Last week, the situation in Iraq took another major turn for the worse. That might seem impossible, since the level of carnage and destruction is so immense already that it’s hard to imagine things getting worse. But get worse they did, when the ministry of the interior —the death squad-dominated, Shiite-run agency that has become a factory for torture and murder—announced that it was seeking the arrest of Iraq’s top Sunni cleric, Harith al-Dari, who heads the Muslim Scholars Association.
Widely seen as someone who is close to the Sunni-led resistance in Iraq, Dari is hardly a radical. But that didn’t dissuade Iraq’s interior minister. “We have proof that he is involved in terrorism,” said a ministry spokesman. That announcement provoked a storm of outrage from those Sunnis, including moderates and centrists, who’d decided earlier this year to take part in Iraq’s political process rather than remain outside, and many of them immediately threatened to shut down the Iraqi government and boycott parliament. “We have to decide if we want a state, or not,” said Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president, who would have done better to acknowledge that indeed, Iraq has no state at all. Indeed, over the past few days, terrorists—real ones, and the Shiite variety—launched brazen attacks against two government ministries, raiding the Iraqi education ministry and kidnapping scores of employees, and then kidnapping the deputy minister of health.
The worsening crisis in Iraq lends desperate urgency to efforts in Washington to find a solution. While the capital awaits the report of the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, in December or early January, the die-hards and dead-enders in and out of the Bush administration are making one last push for, well, one last push. All reason to the contrary, they’re pushing the notion that the United States has to prepare for one more Alamo-like last stand in Iraq.
Such an effort was on display last week, when I attended the November 15 hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which heard testimony from General John Abizaid, the beleaguered, political commander of Centcom, who placidly declared his support for staying the course. But Abizaid was pressed by Senator John McCain, from the Republican side, and Senator Joseph Lieberman, from the—well, from what?—to explain why it wouldn’t be a good idea to send at least another 20,000 American troops to Baghdad in order to prevent defeat.
It’s an idea that appeals to neoconservatives, above all, who are pained to see their vaunted Iraqi experiment collapse in failure. The most vocal proponent of the idea is Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, though Kagan wants to send 50,000, not 20,000, and fast.
And apparently a review, now nearing completion under General Peter Pace at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is lurching in that direction. According to the Washington Post, Pace’s review is leaning toward the idea of a year-long commitment of several tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and Marines, on top of the 150,000 there now, in a last-ditch effort to secure Baghdad and Anbar province. Once that task is neatly done, they’d start bringing the boys home.
It shouldn’t need saying, but it does: This won’t work. Abizaid himself politely told McCain and Lieberman that the United States doesn’t have the forces, and even if they did, the Iraqi government doesn’t want a bigger occupation than the one they’ve got. Other experts say that chances are slim that even 50,000 more U.S. troops would help stabilize Iraq. And, of course, the whole idea is politically tone deaf. Having voted overwhelmingly against the war in Iraq on November 7, the American people would be puzzled to see an escalation.
As I observed the day after the midterm election, the vote was an unalloyed mandate to U.S. government to get out of Iraq. Many Democrats, from Russ Feingold to Carl Levin to Nancy Pelosi and John Murtha, seem prepared to act on that mandate. Although their power goes only so far, when measured against a recalcitrant White House, with every passing day it becomes harder to argue that the continuing to station U.S. forces in Iraq provides a stabilizing presence.
Whether this informs the deliberations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group is unclear. Deadly, costly, and unwinnable, it is war that has imprinted an indelible stain of shame on the pages of American history. (You know a war is going badly when even Henry Kissinger says that it can’t be won .) President Bush, stumbling through Asia, is playing sphinx. “I haven't made any decisions about troop increases or troop decreases, and won't until I hear from a variety of sources,” he told reporters in Indonesia. Well, there is no shortage of “sources” with plans. But it’s scary, indeed, with the situation in Iraq getting worse with each passing day, to think of George W. Bush spinning the wheel and picking one.
Robert Dreyfuss is an Alexandria, Va.-based writer specializing in politics and national security issues. He is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005), a contributing editor at The Nation, and a writer for Mother Jones, The American Prospect and Rolling Stone. He can be reached through his website, www.robertdreyfuss.com.