Options left in Iraq war aren't pretty

May 06, 2007|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. - Thomas Jefferson

In a way, it all comes down to a question of which imperative you want to betray.

It is, after all, imperative that we supply our soldiers while they stand in harm's way. It is also imperative that we not keep them uselessly in harm's way. It is imperative that we not sacrifice our troops to an open-ended, ill-defined mission. It is also imperative that we not leave Iraq a lawless incubator for future terrorist strikes.

Our priorities are in collision. That, as much as anything, is the lesson of the brinkmanship between President Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress, and his veto last week of a military funding bill that imposed a deadline for the United States to withdraw from Iraq.

It is a vexing conundrum in which we find ourselves, 50 months after the president ordered U.S. troops into Iraq, 48 months after he stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier beneath a banner that said "Mission Accomplished."

Four years later, we are stuck in the middle of somebody else's civil war, trapped at an intersection of history where there are no good options and every road leads down to darkness.

On the one side, you have Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid telling us the war is lost and we need to get out yesterday and allow Iraq to get about the business of blowing itself up. On the other, you have Mr. Bush and his dwindling coterie of supporters harmonizing on a ghastly corruption of an old John Lennon song, "All we are saaaay-ing ... is give surge a chance."

Are these really our only options?

You find yourself wishing there were more. You think what a pity it is we couldn't assemble some elder statesmen and women, a bipartisan group that could study the situation in Iraq - an Iraq Study Group, if you will - and then report back with alternatives.

Problem is, we did have such a group and last year it presented just such a report. It called for a fundamental shift in U.S. strategy including an aggressive diplomatic outreach to the pariah states of Syria and Iran.

President Bush made a show of pretending to take the recommendations seriously, then ignored them, choosing instead the aforementioned surge of troops. In shunting aside the panel's suggestions, he demonstrated characteristic hubris and a refusal to face unpleasant facts worthy of his claim on being the worst president in living memory, if not ever.

In response, Senator Reid and his fellow Democrats have sought to draw a line in the sand: No withdrawal, no money. It's easy to understand why, after four years of Bush bungling without accountability through a ruinous war, the donkey party would embrace such an ultimatum. But that doesn't make it sensible.

The only thing worse than the debacle we have now is the debacle that would result if we ceded Iraq as a staging ground for al-Qaida and other fundamentalist lunatics.

Thomas Jefferson's quote above refers to the conundrum of slavery. But his words seem even more pertinent to the conundrum of Iraq. We cannot hold on. We cannot let go.

But maybe, if Mr. Bush would give up his faith-based foreign policy and Mr. Reid would stop drawing lines in the dirt, they could craft policies that impose accountability on Iraq's fledgling government, seek outside input and allow for an orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces. As the Iraq Study Group once proposed.

The alternative is to decide which vital imperative we are willing to betray. Should we ask our soldiers to continue dying in a mismanaged and ill-defined war? Or shall we award al-Qaida a new base from which to operate? I don't know about you, but that's a choice I'd prefer not to make.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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