While many in Washington expect former secretary of state James Baker to engineer a shift in U.S. Iraq policy, a variety of international online commentators doubt he can do it.
Baker and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton lead the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel expected to issue a report in the coming weeks on the rethinking of American strategy in Iraq. Along with incoming defense secretary Robert Gates, Baker's group marks the return of policymakers from the first President Bush and, in the words of The Australian, "the first steps toward a new policy."
Skepticism about the Baker group has united Arab and neoconservative commentators who otherwise agree on little. Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, editor in chief of The News of Pakistan thinks a fundamental change of course is unlikely.
"To correct American policy in the Middle East would require something like a political earthquake in both Washington and Israel - and there is no sign as yet of any such upheaval," he wrote. "In both countries, hard-liners are still very much in charge."
"The Iraq war has caused colossal damage in terms of human casualties, material destruction and the squandering of financial resources. It has spread political instability across the region as well as fomenting terrorist violence and sectarian strife. Perhaps the greatest casualty of all has been the loss of America's reputation and moral authority," Rahman wrote. "In spite of this disastrous balance sheet, there is still no consensus in the US that the invasion and occupation were a colossal mistake which can only be corrected by a full withdrawal."
Nicola Nasser, a veteran Arab journalist based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, said both Democrats and Republicans "are expected to play politics more than they will plan policies."
Writing for the London-based Alarab.com news site, he said that U.S. policy "is dooming historical friendships between Washington and several Arab regimes, discrediting thousands of Arab liberals who were inspired by the American way of life and creating the ideal political environment for extreme anti-Americanism. Arab disillusionment with U.S. hollow promises will reinforce the trend further."
For Matthew d'Ancona, editor of the conservative British magazine The Specator, "the problem with Mr Baker's ideas is that they do not constitute a Plan B. They reflect precisely the foreign policy 'realism' that made Plan A (the liberation of Iraq) necessary in the first place."
"Mr Baker, a strong advocate of old school containment, diplomacy and deterrence, was instrumental in bringing the 1991 Gulf War to an end before Saddam had been deposed. The consequence was 12 more years of cat and mouse with the UN, Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction (wherever they are now), murderous oppression of the Iraqi people, and extensive financial support for and training of Islamist terrorists in Iraq. It was precisely because the Baker doctrine failed that the Bush doctrine became necessary."
Robert Fox, blogger for The Guardian of London, also questioned the Baker group's ability to bring about change.
"The problem with advisers like Baker and Hamilton and the new gang of consiglieri in the Bush court is that they rely on the wisdom of ages. Some, like Henry Kissinger, are over 80 and their heyday was a political generation ago. The problems they are grappling with in Iraq, a country of whose landscape they known little at first hand, are made by young men in their 20s and 30s, a generation that handles RPGs, IED booby traps, and the internet with equal dexterity."
To be sure, many observers share the view of the Sydney Morning Herald that the Baker study group "will sideline the so-called Bush doctrine of spreading democracy in the Middle East." Baker's group, the Herald wrote, "will provide the White House with the political cover for changes that would have been unthinkable a few months ago."
But Philip Stephens, a senior writer for the Financial Times said it may be too late to change policy. In a piece republished in South Africa's Business Day, Stephens wrote that "Washington's foreign policy community, within and beyond the administration, is steeped in pessimism that quite quickly tips into fatalism.
"There is scenario planning aplenty -- scaling back, staged withdrawal, regional engagement, partition and even staying the course," Stephens said. "The administration has prepared for every contingency. But answers? I heard none."
There is, he concludes, "a growing recognition that the US has already been defeated."
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