The Not So Fabulous Baker Boy


According to The Times of London, here are the general outlines of what the Iraq Study Group, a commission co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, might be offering the administration as a plan to resolve the imbroglio in Iraq.

The Baker commission has grown increasingly interested in the idea of splitting the Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish regions of Iraq as the only alternative to what Baker calls "cutting and running" or "staying the course" …

His group will not advise "partition", but is believed to favour a division of the country that will devolve power and security to the regions, leaving a skeletal national government in Baghdad in charge of foreign affairs, border protection and the distribution of oil revenue.

The Iraqi government will be encouraged to hold a constitutional conference paving the way for greater devolution. Iran and Syria will be urged to back a regional settlement that could be brokered at an international conference.

Several ideas come to mind. First, far from being an alternative to "cutting and running", the plan seems an effort to prepare the ground for precisely that. How? Once the Kurds and the Shiites fully take in hand their security, the rationale goes, and they will do so once they have "states" to protect, then the U.S. can cut back its troop levels radically and pull out, or more likely withdraw to safe areas, probably to Kurdistan. But Washington's effective control over broad Iraqi policy would be largely over.

Second, the plan, whatever the denials that it is partition, is partition if it turns out as the article suggests. Nothing suggests a majority of Iraqis want partition, quite the contrary, or that this plan will resolve anything. In fact, it may lead to a new Yugoslavia type situation, where communities fight over mixed areas. This time Baker won't be able to say "we have no dog in this fight" as he did when Yugoslavia collapsed. Historically, partitions have been terribly traumatic, whether in India, Korea, Vietnam, Cyprus, Palestine, and elsewhere, and it will very probably be the same in Iraq.

Third, is it really up to the U.S., after it screwed up postwar normalization in Iraq, to compound this with a plan that would only be perceived by Iraqis as a further effort to break them apart? Almost certainly this plan would be depicted by Iraqis and most Arabs as an effort to break up the Middle East into statelets to ensure that Israel remains strong, whatever the truth of that claim. At this stage, with everything that has gone on in the country, it seems far preferable to let the Iraqis decide their own future. The U.S. owes them patience and time to arrive at a solution by themselves.

Fourth, asking Iran and Syria to guarantee this process means asking the two states most responsible for destabilizing Iraq to oversee its stabilization. That's a typical realist habit of course, and Baker has long made deals with those who screwed the Americans the most. Hafiz Assad was responsible for allowing Shiite Islamists to kill American soldiers and civilians in Lebanon in the early 1980s, and was rewarded by Baker and George H.W. Bush when the U.S. granted Syria total hegemony over Lebanon in 1990.

Let's await the final plan before judging it, but I have very little faith that James Baker is the man who can shape an imaginative policy toward Iraq; not the man who has so thoroughly embodied the set ways of the traditional foreign policy curia in the Middle East, with its devotion to "reliable" thugs and indifference to liberal democracy. George W. Bush may have made a hash of things in Iraq, but the solution is not to fall back on the lubricated facilitators of the sordid relationship with Middle Eastern dictators–those who more than others made 9/11 a reality.