If a man (person?) from Mars were to have landed in Washington in late November, he (or she?) would have had no choice but to conclude that the important decisions in the capital of the World’s Only Remaining Superpower are made by two mighty dudes.  Note to Mars: The real Masters of the Universe are Baker and Hamilton, as in the Baker-Hamilton Commission.

After all, our Martian was probably spending hours watching officials, lawmakers, and pundits on news shows who kept insisting that, when it comes to determining the future of U.S. policy in Iraq and the Broader Middle East, well, forget our Commander in Chief or those lawmakers that some Earthlings elected on November 7 to represent them in Congress.  Instead, former Secretary of State James Baker (Republican) and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana (Democrat), the cochairmen of the Iraq Study Group (ISG)—a.k.a. the Baker Commission (when Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress) or the Baker-Hamilton Commission (now that the Democrats have taken over Capitol Hill)—were the ones chosen to draw the outlines of a U.S. Mideast strategy that could affect our global role for the rest of this century.

Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that, after American voters had made it clear in November that they wanted to change the course in Iraq, Washington was holding its breath as it waited for Baker, Hamilton, and the other esteemed members of their panel to recommend exactly what that new course should be.  Hence, after all was said and done, including the midterm election, a group of nine unelected, aging men and one woman (“fresh eyes”), including worn-out foreign-policy-establishment types (Lawrence Eagleburger and William Perry), crooked lobbyists (Leon Panetta and Vernon Jordan), and failed politicians (Charles Robb and Alan Simpson), was going to decide whether American men and women would continue to die for an unjust cause in faraway Mesopotamia.

Baker had warned that his group should not be expected to produce a “magic bullet” to resolve the war in Iraq.  But that didn’t stop our talking heads from spending hours on television forecasting the ISG’s recommendations, including the beginning of a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq to “off-shore” military bases; a confederation of three autonomous regions; opening direct talks with Iran and Syria; and restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In any case, the conventional wisdom is that, by the time you read this, the team of Wise Persons will have come up with a policy that would be characterized as “staying the course”; far from “cutting and running,” the policy will supposedly advance a “realistic” approach to protecting core U.S. global interests.  At the same time, the bipartisan makeup of the panel of Elder Statespersons could also provide political cover for both President George W. Bush and the new Democratic Congress to make the “hard” and costly choices in Iraq and the Middle East.

The problem with this kind of analysis is that it assumes that, equipped with superior intelligence and political cunning, a bunch of smart guys and gals can indeed produce a cost-effective American strategy for Iraq.  If you build a commission, the policies will come.  But the verdict of the American voters in November was based on their conclusion that the United States had, for all practical purposes, lost the war in Iraq and that she didn’t have either the military power or the political will to force any American strategy on that country, whether that would involve either partitioning Iraq into three ministates or selecting a user-friendly Saddam-like strongman to rule from Baghdad.

Moreover, when we consider using American power to implement some of the ideas that were discussed by the ISG, it’s important to remember that the meaning of power in this case goes beyond fundamental U.S. military and economic capabilities.  Does any realistic observer of American domestic politics expect either the Republican occupant of the White House or the Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill to agree to exert diplomatic pressure on Israel and force her to make painful concessions to the Palestinians and the Syrians—and to do so two years before the 2008 presidential and congressional elections?  You don’t have to be a Middle East expert to figure out that any effort to bring stability to the Middle East should include an American effort to bring peace to the Holy Land.  Nor do you have to be a veteran political observer to conclude that, in the real Washington, that’s not going to happen—even under the political cover of Baker and Hamilton.

In a way, from any perspective from which you view the strategic correlation of forces in the Middle East, the United States is now constrained in her ability to produce policy outcomes in Iraq and much of the region.  In fact, the neocon-driven policies of the Bush administration have weakened the pro-American regimes there while strengthening the hands of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas.  Not only did these policies open the Pandora’s box of ethnic and religious blood feuds in Iraq, but, thanks to the neocons and their Decider, radical Shiite and Sunni forces are now on the rise in the Middle East, threatening to destabilize whatever is left of Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.”  To put it differently, the Americans have neither the power nor the will to clean up the mess they have made in Iraq and the Middle East, and there are growing doubts about Washington’s ability to defend its remaining allies in the region.  The American Moment in the Middle East, beginning in 1991 with the Gulf War, was brought to a swift end in the aftermath of the Iraq war, following the end of major combat operations in 2003.

What is left for the ISG and the rest of Washington is to propose a set of mechanisms that could become part of a process in which the United States, together with other global and regional players, could start cleaning up the mess and creating the conditions for defusing and perhaps even resolving the crises in Palestine/Israel and Lebanon.  That process could include the convening of an international conference, chaired by the United States, the European Union, Russia, China, India, and Japan, to which all the governments in the Middle East, including Iran, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority would be invited to participate.

The United States, of course, would concede that she cannot remain the “boss” in the Middle East.  Can any member of the Reality-Based Community challenge that conclusion?  Washington can still maintain enormous power to affect policy outcomes, but it cannot determine them on its own.  Hence, the downside is that, from now on, Washington will need to take into consideration the interests that Iran has in Iraq—but it will also benefit from Iran using her power to tame her Shiite allies in Iraq.  Settling the conflict in the Holy Land will require more concessions from Israel—but it will also make it more likely that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, as well as the European Union, will be willing to get involved through diplomatic, military, and economic assistance.  Syrian (and Iranian) pressure on Hezbollah could certainly help resolve the crisis in Lebanon.

It’s quite possible that such a process will be long and exhausting, and, in the end, it might not bring about successful and stable outcomes.  Bush and the neocons may have ignited a geopolitical storm that could take years, perhaps even decades, to calm.  But as the United States becomes one of several powers competing for influence in the Middle East, the costs involved in dealing with the aftermath of the storm cease to be a an exclusively American problem.  And that is an outcome that most Americans can live with.