Iraq has degenerated into such rampant religious violence that even the most vehement supporters of the invasion are beginning to acknowledge that Bush's Wilsonian dream of a democratic Iraq isn't going to succeed. With the Sunnis and Shias now returning to their centuries-old game of mutual bloodletting, US casualties have declined, but only because Iraqi casualties are shooting into the stratosphere. The UN recently calculated that the death toll among Iraqi civilians (and presumably some insurgents) has reached 3,000 a month
. Niether the US nor the Iraqi government has disputed this figure. While this gives US forces some momentary respite, the country (save for the Kurdish north) is coming apart around them. The ethnic/religious cleasning has yet to reach its worst, but after it passes, US forces will be left guarding extremely hostile Sunni and Shia enclaves, in which the worst radicals hold power. Not a good outcome. In a bid to secure Baghdad (for about the tenth time) the US in moving more soldiers to the capital to assist Iraqi forces. Ralph Peters, who had been one of the war's foremost proponents, and just a month ago had been certain of our success, gloomily sums up the current situation and its consequences
Political violence with a religious undertone is becoming outright religious violence. The difference is crucial. The earlier fighting was over who should govern. Increasingly, it's about who should define Allah's will on earth. Nothing could be more ominous.
Political struggles may be resolved through compromise. Historically, only immense bloodletting and the exhaustion of one side or both leads to even a bitter, temporary peace in religious conflicts.
Leaders may bargain over who runs the ministry of health, but they won't horse-trade over conflicting visions of the divine. When men believe they hear a command from their god, they go deaf to other voices.
Instead of working aggressively toward a solution, key elements within the Iraqi government have become part of the problem. Responsible for the police and public order, the Interior Ministry has failed utterly. Instead of behaving impartially, Shia-dominated police units provide death squads to retaliate against Sunni insurgents. As a result, more Sunnis back the insurgents in self-defense. More Shias die. More Sunnis die. The downward spiral accelerates.
This is bad news for our troops in Iraq. For the first time, we may face a problem we have no hope of fixing. We can defeat the terrorists. We can defeat a political insurgency. But when our forces find themselves caught between two religious factions, the only hope is to pick a side and stick to it, despite the atrocities it inevitably will commit.
We're not ready for that, psychologically or morally. Yet. We'll try to be honest brokers. But men on a violent mission from God have no respect for mediators.
We helped make this mess. Instead of relentlessly destroying terrorists and insurgents, we tried to wage war gently to please the media. We always let the bad guys off the ropes - and apologized when they showed the press their rope burns. We passed up repeated chances to kill Moqtada al-Sadr and break his Mahdi Army militia. We did what was easiest in the short term, not what was essential for the long term.
Now the only way to avoid an outright civil war is for our troops and the Iraqi army to break the sectarian militias in a head-on fight. The media will howl and we'll see a spike in American casualties. But it's our own fault. We put off going to the dentist until the tooth rotted. Now it's going to hurt.
President Bush cannot send US forces to take on the sectarian militias. To do so would bring virtually every group in Iraq into conflict with US forces. The number of US casualties would spike dramatically. If this happened before November, it would all but guarantee an electoral bloodbath for the GOP in the congressional elections, after which a Democrat-controlled House would very likely attempt to impeach the president who got us into this mess. Worse, rooting out the sectarian militias would require even more intrusive and comprehensive house-to-house fighting through Iraq's most hostile neighborhoods. Many, many civilians would die. The images of the carnage would only fuel Islamist extremism worldwide and drive a further wedge between the US and its allies.
Peters sees this too, which is why he takes the first, wobbly steps toward admitting where the whole Iraqi debacle is inevitably heading:
The alternative would be to let Iraq fail. And we need to ponder that possibility honestly. While it's far too early to give up, we need to "think the unthinkable." We can force the Iraqis to do many things, but we can't force them to succeed. If the jealousy, corruption and partisanship in the Iraqi government prevent the country's leaders from dealing forcefully with Iraq problems, we should no longer sacrifice our troops.
Yes, Iran and Syria would be drawn in, through proxies or directly. Not necessarily a bad result, to be frank. At present, Iran and Syria ally against us. An Iraqi civil war would drag them into a military confrontation. Bad news for Hezbollah, not for us.
Let's raise another "impossible" issue: If the Arab world can't sustain one rule-of-law democracy - after we gave Iraq a unique opportunity - might it be a useful strategic outcome to watch Arabs and Persians, Shia and Sunni, slaughtering each other again? Just don't try to referee the death match.
