Bush's Words Evolve, But Not His Policy

As someone who has never displayed any great aptitude with words, President George W. Bush shouldn’t become preoccupied with the proper terminology to describe the ferocious communal violence in Iraq. Whether the chaotic situation that he and his government have created in that country is or is not called a “civil war” by newspapers and broadcasters matters very little. Whether the President can bring himself to pronounce those words matters even less.

What matters is that when even the war’s most enthusiastic proponents can no longer avoid acknowledging the disastrous result of their cherished crusade, the President cannot face failure honestly. Instead, despite the post-election dismissal of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Mr. Bush continues to speak in pat phrases and stale excuses.

In his most recent pronouncements, he still clings to old illusions about the upwelling of democracy across the Middle East, the exaggerated role of Al Qaeda in fomenting the violent confrontation between Sunni and Shiite factions, and the possibility of stabilizing Iraq if only we stay the course (although he no longer utters that pat phrase).

To reject these illusions is to be accused by the President of “pessimism.” Yet if there is any way to prevent a total conflagration in Iraq—and there may not be—then he certainly will not find it unless he confronts the war’s realities and abandons policies that have not worked for years. Those realities include more than the depressing toll of bombings, assassinations and militia attacks around Baghdad that have increased so rapidly in recent weeks.

The “coalition of the willing” is heading for the exits. The United Kingdom has announced another sharp reduction of its forces in southern Iraq, while Poland and Italy are quietly withdrawing their troops altogether—even as the Bush administration is reportedly considering a substantial increase in U.S. troops. (Whether those additional American combat troops actually exist is another question.) Conditions in the Sunni-dominated provinces outside the capital are deteriorating beyond our capacity to control or even influence them. The shaky Maliki government depends on the patronage of Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric who has declared his enmity toward the West. Efforts to train and deploy an effective Iraqi national army and police force have served to arm the sectarian militias and death squads.

As the President averts his gaze from this deadly maelstrom, he awaits the policy recommendations of a committee chaired by James Baker III and Lee Hamilton, along with additional committees within his own government. Meanwhile, Mr. Bush will ask Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, the hapless Iraqi prime minister, for proposals to quell the sectarian bloodletting. We don’t have a plan, but we hope that the Iraqis do.

Actually, the Baghdad government revealed its plan this week, when President Jalal Talabani visited Tehran to plead for help in reducing violence and combating terrorism. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad happily responded that his government would gladly assist its “brothers” in Iraq. That initiative followed the resumption of diplomatic relations between Iraq and Syria, more than two decades after those ties were broken during the war between Iran and Iraq.

The United States does not speak directly with either of those nations, whose governments are targets of “regime change” for the neoconservative policymakers in the Pentagon and the White House. American policy toward both Tehran and Damascus has been shaped by the same mindset that declared Iran, Iraq and North Korea to be an “axis of evil” beyond the pale of diplomacy. The consequences of that stupid approach include a radical alliance between Syria and Iran; a trend toward nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea that we seem powerless to prevent; and a military quagmire in Iraq that has damaged our military, bankrupted our treasury and discredited our international reputation.

But the results are absurd as well as awful. The government that we are spending American lives and dollars to prop up in Iraq is seeking assistance from Iran, which has exercised enormous influence over that government from the outset. We won’t speak with the Iranians or the Syrians, yet we are subsidizing the Iraqis, who talk to them every day.

The Bush administration’s diplomatic quarantine of Iran and Syria has defeated our own purposes in the region. In the aftermath of 9/11, the Syrians worked with Western intelligence services against Al Qaeda, which was rightly regarded by the Baathist government in Damascus as an enemy. In the months following the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Iranians secretly sought to open negotiations with the U.S. on a broad range of issues, from terrorism to proliferation to trade. Our own brand of “rejectionism” only radicalized those regimes, notably with the election of Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2005.

Rumor in Washington indicates that the Baker-Hamilton commission will urge the President to end his aversion to talks with Iran and Syria as part of a broader strategy to negotiate our way out of Iraq. The question is whether he will remain deaf to such sane advice.