No Easy Way Out
We may be headed on a long, hard path to peace.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
It is too soon to feel good about the future of Iraq. Events this week remind us that the war rages on, even as a new strategy emerges in Washington that provides real cause for hope.
In the past few days six American soldiers have died, most killed by an enemy that remains invisible. At least a thousand Iraqi civilians died, probably more—in this dark conflict we have no way of knowing. Dozens of academics and administrators were abducted in a well-organized and bizarre mass-kidnapping at the Iraqi Ministry for Higher Education. The attack appears to have been carried out by hundreds of uniformed police officers.
This war, a new brand of war, continues to frustrate any attempt at understanding. The vectors of violence are so complex they are practically indecipherable—it looks like chaos. Ending this war means putting an end to the chaos, and that will not be an easy task. It’s naïve to think that the immediate withdrawal of US troops will bring anything that looks like peace. At this point, even the “phased redeployment” being suggested by many Democrats seems too simple.
And yet this week, for the first time in years, we can look at the situation in Iraq and feel something other than bottomless despair. So many things have happened so fast, and all signs point toward an end to this nightmare.
Last Tuesday’s election is being universally read as a profound repudiation of the president’s war, and already the nation has embarked on a new course. Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation on the day after the election was only one of many positive developments.
Robert Gates, the man President Bush is putting forward to take over at the Pentagon, has been openly critical of the war as it is being waged. Though he comes with some troubling baggage (see pg. 15), Gates has recently been working with the Iraq Study Group—a bi-partisan commission assembled by Congress. In choosing Gates, the president—even as he persists in his refusal to recognize that his war was an enormous mistake—seems to be signaling that he does not intend to block the commission’s efforts.
Leon Panetta is also a member of the Iraq Study Group. He and I spoke about its work three weeks ago, and he described a serious effort to confront what he clearly sees as a dire situation. There is no reason to be optimistic just yet, but we do have reason to believe that the commission will point a way out of the quagmire.
The military establishment is also committed to a change of strategy; Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, is engaged in a critical assessment of all US anti-terrorism efforts, focusing mainly on Iraq. Even Condoleeza Rice has reportedly reached a turning point in her thinking, following a trip to Baghdad last month.
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Meanwhile, the newly empowered Democrats are taking rapid steps in the right direction. Nancy Pelosi, who will be Speaker of the House, vowed to work toward cleaning up the mess in Iraq, and not waste time in partisan attacks; that will anger those of her constituents who want to see her launch impeachment proceedings, but it’s a wise move.
Harry Reid, who will become the new Senate Majority Leader, promised on Tuesday to seek an international approach, beginning with a regional Middle East conference, and vowed to revitalize the reconstruction effort in Iraq. Reid also pledged a $75 billion boost to the US military budget. And that, too, is a hopeful sign. He seems intent on doing what’s best for Iraq, not what’s easiest in Washington.
By recognizing that the path to long-term peace probably does not mean the immediate pull-out of American forces, Reid risks drawing the ire of Americans who are sick with frustration over this war.
It is likely that even if the wise members of the Iraq Study Group can help us see a path toward peace, we will find that more money must be spent, and more American lives lost, before this thing is over.
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By coincidence, the president traveled this week to Vietnam. It has taken most of the past 30 years for that country to recover from the violent folly that our government committed there. The Vietnam War was a mistake, and it needed to end, but it did not end well. We started a fire there, and then left it to burn.
It isn’t too late for us to treat Iraq differently. That might just happen, though it isn’t going to happen soon.