Between now and January, the Bush administration will have to decide whether or not to take the last dignified exit from Iraq. That is, to announce before the Iraqi elections that we will be leaving soon after them. If Bush and his neocon handlers miss this opportunity, our only choice will be to remain in Iraq until we are driven out in a humiliating defeat. Like the kid who knows he has to eat his spinach, we will be better off pretending to choose the inevitable.
What is the chance this will happen? Behind the scenes, a growing number of conservative leaders are working to make it happen. But events are moving the other way. The elevation of the Tea Lady, Miss Rice, to Secretary of State is intended to silence any voices of prudence from that department. New CIA Director Porter Goss recently told his people, "As agency employees we do not identify with, support, or champion opposition to the administration or its policies." If you want to guarantee disaster, there is no better tool than turning your intelligence agency into a closed system. Most indicative is the fact that not a single neocon has been given his walking papers. So long as they are running the show, substantive change is unlikely.
But what are the neocons going to do about Iraq? The insurgency is growing, American casualties are rising, and at some point the American public will demand something better than the nonsense being mouthed by our commanders. (My favorite last week was the American general who claimed Fallujah had "broken the back" of the insurgency. Insurgencies, like octopi, are invertebrate.)
With other fools throughout history, the neocons’ answer to defeat will probably be escalation. What I had predicted as a likely "October Surprise" may instead be a Christmas present: a joint Israeli-American air and missile attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Amazingly, Colin Powell already has launched a repeat of the same strategy that led us to war in Iraq. Based on a single, unvetted intelligence source, he last week accused Iran of attempting to weaponize nuclear warheads to fit on ballistic missiles. It is improbable Iran has any nuclear devices to weaponize (though it is certainly trying to get them, for obvious reasons). But apparently just an accusation is enough to justify preemption. And we recently sold Israel several hundred deep-earth penetrator bombs. It is safe to bet they are not for destroying tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.
We may, of course, officially deny any role in a strike on Iran, leaving Mr. Sharon to take full credit. But Iran, which expects such an attack and has prepared for it, already has said it will hold the U.S. as accountable as Israel.
Knowing nothing about war, the neocons probably expect any Iranian response to be symmetrical: an air and missile counterstrike. But Iran cannot do much that way, and surely knows it. Why shoot a few ineffective missiles at Israel when you have two juicy targets right next door, in the form of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq?
An Iranian riposte in Afghanistan probably would come slowly, in the form of a guerilla war in that country’s Shi’ite regions. That might also be Iran’s response in Iraq, where it already has Revolutionary Guard troops in Shi’ite areas. But there is another possibility. Under the cover of bad weather, which winter often provides, Iran could strike suddenly into Iraq with several armored divisions. Our forces are scattered throughout Iraq, and they cannot mass rapidly because Iraqi guerillas control the roads. With skill that is not beyond what Iran might manage (the Iranian army is better than Saddam’s was) and a bit of luck, they could roll us up before American airpower could get the clear weather it needs to be effective. America would not only lose a war in Iraq; it would lose an army.
At that point the analogy I have suggested from the outset would have come to full fruition: Athens’ Syracuse expedition. Like the Syracuse expedition, a victory in Iraq would have given America little in the war against its real enemies, Islamic non-state forces. But a defeat that resulted in the loss of an entire army would be a catastrophe.
Unfortunately, the only Syracuse expedition most neocons will know about was a college road trip to some school in upstate New York. Take it from me, guys: the hangover this time could be a whole lot worse.