WASHINGTON -- James Baker almost smiled.
When the poker-faced co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group heard a commentator, who had been invited to advise the group, say that America's aim must be ``victory,'' Baker's stony visage betrayed the bitter amusement that the word ``victory'' now occasions. Not even the word ``success'' seems elastic enough to cover any attainable outcome. Remember the ``demonstration effect'' that Iraq's self-governance was to have in transforming the region? Although America's vice president calls Iraq ``a fellow democracy,'' it lacks a government whose writ runs beyond Baghdad's Green Zone.
John McCain seethed.
Weeks ago, he had been with a proud father of a Marine who was then in Iraq. Recently, McCain had heard that the son's legs had been blown off. ``At the hips,'' McCain said, intensely, several times, with a clenched-jaw fury born of frustration. Fifteen minutes later, on ABC's ``This Week,'' McCain brought a steely clarity to the Iraq debate.
For three years he has been saying, correctly, that there are far too few U.S. troops in Iraq. For months he has said we cannot win without many more troops. That, too, is correct -- if it does not imply that some surge of troops can now guarantee winning. He has also said: Absent a commitment to send significantly more troops to Iraq, it would be ``immoral'' to keep asking the same number of troops ``to risk life and limb so that we might delay our defeat for a few months or a year.''
George Stephanopoulos: ``President Bush has said he doesn't want to send more troops now. So by your own standards isn't it currently immoral to keep Marines and soldiers, other service people in Iraq?''
McCain: ``Yes it is.''
Moments later, Stephanopoulos asked: ``At what point do you say, I am not going to be complicit with an immoral policy?''
McCain: ``When I think we've exhausted every possibility to do what is necessary to succeed and not until then because the consequences of failure are catastrophic. ... We left Vietnam, it was over, we just had to heal the wounds of war. We leave this place, chaos in the region and they'll follow us home. So there's a great deal more at stake here in this conflict in my view. A lot more.''Stephanopoulos: If the Iraq Study Group does not call for an increase in troops as you've advocated, ``will you call for American troops to come home?''
McCain: ``I will if at the point I think that we have exhausted every option and that we are doomed to failure.''
At long last, rigor. McCain applies two principles of moral reasoning. There can be no moral duty to attempt what cannot be done. And: If you will an end, you must will the means to that end.
Sen. John Warner put down a marker.
Four months ago, the Virginia Republican said that Congress must ``examine very carefully'' what it authorized the president to do in 2002 when it authorized military action against Iraq. Warner wondered whether, if there is an ``all-out civil war,'' the president must ``come back to the Congress to get further indication of support.''
If only Iraq had -- were capable of -- a normal civil war. Its civil war -- fueled by religion and tribal rivalries, and leavened by rampant criminality and depravity for its own sake -- does not offer a clear binary choice between regionally based sides that would allow U.S. forces to pick one and help it win.
The national government is gossamer, but subgroups are solid. They are in an intensifying melee that has, according to Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, ``genocidal stakes.'' Writing in The National Interest, Biddle says that ``the downside risks'' for any group that is party to a power-sharing deal include extermination by mass violence from rival groups. America cannot now credibly promise protection commensurate with that risk.
And absent adoption of the McCain policy -- a substantial increase in forces -- America's waning influence on events may derive from the increasing likelihood that the scant protection that American forces now provide will be withdrawn.