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False Positive

On Iraq, Washington is all sound and no fury

Outward appearances suggest that, in a month that marks the fourth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, there's an all-hands-on-deck effort to change the course of the war: Extra troops are surging into Baghdad, and the State Department agreed to meet with Iran and Syria about how they can help stanch the bloodshed. Congressional Democrats have agreed on a plan calling for near-total U.S. troop withdrawal by September 2008, and their proposals actually stand a chance of passing in the House. While sharp divisions remain over what should happen next, all sides seem to be doing their darnedest to end a deadly status quo.

But looks are deceiving. For different reasons, both the administration and its critics in Congress have essentially reconciled themselves to a continuation of something close to the present course of the war. Neither side's moves amount to much, and they know it. They're quietly tolerating the status quo, partly for political reasons and partly because--as bad as things are--there's grim awareness that they could get even worse. It turns out that nobody really wants to rock the boat.

While President Bush portrayed his order of more than 20,000 more troops as a decisive shift in direction, it is anything but. As a bevy of military brass have made clear and daily attacks now demonstrate, the surge won't bring about a political settlement or halt Iraq's sectarian violence. Militias might shift their tactics in response to a stepped-up troop presence, but they won't disband or forswear their hunger for power. Although more troops might conceivably help calm matters, the numbers would likely have to be in the hundreds--rather than the tens--of thousands. Besides, Bush's proposal included almost nothing in the way of new tactics or methods to make the added forces more effective. With a few small exceptions--such as expanded access to Baghdad's notorious Sadr City neighborhood--America's role, its footprint across Iraqi territory, and its basic strategy of "clear, hold, and build" are unchanged.

In fact, in ordering the surge, Bush virtually ensured an extension of the war's status quo. Bereft of new strategies, and having all but admitted that "winning" is impossible, he judged that a grinding stalemate--despite its human and financial costs--would be better than a defeat that could reverberate disastrously across the Middle East. Perhaps the president wants to hand the Iraq mess off to his successor partly as a way to ensure that history does not record the failure as his alone. In either case, the surge does not amount to a change in policy. But it does amount to a change in rhetoric. Voters made clear last November that they wouldn't stand for more of the same. With the surge, Bush was able to drop his "stay the course" mantra and portray himself as trying something new.

The opening to Iran--in a first, the United States took part in a meeting last weekend with Syria and Iran present--seems likewise designed to give the appearance of flexibility and movement while masking a determination to stand in place. Accounts of the initial round of meetings describe a barbed exchange, with U.S. Envoy David Satterfield claiming to have brought evidence that Iran is arming Shia militias in Baghdad. Carpe diem indeed. Unless the administration's approach changes, it's hard to see how this opening doesn't get slammed shut again. And that's just fine with an administration that (not without reason) thinks Tehran has more invested in Iraq's unraveling than in its coalescence as a Western-friendly democracy. What first appeared to be a diplomatic breakthrough probably won't even be enough to silence critics who consider the president too arrogant to sit down with Iraq's neighbors. It won't stop the U.S. standoff with Iran.

Meanwhile, congressional Democrats are equally busy creating the appearance of activity while doing little to alter the war's course. They won their majority last November on a pledge to change Iraq policy. Now that they're in charge, they're stuck between a war that has gone so wrong it cannot be fixed and the fear that withdrawal may make the region even harder to salvage. Either way, more Iraqis will die and the America's global standing will suffer. If Democrats pull the plug, they will bear the blame for what comes next.

Democrats are also rightly ambivalent about mapping a new route. As long as they hold Congress but not the White House, they're not in control anyway. They can and should press for important mitigating measures--such as protection for refugees and proper treatment of veterans--but, by dictating war-fighting tactics and timelines, they set themselves up publicly as accountable for policies whose implementation they don't control. As a political matter, it seems fair enough to force Bush to remain in the driver's seat for an ill-fated journey that he charted for himself.

The Democrats have in effect proposed legislation that they know can't pass the Senate--and that Bush has promised to veto anyway. Moreover, even if it were passed, their proposals leave enough leeway to allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq longer if developments warrant it. So what's the purpose of this bill? It allows the Democrats to honor their promise to try to stop the war, while keeping Bush responsible for its continuation.

For all the machinations masquerading as movement, the Iraq war effort will grind on for quite some time. General David Petraeus tacitly acknowledged as much last week, saying that the new troops ordered may be in place for another year, and that still more might be needed. The American public may think it voted for change. But it's getting more of the same.

By Suzanne Nossel