After almost four years of war, the situation in Iraq has deteriorated to such an extent that it doesn't matter anymore what is said or done in Washington. The best we can try to do is contain the chaos and minimize the coming tragedy, and we'll be very lucky if we can pull even that off.
Unfortunately, leaders of neither party seem ready to think in those terms. While President Bush and his dwindling band of supporters can't bring themselves to accept the true historic scale of their blunder, his critics still talk in simple terms of pulling out and coming home, themselves not fully comprehending the enormity of what we have done.
Here's one likely consequence of our invasion: Regardless of who wins the current standoff in Washington, within 10 years and more likely within five years, U.S. forces will be back in the Middle East, fighting in numbers so large that only a draft will generate the necessary manpower. If that prediction proves accurate, we will remember Iraq as the rather tame prelude to the much larger and bloodier war that followed.
Here's another likely consequence: Within the next 10 years, and more likely within five, the chaos touched off by our invasion of Iraq will choke off the flow of oil from the Middle East, which has roughly 57 percent of the world's proven reserves. Such an event will have global economic and political repercussions that we can only imagine, perhaps touching off wars elsewhere around the world as well.
Slowly, reluctantly, intelligence analysts and experts are beginning to broach these realities with our political leadership. You can find hints of it, for example, between the lines of the Iraq Study Group's report.
President Bush and other critics of the ISG report were correct — it did not offer a "path to victory" in Iraq. While the report does not say so explicity, ISG members clearly did not think victory is possible, and so they moved on to a larger goal: Finding a way to avoid the larger conflagration that they clearly fear is looming. All of their recommendations — from initiating talks with Iran and Syria to withdrawing to bases along Iraq's borders — are meant to contain the chaos within Iraq, not achieve victory.
Otherwise, the ISG report warns, "Turkey could send troops into northern Iraq. ... Iran could send in troops to restore stability in southern Iraq and perhaps gain control of oil fields." It warned of "the distinct possibility of Sunni-Shia clashes across the Islamic world," producing "a drop in oil production and exports [that] could lead to a sharp increase in the price of oil."
The muted desperation that marks the ISG report is more explicit in a recent report from the well-respected Brookings Institution, written by Daniel Byman and Ken Pollack, who was once a prominent advocate of the Iraq invasion.
The report's title is foreboding — "Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War" — and its contents even more so.
As they began to study the situation in Iraq, write Byman and Pollack, they drafted a list of signs that would warn them that things had passed the point of no return. They then watched in horror as "indicator after indicator went from our drawing boards to Iraq's daily reality."
They now believe that all-out civil war is likely, and if it comes, "the only rational course of action ... is to abandon Iraq's population centers and refocus American efforts from preventing civil war to containing it."
Even that limited goal may be unattainable, they warn. In their survey of recent civil wars, Byman and Pollack found a poor record of success in containing spillover into other countries. And unfortunately, "Iraq appears to possess most, if not all, of the factors that would make spillover worse rather than better."
"Not planning now for containing the Iraqi civil war could lead its devastation to become even greater, engulfing not only Iraq but also much of the surrounding region and gravely threatening U.S. interests," Byman and Pollack conclude.
Late last week, the U.S. intelligence community weighed in with its own equally stark report, called the National Intelligence Estimate. According to the declassified version of the NIE, Iraq is now embroiled in a civil war, although the NIE also points out that the term "civil war" is inadequate to describe the war of all against all now under way.
The only things that could alter the trajectory toward chaos are Sunni acceptance of their minority status, accompanied by significant concessions by Iraq's Shiite majority, and both are judged by the NIE as unlikely to happen.
For four years now, U.S. decision-makers have been designing policies for an Iraq they saw in their fantasies. They have never been able to bring themselves to see that country as it exists and will exist tomorrow, and to make decisions on that basis. For the sake of a generation, that has to change.
Jay Bookman is the associate editorial page editor.
© 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution