Still no light at the end of the tunnel
"We haven't turned any corners. We haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel."
--Gen. David Petraeus.
"The reality is, it is hard in Iraq. And there are no light switches to throw that are going to go dark to light."
--Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
The semi-annual Congressional dog and pony show on Iraq provided the three remaining presidential candidates an opportunity to explain how they will clean up the mess left behind by George W. Bush, beginning in January 2009. In their different ways, John McCain, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Barack Obama have all tried to convince American voters that their Iraq policy will produce peace with honor. All three candidates are spinning a very grim reality to make their preferred course of action seem easier and less painful than it actually is. Let us look at each of their positions in turn:
As the sole Republican left in the race, McCain is the most committed to defending the policies of the Bush administration. His strategy amounts to "stay the course" until such time as there is an Iraqi government capable of maintaining basic security in the country. He has refused to say how long this might take, although he has talked about the possibility of a U.S. military presence in Iraq for another 50 or 100 years, perhaps longer.
A supporter of both the initial decision to invade Iraq and the "surge" of U.S. troops over the past year, McCain said yesterday that "success is within reach...perhaps sooner than many imagine." He defined success as "the establishment of a peaceful, stable, prosperous democratic state that poses no threats to its neighbors and contributes to the defeat of terrorists." His optimism contrasted with the more realistic assessments of both Petraeus and Crocker who took care to distance themselves from Gen. Westmoreland type claims of "light at the end of the tunnel."
While McCain has signaled his determination to stay in Iraq as long as it takes, he has failed to explain how he will achieve his goal of a democratic, peaceful Iraq. He has muddled up Shiites and Sunnis on several occasions, raising questions about his grasp of the country's complicated ethnic politics. Eager to trumpet any evidence of progress, he hailed the Iraqi government's recent assault on Basra as a success, even though rebel Shiite militias loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr still control the city center. After initially praising the Iraqi military for performing "very well," he was forced to acknowledge yesterday that the result of the action had been a "disappointment."
Clinton resisted setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq for a long time, saying that it would be irresponsible to establish artificial target dates. Under the pressure of campaigning, she has now locked herself into a commitment to withdraw virtually all combat troops from the country by the end of 2009, at the rate of one or two combat brigades a month. According to her spokesman, Howard Wolfson, she will stick to this rigid timetable, irrespective of the advice she gets from her military commanders and no matter what the "realities on the ground."
The New York senator has said she will keep a very "limited" number of troops in Iraq to combat al-Qaeda. But she has failed to explain what she will do in the quite likely event of a big spurt in ethnic violence in Iraq following the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The Clinton campaign slammed Obama's former foreign policy adviser, Samantha Power, for saying that it would be the "height of ideology" for a future president to insist on implementing campaign pledges on withdrawal without regard for the facts on the ground.
Clinton asked some pertinent questions at yesterday's hearing of the Senate Armed Services committee. She faulted the Bush administration for focusing attention on "the cost of leaving Iraq" while failing to take into account the even "greater cost" of remaining bogged down in the country, at a time when the U.S. faces numerous other challenges, both foreign and domestic. She correctly pointed out that the administration's standards for judging success or failure in Iraq were "vague" and "unclear," creating the possibility of an open-ended commitment. But she did not even attempt to provide a convincing rationale for her own alternative strategy.
Unlike Clinton, Obama has a plan for dealing with a genocidal bloodbath in Iraq triggered by a withdrawal of U.S. troops. His plan may owe something to the influence of Power, whose book "The Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide" won the 2003 Pulitzer prize for non-fiction. Obama proposes stationing U.S. troops in a neighboring country, probably Kuwait, and sending them back into Iraq to stop a civil war from turning into a genocide.
Unfortunately, Obama's plan for dealing with an upsurge in violence in Iraq makes little sense and is fraught with contradictions. Why withdraw troops from the country under a rigid timetable (he has proposed a year to sixteen months) only to send them back in under less favorable circumstances? As McCain has unkindly pointed out, Obama's plan amounts to a promise to "reinvade" Iraq if, as is quite possible, things start to go disastrously wrong.
During this week's Congressional hearing, Obama said the U.S. should abandon the goal of building "a democratic, multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian, functioning democracy," and settle instead for "a messy, sloppy status quo" without "huge outbreaks of violence." Newsflash to the Land-of-Lincolner: whatever the Bush administration may say in public, the goal of transforming Iraq into a pro-western democratic showcase was abandoned a long time ago by the likes of Crocker and Petraeus. The problem, according to Crocker, is that even the "sloppy status quo" is not defendable at the moment, without the presence of large numbers of U.S. troops.
The Pinocchio Test
All three presidential candidates are much better at exposing the flaws in each other's Iraq strategy than explaining and defending their own policy. The truth is that there is no painless way out of the Iraq imbroglio. There are huge costs to staying in, and huge costs to getting out. In their attempts to gain electoral advantage, none of the three candidates has been entirely honest with the American people about the downsides of their particular exit strategy.
Rather than handing out more Pinocchios to the candidates, I will award a Geppetto checkmark to the general and the ambassador for the painful but honest conclusion that they have yet to spot any light at the end of the long Iraqi tunnel.
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