Lack of fortitude

November 16, 2006

Gen. John P. Abizaid, the U.S. commander in the Middle East, told a Senate committee yesterday that the next four to six months are crucial in Iraq. Talk about a failure of the imagination! Various generals and pundits and senators and Pentagon officials have been trotting out that line for years now. It's as though they think it never grows old. Sen. John McCain accused the general of advocating a maintenance of the status quo, which, Mr. McCain pointedly noted, is not what the American people opted for on Nov. 7. The general denied it.

The truth is that nobody knows what to do about Iraq because it's pretty clear there are no good likely outcomes. The safe thing is to declare that half a year from now America will really, really have to make a decision. No one in Washington is willing to say: "Whatever America does, pull out or stay or escalate, it will be a disaster."

Democrats, such as Sen. Carl Levin, soon to be chairman of the Armed Services Committee, advocate a phased withdrawal because it doesn't look like a rout and because it can be tarted up with the notion that it will stiffen the Iraqi government's backbone. Iraq, to any sensible observer, is way past that point. General Abizaid wants to hang around for a while in case something good turns up, which is a heck of an excuse for the deaths of three American soldiers and Marines and countless Iraqis every day. Senator McCain and others argue that the best way to end the problem is to pour in additional troops and clamp down on everything. To which a reasonable person might ask, assuming that's even possible - and then what?

In Congress, just about everyone is hoping the Iraq Study Group, led by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, will produce a plan by next month that all sides can hide behind. It would be great if it did - if there were some magical strategy that would be a key to success and that no one at all had thought of up to this point. There's been a lot of talk about engaging diplomatically with Iran and Syria. That's a good idea and might alleviate some of the pain, but it's not going to put Iraq back together again - and of course Tehran and Damascus will be sure to exact a price for their cooperation no matter what.

The simplest solution is the enough-already-we're-out-of-there approach. The negative consequences of that - in Iraq and around the world and in U.S. domestic politics - would be profound and long-lasting. That's why, of all the bad options, a phased withdrawal coupled with a burst of diplomacy and an appeal to other nations to lend a hand could be the most palatable.

No one in Washington wants to be the Side that Lost Iraq. It would be a whole lot easier if it were the Other Side that Lost Iraq. American soldiers, after all, haven't been defeated, in a traditional sense, and that makes it even tougher to pull the plug. But the problem is not with them - it's with the strategists at home who refuse to admit that this war they concocted does no one any good.

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