This is a breath-taking display of amorality. It is one thing to sit back and watch your enemies engage in a bloodbath that advances your strategic position; it is quite another to have set the stage for the bloodbath in the first place. There is the slightest hint of childish bitterness in Peters's remark. The Arab world has never sustained a democracy. It lacks the civil society necessary for democracy. It lacks even the foundations of such a civil society. The US policy-makers who devised and launched this effort should have realized this before committing the lives and fortunes of US soldiers and Iraqi civilians, not to mention, hundreds of billions of dollars of US wealth to an enterprise so manifestly doomed to failure. Baghdad is not Minneapolis. The Iraqis - and the Arabs and the Muslims world in general - are not like us. Their cultural values and traditions are alien to ours. This realization should prompt not only reconsideration of our foreign policy, but of our immigration policy as well.
Peters continues, groping for a way out, but still unable to completely abandon hope in the failed crusade.
Meanwhile, our troops are doing all they can - and our cause remains just and good. Iraq could still succeed. It's too early to walk away.
But the Iraqis have to get their act together. We can't keep the training wheels on the bicycle forever. If they won't unite to fight for their own country, we'll have to accept that our noble effort failed.
We should never publicize a timetable for a troop withdrawal, but here's what President Bush should have told Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, yesterday: "You are failing your country. We'll give you six months. If your government can't produce a unified response to sectarian violence that treats all sides impartially, we'll withdraw our troops and our support. Then you can fight it out among yourselves."
Peters's gloominess is echoed by National Review columnist and war-supporter David Frum, who sees the same dismal outcome to the Iraqi venture
To take back the capital from the militias that now terrorize it will take thousands, not hundreds, of American plus tens of thousands of Iraqis. No sector in Iraq can spare the loss of so many forces (our current troubles in Anbar date back to the decision in 2004 to shift troops from Anbar to the siege of Fallujah - when they returned, they discovered that every pro-US informant and ally in the province had been murdered, usually horribly and publicly). So a real plan for success in Baghdad will have to be built upon additional troops from out of area, potentially raising US troop levels back up to the 150,000 or so of late 2005.
Manifestly, neither the administration nor the Congress will contemplate such a move. Which means, most likely, continuing violence in Iraq and a continuing rise in the power of the militias, especially the Iranian-backed Shiite militias: the Hezbollah of Iraq.
What then? Well, then ...
Uncontrolled militias (some of them working tacitly with the pro-Iranian Islamists at the Ministry of the Interior) will wage intensifying war against each other.
The Sunnis will use random terror: car bombings, suicide bombings, kidnappings and massacres.
The Shiite militias - supported by their friends in the Ministry of the Interior and in the police forces - will respond with increasingly coordinated terror, such as that which killed dozens of Sunnis in the al-Jihad neighborhood on July 9. It is hard to imagine that a few hundred American advisers can put a stop to such atrocities.
As the tide of urban warfare turns in the Shiites' favor, those Sunnis who can flee the city will do so .
Gradually, Baghdad will come to look like Basra, Iraq's Shiite-dominated second city, now effectively ruled by Iranian-backed Shiites with the tacit acquiescence of the British military authorities.
Baghdad - and therefore central Iraq - will in such a case slide after Basra and the south into the unofficial new Iranian empire. (Classically minded readers will remember that the pre-Islamic Persian empires of the Parthians and Sassanids were ruled from Ctesiphon, about 20 miles southeast of Baghdad. And here is a map of the boundaries of the Safavid empire in the 1500s, the last time the Persians counted for much of the history of the world: Pretty much all of present-day Iraq except Anbar is on the inside.) American troops will be free to stay or go, depending on whether we wish to deny or acknowledge defeat.
Oddly, the two biggest losers in the Iraqi debacle (aside from the Iraqis themselves) may be al Qaeda and the US. The spectacularly bloody and murderous carnage committed by al Qaeda's operatives against fellow Muslims, severely hurt the terrorist organization's support in the Muslim world; worse, it's failure to succeed at doing anything but kill Muslim civilians made it look particularly impotent. The US loses in terms of money, soldiers' lives and bodies, and strategic position. The biggest winner will likely be Iran, which will eventually pull the Shia portion of Iraq (as soon as it has been cleansed of the Sunni contaminant) into its orbit as a allied state. This gives Iran access to more oil and a bigger presence in the Persian Gulf.
The mullahs in Tehran must be shaking their heads in disbelief. What they couldn't accomplish in eight years of war with Saddam Hussein, the US will have done for them. And at virtually no cost.