War Stories

In Search of a Political Mission

Are the Democrats and Bushies playing good cop/bad cop with the Iraqis?

President George W. Bush

The House Democrats’ latest proposal for linking war spending to troop withdrawals could serve both parties’ interests in the debate on Iraq. In fact, if the Bush White House were more strategically shrewd, or if it enjoyed closer ties with Congress, I’d almost wonder if the idea were a jointly planned ploy—a game of good cop/bad cop designed to push the Iraqi leaders into a political settlement.

With the Democrats’ original timetable for withdrawal predictably vetoed, the new idea calls for Congress to approve half of President Bush’s request for emergency war funding—enough to last through September—but also to require a report, by July 13, on how well the Iraqi government is progressing toward political stability and military self-reliance. Upon receipt of that report, Congress would vote on whether to free up the second half of funding or to begin preparations for a pullout.

Presumably, if things are going well, American troops might be allowed to stay longer; if things aren’t going well, it might be time to cut losses and leave.

The argument that withdrawing means surrender—or that those in favor of withdrawal are defeatists—has always been a canard. Many critics have argued from the beginning of the occupation that the Iraqi political factions would have no incentive to reconcile their differences as long as they’re assured that the American armed forces will remain indefinitely—and that, therefore, the only way to rouse the factions from their infantilized complacence is to make clear that those forces might really leave.

I won’t pretend to know what Vice President Dick Cheney is telling Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the other Iraqi leaders during their talks in Baghdad today. But one thing he might—and should—be telling them is that things are quickly slipping out of his (yes, even his) control and that, if the factions don’t meet at least a few of the political benchmarks that President Bush himself laid out just four months ago, a large U.S. military presence cannot be sustained.

A clear message of countless news stories is that, while almost all of Iraq’s political players bitterly oppose the American occupation, almost none of them want the American troops to go home just yet—in most cases, not till some stability is restored.

The Democratic proposal spells out the rewards and penalties: Get your house in order, and we’ll keep funding the operations; don’t, and we’ll figure that you simply can’t—that our mission is futile—and we’ll cut the funding off.

It is extremely doubtful that the Democrats and the White House are in cahoots on this gambit. This White House isn’t into gambits; Bush and Cheney have made it very clear (and they’re worth taking seriously on this) that, as long as they have any say in the matter, there will be no withdrawal, and no option papers for withdrawal, from Iraq.

Yet, regardless of its roots and intentions, the Democrats’ proposal might have the same effect—that is, it might whip the Iraqis into gear. Or, another way to express the thought: If anything can whip the Iraqis into gear, this might be it.

Is there a chance that it will work—that the pressure might compel action? Probably not. There are two overwhelming facts about Iraqi politics. First, the conflicts that divide the major factions—political, economic, ethnic, and religious—are real. Second, there is almost no political or cultural tradition of compromise as a method of resolving conflicts. 

The concept of implacable domestic conflict is difficult for many Americans to grasp. Not since our own Civil War have there been large, organized factions so bitterly opposed to each other that they would rather kill and die than split their differences peacefully. The idea of such intense conflict is so bizarre that we find it hard to take seriously. Hence, Sen. John McCain’s remark last year, at a private fund-raising session in New York: “One of the things I would do if I were president would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, ‘Stop the bullshit.’ ” The thing is, a lot of Shiites and Sunnis don’t regard what they’re doing as bullshit; they regard it as supremely (even Supremely) vital, and just sitting them down and lecturing them—even threatening to pull out American troops—may not compel them to reconcile.

As even President Bush has said in recent months, the point of the ongoing “surge” in U.S. troop strength is to create a sense of security in Baghdad—so that Iraqi political leaders have the breathing space, and can muster the legitimacy, to put together a government of national unity. Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, has been particularly adamant on this score: There is no military solution, he stresses; the military can only, at best, help create the conditions for a political solution.

Yet the corollary of this observation is that if there are no grounds for a political solution, a military campaign is futile and may as well be abandoned.

This is what the House measure proposes to do—to give the Iraqis a few more months, beyond the few years they’ve already had, to demonstrate that a political solution is possible. If a political solution isn’t possible, the U.S. military—especially that portion of it involved in the Baghdad surge—has no real mission. And a fighting army with no mission is an army that has no defensible reason to fight.