Not so very many years ago, Baghdad thrived with intellectuals and artists, a few of whom survived even during the decades of Saddam Hussein’s single-minded tyranny. The poets considered T.S. Eliot something of a god, and his iconic work, “The Waste Land,” a kind of scripture . They found hope in the notion that love and sacrifice might triumph over the despair and sterile devastation of their own “cracked earth.”
Today, those I knew in Baghdad who remembered Eliot and wrote about him have died or, long since, abandoned a city that has become the epicenter of a widening civil war. But as I watched President George W. Bush give his press conference yesterday, I couldn’t help thinking of another Eliot poem. In “The Hollow Men,” there is that line about “paralysed force, gestures without motion,” and the famous conclusion about the world ending “not with a bang but a whimper.” And there was Bush: trying desperately to contrive some way to claim a triumph in a country he has turned into death’s dream kingdom, pretending to have strategies where none exist, ignoring realities and taking refuge in willful ignorance even as he claimed to feel the pain of the dying.
What Bush appears to be talking about now is essentially an incremental change masquerading as a bid to turn the tide of the conflict. He wants to increase the size of the American armed forces, he said. But when he was asked if he supported a proposed “surge” of 20,000 or more American soldiers on the ground in Baghdad, he equivocated: “I haven't made up my mind yet about more troops.” He is listening to advice, he claimed, and he doesn’t want to give away the big announcements he’s got planned for January: “I'm not going to speculate out loud about what I'm going to tell the nation, when I'm prepared to do so, about the way forward.” Apparently The Decider has decided not to explain to the public what he’s decided until he decides he’s good and ready.
Decidedly, we’ve heard this kind of spin before. Four years ago, when Bush knew damn well he was going to invade Iraq, he kept telling the public he hadn’t made any final determination. That’s just his way. But I hope I’m wrong. I hope the president really does listen to his generals and to the Iraq Study Group and to others who are explaining to him ever so patiently that the surge would be a bad idea. Maybe a sports metaphor would work: this is like calling a quarterback sneak for a final desperate push into the end zone—when you’re still back at the 50-yard line.
“Operation Forward Together” in August and September, the last grand plan to secure Baghdad by pouring in more troops (and cruelly extending their tours at the last minute was a dismal failure. Insurgent attacks increased 22 percent by October. A few thousand more Americans on the streets aren’t going to change such savage arithmetic. And, as the skeptical generals keep asking, what function are those boots on the ground supposed to serve? If their job is to separate Iraqi Shiite and Sunni neighbors who’ve learned to fear and loathe each other since the U.S. invasion, who now nourish ferocious vendettas, and who thoroughly disrespect American grunts who share nothing of their language, faith, culture or long-term concerns—well, that’s just not going to work. We will have made our big push, our last-ditch drive, and come up short.
The surge is a surefire formula, in fact, for turning what still could be called a retreat with honor into an outright defeat with humiliation. That is just what America’s enemies around the world would like to see—and it is just what the wise men and the sage woman on the Iraq Study Group wanted to avoid. Their plan as of two weeks ago (it seems so long already) was for “our” Iraqis to win the war, of course, if such a thing were possible, but much more importantly for the Iraqis to bear responsibility for losing it if they fail to get their act together. It was a cynical strategy for shifting blame, and far from ideal, but at least it wasn’t built on a cheerleader’s delusion that more American muscle is what it takes to set the Iraqis straight.
Meanwhile, the chances to pursue diplomacy that could stabilize the region are fast disappearing. Flynt Leverett, formerly a senior CIA analyst and a National Security Council staffer in Bush’s first term, presented a powerfully argued paper at a Century Foundation conference in Washington earlier this month advocating a “grand bargain” with Iran. To help defuse the conflict in Iraq, stabilize Lebanon and persuade Tehran to curtail its nuclear ambitions, the United States would offer Iran solid security guarantees as well as economic and technological cooperation. Why does Leverett think this would be effective? Because he and his wife, diplomat Hillary Mann, were involved with the secret negotiations the Bush administration conducted with Tehran for a year and a half. His paper traces those talks—and the way the administration fumbled them, then sabotaged them—step by step. Now, Leverett warns that the window for any such agreement is closing as Iran sees American power and prestige waning quickly, its own strength growing and its nuclear centrifuges spinning.
The White House reaction to Leverett’s ideas? He sought official clearance to publish essentially the same material on The New York Times op-ed page last week (as a former CIA man, Leverett has to do this, and he already had gotten approval for the academic paper). He was told the op-ed piece couldn’t be published. It touched on material that was too sensitive.
And so we go on: led by the hollow men toward a waste land of their own making.