Even as Washington waits with bated breath for the Iraq Study Group (ISG) to release its findings, the rest of us should see this gambit for what it is: an attempt to deflect attention from the larger questions raised by America's failure in Iraq and to shore up the authority of the foreign policy establishment that steered the United States into this quagmire. This ostentatiously bipartisan panel of Wise Men (and one woman) can't really be searching for truth. It is engaged in damage control.
Their purpose is twofold: first, to minimize Iraq's impact on the prevailing foreign policy consensus with its vast ambitions and penchant for armed intervention abroad; and second, to quell any inclination of ordinary citizens to intrude into matters from which they have long been excluded. The ISG is antidemocratic. Its implicit message to Americans is this: We'll handle things – now go back to holiday shopping.
The group's composition gives the game away. Chaired by James Baker, the famed political operative and former secretary of state, and Lee Hamilton, former congressman and fixture on various blue-ribbon commissions, it contains no one who could be even remotely described as entertaining unorthodox opinions or maverick tendencies.
Instead, it consists of Beltway luminaries such as retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and lobbyist Vernon Jordan. No member is now an elected official. Neither do its ranks include any Iraq war veterans, family members of soldiers killed in Iraq, or anyone identified with the antiwar movement. None possesses specialized knowledge of Islam or the Middle East.
Charging this crowd with assessing the Iraq war is like convening a committee of Roman Catholic bishops to investigate the church's clergy sex-abuse scandal. Even without explicit instructions, the group's members know which questions not to ask and which remedies not to advance. Sadly, the average Catholic's traditional deference to the church hierarchy finds its counterpart in the average American's deference to "experts" when it comes to foreign policy. The ISG exemplifies the result: a befuddled, but essentially passive-electorate looks for guidance to a small group of unelected insiders reflecting a narrow range of views and operating largely behind closed doors.
The guardians of the foreign policy status quo are counting on the panel to extricate the US from Iraq. More broadly, they are counting on it to avoid inquiring into the origins of our predicament. So don't think for a moment that the ISG will assess the implications of America's growing addiction to foreign oil. Don't expect it to question the wisdom of President Bush's doctrine of preventive war or the feasibility of his Freedom Agenda, which promises to implant democracy across the Islamic world.
Far be it from the group to ask whether an open-ended "global war on terror" makes sense as a response to 9/11 or to ponder the flagrant manipulation and misuse of intelligence in the months leading up to the Iraq war. The ISG won't assess the egregious flaws in US military planning for the Iraq invasion or the manifest deficiencies in American generalship since the war began. On the role that Congress has played in enabling presidential fecklessness, you can be certain that Baker and Hamilton will remain silent.
The ISG will provide cover for the Bush administration to shift course in Iraq. It will pave the way for the Democratic Congress to endorse that shift in a great show of bipartisanship. But it will hold no one responsible.
Above all, it will leave intact the assumptions, arrangements, and institutions that gave rise to Iraq in the first place. In doing so, it will ensure that the formulation of foreign policy remains the preserve of political mahatmas like Baker and Hamilton, with the American people left to pick up the tab.
In this way, the ISG will make possible – even likely – a repetition of some disaster akin to Iraq at a future date.
• Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.