Looking for a Way Out

Iraq and the politics of quitting

Over the last week, while the American public was justifiably obsessed with digesting the nuances of the annotated Richard McBeef, America's misadventure in Iraq hit another inflection point. Or two.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared the Iraq war to be lost and the President's surge offensive into Baghdad a failure. Democratic leaders had long danced around the f-word and Reid's use of it during an especially bloody stretch of bombings—including one in a Green Zone cafeteria—served as an exclamation point for his comments.

"I believe...that this war is lost, and this surge is not accomplishing anything, as is shown by the extreme violence in Iraq this week," Reid said.

Republicans were both aghast and gleeful at Reid's plunge in outright plunge into defeatism. Finally they had a national Democrat leader out in the open on the issue and they bored in.

Harry Reid is a loser, declared former Defense Department official Jed Babbin.

"Reid and the rest of the Democrats do not condemn defeat. They do not say they would have done better to win, because the words 'win and 'victory' never pass their lips," Babbin explained in the conservative weather-vane Human Events.

War is a matter of will, Babbin added, and Reid and the Democrats manifestly do not have it.

The trouble with this view is that more or less the same time Reid was declaring to a domestic American audience that the war "lost," Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Fallujah, site of fierce U.S. battles with insurgents in the past, to tell Iraqis that America will be not in Iraq indefinitely.

"The clock is ticking." Gates added, "Frankly I would like to see faster progress."

Gates did not say that America will stay in Iraq for as long as it takes, or until the violence stops, or until Iraq can defend itself, although that is surely his goal and that of the Bush administration. But it was also surely Gates' goal to deliver a message to the Iraqis from the White House that America's military presence in Iraq is not open-ended or unconditional.

How does that differ from Harry Reid's position? As a practical matter, only in the timing of the removal of American forces—neither side is using the v-word, victory, as the condition which must be met before American troops up and leave. Reid seems to think he has drawn a massive distinction with the Bush White House which will help drive home the Democrat argument for a hard timetable for withdrawal. Politically, yes, there is a gulf—but it does not seem to accrue to Reid's advantage.

The problem for Democrats going forward is that "We're Losing, So Let's Quit" is a helluva' tough slogan to build a political campaign around. A much tougher sell than the "We Tried, Screwed Up, But They Refused to Fight" line that nimble GOPers might be able to work.

And, on cue, here comes Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to order a halt to a U.S plan to build a wall in the middle of Baghdad to stop car bombings and sectarian violence. Al-Maliki, beaming in from an Arab League summit, may be right or wrong about the merits and larger meaning of a wall to divide Sunni from Shia, but the objection surely gives weight to the notion that his government is unable to follow the U.S. lead in securing the country.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces in-country, still not quite to full "surge" strength of 160,000, continue to do the hard work of clearing and holding large swaths of the countryside outside the reach of extremists.

Neo-con field marshal Max Boot, writing in The Weekly Standard, gives a clear picture of just how meticulous U.S. forces must be to successfully defuse and pacify Iraqi hot zones.

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