LONDON — Landlubbers usually get maritime analogies wrong. “Changing course” is not cowardice; it’s the sensible thing to do if the ship is headed for the rocks. “Cutting” (the anchor cable) “and running” (before the wind) is what you do when the storm is raging, the anchor is dragging, and the ship is being driven onto a lee shore.
And only very stupid rats do not leave a sinking ship.
About four years too late, the “masters of the universe” are having second thoughts about the wisdom of the whole misbegotten enterprise in Iraq. Washington swirls with leaks, like the secret report by Col. Pete Devlin, the U.S. Marine Corps chief of intelligence, that U.S. troops in Anbar province, the heartland of Sunni resistance, control nothing beyond their own bases, and that the Iraqi government has no functioning institutions in the province. And senior Republicans are seeking an exit strategy that will absolve their party from blame for the disaster that is today’s Iraq.
The long-term domestic political strategy is clear: blame the Iraqis themselves. William Buckley, conservative editor of the National Review, is already writing things like “our mission has failed because Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable by an invading army of 130,000.” We did our best for them, but they let us down.
That argument may well persuade American voters in the long run, because they have never had much knowledge of Iraq, nor much interest in it. But if, as expected, the Republicans lose control on one or both houses of Congress this November, then the Democrats will make President George W. Bush’s last two years in office miserable with Congressional investigations into the lies used to justify the invasion and the staggering incompetence of the occupation. So either Bush must be persuaded to change course, or else the Republican Party must put some distance between itself and Bush. That’s where the Republican grandees come in.
The Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission co-chaired by former U.S. President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, will present its recommendations for future strategy in Iraq — essentially, for an exit strategy — in December or January.
It is as an attempt by the grownups in the Republican Party to separate the current President Bush from the ignorant ideologues who encouraged him to invade Iraq and still refuse to admit their mistake, but it will not succeed in that aim, for two reasons.
One is that there is no longer any good exit strategy from Iraq. American military deaths there will probably exceed 100 this month for the first time since January 2005. At least 3,000 Iraqis are being killed each month, but a recent study by a team of epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins University suggests that it may be as high as 15,000. The country is just as likely to break up if American troops stay as if they leave, and the ISG’s talk of seeking help from Syria and Iran to stop the rot is sheer fantasy.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, returning early this month from a two-week tour of the Middle East, said: “Most of the leaders I spoke to felt the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath has been a real disaster for them. It has destabilized the region.” But nobody feels that getting deeply involved with the Bush administration’s policies as the American adventure in Iraq nears its end is wise or even safe.
Syria’s Ba’athist regime counts 2,000 Iraqi refugees crossing its border every day, and contemplates with horror the prospect of inheriting Anbar province and perhaps the whole “Sunni triangle” of Iraq. Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus is based on Syria’s Alawite (Shiite) minority, and so many more Sunni militants could shift the balance in Syria in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood and another Sunni uprising. But becoming associated with American policy in the region would only make the risk of revolution worse.
Saudi Arabia is urgently building a 875-km high-tech fence along the full length of its border with Iraq in anticipation of a flood of jihadis and refugees heading south when Iraq breaks up, but it will not intervene in some futile attempt to stop it. Iran expects to benefit from close links with the Shiite parties that dominate most of Arabic-speaking Iraq, but has no incentive to save the United States from humiliation or even to prevent the break-up of Iraq. Why should it?
The other reason that the ISG’s recommendations will be ignored is that far too many people have already been killed for Bush and his advisers to admit that their “war of choice” was all a mistake. As Vice President Dick Cheney told Time magazine this month: “I know what the president thinks. I know what I think. And we’re not looking for an exit strategy. We’re looking for victory.”
What they really need is a strong-man who could hold Iraq together and support their policies in the region. Somebody like Saddam Hussein, perhaps, but Washington lost control of him long ago, and besides he’s due to hang later this year. So it may yet come to the Famous Final Scene, with people scrambling onto helicopters from the roofs of the Green Zone in Baghdad.