The Iraq reality: No way forward

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by Dennis C. Jett

The year 2007 undoubtedly will bring its share of unexpected events. But here is one that should catch nobody by surprise—President Bush’s announcement early in the New Year that he is sending more troops to Iraq.

He will justify the “surge” in the number of soldiers as absolutely essential for “victory.” They are really needed for one last desperate attempt to save his place in history, however.

Before the November elections, he asserted that the United States absolutely was winning in Iraq. Now that even he admits that is not true, a change in policy would seem in order. Officially he is reviewing the situation, gathering advice and considering his options. That is just so much theater.

Before the invasion of Iraq, the president also went through the charade of pretending to think about alternative strategies. The decision to invade was made in 2001, perhaps as early as Jan. 21, but certainly no later than Sept. 12. Now the same sort of act is required even though Bush undoubtedly has made a decision. He already has taken the steps to lay the groundwork for the announcement.

The first step was to fire Donald Rumsfeld. The secretary of defense was not let go because the president finally figured out he was incompetent. It was because Rumsfeld was too stubborn to change course and thereby implicitly admit he had mishandled the war. So Rumsfeld had to go.

Step two was to replace him with someone like Robert Gates. A competent bureaucrat with little experience in military matters, he does have an impressive track record for telling the boss what he wants to hear. He also is loyal to his patrons, will deliver the message required and report back the answers that are desired.

The third step was to get the message to the American generals. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had begun to grumble about the armed forces being broken, were placated by Bush’s announcement that the Army and Marine Corps will be expanded. The generals on the ground in Iraq, the ones Bush has always said determine the force levels, also got the message. They figured it out quickly enough to let it be known even before Gates arrived on his initial visit to Iraq that they were willing to accept a surge. U.S. Army Gen. John Abizaid’s decision to leave his post in March rather than July may indicate he would rather retire early than roll over.

The last step is to come up with a mission for the troops to do. Colin Powell, the president’s chief enabler when it came to going to war, is now trying to improve his image by pointing out an increase makes no sense without a mission.

A mission will be conjured up despite the fact there is little that can be accomplished with more American troops. The sources of violence in Iraq mainly are Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents. The militias often are part of the Iraqi government, however.

The most recent example of that is the operation undertaken by British troops on Christmas Day in the southern city of Basra. They attacked and destroyed a police station because the unit headquartered there was little more than a Shiite death squad. The Sunni insurgents can be repressed, but only for a time and at tremendous cost. If the cost is too high for the insurgents, they can retreat and wait out the surge.

There is no way forward in Iraq because the sectarian divide has become too deep, the corrupting influence of oil revenue is too strong and the intervention of neighboring states too destructive and pervasive. The president can’t erase the divide or reduce the corruption. And, trapped by his own rhetoric, he won’t even talk to Iran and Syria.

Very soon the number of American servicemen who have died in Iraq will reach 3,000. Our men and women in uniform were the cannon fodder of the re-election campaign during Bush’s first term. Their sacrifice will be the foundation for the futile attempt to build a historical record that is something other than a disaster in the remainder of his second.

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