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Can Baker channel Scowcroft?

November 14, 2006

Soon, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by longtime Bush family friend James Baker (and former Indiana House member Lee Hamilton, who filled a similar role on the 9/11 Commission), is going to report its recommendations about the future of the US war.

Inside the beltway, the great hope is that the 10-member team will “solve” the wrenching problems concerning the future of America’s role in Iraq. As reported in today’s Christian Science Monitor:

“Maybe an outside group can craft a policy that both sides [in the US domestic debate] can accept, though they don’t want to have responsibility for drafting it,” says William Martel, an associate professor of security studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University

Anyone who thinks seriously about Iraq knows that the status quo has failed to attain stated US objectives.

Yet, the most apparent primary alternatives aren’t great:

  • The US could massively increase troops in hope that order could be imposed within Iraq.

    Almost no one supports this and it might be impossible given the state of the army. The US was able to put half a million soldiers in Vietnam by the late 1960s, but that cold war army doesn’t exist any more. Neither does conscription, which made it possible.

    Oh, and half a million troops weren’t enough to win in Vietnam — and might not be enough to “win” in Iraq.

  • The US could withdraw as fast as possible, though the “mainstream” in both parties seems to oppose this approach.

    Centrists and hawks alike fear that Iraq will face civil war and may become a failed state sanctuary for terrorists.

President Bush, perhaps predictably, just yesterday stated his opposition to the two solutions that are gaining favor among the chattering classes.

  1. One is a “regional roundtable” conversation that would include Iran and Syria.

    Bush wants no discussions with Iran until Tehran first agrees to many nuclear-related concessions, including a freeze on their enrichment program.

  2. The second is gradual or phased withdrawal from Iraq, beginning almost immediately.

There are other reported middle-ground solutions:

the panel has reportedly been weighing an option called “Stability First,” which emphasizes withdrawing US resources from much of the country to focus all efforts on Baghdad stability; and an option called “Redeploy and Contain,” which would involve withdrawing most US forces to surrounding nations, where they would serve as a mobile reserve for Iraqi national forces.

The US essentially tried a version of “Stability First” earlier this year — and it increased the violence in Baghdad.

Obviously, I don’t know what the so-called “Baker Commission” will say — and no one can know with 100% certainty the path in Iraq that will lead to the quickest exit with minimal adverse security consequences.

However, I am willing to place some hope in the ISG. This is partly because I remember the great influence of the so-called Scowcroft Commission in 1983.

In the late 1970s, a number of hawkish (many were neoconservative) defense and foreign policy analysts argued that the Soviet Union had deployed so many land-based missiles that they posed a disastrous threat to US security. Deterrence itself was threatened because these weapons allegedly had too much first-strike capability. They were fast, accurate and numerous — able to overwhelm the deployed US land-based force. The US, these hawks argued, faced a “window of vulnerability.” Most urged the deployment of a new US land-based system to close the window.

Meanwhile, the left wanted an immediate “nuclear freeze” that would prevent MX deployment — and halt production of many other proposed weapons systems.

In the context of the MX deployment debate, President Reagan appointed a bipartisan Commission on Strategic Forces, headed by Lt. General Brent Scowcroft (another close friend of George H.W. Bush).

While the Scowcroft Commission offered a (somewhat silly strategic) justification for deploying MX in old fixed Minuteman silos — based essentially on its value as a signal of American resolve and utility as a potential bargaining chip — they also made a very strong argument in defense of the robust US nuclear deterrent. Because of mobile submarines and the third leg of the strategic triad (the bomber force, armed with cruise missiles), the US nuclear force was simply NOT vulnerable to a Soviet first strike.

This effectively closed the debate about the “window of vulnerability.” No window had been open. The report did not completely end the MX (Reagan renamed it “Peacekeeper”) debate, but the most controversial “shell game” and “dense pack” schemes were eliminated.

In short, the bipartisan commission was able to toss a bone to the hawks even as they dismissed their most overblown fears and eliminated the most stupid alternative policy choices then being advocated. Scowcroft reminded everyone that deterrence was working just fine and that new weapons needed to be deployed within a larger arms control context. In some ways, Thomas Schelling (newly pictured at right) couldn’t have handled it any better himself.

So, maybe the Baker-Hamilton group will tell America that the US has to leave Iraq ASAP, forestall any fantasies of increased troop presence, and minimize fears about Iraq as a terror haven.

That would be just about the best case.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.