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Iraq studies

It would of course be silly of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to accept calls for an international conference on ending the war in Iraq. The Iraqis are doing such a wonderful job resolving low-ebb genocide on their own. And didn’t Christoppher Hitchens call Talabani the “sworn foe of fascism and theocracy; leader of a national revolution and a people’s army,” and associated him with Thomas Paine? Besides, as Saturday Night Live had it on Dec. 2, when thirty members of Iraq’s security forces attack an insurgent stronghold, only six defect, and most important events take place with only two or three car bombs to contend with. Then it was up to Kofi Annan to raise the stakes of dark comedy by bumping Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war down on the totem pole of violence: “When we had the strife in Lebanon and other places, we called that a civil war; this is much worse,” he told the BBC.

“President Talabani’s firm stand on the issue,” The Times wrote, “contradicts not only Annan, but also the recommendation by a growing number of American policy makers that the United States and Iraq should hold a conference that would bring together all the countries in the region that have vested interests in trying to reestablish stability in Iraq. Such a meeting might include Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, all accused by various American and Iraqi leaders of fomenting violence here.” Among that “growing number of American policy makers” is the Iraq Study Group, whose great coming-out party this week represents. Years from now, looking back from the bog that Iraq will have made of the United States, the Iraq Study Group will be like so many thieving thoughts in the night, forgotten and irrelevant, because disconnected from the reality it attempted to influence: the United States stopped calling the shots in Iraq the day it began its invasion in 2003. Everything else has been self-delusional theater, worsening American impotence and credibility in the region now and in the future. The Study Group looks important today. It has the feel of something seminbal, maybe decisive. It's anything but, because it couldn't be decisive even if it had the ideas to be so. Its report is DOA, another victim of the Bush administratrion's execution of the Iraq war. Still, all the attention will be focused on Jim Baker and the rest of them for a few days before they're dismissed to some ash heap in the New York Times archives. Might as well give them their due.

The Group is Orientalist in outlook: it projects American wishes on Mideastern players. It assumes that Iraq, Iran and Syria could stand to look at each other from across a table. It assumes that the United States could somehow play a moderating role, through Saudi Arabia, at such a table. It assumes wrongly. What the State Department lacks in terms of able diplomats who understand the Middle East from the inside out (rather than through the corporate board rooms of Bechtel, the Carlyle Group and the Saudi royal family’s interests) it makes up by way of invention, projection, assumptions. It falls back on tried-and-failed diplomacy-à-la-Kissinger, still prevalent in realist circles: as long as the United States holds the weaponry, that thinking goes, surely there’s leverage to be had there. Iraq’s catastrophe is staring the United States in the face, proof enough that there is no such thing as leverage in American foreign affaires anymore—not in Europe, not in the Middle East, not even against China, who holds the key to American bank accounts.

But Talabani isn’t the only brilliant egg in Iraq’s omelet. The Iraq Study Group is releasing its conclusions this week (most of which have already been leaked), but the Bush administration is making sure to let everyone know that its head is planted firmly in the sands of east Texas, that, in National Security Adviser Steven Hadley’s words, “the panel’s report would represent only ‘one input’ in President Bush’s search for ‘a new way forward in Iraq.’” Because, as with Talabani’s approach, we well know that the Bush administration is surrounding itself with options, ideas, flexibility, originality, and doing a heck of a job.

Example: Hadley, “who appeared on three Sunday morning television talk shows” (says the Times) “welcomed but did not specifically endorse Mr. Rumsfeld’s ideas. He called the defense secretary’s memo “a sort of laundry list of ideas that ought to be considered.” All this comes down to somewhat obvious conclusion that we’re in for two years of running out the clock on the Bush administration’s mire in Iraq until the mess is handed over to the next president. This, even as the administration prepares to submit a $127 billion request for additional money to fight its wars in 2007, in addition to the $70 billion already approved. That’ll mean the United States will be spending half a billion dollars a day in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 (about five times the annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, or enough to build ten average-size middle schools in middle America), and the Christian Science Monitor is still posing such silly questions, in headlines, as “What the US has learned (so far) in Iraq.

The war is bankrupting the United States morally and economically, and we’re still talking abouit lessons learned while ignoring “study groups” and encouraging Iraqis to join Bush under the sands of east Texas.

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