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How to Escape a Nightmare

Day after day, without any respite, the Iraqi disaster shows up on the front page of American newspapers. The young and brilliant editorialist for The New Republic magazine, Peter Beinard, sadly acknowledges that he can no longer imagine what is happening today in Iraq: it exceeds his ability to visualize the horror. In the Washington Post, an Iraqi woman, Fatima, summarized the situation thus: "A third of us are dying; one third are in flight; another third will be widows ... At the morgue in Baghdad, you can tell Shi'ites from Sunnis because the former are decapitated, while the latter are killed by explosives. Extremist Moqtada al-Sadr is now afraid of his own men ... I thought the United States' mission was to prevent these horrors. Not only has it not prevented them, but, to a great extent, it has instigated them."

In the United States, there is a sad consensus. Even Henry Kissinger has declared that "a clear military victory" with a government that will succeed in "controlling the civil war," is no longer possible. The results of the mid-term election have confirmed that the Bush administration is engulfed. Finally, four years after the war began, the country has moved out of the "patriotic terrorism" exercised by the Republican Party, draped in the Stars and Stripes, against the Democrats, "Truman's Party," presented by the hawks as the party of "losers."

Faced with this officially-recognized failure, pragmatic Americans examine absolutely all the options for the route to follow. CNRS [the French national social research center] researcher Pierre-Jean Luizard, one of the premier specialists on Iraq, explains that inside the American think-tanks close to the government - which has consulted them - the most radical solutions are now being examined. Thus, certain researchers from the American Enterprise Institute, the neo-conservative think tank, are tranquilly advocating a military coup d'état. But the bad news is that no consensus is emerging about which approach to follow. And the different options do not really cut along partisan lines, since there are Democrats who call for a reinforcement of the troops in Iraq and Republicans who are in favor of a gradual withdrawal ...

In this context of disarray, many Americans want to see James Baker as the man sent from heaven to save them from another Vietnam - even though President Bush has declared that the report that the Baker-Hamilton Commission will present him in a few days will be only one of the options he will examine. Does Bush still believe in victory, or does he envision getting out of the Iraqi quagmire without losing face? What solutions will he favor?

As Peter Beinart writes in The New Republic: "The events of recent months have destroyed the best arguments for withdrawal as much as for maintaining the troops ... We can't leave, because the perspective of a regional civil war and an Iraqi terrorist sanctuary is terrible. We can't stay, because our presence is not really preventing that state of affairs. Why, under those conditions, would we send young Americans to die to prevent the inevitable?" If there is no miracle plan, one must, all the same, choose the lesser evil. But by opting for the most moral or the most realistic solution? The least costly in terms of Iraqi lives or American lives? Or in dollars? Here are the scenarios being contemplated.

Scenario 1: Stay the Course

This is the tactic that has been upheld up until now by President Bush and Vice President Cheney. It's a question of maintaining the presence of 140,000 American soldiers until the Iraqi army and police are up to taking over from them. This option is also advocated by the Army High Command. Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, commander of the coalition forces, continues to believe he can fulfill his mission, that is, win the war in Iraq. That's also the opinion of the commander in chief for American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, General John Abizaid. He advocates keeping the same number of soldiers in Iraq, but spreading them out differently: to reduce the number of soldiers fighting on the ground so as to be able to increase the number of men taking care of training Iraqi forces.

This scenario is promoted by those who worry about Iran's growing power and who believe that the civil war must be contained until it exhausts itself. Everyone else is against this strategy, which has seen Iraq sink into chaos and which depends over the long term - and for unsatisfactory results - on exhausted troops that are at their second or even third tour in Iraq.

"American soldiers will stay until the job is done." At a press conference he gave with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Amman, President Bush persisted down this path in spite of the electoral warning shot. It's this attitude that caused the New York Times's Frank Rich to wonder whether, like Nixon during Watergate, George Bush has begun to speak to the portraits that ornament the White House walls: "It's not that he can't accept Iraqi reality, it's that he has no idea what it is ..." the editorialist wrote. Which is not altogether correct. In a confidential memo the New York Times was able to procure, advisor Stephen Hadley writes about the weakness of Prime Minister al-Maliki to President Bush, describing how the prime minister is under the stranglehold of Shi'ite militias, depriving Sunnis of even the most basic services.

What is striking about this note is the gap between this lucid observation and the recommendations the advisor addresses to his president: generalities that drown out American responsibility and suggest that a few basic measures could recover the situation.

Scenario 2: Reinforce Troop Levels

Anthony Zinni, the general who commanded American forces and whose resignation was demanded by Donald Rumsfeld, believes the only solution would be to increase the number of American troops in Iraq to restore order. Many generals today think that the number of American soldiers sent to Iraq was inadequate. But isn't it too late? No, answers John McCain, the Republican senator who will probably be a candidate in the next presidential election and who demands that 20,000 additional troops be sent to pacify Baghdad and the west of the city.

Only one American out of seven shares Senator McCain's opinion about the necessity of reinforcing troop levels. And even Dick Cheney has not dared make himself the spokesman for this claim. As for the Democrats, they have let it be known that it's simply out of the question. This option's detractors propound that the presence of additional troops will relieve the Iraqi government from taking those measures necessary to put an end to the sectarian war. And that the moment the troops left, the battles would resume with even greater intensity. And then, where are the troops to be found? American combat brigades are already fighting on two fronts, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and it would be unacceptable to accelerate their rotations.

