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.
Tom Ricks, The Washington Post's military correspondent, has doubts. He recently returned from his fifth visit to Iraq. In March 2003 he thought the invasion was a strategic mistake in the struggle against terrorism. His assessment of subsequent events is the title of his book, coming in September: "Fiasco." Now, however, he thinks that a U.S. withdrawal would leave chaos that might lead to radical Islamists acquiring what they most want -- Saudi oil fields and Pakistani nuclear weapons. So America, he thinks, needs a plan to reduce fatalities to two or three a week, then two or three a month.
But who, he wonders, will control the likes of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr? Imagine, Ricks says, another cleric, the Rev. Al Sharpton, controlling the Bronx with a militia he can call into the streets at any time. Last Monday, the day the president again celebrated Iraq's progress from tyranny to December's "elections for a fully constitutional government," this was life in Iraq, as reported by The New York Times:
"Shiite vigilantes seized four men suspected of terrorist attacks, interrogated them, beat them, killed them and left their bodies dangling from lampposts. ... In Sadr City, the Shiite slum in Baghdad where the terrorist suspects were executed, government forces have vanished. The streets are ruled by aggressive teenagers with shiny soccer jerseys and machine guns. They set up roadblocks and poke their heads into cars and detain whomever they want. ... 'This is our government now,' (a retired teacher) said, nodding toward Mr. Sadr's glowering face on television. ... "
Conditions in Iraq have worsened in the 94 days that have passed since Iraq's elections in December. And there still is no Iraqi government that can govern. By many measures conditions are worse than they were a year ago, when they were worse than they had been the year before.
Three years ago the administration had a theory: Democratic institutions do not just spring from a hospitable culture, they can also create such a culture. That theory has been a casualty of the war that began three years ago today.