Sunday, July 01, 2007

Iraq as Fire, US Firefighters

Analogy courtesy David Ignatius.
Firefighters face this sort of triage question every day. When a blaze is really roaring, they know it's crazy to remain in the middle of the inferno. The potential loss of life is too great, and the likelihood they can stop the fire is too small. So they make strategic choices: They try to contain the blaze, letting it burn out in the red-hot center while hosing down nearby buildings and constructing firebreaks that can check the spread.

What's unimaginable is that a firefighter confronting a dangerous blaze would simply roll up the hoses, jump in the engine and drive away, consequences be damned. He may be furious at the people who caused the fire, and frustrated with the first engine company that let it get worse. But those aren't reasons for abandoning the scene.

The firefighting analogy is imperfect. But it does convey two points that are worth considering as the national debate deepens over what America should do in Iraq.

First, it's increasingly clear that, despite President Bush's surge of an additional 30,000 troops into Iraq, U.S. forces cannot stop the sectarian inferno there. Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites will continue fighting until one side breaks the other's will, or an accommodation is reached. America has been trying to broker such a reconciliation, but it isn't happening. At some point soon (and for me, that's the end of this year), we may have to conclude that this is a situation where, as Shultz said, you just have to let the fire burn.

Second, the red-hot fire in Baghdad doesn't mean that America should withdraw its troops entirely from Iraq. That's just too dangerous when the risks include a sectarian war that could engulf the Middle East, a humanitarian crisis that could include millions of refugees and an oil price that could spike to $150 a barrel.

He then calls for a modified form of the Baker-Hamilton Commission. This sectarian cleansing is partly a result of the US backing expatriate politicians (e.g. the current PM and his Dawa Party) who had to play the sectarian card to gain legitimacy on the street also partly the fault of US action and inaction in the early phase of the post-Saddam conflict (pushing too quickly perhaps the election cycle and not halting it when the Sunnis boycotted, for example).

It is also of course partly the responsibility of groups and individuals within Iraq. Democrats tend only to focus on Bush's culpability, Republicans the Iraqi sectarian groups. It's a two way street.

So when the US does begin this Baker-Hamilton pullout (i.e. in 2009 seems to me), it will have to live with for the historical record and our nation's standing in the world (morally and politically) our complicity (not total but not to be minimized either) in this sectarian cleansing. I think this is the election debate we should be having instead of Republicans just trying to ignore the question and saying the surge will work while admitting mistakes were made. And the Democrats pushing for some magical withdraw that will miraculously cause some kind of meeting of the minds of the locals and neighboring governments. And of course no matter what blaming Bush for everything.

The only commonality on both sides has been the "blame Iraqis" meme. Very kind of such clueless American politicians.


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