Looking for an Exit From the Trap in Iraq

“The United States, in a way, is trapped in Iraq,” Kofi Annan recently said. The outgoing Secretary General of the United Nations then added: “It cannot stay and it cannot leave.” We Americans have been coached to disregard anything Mr. Annan says, but this might be a moment to lay aside our prejudices and listen to the man. He used the word “trapped.”

In flesh-and-blood terms, it is our soldiers and Marines who are trapped, reduced to little more than trying to keep themselves alive as a holocaust of sorts rages around them. On Thanksgiving Day, as our people tried to eat their dinners in safety, Baghdad was drowning in blood. More than 200 people were killed, perhaps twice that number were wounded, and there was nothing that our people could do to prevent it, so they ate their turkey and hoped for the best.

The next day, Shiites who had been the victims of the Thanksgiving massacre retaliated by attacking Sunni mosques and, it goes without saying, killing as many people as they could get their hands on or their bullets into. There were reports, which what passes for the Iraqi government denied, that three or more Sunnis were torched by way of reprisal. The retaliatory attacks were done in contravention of a government order for all to stay off the streets and remain at home. Neither the inaccurately named Iraqi security forces nor the American military enforced the order.

Trying to dope out what’s going on in Iraq is an art form that I admit I have yet to master, but one gets whiffs of what’s happening as American journalism gets accustomed to finding out for itself instead of believing what it is told. In that vein, a few days ago The New York Times quoted a U.S. Army captain who has ordered her troops to stop foot patrols and to travel only when necessary: “I just want to get everyone home …. I’m just not willing to lose another soldier.”

While our overstretched and overused forces must of necessity grow weary of a war against the nameless and the unseen, the other side (or sides) gathers strength. In what must be treated as an ominous development among many other ominous developments, Sunni Arab groups reportedly have established training camps near Baghdad. The training is apparently achieving results: During a recent battle in Turki, a group of insurgents stood and fought a set-piece battle against our professionally trained troops.

Lt. Col. Andrew Poppas, commander of the Fifth Squadron, 73rd Cavalry, a unit of the 82nd Airborne Division, said in an interview with The Times that the fighters at Turki “were disciplined and well trained …. We hadn’t seen anything like this in years.” Little doubt about it: Whoever they are who are shooting at us, they’re getting stronger and we are not. Another indication of the direction of events is the frequent publication of the assertion that Baghdad’s airport is no longer safe enough to receive President George W. Bush and his entourage, as it had been doing in the past. More worrisome was the news that they—those people without names or identification—had penetrated the Green Zone, which houses what is called the Iraqi government as well as all the American rear-echelon types, and had detonated a bomb. It may not be crunch time yet, but none of this speaks well for the future of our people over there.

As our position in Iraq grows more precarious, one gets the impression that, elsewhere in the immediate region, hidden and suppressed anger against the United States is finding open and fearless expression in places where it dared not previously voice itself. In Abu Dhabi, a place which has heretofore received high muckety-mucks from America with deep respect, Bush 41 was heckled and jeered at a meeting where he was told, inter alia, “We do not respect your son. We do not respect what he’s doing all over the world”—which drew forth an emotional defense of his spawn by the man who has come to be known as the Good Bush, but being booed by women in chadors is better than being stoned by one’s own people, which is what happened recently to Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s ineffectual prime minister.

In Washington, as the dimensions of the mess in the Middle East have become apparent even to the obdurate blockheads who run things, confusion and a degree or two of panic have begun to tinge the atmosphere as it grows heavy with far-fetched hopes and “plans” for leaving, staying or hovering around Iraq. Loss of will and direction has reached the point that the President, a man of undeviating personality, is talking about soliciting suggestions regarding what to do next. Expectations are that the Iraq Study Group or Commission or the Baker-Hamilton Whatchamacallit is going to come up with something that gets us out of this fix.

There are a number of fixes to be gotten out of here. What should be the first in importance (but may be the last to command Washington’s attention) is the fix that our troops have been put in by their dunderheaded commander in chief. There is the fix the White House is looking for to lessen the blame, and there is also the fix to accommodate the Democrats, who live in fear that the public will come to know their full complicity in this debacle.

In co-chairman James Baker, you have a master fixer who is credited with making off with the 2000 Presidential election for the Republicans. Lee Hamilton, his co-chairman, is a Democrat, not known to have ever fixed anything, but he is regarded as a studious, sincere, honest, highly clubbable Indianan who has been without a fresh idea since entering public life an eon and a half ago.

The rest are a mixed bag, including an ex–Supreme Court Justice, an agent of Henry Kissinger’s (the man who won the Vietnam War) and some other smart, rich people who have apparently reached that stage in life where they either sit on committees or feed pigeons in the park. The odds are against their finding a drug to cure cancer or a formula for extracting our troops and ourselves from Mesopotamia, a land that has seen armies disappear into it as far back as Assyrian and Parthian times.

The formula that will emerge from the meetings, reports, studies and agonizings will be tailored more to the contours of American culture and politics than to the realities of an angry Middle East. There is bound to be a training component, because we are a people who put great stock in words like “training” and “education.”

The Iraqi Army and the police are to be trained—never mind that for years now, we’ve been told by the Bush administration that this training was well underway. Some thousands of American service personnel—untrained at training, unable to speak Arabic, and ignorant of the politics, the loyalties and the motives of the Iraqis—are going to be doing this stepped-up training. You may count on very little training taking place, but there is reason to fear that some of our people—detached to distant parts of the country, alone and embedded, as we say—are going to be killed.

The formula will also contain provisions for more of this endless round of summits, these perfectly unproductive, repetitive meetings with the politicians from other countries, in which we demand and/or implore them to pull our chestnuts out of the fire. Part of President Bush’s special genius at foreign affairs is his conviction that he can threaten and denounce Middle Eastern countries with the expectation that, at the same time, he can extract quids from them without having to come up with any pro quos. So Syria will be asked once again to close its long border with Iraq, as though such a thing were so easy. We cannot close our own long border with Mexico.

Lastly, there will be the phased withdrawal and/or timetable part of the plan, but the more of the troops that leave, the more vulnerable are the ones who are left there. Not since Vietnam have our soldiers and their families suffered so much for so little—and still there is no end in sight.

As for the Iraqis, the moment has come to blame them for what’s happened. With every passing day, more and more American politicians are complaining that the Iraqis aren’t stepping up to the plate, haven’t lived up to their responsibilities, do not appreciate everything we’ve done for them and are refusing to take advantage of the opportunities we’ve provided—in short, that they aren’t coming through in the clutch. Who knows? American voters may buy it, and as for the Iraqis, in a little less than four years they have gone from regime change to no regime at all.