Day By Day

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Larger Meaning of the Baker Commission

None of the commentary on the Baker Commission report I have yet seen places it in an appropriate historical context, although from some of their comments, at least some of the members of the commission understand what they were about. In today's highly partisan environment everyone is looking to score points. Administration officials say that it ratifies their current policy. Democrats say it ratifies the failure of administration policy. Various political figures claim that it supports their views and statements and proves their opponents to be failures. There is speculation as to how this affects future military activities in the Middle East, or the careers of future presidential candidates. News organizations try to tease the most provocative statements possible our of all concerned. All of this is highly predictable, and all of it is pure bull-hockey.

What matters with regard to the Baker Commission and indeed the reason it was called into existence is the simple fact that since WWII the United States has not been able to generate domestic political support for sustained military actions sufficient to carry any major conflict to a satisfactory conclusion. If the current administration's policies failed, then so too did those of the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Bush 41 administration. All these presidents oversaw and were unable to bring to a satisfactory conclusion major military operations in far flung regions of the world.

There is, then, a long-standing structural problem that has to be addressed. Since WWII every major conflict has generated high levels of popular, political, and bureaucratic dissent. This dissent has sharply limited military options and has time and again forced premature withdrawal that has left many of the issues underlying the conflict unresolved. And the problem is systemic. Both parties have placed partisan interests ahead of the national interests and have sought short-term advantages from opposing and undermining war efforts.

No leader has been able to find a solution to the problem of sustaining popular and partisan support for a war effort. Eisenhower's immense prestige and reliance on diplomacy resulted in an unsatisfactory division of the Korean peninsula that still plagues us today. Nixon's great power diplomacy could not bring "peace with honor" in Vietnam, and his domestic political efforts -- instituting bi-partisan policies and programs, ending the draft, trying through unscrupuous means to inflate his re-election vote totals, and the like, not only discredited his own administration but could not forstall a Democratic majority in Congress that forced precipitous retreat from Vietnam. The first Gulf War ended on a popular note, but only because Bush the elder surrendered to his critics almost before they found their voice. The result was an unstable and brutal sanctions regime that made the second Iraq war almost inevitable. It once was thought that only a direct attack on American soil would generate the kind of support necessary to sustain such efforts. The results of this fall's elections have invalidated that assumption.

The central problem, then, is how to sustain popular and political support for large-scale, long-term military action of the kind necessary to fight through to a satisfactory outcome. The formation of the Baker Commission is this administration's attempt to find a solution to this problem. It is appropriate that the Commission has been overwhelmingly staffed by political and legal figures, because it is they, not the military or the policy professionals, who understand the problems of generating and sustaining popular, political, and legal support for a policy. And that is ultimately what the Baker Commission is all about -- setting ground rules that will be politically acceptable to enough of the political establishment to allow continued support for the current war effort.

And in a larger sense this commission's recommendations can serve as a guide to future policy-makers as the nation faces new and equally intractable challenges down the line. This does not mean that it will be a template that can be applied to all future situations, or that the commission's recommendations can be implemented [some of them clearly cannot] but rather it represents the kind of bipartisan effort to resolve differences that will be necessary if the United States is to take an active role in global affairs in the future.

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