"Everyone wants to go to Baghdad; real men want to go to Tehran." That was the attitude in Washington two years ago, when Ahmad Chalabi was assuring everyone that Iraqis would greet us with flowers. More recently, some of us had a different slogan: "Everyone worries about Najaf; people who are really paying attention worry about Ramadi."
Ever since the uprising in April, the Iraqi town of Falluja has in effect been a small, nasty Islamic republic. But what about the rest of the Sunni triangle?
Last month a Knight-Ridder report suggested that U.S. forces were effectively ceding many urban areas to insurgents. Last Sunday The Times confirmed that while the world's attention was focused on Najaf, western Iraq fell firmly under rebel control. Representatives of the U.S.-installed government have been intimidated, assassinated or executed.
Other towns, like Samarra, have also fallen to insurgents. Attacks on oil pipelines are proliferating. And we're still playing whack-a-mole with Moktada al-Sadr: his Mahdi Army has left Najaf, but remains in control of Sadr City, with its two million people. The Christian Science Monitor reports that "interviews in Baghdad suggest that Sadr is walking away from the standoff with a widening base and supporters who are more militant than before."
For a long time, anyone suggesting analogies with Vietnam was ridiculed. But Iraq optimists have, by my count, already declared victory three times. First there was "Mission Accomplished" - followed by an escalating insurgency. Then there was the capture of Saddam - followed by April's bloody uprising. Finally there was the furtive transfer of formal sovereignty to Ayad Allawi, with implausible claims that this showed progress - a fantasy exploded by the guns of August.
Now, serious security analysts have begun to admit that the goal of a democratic, pro-American Iraq has receded out of reach. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies - no peacenik - writes that "there is little prospect for peace and stability in Iraq before late 2005, if then."
Mr. Cordesman still thinks (or thought a few weeks ago) that the odds of success in Iraq are "at least even," but by success he means the creation of a government that "is almost certain to be more inclusive of Ba'ath, hard-line religious, and divisive ethnic/sectarian movements than the West would like." And just in case, he urges the U.S. to prepare "a contingency plan for failure."
Fred Kaplan of Slate is even more pessimistic. "This is a terribly grim thing to say," he wrote recently, "but there might be no solution to the problem of Iraq" - no way to produce "a stable, secure, let alone democratic regime. And there's no way we can just pull out without plunging the country, the region, and possibly beyond into still deeper disaster." Deeper disaster? Yes: people who worried about Ramadi are now worrying about Pakistan.
So what's the answer? Here's one thought: much of U.S. policy in Iraq - delaying elections, trying to come up with a formula that blocks simple majority rule, trying to install first Mr. Chalabi, then Mr. Allawi, as strongman - can be seen as a persistent effort to avoid giving Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani his natural dominant role. But recent events in Najaf have demonstrated both the cleric's awesome influence and the limits of American power. Isn't it time to realize that we could do a lot worse than Mr. Sistani, and give him pretty much whatever he wants?
Here's another thought. President Bush says that the troubles in Iraq are the result of unanticipated "catastrophic success." But that catastrophe was predicted by many experts. Mr. Cordesman says their warnings were ignored because we have "the weakest and most ineffective National Security Council in post-war American history," giving control to "a small group of neoconservative ideologues" who "shaped a war without any realistic understanding or plans for shaping a peace."
Yesterday Mr. Bush, who took a "winning the war on terror" bus tour just a few months ago, conceded that "I don't think you can win" the war on terror. But he hasn't changed the national security adviser, nor has he dismissed even one of the ideologues who got us into this no-win situation. Rather than concede that he made mistakes, he's sticking with people who will, if they get the chance, lead us into two, three, many quagmires.
Originally published in The New York Times, 8.31.04