The Great Pseudo-Debate

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.

Are you intellectually honest? Test yourself with a few thought experiments. Democrats: Imagine if John Kerry had won, and a half-dozen retired generals had publicly objected to his management of the war—wouldn’t you be screaming coup d’état? And Republicans, what if a Democratic White House had waged war this badly—wouldn’t you now be calling that president criminally incompetent, impeachable? This is why people find politics loathsome. And while I know democratic politics is an inherently simplifying process, a way to make complicated issues understandable to everyone, American political discourse seems to have a special intolerance for nuance and complexity. Which is especially unfortunate now, because the Middle East is so not simple.

It was our weakness for childlike, black-and-white explanation that got us into the Iraq debacle. To the neocons and Bush, the task at hand was simple, like a fairy tale: Saddam was a monster, and destroying his government would be easy, after which the liberated Iraqis could build a friendly democracy. No real thought was given to all that might go wrong. What counted was the beautiful big idea.

The antiwar left’s conviction now that everything will be fine if we simply ship home all our troops is born of a similar impulse, a wishful naïveté so convinced of its own righteousness that it refuses to imagine vast unintended consequences, let alone to anguish over them. Little thought is given to what might happen after we leave. What if, instead of 100 murdered Iraqi civilians a day, the number is in the thousands? What happens if ethnic cleansing becomes state policy? And the Saudis intervene to protect their Sunni brothers from slaughter? And Turkey invades the Kurdish provinces? What counts is the beautiful, big idea.

The neocons and the lefties have in common a shrugging callousness to the horrors their simple plans unintentionally enable in Iraq: eliminating the Baathist dictatorship uncorked a civil war, and eliminating U.S. troops may well turn it into a much bigger one—but it’s the Iraqis to blame for the chaos and murder, not us.

The Democratic presidential candidates talk blithely of “ending” the war in Iraq, as if our departure will lead directly to an orderly peace. “The Democrats have the power,” says Dennis Kucinich, baldly misstating the facts, “to end the war right now.” John Edwards: “Congress has a responsibility to force George Bush to end this war.” And Barack Obama: “It’s time to end this war.” But our problem is not that Bush won’t order an end to this war, it’s that he can’t. Nor can Congress.

Presidential politics privilege optimism above all, so any glimmers of honesty from the candidates on Iraq are to be welcomed. So good for Fred Thompson when he says that “we are left with nothing but bad choices,” and for Rudy Giuliani when he says, contra Bush, that “we have to be ready” to deal with a final failure. Hillary Clinton grants that “we may need a vastly reduced residual force,” but I think that all of the Democrats with any hope of getting elected know that our final expenditure on Iraq—in lives and dollars and years—is probably not much more than half-paid. Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule—“You break it, you own it”—will not expire in January 2009.

Those of us who voted against Bush might like to think that Iraq is all “his” bungle, that we’re therefore free to walk away from the horror show. But we’re a nation, and we’re all responsible for all of our national liabilities. This is not Vietnam, where we hadn’t started the civil war, and where we really did have the power to end the killing by leaving. A more apt analogy, I worry, is the Soviet war in Afghanistan. After the 1979 invasion, the Soviets maintained a force of between 80,000 and 100,000 troops in a Muslim country of some 20 million people divided along ethnic, tribal, and sectarian lines. As General Petraeus said the other day, “I think historically, counterinsurgency operations have gone at least nine or ten years.” The Red Army left Afghanistan after nine years and 14,000 killed in a counterinsurgency war against a mix of indigenous fighters and the foreign jihadi who became the core of Al Qaeda. And six months later, the Soviet empire began to dissolve.

In other words, they were damned if they stayed and damned if they left, and so are we. Which should be the starting point of the real debate we need to begin.


The Great Pseudo-Debate