Here is the central truth about Iraq today: This country is so broken it can't even have a proper civil war.
There are so many people killing so many other people for so many different reasons - religion, crime, politics - that all the proposals for how to settle this problem seem laughable. It was possible to settle Bosnia's civil war by turning the country into a loose federation, because the main parties to that conflict were reasonably coherent, with leaders who could cut a deal and deliver their faction.
But Iraq is in so many little pieces now, divided among warlords, foreign terrorists, gangs, militias, parties, the police and the army, that nobody seems able to deliver anybody. Iraq has entered a stage beyond civil war - it's gone from breaking apart to breaking down. This is not the Arab Yugoslavia anymore. It's Hobbes' jungle.
Given this, we need to face our real choices in Iraq, which are: 10 months or 10 years. Either we just get out of Iraq in a phased withdrawal over 10 months, and try to stabilize it some other way, or we accept the fact that the only way it will not be a failed state is if we start over and rebuild it from the ground up, which would take 10 years. This would require reinvading Iraq, with at least 150,000 more troops, crushing the Sunni and Shiite militias, controlling borders, and building Iraq's institutions and political culture from scratch.
Anyone who tells you that we can just train a few more Iraqi troops and police officers and then slip out in two or three years is either lying or a fool. The minute we would leave, Iraq would collapse. There is nothing we can do by the end of the Bush presidency that would produce a self-sustaining stable Iraq - and "self-sustaining" is the key metric.
In his new book The Central Liberal Truth, Lawrence Harrison notes that some cultures are "progress-prone" and others are "progress-resistant." In the Arab-Muslim world today the progress-resistant cultural forces seem to be just too strong, especially in Iraq, which is why it is so hard to establish durable democratic institutions in that soil, he says.
"Some may hark back to our successful imposition of democracy on West Germany and Japan after World War II," adds Harrison. "But the people on whom democracy was imposed in those two countries were highly literate and entrepreneurial members of unified, institutionalized societies with strong traditions of association - what we refer to today as 'social capital.' Iraq was social capital-poor to start with and it now verges on bankruptcy."
Before the war, I wrote a column offering what I called my "pottery store" rule for Iraq: "You break it, you own it." It was not an argument against war, but rather a cautionary note about the need to do it with allies, because transforming Iraq would be such a huge undertaking. (Colin Powell used the phrase to try to get President Bush to act with more caution, but Bush did not heed Powell's advice.)
But my Pottery Barn rule was wrong, because Iraq was already pretty broken before we got there - broken, it seems, by 1,000 years of Arab-Muslim authoritarianism, three brutal decades of Sunni Baathist rule and a crippling decade of U.N. sanctions. It was held together only by Saddam's iron fist. Had we properly occupied the country, and begun political therapy, it is possible an American iron fist could have held Iraq together long enough to put it on a new course. But instead we created a vacuum by not deploying enough troops.
That vacuum was filled by murderous Sunni Baathists and al-Qaida types, who butchered Iraqi Shiites until they finally wouldn't take it any longer and started butchering back.
This has left us with two impossible choices. If we're not ready to do what is necessary to crush the dark forces in Iraq and properly rebuild it, then we need to leave - because to just keep stumbling along makes no sense. It will only mean throwing more good lives after good lives into a deeper hole filled with more and more broken pieces.
2006, New York Times News Service