Fun, fun, fun till Daddy took the Iraq war away

Bush's Iraq disaster is taking the GOP down, and his father's old pal James Baker is about to tell him what to do.

Published October 17, 2006 12:23PM (EDT)

In perhaps the strangest vindication of that old '60s chestnut "The personal is the political," the fate of America's Iraq adventure may hinge on whether George W. Bush can handle being taken to the woodshed by an emissary of his old man.

For Bush, the day of reckoning is at hand. After years of talking tough, smearing war opponents as appeasers and demanding "total victory," he must confront the fact that his Iraq war has been a catastrophic failure. Terror attacks are up, American casualties are soaring near record levels, and a credible study claims that at least several hundred thousand Iraqis have died as a result of the war, demolishing whatever moral rationale it had. Of more immediate concern to Bush, Americans have turned against the Iraq war so strongly that the issue now threatens to take down Bush's party, not just in the midterms but in 2008 as well. After a brief uptick in the polls driven by a major GOP "war on terror" P.R. campaign in September, Bush's ratings have again dropped into the low 30s, and with the Republicans reeling from the Mark Foley scandal and no hope on Iraq's bloody horizon, they will probably continue to fall. The Democrats look increasingly likely to take back the House, and perhaps the Senate too.

The country is at a tipping point, which could be described as the moment when even those Americans who get all their information from Fox News abandon Bush's sinking ship. GOP leaders know that if the U.S. is still bogged down in Iraq in 2008, their chances of capturing the presidency will be severely lessened. Senior GOP leaders like John Warner are firing warning shots across Bush's bow. He is under increasing pressure to do something -- anything -- to stop the bleeding.

But Bush, declaring that nothing less than the freedom of the world is at stake, has continued to insist that only a total victory in Iraq is acceptable. In a speech on Sept. 4, he said, "we'll accept nothing less than complete victory ... We're on the offensive, and we will not rest, we will not retreat, and we will not withdraw from the fight, until this threat to civilization has been removed." On Monday, he assured Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that he will not pull U.S. troops out of the country.

The Republican Party brain trust, such as it is, desperately needs to find a way to talk Bush off the ledge, pry him away from his neocon delusions and Darth Cheney, and persuade him to cut his losses. But how?

Enter James Baker, GOP wise man and old Bush family counselor. Baker, who served as the elder Bush's secretary of state and secretary of treasury, is a consummate fix-it man, a kind of cross between Tom Hagen, Michael Corleone's consigliere in "The Godfather," and Mr. Wolf, the hipster cleanup dude in "Pulp Fiction." It was Baker who pulled Bush's chestnuts out of the fire after the 2000 elections, when he appeared on television to declaim, with the icy authority of a junta colonel, that "the votes have been counted again and again."

Now Baker has put on his bipartisan hat to co-head the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission of foreign-policy experts that was created by Congress in March, with Bush's approval, to look for new solutions to the Iraq mess. The commission is not releasing its report until after the November elections, implausibly claiming that it doesn't want to politicize them. But a leak campaign to the media has made it pretty clear what the report is going to say -- and it is not going to be music to Bush's ears.

Baker's report, according to reports in the New York Sun and the Sunday Times, will rule out the possibility of "victory" in Iraq. Instead, it will recommend that the U.S. either simply withdraw or try to cut some kind of deal with the insurgents that could provide a modicum of security and stability in the country. The United States should abandon dreams of democracy. Instead, it should search for anything that will minimize the damage -- whether installing a strongman or a junta, or splitting the country into three parts. It should negotiate with Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria. Left unspoken is the obvious larger point: The U.S. mission has failed, and once we do everything we can to prevent Iraq from descending into a hellish civil war, we should get out.

For Bush, the Baker report will be about as welcome as an invitation to attend a two-week Earth First teach-in in Berkeley. Following these recommendations would mean changing his policy in radical and humiliating ways. No matter how he tries to spin it, pulling U.S. troops out when Iraq is still in meltdown will make his policy indistinguishable from the one proposed by Democrats -- and which he, Cheney and Rumsfeld have been virulently denouncing as appeasement and surrender to evildoers. Having just claimed that the war in Iraq is "the calling of our generation" and the equivalent of World War II, it's going to be hard for Bush to suddenly say, "Never mind!"

Even worse, there is no guarantee that any of these new tactics would work -- in fact, they could easily make things even worse.

In short, Baker's report will be a heaping plate of crow. The big question is: Will Bush be able to bring himself to eat it -- especially since it's being served up by an emissary of his father?

Baker may have saved Bush after the Florida debacle, but in every other way he represents the clammy and unwelcome hand of Bush's dad, also known as 41 (a reference to his being the 41st president). Baker is not just close to Bush senior, he shares his approach to foreign policy -- one that the younger Bush, aka 43, has completely rejected. Baker, like his old boss, is a so-called realist, who regards 43's neoconservative messianism about "transforming the Middle East" as dangerously delusional. Baker strongly opposed George W. Bush's war on Iraq, and clearly believes that 43's neoconservative Mideast policy, with its overwhelmingly pro-Israeli tilt and its hard line toward Iran and Syria, is misguided. In 1992, Baker delivered one of the most stinging rebukes ever given to Israel by any U.S. administration, telling Yitzhak Shamir that the United States would not honor $10 billion in loan guarantees unless Israel stopped building settlements in the occupied territories.

