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Fixing Iraq Through Gridlock

This column was written by the editors of The New Republic.

Last November, as Democrats rode a wave of war fatigue into office, one thing finally seemed clear: The hour of withdrawal was nearing. Even the bipartisan Iraq Study Group was busy studying how to throw in the towel gently. For people who hated the war, the election promised clarity on the direction the country should move in when it came to Iraq — namely, toward the exit.

Six months later, the new Democratic Congress is in a frustrating standoff with the White House. George W. Bush refuses to sign legislation imposing timelines on the U.S. occupation — he has vetoed the first such bill. And Democrats, who campaigned for a swift end to the war, have been bickering over timelines and resolutions while reluctantly coughing up money to continue the war. It all looks rather futile. A public that expected clarity on the war is getting nothing but mixed signals. That, however, may be the most we can hope for, given the circumstances.

One group with no patience for this muddle is Republicans (plus Joe Lieberman), who complain that Democrats are demoralizing the troops and emboldening the enemy. In fact, quite by accident, the Democrats have introduced just the level of uncertainty we need to influence the Iraqi government. It took Bush's secretary of defense, of all people, to make this point: "The debate in Congress," Robert Gates said this month, "has been helpful in demonstrating to the Iraqis that American patience has been limited." Thanks to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, he explained, Iraqis now understand "that this is not an open-ended commitment." That understanding is critical to anything even resembling success in Iraq. As General David Petraeus has said, the war cannot be won militarily; only political compromise among warring Iraqi factions will lead to security and stability.

Another group displeased with this unintended good-cop, bad-cop policy is opponents of the war. They have discovered, just as Newt Gingrich did a dozen years before, that it's extremely difficult for Congress to govern the country over the opposition of the president. Given that the Democrats have slim margins in both houses, and that the executive branch has enormous control over foreign policy, ending the war in six months is not a realistic goal — and not desirable.

The situation in Iraq does look marginally less grim than it did before General Petraeus took charge. When flunkies of Moqtada Al Sadr left the Iraqi government to protest the U.S. occupation, Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, who was installed with Sadr's support, stood his ground and survived. The surge has reduced death squad executions (if not spectacular car bombings). The government has made some progress toward a crucial agreement to distribute national oil revenue.

Moreover, the conduct of the war is now no longer in the hands of ideologues and incompetents. Following a string of bungling commanders in Iraq, Petraeus, the Army's leading counterinsurgency expert who brought security to Mosul, is in charge. The new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, is one of the country's most experienced Middle East diplomats (and one who predicted sectarian chaos before the war began). Gates has so far been more than just a Cheney apparatchik, as evidenced by his off-message comments about the useful pressure provided by Democrats. And Condoleezza Rice's return to the Middle East to meet with representatives from Iraq's neighbors suggests a promising degree of administration engagement. The flurry of military and diplomatic activity that accompanies the surge is cause for — well, perhaps not optimism per se, but at least something more than utter hopelessness.

The prospects of a passable political solution are remote but real, and the consequences of withdrawing without one are dire. One last try, therefore, seems worthwhile. Moreover, what the administration and its defenders won't admit is that Democratic opposition is one of the things that just might make the new strategy plausible.

If the Democrats had the White House right now, they would be in a position to make radical changes on Iraq policy — say, redeploying troops from the major cities to an over-the-horizon force tasked with protecting refugees and destroying Al Qaeda cells. But they don't have the White House, and the power of the purse turns out to be a frustratingly blunt instrument. Given the stubborn intransigence of the Bush administration, war policy via gridlock is far from the worst course.

By the editors of The New Republic
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