Bush’s good intentions have high costs

By Steve Chapman: Syndicated Columnist

President Bush is confident of ultimate success in Iraq, and he is patiently waiting for its achievement. I’m certain that unicorns exist, and I’m willing to hang around till they show up in my yard. We may both be deluded, but my delusion is a good deal less costly than his.

In the 3 1/2 years we have been in Iraq, there have been few months worse than July. As someone said of the economy during the Carter administration, everything that should be going up is going down, and everything that should be going down is going up.

The killing of al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June was welcome but ineffective in curbing the violence. Last month was the most lethal one yet for ordinary Iraqis. Some 3,438 were killed, an increase of 9 percent from June. Americans still feel the shock of the 9/11 attacks five years later, but Iraq has suffered the equivalent of three 9/11 attacks in the last three months.

Many of the deaths stem from sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis, who are struggling for control of the country. But lately, it’s not enough for one sect to fight another — Shiite militias in Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq, have taken to fighting among themselves as well.

In recent months, the U.S. tried giving Iraqi security forces greater responsibility for Baghdad. But the experiment proved such a debacle that the American military soon had to divert troops from other parts of the country to quell the violence. Troop withdrawals scheduled for later in the year were canceled, and some soldiers who had just gotten home to Alaska’s Fort Wainwright were ordered to turn around and go back to Iraq.

Bush’s policy is that as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down. But what if the Iraqis never manage to get on their feet?

For some months, the one positive thing you could say about Iraq’s sectarian strife is that it diverted the bad guys from attacking Americans. But those happy times are gone. Since January, reports The New York Times, attacks on American and Iraqi forces have doubled. In July, insurgents planted a record number of roadside bombs, the biggest killer of U.S. troops.

Some people in the administration no longer strain to dispute reality. “The insurgency has gotten worse by almost all measures, with insurgent attacks at historically high levels,” a senior Pentagon official confided to The Times. “The insurgency has more public support and is demonstrably more capable in numbers of people active and in its ability to direct violence than at any point in time.”

We helped establish a government in the hope it could bring stability. But as Ronald Reagan might have put it, the government is not the solution — the government is the problem. Referring to sectarian fighting, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said “there have been forces associated with people in the government from both the Shia and Sunni sides that have participated in this.”

A couple of weeks ago, two of the highest-ranking American generals conceded that things are unraveling. Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace and Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, told Congress that Iraq could fall into “civil war.”

That led to a great deal of arid debate on whether the current level of violence deserves that term. But it’s not really crucial for American policy whether the situation amounts to a civil war. What’s important is that it amounts to a failure.

Since Saddam’s fall, the administration has promised that staying the course would lead to victory: The insurgents would be vanquished, and a stable and democratic Iraq would emerge. That day now looks more distant than ever.

At this point, it should be obvious to all that, despite the countless tactical successes by our troops, we are losing this war and have no strategy to win it. To keep fighting is akin to placing more bets after you realize the roulette wheel is rigged.

Supporters of the administration warn that if we leave now, things will get far worse. That may be. But we are not going to remain in Iraq forever, and there is no reason to think the consequences of our departure will be any more grim three or five or 10 years from now than they would be today.

We are not going to stay long enough to succeed in Iraq, and we have already stayed long enough to fail.

Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate. Contact him at:
schapman@tribune.com