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October 24, 2006
Trying to Contain the Iraq Disaster

No matter what President Bush says, the question is not whether America can win in Iraq. The only question is whether the United States can extricate itself without leaving behind an unending civil war that will spread more chaos and suffering throughout the Middle East, while spawning terrorism across the globe.

The prospect of what happens after an American pullout haunts the debate on Iraq. The administration, for all its hints about new strategies and timetables, is obviously hoping to slog along for two more years and dump the problem on Mr. Bush’s successor. This fall’s election debates have educated very few voters because neither side is prepared to be honest about the terrible consequences of military withdrawal and the very long odds against success if American troops remain.

This page opposed a needlessly hurried and unilateral invasion, even before it became apparent that the Bush administration was unprepared to do the job properly. But after it happened, we believed that America should stay and try to clean up the mess it had made — as long as there was any conceivable road to success.

That road is vanishing. Today we want to describe a strategy for containing the disaster as much as humanly possible. It is hardly a recipe for triumph. Americans can only look back in wonder on the days when the Bush administration believed that success would turn Iraq into a stable, wealthy democracy — a model to strike fear into the region’s autocrats while inspiring a new generation of democrats. Even last fall, the White House was dividing its strategy into a series of victorious outcomes, with the short-term goal of an Iraq “making steady progress in fighting terrorists.” The medium term had Iraq taking the lead in “providing its own security” and “on its way to achieving its economic potential,” with the ultimate outcome being a “peaceful, united, stable and secure” nation.

If an American military occupation could ever have achieved those goals, that opportunity is gone. It is very clear that even with the best American effort, Iraq will remain at war with itself for years to come, its government weak and deeply divided, and its economy battered and still dependent on outside aid. The most the United States can do now is to try to build up Iraq’s security forces so they can contain the fighting — so it neither devours Iraqi society nor spills over to Iraq’s neighbors — and give Iraq’s leaders a start toward the political framework they would need if they chose to try to keep their country whole.

The tragedy is that even this marginal sort of outcome seems nearly unachievable now. But if America is to make one last push, there are steps that might lessen the chance of all-out chaos after the troops withdraw:

Start at Home

For all the talk of timetables for Iraq, there has been little discussion of the timetable that must be handed to George W. Bush. The president cannot leave office with American troops still dying in an Iraq that staggers along just short of civil war, on behalf of no concrete objective other than “get the job done,” which is now Mr. Bush’s rhetorical substitute for “stay the course.” The administration’s current vague talk about behind-the-scenes agreements with Iraqi politicians is next to meaningless. Americans, Iraqis and the rest of the world need clear, public signs of progress.

Mr. Bush can make the first one by firing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. There is no chance of switching strategy as long as he is in control of the Pentagon. The administration’s plans have gone woefully wrong, and while the president is unlikely to admit that, he can send a message by removing Mr. Rumsfeld. It would also be a signal to the military commanders in the field that the administration now wants to hear the truth about what they need, what can be salvaged out of this mess, and what cannot.

The president should also make it clear, once and for all, that the United States will not keep permanent bases in Iraq. The people in Iraq and across the Middle East need a strong sign that the troops are not there to further any American imperial agenda.

Demand Reconciliation Talks

Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, has indefinitely postponed reconciliation talks among the nation’s top politicians. He must receive an immediate deadline to start the process. Tomorrow would not be too soon; the end of the year would be too late.

Whatever decisions Iraqi leaders reached over the past few years were achieved by pushing aside all the critical questions that were hardest to address. The Bush administration must demand not only that new talks start, but that they continue until some agreement is reached on protecting minority rights, dividing up Iraq’s oil revenues, the role of religion in the state, providing an amnesty for insurgents willing to put down their weapons, and demobilizing and disarming the militias.

More outside aid could increase their incentive to talk. Even then, the threat of an American withdrawal may be the only way to extract real concessions. In parallel with the reconciliation talks, the United States should begin its own negotiations with the Iraqi leadership about a timetable for withdrawing American troops — making clear that America’s willingness to stay longer will depend on the Iraqis’ willingness to make real compromises. Iraqi politicians have to know that they have even more to lose if their country plunges into complete civil war.

We are skeptical of calls to divide the country into three ethnically controlled regions, using the model that finally ended the Bosnian war. Most Iraqis, except for the Kurds, show little enthusiasm for the idea. Clear ethnic boundaries could not be drawn without driving many people from their homes — though an intolerable level of ethnic cleansing is already pushing things in that direction. Any effort at reconciliation will almost certainly require a transfer of power and resources to provincial and local governments. But it must be up to the Iraqis to decide the ultimate shape of their country.

Stabilize Baghdad

Most Iraqis have forgotten what security is — or if they remember, it is an idealized vision of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Since neither the government nor the American occupation is able to provide basic services or safety, it is little wonder that Iraqis have turned to the militias for protection. In such a world, retribution will always take precedence over the uncertainties of political compromise.

American commanders have launched a series of supposedly make-or-break campaigns to take back the streets of Baghdad. The problem is not one of military strategy; their idea of “clearing” out insurgents, “holding” neighborhoods and quickly rebuilding infrastructure is probably the only thing that could work. The problem is that commanders in Baghdad have been given only a fraction of the troops — American and Iraqi — they need.

There have never been enough troops, the result of Mr. Rumsfeld’s negligent decision to use Iraq as a proving ground for his pet military theories, rather than listen to his generals. And since the Army and Marines are already strained to the breaking point, the only hope of restoring even limited sanity to Baghdad would require the transfer of thousands of American troops to the capital from elsewhere in the country. That likely means moving personnel out of the Sunni-dominated west, and more mayhem in a place like Anbar.

