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December 06, 2006



Dear AA,

I have to disagree with you on some accounts.

(1) The significant incentives for Syria - WTO & a peace treaty with Israel based on the return of the Golan - are things that the US cannot do on its own but for the implementation of which the US is absolutetly indispensable and where the current US admin has been completely obstructive so far. I find it quite impressive that the ISG report explicitely states that ANY future Iraq policy has to be embedded in a regional process, incl. a push for a comprehensive MidEast peace settlement based on the UN resolutions.

(2) With Iran, as Ex-Sec Baker (why do US officials keep their titels after they've left office???) clearly pointed out during the press conference, the point is less to give them incentives that will compell them to join the party than to be the one who says "Let's sit down & talk & solve this" and then have THEM be the party poopers in front of the whole world.

I think, as stated below in my response to your first posting on the issue, that the true significance of the report is that it clearly calls the BS that's been going on over the past 3 1/2 years, that it is honest in its portrayal of the situation as of late 2006, and that it doesn't promise anything.

It is a very sobering text, it is years overdue, and I am not hopeful that the administration will heed it. And, in regard of your last sentence ("... but doesn't seem to have any more real idea about what to do than anyone else") I would say that it offers a chance for a clean cut with the previous policies and, for the first time ever, a good proposal how to deal with the current mess.




PS: On the question that trained, language-capable, area-experienced experts are needed -> where does one send one's CV?




The pathetic language skills at the embassy are as I understand it largely a side-effect of the security clearance process. Anyone who has spent time in an Arabic speaking country outside the framework of military or diplomatic service is generically excluded, leaving only those trained stateside at DLI and similar institutions, whose pedagogical techniques are basically back in the 60s.

I'm reminded of this, from Freya Stark's Mesopotamian tour in 1938:

"The inscrutability of the East is, indeed, I believe a myth; the only inscrutable object I know in Iraq is the British Embassy, which devotes itself to physical culture in super-Oriental seclusion: the ordinary inhabitant is incomprehensible merely to people who never trouble to have anything much to do with him." (Baghdad Sketches, p. 248)

She also has a report from Tikrit that's worth returning to, trussed up in more layers of irony than a Thanksgiving turkey:

"I had wanted for years to reach Tekrit, and seeing it on the map only forty miles north of us, had suggested a visit.... No one who comes upon this magnificent position can fail to realize what an important place it must ever have been in days of insecurity. It used to be counted the last town of Iraq and lifts itself out of the flatness of that alluvial land in a series of high cliffs, sheer from the river. Our troops discovered it, marching from Baghdad, and occupied and built hutments along the northern heights. They must have unearthed a good many Islamic fragments, digging their way upstream from Samarra; their zig-zag trenches chose the vantage point of every ancient mound. Now, scarce altered by twenty years in the uncultivated land, empty under the sun, they commemorate more sharply than words the desolate remoteness of that long campaign.

"South of the old British camp, divided by a deep ravine, is mediæval Tekrit, a Christian town in the tenth century, with a monastery, and surrounded, when Ibn Jubayr visited it in A.D. 1184, by towers and walls three miles or more in circuit… The top is pitted with shallow holes, where the inhabitants dig illicitly for antiques at night: and that is all that remains of their ancient Christian magnificence, except for the legend of Abd as-Satih and the fact that the present Moslemized inhabitants still keep up a traditional relationship with the Christians of al-Kosh, a village north of Mosul....

"We... were looking for... our car, and having found that, our policeman, whom we discovered in the dimness of a coffee shed on the edge of town, his engaging smile half buried in a bowl of soup. It was lunch time; the soup smelt good, full of lentils and pieces of mutton in a rich juice; we took an outer table and joined Tekrit at its meal, and paid sixpence for the three of usl and in the afternoon traveled downstream by the western road—part the Shrine of the Forty, a dull little solitary sanctuary—to the hill where the ruins of the Lover's Castle still look across the Tigris to Samarra.

"It, too, is crossed by trenches half fallen in, and as we descended to Samarra railway station to drop our policeman there, we passed a small black-railed cemetery where British troops lie buried.

"'So many dead in this land,' I remarked, rendered a trifle melancholy no doubt by two consecutive days of ruins.

"'And killed what for? For nothing,' said S., who has two sons just growing up into this uncomfortable world.

"Our policeman, who had fallen rather silent except when the sight of a stray Beduin roused his hunting instincts, now turned round with more vehemence than we had seen in him.

