One way to look at the situation in Iraq is to try to identify variables, elements that could change. Without change, the war is likely to end with U.S. troops having to fight their way out, if they can.
The military situation in Iraq is not a variable. All that can change is the speed of our defeat. Some actions might slow it, although the time for such actions, such as adopting an “ink blot” strategy instead of “capture or kill,” passed long ago.
Other actions could speed our defeat, an attack on Iran chief among them. It now looks as if the Bush administration may have realized that an out-of-the-blue, Pearl Harbor-style air and missile attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is politically infeasible. Instead, the White House will order a series of small “border incidents,” U.S. pinpricks similar to last week’s raid on an Iranian mission in Kurdistan, intended to provoke Iranian retaliation. That retaliation will then be presented as an Iranian attack on U.S. forces, with the air raids on Iranian nuclear targets called “retaliation.” Fabricated border incidents have a long history as causus belli; perhaps the Bushies can dress some German soldiers up in Polish uniforms.
As Bush made clear in last Wednesday’s speech, his policies are not a variable. He will pursue the neo-cons’ dreams all the way to Hell, where they originated.
That leaves the U.S. Congress, and it may well be the key variable in the equation. 2008 is not that far away, and electoral panic continues to spread among Hill Republicans. Senator Brownback is the first conservative Republican Senator to break with the administration, opposing the “surge.” Conservatives have a central role to play here, because if they turn openly against the war, Bush will lose his base.
But the Democrats hold both Houses of Congress, so the main burden of ending a failed enterprise will fall on them. At present, they seem unwilling to go beyond symbolic but ineffectual measures, such as passing “non-binding resolutions.” Why? It may be that they are paralyzed by a false understanding of the war, one stated by Vice President Cheney on “Fox New Sunday” when he said, “We have these meetings with members of Congress, and they agree we can’t fail… ”
In fact, we have already failed. The war in Iraq was lost long ago. In terms of the administration’s objective of a “democratic Iraq,” which Bush re-stated in his Wednesday speech, it was lost before the first bomb fell, because it was unattainable no matter what we did. Now, not even the minimal objective of restoring an Iraqi state is attainable, at least until Iraq’s many-sided, Fourth Generation civil war sorts itself out, and probably not then. Events in Iraq are simply beyond our control; the forces our invasion and destruction of the Iraqi state unleashed far overpower any army we can deploy to Iraq, surge or no surge.
Once Democrats accept and announce that Congress cannot lose a war that is already lost, they will have the freedom of action they need to get us out. Polls suggest the public will go along; most Americans now realize the war is lost, regardless of what President Bush may say or do.
It is probably true, as Senator McCain constantly reminds us, that chaos will follow an American withdrawal. But that chaos became inevitable, not with America’s withdrawal (it is already happening, even with U.S. troops present), but with its destruction of the Iraqi state. Again, the Democrats need to make this point to the American people, and make it often.
Senator Joe Biden, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, put it best. According to the January 5 Washington Post, he said in an interview,
I have reached the tentative conclusion that a significant portion of this administration, maybe even including the vice president, believes Iraq is lost. … Therefore, the best thing to do is keep it from totally collapsing on your watch and hand it off to the next guy — literally, not figuratively.
I believe Senator Biden is correct; I said the same thing in an earlier column. If the question the Democrats put to the American people is, should we allow thousands more American kids to get wounded or killed so the Bush administration can put our withdrawal off until it is out of office, the public’s answer will be clear. Killing our kids for national objectives is one thing; doing so for political advantage is something else.
The key variable thus comes down to this: do the Democrats in Congress have the courage and the communication skills to level with the people about why the war in Iraq is continuing after we have lost it? If not, they will have proven themselves as unfit to govern as the Republican majorities they replaced.
William Lind [send him mail] is an analyst based in Washington, DC.