A Turning Point

The Iraq Study Group may be remembered as the Walter Cronkite of this war.

By James Fallows
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Blind to Choice
Bing West, a Marine officer in Vietnam and the former assistant secretary of defense, comments on the military's reaction to the Iraq Study Group Report.

The Iraq Study Group
A reaction. By Robert D. Kaplan

Commission Impossible?
Why some national security panels have worked better than others. By Jordan Tama

Debating Iraq
A collection of articles and dispatches by Atlantic authors.

Everything detailed and authoritative that needs to be said about this report has already been said, including by my friend and Atlantic colleague Robert Kaplan immediately after its release. In the set-up to his comments, Kaplan concisely outlines the way that people who held differing views before the war (as he and I did—he and Michael Kelly, the two staff members with the deepest and most direct experience in the region, were the ones most passionately in favor of forced “regime change,” while most others at the magazine were against it) can deal with the undisputed disaster that American presence in Iraq has become:

The mistakes made in Iraq since 2003 were so many and so serious that it is reasonable to argue that toppling Saddam Hussein was a wise decision, incompetently handled in its occupation phase. It is also possible to argue that the frequency and magnitude of the mistakes indicate a hubristic flaw in the concept of regime change itself, which I supported. Thus it is with humility and open-mindedness that I read the report of the Iraq Study Group.

Kaplan would, I assume, still make the first, “wise decision” argument; I was and am in the “hubristic flaw” camp. Because we can’t re-run the invasion and occupation, we’ll never know which of these views is correct. But obviously the outcome of this argument—whether Iraq was a good idea badly handled, or a bad idea that incompetence made even worse—will have a bearing on future American policy.

That’s for later. For now, three points:

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1) There is essentially no chance that the Baker-Hamilton/Iraq Study Group report will be remembered for what it spends most time discussing: the next steps to take in Iraq. Partly that is because there is essentially no chance that the Bush Administration will adopt all or even a few of its 79 recommendations. (Jordan Tama, a former assistant to co-chair Lee Hamilton, explains some of the reasons why.) The more fundamental reality is that any situation as complicated, fast-changing, and grim as Iraq makes any long-term plan subject to constant overhaul and adjustment. To be more precise: if a long-term plan is not overhauled and revised as reality changes, it will lead to disaster, as we have seen.

So even if the Group’s action plan had been the best possible plan the day it went to press, it would have been out of date the moment it appeared. This is because of day-by-day changes in the situation of the Iraqi government, in dealings with Iran and Syria, in insurgent operations, and in a hundred other variables. A year from now, not even the panel members will remember what the 79 points were.

2) There is a very good chance that the Iraq Study Group will be remembered as the Walter Cronkite of this war. As the oldest one-third or so of Americans can remember directly, and as others have heard, Walter Cronkite himself had a huge impact on domestic support for the Vietnam war. Cronkite was then the anchor of the CBS Evening News. The CBS Evening News was then something “everybody” watched or knew about. Cronkite traveled to Vietnam after the Tet offensive in early 1968, and broadcast on his return his conclusion that, while the U.S. had not “lost” in Vietnam, it could not expect to “win.” In a mere 500 words, he crystalized or catalyzed a broader American sense that American strategy was not working. The transcript of his commentary, here, stands up better than most things said and thought in 1968 (yes, notwithstanding the later analysis that Tet was a battlefield defeat, though a strategic victory, for the Vietcong and North Vietnamese). And passages like this one could be pasted right into the Iraq Study Group report:

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest that we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.

Cronkite did not change America’s view of Vietnam by himself. Political campaigns were raging at that same time, and within six weeks Lyndon Johnson would, in effect, abdicate by saying that he would not run for re-election. The Iraq Study Group will not change America’s view of the Iraq war by itself. The political shifts of the last six months, and the election results last month, play an enormous part. But Cronkite’s broadcast is remembered because it legitimized a change in view; and I suspect that the Study Group’s report will be remembered in the same way.

3) There is no way to judge the chances of President Bush accepting a major change in course. All the realities—political, strategic, diplomatic—have changed around him. Immediately after the election, he sounded chastened and open-minded. Now, not so much. At his press conference with Tony Blair, he said he would welcome new views, but his tone and body language were of the “stay the course” era. George W. Bush is a gravely weakened figure in American politics, but the next steps are still up to him.

Now, a bonus fourth point: The questions from the British reporters at the Bush-Blair appearance were revealing, because of a tone virtually never heard from the American press. Yes, British-style press questions are often semi-insulting, in a way different and more wounding than the posturing and shouting of a U.S. cable tv show. For an example of the difference, compare some time the BBC show Hardtalk with MSNBC’s Hardball. On Hardball, Chris Matthews often yells, interupts, and is histrionic, following the model set long ago by John McLaughlin and burnished by Rush Limbaugh. But Hardtalk’s interviewer, Stephen Sackur, is withering in an icier and politely contemptuous way, which does more damage in the long run. (I can’t provide the right link to Hardtalk, because right now all BBC sites seem to be nixed by the Great Firewall here in China.) Another example would be the contrast between a “contentious” hearing in the U.S. Senate or House, where politicians orate huffily at each other, and Question Time for a British prime minister, when the comments can sound genuinely hostile and disrespectful.

Some of that icy disdain came into the final question for Bush at the press conference. In cold type, it read this way:

Q: Mr. President, the Iraq Study Group said that leaders must be candid and forthright with people. So let me test that. Are you capable of admitting your failures in the past, and perhaps much more importantly, are you capable of changing course, perhaps in the next few weeks?

As delivered it was even more dismissive than it looks. Not only did the question omit what would have been obligatory from a U.S. reporter, the preliminary “with all due respect” disclaimer. It also lacked even the slightest undertone or implication of “all due respect.” The sense was that of one human being asking another, whom he didn’t think much of, why he had done so poorly and whether he actually was fit for his job. It wasn’t mere political disagreement or criticism; it was dismissiveness on a personal level. I don’t know whether a British reporter would instinctively switch into “all due respect” mode when posing questions to, say, the Queen. But I bet it was a tone that Bush has not heard in person for a very long time.

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