An Iraqi journalist I know who supports President Bush's policy told me that Iraq is in a race between solving the uprising problem and civil war. I share his concern. In some sense, this is obvious; although Administration officials suggest that either the trend is not in that direction, or at least that we are not imminently at such a tipping point.
As a supporter of the President, and his Iraq policy, I nonetheless find it hard not to suspect that an aggressive military policy to put down particularly the Sunni insurgency is on hold until after the American election on November 2. Of course, I can't prove that, and no one in the administration has said such a thing to my knowledge.
But officials have conceded that playing out the current political negotiation/military restraint strategy is not risk free. It is undoubtedly the case that each day the Sunni and Shia strongholds remain, at least some contagion spreads to currently peaceable communities and individuals.
On the other hand, it is argued, if a political -- rather than a military -- solution is possible, the heavy political price in Iraqi goodwill of crushing Fallujah and the other strongholds would not have to be paid. Moreover, no one can be certain that such a military solution might not, itself, so alienate Iraqis as to make a transition to an American-friendly Iraqi government impossible.
It needs to be understood, however, that Iraq is not yet in a state of civil war, as some long-time opponents of the President's policy have recently started arguing. Currently, some unknowable number of Iraqis and foreign enemies are manifestly capable of committing major violence and mayhem almost at will and in most of the country (although the Kurdish provinces are much more difficult territory for these people to operate in.)
Whether these enemy fighters (and their supporters and active sympathizers) are as low as 10,000 or as high as a million, they do not yet constitute a sufficient percentage of the population to push Iraq into a condition of civil war. A state of civil war only exists when a substantial fraction of the population is committed to the overthrow of ,or secession from , the existing order
Moreover, the Shia leadership -- which represents 60% of the population and reasonably hopes to govern an undivided representative country -- is strongly motivated to not let Iraq slip into civil war. And, while some Kurds dream of sovereign autonomy, a very large percentage of their leadership remain committed to an undivided Iraq (albeit with substantial Kurdish autonomy short of sovereignty.)
And, while there is substantial disillusion with America's ability to impose order and infrastructure rebuilding, it would appear that a high percentage of Iraqi's (including many Sunni) recognize that this is their one chance at gaining a normal, eventually peaceful and prosperous nation. It is a mistake to assume that most Iraqis primarily identify themselves by religion or tribe. In fact, there is a well developed sense of nationalism (partially a result, ironically, of Saddam Hussein's secular tyranny.) Nationalism tends to be a unifying, not a dividing, instinct.
How much time we have before the current insurrectionary activity infects a sufficient part of the population as to tip Iraq into civil war is not objectively knowable.
It is a certainty, though, that the current level of insurrection wherein whole cities are "no-go" territory for even heavily armored American troops, is not compatible with a successful outcome in Iraq, and almost certainly will eventually tip Iraq into irredeemable chaos. We know, also, that every day the source of the infection is not cleaned out, it continues to spread at some rate.
So I return to the question posed at the beginning of the column. Is our government letting the American election date effect its judgment about when (if at all) to take direct military action to end "no-go" areas and put down the insurrectionist strongholds?
I don't know the answer, so I don't presume to make such an allegation. But I do presume to earnestly advice our government's war leaders to dismiss such a factor -- if it exists -- from their calculations.
Morally, they are obliged to fight this war in the most efficacious manner -- irrespective of electoral consequences. And, at a practical -- even cynical -- level, it is not likely to adversely affect the election results.