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James Heffernan Headshot

Let the Decider Decide

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Deck chairs, anyone?

Three years and seven months after it was launched, our great adventure in Middle East regime change resembles nothing so much as the Titanic on its way down.

But don't think for a moment that our captain is fooling with deck chairs. On the contrary, he's holding the wheel of his sinking ship steady while waiting for a team of grand old salts to recommend just how they should be re-arranged.

A new arrangement, he thinks, will not just right the ship but tilt it back up and speed it on to port, or in other words victory. And he will settle for nothing less.

Dream on, captain.

Now that his party has been thumped for mismanaging the war in Iraq, the president knows that he cannot indefinitely stay the present course. If he leaves the mess in Iraq for his successor to clean up, he will hand the White House to the Democrats, who will add that to their ever lengthening list of humiliating conquests. So what can he do?

Get out? He can't set a timetable for withdrawal because nobody knows when, if ever, the Iraqi army will be ready and willing to "stand up" for Iraq as a whole rather than for the Sunnis or the Shiites, who are now embroiled in what can only be called a civil war. Absent any assurance that government forces can stop the epidemic of killings and stabilize the country, any decision to remove our troops by a specified date would be a decision to--impossible!--cut and run.

Send more troops, as John McCain urges? We haven't got them. At most we've got 20,000 more, but that's approximately the number that was redeployed to Baghdad from elsewhere in Iraq last summer--since which time the killings in Baghdad have surged, and in the country as a whole they now average well over one hundred a day. Even if 20,000 more soldiers would do any good in Iraq, can we consider sending them when we're begging our allies for more troops in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban (remember them?) is fighting hard?
It's long been said that our forces must be able to fight two wars at once, but all by itself, the war in Iraq has exhausted our troops, leaving us no real means to wage any other war, let alone defend the people of Darfur, where the unholy alliance of Sudanese government troops and janjaweed horsemen have killed over 300,000--a hundred times the number killed here on 9/11.

Ask Iran and Syria to help? This of course is what James Baker has long been urging, and what will almost certainly be recommended by the Iraq Study Group that he and Lee Hamilton jointly chair. If the president follows their recommendation and starts talking to all governments in the neighborhood of Iraq, not just to our allies, he will at last have chosen the path of diplomacy over that of belligerence: a wiser course. But even if the president can be weaned from the doctrine that we must never talk to our enemies (until of course they do beforehand everything we want them to do), what can he say to Iran and Syria? Does he expect Iran to forget that we are threatening it with sanctions because we suspect it is bent on breeding nuclear weapons? Even if we can somehow ignore the nuclear question, does he expect Iran--which has been training and funding the Mahti militias in Iraq--to help Prime Minister al-Maliki disarm those militias? (Doing so would be only slightly less difficult than for Bush himself to disarm the National Rifle Association. ) And as for the Syrians, does he expect them to forget that we suspect them of aiding Hezbollah in its attacks on Israel, of undermining the government of Lebanon, of assassinating two of its leaders, and of resisting all efforts to let an international tribunal investigate the killings?

Having learned from painful experience how little we can achieve by force of arms in the Middle East, what will our president give to Iran and Syria in return for what he hopes to get?

Your decision, sir. We're waiting.