IF you happened to be up around dawn on Tuesday, you could witness the death rattle of our adventure in Iraq live on CNN. Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador, and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the American commander, were making new promises from the bunker of the Green Zone, inspiring about as much confidence as Jackie Gleason and Art Carney hatching a get-rich-quick scheme to sell a kitchen gadget on “The Honeymooners.”That's right, anyone who pays attention knows the only light at the end of the tunnel is at the same end we entered the tunnel. Rich points out there are two choices but one of those is really not choice at all.
“Success in Iraq is possible and can be achieved on a realistic timetable,” said Mr. Khalilzad. Iraq can be “in a very good place in 12 months,” said General Casey. Even a child could see how much was wrong with this picture.
If there really is light at the end of the tunnel, why after three and a half years can’t we yet guarantee light in Baghdad? Symbolically enough, television transmission of the Khalilzad-Casey press conference was interrupted by another of the city’s daily power failures. If Iraq’s leaders had signed on to the 12-month plan of “benchmarks” the Americans advertised, why were those leaders nowhere in sight? We found out one day later, when the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, mocked the very idea of an America-imposed timetable. “I am positive that this is not the official policy of the American government, but rather a result of the ongoing election campaign,” he said, adding dismissively, “And that does not concern us much.”
Give the Iraqi leader credit for a Borat-like candor that almost every American in this sorry tale lacks. Of course all the White House’s latest jabberwocky about “benchmarks” and “milestones” and “timetables” (never to be confused with those Defeatocrats’ “timelines”) is nothing more than an election-year P.R. strategy, as is the laughable banishment of “stay the course.” There is no new American plan to counter the apocalypse now playing out in Iraq, only new packaging to pacify American voters between now and Nov. 7. And recycled packaging at that: President Bush had last announced that he and Mr. Maliki were developing “benchmarks” to “measure progress” in Iraq back in June.So disengagement it is - but who will tell the King?
As Richard Holbrooke, the broker of the Bosnia peace accords, has observed, the only real choice left for the president now is either “escalation or disengagement.” But there are no troops, let alone money or national will, for escalation. Disengagement within a year, however, is favored by 54 percent of Americans and, more important, 71 percent of Iraqis. After Election Day, adults in Washington will step in, bow to the obvious and pull the plug. The current administration strategy — praying for a miracle — is not an option. The current panacea favored by anxious Republican Congressional candidates — firing Donald Rumsfeld — is too little, too late.
The adults in charge of disengagement will include the Bush family consigliere, James Baker, whose bipartisan Iraq Study Group will present its findings after the election, and John Warner, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, who has promised a re-evaluation of Iraq policy within roughly the same time frame. Democrats will have a role in direct proportion to the clout they gain in the midterms.The politics of death.
One way or another the various long-shot exit scenarios being debated in the capital will be sorted out: federalism and partition; reaching out somehow for help from Iran and Syria; replacing Mr. Maliki with a Saddam-lite strongman. There will be some kind of timeline, or whatever you want to call it, with enforced benchmarks, or whatever you want to call them, for phased withdrawal. (Read “Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now” by George McGovern and William R. Polk for a particularly persuasive blueprint.) In any event, the timeline will end no later than Inauguration Day 2009.
Our troops are held hostage by the White House’s political imperatives as much as they are by the violence. Desperate to maintain the election-year P.R. ruse that an undefined “victory” is still within reach, Mr. Bush went so far at Wednesday’s press conference as to say that “absolutely, we’re winning” in Iraq. He explained his rationale to George Stephanopoulos last weekend, when he asserted that the number of casualties was the enemy’s definition of success or failure, not his. “I define success or failure as to whether or not the Iraqis will be able to defend themselves,” the president said, and “as to whether the unity government” is making the “difficult decisions necessary to unite the country.”The words of a morally bankrupt administration.
Unfortunately, the war is a calamity by both of those definitions as well. The American command’s call for a mere 3,000 more Iraqi troops to help defend Baghdad has gone unanswered. As we’ve learned from Operation Together Forward, when Iraqis do stand up, violence goes up. And when American and British troops stand down, murderous sectarian militias, some of them allied with that “unity” government, fill the vacuum, taking over entire cities like Amara and Balad in broad daylight. As for those “difficult decisions” Mr. Bush regards as so essential, the Iraqi government’s policy is cut and run. Mr. Maliki is not cracking down on rampaging militias but running interference for their kingpin, Moktada al-Sadr. Mr. Maliki treats this radical anti-American Shiite cleric, his political ally, with far more deference than he shows the American president.
The ultimate chutzpah is that Mr. Bush, the man who sold us Saddam’s imminent mushroom clouds and “Mission Accomplished,” is trivializing the chaos in Iraq as propaganda. The enemy’s “sophisticated” strategy, he said in last weekend’s radio address, is to distribute “images of violence” to television networks, Web sites and journalists to “demoralize our country.”
This is a morally repugnant argument. The “images of violence” from Iraq are not fake — like, say, the fiction our government manufactured about the friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman or the upbeat news stories the Pentagon spends millions of dollars planting in Iraqi newspapers today. These images of violence are real. Americans really are dying at the fastest pace in at least a year, and Iraqis in the greatest numbers to date. To imply that this carnage is magnified by the news media, whether the American press or Al Jazeera, is to belittle the gravity of the escalated bloodshed and to duck accountability for the mismanagement of the war. Mr. Bush’s logic is reminiscent of Jeffrey Skilling’s obtuse view of his innocence in the Enron scandal, though at least Mr. Skilling has been held accountable for the wreckage of lives on his watch.Support the troops!
It is also wrong to liken what’s going on now, as Mr. Bush has, to the Tet offensive. That sloppy Vietnam analogy was first made by Mr. Rumsfeld in June 2004 to try to explain away the explosive rise in the war’s violence at that time. It made a little more sense then, since both the administration and the American public were still being startled by the persistence of the Iraq insurgency, much as the Johnson administration and Walter Cronkite were by the Viet Cong’s tenacity in 1968. Before Tet, as Stanley Karnow’s history, “Vietnam,” reminds us, public approval of L.B.J.’s conduct of the war still stood at 40 percent, yet to hit rock bottom.
If we really support the troops, we’ll move past Mr. Bush’s “fundamental question” to one from 1971 posed by a 27-year-old Vietnam veteran, John Kerry, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”Amen to that!
Frank Rich, Iraq
FAIR USE NOTICE
This article contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my efforts to advance understanding of democracy, economic, environmental, human rights, political, scientific, and social justice issues, among others. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material in this article is distributed without profit for research and educational purposes.