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U.S. stuck with few options in Iraq
Knight Ridder Newspapers
We can't stay, and we can't go.
As the United States nears the third anniversary of its invasion of Iraq, there is abundant evidence that military and political options are narrowing, that President Bush's democratization dream is lethally imperiled, that we are hostage to events beyond our control, and that nobody can agree on whether our troops would be better off digging in or pulling out.
The fog of war has frozen domestic politics. Bush's "stay the course" stance is being soundly rebuked in the polls, yet divided Democrats haven't come up with a better idea, a consensus alternative. Meanwhile, the clock ticks. The danger of a full-blown civil war — predicted 18 months ago by the CIA, but dismissed at the time by the Bush team — grows with each passing day.
In political terms, this is a dangerous situation for House and Senate Republicans who face voters in November. Hints dropped by the administration last summer have had them anticipating sizable numbers of U.S. troops coming home in 2006. They looked forward to using this as evidence that Iraqis, in the aftermath of their December elections, were policing themselves and freedom was "on the march."
Those hopes are in jeopardy. With Sunni insurgents and Shiite death squads roaming the cities, and with negotiations for a unity government perpetually breaking down, longtime Iraq observers are fearing the worst. In the words of Juan Cole, a Middle East expert who blogs frequently on the war, "Iraq is a vial of nitroglycerine that can be set off with one shake."
Some might dismiss Cole as a longtime Bush critic, but disillusion also is endemic within conservative circles; witness William F. Buckley, icon of the modern conservative movement. He contends that "the American objective in Iraq has failed" and that Bush must "submit to historical reality" and make "the acknowledgment of defeat."
Polls show discontent
Most Americans aren't buoyant, either; Bush's winter speeches have failed to dispel bipartisan gloom. In a Fox News poll of 900 registered voters conducted Tuesday and Wednesday, 81 percent of respondents — including 72 percent of Republicans — now believe an Iraq civil war is likely. On a separate issue, 70 percent of respondents want to cut the money for Iraq reconstruction. Translation: The public is rapidly losing faith in the mission, and political analysts believe that, in an election year, a war-weary public generally aims its ire at the party in power.
But loss of faith in the mission isn't necessarily synonymous with a desire to abandon Iraqis to their fate. We are basically stymied on what should happen next. In a new poll sponsored by Democratic strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville, surveying 1,135 Americans during the last five days of February, 49 percent said they wanted to "start reducing the number of troops" (in the belief that we are impeding stability, and preventing Iraqis from standing up for themselves), while 48 percent wanted to "stay the course" and "finish the job" (in the belief that we are a positive force and a bulwark against global terrorism).
A troops-out convert
"I've always been very concerned about leaving Iraq as a failed state, and the ramifications for the image of American power around the world. I take that seriously. Despite all the mistakes we have made in this war, the stakes have been so high that I felt we had to stay and try to make things right.
"But now, facing the facts on the ground" — a reference to death squads, militant clerics, ethnic fragmentation, and warring Iraqi leaders — "I question whether we are making a contribution, and whether it makes sense to stay in." Or, as she argued separately in an online column, "The only thing worse than Iraq as a failed state is Iraq as a failed state with 130,000 Americans serving there."
Gary Hart said he thinks those troops are at serious risk. The Democratic ex-senator and onetime presidential candidate, a specialist on defense issues, talked about Iraq — and, in his view, the benefits of troop withdrawals — before a speech the other day at the National Constitution Center.
"Our army is in danger," he said. "If all-out civil war breaks out, we could lose our army. If Sunnis and Shiites take to the streets by the thousands, it could literally be impossible to get [the soldiers] out. ... I know that sounds apocalyptic, but it's not out of the question. We need an exit strategy. We have no choice. We're making things worse. Ninety percent of the insurgents are Iraqis who don't like the fact that we have occupied their country. ...
"I know we can't just pack up and leave right away, but we're still acting as if we hold all the cards over there. We don't. We're losing control of the situation. ... The British occupied Iraq for 35 years and finally had to leave because there was a constant insurgency against them. We haven't learned anything."
But others see the chaos in Iraq as proof that we must stay, despite having spent more than $300 billion and expended about 2,300 American lives. And they're not all Bush fans.
Troops must stay
Marshall Wittmann, a centrist Democratic thinker and frequent Bush critic, posted this on his blog the other day: "Is it possible that Iraq will be lost? Of course it is. And it will be much more likely that it will be lost if America leaves precipitously. Then, the supporters of an early withdrawal will have to address the consequences of both an American defeat, and that our international jihadist enemy will be emboldened."
And Missouri political analyst Tim Lomperis, who served in Vietnam as an Army intelligence officer, said by phone, "I know it seems like we've stepped into a volcano, and it is depressing." But "I see Iraq as the Vietnam war that we can't afford to lose. We were able to lose Vietnam and walk away because it was a peripheral outpost. Iraq is not. It is central, the same way that Berlin was central during the Cold War.
"Yes, Iraq at the beginning was a war of choice. And yes, if we can't get a unity government, we're stuck with a strategic mess. And it's true that we won't give the Iraqi troops some of our helicopters and tanks, because we're afraid they'll end up in the hands of the insurgents. But pulling out is not a realistic choice. If we do that, the Islamic radicals will come after us, with Europe as the next front line. This hasn't sunk in with Americans yet."
Stalemate in politics
Sensitized to the ambivalent national mood, Democrats in Washington remain averse to speaking boldly, or finding a way forward. Some have signed on to a plan — co-written six months ago by a former Reagan assistant defense secretary — that calls for "strategic redeployment," a euphemism for troop pullouts on a timetable, by the end of 2007.
But more hawkish Democrats see a timetable as a gift to the enemy — and to the GOP, which long has proved adept at labeling Democrats as soft.
So even as there are few good policy options in Iraq, there are few good political options at home. Democrats as a group won't call for a pullout, because they want to look tough to independent swing voters. Bush can't call for a big increase in troops, because polls show that's political suicide. And even if he wanted to launch a serious withdrawal, much of his conservative base would revolt.
Hence, the fealty to familiar talking points. On ABC the other day, he again used that tactic, saying, "We're making progress ... spread freedom ... we will prevail," phrases that brought to mind a comment to Bob Woodward in 2002:
"I'm the commander, see? I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."
Given the restiveness about Iraq, however, that view might not be sufficient anymore. In former U.N. official Nossel's words, "Americans are hungry for a hard-headed debate on the policies that could have an impact on our standing in the world for years to come."
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company