A Tipping Point for Iraq—Here at Home

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Iraq, said the speaker, is "a setback. You can't sugar-coat that. We've reached a point where we've got to get real. This is not going to be a near-term success for American foreign policy. The Iraq situation's not winnable in any meaningful sense of the word 'winnable.' So what the United States needs to do now is look for a way to limit the losses and costs."

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This wasn't just any old armchair observer talking on Thursday. It was Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former member of the President's foreign policy team. Haass worked for Ronald Reagan, for Bush's father and, as the policy planning boss at State under Colin Powell during Bush's first term. By virtue of his post at CFR, he is as close as you can come these days to the voice of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

Haass was giving a wide-ranging review of the U.S. foreign policy challenges around the globe — challenges he described as ranging from grim to dismal. Between North Korea, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, the U.S. faces a more daunting set of strategic tasks than it did even during the Cold War, he said. He believes the U.S. is in for several decades of difficulty in the region of the world that the Administration is hoping to remake with freedom and democracy. "How do you deal with a Middle East that does not have the building blocks of stability?" he asked.

But that was the big picture. Back on Iraq, Haass said the U.S. had overemphasized democracy, underplayed diplomacy and is now left with few friends to lend a hand. He said the question now in Iraq isn't whether the U.S. can win. "The real question is how poorly it's going to end up."

Haass admitted that the various timetables for withdrawal all have downsides. If we park a few divisions in the north of the country, he said, Baghdad burns. If we ask for allies to form a trusteeship, he noted, none will come. "It's inapplicable now," he said, in a tart dismissal. And he is not sure there is any public will for more troops—even if we had them to send. "We are reaching a tipping point both on the ground but also in the political debate in the United States... about Iraq. We are reaching the point... where simply more of essentially the same is going to be a policy that very few people are going to be able to support."

Haass called on the Bush team to open a regional forum with Syria and Iran—as well as other Arab countries—because they have real stakes in Iraq succeeding. He admitted that it will be difficult to make those nations join hands at this stage, given the way the war has played out. But he said that the U.S. has set far too many conditions for diplomacy—particularly in negotiations with rogue states like Iran and Syria—and needs to engage in diplomacy for its own sake. Haass said a regional forum was also needed because of the growing "militiaization" of the former Sunni state—a factor he said was growing in intensity. He said Washington will need the Syrians to help quell their clients in Iraq, Iran to shut down its operatives and so forth. Would it work? "It's worth a try," he said.

Haass has probably thought some of this for months; but he was reluctant to express it in public. Now he has. Which means the coalition of the willing, which has almost disappeared overseas, is now on its last legs at home.