WASHINGTON -- At this moment, one of the most dangerous since the Second World War, America's perils are exacerbated by the travails of a president indiscriminately despised by Democrats and increasingly disregarded by Republicans. What should he do?
First, concentrate the public's mind on the deepening dangers beyond Iraq. Second, regarding Iraq, accentuate the negative and eliminate the positive -- that is, emphasize the dangers of failure, and de-emphasize talk about Iraq becoming a democracy that ignites emulative transformation in the Middle East.
The dangers? Iran's regime proceeds with its drive for nuclear weapons, unfazed by threats of "isolation." North Korea has lately received less attention than have Denmark and Dubai. In Afghanistan, according to Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, "insurgents now represent a greater threat to the expansion of Afghan government authority than at any point since late 2001." That government has an army of only 35,000 for a country nearly 50 percent larger than Iraq. The insurgency, by draining the government's energy, serves the lords of the heroin trade that accounts for at least a third of Afghanistan's gross national product.
But more than any presidency in living memory, Bush's will be judged by a single problem -- Iraq, where on May 30 the war will be twice as long as was U.S. involvement in the First World War. Today the impotence of Iraq's quasi-government is prompting ethnic re-cleansing: The government is too weak to prevent private groups from pursuing coercive reversals of Saddam Hussein's various ethnic cleansings. And in the absence of law and order, Iraqis seek safety in sectarian clustering.
Maples delicately says that although Iraq is not "at this time" in a civil war, "the underlying conditions" for such a war "are present." But civil wars do not usually begin with an identifiable event, such as the firing on Fort Sumter, or proceed to massed, uniformed forces clashing in battles like Shiloh. Iraq's civil war -- which looks more like Spain's in the 1930s -- began months ago.
In Spain, the security forces were united, and in three years were victorious. Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. John Abizaid, U.S. commander in the Middle East, recently said Iraqi forces would cope with a civil war "to the extent they're able to" (Rumsfeld) and "they'll handle it with our help" (Abizaid). Their problematic assumption is that Iraq's security forces have a national loyalty and will not fracture along the fissures of Iraq's sectarian society.