In Jewish tradition, one blessing is recited over fruit from a tree (Blessed are You Who brings forth fruit of the tree) and another (… the ground) when a bush bears fruit. Strawberries are in the latter category. Once at a rabbinical convention, a dessert of strawberries pureed into applesauce was served. A debate raged among the rabbis which was the dominant ingredient to determine the appropriate phrase. Suddenly they noticed one of them was already eating. Which blessing did he make? He explained: “I made my blessing… quietly.”
More than a few of my fellows in the opinion journalism racket have been making their Iraq War blessings quietly for some time now. I have been hiding among their ranks myself, hoping against very slender hope the darned conflict would blow over in the next desert sandstorm. And this weekend I was happy to see Republicans prevailing in the Senate vote against legislation establishing binding timetables for withdrawal. Despite this satisfaction in their newfound “spinefulness,” I regret to say that at this point it would be wise to adopt a plan not too dissimilar to the Democrat approach. To be painfully honest, it probably should have been initiated by Republicans and done two years ago.
Let’s think this through step by step. Except let’s reverse the order and start from the last step first. This would be the key question: can any of us — Bush, Petraeus, Gates or name-your-favorite-neocon — envision a point in the future when the United States Army will leave Iraq and the locals will live happily ever after with nary a shot fired in anger? An Iraq more peaceful than, say, Colombia? I would class myself in the upper tier of optimists, nigh unto a fantasist, but that salubrious scenario is a shade rosier than my glasses can be adjusted.
The endpoint is less a world of truth than a world of truce. We may not achieve “trust but verify” but we can live with “mistrust and verify.” The occasional quasi-Palestinian bomb jacket, the occasional quasi-IRA car bomb, the occasional quasi-Salvadoran death squad will intrude upon the pristine Baghdad precincts. They will have a terrorism murder rate like we have a crime murder rate. But life can still happen. Government services and a working economy may still navigate the waters of an uneasy peace.
What will not prevail is an anarchic void. It will not be possible to set up large al-Qaeda training camps with state-of-the-art equipment. There will not be petty warlords extorting protection money and hacking regional turves out of the map. No neon sign flashing like a fireworks outlet in Tennessee: “Get your pocket nukes here.” The various and noxious underground troops fomenting ferment will exist but… underground where they belong.
The role of American troops now is to strike hard at the recalcitrant elements of resistance and then… get the heck out. Or mostly out, leaving some tough trainers and peacekeepers with broad autonomy in policing. Which, come to think of it, is more or less the Democrats’ plan.
When President Bush yesterday forecast disaster if we set a date certain for departure, he was being commendably sincere but unduly pessimistic. There is a sort of negative effect of our people being there, operating right alongside the positive effect. It keeps alive the perception the original war is still being fought. Mission unaccomplished. Getting out means the duly constituted authorities will lose the boost our soldiers provide, but they will also be dropping the crutch our soldiers provide. There is no Ho Chi Minh waiting in the wings with Soviet and Chinese backing. There are some subversive wild cards, but not enough to push the country into chaos.
This could have been achieved at least a year ago in my estimation — relying on written reports, but then so do most — and we would have emerged mostly victorious, with a Republican Congress. That point is moot. But today, four years in, the Iraqi government and military have gotten their cold feet wet enough. There is nothing the least bit weak about setting timetables to close out our massive intervention. Bush declaring that current status minus large-scale presence equals slaughterhouse is some of that fuzzy math he used to warn against. Remember my apothegm: Realism must be as much a check against pessimism as it is against optimism.
Desperation is not a policy. We can’t be stuck in Iraq because we are stuck. Let the White House along with Congressional Republicans quietly craft a slightly altered withdrawal schedule and loudly take the credit — they will have my blessing.