War Stories

Remember Iraq?

Why the Democrats aren’t ending the war.

On Tuesday, the Senate voted down two motions that would have put some conditions on the $70 billion in emergency funds that President Bush requested for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One motion would have required that most U.S. troops be redeployed within nine months. The other would have required that most combat troops “transition” to more limited missions—support, logistics, training, and counterterrorism—by the end of next year. Both motions lost.

The Democrats recaptured the House and Senate in the 2006 election in large part because of the growing opposition to the war in Iraq. Yet here they are, continuing to write Bush huge checks to conduct the war as he pleases, absolutely no strings attached. Have the Democrats betrayed their electoral mandate? It’s not so simple. Two big factors are at play here.

First, in the era of the tacit filibuster, no contentious legislation can pass the Senate without attracting 60 votes. (The measure calling for a limited combat mission in Iraq won a 50-45 plurality, but since 50 votes wouldn’t block a filibuster, it was, in practical terms, a defeat.) The Democrats emerged from the midterms with a bare majority; and they would lose that if Sen. Joseph Lieberman, now an Independent, switched to the Republican caucus—a threat he silently dangles at every opportunity. In a sense, then, the Democrats have failed to take action not because they’re craven but because they don’t have the numbers. And it will probably take at least two more landslide elections before they do.

But there is a more substantive reason for Democratic inaction—the sheer paralysis of perplexity. Most Democrats (and the smattering of Republicans who have joined their assaults on Bush’s policies) simply don’t know what they want done about Iraq.

Very few Democrats these days favor withdrawing all American troops as quickly as possible. Once that course is rejected, it’s hard to reach agreement—or even decide for yourself—where to draw the line. If pulling out now isn’t a wise idea, how do you justify doing so in a year or two? Yes, one purpose of a timetable would be to show Iraq’s political leaders that we’re not going to be there forever—to compel them to “get their act together.” But what if there is no act to get together? What if sectarian divisions persist? Should we go ahead, let the clock run out, and wash our hands of the place anyway?

Limiting the troops’ missions is also a somewhat abstract concept. It might not be possible to engage in successful counterterrorism (a mission everyone likes) without continuing to protect the Iraqi population (a mission that we would all like to cut back on and eventually get out of). Until recently, after all, many Sunnis tolerated al-Qaida’s Iraqi chapter in their midst not because they agreed with its views but because the organization protected them from Shiite militias. (This is how mafias of all kinds infiltrate a society.) If a premature American withdrawal or shift in mission made Sunnis feel more insecure, al-Qaida in Mesopotamia would be given a new opening.

This is not to say that troop reductions or withdrawal timetables are necessarily bad ideas. But they don’t make much sense in the absence of an overriding strategy. If we cut troops in half, say, by the end of 2008, what will the remaining troops in Iraq do? (There wouldn’t be enough of them to continue doing all the things they’re doing now.) If counterinsurgency operations are banned and counterterrorism allowed, what is a U.S. commander to do when the missions intersect?

All these puzzles lead to the ultimate question: What are we doing in Iraq? If we just want to get out, that’s one thing, and the solution is fairly obvious. But if we’re concerned about what we leave behind, the question’s a lot harder. Few Democrats have addressed that question, in part because they don’t know the answer. Nor, by the way, do Republicans. Meanwhile, President Bush slogs on, fingers crossed that the recent reductions in casualties and violence coalesce into a trend and morph into something strategically meaningful—that Iraqi politicians seize the moment and form a unified central government. If they don’t, Gen. David Petraeus and his troops will continue to plug holes in a very leaky dike.

There’s much to be said for plugging holes when the alternative is potentially catastrophic. But what should the United States be doing—militarily, politically, and diplomatically, within Iraq and in the surrounding region—to stem the floodtide before the thumbs grow weary or another section of the dike explodes?

For all the fanfare in Annapolis, President Bush shows no signs of immersing himself in an Arab-Israeli peace deal. Nor has he backed down from his refusal to talk with Syria or Iran (an essential step to safeguarding Iraq’s borders). Nor has he seemed to offer the Iraqi leaders a set of sticks and carrots that might compel or induce them to take serious steps toward political settlement. Congress, by nature, cannot deal with issues on this level. Only a president can. And this one isn’t.