The big muddy

August 23, 2007

The prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, says the United States has no business imposing benchmarks on his government's performance. He's right, actually.

Iraqis elected a parliament some time ago, and it's perfectly clear that since then the continuing American occupation has done little to enhance security and nothing to promote reconciliation. It's a fantasy to imagine that a timetable of benchmarks can now be established that will somehow allow an orderly, conscience-clear American withdrawal.

Reconciliation? The United States is busily shipping arms to Sunni militia groups in the wildly optimistic expectation that they will use them against "terrorists" but not against their enemies in Mr. Maliki's government. No wonder the prime minister, as hapless as he is, is losing his patience with Washington.

At least he's a realist.

Yesterday, President Bush said Americans will fight on to victory in Iraq. He brought up Vietnam and said it showed what happens when America loses its will and gets out of a bad situation. It's interesting to think of the Vietnam War continuing into the 1980s, or '90s - or even still going on today - but it's madness to suppose that the United States can persist that long in Iraq.

Vietnam as an analogy to Iraq raises other questions, starting with the one about getting stuck in a country halfway around the globe in the first place. Mr. Bush has earlier compared Iraq to the American Revolution, the Spanish-American War and World War II, but the Vietnam War comparison does make a certain sort of sense, marked as it was by cruelty and stupidity and cluelessness.

As for the decision to pull out, the disaster of Vietnam didn't occur the day the last helicopter took off from the embassy roof in Saigon; the disaster began unfolding years earlier, and staying only made it worse.

Iraq is no different.

One point the president didn't make about Vietnam: When Americans stopped fighting communists over there, it didn't have to start fighting them over here. Yet the terrorists-will-follow-us-home argument has become Mr. Bush's chief defense of his war effort, and he reiterated it yesterday. It's misleading and wrongheaded.

Iraq has fallen into a multisided civil war, and Mr. Bush still appears to have no strategy and no idea of how it might end. So Americans stay and fight, for the sake of fighting.

Mr. Maliki seems to grasp what's driving his country apart, and he's honest about the unlikelihood of a benchmarked reconciliation, despite the complaints coming from the White House (though Mr. Bush backed off and said nice things about him yesterday).

Mr. Bush used to say that "we will stand down when they stand up." It seems to us that Mr. Maliki finally is standing up - to Mr. Bush.

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