To find a way out of Iraq, George W. Bush must first admit he has a problem.
November 22, 2006
David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for TomPaine.com. Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and the co-author, along with Michael Isikoff, of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War. Read his blog at http://www.davidcorn.com.
That's the inescapable conclusion drawn from reading The New Republic's recent special mea culpa issue that combines an apology for its “early support” of the Iraq war with a colloquium on what to do now in Iraq. Sixteen foreign policy thinkers were asked to provide a roadmap out of this debacle. No surprise, the magazine received assorted and contradictory advice. Taken together, it's a mind-bending maze of an obstacle course.
New Yorker writer George Packer calls the war “lost” and counsels helping Iraqis who have worked with Americans to obtain visas so they can flee when US troops inevitably withdraw. Former White House counterterrorism aide Richard Clarke urges initiating a 18-month-long pull-out right away. Author David Rieff bluntly advises, “It is time to put the fucking troops on the fucking planes. Now! Before any more of our children die for their country's hubris.” Neocon stalwart Robert Kagan argues that “clever plans” are not needed in Iraq; more troops are necessary “to provide the stability necessary so that eventual withdrawal will not produce chaos and the implosion of the Iraqi state.” Former US ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith wants to partition Iraq. Reza Aslan, a CBS News analyst, maintains carving up Iraq will be a disaster. Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School advises the U.S. to threaten a precipitous retreat “unless all parties within and outside Iraq come to the table and hammer out an enforceable peace settlement.” Stanford University professor Josef Joffe says the Bush administration should cut a deal with the Sunnis. Swarthmore professor James Kurth argues the U.S. military must crush the Sunni insurgency before leaving Iraq. New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier acknowledges the logic of withdrawal but then suggests doing “anything and everything.” And so on.
I can imagine George W. Bush reading through this issue—I have a good imagination—and declaring, “My head hurts.” Moreover, the magazine's exercise must somewhat parallel what the Iraq Study Group—the bipartisan commission chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton—is going through. That panel has interviewed hundreds and has several working groups composed of dozens of supposed experts. And somehow it's supposed to craft a consensus get-us-out-of-there plan. Good luck. It's not that there are no options in Iraq; there are no good options. And Democrats counseling withdrawal have to recognize the possibility that the removal of U.S. troops—as justified and appropriate as that might be at this stage—could have ugly side-consequences: more intense civil strife and sectarian violence in Iraq. (I explored thismatter here.)
By creating such a vexing dilemma Bush has afforded himself a measure of political protection (yet only a small measure, as the recent election results indicated). No critic of the war can concoct a plan that convincingly promises progress in Iraq. Put in Bushian terms, “Hey, got something better than our plan for victory?” A reader of the assorted New Republic proposals can say of each, “Yeah, maybe. Probably not. Who knows?” It's increasingly possible—especially as the situation in Iraq deteriorates by the week (more bodies, more conflict, more despair)—that the wise men (and one woman) of the Baker Commission will not be able to improve upon The New Republic 's grab-bag.
The Baker Commission is unlikely to promote what might be called the Cry for Help Plan. As I suggested previously, Bush's only chance at preventing Iraq from descending further into hell may depend on his ability to admit he, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and the rest really, really messed up big-time. He ought to acknowledge the errors of his ways and explicitly ask the rest of the world to assist him in finding a path out. It seems clear nothing resembling a resolution in Iraq can be forged without pressure from the outside—and that means pressure from states within the region and from states with ties and interests in the area. It may be impossible to obtain sufficient assistance from other nations—such as Iran and Syria—but trying to do so is necessary. The goal: to bring some degree of stability to Iraq, as the United States disengages.
Yet for Bush to achieve such a breakthrough he will have to break with his past practices of denying the harsh realities of post-invasion Iraq, of claiming progress when the opposite is occurring, and of declaring that he has a strategy for victory and it's called winning. (Or is it a strategy for winning that's called victory?) He can do this by fully acknowledging he has mismanaged a war that might have been unmanageable from the start.
This will be tough for the Texan in the White House. But Tony Blair recently conceded Iraq was a “disaster” (and he has in the past also said that de-Baathification was a mighty blunder). Henry Kissinger has already admitted that full victory in Iraq is a goner. And The New Republic noted it “deeply regrets” its backing for the war: “The past three years have complicated our idealism and reminded us of the limits of American power and our own wisdom.”
Not everyone is jumping on the reality bandwagon. The neoconservatives continue to duck responsibility for the war. Don't blame me, says Richard Perle: I only advocated the war, the fault is with the folks who executed it. Kenneth Adelman, a former Reagan administration official who in 2002 declared a war in Iraq would be a “cakewalk,” points an accusatory finger at his old friends, Rumsfeld and Cheney, for having bungled the war. (He holds Bush accountable, as well.) None of these war advocates are willing to say that the very notion of invading Iraq to create a pro-West, pro-Israel haven of democracy—via the efforts of exile leader Ahmad Chalabi—was flawed at creation.
For many who opposed this elective war at the start, a critical obstacle was the Bush crowd's lack of seriousness regarding what would happen after the initial military campaign. Bush, his aides and their pro-war allies offered no plan. They dismissed or ignored experts who raised the obvious concerns about the post-invasion period. Sectarian violence? Security challenges? Economic dislocation? They prepared for none of that-and eschewed those who wanted to—including General Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, who said it would take several hundred thousand troops to secure the country after an invasion. It was no secret in Washington in the months before the invasion that the White House reached out to virtually none of the town's Middle East experts to discuss what might occur in Iraq after the invasion. I don't recall any neocons at the time raising red flags about the lack of planning. Perle even told me before the war that Iraq could be taken easily and transformed by a small invasion force of 40,000 troops.
Yet the neocons are not the problem now (unless they succeed in whipping up support for attacking Iran). Bush is the main man. He is increasingly isolated. Congressional Republicans are not rushing to endorse his present course in Iraq. Democrats are ratcheting up pressure for troops withdrawal. Some conservatives, like Sen. John McCain, are calling on him to send in more soldiers. And Washington is generally more concerned with what Baker is cooking up than with anything the president has to say to defend his Iraq policy.
Still, at the end of the day—despite whatever Baker devises, despite whatever any foreign policy experts suggest—it is Bush who has the big decision to make. Does he change his fundamental muddled approach? He might be able to use the Baker report as cover for a course correction. Then again, he and Cheney could chuck its recommendations and continue, as Cheney said before the election, “full speed ahead.” To where? They don't seem to know. (Recent news indicates their they-stand-up/we-stand-down training program is a farce.) But it remains their war. The absence of good options is their fault. Bush, Cheney, the neocons and the other war backers placed the United States—and Iraq—in this awful spot. They created a heckuva problem for which there is no good and pain-free solution. They will bear responsibility for the consequences of whatever comes next.