But Iraqis need a clear demonstration that security and rebuilding is possible. So long as Baghdad is in chaos they will have no reason to believe in anything but sectarian militias and vigilante justice. Once Washington is making a credible effort to stabilize Baghdad, Iraqi politicians will have more of an incentive to show up for reconciliation talks. No one wants to be a rejectionist if it looks like the tide might be turning.

Convene the Neighbors

America’s closest allies in the region are furious about America’s gross mismanagement of the war. But even Iran and Syria, which are eager to see America bloodied, have a great deal to lose if all-out civil war erupts in Iraq, driving refugees toward their borders. That self-interest could be the start of a discussion about how Iraq’s neighbors might help pressure their clients inside Iraq to step back from the brink. Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich neighbors — whose own stability could be threatened by an Iraqi collapse — need to be pressed into providing major financing to underwrite jobs programs and reconstruction.

Enlightened self-interest is a rarity in the Middle East. The Bush administration will most likely have to go further to elicit real help, showing a serious willingness to expand its dialogue with Damascus and Tehran beyond the issue of Iraq and to be a genuine broker for Middle East peace. That should be the easiest part of the strategy — only this White House regards the willingness to talk to another country as a major concession.

Acknowledge Reality

While the strategy described above seems the best bet to us, the odds are still very much against it working. At this point, all plans to avoid disaster involve the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass. In America, almost no one — even the administration’s harshest critics — wants to tell people the bitter truth about how few options remain on the table, and about the mayhem that will almost certainly follow an American withdrawal unless more is done.

Truth will only take us so far, but it is the right way to begin. Americans will probably spend the next generation debating whether the Iraq invasion would have worked under a competent administration. Right now, the best place to express bitterness about what may become the worst foreign policy debacle in American history is at the polls. But anger at a president is not a plan for what happens next.

When it comes to Iraq the choices in the immediate future are scant and ugly. But there are still a few options to pursue, and the alternatives are so horrible that it is worth trying once again — as long as everyone understands that there is little time left and the odds are very long.

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Last week a friend’s colleague, Mike, invited anyone with equal levels of insanity to participate in an end-to-end trek of Wilshire Blvd. The idea was born as a way to celebrate his ten year anniversary as an Angeleno, having worked on the boulevard since his arrival. I was drawn to it immediately. Although I’ve never planned an epic walk, I am prone to them in bouts of spontaneity, though usually occurring in NY. Until now mine had always been a solo stagger – how to employ the buddy system when the walk provides no answer? Face it, your friends are lazy – they might walk the equivalent of 16 miles in back/forth pacing at Sunset Junction, but no way are they going to consciously string those steps together into consecutive motion. That’s why you need strangers. Fellow strollers who are happy to do, just to do. In this case the strangers were friends of friends and faithful readers of Mike’s LA-motifed blog. About 30, to not be exact. All ~30 gathered early Saturday morning to make their way from the unplaceable smells of downtown to the [equally unplaceable smells masking the] cool ocean breeze. That would not include me, as I had to cut out early with prior commitments. (I also had an early morning soccer match on Sunday, one which a post 16-mile walked body would not agree with!)

Wilshire is my most particularly special of LA streets. When I thought of ten years in LA I realized that I’m a few months away from my own ten year mark with Wilshire Blvd. Three years spent intrigued by Wilshire from afar, and the past seven living on its parking restricted edge.

When I was 20 I fell into my first "real" job with the Associated Press in NY, assisting in photo research for every piece of media outside of traditional newspapers. One of our bigger clients was E! Entertainment, and I addressed more fedex slips to "5670 Wilshire Blvd" than any other vendor in my 2 1/2 years there. As part of my job I was the liaison to our Los Angeles office. This was, yes sadly, the first time I’d considered the rest of the country. I had never been west of Ohio and the phrase "time zone" only inspired thoughts of what time a particular TV show was going to air. (Tonight, at 8pm, 7pm Central!)

"California is better!" filled my ears whenever speaking with the LA office. I soaked up the sell, ignoring other calls & wearing the doe eyes I only would have had back then. Intrigue led to action, and in early 1998 I arrived in LA to see for myself. My first day there I was driven down Wilshire Boulevard, and I spotted that familiar shipping address laid out in concrete on the front of the very visible E! Entertainment building. I was "so excited." In August of ’99 I took another vacation to Los Angeles, and as I’d just quit my job I decided to get a one way ticket and stay until I felt like going home. Cut to: Two months later, after getting a job at CBS and signing up for west side rentals, vacation was a mute term. I moved into an apartment on the Miracle Mile, which I’d previously only known as random words in "that Billy Joel song." (Sidetrack to Wikepedia – did you know HIS Miracle Mile is actually in Massachusetts? But those lyrics are so LA! Bummer.)

And that’s how Wilshire Blvd became mine. I loved and love my stretch of Wilshire, with enough tall and historic buildings to ease my transition from the beats-all beauty of New York City. I loved being so close to the "E!" building – it was familiar to me when the rest of the city was scary and new. I would usually walk home from CBS at night, and instead of learning direction I would lazily follow the bright red "E!" icon in the sky. Early the following year "E!" moved down the street. The lettering as well as the sign came down, and I must have been one of the saddest to see it go.

Seven of the fastest years later, time to pay homage. On a better day I would have foot it whole, maybe someday…

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