by George Packer
Issue of 2006-10-30
When the National Security Council met to discuss Iraq earlier this month, in Washington, the sense of urgency was palpable. The director of national intelligence described the deterioration o security in Baghdad and Basra; the Iraqi Army was near collapse, he said, and another explosion of sectarian violence was imminent. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that th American commander in Iraq was asking for two new combat brigades immediately and fifty thousand additional troops in the coming months
“We’ve just heard a very dour intel briefing,” the national-security adviser said, opening the floor to discussion. “With more resources, can we really get it right? Can we do it better than we’ve done in the past three and a half years?”
“What is ‘it’?” another participant asked. “What do we mean by success? A democratic Iraq?”
“Can we achieve a stable, unified Iraq?” the national-security adviser persisted. “Does anyone here believe that’s still possible? And, if not, then Plan A has failed and we have to come up with other options.”
“Plan A is dead,” the Secretary of State announced, and sketched out a new strategy to bring Iran, Syria, and Iraq’s other neighboring countries into negotiations, in order to prevent civil war from spreading across borders. “We have to take what is a hugely eroded leadership position in the international community and try to turn it around. It’s a hell of a long shot.”
The meeting was remarkable for its clarity: the principals looked at unpleasant facts from every angle, asked fundamental questions about the choices available, criticized past failures, and agreed on new plans without concern for the political fallout. The old habits of wishful thinking and blind loyalty were gone.
If this discussion had taken place at the White House, one could be a little hopeful, not just for a change of policy but for a change of climate in which new policies might be imagined. Instead, it occurred a mile away, at the Brookings Institution, where a dozen civilian and military officials of previous Administrations had come together for a daylong war game on Iraq.
Conversations like this one are taking place in quiet corners of the government and the military, within small groups of trusted friends, but they are not happening where it matters. Obstacles to critical thinking are not exclusive to this Administration, with its incurious President and its ruthless political “commissars,” as they are known among their colleagues. The fear of leaks, and the damage they can do to an appearance of unity and resolve, makes it almost impossible for top officials in any Administration to speak freely in groups of more than three or four. But the resistance intensifies when the White House is under siege. “The worse the situation gets,” the imaginary national-security adviser said, “the harder it is to make the point that there’s a problem.” When the real Office of Policy Planning at the real State Department proposed writing a memo on the alternatives facing the Administration if its Iraq policy failed, the idea was dismissed by the department’s real leadership.
The President’s Iraq war is lost. Plan A—a unified and democratic Iraq that will be a model in the region—is no longer achievable. The civil war for which the Administration will not consider new responses is already at hand. Because no one in power can admit any of this, the United States is in the position of trying to hold still while the ground shifts violently underfoot. The resistance to thinking about Plans B, C, and D means not only that this country remains stuck while Americans and Iraqis die but that its ability to affect events six or twelve months away is rapidly diminishing.
In the Brookings war game, the mock National Security Council, functioning the way the National Security Council should, responded to the deterioration in Iraq by making certain decisions, and then responded to the consequences of those decisions. By the end of the day, American policy had shifted from the President’s “democracy agenda” to a focus on stabilizing Baghdad and bringing the warring parties to the conference table, to an effort to stem the flow of refugees, to a policy of countering Iranian domination of Iraq. By that point, the American forces were out of Baghdad and positioned along Iraq’s borders and in Kurdistan. It was the revenge of Realpolitik. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs reminded the committee that the new policy meant greatly increased casualties among Iraqis and “a terrible loss for U.S. prestige, credibility, and legitimacy.” But, in an atmosphere of critical thinking and open debate, the officials had to accept it.
Others are trying to fill the vacuum of debate from the outside. Recently, Dennis Ross, who was President Clinton’s Middle East envoy, proposed in an op-ed in the Washington Post that the United States should negotiate its departure with the Iraqi government, basing the timing and manner on whether the factions there can reach a settlement: “If Iraqis are ready to resolve their internal political differences, to adjust to reality and to make the hard choices they face, our presence can help in the transition. But if they continue to avoid reality, our presence will simply prolong both their state of denial and ours.”
Earlier this year, Congress commissioned the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton, which is looking into Iraq policy and will offer recommendations. Such is the paralysis of official Washington that the course of the war seems to be waiting for the report, which won’t be released until after next month’s elections. News stories suggest that it will call for changes along the lines of the Brookings war game: talk to Iran and Syria, negotiate with armed Iraqi factions in a Dayton-style conference, and, as a last resort, reduce American casualties by shifting from supporting the government in Iraq to containing the fighting.
Every one of the proposals coming from outside the real Administration starts from the assumption that its policy has failed. Plans B, C, and D are also admissions of defeat. They are an acknowledgment that our highest interests in Iraq no longer involve the welfare of Iraqis. For anyone who had hoped that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would bring a better life to Iraq’s people, these are hard truths to accept. But they also suggest that between the President’s resolve to persist in folly and the public’s instinct to be rid of Iraq there is a range of choices that could prevent the disaster from inflicting permanent damage on American interests. This kind of clear, rational thought is less heartless—even, in the end, less defeatist—than willful blindness.
The Beginning of the End.
6 years ago