President Kennedy once hosted a dinner for Nobel Prize winners. At the dinner he reportedly said: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."
After reviewing the report of the Iraq Study Group, released Wednesday, New York Post editorial page editor John Podhoretz declared: "The nation's capital hasn't seen such concentrated wisdom in one place since Paris Hilton dined alone at the Hooters on Connecticut Avenue."
Stratfor, a private intelligence service, said the ISG report was "underwhelming." Retired Army intelligence officer Ralph Peters called it a "muddle of truisms and bad ideas." The conservative National Review called it "an analytic embarrassment." Fred Kaplan, military writer for the liberal Webzine Slate, said its recommendations were "a useless grab bag." T. F. Boggs, an Army sergeant recently returned from his second tour in Iraq, said the recommendations were a "joke" that "could only have come from a group of old people who have been stuck in Washington for too long."
The foremost recommendation of the ISG for a regional peace conference with Iran and Syria is surreal. The ISG report notes (on page 46) that: "Iran has provided arms, financial support and training for Shiite militias in Iraq ...There are also reports that Iran has supplied improvised explosive devices to groups including Sunni Arab insurgents that attack U.S. forces.
"Syria also is playing a counterproductive role," the report said. "Syrians look the other way as arms and foreign fighters flow across the border into Iraq, and former Baathist leaders find a safe haven within Syria."
Despite these facts, the commissioners declare that Iran and Syria have an interest "in avoiding chaos in Iraq," and that "Iran's interest would not be served by a failure of U.S. policy in Iraq." Iran's leaders obviously think otherwise.
The truth, which the ISG's aging luminaries lack more the guts than the brains to grasp, is that Iran and Syria are now our principal enemies, both in Iraq and in the broader war on terror. Without their interference, sectarian violence in Iraq would swiftly and sharply decline.
The goal of U.S. policy in Iraq is to create a stable, free and democratic government which, if not aligned with the West, would not be hostile to it. Iran and Syria regard such an Iraq as a mortal threat to their own tyrannical regimes.
Former Secretary of State James Baker and former House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton, co-chairmen of the ISG, think Syria can be appeased by permitting it to crush the fragile democracy in Lebanon, and by forcing Israel to cede to it the Golan Heights. It's unclear what concessions they think would sway Iranian behavior.
Leave aside that the Golan Heights is no more Mr. Baker's to give than the Sudetenland in Czechoslavakia was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's to give when he met with Hitler in Munich in 1938. (Israel, like Czechoslovakia before it, would not be invited to the regional peace conference the ISG wants to have.) When you reward bad behavior, you tend to get more, not less, of it. What do you think would happen if, each time your two-year-old threw a tantrum, you gave him ice cream?
It can't hurt to talk. So say advocates of negotiations with Iran and Syria. But it does hurt if our enemies regard our eagerness to talk as a sign of weakness and irresolution, as Hitler did at Munich.
The other 78 recommendations of the ISG for a slight temporary increase in U.S. troop levels, faster training of Iraqi forces, etc. are sound enough, but have been recommended often before by others, or already are U.S. policy.
The ISG report was hailed by insurgents in Iraq, and by journalists so thrilled by the implied criticism of President Bush that they overlooked the preposterousness of negotiations with Iran and Syria and the "stay the course" flavor of the other recommendations.
One network reporterette asked Mr. Baker if the president could pick and choose among its recommendations or was obliged to accept them all. You'd think a journalist assigned to cover this story would be aware the report is advisory only.
Not all journalists are idiots. Jonathan Karl of ABC asked why the president should pay more attention to the recommendations of the ISG, a group that spent all of four days in Iraq, than to the recommendations of his commanders in the field.
That's a good question. I hope President Bush is asking it as well.