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Archive for May, 2007

[Originally published in the Herald of Randolph.]

The twin realities of a Democratic Congress bent on representing the desires of the American electorate, as expressed in the 2006 elections, and an obdurate President Bush, immune to consideration of any policy change, but armed with an override-proof veto, mean that we will not know for sure what will happen in Iraq until after the 2008 Presidential elections.

Impeachment will not happen. We are stuck in Iraq at least until then, and probably far beyond.

Nevertheless, the question of where this is headed is clearly important enough to be addressed. Largely because crystal balls are notoriously cloudy, only those without adequate common sense and good judgment are prone to offer answers.

According to the Bush Administration, we will either win or lose. There is no middle ground for them. V.P. Cheney now defines “winning” as the establishment of a “democratic government that can defend itself,” so it all depends on the formation of a viable government.

Every American military expert in and out of this Administration, says Iraq cannot be won militarily. The solution in Iraq is political. Such a political solution is improbable at best because none of the Iraqi parties is interested. Each is interested in a solution that will bring it power at the expense of its internal rivals. The Kurds and Shia have waited eternities and suffered endlessly from their enemies. Thus “winning” seems essentially unreachable. Nevertheless, we are committed to pursue the current strategy or to fail. As hard as it may be to believe, there is no Plan B.

“Losing” means that the American people (not the Congress, as Bush insists) will no longer support the Iraq war and we will withdraw, salvaging what we can from an impossible situation.

Incredibly, within this spectrum the Republicans acknowledge only two outcomes- “win” or “lose”. There is no middle ground, even though the Iraq Study Group findings include numerous alternate strategies. Unfortunately, we have never been told precisely what progress the Bush administration requires to be able to say that the current “surge policy” has “won.” Must an Iraqi government be functioning? Does Iraq have to be safe, or is safety only required in selected areas around Baghdad?

And, how do we define “safe”? Polls today indicate that almost no Iraqis feel “safe,” that Iraqis overwhelmingly would like us out of their country, and that over half of Iraqis approve of killing Americans.

Right now, we appear to be dealing primarily with Sunni insurgents and foreign fighters. What has happened to the Mahdi Army and Moqtada al Sadr? What are his plans? If he keeps his powerful militia out of the fray, the Bush administration might conceivably be able to declare that we have succeeded and then withdraw our troops.

A case can be made that this is, or might be, the collective, secret prayer of the Bush administration, because if Moqtada turns the Mahdi Army loose, all hell will result.

But remember, the Mahdi is Shia and thus part of the largest ethnic or religious group in the country. It has never shown any inclination to share power with the others. It is highly likely that even if they do stay out of the fray long enough to permit us to withdraw, they will return to battle after our withdrawal with the same goal of dominance, removing whatever shred of hope we might have had for democracy, stability and political compromise within Iraq.

What we have to ask ourselves is just how much we can hope to influence the ultimate Iraq outcome, just how much that will cost and whether or not it’s worth it.

Forget the “at all costs” part of the Bush equation for “winning.” Many of the Bush administration’s dire predictions about the consequences of “premature” withdrawal are wildly overblown and can be fixed or mitigated by any number of policy changes that the Bush administration will not now even consider.

American foreign policy is not nimble. It corrects course more like an aircraft carrier than a PT boat. The simple implementation of the 2003 invasion of Iraq has set in play a process that will take much longer to fix than most Americans would like. It seems likely that whoever is elected President in 2008 will struggle mightily with the inheritance of Iraq and will suffer roughly the same fate as its authors.

America’s extraordinary misadventure in Iraq will probably turn out to be the greatest foreign policy disaster in the history of our Republic. We have sacrificed decades of good will generated through the past pursuit of policies that were generally viewed internationally as positive. We are now seen as a mindlessly arrogant bully, thrashing about the world unapologetically, doing whatever we think is good for America, without any understanding of the cultures in which we meddle and without reference to the needs of anyone other than ourselves.

This cloudy, crystal ball thinks that this will be the Bush legacy. What will we do in 2008?

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served, inter alia, in Lebanon and Iran and as Chief of the Agency’s Counterterrorism Staff. He lives in Williston, Vt.

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