The difference between the child-killers in the Middle East 2,000 years ago and those today is that Herod's men rode into Bethlehem to preserve a threatened political system, while the terrorists we face in Iraq seek to destroy a government in their god's name.
The Iraq Study Group doesn't get it.
Today's butchers are far more merciless, indiscriminate and dangerous. For Herod's henchmen, killing was a job. For today's faith-fueled fanatics, slaughtering the innocents is doing Allah's will. Our modern magis' negotiations won't fix Iraq, no matter what gifts they bring.
Former Secretary of State James Baker and his panelists are trying to shore up the failing regional system that their generation designed. Released yesterday, their report doesn't offer "a new way forward." Its recommendations echo past failures. And it shows no sense of how gravely the world has changed.
The report doesn't offer a plan, but a muddle of truisms and truly bad ideas.
To stay with that Christmas metaphor just a bit longer, the Flight into Egypt has been replaced with the destructive folly of recommending a flight back to Palestine. Of all the many retro proposals scattered throughout the report, the notion that the road to peace in Baghdad runs through the West Bank just may be the worst.
Certainly, the most perverse: By tying Iraq to Palestine, Baker makes the problem immeasurably tougher, not easier. The Palestinian problem isn't the cause of all that's gone wrong, just another symptom. If Iraq can't be fixed without resolving the Palestinian issue, then the answer is that Iraq can't be fixed.
Really, what Baker - and this is Baker's issue - argues for is the traditional Saudi and Arabist view that the Middle East's problems are Israel's fault. The fact that Baker would have made the same argument 15 years ago confirms that you really can't teach some old dogs new tricks.
Baker believes in strong central governments. Just as he once insisted that the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia should stay together, he now demands (without asking the Iraqis) that Iraq remain rigidly unified.
And he believes in negotiations. Yet his belief in the cult of diplomacy is as blind as al Qaeda's belief in its ultimate triumph.
After 60 years of failure, we should have figured out that the Middle East's problems can't be solved through another round of negotiations. But diplomacy is the opium of our governing elite. They'd file a "nonpaper" with Satan over the temperature in hell.
The report's second-worst recommendation is to open discussions with Iran and Syria on Iraq, to try to make them part of the solution, rather than letting them continue to worsen the problem. The fatal difficulty is that only the desperate and the foolish negotiate from a position of weakness - you don't parley with the schoolyard bully while he's smacking you around and emptying your pockets.
Asking for help from Iran and Syria would only embolden them. And the last thing we need to do is to further encourage Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his belief that Iran and the Shia faith are predestined to dominate the region. As for Syria, Bashar Assad needs a whipping, not a reward.
Want to encourage Hezbollah, Hamas and all of Iraq's thugs? Send Jim Baker to Tehran and Damascus. You bet that Iran would like stability in Baghdad - on its terms.
Yet another example of the "realists" going AWOL from reality is their plan to reduce the presence of U.S. combat forces in Iraq while leaving trainers and support troops behind. That means pulling out the battle-hardened infantrymen and leaving behind the Jessica Lynches. Think that's going to discourage our enemies?
The most sensible recommendation from the Baker team is the now-routine demand that Iraqis fight for their own country. Their government has to show the will and ability to defeat and disarm all of its enemies. Without imposing an artificial timetable, the report stresses that we have to penalize the Baghdad government if it fails to perform: Iraq's leaders can't just keep lining their pockets while bodies line the country's roads.
But perhaps the most striking aspect of the report is its underlying nostalgia. Baker longs for the "orderly" world of Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran, the elder Assad and, above all, unchallenged Saudi influence in Washington.
The report cries out for an appendix listing Baker's many contacts with Saudis over the decades and all the Saudi-related financial pies in which he had a finger. After all of the blame-it-on-Israel criticism of the neoconservatives, the media have been strangely quiet about Baker's extensive ties to Riyadh.
Those who were looking for a strategic messiah to redeem our geopolitical sins this holiday season are getting heresy instead - a stealth betrayal of our country's fundamental values in favor of the Middle East's Herods, the strongmen Baker's generation loved. Those authoritarian regimes and dictatorships gave us the problems we face today.
Today's instability was inevitable. We can no more return to the phony stability of 20 years ago than we can go back 2,000 years. Nor should we want to.
In the end, the biblical figure who best reflects Jim Baker doesn't come from the Nativity sequence, but from the end of the Gospels: Baker resembles Pontius Pilate in wanting those bedeviling local problems to go away and in imagining that, by caving in to unjust local powerbrokers, he can safeguard the empire's interests.
The difference is that Pilate just wanted to wash his hands of an annoyance, while Baker would wash his hands in the blood of our troops.
Politicians looking for a new guiding star this holiday season will have to look elsewhere.