One big reason so much of the debate over the war has been reduced to semantics—civil war versus sectarian violence, benchmarks versus timelines versus milestones, withdrawal versus redeployment versus “speeding transfer” to the Iraqis—is that it’s easier to bicker about the meaning of words than it is to argue with conviction for a particular course of action in Iraq. General Abizaid, the U.S. commander for the Middle East, says we can neither decrease nor significantly increase troop levels. The incoming secretary of Defense conceded last week that we aren’t winning—his most positive spin was that we’re “not losing,” either.
There are no attractive policy options, a fact that Americans understand: Only small minorities think we ought to pull out right away (16 percent) or send more troops (17 percent). We know we owe it to the Iraqis to keep trying to mitigate the unholy hell we’ve unleashed in their country—but with the lives of how many more U.S. troops is that debt to be paid? Because there’s no point in prettifying it: We are asking hundreds of Americans, fifteen or twenty a week now, to be (as a Navy lieutenant famously said about Vietnam 35 years ago) the last men and women to die for a mistake.
So the release last week of the report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group was welcomed by almost everyone, desperate for any glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Have the findings of a blue-ribbon commission (one that includes Ed Meese) ever been the object of such needy, fervent hope? Has the phrase “grave and deteriorating” ever seemed so … refreshing?
There are scores of specific recommendations: Enlist the help of Iran and Syria. Encourage a blanket amnesty for the insurgents, even though it will upset the Bill O’Reillys. Increase economic assistance. Have more than six (!) fluent Arabic speakers among the 1,000 people working at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. And do not “make open-ended commitments to keep large numbers of troops deployed in Iraq.” Instead, transform our force ASAP from killers of Iraqi insurgents and militia to trainers and logistical supporters of Iraqi soldiers.
Until now, the central question—when can we get out?—has been cast as a choice between right now and eventually. Maybe the best thing in the Iraq Study Group’s report—apart from its bracing, pessimistic tone and bipartisanship, and its rough target of 2008 for ending full-scale U.S. combat operations—is a sensible mechanism for regulating the speed of withdrawal: Instead of a Bush doctrine that makes troop drawdowns contingent on violence diminishing—which thus enables our enemies and incentivizes our clients to keep us in the quagmire—the new approach would do the opposite, slowing the U.S. pullout if the Iraqi government manages to get its act together but speeding it up if the anarchy continues or worsens. It sounds like a plan.
But a plan that the Bush administration will take seriously? The signals aren’t encouraging. They expunged “stay the course” from their talking points two months ago, threw Donald Rumsfeld overboard a month ago, and now use the phrase “new way forward” as frequently as possible. But the new way looks a lot like the old way. Again and again our angry president has been declaring that his new approach in Iraq is to … stay the fucking course. “We’ll succeed,” he snarled during his recent trip to Vietnam, “unless we quit.” And then, in Latvia: “There’s one thing I’m not going to do. I’m not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.” A few days later, preemptively dissing the Iraq Study Group: “This business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all.” He seems to regard the report as more of an annoyance than an opportunity. No, his original overpromise on Iraq is still operative, despite the profound underdelivery. “If the Iraqis succeed in establishing a free nation in the heart of the Middle East,” he said the other day, “the forces of freedom and moderation across the region will be emboldened, and the cause of peace will have new energy and new allies.”
All of which makes one think he really believes that the chance of forging an effectual pro-American government and a unified, peaceable society in Iraq is closer to 50-50 than, say, 1 in 50. And it will take more than a bipartisan panel of ten éminences grises to convince him otherwise.
The psychological defense mechanism of denial—unconsciously downplaying or ignoring unpleasant facts—is an impulse most people outgrow after childhood. But at Yale, remember, Bush was a cheerleader. As well as a substance abuser who apparently couldn’t admit the problem until he was middle-aged—when he made his swing from boozehound to teetotaler with a plunge into Christian faith but apparently without the 12-step steps that require rigorously abandoning the habit of denial. Consider the great failures of his administration: Katrina, Iraq, the unwillingness to address global warming, and, arguably, before 9/11, Islamic terrorism. Denial runs through them all. If you don’t want to hear bad news, you tend to wait until it’s too late to deal well with its consequences. Even this fall’s elections blindsided him: He believed “in [his] heart of hearts” that the GOP was “not going to lose.”