Bush and Gates: Facing reality at last?

Posted: Nov 12, 2006 12:00 AM
Bush and Gates: Facing reality at last?

Sometimes, a simple move like replacing the manager can put a losing team on the winning track. A fresh face, a clean slate, and a new atmosphere can make a huge difference. If only the war in Iraq were that easy to solve.

The departure of Donald Rumsfeld and his replacement by Robert Gates is a sign that the Bush administration may be willing to listen to grownups. The return of James Baker as head of a commission on Iraq policy is another.

These were the people in charge when President George H.W. Bush made what we now know to be a brilliant decision: ending the first war with Iraq without taking over the country. If they were wise enough to keep us out of a quagmire then, maybe they're smart enough to get us out of a quagmire now.

But a change of personnel won't mean much unless it leads to a change of policy. The task for the commission and the administration is not to find a strategy for victory: Any chance we ever had of reaching that goal is gone. All we can try to do is extricate ourselves from Iraq without producing an even greater disaster than the status quo.

It's hard to find anyone who still fantasizes that Iraq will turn out well. Even the neoconservative intellectuals who cheered Bush on now gaze in horror at what he has wrought.

Johns Hopkins University foreign policy scholar Eliot Cohen, who in February was still waxing optimistic, wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal, "That the Iraq war is, if not a failure, failing, requires little demonstration." Uber-hawk Richard Perle admitted in an interview with Vanity Fair that if he had foreseen "where we are today, and people had said, 'Should we go into Iraq?,' I think I probably would have said no . . . " This is a reversal on the order of Neil Armstrong concluding he should never have wasted his time with that moon mission.

The U.S. military also recognizes how badly things are going. A classified briefing from Central Command leaked last month to The New York Times took note of "violence at an all-time high, spreading geographically." A graphic index of civil conflict portrayed a country sliding toward what the chart labels "chaos" ever since the February bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

Worse yet, this latest deterioration comes not before a change in our approach but after a change in our approach. Earlier this year, the military decided to give the Iraqi army greater responsibility for Baghdad's security so we could pull back. The result was an increase in violence. So in August, we reversed course and sent American troops to crack down in the capital. The result of that was another increase in violence, not to mention an increase in U.S casualties.

What this debacle suggests is that we are rapidly running out of options. Says Brookings Institution security analyst Michael O'Hanlon, "One of the last big strategic changes we could imagine, we have now tried, and we have not seen any progress."

The administration continues to hope that with enough time and training, Iraqi security forces will be up to the job of providing security. But as time has gone on, the army has continued to underachieve.

MIT defense scholar Barry Posen noted in an article earlier this year in the Boston Review that the insurgents don't seem to need endless handholding to thrive -- even though, unlike the Iraqi military, they have "no large training bases, no safe place to organize, no secure electronic command-and-control network, and only the weaponry they can obtain covertly." What's the difference in the performance of the two? "Motivation," he says. Motivation, unfortunately, is something we can't manufacture.

The real U.S. strategy at this stage is to hold on and hope for a miracle -- which is not good enough to justify our continuing sacrifice of lives and money. Withdrawing now, it's true, may plunge Iraq into even worse turmoil, with terrible consequences for its people and potential dangers for us. But noting the risks of failure doesn't tell us whether there is any way to succeed.

That is the question Robert Gates and the president will have to confront, without illusions. If your leg has gangrene, there is nothing to be gained from postponing the amputation, and much to be lost. But it takes a grownup to tell you that.