Although 41 has quite properly refused to criticize his son, it is clear that he shares Baker's views of the Iraq war and 43's Mideast policies. In his new book, "State of Denial," Bob Woodward quotes Barbara Bush as saying of the impending war, "Well, his father is certainly worried and is losing sleep over it." But according to Woodward, the father did not want to butt in. When Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, asked Bush why he didn't talk to his son about his concerns, he replied, "I had my turn. It is his turn now. I just have to stay off the stage."

For his part, the younger Bush has kept his father at arm's length. In his 2004 book "Plan of Attack," Woodward asked Bush whether he had ever asked his father, whose decades of foreign policy expertise dwarfed his own blank résumé, for advice about the war. Bush replied he hadn't, saying -- frighteningly -- that the Iraq war was not like Gulf War I, but "is part of a larger obligation that came to be on Sept. the 11th, 2001." He then added the now-famous quote, "You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to." (In the same conversation, Bush said of the war, "I haven't suffered doubts.") In "State of Denial," Woodward quotes Sen. John McCain as saying of Bush, "One time he said, 'I don't want to be like my father. I want to be like Ronald Reagan.'"

One could speculate endlessly about the relationship between the two Bushes. Woodward presents it as loving but oddly constrained. It is reasonable to believe that 43, whose nepotistic, crony-assisted career until he became president was far from illustrious, felt that he needed to strike out on a new path to be his own man and prove his worth. (The legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh mockingly calls 43 a "rebel with a bedtime.") Bush's well-documented lack of intellectual curiosity also probably played a role in his lack of interest in communicating with his father: If you already know the answer, are in touch with the higher father, don't have any doubts, and don't want to think about alternatives, why bother? Whatever the reasons, Bush has rejected his father's moderation in order to strike out on a radical new course.

This is true of many areas, but perhaps most strikingly so of Bush's Middle East policies. As Ron Suskind reports in "The Price of Loyalty," his book about Paul O'Neill's ill-fated tenure as Bush's treasury secretary, at the very first meeting of his National Security Council, on Jan. 30, 2001, just 10 days after his inauguration, Bush announced, "We're going to correct the imbalances of the previous administration on the Mideast conflict. We're going to tilt it back toward Israel." When Secretary of State Colin Powell warned that abandoning attempts to be evenhanded and simply unleashing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could have dire consequences, especially for the Palestinians, Bush replied, "Sometimes a show of strength by one side can really clarify things."

Bush has followed that philosophy not just in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis but also in Iraq. The Iraq war was driven by the neoconservative belief that 9/11 proved that the status quo was no longer acceptable, and the way to change the region was to pound Arab evildoers until they saw the error of their ways. It didn't matter which Arab evildoer was being pounded -- any one would do, and Saddam was convenient. This credo was summed up by Bush's close advisor Henry Kissinger, who according to Woodward told Bush's speechwriter, "We need to humiliate them."

The verdict on a war based on that bizarre ideology is now in -- and Baker is about to deliver it. It cannot be pleasant for George W. Bush to be told that his "lower" father really did know best.

Will Bush listen to Baker, take his political punishment and begin the agonizing process of winding down the Iraq war? At his press conference last week, Bush was told that Baker had said a change in strategy might be needed, and was asked if he would be willing to change. Bush said, "We're constantly changing tactics to achieve a strategic goal. Our strategic goal is a country which can defend itself, sustain itself and govern itself."

The problem is, what Baker is likely to recommend goes far beyond mere tactics. And even the strategic goal of a stable Iraq may simply not be attainable -- Iraq may no longer be salvageable. If there was any obvious way to sugarcoat Baker's proposals so as to make them seem less like a surrender and more like a tactical adjustment, Bush would be more likely to embrace them. After all, Bush has made substantial policy shifts before and gotten away with it. No one was outraged, for example, when he reached out to the Sunni insurgents whom he had denounced just months before as terrorists. But this change would be an order of magnitude bigger, and there's no way to spin it. It would amount to an admission that the entire war had been a mistake. There is nothing in Bush's history to suggest he is capable of making such an admission.

On the other hand, Bush has a powerful incentive to embrace Baker's plan: politics. As Robert Dreyfuss points out in The Washington Monthly, "If -- and it's a very big if -- Baker can forge a consensus plan on what to do about Iraq among the bigwigs on his commission, many of them leading foreign-policy figures in the Democratic Party, then the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee -- whoever he (or she) is -- will have a hard time dismissing the plan. And if the GOP nominee also embraces the plan, then the Iraq war would largely be off the table as a defining issue of the 2008 race -- a potentially huge advantage for Republicans."

It's hard to believe that Bush, who is nothing if not a shrewd and cutthroat politician, doesn't want to take Iraq off the table. Of course he would take a big short-term hit for cutting and running, but declaring victory and getting out is a time-honored political move, and Bush might get away with it.

But this may be bigger than politics. Beyond the Oedipal dimension, Bush has staked his entire presidency on this war, and he really seems to be utterly convinced of the righteousness of his cause. According to Woodward, he and his neocon brain trust see the battle against Islamic extremism lasting two generations, and he believes it is his sacred duty to stand and fight.

Baker's report will be an irresistible force, colliding with the immovable object that is George W. Bush. Something will have to give. But what?

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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