The Iraq debate has become largely a matter of semantics: Is the country suffering a civil war or not? Hawks generally want to deny that this is a civil war for the same reason that opponents of the war insist that it is: The term “civil war” denotes for most people an unwinnable quagmire that the U.S. has no business being in the middle of. If the violence in Iraq is not as organized as in our own Civil War, or as pervasive as in Lebanon’s, it is certainly severe enough to qualify as a civil war.
That doesn’t mean it will inevitably spiral out of control. The wars of the Balkans in the 1990s were civil wars as well, but the West managed to intervene to promote a stable, if imperfect, settlement that ended the killings and prevented the violence from spreading more widely. The government in Iraq is still standing and includes all factions of the country, while it is the country’s malign actors — the Sunni insurgents and the Shiite militias — who are working hard to foment the sectarian violence that apparently still hasn’t taken on an unstoppable momentum. These are factors in our favor. But it remains the case that success in Iraq seems more out of reach than it has at any time since the initial invasion three years ago.
One would think this would prompt a sense of dire urgency within the Bush administration, but if it has, it isn’t evident. Prime Minister Maliki’s plan to secure Baghdad — which amounted to a lot of checkpoints on the roads — has failed miserably. (The problem isn’t the number of checkpoints, but finding someone trustworthy enough to man them.) In response, the U.S. and Maliki have a new plan to secure Baghdad. At this rate, “plan to secure Baghdad” will join “stay the course” as a phrase that can’t be uttered about Iraq without causing derision.
The latest plan calls for 3,500 U.S. troops to redeploy from elsewhere in the country — including violent Anbar province — into Baghdad. It seems unlikely either that these troops can be spared from the areas they are leaving or that 3,500 Americans is enough to make a decisive difference in the capital city of nearly 6 million. Once again, the administration seems content with doing just enough perhaps — if it’s lucky — to hold things together, rather than dramatically changing facts on the ground. It might be that achieving the reality of success is being held hostage to maintaining some façade of success. Sending 20,000 more troops to Baghdad might have more effect, but it would also serve to highlight the magnitude of the problem. We find it hard to believe that whatever the question in Iraq is, the answer is always American troop levels of roughly 130,000. Not only would it be politically difficult for the administration to send many more troops, but there is also a strain on the Army and Marines — no matter how many times the Pentagon denies it — in having most of their combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan, or in transit to or from those places.
It is a symptom of the administration’s on-again-off-again approach to Iraq that the newest plan to secure Baghdad is based on Gen. Pete Chiarelli’s approach of securing the city neighborhood by neighborhood, then showering Iraqis with reconstruction projects. When he did this in parts of Baghdad two years ago, it was widely considered a success, but his strategy was apparently forgotten when he was rotated out of Iraq, only to be dusted off again as part of another new plan.
If the administration isn’t going to send more troops to Iraq, there are other things that can be done. Resources should be poured into improving the interior ministry and its forces, which have been infiltrated by the killers preying on Baghdad’s Sunnis. American advisers should be embedded with interior forces as they have been with the much more professional defense forces. We will have to confront the Shiite militias, although with some delicacy since they have their patrons and supporters within the government. It would help if Moqtada al-Sadr were killed at the hands of mysterious assassins. And any fight for the future of Iraq that has a chance of success will have to include efforts to check the Iranian training, funding, and supply of the radical militias. The U.S. has said it won’t tolerate this Iranian bid to influence control of Iraq, but has never roused itself to do anything beyond rhetorical posturing. We don’t pretend that there are easy answers in Iraq, or think that all its problems are the product of Bush-administration mistakes. It might be that the situation is simply not salvageable because Iraq’s leaders aren’t up to the daunting challenge facing them. But we have an obligation to try to save the country as long as there is a reasonable chance of doing so. It is time for the Bush administration to acknowledge that its approach of assuring people that progress is being made and operating on that optimistic basis in Iraq isn’t working. It would be much better if it were frankly in crisis mode, as it attempts to save our project in Iraq and tamp down the country’s budding civil war.