A staunch Republican relative of mine looked across a plate of oysters the other night in a Paris brasserie and said confidently, "The Iraq thing, that's over, right?"
"You would think so," I said with as much diplomatic ambiguity as I could muster. I squeezed a little lemon over the shellfish. A couple of the oysters cringed.
I was, yes, avoiding a fight. People believe what they want to believe. When you see a look of defiant expectation in their eyes, there's only so much you can sensibly say or do, especially in a presidential election year, and especially if they're relatives.
But when I heard Sen. John McCain talking this morning about the "success" of the war in Iraq, I was the one cringing. Admittedly, I live across the Atlantic, but I had to wonder: has the whole country gone as crazy as my contentious relation, Mr. Republican?
Let's hope not. And I think not. But one senses in the GOP a hint of furor and fantasy akin to 2003, when authoritative and experienced men like Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, the walrus and the carpenter of American policy, persuaded the president, the public and Congress that embracing war was the best way to bring peace to the Middle East. Supine as oysters, the vast majority gave their assent.
Now McCain would have us believe that more war, and then still more war—"bomb, bomb Iran" to the Beach Boys' melody—remains the best course to follow. "We will never surrender," he likes to say, "and they [meaning Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama] will."
A more realistic appraisal: McCain will never come to his senses.
"My friends, the war will be over soon … for all intents and purposes—although the insurgency will go on for years and years and years," McCain said yesterday, trying to explain why he said in January that it would be "fine with me" if American troops stayed there for 100 years. "It'll be handled by the Iraqis, not by us," McCain said. So … why will we be there? As spectators? Cheerleaders? Perhaps as bettors?
Fortunately, some of the same sane and responsible voices that warned about the dangers of invading and occupying Iraq before the disastrous fact have just come out with a fresh appraisal of the "New Middle East" that has been created by five gruesome years of Republican policy. The report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is refreshingly if brutally accurate:
"Despite the presence of over 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq at the end of 2007 and an improvement in the security situation, Iraq remains an unstable, violent, and deeply divided country, indeed a failed state," write the authors, five respected experts on Iran and the Arab world. "The balance of power between Iran and Iraq has been broken, increasing the influence of Tehran in the Gulf and beyond," while "Iran continues its uranium enrichment program undeterred by United Nations Security Council resolutions or the threat of U.S military action."
Bush's rhetorical "axis of evil" helped mire the United States in an utterly implausible policy, according to the report. (Words do matter, it seems.) "The expression was inappropriate—far from constituting an axis, Iran and Iraq were bitter enemies, and North Korea was not part of the Middle East political scene." The Bush administration replaced Iran's most ruthless enemies, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, with its own feckless presence next door to the Islamic revolution, then ushered in a Shiite-dominated faith-based government in Baghdad that is closer to Tehran than to Washington. "Today Iran and Iraq are more intricately linked than they were in 2002," says the Carnegie report. "Iraq's problems, and possible solutions, are so closely intertwined with Iran that it is no longer possible to discuss solutions for Iraq without taking into consideration what Iran will do."
"Due in no small part to Bush administration policies," the authors conclude, "Iran is now integral to critical U.S. interests, namely, Iraq, Afghanistan, nuclear nonproliferation, energy security, terrorism, and Arab-Israeli peace. No matter how unpalatable the behavior of the Iranian regime"— and the report makes it clear just how loathsome the mullahs can be—"refusing dialogue with Tehran will not ameliorate any of these issues, and confronting it militarily will exacerbate them all."
This does not mean the Iranians should get a freer ride than they have already. Some sticks have to be waved along with whatever carrots might be offered. Sanctions probably are needed. But the pretenses of threatened war against Iran and calls for regime change have to be put aside. Indeed, they only encourage the Iranians to push ahead with the nuclear program that eventually will give them the power to build atomic weapons. "In a race between the 'regime change clock' and the 'nuclear clock'," says the report, "the latter almost surely will prevail."
If McCain were listening to reason, he'd embrace what the Carnegie Endowment calls "nuanced dialogue" with Iran. Some talks have already been held, but they've been very limited. Washington has to "let it be known that when Tehran is ready to rethink its policies and emerge from isolation, there will be a partner in Washington ready to welcome it," says the Carnegie report.
The military commanders that McCain says he listens to know perfectly well that without diplomatic and political breakthroughs, their soldiers are going to be stuck in Iraq for many more tours, and possibly for generations.
At a press briefing yesterday, Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, the Joint Staff's director for operations, did not sound nearly so confident as McCain about the recent past, the present or the future. Even if Al Qaeda in Iraq is on the run for the moment, "it is premature," said Ham, "to declare victory or anything." (Al Qaeda in Iraq is only one small part of the picture. Keep in mind that in the collective judgment of American intelligence agencies, "the term 'civil war' does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq.")
Some U.S. combat brigades are being withdrawn, slowly, but this summer the total number of American troops in Iraq—about 140,000—will be about 8,000 higher than it was before "the surge" began a year ago. And the military just isn't sure when or whether more can come out. Even as Iraqi security forces take over some of the combat, more Americans are required for air support, logistics and, not least, to run the prison system. And then, as Ham put it, "the enemy always has a vote." The biggest enemy, Iran, has a great many of them, in fact.
So, no, Mr. Republican, the Iraq thing is not over, and the Iran thing is just beginning. And if the occupation launched by Bush is indeed embraced by a President McCain, then there's no end in sight. Now enjoy your oysters.