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Captain Obvious to the Rescue

By Robert Tracinski

In my student days back at the University of Chicago, there was a campus comedy troupe modeled on Second City, their more well-known uptown uncle. The U of C group was pretty funny, if in a somewhat bookish way. (Who else does a comedy routine based on Oedipus Rex?) One of their funniest bits was a recurring skit about a superhero named Captain Obvious. In each scene, a character would face a mundane problem, only to be "saved" by the banal and utterly unhelpful advice offered by Captain Obvious. "I've locked my keys in my car. What am I going to do?" "Well then," replies Captain Obvious, "all you have to do is open the door to your car, and then you can get your keys." Each scene ended the same way, with Captain Obvious proclaiming, "No, don't thank me. It's all in a day's work for Captain Obvious.

I've been reminded of this skit many times since, because I frequently hear the same kind of advice being given in Washington. Take, for example, the recommendations offered today, to much fanfare, by the Iraq Study Group.

The problem in Iraq is that we can't withdraw US troops because the Iraqi military is not adequately trained to maintain security on its own? Well then, the ISG tells us, all we need to do is to train the Iraqi military so that they can maintain security on their own, and then we can withdraw our troops.

The problem in Iraq is that the Iraqi government won't approve a crackdown to dismantle the Shiite militias? Well then, all we have to do is to convince the Iraqi government to approve a crackdown to dismantle the Shiite militias.

The problem in Iraq is that Iran and Syria are arming, funding, and encouraging Sunni and Shiite insurgents? Well then, all we have to do is to convince Syria and Iran to stop supporting these insurgents.

The problem in the region is that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict inflames anti-American sentiment? Well then, all we have to do is to convene a conference to negotiate peace in the Middle East.

See how simple that was? It's amazing that no one ever thought of these ideas before the Iraq Study Group came along. But no, don't thank them. It's all in a day's work for Captain Obvious.

Few have recognized the empty banality of the ISG report because they have focused on a few seemingly radical recommendations. But all of these recommendations are conditional on events that are unlikely to happen, as became clear in Thursday's press conference with the members of the commission.

We should withdraw all US combat troops by early 2008, ISG co-chair Lee Hamilton tells us, "subject to unexpected developments on the ground"--such as the fact that the troops will still be needed. Similarly, we will shift troops from fighting the enemy to training the Iraqi military "if the commanders in place determine that's the best way to do it," according to commission member William Perry. Pressed on the subject of whether Iran would be willing to help us in Iraq, co-chair James Baker replies, "In our discussions with them--and the report points this out--we didn't get the feeling that Iran is champing at the bit to come to the table with us to talk about Iraq. And in fact, we say we think they very well might not."

There you have it: a series of recommendations based on conditions that "very well might not" happen.

The whole ISG report is a spectacular punt. It contains a few broad, vague goals for our policy--and a whole range of specific recommendations for actions that are not in the power of the American government to take. It recommends, for example, that the Iraqi government "accelerate assuming responsibility for Iraqi security by increasing the number and quality of Iraqi Army Brigades," that the Iranian government "use its influence over Iraqi Shiite groups to encourage national reconciliation" and that the Syrian government "stem the flow of funding, insurgents, and terrorists in and out of Iraq."

The members of the commission certainly hope that these governments will take those actions. But then again, they very well might not.

What the ISG offers us are mere aspirations, with no serious consideration of the concrete means required to fulfill those aspirations.

We should negotiate with Iran and Syria to convince them to help stabilize Iraq, but then James Baker angrily denies that this would mean caving in and allowing Iran to continue its nuclear weapons program, and he angrily denies that it would mean caving in and allowing Syria to re-conquer Lebanon. In other words, he wants to ask Iran and Syria to help us in Iraq--while ruling out the only concessions that might induce them to do so. At the same time, the ISG also rules out any serious military threat that would force Iran and Syria to abandon their current strategy.

This is the pattern of the whole report: to stipulate the achievement of a result, while denying the actual means that might achieve that result.

When you desire a result without enacting the means for achieving it, that's called a "fantasy"which is ironic, considering that James Baker is a dean of the "realist" school of foreign policy.

For the original Captain Obvious, the final punch-line comes when he rescues a philosopher who is struggling to prove that the world really exists--the one problem Captain Obvious is perfectly equipped to solve. Perhaps someone ought to provide the same service for the "realists" on the Iraq Study Group.

A real change in policy for Iraq wouldn't start and end with a collection of vague aspirations. It would start with a clear-eyed, realistic assessment of the facts that explain the chaos in Iraq--the facts that explain why all of the aspirations stated by the Iraq Study Group have not yet been met.

The basic fact is that the conflict in Iraq, from the very beginning, has been stoked by Syria and Iran. These dictatorial regimes are stoking the conflict because the success of the American mission in Iraq is an obvious threat to their very existence. They can't afford the example of a free nation in the region, nor can they afford the example of a successful exertion of American power on their doorsteps.

That's why all the debate over whether Iraq is in a "civil war" is beside the point. Calling Iraq a "civil war" has the effect of narrowing our focus, making the conflict look like a purely internal fight between Iraqi factions. But the real picture is regional. The civil strife in Iraq is just the instrument of a regional fight for dominance between Iran and the United States.

Recognizing this reality would produce some truly interesting and radical recommendations.

Since Iran and Syria are the most important source of the chaos in Iraq, then we need to topple those regimes. They won't agree to help us, because doing so does not and never will serve their interests. So we have to replace them with governments that do share our interests--or at least, with governments that will stay out of our way.

Then, since the Shiite militias are the leading edge of Iranian influence in Iraq, we have to act to dismantle them now--and not wait for approval from the Iraqi government. We should grasp that the Iraqi government's approval and disapproval on this issue simply doesn't matter, because if we don't take down the militias, there will be no Iraqi government left.

Instead of pointing to the bad results in Iraq and simply declaring that we must achieve better results--which is all that the ISG report really amounts to--we have to identify the real root of the problem: the regimes in Iran and Syria, and the Shiite militias they support. And then we need to dig up that root.

We'll know we're really making progress in talking about Iraq when that recommendation is seen as being as obvious as it really is.

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and

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