Iraq: No Exit?
Thomas Ricks writes in the Washington Post this morning:
The text of President Bush's news conference yesterday ran to nearly 10,000 words, but what may have been more significant were the things he did not say.
The president talked repeatedly about "benchmarks" for progress in Iraq, using that word 13 times. But he did not discuss the consequences of the Iraqi government missing those targets. Such a question, he said, was "hypothetical."
That response left unclear how the benchmarks would be different from previous times when the United States has set out intentions, only to back down. For example, the original war plan envisioned the U.S. troop presence in Iraq being cut to 30,000 by the fall of 2003. Last year, some top U.S. commanders thought they would be able to significantly cut the U.S. troop level in Iraq this year — a hope now officially abandoned. More recently, the U.S. military all but withdrew from Baghdad, only to have to have to reenter the capital as security evaporated from its streets and Iraqi forces proved unable to restore calm by themselves.
Over in my neck of the cyber-woods, I've repeatedly needled this cycle of futile optimism as the U.S. occupation performing an unintentional parody of "Waiting for Godot":
ESTRAGON: Let's go.
VLADIMIR: We can't.
ESTRAGON: Why not?
VLADIMIR: We're waiting for the political and security environment to stabilize.
ESTRAGON (despairingly): Ah!
The sad truth is, no matter what clumsy rhetorical footwork Dubya and his spin doctors offer in the hope of staving off a Nov. 7th disaster, there's not much we can do now to fix the situation in Iraq. Spencer Ackerman, recently exiled from the New Republic for describing the debacle there too accurately, noted this past week:
If U.S. officials in Iraq are urging Maliki "disband" the militias, they are issuing impotent, senseless pleas. Let's say Maliki did, at the stroke of a pen, "disband" them, and let's also say that the militias comply. What happens? Exactly what happened in 2003 when Jerry Bremer abolished the Iraqi Army: thousands — possibly tens of thousands — of ruthless men with guns are out on the streets. Think they'll act with malice toward none and charity toward all?
But, of course, Maliki doesn't have that power. At best, as with the late-period Soviet Union, Maliki will pretend to issue an order and the militiamen will pretend to comply. Some problems, when metastacized, are beyond remedy.
Or, as I said more generally here two months ago:
. . . it’s not so much that democratic ideas haven’t had a chance to blossom naturally over there, it’s that they never stood a chance in the crossfire. Saddam Hussein turned the entire countryside into an arms depot in large part to fuel an insurgent war if he was ever deposed, and in the anarchy that followed the U.S. invasion, all of the groups that he had oppressed (especially the majority Shiites) quickly organized themselves into vigilante militias as their way of saying "Never again."
Once the American military proved itself incapable of enforcing order during the post-invasion frenzy of looting, the eventual outcome was clear to all sides — Iraq would continue to be a country ruled by guns and the police who come in the middle of the night. The only question left to be resolved is. whose guns and whose police? Because there’s no way to compromise on that issue, especially after three years of spiraling bloodshed, there isn’t much realistic hope of a political solution emerging no matter what policy the U.S. adopts at this point.
But to realize this just makes it harder for anyone to stage an intervention with the president who's run the invasion of Iraq into the ground just like every minor-league business venture he failed in before entering politics. As Josh Marshall wrote perceptively on Monday:
President Bush's interests are not the same as the country's. . . . If Iraq is a failure, a mistake, then the same words will be written right after his name in the history books. A country, though, can take missteps and mistakes, course corrections and dead ends, and move on. We've done it before and we'll do it again.
But President Bush can't and won't withdraw from Iraq because when he does, under the current conditions, he'll sign the epitaph, the historical death warrant for his presidency. Unlike in the past there are no family friends to pawn the failure off on and let them take the loss. It's all his. So he'll keep kicking the can down the road forever.
So, let's say that in two weeks, the Democrats win back at least one house of Congress. There are no good solutions to "fix" Iraq — the situation has deteriorated so badly that success will be defined as a human catastrophe that scars our memories for years or decades, rather than generations or even centuries. The Iraqi army is utterly unable to defend themselves without U.S. help, much less defend their country. And yet our own military is on the verge of collapse from the strain of the occupation.
But the president is in complete denial and refuses to do anything to face reality. (As Atrios wrote earlier today, "The conversation we're having about Iraq right now is just about the same one we're going to be having two years from now on the eve of the presidential election.") Winning the elections will feel great… but what do we do to force a change in course in Iraq after we win?