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At this point, it's kamikaze strategy

JONATHAN CHAIT

February 11, 2007|JONATHAN CHAIT

THERE IS something genuinely bizarre about those remaining supporters of President Bush's strategy in Iraq. It is not just that they are wrong -- being wrong happens to all of us from time to time. It's that they are completely detached from reality.

Their arguments have nothing to do with what is actually happening in Iraq. They aren't claiming that Bush's critics have a wrong impression of what's happening in Iraq. They just seem to have no interest in the subject themselves. Their arguments take place almost entirely at the level of abstraction.

If you follow the news in Iraq, the story has become depressingly familiar. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is a creature of hard-line Shiite sectarians, and his government has been deeply infiltrated by Shiite militias. Everything he has done in his job has been toward the end of giving the Shiites an upper hand over the Sunnis.

Shiite militias have infiltrated the Iraqi army. We're equipping and training the bad guys. The Shiite militia members who haven't joined the army lay low when our troops patrol Baghdad, so that we fight the Sunnis and leave them standing. As Tom Lasseter of McClatchy Newspapers reported a week and a half ago, "The U.S. military drive to train and equip Iraq's security forces has unwittingly strengthened anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army militia."

That's why Maliki supports the surge. To the extent it succeeds, the surge will do a faster and better job of driving Sunnis out of Baghdad. But why should we want to help him do that?

The critiques of Bush's strategy all flow from this interpretation of events. The administration's critics say that our current role has the unintended but unavoidable effect of furthering sectarian warfare. If we stop cooperating with one party to a civil war, we can't make things much worse. We might possibly make them better: If we're no longer doing the Shiites' fighting for them, perhaps they'll have to bargain with the Sunnis.

What do the administration's supporters say to this? Let's look at a brief survey. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), one of the most vocal supporters of Bush's strategy, has made two major statements on the war in 2007. In the first, a letter in January, he wrote that "withdrawing from the fight is not a sound, long-term policy for the national security of the United States. Withdrawing from the fight is a recipe for defeat." How did Lieberman envision us winning? What about the reports that our actions are simply fueling the civil war? His letter had nothing to say.

Since then, Lieberman delivered a speech on the war, and that was even worse. The entire point of it was that a Senate vote of no confidence in Bush would demoralize our allies and embolden the enemy. Nothing at all about how the Bush strategy could work.

OK, you say, so maybe Lieberman has nothing of substance. But he's a politician, and they craft their words for sound bites. So surely the intellectuals who support Bush must have something deeper, right?

Sadly, no. The Weekly Standard -- Bush's strongest bastion of remaining support -- has editorialized about the war for three consecutive issues. The first editorial asserted that "abandoning American efforts to control the violence in Iraq would lead to an increase in violence" but offered no evidence to support this claim. It did not mention Maliki's clear lack of interest in making peace with the Sunnis nor the infiltration of the Iraqi armed forces.

The next editorial, by Executive Editor Fred Barnes, consisted of an extended analogy to Vietnam. The closest Barnes came to a substantive point was pointing out that war opponents had denigrated the Vietnamese government too. Did this mean we're wrong to denigrate the Iraqi government today? Barnes did not say.

And the next editorial consisted entirely of attacking proponents of the anti-surge resolution as cowards. It didn't even bother to make a claim that we're winning, or we could still win, or withdrawing would make things worse.

So, there you have it, the case for supporting Bush: Trust the commander in chief, don't undermine the troops, withdrawal equals defeat. These aren't arguments to support Bush's strategy, they're generic pro-war arguments. Change a few details and these lines could support Napoleon's invasion of Russia or the Crusader occupation of Jerusalem or almost any war. Generic pro-war arguments may be trite, but that's what you turn to when you've given up on reality.

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jchait@latimescolumnists.com

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