Jacob's Jottings: Tell Me How this Ends

En route to Baghdad in 2003, General David Petraeus asked a reporter to “tell me how this ends.” Five years later, that’s still up in the air.

There was little sniping and no bombshells. The Senate hearings Monday with General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker turned out, for all the anticipation, to be anticlimactic, which is what was really significant about them. A year into the surge, not only the American military, but also politicians and the public have become exhausted by Iraq. Five years into the war, the entire country is beginning to feel like it's trapped on an indefinite stop-loss policy in Iraq, desperate to divest itself of a country whose birth into democracy now resembles a Frankenstein experiment.

In 2003 Petraeus himself asked, "Tell me how this ends?" Today, as he pleads with Congress not to push for recalling the 160,000 troops stationed in Iraq, this good soldier's answer seems to be something on the lines of, "It doesn't." But as Republican Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) put it, "We're a generous people, but our patience is not unlimited." As the author of this morass, George W. Bush, remained largely out of sight, apart from awarding a Medal of Honor to a Navy Seal who died in battle, the Senate tried to sort out the mess the Decider has left behind, marking, in a sense, the final abdication of Bush's presidency, which will be remembered for a failed war and a mismanaged economy. Indeed, at this point, Bush, who tried to cut out Congress and the military for much of his presidency, has reversed course, abandoning control of the economy to the Federal Reserve and the course of the war to Petraeus.

How well Bush's would-be successors in the Senate will cope with Iraq, however, is an open question. Petraeus' sober depiction of successes in Iraq as "fragile and reversible" underscored the delusional nature of Senator John McCain's (R-AZ) claim that victory in Iraq is "within reach," not to mention his once again getting mixed up about that whole Shia versus Sunni business. The most that Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) could do was reiterate her call for withdrawing troops, while Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) expressed his vexation with the murky nature of the conflict and the Bush administration's goals.

What Petraeus could not acknowledge, however, is that there is no such thing as an Iraqi government. Instead, there is a cabal that would like to consolidate power. But in essence, the United States has created a fictional regime complete with a military force that is unwilling to fight, apart from when it defects to the enemy (one thousand in Basra alone). Even the contention that the surge provided a breathing space for more political reconciliation turns out to be a sham. Ultimately, Petraeus, shorn of the claim that the surge is working by the current fusillade of missiles raining on the Green Zone, which has itself become a symbol of American impotence rather than might, could only retreat to various doomsday scenarios of an Iraq engulfed by civil war or becoming a client state of Iran's.

The civil-war scenario is losing its hold. Part of the problem is that Iraq is already experiencing fratricidal warfare. Another part is that America itself is no foreign-policy innocent in Iraq. Though a number of conservatives have repeatedly tried to invoke the specter of the chaos that ensued in Vietnam upon America's departure-helicopters taking off from the embassy, national humiliation, the boat people washing up on American shores-Iraq is somewhat different. For one thing, the refugee crisis already exists. It was created by the American invasion. Iraq, then, isn't simply a military calamity. It is also a moral one.

According to Deborah Campbell in the April issue of Harper's, who has spent several months living in Syria among Iraqi refugees, America has created "the largest exodus in the Middle East since the Palestinian refugee crisis of 1948." One-fifth of Iraqis have fled their homes-2.5 million are displaced within Iraq, while another 2.5 million have gone into exile. America resettled some 1.4 million refugees after Vietnam, but less than 4,000 Iraqis have been accepted between 2003 to 2008. There's another point that may bear upon Iraq. Americans would have supported exiting Vietnam even if they had been aware of the terrible destruction that lay ahead. It wasn't a choice between boat people or staying the course. The American public had already decided it didn't want to stay the course. Something similar may well happen in Iraq, which is why the Bush administration would be wiser to try and work out a deal on Iraq before the desire to exit Iraq shifts from a longing to a stampede.

To accomplish that, Bush would have to his abandon empty bluster about victory in Iraq and turn to the plan that he rejected before the surge. That plan was formulated by the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report. It maintained that only a regional solution could solve the problem of Iraq. And at the core of the region is Iran. The administration, which foolishly spurned the opportunity to reach an accommodation with an eager Tehran in 2003, has always said it's too soon to deal with Tehran. But maybe it's too late. The longer the fiasco in Iraq drags on, the more powerful Iran becomes. Iran apparently brokered an end to the recent hostilities in Basra. Then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced Tuesday that Iran is installing an additional 6,000 centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear plant. To his credit, Obama addressed the Iran question, acknowledging what Clinton won't, which is that America must deal with the mullahs, who are in an enviable position now that America has toppled their enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan and oil prices soar. For now, as Bush's dream of an American empire of liberty expires in the sands of Iraq, America's foreign policy hopes seem reminiscent of the immortal words of Brooklyn Dodgers fans-"Wait until next year!"

 

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.