Third Summer in Iraq

Last week, Hillary Rodham Clinton seemed to signal a long-range plan to campaign against the Bush on its fiscal imbalances, deficits, poor economic performance. Speaking at a fund-raiser for her senatorial re-election campaign next year, Mrs. Clinton lambasted the Bush administration for “giving up fiscal sovereignty” to the Chinese government in Beijing. The Clinton administration had left the American Treasury in good shape; the Bush administration cut taxes and borrowed to the hilt from Asian governments to finance a war.

She has been a stalwart supporter of the campaign against Saddam Hussein throughout. But with the occupation costing around $1 billion a week — and a dozen or two dozen American lives as well — and no end to the carnage in sight, Mrs. Clinton could be, if she makes it to the White House in 2008,  the first president  since Richard Nixon to inherit a war she didn’t start. So never mind what she says. What does she really think?

A sobering appraisal of the situation in Iraq was offered last week by John Deutch, who served as Deputy Secretary of Defense and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Bill Clinton in his first term. Deutch is an exemplar of the kind of hairy-chested Democrat who ordinarily could be expected to serve under Mrs. Clinton, conceivably as Secretary of Defense.

So it was interesting that, in a Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard University, Deutch aligned himself with Mass. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and espoused the “cut-and-run” position. “…[M]y judgment is that the United states should withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible, say by the end of the year,”  he said.

A little history first. As the US begins its third summer in Iraq, it’s non too soon to revisit the rationale for the American invasion.  What was the Bush administration hoping to accomplish?  How close has it come to achieving its goals?

The war started with 9/11 — only the third time in its history that the US had been attacked on its own soil. The British invasion in 1814 (in the course of which they burned the White House) was the first. Pearl Harbor was the second.

Some response clearly was required, politically and otherwise.  Barely a month later, the Bush administration, supported by a broad coalition of token allied units, attacked Afghanistan,  toppled the Taliban in a matter of months, and chased its forces and those of al-Qaeda (who had planned the suicide plane attack) into tribal areas in Pakistan and northern Afghanistan.

Buoyed by its success, the Bush administration targeted Iraq. — as John Lewis Gaddis put it, the younger Bush had enjoyed an “Agincourt moment,” and like Henry V, he hoped to exploit the psychological value of his victory —  this time in battle against his father’s long-time antagonist, Saddam Hussein.

There was a very short window opportunity. Unlike Henry, Bush had to deal with an election cycle. After a year-long public relations campaign failed to recruit partners willing to contribute significant forces other than Great Britain, the Americans moved into Iraq in March 2003. The Pentagon made plans to increase the pressure on Iran just in case Bush got lucky again.

He didn’t. The American military did its part, cutting swiftly through the Iraqi army’s resistance with relatively few casualties.  But once Saddam’s palaces were occupied, the flow of oil safe-guarded and Baghdad’s airport made secure, it became clear that the Bush administration had greatly miscalculated. Weeks after it disbanded the Iraqi army, the insurgency began.

By the 2004 election, a third front against Iran had been ruled out. The war in Baghdad was going well enough that it didn’t cut against Bush; indeed, a broad segment of the population was willing to give him four more years in hopes he could work himself out of a hole, or deeper into one. Iraqi elections had been promised, and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was forced to echo Bush’s pledge to “see it [the war] through” to a successful completion.

But in the spring of 2005, it became clear that the Bush presidency had bogged down in most of its major initiatives. His Social Security offensive met unified opposition from Congressional Democrats. The economy stalled. And despite the elections, the battle against the former insurgents, a potent alliance of Muslim jihadis, murderous veterans of Saddam’s army and plain-old gangsters, was going poorly. Their constructive engagement in the electoral process had failed to occur.

Thus Deutch, a physical chemist who is now an Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where he had been provost before going to Washington in 1994), seemed to put the ball squarely in George W. Bush’s court when he told his audience last week that “those who argue we should ‘stay the course’ and believe that early withdrawal will affect our credibility in the region must consider the possibility that the United States will fail in its objectives in Iraq and suffer even greater loss of credibility at the time of a later withdrawal.”

Deutch adroitly disposed of the issue of whether United Nations support was in any sense necessary before invading Iraq.  It is always preferable to have the backing of the UN, and of the United States’ traditional European allies, but far more fateful, he said, was the failure to foster a consensus for intervention among the countries bordering Iraq — Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran. “It is folly to engage in a distant part of the world without first building significant support in the affected region.”

More broadly, Deutch asserted, the Bush administration’s error was in thinking that it could establish a government based on American values through force of arms. Support for democratic institutions through foreign policy was one thing, he said; outright occupation was another.

Nor was the United States military well-equipped for nation-building.  Marines and Army Special Forces units are adept at working with local communities as small-scale peacekeeping forces.  It might make sense to intervene in cases where lives were in immediate danger; in Rwanda, for example, he said. But the US Army is trained and equipped to fight, not to engage in nation-building. Attempts to reshape it as an army of occupation, to be dispatched on short notice around the globe, would be both expensive and doomed to fail.

The expectation today is widespread that the US will remain in Iraq for several more years, said Deutch.  Saving face and the need to achieve a minimum level of stability seems to require a certain level of commitment for several years to come.  But what if that expectation is unrealistic?  What if the price of the third summer in Iraq is a fourth and a fifth and a sixth summer in Iraq, this one in the middle of a presidential election campaign?

What if the insurgency continues? What if foreign governments such as Iran and Syria continue to support the warring factions, in the expectation that the next American president will find a way to simply leave — as did Dwight Eisenhower in Korea and Richard Nixon in Vietnam (albeit on very different terms)?

In that case, US credibility may be far more gravely damaged for having been turned into a partisan “gotcha” issue, like the question of abandoning Bush’s pointless manned mission to Mars, in the continuing wars between “liberals” and “conservatives.”

Mrs. Clinton may think all this, but she can hardly say it.

The only person who can lead America out of Iraq — before the summer of 2009, that is, thereby preserving American credibility to act again in an emergency — is the man who led America into Iraq in the first place.  It was a thicket which his father had the wisdom to avoid.