Dying for an Iraq that Isn't

Of all the absurdities attending our unending war in Iraq, the greatest is this: We are fighting to defend that which is not there.

We are fighting for a national government that is not national but sectarian, and has shown no capacity to govern. We are training Iraq's security forces to combat sectarian violence though those forces are thoroughly sectarian and have themselves engaged in large-scale sectarian violence. We are fighting for a nonsectarian, pluralistic Iraq, though whatever nonsectarian and pluralistic institutions existed before our invasion have long since been blasted out of existence. In the December 2005 parliamentary elections, the one nonsectarian party, which ran both Shiite and Sunni candidates, won just 8 percent of the vote.

Every day, George W. Bush asks young Americans to die in defense of an Iraq that has ceased to exist (if it ever did) in the hearts and minds of Iraqis. What Iraqis believe in are sectarian or tribal Iraqs -- a Shiite Iraq, a Sunni Iraq, an autonomous Kurdish Iraqi state, an Iraq where Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani or Moqtada al-Sadr or some other chieftain holds sway.

These are the Iraqs for which Iraqis are willing to kill and die.

Whatever their merits and their shortcomings, they are at least rooted in reality. These Iraqs have adherents and territory. The Iraq for which Bush compels Americans to fight has neither.

One of the mysteries of the current discussion of how best to get out of Iraq is that so many otherwise clear-eyed critics of administration policy say we should withdraw our combat troops but leave units behind to train Iraqi forces. As rational policy, it's vastly preferable to leaving combat forces there as well, but it leaves unanswered the question of which Iraqi forces, exactly, we should train. Those of the current Shiite-dominated Nouri al-Maliki government, which has employed Shiite forces to terrorize Sunni areas? What exactly would we train these forces to do? Be more tolerant of the Sunnis? Would that we could, and would that we could train Sunnis to be more tolerant of the Shiites, but these are matters not subject to training.

When Gen. David Petraeus testifies to Congress in September, he should be asked how many nonsectarian units the Iraqis are fielding, in actions that effectively build a nonsectarian Iraq. If the answer is zero, Congress could declare that it is U.S. policy to bolster Shiite Islam -- or, alternatively, Sunni Islam -- with the force of our arms. Or maybe, just maybe, it could begin mandating the withdrawal of American forces.

It cannot, alas, compel the Bush administration to engage in the wide-ranging diplomacy that could result in a formal partition of Iraq that might be less bloody than the de facto partition currently underway. The president argues that the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is all that prevents an all-out civil war there. Unless you believe, however, that the U.S. occupation can magically quell or outlast Iraq's sectarian rifts, then an internationally and domestically negotiated partition should be the most urgent task of U.S. statecraft.

Many of my antiwar friends were furious at Democratic congressional leaders last week for their failure to attach withdrawal deadlines to or cut funding from our occupation of Iraq -- a failure chiefly attributable to the simple fact that the votes weren't there for either option. What they should recall, however, is that the much more heavily Democratic Congress that hastened the end of the Vietnam War during Richard Nixon's presidency did so by passing a series of incremental measures, each of which constrained Nixon's warmaking powers a bit more than the last. In succession, Congress banned the use of funds for military actions in Laos and Thailand, then (after Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia) banned the use of ground forces in Cambodia. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, one of the Democrats' foremost doves, three times introduced an amendment that would have ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam within nine months of enactment, but it never passed.

It took the Democrats, and their dovish Republican allies, four full years to pass a cutoff of funds for U.S. ground forces in Vietnam, by which point Nixon had already pulled all ground forces out (though the legislation kept him from putting those forces back in, which was not a mere academic possibility). That hardly means that Mansfield betrayed the cause of peace, any more than Nancy Pelosi's failure to shut down the war last week means that she sold out to the Bush administration. Mansfield put one antiwar bill after another to a vote, winning more and more support each time around, leaving Nixon with fewer and fewer options. Pelosi is steering the same course, for a war even more reckless and absurd than Vietnam.

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