"'You must not say they were killed for nothing,' he said. ‘What do we live for, if not the words that are spoken of us when we die? These men were killed honourably. After their death all their people praised them.' He flattened out one hand before him and made a show as if to write upon it with the other. 'We live for what is written by our deeds.'

'...Our people have given you Iraq as a present,' I said, still thinking of the cemetery and the trenches in the desert. 'I hope you won’t forget it too soon.'" (pp. 246-253)

Jon Alterman

In my judgment, this report is far more important in an American political context than an Iraqi one. This report is not non-partisan, it is bipartisan. Its most important impact will be political, and that impact will be felt far more strongly in Washington than in Baghdad. With the issuance of this report, it has become far easier to claim one is a loyal Republican and one differs strongly with the Bush Administration on Iraq. When some Congressional Republicans did that in September, it set off a tremor. This could provoke an earthquake and leave the President very isolated if he refuses to change course. We can talk the Middle East angles all we want, but the principle impact is in DC.


Jon, I'd buy that last bit as political reality... though it would be nice if a document about Iraq were actually about Iraq. Ah, my residual idealism I suppose...


Prof. Lynch says that (I paraphrase) the United States could not credibly promise a real and secure peace between Syria and Israel. What then are the obstacles to this, which seems to be one of the major recommendations of the group? The Bush Administration certainly had little difficultly in guaranteeing the Israeli right to kill and maim as many Muslims as it thought necessary in the recent war, yet it is now encumbered by some force that would prevent it from making peace? What force would that be?
Wouldn´t is a better word than couldn't. The Bush administration speaking to Syria or Iran on any level would be tantamount to Bull Connor having lunch with Malcolm X. The Muslim is Bush's nigger, as tens of thousands of dead Iraqis, Lebanese and Palestinians have given witness to. This document is merely part of Baker's posterity papers; the idea that any real action would ever come from this is just another joke played on the Muslims.


The document focuses on the fact that there is no hope for ending or even containing violence without political reconciliation. That is about Iraq. The reason it is so important in Washington is that it breaks the spell of the Bush-era rhetoric about good and evil in military confrontation. I think that's what he meant. As for the idea that the Dhari warrant ended any possibility of reconciliation--so did the federalism vote, so did the sentencing of Saddam to death by hanging, so did the Interior Ministry warning about not contacting the Awda Party the other day, so did probably a lot of things, but not really, they just make it harder. (And there will be the question of the political unpopularity of reconciliation and amnesty in the US, also a Washington issue).


Regarding the preponderance of "Washington issues" over "Iraq" issues, that feels like a positive, not a negative. The problem over the last four years has not only been that the U.S. has made poor decisions (disbanding the civil service, army etc) but that Iraq's domestic policy had no legitimacy because it was so obviously being run from Washington. The joint Bush-Maliki presser was horrifying in part because Bush (in his stupid way) made no pretense of behaving as if the "partner" was anything but a factotum.

Maybe it would be nice if more rational and realistic policies were being floated in America with respect how Iraq could better be run, and maybe some of those good policies are contained in the ISG report. But the hard truth is that the moment they get the imprimatur of the Washington establishment, they are rendered next to useless to Iraqis--even if there were a governing authority that had the capacity to implement them. What Iraq needs now is a government with internal legitimacy. That's what can assert authority, rein in anarchy, stamp out warlordism, and so on; and every pronouncement from washington about "what ought to be done" makes for another option which is that much harder to present as representative of the volonte generale.

So basically, I think Baker et al should just shut up about Iraq. The only relevant "Iraq issue" is what our troops are going to do. For the rest of it, it would sure have been nice if we could have preserved a role that allowed us benevolent influence, but that's what happens when you go for overt regime change via "preventive" invasion. We broke it, we bought it, and now we have to watch as other people glue it together.



enjoyed the ISG post. I was wondering if you could clear up for me your thoughts on the confluence of Nawaf Obeid's piece, his "firing," and the ISG report.

a Saudi ploy to get a seat at the Iraq table?

Nur al-Cubicle

I have a question about power: Who in Washington is now in charge of Iraq? Obviously we have the Baker Commission pulling the carpet out from underneath Bush, who so far is hasn't capitulated to reality. But Bush has been checkmated. However, the man is a slender reed: he cannot operate when his ego is in shambles. Who will make the decisions -Bush is incapable.


I agree with Jon. The report is mostly meant for Americans who really wants to understand "what the hell is going on," crash course style. Regarding what it offers as a solution... well, we will see. Check out my blog, I posted a bunch of reactions from the Middle East regarding the ISG findings.

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