The Times reviews the forthcoming Baker-Hamilton recommendations and they are pretty much as expected: the centerpiece is a regional conference.
As described by the people involved in the deliberations, the bulk of the report by the Baker-Hamilton group focused on a recommendation that the United States devise a far more aggressive diplomatic initiative in the Middle East than Mr. Bush has been willing to try so far, including direct engagement with Iran and Syria. Initially, those contacts might be part of a regional conference on Iraq or broader Middle East peace issues, like the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but they would ultimately involve direct, high-level talks with Tehran and Damascus.
Mr. Bush has rejected such contacts until now, and he has also rejected withdrawal, declaring in Riga, Latvia, on Tuesday that while he will show flexibility, “there’s one thing I’m not going to do: I’m not going to pull the troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.”
While Bush's remarks would seem to bode ill for this recommendation, I believe that the key is in redefining the mission for Bush. If it looks like a conference can reach some sort of settlement, Bush can declare the mission a success and begin the withdrawal. The trick is to get him (and the Israelis) to accept the conference. If a substantial number of Republicans in Congress join the Dems in accepting this recommendation, it can happen. Meanwhile, Dems must resist efforts to step up the war and continue to push for withdrawal to keep the pressure on.
Another key according to the Times article is that Maliki must believe that the US means to withdraw or he will never get serious about finding a political solution. On one level this is true. The Shiites have no incentive to deal while we are willing to do their fighting. However, it is unclear to say the least how Maliki, who owes his appointment to an Iraqi Parliament dominated by parties whose paramilitary arms are the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr and the Badr brigades of SCIRI, backed by Iran, could really move on the militias. (See this dissection of the misconceptions in the Hadley memo and the box Maliki is in, h/t to Josh Marshall.)
Another piece of the puzzle is Cheney's mission to Saudi Arabia. This op-ed, by an adviser to the Saudi government, states that the Saudis are ready to support and defend the Sunnis if the US pulls out, both militarily, on a sliding scale, and financially, again on a sliding scale ranging from monetary support to crashing the price of oil if Iran gives too much assistence to the Shiites. While I question whether the Saudis at this point really have the means to flood the market with oil, they can certainly offer support to the Sunnis. If that offer concentrates the minds of the negotiators, it is probably a good thing. But Saudi troops in Iraq? Good only in the sense of better them than us.
Which brings us to the other recommendation of the Baker-Hamilton group: not withdrawal per se, not any timetables, but the gradual withdrawal of US forces from Baghdad and other cities to their bases, some presumably in Iraq but others certainly in bases in Kuwait and the Emirates, and some all the way home.
Because it will take some time to present the recommendations and run them through the political gauntlet, the Pentagon will presumably have a month or two or three to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of putting 20,000 more troops in Baghdad, or perhaps events will overtake that initiative before it even gets implemented and force our hand. in any event, it is not a solution, except in a PR sense.
The key function of the Baker-Hamilton Commission in my mind is to basically say to Bush, Congress and the American people that the war as such is unwinnable, that there is no solution that the US military can impose that this country is willing to support. (Sure, we could nuke the country, as Limbaugh suggests, but to what end, and at what cost?) Given that reality, we need to redefine the mission as simply greater stability in the region and get a sufficient number of people, governments and parties to take a realistic view of how that could be achieved so we can start on that path.
I have no idea whether a sufficient number of those who dreamed of remaking the Middle East more to their liking (and there are a lot more of these than simply the neocons) are willing to give up those dreams for a measure of peace and stability. But surely that is what the majority of actual people who actually live in the Middle East, probably the vast majority, really want--of that I am certain.
Bush is going to prove more flexible than many people now believe, because he is basically going to be given a great deal of support for that flexibility and very little if any for digging in his heels. The Cheney mission is particularly significant in this respect. There are many obstacles ahead and many powerful and even ruthless people who would rather have war than a peace that requires them to give something up. Call me naive, but here's hoping Spring brings a real sense of hope and change.