Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations and veteran of policy circles dating back to the Johnson administration, was an unlikely candidate to surprise the routine world of Washington national-security roundtable discussions. But debating Iraq with Lawrence Korb on July 20 at the Center for American Progress, he did just that. When his turn to speak came, Gelb fled the safety of the podium and stood and delivered his remarks Oprah-style, pacing around the room wireless microphone in hand.

The substance of his remarks, though, was less innovative. He sought to portray his ideas -- centering on a three-way partition of Iraq -- as hewing to a wise middle ground. “The Bush plan, to me, is a plan to lose slowly,” he said, while something like Korb's plan for withdrawal “is really a plan to lose fast.”

When his turn came, Korb did something even more revolutionary than channeling Oprah: He conceded Gelb's point. Advocates of a timeline for withdrawal like Korb have long insisted that a timetable could help stabilize Iraq by eliminating the irritant of occupation and giving the Iraqi government newfound credibility as a genuinely sovereign agent. But to Korb, the merits of his plan had little to do with Iraq per se. Rather, accepting the lose-slowly versus lose-fast frame, he said that “staying in Iraq is going to make it clearer that you're going to lose, and if you lose slowly there, you're also going to handicap your ability to win the global war on terror.”

A key premise of the withdrawal argument had been that anti-Americanism was the prime driver of strife in Iraq. The country could best be unified in the context of a U.S. exit -- and sooner rather than later, before the cycle of violence generated a level of sectarian distrust that transcended Iraqi nationalism.

But that point now seems to have passed. Even Gelb's partition alternative is less a plan to save the country than a plan to concede that Iraq is beyond saving. So in the late summer of 2006, when the world's eyes turned to Lebanon even as the violence in Iraq reached new levels, the last opportunity to secure a decent outcome in Iraq has already passed, and nothing America can do at this point will change that.

* * *

God willing, there will be no civil war in Iraq,” intoned Nouri al-Maliki, third prime minister of post-Saddam Iraq to conclude the July 25 joint press availability with President Bush. Importuning the divine is as good a plan as any at this point, for the substantive meeting itself was merely the capstone in a process that closed the door on the last best hope for the conventional policy process.

About a month before al-Maliki's trip, the famously fractious congressional Democrats finally reached a reasonable degree of unity around a plan for Iraq -- the Reed-Levin Amendment to the Department of Defense appropriations bill -- that encapsulated the long-standing liberal argument that ruling out an open-ended military commitment was the best chance to avoid a downward spiral of sectarian violence.

The measure, announced June 16, attracted support not only from the more dovish Democrats but also from long-standing hawks like Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Ken Salazar. Opponents included all Republicans, who characterized it as a “cut-and-run” strategy, four vulnerable Democrats primarily concerned with their political safety, and Joe Lieberman -- who has essentially become a straight neoconservative on foreign policy matters. A final Democratic opponent -- Minnesota's Mark Dayton, an opponent of the initial invasion who's retiring at year's end -- argued that a withdrawal plan was a good idea, but that it “must come from the Iraqi government.”

At the time, the Iraqi government seemed open to making just such a proposal. On June 14, al-Maliki told reporters in Baghdad that he was working on a national reconciliation plan that could include amnesty for those “who weren't involved in the shedding of Iraqi blood” and included “talks with the armed men who opposed the political process and now want to turn back to political activity.”

The amnesty would, in other words, be extended to insurgents who had targeted American troops rather than Iraqi civilians. Such a proposal would likely be necessary to get moderate Sunni insurgents to lay down their arms and begin coexisting peacefully with their Shiite and Kurdish neighbors. It would also, however, be plainly inconsistent with the continued presence in the country of a massive American troop deployment -- it would hardly be safe for U.S. soldiers to operate in a context where attacking them was regarded as legitimate resistance activity by the government they were supposed to support. A June 24 Newsweek article based on a draft copy of the reconciliation plan indicated that it did, indeed, include “a timetable for withdrawal of occupation troops from Iraq” and that the “fiercest opposition” to the plan was “likely to come from Washington, which has opposed any talk of timetables.”

Unfortunately, when the final plan was released days later, it included neither amnesty nor a timetable. Congressional Democrats had launched opportunistic attacks on the former point, leading the administration to come out against amnesty as well. Bush's views prevailed over al-Maliki's initial instincts in both cases.

The opportunity thereby lost was enormous. On June 28, two days after the release of the revised, timetable-free reconciliation plan, the leaders of 11 insurgent groups announced that they were willing to halt all attacks immediately in exchange for a promise of American withdrawal within two years. But Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the offer with the repetition of long-standing administration cant that a timetable is “a signal to the enemies that all you have to do is just wait.” That a substantial bloc of America's erstwhile enemies was prepared to give up in exchange for a timetable did not, apparently, enter into the picture.

* * *

This opportunity, once lost, can probably never be regained. The level of violence in Iraq reached frighteningly large dimensions this spring with more than 100 Iraqi civilians killed per day in both April and May. This heightened domestic hatred has sharply reduced the odds that removal of foreign forces would bring about national reconciliation. A wave of retaliatory killings by Shiite militias in early July even had some Sunni leaders reversing course and calling for more American troops to be deployed.

By then, events in Iraq had largely been obscured both in the press and in American policy circles by the growing violence in the Levant. But though less noticed, the situation in Mesopotamia had arguably grown worse. Asked at a Center for Strategic and International Studies press briefing to comment on the theory that the war in Lebanon augured the dawn of a third world war, Daniel Benjamin observed that “if you wanted to talk about a bigger problem with a potential to spread, then perhaps we should talk about Iraq” where “the level of order seems to be decreasing by the day.”

Bush came out of his meeting with al-Maliki not with a new plan for national reconciliation, but instead with a plan to shift several thousand troops into Baghdad in hopes of securing the capital. The plan has virtually no chance of succeeding. Brookings Institution analyst Kenneth Pollack -- a fan of the strategy -- estimated in congressional testimony that it would require 100,000 to 120,000 troops in Baghdad at a time when there are only 127,000 soldiers in the whole country.

But even if sufficient forces were available, the plan's goal of combating Shiite militias and death squads in the capital seems unrealistic at this point. After all, the two largest militias -- the Badr Organization and the Mahdi Army -- are affiliated with political parties represented in al-Maliki's parliamentary coalition. While al-Maliki was en route to Washington, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the nation's largest political party and overseers of the Badr Organization, was calling, in effect, for more militias, telling The Washington Post that the answer to Iraq's security problems was the formation of neighborhood defense committees. Under the circumstances, a serious effort at a crackdown would simply leave the United States without meaningful allies in the country.

One way or another, the current trends toward sectarian violence and “soft” ethnic cleansing as Iraqis increasingly try to sort themselves into homogenous neighborhoods is almost certain to continue. The main question remaining is how long American troops will be left in the crossfire.

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