Timetables and War
Jackson Diehl has an interesting column in today’ WaPo arguing that the fixation on timetables in Iraq, by both the administration and its critics, has been among the biggest problems.
In Washington’s bipartisan mind-set, the next six months are always crucial in Iraq. Persistently, we believe that one big, intense effort will turn the country around — or make it possible for us to leave. Why? Perhaps because Bush has never been willing to ask the country to commit itself to a long struggle in Iraq, despite his view of it as “the central front” in a war on terrorism that will define the 21st century. Instead he proposes the war that the Army and the public can tolerate without too much strain. For their part, war opponents understandably have been looking for a way out since the mission began.
Iraq, however, doesn’t operate on Washington’s clock — something Iraqi leaders have repeatedly tried and failed to explain to the ambassadors and generals who demand benchmarks and timetables. And why should it? In historical context, the country is not much different from others that have emerged from decades of dictatorship and tried to sort out a new political status quo among multiple competing ethnic groups. Yugoslavia began to break down in 1991; despite repeated Western interventions, the bloodshed continued until the end of the decade. The wars over Congo’s future began in 1994 with the end of the Mobuto dictatorship and didn’t end until 2003. Lebanon’s civil war began in 1976 and ended in 1989.
One day, on its own time, Iraq will reach equilibrium. At that moment a new power structure will solidify in a country that ranks second in the world in proven oil reserves; that occupies the geographic and ethnographic center of the world’s most volatile region; that now harbors many of the most dedicated enemies of the democratic West. Will the United States want to be present, as one of the shaping forces, when that settlement is finally reached? Will it want to influence which Iraqi parties are stronger, and which weaker, in the final balance?
Dale Franks, Bruce McQuain and I discussed the corollary to this during yesterday’s podcast: The rush to declare Iraq “sovereign” and to resist the label “occupier” and associated responsibilities, even though it was rather clear the makeshift Iraqi institutions were far from ready for independence.
David Bosco is right to ask, “Is convincing ourselves that change is right around the corner the only way to stay on the road?” It may well be. As he and Diehl note, Clinton did much the same in the Balkans, understanding that the American public was not ready for a multi-year troop commitment.
The Bush team has played it both ways. From the earliest days, the president and his people have said that we were in a long war that could take years, even decades. They have repeated that mantra often. At the same time, though, they have given the impression that victory in Iraq was just around the corner.