Saturday, December 09, 2006

ISG report: the press conference version

My opinion: the content of the Baker-Hamilton report isn't as important in forming policy so much as the political interpretation of that report, particularly how the US-UK governments spin it to make it line up with their future Iraq policy.

I haven't read the report. My impressions - like that of the average Western citizen - currently come from media reporting of it. Here's a transcript of a press conference with Bush and Blair for analysis.

First item of note, Bush has committed to the existence of a Palestinian state, I believe the first US president ever to do so:"In the Palestinian territories, they are working to stop moderate leaders like President Abbas from making progress toward the vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security." Blair echos later on, showing it wasn't a mis-statement: "You are the first president who committed yourself to the two- state solution." I wonder how the Israeli political establishment feels about that?

I've read elsewhere that one of the reasons Blair was so willing to chum it up with Bush was as a way of trying to exert pressure to get a better deal for the Palestinians in Israel/Palestine negotiations. I guess he's succeeded in that, even though it looks like his own political career is basically over now after going against too many of his own constituents on the Iraq war issue.

The vision of the Middle East that Bush/Blair are pushing is pretty blatant: it's evil terrorists and exremists vs good democracy-lovers and moderates. I wonder if those four concepts always line up on two polarised sides like that? Hamas was democratically elected in Palestine after all. And Hezbollah faired pretty well at the polls in the elections in Lebanon.

I get tired of sloganeering in place of actual policy. From reading the conference I get the impression that Bush/Blair's top priority in dealing with the US mid-term electoral smackdown was changing the slogan: "stay the course" and "win hearts and minds" are out, "find a way forward" is in. It is repeated ENDLESSLY! Bush even pushes the "way forward" slogan as a way of avoiding a question:
QUESTION: Why did it take others to say it[that the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating] before you've been willing to acknowledge it to the world?

BUSH: You know, in all due respect, I've been saying it a lot[um...has he? I sure haven't heard it]. I understand how tough it is, and I've been telling the American people how tough it is. And they know how tough it is.

And the fundamental question is: Do we have a plan to achieve our objective? Are we willing to change as the enemy has changed?

And what the Baker-Hamilton study has done is it shows good ideas as to how to go forward. What our Pentagon is doing is figuring out ways to go forward -- all aiming to achieve our objective.

The "finding a way to go forward" slogan just doesn't seem to be getting into media headlines the way the "stay the course" slogan did, though.

Reading the tea leaves, and from previous efforts with slogans, I predict that in six month's time, maybe a year's time, we'll still be repeatedly being told that Bush is boldly and confidently "finding a way to go forward", and will continue to be "finding a way to go forward", until it becomes blatantly obvious that the war effort is not "going forward" and is never going to "go forward", because there is no way to "go forward". We'll see how long Bush/Blair's "we're all about finding a way to go forward" posturing can obscure that from the American public.

On negotiation with Syria and Iran, Bush and Blair seem to split. My impression is that Bush really doesn't want it, and is trying to find a way to lay the blame for not negotiating with Iran and Syria at the feet of Iran and Syria:
When people -- if people come to the table to discuss Iraq, they need to come understanding their responsibilities -- to not fund terrorists, to help this young democracy survive, to help with the economics of the country.

BUSH: And if people are not committed -- if Syria and Iran is not committed to that concept, then they shouldn't bother to show up.

I heard this particular excerpt spoken aloud on the radio while riding a taxi. Bush sounded really angry when he was saying this. I really don't know what's going on in his head here, but I'm pretty sure that the idea of negotiating with Evil on Earth isn't something he would ever be willing to do. Please God, let us never have another Evangelical Christian as President of the United States.

Blair's more open to the idea, and has a comment which to my mind sounds like someone who is good at diplomacy, unlike, President Cowboy:
And let me come directly to the Iran and Syria point. The issue, for me, is not a question of being unwilling to sit down with people or not, but the basis upon which we discuss Iraq has got to be clear and it's got to be a basis where we are all standing up for the right principles, which are now endorsed in the United Nations resolutions, in respect of Iraq.

At which point, he points the finger at Iran:
BLAIR: In other words, you support the democratic-elected government, you do not support sectarians, and you do not support, arm or finance terrorists.

Now, the very reason we have problems in parts of Iraq -- and we know this very well down in the south of Iraq -- is that Iran, for example, has been doing that. It's been basically arming, financing, supporting terrorism.

Hmmm. Maybe not that good at diplomacy...

Blair also mentions how "the old Middle East had, within it, the origins of all the problems we see." Are we still talking about magically solving all of that region's deepseated problems through the neoconservative pipedream of creating a "new Middle East" through military might, Mr Blair? Well, to be fair, the UK I think understands that military strength alone is not enough. But to have an echo of the neoconservative utopia-pretensions for the Middle East in Blair's commentary is deeply unsettling.

Last point before I finish off, this comment from Blair:
Its[Iraq's] people can either be presented with a choice between a secular or a religious dictatorship, which is not a choice that any free people would ever choose.

seems way off the mark, and indicates even further his embrace of the wrong-headed idealism of neoconservatism. "Free people" I believe are entirely willing - eager, even - to embrace dictatorship and oppression of people, so long as there's a pretty good chance that they are the ones who get to do the oppressing.

People will not choose to be an oppressee, but we are often all too willing to choose to be an oppressor. Perhaps we might justify it to ourselves with the usual moral equivocations - "they did it to us for so long", "it's not oppression if they deserve what they get", there are others I'm sure - but we would be freely choosing oppression nonetheless. That is a part of human nature that Bush and Blair's grand vision of a "new Middle East" doesn't take into account. That's why this vision simply cannot work.

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