Pregnant Pause

There was nothing surprising in the testimony given to Congress earlier this month by General David H. Petraeus and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker. “We haven’t turned any corners, we haven’t seen any lights at the end of the tunnel,” said Petraeus, architect of the now nearly year-long military offensive known as the surge. “The progress, while real, is fragile and is reversible.”

President George W. Bush justified the surge as a way to curb the level of violence, especially in Baghdad, in order to give the Iraqis time to reach political reconciliation on constitutional, economic, and regional issues. Violence has diminished, although to what extent that reduction is the result of the surge, ethnic cleansing, the cease-fire declared by Shiite cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, or the decision to put Sunni tribesman once allied with Al Qaeda on the U.S. payroll is unclear. What is clear is that the Iraqis themselves have not taken the steps needed to reach a political accommodation between Sunnis and Shiites, among rival Shiite movements, or with the Kurds in the north. Legitimate concerns over Iran’s meddling were also raised during the congressional hearings. But as Senator Barack Obama noted, it is not possible to eliminate completely Iran’s influence over its neighbor, especially among Iran’s coreligionists in Iraq. Moreover, Iran has ties to Shiite groups that are opposed to Nuri al-Maliki’s government, but also to groups aligned with it. Nothing about Iraq is straightforward, and it would be a mistake for U.S. policymakers to think that those Iraqis opposed to our military presence are merely proxies for the mullahs in Tehran. What is going on in Iraq is a national struggle, not an Iranian takeover bid.

Despite Petreaus and Crocker’s sober assessment of the precarious situation, Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain insisted that there is a very bright light at the end of the tunnel. “We’re no longer staring into the abyss of defeat,” McCain asserted, “and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success.” McCain’s recent remarks about Iraq, in which he routinely confuses the identity and allegiances of Sunni and Shiite groups, are cause for concern, to say the least. His cheerleading for the putative success of the surge, on which he has staked a good deal of political capital, seemed especially ill-informed in the aftermath of the Maliki government’s failed attempt to destroy the Sadr militia in Basra (a clash whose cease-fire was negotiated by Iran!). The recent increase in Shiite-on-Shiite violence in Baghdad, including rocket attacks on the Green Zone, suggests we are still staring into an abyss.

As General Petraeus himself has repeatedly said, a military “victory” in Iraq is not possible. Although the U.S. invasion unleashed this civil war, the United States cannot heal the divisions among the Iraqi people. Only the Iraqis can do that. Nor can the United States stay in Iraq indefinitely. The war is costing $3 billion a week. In addition to the more than four thousand Americans dead and the tens of thousands seriously wounded, the war is taking a severe toll on the mental health of those sent to fight, especially soldiers subject to multiple deployments. Among the many evils of this war is the disproportionate burden military personnel and their families have been forced to bear. “The truth of the matter,” said Senator George Voinovich (R-Ohio), is that most Americans “haven’t sacrificed one darn bit in this war, not one.”

Moreover, at the highest levels of the military there is fear that the Army is stretched to the breaking point. According to some, Iraq has left the United States unprepared to meet another serious military challenge or even to safeguard the gains made in Afghanistan. In short, staying the course is not an option.

Despite what the president and Senator McCain say, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama is calling for a “precipitous” withdrawal. But both Democratic presidential candidates do recognize that there will be no solution to Iraq’s political problems as long as it is occupied by the U.S. military. Involving Iraq’s neighbors in negotiations among Iraq’s warring factions remains the best hope for, though no guarantee of, a relatively orderly withdrawal. No one is under the illusion that the policies of Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey toward Iraq are motivated by altruism. At the same time, faced with the enormous refugee problem caused by this war, Iraq’s neighbors have no desire to see the country destroy itself. The next president should be ready on “day one” to begin this diplomatic initiative.

April 15, 2008

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