Lose a war, lose an election. What else should anyone expect, especially when the war is one we never had to fight? Had Spain defeated us in ’98, does anyone think McKinley/Roosevelt would have won in 1900? A logical corollary is, lose two wars, lose two elections. With the war in Afghanistan following that in Iraq down the tube, 2008 may not be a Republican year.
Even better, by 2008 the American people may have figured out that the two parties are really one party, neither wing of which knows or much cares what it is doing. The vehicle for this realization may once again be the war in Iraq. The next two years, rather than seeing us extricate ourselves from the Iraqi swamp, are likely to witness us floundering ever deeper into it.
The lesson of last week’s election, in which the Republicans lost both Houses of Congress, will not be lost on either party. Both Republican and Democratic senators and congressmen will now agree that the war is a disaster we need to extricate ourselves from. The White House won’t admit it, but it has to see the situation the same way. George Bush and Dick Cheney may not, but Bush’s brain, Karl Rove, certainly does. The puppet must, in the end, obey the puppeteer.
What, then, will keep us in Iraq? While both parties want to get out, neither has nor will be able to create a consensus on how to get out. Not only will they be unable to generate a consensus between the parties, or between the executive branch and the Congress, they will not be able to find consensus within either party on how the withdrawal is to be managed. The result will be paralysis and a continuation of the war.
Part of the reason Washington will not be able to agree on a plan for coming home from Iraq is political. Neither party wants to enable the other to blame it in 2008 for “losing Iraq.” The Democrats are especially fearful of anything that would seem to make them look “weak on defense.”
But a greater part of the reason for fateful indecision will be the very real fact that there are no good options. If we stay in Iraq, the civil war there will intensify, with American troops caught in the middle. Already, all those troops are doing is serving in Operation Provide Targets, with casualty rates that continue to rise.
But if we withdraw, the civil war will intensify all the more rapidly. Unless that civil war is won by someone, someone who can re-create an Iraqi state, Iraq will become a stateless region of permanent chaos, a generator and supplier of the non-state Islamic forces who are our real enemy. That may also happen if the wrong elements win the civil war, extremist Shi’ites allied with Iran or extremist Sunnis with strong al-Qaeda sympathies. The factions who might create a government we could live with are either Ba’athist or connected with the current Iraqi government, neither of which is likely to come out on top. Eggs, once broken, are hard to unscramble.
In the absence of any good options, politicians of both parties in Washington, not wanting to hold the bag for the inevitable failure, will be able to agree only on a series of half-measures. We will train still more Iraqi troops or police, ignoring that both are mostly militiamen for one or another faction. We will pull our troops back into remote bases, where most already stay, remaining in Iraq while the civil war boils up around us. We will try to get the regional powers to help us out, despite the fact that those who would can’t and those who can have no reason to do so. We will steam in circles, scream and shout, hoping desperately for a deus ex machina rescue that is unlikely to appear.
In a reality neither Republicans nor Democrats will dare face, we have only one option left in Iraq. That option is to admit failure and withdraw. We can do it sooner, or, at the cost of more American dead and wounded, we can do it later. Obviously, sooner is better, but that would require a bold decision, which no one in Washington is willing to make.
In World War I, after the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, my reporting senior, Kaiser Wilhelm II, wanted an early, compromise peace. Regrettably, he was unwilling to force that policy on his recalcitrant generals.
Today, in Washington, the generals want peace. They could give the politicians of both parties and both relevant branches of government the cover they need to make peace, by going public in favor of an early withdrawal. Unfortunately, that would require a level of moral courage not notably evident in the senior American military. In its absence, the whole American political system will continue to flounder in a sea of half-measures, American troops will continue to die in a lost war, and the crisis of legitimacy of the American state will continue to grow.