... and missing the point

January 24, 2007

President Bush's message on Iraq last night was that Congress and the nation should give American troops the chance to win. The new general in charge of the Iraq effort, the well-regarded David H. Petraeus, told a Senate committee yesterday he believes he can find a way to make the small-scale American escalation work.

But this misses the essential point: The mess in Iraq is not the consequence of an ineffective military strategy. It is a political problem. It stems from the hostility between Sunni and Shiite forces, from the weakness of the Iraqi government - and from the inability of the U.S. to address either. Without a political solution, there can be no military solution.

A lid can be clamped down, a neighborhood can be cleared and held - but the effort will be in vain as long as sufficient numbers of Iraqis are determined to advance their respective causes through violence instead of politics. And it's worse than useless to keep calling this part of the "war on terror," as the president did last night.

By invading Iraq, the United States set the stage for this political problem. Honor and decency would suggest that it is up to the United States to help solve it. But over four years, there has been no sign whatsoever that either American might or American benevolence can be wielded to bring about a better Iraq.

The country is already in a Lebanese-style civil war. The terrible truth is that war will inevitably rage on until exhaustion finally sets in. American soldiers and Marines have no business being in the middle of it.

Disconcertingly, Mr. Bush acts as though reality doesn't pertain to him. He seems to believe he can safely ignore the results of the November election - but that vote was a reality that is going to catch up with him.

If it were sensible, the administration would deliver a message, both to the factions in Iraq and to the governments of Iraq's neighbors - and very definitely including Iran and Syria. It would be this: The United States is redeploying its combat troops out of Iraq, and what will your response be? The answers would help Washington then decide how to go about such a redeployment.

The wrong approach is to threaten a unilateral attack on Iran, as the administration's surrogates have been doing. The president made several hostile references to Iraq's eastern neighbor last night. The consequences of a foolhardy expansion of this failed war would be immensely damaging - for both the Middle East and the United States.

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