Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Saturday, December 09, 2006

  What is absent from the ISG report?

Rather than comment immediately on the Iraq Study Group Report (and this cut to the heart of things pretty quickly), I preferred to ponder its rhetoric for a while. The Report is highly rhetorical, though it adopts a disarming just-the-facts rhetoric.

The biggest obstacle the Groupies faced was not the intractability of the mess, though the problems are huge; nor their own lack of expertise on Iraq, though that was profound. No, the main stumbling block was this: George Bush will do whatever suits him, even despite the best advice.

That made their project a rhetorical one. Though ISG was charged by Congress with evaluating the situation and identifying the best solutions, their goal rapidly transformed into persuading Bush to stop listening to blundering advice.

Rhetoric works indirectly. You have to step back to evaluate it. One of the hardest things is to train yourself to look for what is absent, unmentioned, omitted.

So what is absent from the Report? Given the ISG's charge, what really needed to be said—but isn't? What glaring omissions do you see? That is the best measure by which to gauge the rhetoric of this document.

What is most absent is accountability. The ISG does not ask that anybody be held accountable for failures in Iraq. It does not even ask that anybody admit to responsibility, or that any process be created to identify the responsible parties who created the mess in Iraq. It does not even hint that the blunderers be kept apart from the planning for the future of Iraq. In other words, it presumes that those who fouled up repeatedly in the past will be entrusted with fixing those foul-ups.

What is absent is any acknowledgment that George Bush personally bears heavy responsibility—or indeed any responsibility.

What is absent is an admission that the decision to invade Iraq was a colossal blunder, as well as a catastrophe of epic proportions for Iraqis who have paid the price for Bush's blunder.

What is absent from the long list of recommendations is a proposal that Bush apologize to the Iraqi people for the living hell he has created there. It would be a solution that cost next to nothing in blood or money, and unlike most of the other recommendations it's within Bush's power to accomplish. And unlike most of the other recommendations, it could not really do any harm to the situation in Iraq.

What is absent as well is any suggestion that Bush needs to mend fences with the American public or the military; or even the slightest hint that he has not been straight with us about the circumstances in Iraq, past or present, and needs to come clean if he's to build support for new policies.

What is absent, mostly, is any sense of the history of how things got so screwed up in Iraq. The Report begs its Reader to look forward at what can be done to straighten things out, without dwelling upon why they need straightening. The rhetoric conjures up a dream world of present and future, with barely any past.

What is absent is any hint that failure is a likelihood; that it may not be possible any longer for the U.S. to impose its will upon Iraq; that it may never have been possible to do so (the past, after all, being almost entirely absent).

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That's a good enough list for starters. Some commentary now.

The obvious objection would be that ISG was asked to produce a plan for the future, not an account of what went wrong, so the Groupies had no cause for recriminations. Ah, but recriminate they did, in small part. Muted, to be sure, but distinctly. Wherever was that?

RECOMMENDATION 46: The new Secretary of Defense should make every effort to build healthy civil-military relations, by creating an environment in which the senior military feel free to offer independent advice not only to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon but also to the President and the National Security Council, as envisioned in the Goldwater-Nichols legislation.

ISG Report (PDF)

You can see the shiv clearly, right there between Rumsfeld's shoulder-blades. He had already been pitched overboard, so it was now acceptable to pin some blame upon him. Of course, it's useful and perhaps necessary for ISG to urge the new SecDef to do exactly that. The facts of how Rumsfeld befouled the military leadership are beyond dispute. But the facts are equally clear regarding any number of other administration officials, and military officers, and yet not one of them is identified in the Report as bearing responsibility. Not one is said to need to straighten out the mess they've created. The past, for those in the U.S., is almost wholly absent. Therefore nobody has even to face up to what they've wrought. Nobody but the departing Rumsfeld.

This highlights the essential characteristic of the ISG Report. It's hollow, because almost all the history has been excluded...quite deliberately.

And yet almost any way of looking at the mess in Iraq requires one thing above all else—a full understanding of the history of how the disaster unfolded. At the center, as the Report acknowledges, is the thorny problem of "National Reconciliation". When the Report finally turns to what can be done within Iraq in "the way forward", national reconciliation is the first substantive issue.

And how can it be otherwise? The unfolding chaos that threatens to tear the country to shreds has less and less to do with resistance to American troops, and everything to do with sectarian hatreds. Were it otherwise, the crisis in Iraq would not be nearly as acute. The corruption and raw brutality on display in large parts of Iraq feed and grow unchecked upon ethnic and sectarian conflict, like a blaze upon a lake of oil.

So given that the entire question, ultimately, revolves around an elaborate web of ethnic and sectarian resentments, how is it conceivable that anybody would wish to look for a "way forward" without first examining how the hatreds arose in their present form? The entire project is, first, an historical one.

This is what is most stunning about the glaring absences in the ISG Report. All of them are historical omissions, ultimately.

That is to say, the ideal Reader of this Report was expected not to want to hear about the history of this mess. By my reading of its rhetoric, the Groupies anticipated a very petulant ideal Reader.


  • Accountability was something sorely missing from the 9/11 Commission Report, as well. It made broad "no one person's fault" statements.

    But accountability hasn't been a strong suit of this administration, anyway.

    By Anonymous Wil Robinson, at 9:42 PM  

  • Wil, Funny isn't it how all the big investigations of screwups by this administration seem to have the premise that accountability is for others?

    The 9/11 Commissioners actually stated, when they unveiled their product, that they agreed at the outset that they weren't even going to consider the question of who was responsible for failing to prevent the attacks. I remember vividly listening to that on the radio, while I replastered my living room wall, and thinking some unprintable thoughts.

    By Blogger : smintheus ::, at 9:54 PM  

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