For W., getting rid of Rumsfeld must have been akin to amputating a limb-well, not quite, might argue those suffering from that increasingly common war injury. But with Rumsfeld departing from his once-unassailable Pentagon perch, the Three of One Suit (which makes for a winning hand in the game of rummy) has been broken up and even the impervious commander-in-chief must have some sense of defeat.
The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld triumvirate's mutually reassuring, deafening chorus on Iraq will subside with Rumsfeld's exit, and the hope is a voice of reason (Robert Gates?) will reach the president's ear. Much of the country is looking for signs of strategic transformation. But the Rumsfeld amputation appears to have been merely tactical: a stroke to prevent an emboldened Congress from questioning a Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. And the president has maintained that Gates "understands that defeat is not an option" (true, it is not an option-it is probably inevitable) and those that know Gates well downplay the potential for fundamental change (click here for interview).
So with W. and Cheney remaining atop a tottering superpower and even the neoconservative, Microsoft-Office hawks disavowing their association with the Iraq War, there is seemingly the opportunity for a new direction. The country's hope is naturally turning towards the Democrats. But if there is to be some very remote chance of a cutting of America's losses in Iraq, it is necessary for the country to decipher the Democrats' current proposals.
There are two seemingly promising recommendations coming from Democrats and the ranks of dissenting Republicans. The first, Sen. Carl Levin's (D-MI) managed withdrawal, does not plan for a complete withdrawal (leaving fewer but vulnerable U.S. targets) and is problematic because its execution could well be stymied by an escalating civil war in Iraq. While the insurgency is clearly fueled by the U.S. troop presence, the same cannot be said of the sectarian killing that has already gained fatal momentum. So rising sectarian fury as America tries to exit could well preclude such a departure, or put an American imprimatur on such a bloodbath.
The prospect of a regional conference, which the Iraq Study Group will probably propose and Britain's prime minister is advocating, is more promising. But there has scarcely been a frank discussion of just what would be necessary to enlist Iraq's neighbors in the hard-nosed task of bearing down on their proxies in Iraq to halt the tit-for-tat, homicidal, sectarian rage.
At an event Monday hosted by The National Interest (see here for coverage), Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the United States must ultimately be prepared to acquiesce to an Iranian nuclear program and the return of a broad Syrian presence in Lebanon in order to cajole those countries to seriously coerce their Iraqi proxies. Even then, he added, the chances of success are slim, but America's interest in securing such an outcome is so preponderant Washington must be prepared to accept such outcomes.
Have the Democrats-to say nothing of the hermetically sealed W.-demonstrated a willingness to accept such scenarios? On the contrary, the Democrats have instead rebuked the president for failing to take a harder line on Iran.
Incoming House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi is a co-sponsor of the Iran Freedom Support Act, passed in the House on April 26, which seeks "To hold the current regime in Iran accountable for its threatening behavior and to support a transition to democracy in Iran"-sounds suspiciously familiar.
And the Democrats' agenda unveiled late last month, "A New Direction for America", calls for "redoubled efforts to stop nuclear weapons development in Iran and North Korea." On Iraq, it echoes the promise of ultimate victory, calling for a "tough, smart plan to transform failed Bush Administration policies in Iraq" in order to "defeat the insurgency"-would that be the insurgency the U.S. troop presence sustains?
Gates's comments also don't inspire optimism. In 2004, he said, "It is not in our interest for Iran to have nuclear weapons", adding, "It is not in our interest for Iran to oppose the new governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. And if we can engage them and try and bring some progress in those areas, then our interests have been served."
Certainly, the United States doesn't welcome another state's acquisition of nuclear weapons, or the prospect of one country (Syria) infringing upon the sovereignty of another (Lebanon). But these truisms do not negate the fact that it is probably impossible to simultaneously gain tough Iranian cooperation on Iraq and effectively oppose its nuclear program-such might be the cost of entering the Iraq War of choice.
The president insists that Al-Qaeda itself has identified Iraq as a central front on terror. Leading up to the elections, Bush said, "Osama bin Laden calls this fight the Third World War. He has said that victory for the terrorists in Iraq will mean America's defeat and disgrace forever. It's important to listen to the words of the enemy if you're in war."
Perhaps the president is right and we should take these words by Al-Qaeda's new Iraq leader, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, literally: "We haven't had enough of your blood yet."
The continuing U.S. presence in Iraq allows jihadists to turn to their standby for challenging great military powers-death by 1,000 cuts. America is bleeding strategically, financially and morally in Iraq. And Washington isn't yet prepared to put a stop to it.
Leaving Iraq clearly creates a liability for the United States, principally the rhetorical one both Bush and Al-Qaeda have articulated: a galvanizing Al-Qaeda victory. But the U.S. military presence in Iraq hands the jihadists another galvanizing advantage: ongoing inspiration for revenge, within a population prepared to resort to "matyrdom." And America's losses in Iraq are material, undermining the foundation of U.S. power.
Rumsfeld can no longer dream of building the Army he would have liked to have had, leaving Robert Gates to deal with the Army that he does have: a rather battered one, due to the ongoing war. By any metric, the outgoing defense secretary's legacy is catastrophic, and Gates cannot be too sanguine about his recent inheritance.
Ximena Ortiz is editor of National Interest online. The views in this article are strictly those of the author.