The disputed urge to surge

Posted: Jan 15, 2007 12:01 AM
The disputed urge to surge

The elderly woman in a pink snow jacket was clearly agitated. She had stopped nearly everyone in the checkout line at Borders Books in downtown Washington to ask whether anyone knew how to get to the offices of the American Enterprise Institute. "I want to go there to protest the war," she said. Someone in the line thought for a minute she was Cindy Sheehan. She wasn't, but she was using Mother Sheehan's lines.

"It's horrible, horrible," she cried. "Just horrible, sending more boys to Iraq." A think tank seems a curious place to protest anything, but since John McCain and Joe Lieberman were speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, it was a better place than most to join the rocking-chair generals to rail at the senators and President Bush. But even the Democrats in the House have been heckled by the granny brigade, shouting their mantra: "De-escalate, investigate, troops home now." They're against the urge to surge.

Democrats are an odd target of granny ire, since most of them are already on record against the president's dispatch of more troops to stabilize Iraq. The critics decry "surge" as a euphemism for "escalation," but "troops home now" is a euphemism for "cut and run." Now that they're in charge of Congress, and the money needed to fight a war, even many Democrats are wary of cutting and running.

Protesters by nature are compelled more by emotion than facts; it's difficult to get much analysis on a picket sign. The woman in pink seeking directions to a think tank might have learned something if she had gone to listen to what the senators had to say. The senators had just returned from Iraq, and it's possible they knew a little more about the fighting there, and what's at stake for the country, than she did.

"We do our national security a disservice if we isolate the war in Iraq from the context of the broader war on Islamic extremism," she would have heard Sen. Lieberman say. "The Arab world is dividing along new lines between moderates and extremists, dictators and democrats. How the Iraq war ends will determine the future of the moderates in the region."

Osama bin Laden took due note of Bill Clinton's reluctance to answer the Islamist terrorists who destroyed his East African embassies in 1998, and reckoned it as evidence of weakness. The strikes in Somalia, aimed at those same terrorists, are meant to send a signal that this time someone else is in charge.

After his speech to the nation last week, the president dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Middle East to attempt to revive, for the umpteenth time, the Israeli-Palestinian "peace" talks. The president's dispatch of Condi is meant to animate one of the ideas pushed by the Iraq Study Group, that peace, or even "peace," is necessary to dissolve the rampant anti-Americanism in the region. Only then is peace -- the real thing -- possible in Iraq. But real peace now between Israel and the Palestinians is probably fantasy, big-time. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority seem willing to talk, but neither has the clout to make it amount to much. Both are fighting for their survival.

Michael Oren, an Israeli historian, in his new book, "Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present," confronts the puzzle of success, failures and delusions of diplomacy there. America's mix of idealism and pragmatism, of striving to reconcile both strategic and ideological interests, has governed American policy for better and for worse (and more often than not, for worse). When idealism is a stronger motivation for policy than the power to sustain it, it's bound to fail.

Idealism and pragmatism were united when Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979. It was a stunning moment for a courageous Anwar Sadat, the first Arab leader to visit Israel, who was greeted by Menachem Begin, Israel's powerful newly elected prime minister, with warmth and gusto. That was the last negotiated success, limited though it was, between Israel and an Arab country, and it worked because both strong leaders had the strength and agility to fashion a workable compromise.

President Bush says Israeli-Palestinian peace is only part of his new strategy, with more troops in Iraq as more than half the gamble. This links idealism with the power to impose security, necessary for democracy to function. The surge doesn't guarantee success, but Sen. McCain put it plainly: "It will give us the best chance for success."