THE FIFTH anniversary of the invasion of Iraq prompted a flurry of speeches from President Bush and the Democratic candidates who hope to inherit the White House next year. Sadly, what they had in common was their failure to grapple with hard realities -- beginning with the elusiveness of any clear or quick path toward Mr. Bush's promise of "victory," or that of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to "end this war."
Mr. Bush's address dwelt on the success of the initial military campaign of March 2003, then skipped ahead to the "surge" of the last year. The president deservedly claimed credit for launching the latter campaign, which has drastically reduced the level of violence in Iraq. But he went on to claim that, more than turning "the situation in Iraq around," the surge "has opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror." That sounded at best premature, given the tenuousness of the security gains and the slowness of Iraqi leaders to strike political deals that could truly stabilize the country.
First of all, you'd have to be completely ignorant to assert that the surge has "dramatically" reduced the violence. Paying the Sunnis off with guns and money and keeping the Mahdi Army from reconstituting itself was what did the trick. "Surging" in more troops simply put more strain on our military. That's good strategy? Giving guns and money to the people who were killing us and making more troops spend more time in Iraq?
Second of all, there's been no political reconciliation. Hence, the surge has not succeeded. All that work for nothing.
The president at least recognizes, from "hard experience," how quickly progress in Iraq can unravel. Yesterday he pledged not to order troop withdrawals beyond the five brigades due to return home by this summer unless "conditions on the ground and the recommendations of our commanders" warrant it. That means that if Mr. Obama or Ms. Clinton become president, he or she will be the commander in chief of at least 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Yet their speeches suggest an understanding of the conflict and the stakes for the United States that is as detached from reality as they accuse Mr. Bush of being when he decided on the invasion.
What progress? When was there ever "progress" or success after Baghdad fell? The country went immediately into a tailspin of violence and looting. Once there was nothing left to steal, nationalism kicked in. Iraqis were embarrassed that their country had collapsed in front of the American Army. The Fedayeen Saddam kicked in almost immediately and began attacking US convoys. From there, we went from destroying Fallujah to staging elections with CIA help to flooding the country with the incompetent kids of Republican Party donors.
The idea that there will only be "100,000" troops in Iraq is laughable. Even Petraeus is making noises that if 30-40,000 troops were to be pulled out, the fragile hold they have on things would collapse.
Barely acknowledging the reduction in violence, the Democratic candidates insist that U.S. troops are, as Ms. Clinton put it, "babysitting a civil war." In fact, the surge forestalled an incipient civil war, and U.S. commanders and diplomats in Iraq don't hesitate to say that if American forces withdrew now, sectarian conflict would probably explode in its full fury, causing bloodshed on a far greater scale than ever before and posing grave threats to U.S. security.
Forestalled? That's insane. We watched ritualized ethnic cleansing for over a year. We watched as they killed their neighbors and drove millions into exile. We then turned around and helped wall off enclaves to try to stem the tide. Really, does the WaPo editorial page read its own reporting?
How can we say that sectarian conflict will explode? Seen the news? It HAS already exploded. It CONTINUES to explode. Therefore, when it happens in the future, we won't have US troops as a convenient target. You see, by aligning ourselves with one side, we become the target of the other side in a sectarian conflict. To suggest that all of sudden the Shia and Sunni will start to fight when we leave is to argue from a position of ignorance only someone like Bill Kristol could appreciate.
BOTH Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton propose withdrawing U.S. troops at the most rapid pace the Pentagon says is possible -- one brigade a month. In the 16 months or so it would take to remove those forces, they envision the near-miraculous accomplishment of every political goal the Bush administration has aimed at for five years, from the establishment of a stable government to agreement by Iraq's neighbors to support it. They suppose that the knowledge that American forces were leaving would inspire these accords. In fact, it more likely would cause all sides to discount U.S. influence and prepare to violently seize the space left by the departing Americans.
Well, the quickest way to get them to reconcile their differences is to start leaving the Green Zone undefended. If the elite in Iraq want to continue being safe and secure, they'll damned sure stop fighting each other and they'll stop jockeying for position.
See, modern Iraq is just one long sectarian-based negotiation with guns and bombs to get as much leverage as possible. If that means a minor ministry, so be it. If that means a few bombs across town going off, so be it. They're not going to stop--no matter how many US troops occupy the country--trying to get as much power and leverage as they can. We enable them to do so. We provide just enough security to ensure that they can fight each other. When they attack our troops, it sends a signal to all observers--look what we can do to the Americans. Look how we can attack them. We are powerful. We do what you can't, and that is, kill Americans to preserve the dignity of the Iraqi people. Join us so we can drive out the Americans and make Iraq great again. That's what they're saying through what they do.
With equal implausibility, the Democratic candidates say they would leave limited U.S. forces behind to prevent al-Qaeda from establishing bases. They assume that an Iraqi government that had just been abandoned by the United States would consent to the continued presence of American forces on its territory. In all, Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama speak as if they have no understanding of Iraqi leaders, whom they propose to treat as willing puppets.
The Iraqi leadership are puppets only because our military power and our CIA intervention and our tens of thousands of contractors relegate them to that status. There is virtually no way to counter such disgusting wingnuttery on the editorial page--none. Once you start arguing that al Qaeda might take over Iraq and establish bases, every reasonable argument falls flat in the face of such delusional thought. It's the last refuge of the scoundrels. They know that will never happen. They know that, at it's peak, AQI was accounting for 5-10% of all attacks, and that was in the days of Zarqawi.
Here's how ridiculous that argument is--after we killed Zarqawi, the pattern of violence was unchanged. We spent all that time and effort going after a minor thug while the country burned. To now wave the "AQI" threat around is dishonest wingnuttery. We are in the middle of a civil war. We are not fighting "international Islamic Terrorism" in Iraq. We're creating more of it.
If there was a glimmer of sense in Mr. Obama's speech, it lay in his acknowledgment that "we will have to make tactical adjustments, listening to our commanders on the ground, to ensure that our interests in a stable Iraq are met and to make sure our troops are secure." Ms. Clinton conceded that "the critical question is how we can end this war responsibly" and added "it won't be easy." In fact it will be terribly hard -- and it can't be done responsibly in the way or on the timeline the two Democrats are proposing. We can only hope that, behind their wildly unrealistic campaign rhetoric, the candidates understand that reality.
No, Obama or Clinton are just riding this out. They don't want to sit and listen to every neocon that the US media enables. They don't want to use up all of their time responding to people like Richard Perle and John Bolton and Michael O'Hanlon--men who were wrong five years ago, wrong every day since then, and so wrong now as to be laughable. Who needs it?
Once a Democrat wins, they'll pull troops out of Iraq in order to please the base that gets them elected and they'll do so because they don't want to continue bankrupting this country while draping the Iraq war across their shoulders.
No one--and I mean no one--is going to bail George Bush out this time.