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Iraq Sullen Group
The Lessons Missed

A different kind of Iraq Study Group, in a classroom made in America's image

I challenge anyone to find something in the report of the Iraq Study Group that hasn’t been proposed before—the deadlines, the negotiations with so-called enemy regional powers, the re-focusing of U.S. power appropriately on al-Qaeda (by way of special forces, not the military as a whole). The headlines summing up the group’s “findings” blare out the “Grave and Deteriorating” conditions, that the United States’ ability “to influence events within Iraq is diminishing,” that the Bush approach is “not working,” that at this rate a “humanitarian catastrophe” is imminent. This is all very old news. It’s verging on history. Where has the Iraq Study Group been? More to the point: Why wasn’t it appointed a year before the invasion?

The war in Iraq began the third week of 2003, give or take a few incursions beforehand. It became obvious a few weeks later, right about the time when Bush declared all major combat operations over under that “Mission Accomplished” banner of his, and in front of sea of stupidly clapping sailors, that the horror was just beginning: that the invasion hadn’t resolved a problem by removing Saddam’s statue from Fidros Square (which is about all it accomplished: the removal of an tyrant by then made inert and irrelevant through a decade of containment). It had manufactured a new and more massive problem than Saddam ever had been in his three decades of misrule. Yet it took Congress—the Congress responsible for approving every penny of the half-trillion dollars so far wasted down the Iraqi drain—exactly three years to appoint the Iraq Study Group, last March 15.

The group’s work hasn’t been investigative or analytical. It didn’t need to be. The investigations are footnotes to others’ legwork. The analysis is becoming redundant. Even the outing of the group’s findings is anti-climatic, most of those findings having dripped their way down one leak or another. The Study Group’s work has been a matter of synthesis entirely, a summarizing of the overflowing and obvious data the Bush Administration and the public have had before their eyes for the last three years, but have refused to see for a reason not yet debated as it ought to be: By fighting his wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and on “terror” (as opposed to a war on al-Qaeda), three misdirected, pointless wars, Bush has put the nation on course toward decline as a major power: We may have all the military might we can buy. Absent the marginally moral force American power once projected, and absent the economic might to leverage it, we are a dinosaur in diapers. But we’re also too flush with 20 th century memories of American hegemony to possibly imagine that what we’re on to is anything more than a mere correction, a hic-up, that resumption of American greatness is an election away. It isn’t just Bush who’s in denial.

The public, we are told, voted out Republicans in the mid-terms as proof of its dissatisfaction over Iraq. The public wants a change there. Not quite: when almost half the nation still favors staying in a country we’ve demolished and that is, in turn, demolishing us economically and morally, the public can’t be credited for wanting a change of course. Most Americans are still stuck, if not exactly in compulsive denial mode like Bush, then at least in chest-thumping mode: It’s against the American character of post-Reagan America to think intelligently about defeat, because the notion of military defeat is considered as blasphemous, to most Americans, as the notion that the United States could ever play second fiddle to anyone. That it does so in many regards, culturally, in some ways economically, in endless ways socially (think health care, think poverty, think education), and that the nation is almost entirely unaware of the decline points to the depth of the denial. In the 1970s and again the early 1990s, when the country was experiencing similar but relatively minor declines, the debates about it (from Christopher Lasch to Paul Kennedy to, heaven help us, Robert Bork and Allan Bloom) were all over the place, and I think contributed to something like creative shock therapy. Decline isn’t inevitable when a culture becomes aware of it. Nations and cultures aren’t automatons. They can react. They can adjust. They can bounce back. So the United States did, and rather well, in the 1970s and 1990s. (For that matter, what was the Soviet Union’s transmogrification in the early 1990s, away from Communism, but a reaction to calamitous decline?)

In comparison, the debates today are still mired on catching up with reality. I don’t mean only the reality in Iraq, but the reality of its consequences on America’s standing, on the shock to the country’s system, on the decline it has triggered. Reacting to those consequences intelligently is still in the distance. The Iraq Study Group’s work is barely the preface to what ought to be done to the mode of thinking that should replace the chest-thumping. That it’s still stuck in the symbolically telling mode of “dignified withdrawal” points to how far its conclusions have to go to make a mark, and not just on decision-makers. It’s one thing to set a deadline of 2008 for withdrawal. It’s another to get 435 meek and in many cases robotic members of Congress (at least when it comes to that part of the cerebral cortex that controls conviction) to understand why, leading up to the 2008 election, getting out of Iraq is more important than any single election’s outcome here. Instead, the 435 about to consider doubling the amount of money being spent on the war “effort” there.

The greater problem for the Study Group is convincing itself (and, of course, Bush) of the concurrent consequence of America’s lost influence in the Middle East: It really doesn’t matter what recommendations the Study Group comes up with. Iraq is no longer America’s war to manage in any way. Middle East peace, whether in Israel and Palestine, in Mesopotamia, or even in Persia, is no longer America’s to broker. The Study Group wrote its findings as if it was representative of a world power still influential, still with a place at the table. The truth is that that’s no longer the case. The humiliation of Iraq is not military. Never has been. It’s strategic. It’s political. And more than anything, it’s moral. America has no standing in the Middle East. It deludes itself to think that a Study Group, however stocked with luminaries like James Baker and Sandra Day O’Connor, can make a difference anymore, except in so far as to create the political conditions, back home, to enable a surrender and retreat with chest-thumping subtitles for the home fans. And if it’s not about to make a difference in the Middle East politically or strategically, how could it possibly to make a mark on George Bush, who still thinks he’s on a mission from God and to Mount Rushmore?

Then there was this, on Wednesday, as the Study Group was holding its little press conferences for the flash photographers and Katie Couric’s 6:30 “Hi, everyone!” In Iraq on Wednesday, ten American soldiers were killed in separate incidents, the highest one-day toll since October 17, when 11 were killed. Just another reminder that no matter the caliber of America’s study groups, the lesson that ought to have been learned years ago but wasn’t—the lesson that ought to have been heeded before the invasion—is why no amount of remedial learning now will make a difference in the only course America faces: Surrender in Iraq, ridicule in the world, decline at home.

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