One Mistake Away

The unjustified and ill-conceived invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a catastrophe, the full consequences of which few dare to think about. Correcting President George W. Bush’s errors will take years, if not decades, and will require the return to a much more balanced understanding of this nation’s place among other nations in the world.

There was nothing surprising in the report made this month by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker on the so-called success of the surge, or in Bush’s endorsement of that report. As expected, the nation was told that enough military progress has been made to justify continuing current counterinsurgency operations at least until next spring. To their credit, neither Petraeus nor Crocker painted a rosy picture of conditions on the ground or of what we can hope for in terms of political reconciliation among ethnic and sectarian groups. Much was made of a shift in alliances in Anbar province, where Sunni tribes have turned against their former Al Qaeda allies and are cooperating with the United States. Few expect this arrangement to outlast the immediate threat felt by the tribes. Similarly, the modest decrease in violence in some Baghdad neighborhoods is as much the result of several years of ethnic cleansing as of Petraeus’s tactics.

In the absence of any movement among Iraqis toward a political solution, the president has yet again changed the rationale for the U.S. occupation. Instead of “victory” or establishing democracy in the Middle East, Bush now talks of “return on success” and more ominously of countering Iranian influence, an influence the occupation has greatly strengthened. Whatever the conditions on the ground, the president is determined to maintain a significant U.S. force in Iraq, foreseeing a long-term military presence there. Even the much-hyped prospect of the return home of thirty thousand troops next spring is a shell game, one where the “surge” seems clearly to have been a strategy designed to keep troop numbers well above a hundred thousand until Bush leaves office.

Few serious observers underestimate the difficulty of extracting the United States from Iraq without plunging that country into an even more murderous civil war, one that might draw neighboring states into the conflict or even spread to the region as a whole. Having initiated this war, the United States has a moral responsibility to do what it realistically can to forestall further bloodshed and instability. At the same time, given the strain on the military and domestic political realities, it is no secret that carrying on the mission as envisioned by Bush much beyond January 2009 is impossible. It should now be clear that it is has never been within the power of the United States alone to bring about an acceptable resolution to this conflict. “None of the presidential candidates seems to know why we are failing,” Thomas Powers wrote in the August 29 New York Review of Books, “or to understand what is imperial about the way we deal with Iraq, or to sense that a bigger war is just another mistake away.”

Avoiding that bigger war, most likely one between the United States and Iran, is now as morally imperative as the effort to contain Iraq’s sectarian violence. The best hope for avoiding such a cataclysm is for the United States to involve Iraq’s neighbors—including Iran and Syria—as well as our democratic allies outside the region in bringing about a settlement. As George Packer has written (“Planning for Defeat,” the New Yorker, September 17), when the surge ends next spring “there will have to be a strategic turn, away from Americans in the lead.” In short, it is time to bring the UN, the EU, and other international organizations back into the equation. Despite the Bush administration’s sins, it remains in the interest of the international community to act now to avoid a larger conflagration in the Middle East. Packer wants the United States to press the international community “to come into the Green Zone, not as tools of American policy but as equal partners in an effort to force a political deal, not unlike the UN’s role in creating a government in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.” Importantly, he adds that this step would “imply an American confession of failure.”

That failure lies squarely on the shoulders of this president, but it is a failure whose consequences must be mitigated if at all possible.

September 18, 2007

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