no extra-national aggression for 10 years (thanks to the fact that we were running control sorties continually), unless you count his financial and logistical support of terrorists. Yes, I know that's still poor support for invasion, otherwise we'd have invaded a number of other countries as well.

MAA, you make some good points, but you also seem to suffer from the leftist illness of seeing Israel and the West as the only bad guys. Get a grip.

NonArab-Arab said...

"Get a grip" :) Funny, my Arab and Muslim friends tell me the same. Point is I point out to Americans their mistakes, and Arabs theirs. Neither side likes to admit them. Israel and America in the Middle East are committers of grave sins against the Arabs, but try to use the (real and imagined) sins of Arabs to cover them up. Arabs are the committers of grave sins primarily against themselves (and not infrequently the minorities among them) while simultaneously being the victims of foreigners. That is why genuine democratic movements (not the ones the neocons support) end up demanding both internal reform and steadfastness against foreign aggressors. It's no less than we would demand in our own country if we were in their shoes.