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The Great Pseudo-Debate

We only pretend to talk seriously about Iraq. The politics of the war are Kabuki theater, punctuated by moments of Democratic jujitsu.

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Illustration by Darrow  

We’re seriously debating immigration. We may be about to begin a serious debate on health care. But we aren’t debating Iraq, not really, if by that we mean a tough, thorough, honest national conversation about how we’re going to cope for the long term with the staggering mess we’ve unleashed. We only pretend to debate Iraq.

The Bush administration and its irreducible hard core of supporters, refusing to cop to their own failures, accuse critics of “trying to ensure that there’s failure in Iraq,” as House Republican leader John Boehner said recently of the opposition. Everyone else blames the Bush administration for its warmongering deceptions and war-fighting incompetence—but pretty much leaves it at that, either changing the subject or imagining that rage at the masters of war and a willingness to withdraw U.S. forces right away lets them off the hook. Among the Democratic presidential candidates, the exchanges devolve to inconsequential gotchas—which candidate opposed the war earliest, whether Hillary Clinton should “apologize” for voting to authorize it in 2002, whether de-funding votes in May by Clinton and Barack Obama are sufficient proof of their antiwar bona fides. And the Republican candidates would prefer not to talk about it.

Rather, the fake Iraq debate is all about the comparatively minor, near-term details of the American military withdrawal-cum-redeployment. Most of the Democrats say they want it to begin soon—even though, in all likelihood, the later it starts the better it is for them politically, as the cynical Br’er Rabbits among them know. And while Republicans in Congress continue for now to say they oppose “artificial deadlines,” their feelings about the issue are, in fact, entirely in thrall to the great, looming artificial deadline of November 4, 2008.

The Washington pseudo-debate will spike in three weeks, when the administration is supposed to report on how the Iraqi government is doing on its political “benchmarks,” and then reach a real frenzy in September, when General Petraeus, the commander in Iraq, delivers his report on how our last-ditch military struggle is going.

It’s not impossible that things could start turning around quickly. A year ago, the situation looked hopeless in the province of Anbar, with Al Qaeda on the rise and in alliance with the Sunni tribes. Now Anbar is the epicenter of hope, with the tribes fighting the crazies. A half-year after Bush petulantly, gratuitously dissed the Iraq Study Group plan (“As I have constantly made clear,” he lied recently, “the recommendations of Baker-Hamilton appeal to me”), he’s embracing it—not just doubling down on Baghdad but talking to Iran.

And if Secretary of Defense Gates and the other American officials really are delivering no-bullshit now-or-never threats during their frequent Green Zone visits to Prime Minister al-Maliki and company, perhaps even some definitive movement on the pivotal political issues (cutting former Baathists some slack, holding local elections, divvying oil revenues) could happen in the scant time remaining. Democrats argue that the Bush administration’s open-ended commitment to the war has permitted the Iraqi elites to fiddle while Baghdad burns. It’s profoundly ironic that American liberals, of all people, are making a stern culture-of-dependency argument the central premise of their Iraq policy. But they happen to have a point.

In the National Journal this month, General Martin Dempsey, the new Central Command deputy commander, said that after he cut the U.S. supply of fuel to Iraqi Army vehicles earlier this year, the Iraqis quickly reduced their dependence on the Americans from 60 percent to 10 percent. “When I congratulated Iraqi officials … for stepping up, they said there was no choice in the matter because I had issued a ‘Dempsey fatwa!’ ”

Which makes you think that maybe the political pressure on the Bush administration, even if it’s futile legislatively, may be useful tactically by giving our in-theater ultimatums an edge: If the Iraqis don’t cooperate with the good cops (Dempsey, Petraeus, Gates), then the bad cops (Reid, Pelosi, Murtha) could step in.

Yet is it really possible that some light at the end of the tunnel will be visible ten or twelve weeks from now, when General Petraeus delivers his report? It’s pretty to think so, but the generals, who seem more inclined to candor than our political leaders, aren’t operating on a great-news-by-autumn-or-else timeline. As Dempsey put it, “peace break[ing] out between now and September … if that’s the standard, then we’re not going to achieve it.” And Petraeus’s No. 2, General Raymond Odierno, says, “The surge needs to go through the beginning of next year for sure. What I am trying to do is to get until April so we can decide whether to keep it going or not.”

And they undoubtedly will get that long. To call it quits sooner would require 67 senators to overrule the generals. While sending more U.S. forces is equally a nonstarter, even Boehner, the House minority leader, has said that if there’s no surge-driven progress by fall, it’ll be time for Plan B. And for Republicans facing elections next year, any Plan B must entail a withdrawal from Iraq that starts well before November 2008.

Thus are the U.S. politics of the Iraq war a Kabuki performance, punctuated by occasional moments of Democratic jujitsu. Washington will continue to bicker about timetables and appropriations, but whatever happens in Iraq between now and the end of this year, American policy is largely preordained for the next year and a half.

But that doesn’t mean our long national nightmare will end when a new president is sworn in. We’re only approaching the end of the beginning of our Iraq misadventure, not the beginning of the end.


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