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Sobriety Check

The weather in Washington changed this week. Reality finally foundsome honor; which is to say, it came to be accurately described inofficial descriptions. Even after the hyped release of theBaker-Hamilton report, it is still not clear what we should, orwill, do with our faltering war in Iraq: Seventy-ninerecommendations in all, the Baker-Hamilton report is not exactly aflood of clarity. But at least it is no longer defeatist orheretical or

treasonous or (the most absurd muzzle of all) cruel to the troops toarticulate lucidly the magnitude of the mess in Iraq and the steadydwindling of America's power to achieve its goals. Hegemons shouldbe especially wary of illusions. Great power, especially in thehands of idealists, demands great probity.

More than the incorrigibly selfinterested James Baker and theweirdly intense Lee Hamilton, the new tone--the certification ofWashington's disillusionment--was expressed most perfectly byRobert Gates, in his quick but rattling hearing for confirmation assecretary of defense. With Cheney-like calm, he buried Cheney-likefantasy. "Do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?"Senator Carl Levin asked the nominee. "No, sir," the nomineereplied. There was not even a whiff of controversy about the remark.Gates is not known for the originality of his thinking. He wasmerely stating what has become platitudinous everywhere but in theWhite House. We are in better-late- than-never-land. The victorytalk is over. Perhaps President Bush will be unstirred by Gates'sanswer, or more generally by the new consensus that Americananxiety has a foundation in the facts. The president has neverseemed to grasp the difference between consistency and rigidity; hethinks with his spine.

Yet the Baker-Hamilton report is not remotely the intellectualsalvation that some people hoped it would be. Its greatestcontribution to the debate may lie in its sobriety. But beyond itssobriety is the matter of its substance. On the question ofwithdrawal, which is politically the most sensational question, thereport is evasive. This may fit the needs of presidential candidatesnicely- -after all, the recent midterm elections revealed thatantiwar sentiment is large but pro-withdrawal sentiment is small,at least for now--but it is not strategically useful. There is notan exit strategy in sight. As Baker was putting the finishingtouches on his latest exercise in pin-striped deftness, PresidentBush was petulantly telling reporters that "this business about agraceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all."

The real innovation of the Baker-Hamilton report is its call for there- legitimation of diplomacy in the Bush era. This is a welcomedeparture from some of the administration's most cherished dogmas:that one does not negotiate with one's enemies; that diplomacy doesnot begin until its outcome is already known; that talking is not ameans for getting results but a reward for getting them. (As ValiNasr points out in these pages--see "The New Hegemon," page 32--the United States was secretly negotiating with China even as it wasat war with China's North Vietnamese clients.) But a generaladmiration for diplomacy is not all we need now. We need also tobear in closely upon the particular negotiations that Baker isproposing, to analyze the terms and the prospects of Baker'sproposed diplomatic initiatives.

And, when one applies Baker-like realism to Baker's proposals, thepicture gets even grimmer. Essentially, Baker has three diplomaticprizes in mind: Palestine, Syria, and Iran. Baker's long-heldbelief that there is no problem in the Middle East that does notrequire for its solution the immediate creation of a Palestinianstate is well-documented. A Palestinian state? Sure, but not forthe sake of pacifying Anbar province. The road to Baghdad does notlead through Ramallah. As for Syria: Who knows, it would certainlybe a smart move for Bashar Assad to agree to be flipped, and, ifMuammar Qaddafi could be flipped, almost anybody can. But a new andconstructive Syrian role in the region would improve the Iraqiimbroglio only at the margins; and, while Baker is dreaming ofAssad, Assad is murdering Pierre Gemayel. Is delivering Lebanon toSyria really our idea of a carrot? As for Iran: It concentrates themind, certainly. Baker is proposing talks with Tehran, and--givenIran's impact upon Iraq, its regional ambition, and its nuclearprogram--it would be foolhardy not to see what they could bring.But such talks are the beginning of a long road, and Iraq isburning.

So we have cleared the ground of a lot of the rubbish, and now wecan see how much is not there.