These have been traumatic weeks for the White House, as its strategy of holding the fort on Iraq is turning into the political equivalent of the Little Big Horn.
Amid national war fatigue, congressional Democrats are pushing hard to impose a legislative deadline for military withdrawals. An initial assessment report imposed on the administration by Congress and published on July 12 showed, at best, mixed success on a series of key benchmarks to judge improvement in Iraq. Even Republican lawmakers are revolting, and two prominent senators, Richard Lugar and John Warner, last week advocated a realignment of American combat troops by as early as next year, even if their proposal did not set a deadline.
The Washington Post did little to help the Bush administration's case when it published a story by Bob Woodward highlighting the CIA's doubts about amelioration in Iraq. According to Woodward, CIA Director Michael Hayden told the Iraq Study Group last November that "the inability of the [Iraqi] government to govern seems irreversible", before affirming that he couldn't "point to any milestone or checkpoint where we can turn this thing around." Later in the interview Hayden qualified his pessimism somewhat by suggesting that a functional government in Iraq was not achievable "in the short term."
So alarming are the implications of an American debacle in Iraq, that the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, felt the urge to intervene last Monday and warn: "Great caution should be taken for the sake of [the] Iraqi people. The international community cannot and should not abandon them. Any abrupt withdrawal or decision may lead to a further deterioration of the situation in Iraq." An Iraqi tribal leader fighting Al-Qaeda who was recently interviewed by the BBC Arabic service said more or less the same thing. If the United States withdrew from Iraq, he warned, his men would find it difficult to defeat their adversaries.
That Iraq is an American mess is an understatement. However, like many messes, it is a metastasizing one. American politicians are panicking, and in so doing are making many more mistakes than they need to make—so that we can spread the blame across the political spectrum.
President George W. Bush has the right instincts in believing that the only way to prevail in a place like Iraq is to make an open-ended commitment, with no talk of withdrawal. There are no quick fixes in Iraq, and no obvious slow ones either. But that's hardly enough. Bush seems to have no real clue about what to do next and is going through the same flawed thought processes as those of Richard Nixon in 1969, when he sought to engineer "peace with honor" in Vietnam, while facing a public mostly focused on the "peace" part of the equation. Like Nixon, Bush is fiddling with the switches, even if he, correctly, sees any talk of withdrawal at home as weakening his bargaining hand in Iraq. The military is preparing a plan to cut troop levels in quieter northern Iraq by half in the next 12 to 18 months. Nixon did much the same thing during his first year in office, mainly to reduce domestic political resentment; but this did not alter his desire to pursue, even escalate, the Vietnamese conflict.
Bush has completely missed an essential rule of politics: Don't leave a policy vacuum, because someone else is bound to fill it. Congress is now energetically filling it in Iraq, forcing the administration to do the same, but using a document that Bush never liked in the first place: the Iraq Study Group report, with its central idea of refocusing the American effort on training and supporting Iraq's security forces. But as Bush knows well, and indeed as the benchmark assessment released last week confirmed, the situation of the security forces—meaning both the Iraqi army and Ministry of Interior units—"continues to show [only] slow progress."
Training and support are good ideas in the abstract, but their results in Iraq have been uneven, they take time, and, perhaps most important, many Iraqis are worried that the U.S. is leaving. As the benchmark assessment underlined: "The increasing concern among Iraqi political leaders that the United States may not have a long-term commitment to Iraq has also served in recent months to reinforce hedging behavior and made the hardest political bargains even more difficult to close."
The Democrats are in no better a moral posture. Seeing Bush trapped, they are hammering him, hoping this will carry them to victory in next year's presidential and congressional elections. The Republicans sense a looming rout, which is why they, too, are hitting Bush harder than ever. However, the Democrats have no more an effective plan for Iraq than the administration does, and would be just as vulnerable to the misfortunes following from a withdrawal as the Republicans. It may be justifiable to condemn an administration that has been unable to point to an Iraqi upturn for four years, but acrimony only makes the situation worse for everyone, because Iraq is not about partisan American politics.
With the outcome of the military "surge" uncertain and Republican members of Congress fearing for their political future, the administration is being manhandled into looking for alternatives. London's Sunday Telegraph reported that Bush would consider a so-called "Plan C" in Iraq—essentially a modified version of the surge. The idea would be to bring about "a slow withdrawal of troops after March next year—just nine months after the surge was fully operational—with 30,000 sent home by September next year." Political cover for this withdrawal would be provided by the report submitted next September by Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and the ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, on the surge's success. If Petraeus and Crocker see progress, this would "justify a handover, in some areas, to Iraqi control in the spring—sooner than critics of the surge had expected." So everything in Iraq has become a fallback plan. But you don't win wars on Plan Cs.
Meanwhile American military planners are surveying possible scenarios in the event of a U.S. pullout. One definitive conclusion everyone has reached is that nothing is definite. Predictions vary between seeing the situation in Iraq deteriorating into a regional cataclysm and, as one retired Marine involved in war-gaming a withdrawal put it, an outcome that is not "apocalyptic" but "very ugly." In that context, it might be useful for U.S. decision-makers to start looking more closely at Iraq itself, rather than just at Washington. There are definite signs of advancement in parts of the country, and some American commanders are insisting that now would be the worst time to exit. Success may be just around the corner.
Skeptics will respond that the same language was used in Vietnam. Victory was always around the corner, but never was. However, Iraq and Vietnam are very different places. The way to win an insurgency is, often, by lowering oneself into the minutiae of a place. It takes great patience, unity at home, and an obligation not to lose one's head. None of these are present today in the U.S. No one can deny that Iraq has turned into a fiasco, but you don't deal with a fiasco by just trying to switch it off.
Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.