Shadowland: Points of No Return

Ever since it became clear toward the end of 2001 that the Bush administration was headed for war with Iraq, I've been thinking about John O'Hara's classic 1934 novel "Appointment in Samarra." Although the title refers to a town north of Baghdad,* the story is actually about a Cadillac dealer in Pennsylvania. After a few too many drinks one Christmas eve, he makes a fatally stupid gesture, and nothing he can do afterward will retrieve the moment or stop the tragic series of events it sets in motion.

This administration is a lot like that Cadillac dealer, I'm afraid. You can see it trying to reverse course, struggling to back away from one rash misjudgment after another in the Middle East. But it can't even begin to set things straight, and at this point I'm not sure anybody can. Among students of the region--in government and in think tanks, in the United States and around the world--there's a rapidly accumulating sense of doom, and I use the word advisedly.

The open letter that 52 "former British ambassadors, high commissioners, governors and senior international officials" sent to Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier this week echoes the general sentiment among experts. "The time has come to make our anxieties public," they say, begging Blair to bring the Bush administration to its senses, or back away from "policies which are doomed to failure."

It's obvious that many U.S. officials, and possibly the president himself, now understand how badly we've screwed up. But they keep coming up with yesterday's solutions today, and those won't work anymore. "The history of post-Saddam Iraq is one of successive, short-lived attempts by the U.S. to mold a political reality to its liking," says a just-released report from the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "With each false start and failed plan, realistic options for a successful and stable political transition have become narrower and less attractive."

You know, it's pretty disheartening to read about this stuff, and to write about it, too. Worst of all is to live it. I promise this will be the last litany of disaster for a while. But sometimes you've just got to look these grim realities in the face.

"The options available today are few and bad," says the ICG, "a measure of the staggering misjudgments that have plagued U.S. post-war management from the start, and there is no guarantee that even these steps can stem Iraq's descent toward instability and civil war." The essence of the ICG recommendations: more United Nations involvement, a quick convening of a national assembly after June 30, and a say for the new interim government in major military decisions.

But who's going to do the fighting? The Americans, mainly, and some retreads from the Saddam Hussein era. After defeating, dissolving--and dissing--the Iraqi army and security services last May, the Bush administration now suddenly wants to bring them back to serve the occupation that has humiliated them for more than a year. Is this wise? Probably not. Is there an alternative? Probably not. When fighting picked up in Fallujah and Najaf earlier this month, about 40 percent of the hand-picked "new" security forces walked off the job rather than battle insurgents, and about 10 percent joined the rebels. The United States needs Iraqis who know how to interrogate, intimidate and kill their fellow countrymen. Saddam's old officers certainly had those skills. But let's not try to convince ourselves these guys are going to be our friends. And let's just put aside the fantasy that we're nurturing democracy.

Other grand designs have gone up in smoke. As recently as last November, folks in Washington still cherished the notion that an interim government made in the U.S.A. would be able to sign major concessions with American energy companies, allowing them to own massive reserves in the world's most oil-rich region. The appointed Iraqi regime also was supposed to sign off on a "status of forces" agreement, allowing the United States to establish strategic military bases while, among other things, protecting its troops from prosecution in Iraqi courts. The insistence of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, that only an elected government could enter any long-term agreements has ended those schemes for the moment.

Some policymakers in Washington also expected the U.S.-appointed regime in Iraq to cut a quick peace deal with Israel. The Pentagon's presidential favorite, Ahmad Chalabi, made this a cornerstone of his political platform when campaigning inside the Beltway. But Chalabi may be on the way out in Iraq. The Bush administration has turned to United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, an Arab nationalist, to try to select a regime with more street cred. This former Algerian foreign minister's distaste for Chalabi and views on Israel are well known. Brahimi told ABC the Arab world unanimously believes that "Israeli policy is wrong, that Israeli policy is brutal, repressive, and they are not interested in peace."

Never mind. The Bush administration suddenly declared a major shift in its policy toward Israel and the Palestinians this month--and made yet another irreversible mistake.

The Palestinians used to have three important cards in an otherwise very weak hand. The first was broad international support for a return to the 1967 borders of Israel, or something fairly close. Second was the question of whether Palestinians might someday go back to their ancestors' lands in Israel. The third card was the threat of violence, particularly terrorist violence.

President Bush's new position effectively eliminates the diplomatic cards: Israel gets to keep its biggest and most important settlements in the West Bank and in effect redraw the borders unilaterally; the United States won't ask it to negotiate the question of Palestinians coming back. And all this in exchange for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's tentative promise that he might pull out of Gaza and a handful of tiny, remote West Bank settlements. Of course, if his Likud Party refuses to back him, or he simply changes his mind for other reasons, that promise will disappear. But the Bush administration's surrender of the Palestinians' cards won't ever be reversed. Sharon's got them in his pocket.

So when Sharon announced last week that he no longer felt bound by another promise, his three-year-old agreement with President Bush that he won't blow away Yasir Arafat, a shocked Condoleezza Rice got on the horn with Sharon's aide to say "a pledge is a pledge." The administration has been scrambling ever since to reassure the world that it didn't really throw away the whole hard-won historical framework of the Middle East peace process in exchange for such evanescent assurances. But it did.

In the meantime, all over the map you can hear the tick-tock of Al-Qaeda-style terrorism counting down to catastrophe. In Britain an attempt to build a chemical bomb was disrupted, then a plot to stage suicide attacks and provoke mass panic in a soccer stadium was stopped. In Jordan, terrorists plotting to set off an enormous toxic explosion were rounded up. Saudi Arabia stopped several bombings earlier in the month, but missed the terrorists who blew up one of the internal security service's administrative buildings. In Syria, just last night, running gun battles echoed along the streets of embassy row in Damascus. In Thailand, meanwhile, more than 110 people died in what looked like an abortive uprising by Muslim zealots. "The air is too hot," says Justo Lacunza-Balda, who runs the Vatican's well-informed Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. "I have this impression that something very big is being cooked."

Yet when President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney testify in tandem before the 9/11 commission tomorrow, the one phrase unlikely to be heard in that closed-door session is "sorry." Even when this administration makes a radical U-turn, it never admits it was headed in the wrong direction to begin with, which may be one reason we're stuck on this road from Bad to Worse.

*In case you were wondering, the O'Hara novel took its title from a story about fate re-told by W. Somerset Maugham in the voice of Death:

"There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."