In his address to the American people last Sunday evening, President George W. Bush said, “Yet now there are only two options before our country: victory or defeat.” As usual, Mr. Bush is wrong.
Victory is not an option, and it never was. The strategic objectives the Bush administration set for this war a peaceful, democratic Iraq that would be an American ally, a friend of Israel, a source of unlimited oil and of basing rights for large American forces were never attainable, no matter what we did. Strategies invented in Fairyland cannot be implemented in the real world. Pity the military that is ordered to try.
Defeat is an option. In my last column I described one way that could occur, an Israeli and/or American attack on Iran that leads Iraqi Shi’ites to join the Sunni jihad and cut our lines of supply and retreat through southern Iraq. There are additional scenarios that could lead to a dramatic American defeat, a defeat we could not disguise to anyone, not even ourselves. Presumably, this is not an option we wish to select.
The most promising options, of which the president of the United States seems to be unaware, are those that end the war and bring American troops home without an outright American defeat. This is how most limited wars end, with some sort of compromise peace, official or unofficial.
I have discussed two such options in previous columns. One is a request from the Iraqi government that we leave, which would give us a golden bridge out. Another is to cut a deal with nationalist and Ba’athist elements of the Sunni insurgency, a deal where we would stop fighting them and provide them some political support while they clean up al-Qaeda.
Two recent stories in the Washington Times suggest the second option may now be within reach. On Sunday, Dec. 18, the paper reported that precisely these Sunni resistance groups had enforced an election truce, allowing Sunnis to vote. More,
"The truce resulted from weeks of negotiations between U.S. officials and insurgents that have been recently labeled by President Bush as ‘rejectionists.’
"The willingness of U.S. officials to talk directly with many, if not most, insurgents marked a huge change from American thinking at the outset of the war."
Hurray for those “U.S. officials!” Here at last is some genuine good news from Iraq.
The Washington Times story on Monday, Dec. 19, was even more promising:
"Influential political and religious figures within the leadership of Iraq’s minority Sunnis are displaying sharp divisions on how to end what they all agree is an unacceptable U.S. occupation of Iraq.
"The increasingly prevalent view is that the United States is not only part of the problem, but that it can become part of the solution. That perspective was explained by an influential religious sheik (Abed al-Latif Hemaiym), who has in the past been close to dictator Saddam Hussein.
“‘The time has come to solve the problem between us and the Americans, and through the minimum cost,’ said the soft-spoken sheik.
“‘There is a historical opportunity to get out of this bloodshed and reach peace. We can reach peace [only] through dialogue,’ he said.
"He pointed out that Sunnis had suffered severely in the two years of conflict since armed insurgency began, noting, ‘We are the main losers, then the Americans, while the main winners are the Iranians.'”
That summary of the war’s results is right on the money.
The question is whether Washington will grasp this opportunity before it fades away. It means halting our war against the Ba’athists and nationalists, in what would be an acceptance of local defeat. But it opens the door to a potential strategic victory against our real enemies, Islamic non-state forces such as al-Qaeda. If, subsequent to an American deal with the Ba’athists, they root al-Qaeda out of Iraq, it will be a greater win for us than if we defeated al-Qaeda ourselves, because it will have been beaten by fellow Arabs and Muslims. That strikes directly at al-Qaeda’s legitimacy.
If the Bush administration means what Mr. Bush said, that the only choices are victory or defeat, then it will let this heaven-sent opportunity pass. We will continue to pursue unattainable victory until we are totally defeated. Let us hope the president’s speech was just the usual eyewash for domestic consumption, and somewhere adults are working for the negotiated settlement we so desperately need and which now may be within reach.