For the last few months, since the Iraqi election in December, we've all lived with the sense that something bleak and horrible would happen to prove that the Iraq war effort truly was doomed. The fear was driven by brooding conviction that despite the bright pronouncements of the Bush Administration about Iraq's standing up for itself, the country's weak security forces, unreliable leaders, ethnic fragmentation, militant clerics, and uncontrollable militias made the path to stability a bridge too far.
Now is time to dispense with the fear and start dealing with reality. I've been talking for a long-time about the adverse consequences of Iraq's spiraling into a failed state. I am convinced that all of these risks I listed out last August are still staring us in the face. But what's becoming more questionable by the day are whether the 130,000 US forces in Iraq are any longer the finger in the dike they have been for the last 3 years.
Over the last few days, the principle concern in Iraq has not been violent and determined insurgents, but rather ordinary Iraqis - Sunni and Shiite - who have gotten caught in a escalating spiral of violence triggered by Wednesday's bombing of the Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra. Experts agree that American soldiers cannot interpose themselves between battling Sunnis and Shiites.
That's why, over the last few days, rather than trying to restore calm American commanders have largely kept their troops away from the hot-zones, knowing that a US presence would only further stoke tensions. The Iraqi security forces, even if they possessed the skill and firepower to intervene, are so thoroughly riddled with partisan militiamen that they too may prove close to useless. Some fear that if the conflict continues to boil, the Iraqi army may split apart.
Another major concern is the impact of these sectarian skirmishes on the formation of a new Iraqi government, a process that has already taken nearly three months and has been setback significantly by the outbreak during the last few days. Sunnis have formally pulled out of talks on how to allocate government ministries, and even if they return it seems unlikely that the Shiite victors will now readily turn over enough key ministries to allow for true power-sharing.
Some deep voices of Iraqi leaders have called for restraint, and its possible they'll manage to tamp down tensions. This time. But because they'll reassure ordinary citizens with the promise of protection from sectarian private armies, the crisis this week seems destined to repeat itself.
So where does this leave all our teeth-gnashing about whether the US should stay or go? I have for the last six months or so argued that if an increasingly implausible set of conditions could suddenly arise, it would render our presence in Iraq a worthwhile bulwark against civil war. I've proposed benchmarks for staying in, none of which appear to have been met. Kevin Drum reports that we're now down from one fully combat-ready standalone Iraqi battallion in December to zero today.
At this point, on the one hand its starting to look like the US presence in Iraq isn't doing much good: we're paralyzed in the face of the worst military crisis the country has confronted, our troops holed up in barracks for fear that getting involved would only make things worse. On the other hand, were we to leave now in significant numbers, its hard to escape the sense that we'd be pulling out just as Iraq collapses. Even the White House doesn't seem to have arrived at a way to spin this.
The hope is, of course, that Iraqi political leaders and clerics will succeed in their call for calm, securing a hiatus in widescale sectarian bloodshed. If that happens, we need to look seriously at whether there's any justification for continuing to put American troops at risk. The Administration's "strategy" - after dozens of reformulations and refinements - is failing. Its possible that the tactics being used now could have worked if adopted earlier, but they aren't equal to righting Iraq in its present condition. With a failing strategy, we will not succeed.
The only thing worse than Iraq as a failed state is Iraq as a failed state with 130,000 Americans living there.