Tuesday, August 7, 2007

If Iraq Can't Keep Its Government Together, What Is There Left for Us to Do?

It's been a bad week for anyone supporting the war in Iraq.

On Aug. 1, the the Iraqi Accordance Front, a Sunni party, pulled its members out of the Iraqi cabinet, leaving only two Sunnis left in the body. Four secularist ministers said yesterday that they would boycott meetings, leaving the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in tatters. Not that the Iraqi parliament is around to deal with the situation, since they have decided to go on a month-long vacation while American soldiers serve in the sweltering summer heat (four more U.S. soldiers were killed today, bringing the death toll for August to 19), a decision even President Bush's Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, denounced on "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

Sometimes I feel like it is easy to lose track of the chain of events that led us from the President insisting to the world in 2003 that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction to the current situation. Once Iraq held elections, our role in Iraq was, we were told by the administration, to provide support so that the democratically elected government could take over providing services to Iraqis and, more importantly, solve the country's political disagreements between the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds to create a unified country.

So, my question is, if the government is not there anymore, what are we doing there? Yes, I know the government technically is still in existence, but for how much longer? The defection of secularists and Sunnis from the government gives credence to the often-levied charge that Maliki is not really interested in political reconciliation with the Sunnis. My understanding is that we're not there to support any of Iraq's factions, but rather to give them an opportunity to work together to build a united government. But, with each passing day, it seems less likely that these groups have any desire to bridge their gaps. They seem far more interested in exacting revenge and fighting centuries-old battles against each other. Which, of course, they have a right to do. But, we do not have to be there in the middle of it, spending a mind-blowing amount of money and sacrificing an unacceptable number of American lives.

The White House is so quick to talk about the need for "victory" in Iraq and the cost of "losing." It's time to reject the administration's framing of the issue. We achieved a military victory when we deposed Saddam Hussein, toppled his administration, and provided the Iraqis with the opportunity to vote for their own government. The question isn't whether we won or lost. The battles have been fought, and the U.S. military was successful. Can't we move on to the next question now? Isn't it time to ask, "Okay, now that we've won, how long do we have to stay?" Isn't nearly five years long enough to give the Iraqis the chance to work out their issues? Don't misunderstand me, these groups haven't been able to settle their disputes in the last 100 years, so there is no reason to believe that five years is enough time to do it now. That goes to why the war was a colossal mistake to begin with.

But, now that Bush has taken us down that poorly conceived, poorly planned path, the real question is, "We know these people will never settle their beefs, so how long do we have to stay there until we will be able to look ourselves in the eye and feel like we gave the sides every opportunity to at least try and come to some kind of agreement on sharing the country's power and natural resources?" I would argue that when the ruling Shias have basked in the comfort of U.S. military safety (or as much security as can be provided under the circumstances) and failed to make any concessions, and when the government is falling apart, and when the parliament feels like it's okay to go on a month-long vacation (it's not like the U.S. military gets to go on any vacation in Iraq), that time has arrived.

The Democrats, fresh from yet another failure to stand up to Bush (caving on the warrantless surveillance bill, an excellent rant on the subject can be found here), need to press the issue with a new vigor. The absolute ineptitude and unwillingness of the Iraqi government has left it morally and practically insupportable. Now is the time for the Democrats to do their job in Congress and act to force policy change on Bush.

The Democrats don't seem to see that when they press the Iraq issue, it's a win-win-win situation for them. If they succeed, they've done what the American people have directed them to do (win number one). If the Republicans support the president, each vote cast by a senator or representative in a swing state to support the war is another nail in that politician's coffin in 2008 (win number two). And, finally, by sticking to their core beliefs, the Democrats get an opportunity to do something they very rarely get to do: look strong and true to their values (win number three).

That is what should happen. I am far less optimistic about what will happen.

If the Democrats needed more evidence to present to the American people that Bush's management of the war has been monumentally incompetent, a recent story about lost weaponry should be the last straw.

While CNN was devoting all its on-air time to the weather, the bridge collapse in Minnesota, and the mine cave-in in Utah, a story was released, with little fanfare, about how the Pentagon lost track of nearly 200,000 weapons intended for Iraqi security forces (not to mention hundreds of thousands of helmets and pieces of body armor). According to an article on CNN.com, the Government Accountability Office fears that the arms have fallen into the hands of insurgents, and a Pentagon official told the Washington Post that the weapons are probably being used against American soldiers right now. Remember, the GAO is a non-partisan body, and the Pentagon is not denying the GAO's assertions.

(As an aside, if CNN has this information and reported it on its website, why isn't it the lead story on its telecast? Why isn't it devoting 55 minutes an hour to such an important piece of information instead of how hot it is outside?)

The bottom line is that from the first day of the war, the Bush administration has committed blunder after blunder (from the nonexistence of the weapons of mass destruction, to the promise that the war would pay for itself via Iraq's oil, to the assertion that the soldiers would be greeted as liberators, to the failure to plan for the occupation after the war, to the failure to understand the long-held hostility between Iraq's sects ... and that doesn't get us out of 2003). At this point, the White House has no credibility and no track record to be making any decisions.

The country wants change. The Democrats in Congress should make it clear to the Republicans that, to use one of the president's favorite expressions, at this point, on the issue of stopping the war, you are with us or you are against us. The American people have showed the Republicans that there are consequences for mismanaging the war. If the Democrats are not careful, they will find out that those same Americans will hold them accountable for not doing the job they were sent to Washington to do.