Scenario 3: Run for Your Life!

Leaving Iraq within six months is the option of pacifist militants and Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic Party's rising star. The arguments advanced are the war's cost ($8 billion/month), American losses and a deteriorating situation. Michael Moore, the author of the anti-war movie "Fahrenheit 9/11," writes in an open letter: "Leave Iraq. Now. Tonight. Let's go as quickly as possible ... When you drive drunk and kill a child, there's nothing anyone can do to bring that child back to life. When you invade and destroy a country and plunge it into civil war, there's not much anyone can do before the smoke dissolves and the blood is mopped up ..."

The problem is that Iraqi politicians are the first to acknowledge that if the Americans leave Iraq, the level of violence will increase and the civil war will be devastating. How can they morally and militarily clear themselves of the slaughter that will then drench Iraq with blood? An American withdrawal today would consecrate Shi'ite supremacy. And the flight of Sunnis to Jordan and Syria would plunge the whole region into instability.

Pierre-Jean Luizard, a radical opponent of the war in Iraq, fears the withdrawal of American troops today: "When Bush says: 'If we leave Iraq, the terrorists will follow us home,' I agree with him. Can you imagine the spectacle of guerrillas affiliated with al-Qaeda parading through al-Anbar province with complete impunity? The defeat of the Americans devoted to the world would create emulators. And the Americans, but also we Europeans along with them, moderate Muslims - and particularly women - would all pay for it!"

Scenario 4: Gradual Withdrawal and Dialogue With the Enemy

This is the scenario upheld by the Iraq Study Group presided over by former secretary of state James Baker and established to advise the American government. Some of the soldiers would leave Iraq and withdraw to bases in the Middle East while other soldiers would continue training the Iraqi army, supported, if necessary, by these rear bases.

Another recommendation of the Baker-Hamilton group would be to open negotiations with Iran and Syria. But Vice President Dick Cheney is categorically opposed to that dialogue and Bush has already announced that he is not in favor of it. Detractors of such dialogue think that it's very naïve to believe that these countries, American "enemies," would want to contribute to Iraq's stabilization, given that some of them believe that only the present chaos safeguards them from American intervention. On the other hand, the Iraqi situation is so uncontrollable (even the main leaders of political forces can no longer really keep their own troops in line) that it's illusory to think than Iran or Syria could arrest the spiral of civil war.

Many Americans hope to find in Baker the man who will save them from the Iraqi disaster, just as they once thought Nixon could save them from the Vietnamese quagmire. But some think it is too late and that this "Plan B" he is about to present is a not very credible solution, proposed to the White House to save face.

Scenario 5: The Generals' Putsch

For some neo-conservatives like Eliot Cohen, given the scope of the Iraqi disaster, this would be the most realistic solution, if not the most glorious. Here's the idea. The Iraqi government is incompetent and the ministers are toys of different parties as well as their militias, composed of criminals. Nonetheless, Iraqi nationalism exists within the armed forces. Under these conditions, a modern military junta would constitute the sole hope for a country that has no democratic culture and the politicians of which are corrupt and incompetent. Useless to point out that this option would toll the death knell for the democratic project of the United States in Iraq and would be difficult to sell politically to the American people. Without even mentioning that it's difficult to see how the generals could bring the militias - which have broadly infiltrated the army and police force - to heel.

Scenario 6: Partition

This is the solution proposed by Peter W. Galbraith, former United States ambassador to Croatia. According to him, the country is already divided into three groups - Kurds, Sunni, and Shia. Consequently, it is useless to try to keep a unified Iraq. Only partition would allow an end to be put to civil war. But, as New York Times editorialist Thomas Friedman says, "Iraq is not Yugoslavia, it's a Hobbesian jungle." It's not only the Shia opposing the Sunni: already Shi'ite factions are fighting among themselves and sometimes, within a given militia, one sees the authority of the leader put into question. In an atomized Iraq, it would take years of negotiations to attempt to put the political landscape and main parties back together. Not counting that two of the country's principal cities, Baghdad and Mosul, are multi-sectarian and not even their neighborhoods are homogeneous.

Between these different scenarios - all bad - which one(s) will George Bush and Robert Gates, Rumsfeld's successor, choose? As Thomas Friedman explains, there are so many people in Iraq killing other people for different motives - religion, money, politics - that all proposals to settle the crisis seem risible. According to him, the choice may be summarized thus: "Ten months or ten years. Either we leave the game with a withdrawal staggered over ten months, or we go back to the beginning with 150,000 additional troops and we reconstruct Iraq from start, which will take us ten years."

There is little chance George Bush will choose either of the two solutions proposed by Friedman. Everyone knows that the United States has never been in a bigger jam than the Iraqi quagmire. In Vietnam, there was the Hanoi government, a chain of command and a guerrilla movement that obeyed orders. There was someone to surrender to in the event of a defeat. Not in Iraq. What we know at least is that whatever - necessarily bad - option the American government adopts will have repercussions throughout the Middle East and that the Americans and the Arabs, certainly, but also the Europeans, will be in the front line to face the consequences of this impossible choice.

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Translation: Leslie Thatcher .

Sara Daniel

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.
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