Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Long Exit


By DAVID BROOKS
The New York Times
March 15, 2007

Senator Carl Levin has always been one of the most serious participants in the Iraq debate. He’s one of those politicians who could actually pass a test of Middle East cultural literacy — who could tell you what the Mahdi Army is or whether Al Qaeda is a Sunni or Shiite organization. He’s one of the Democrats who generally hasn’t formed his Iraq position with an eye to Iowa primary voters or the party’s donor base.

Which is why it’s significant that his speeches during yesterday’s Senate war debate were so utterly unconvincing.

The essential Levin argument was that the Iraqi leaders have been shirking their duties and it’s time to force them to get serious. “It is time for Congress to explain to the Iraqis that it is your country,” Levin declared. It is time to shift responsibility for Iraq firmly onto Iraqi shoulders, and give them the incentives they need to make the tough choices. The Democratic timetable resolution, Levin concluded, “will deliver a cold dose of reality to Iraqi leaders.”

But does anybody think that Iraqi leaders, many of whom have seen their brothers and children gunned down, need a cold dose of reality delivered from the U.S. Congress? Does anybody buy the Levin model of reality, which holds that Iraqi leaders are rational game theorists who just need to have their incentives rearranged in order to make peace? Does anybody believe the rifts in Iraqi society can be bridged by a few “tough choices” made by the largely reviled Green Zone politicians?

The Democrats spent three years attacking the Bush administration for ignoring intelligence, but now they’re making the Republicans look like pikers. In this debate, they have rigorously ignored the latest intelligence estimates, which take a much deeper, more organic view of Iraqi reality than the technocratic, top-down approach Levin was articulating Wednesday afternoon.

The intelligence agencies paint a portrait of a society riven at its base with sectarian passion. They describe a society not of rational game theorists but of human beings beset by trauma — of Sunnis failing to acknowledge their minority status, of Shiites bent on winner-take-all domination, of self-perpetuating animosities, disintegrating bonds and a complex weave of conflicts.

The intelligence agencies see chaos if the U.S. withdraws. Carl Levin, based on phantom intelligence, sees newly incentivized Iraqis returning to reason and moderation.

The fact is there are two serious approaches to U.S. policy in Iraq, and the Democratic leaders, for purely political reasons, are caught in the middle, and even people like Carl Levin are beginning to sound silly.

One serious position is heard on the left: that there’s nothing more we can effectively do in Iraq. We’ve spent four years there and have not been able to quell the violence. If the place is headed for civil war, there’s nothing we can do to stop it, and we certainly don’t want to get caught in the middle. The only reasonable option is to get out now before more Americans die.

The second serious option is heard on the right. We have to do everything we can to head off catastrophe, and it’s too soon to give up hope. The surge is already producing some results. Bombing deaths are down by at least a third. Execution-style slayings have been cut in half. An oil agreement has been reached, tribes in Anbar Province are chasing Al Qaeda, cross-sectarian political blocs are emerging. We should perhaps build on the promise of the surge with regional diplomacy or a soft partition, but we certainly should not set timetables for withdrawal.

The Democratic leaders don’t want to be for immediate withdrawal because it might alienate the centrists, and they don’t want to see out the surge because that would alienate the base. What they want to do is be against Bush without accepting responsibility for any real policy, so they have concocted a vaporous policy of distant withdrawal that is divorced from realities on the ground.

Say what you will about President Bush, when he thinks a policy is right, like the surge, he supports it, even if it’s going to be unpopular. The Democratic leaders, accustomed to the irresponsibility of opposition, show no such guts.

As a result, nobody loves them. Liberals recognize the cynicism of it all. Republicans know the difference between principled opposition and unprincipled posturing. Independents see just another group of politicians behaving like politicians.

What we get is foreign policy narcissism. The Democrats call it an Iraq policy, but it’s really all about us.

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