Surprises in the offing

December 03, 2006

The people who go on about things in this country were going on last week about whether the fighting in Iraq was now a civil war. It's not an altogether useless point to argue over - but the way it was debated was alarmingly symptomatic of a much bigger issue that Washington seems hardly able to recognize. American columnists and cable news anchors and all those remote talking heads on the screen, in uniform and out, were acting as though it was up to Americans to decide this question.

In fact, Americans aren't in control of events in Iraq anymore - the White House and NBC News can debate the phraseology as much as they care to, but the question will be settled by what happens there, not here.

Americans are told that the Iraq Study Group, having discovered that there is no brilliant stroke that can solve things, compromised and will recommend a gradual pullout without specific dates attached. President Bush replies, in a press conference in Jordan with Iraq's prime minister, that a graceful exit isn't realistic. And, unfortunately, he's probably right - though apparently what he meant to convey was that no exit without victory was going to happen as long as he is president.

Implicit in all this is a strange obliviousness, as if American timetables or non-timetables would be unaffected by actual events and the decisions of actual, and non-American, people. There seems to be a perception that Iraq, though a mess, is a static mess, and that the United States can carefully plot its response to that mess over the months or years that lie ahead.

This is unrealistic. Iraq is unraveling and the pace is quickening. It's quite evident that the people in the administration who actually have to deal with this have no idea what to do. A memo by Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, suggests that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should be persuaded to cut his ties with the hotheaded Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, according to the New York Times - but Mr. al-Sadr is the most popular leader in Iraq, and controls the largest militia, and that makes Mr. Hadley's idea practically a non-starter.

Over at the Pentagon, meanwhile, some people are suggesting that the U.S. should pick a side in the civil war instead of trying to contain it, and they suggest going with the Shiites. That might please Mr. al-Sadr, but not the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The Iraq Study Group will also recommend diplomatic talks with Iran and Syria, which is a good idea though the president doesn't think so. Even better would be to get both those countries as well as Saudi Arabia and Turkey in on a plan to contain the violence and manage an American exit, even if it's not a graceful one. But it will have to happen soon, because events - that is to say, continuing unexpected events - are threatening to overtake any deliberations that might be ready to happen in Washington.

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