In Washington today, there are two debates about Iraq. The first is loud and fake. It consists of flag-draped speeches in which President Bush says things like “The party of Harry Truman has become the party of cut and run.” It looks like a debate about foreign policy, but it’s not. It’s a debate about national identity—about the kind of country we want to be: a country that retreats and loses or a country that fights and wins. The Democrats stand accused of defeatism; the Republicans demand victory. The question, as a recent Weekly Standard cover story put it, is “WILL WE CHOOSE TO WIN IRAQ?”
The second debate is quiet and clinical and awful. It starts with these realities: The violence in Iraq is getting worse; the militias are growing stronger; the Americans are growing more hated; and the good guys—the Iraqis who told us their country could be a decent, functioning place—are either dead or back in Dearborn. This other Iraq debate is a choice between last-ditch efforts that will probably fail and simply accepting defeat and mitigating its effects. It’s the choice you face when someone teeters on the edge of death— between aggressive measures that might produce a miracle but could also increase the agony, and letting the patient go, in the hopes that, by bowing to the inevitable, you can at least ease the pain.
The day after the midterm elections, the first Iraq debate will probably end and the second one will truly begin. Republican Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner has already said that, unless Iraq’s government imposes order in the next two or three months, the United States must consider a “change of course.” James Baker, whose Iraq commission will report at about that time, is saying much the same thing. Bush may still try to stay the course, but, if Iraq causes Republicans to lose the House or Senate, Republicans will suddenly become a lot more willing to lose Iraq.
When the real Iraq debate begins, it will feature three basic alternatives. The first—call it “do it right”—is the brainchild of military wonks like Kenneth Pollack and Andrew Krepinevich Jr. It starts with a counterintuitive assumption: that, in Iraq, security drives politics rather than the other way around. While most commentators envision political settlements that would allow Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki to disarm his country’s militias, the “do it right” folks say such settlements are a pipedream. Instead, the U.S. military should create facts on the ground that undercut the militia’s appeal. In particular, the United States and its Iraqi allies should pursue a classic counterinsurgency campaign: Rather than chasing terrorists, they should simply park themselves in civilian areas and provide the security for which Iraqis yearn. Once the U.S. and Iraqi armies finally protect Iraqis, sectarian militias will lose their raison d’etre.
Many people agree that, once upon a time, this would have been a good strategy. But that time may now have passed. For starters, to effectively protect Iraqis the United States would need many more troops. And adding any more would put a brutal strain on an already wheezing U.S. military. Pollack and company believe you can make headway without more U.S. troops, but that requires Iraqi forces to make up some of the gap, and there is no guarantee they can. After all, the more Iraq’s communities turn on each other, the less Sunnis will rely on Shia soldiers for protection. And, even as Iraqis grow more hostile to one another, they are also growing more hostile to us. A recent University of Maryland poll shows that more than 60 percent of Iraqis (and an even higher percentage of Arab Iraqis) now support attacks on U.S. troops, which makes counterinsurgency—a strategy dependent on winning hearts and minds- -much harder. All of which may e’xplain why Army Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, commander of multinational forces in Iraq, has put in place elements of exactly the strategy the wonks are pushing, and yet violence in Baghdad keeps escalating.
If “do it right” banks on a new military strategy, “hail Mary” puts its faith in a new diplomatic one. The model is Dayton, where Richard Holbrooke sequestered the leaders of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia at an Air Force base and didn’t let them out until they struck the bargain that ended the Bosnian war. In Iraq, such a bargain would center on oil: guaranteeing the Sunnis some share of it so they stop fighting the Shia-dominated government. Once that happened, the theory goes, the Shia wouldn’t need militias to protect them, and Iraq’s government could gain control. (Senator Joseph Biden’s “partition” plan—which actually calls for a weak central government that shares oil—is a variant of the “hail Mary.”)
The problem with the Bosnia analogy is that Dayton came after nearly four years of civil war, when the parties were exhausted and a rough balance of power had emerged on the ground. In Iraq, by contrast, the killing is just gathering steam. And, while it seems obvious in Washington that Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds can all do better at the negotiating table than they can on the battlefield, it’s not at all clear that most Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders see it that way. Striking Dayton-like deals—never mind enforcing them— requires either a high degree of political trust, which Iraqis clearly lack, or an outside power strong enough to impose a solution, which the United States, tragically, is not.
The “hail Mary” plan may still be worth trying, but, to give it any chance of success, the United States would have to threaten to withdraw our troops if the parties didn’t agree. Which brings us to option number three: “Withdraw our troops.” After all, if you believe a Dayton-type deal is impossible—that, even if negotiated, it would quickly unravel—why put U.S. troops in the bloody middle? The optimistic case for withdrawal—that once Americans leave Iraq the Sunni insurgency will lose its rationale, thus making a reconciliation possible- -has weakened over the last year, as Sunnis have grown more afraid of Shia death squads than American G.I.s. But the pessimistic case has grown stronger: If Iraq is doomed to hell no matter what we do, why send brave young Americans down with it?
It is impossible to know whether that hell is inevitable or whether some change in American strategy might still stave it off. But one thing is clear: For every day that goes by without an honest debate about Iraq, defeat becomes more certain. The good news is that, in a few weeks, that debate will finally begin. And, if we are very, very lucky, it will still matter.
This article originally ran in the October 30, 2006 issue of the magazine.