Washington and the war

January 07, 2007

Gen. George W. Casey Jr. began 2006 thinking he could reduce the number of American troops in Iraq. He failed. Now President Bush has replaced the general and is determined to push for victory. But if withdrawing was hard, winning will be next to impossible.

The violence in Iraq is no longer a straightforward struggle of insurgents against Americans. It is about Sunnis and Shiites, with the Americans attempting to prop up what was supposed to be a national government but has become a front for crude Shiite power, as the hanging of Saddam Hussein plainly showed. The killing could, in theory, be brought under control with sufficient force - though to be truly sufficient such a force would have to be almost impossibly large - but even then it wouldn't be victory. It would mean the repression of Sunnis, and the beginning of a backlash throughout the Middle East.

The president plans to lay out his new strategy for Iraq this week, and all signs point to an escalation of U.S. troop strength there. It will mean more American casualties. It will mean a greater strain on an overstretched army. It will reduce America's ability to react to crises elsewhere - and don't imagine that the would-be crisis-creators aren't aware of that.

And for what? How many more people must die to maintain a fiction - that the U.S. is building a new and better Iraq? An escalation of a size that's feasible would expose more Americans and Iraqis to violence, but would be too small to change the larger course of events. Some people argue that a so-called surge will give the president the cover he needs to withdraw later. We fail to see the logic in that. The U.S. is in a hole; Mr. Bush wants to dig it deeper.

There was a great deal of job-shuffling in Washington last week. Some of the changes are probably improvements. But it's hard to see how even the best-intentioned of people can find a way to recast the dilemma of Iraq. To lose there would be catastrophe for this country, but, as we pointed out, the conflict is beyond the point where the U.S. can contemplate being able to win.

Congress may consider rescinding the 2002 act that enabled Mr. Bush to go to war in Iraq, on the grounds that none of the justifications for the war as listed in the act - weapons of mass destruction, a government allied with al-Qaida, a tyrant needing to be toppled - are in any sense operative today. On the face of it, this would be an excellent course to follow, though it raises the question as to what would happen next. If the administration simply ignores the rescission, it could make the whole exercise virtually meaningless except as a partisan statement - or it could precipitate a profound constitutional showdown.

Should Congress then shrink from challenging the president on Iraq? We think not.

Mr. Bush has shown that he doesn't understand the terrible and continuing damage he has done to the United States by pursuing the fantasy of victory. There have been no indications that his speech this week will change that opinion, though we hope it does. It would be the most natural thing in the world if the leaders of the new Congress decided that their best course was to wait and hope this whole nightmare just fades away. But that won't happen. They must prepare themselves, with care and foresight, for a period of difficult and trying contention with the administration. Two more years of this is too long.

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