As Iraq Bleeds, the U.S. Policy Cupboard is Bare

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U.S. soldiers inspect a site where a suicide car bomber attempted to ram a joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol in the northern oil city of Kirkuk. The attack killed three bystanders and wounded four, December 1, 2006.

Like the wild, but vain, windmilling of arms by traffic cops hoping to prevent an imminent accident, the signs emanating from Baghdad — as well as Amman and Washington — suggest that as bad as things are in Iraq, they are only going to get worse. Events over the last couple of days have made the following grimly clear: President Bush can't rely on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to stop the sectarian warfare, according to Bush's own national security adviser. Al-Maliki is beholden to arch-sectarian Moqtada al-Sadr, who this week showed his clout by ordering his minions out of the fragile coalition government. And if the climax of this cliffhanger was supposed to be former Secretary of State James Baker leading the cavalry to the rescue, the reports of his group's conclusions are not exactly reassuring. There is a sense of profound foreboding in Washington that events in Iraq have spiraled downward beyond anyone's control, and that all the Bush Administration can now do is contain the resulting damage.

The Baker report, the fruit of a 10-member bipartisan panel created by Congress, sought — but failed to find — any silver bullet to reverse the slide in Iraq. Like many such efforts that subcontract the thinking that Americans expect to be done by their President and lawmakers, the panel appears set to recommend goals without specifying the tools to achieve them. It will declare that the U.S. military presence in Iraq not be open-ended while simultaneously refusing to set a timetable for its withdrawal. At the same time it will call — as has incoming defense chief Robert Gates — for the Bush Administration to talk to Iran and Syria over Iraq's future, something Bush has been loath to do.

Bush and his military leaders have made it clear they want U.S. forces to remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future without a significant hike in troop levels. That, defense officials say, is unlikely to change the dynamic on the ground and — absent some political push that achieves a semblance of peace — is only likely to continue the grim parade of the flag-draped coffins of U.S. troops into Dover Air Force Base.

There is a growing sense in the capital that the Baker panel may be reporting too late to do any good. Indeed, hindsight suggests that "Too Little, Too Late" might be a more appropriate title for what the Pentagon christened Operation Iraqi Freedom. Lacking sufficient troops and armor to calm Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, U.S. troops were unable to suppress the insurgency that has percolated for three years. Now, with the addition of Shi'ite and Sunni militias fighting for control of Baghdad, the U.S. military doesn't have the firepower, or, it seems, the stomach to launch a battle for control of the Iraqi capital. Given the current situation on the ground, and absent an Iraqi initiative to turn matters around, it's likely that U.S. forces will continue to bleed and die until Bush tosses in the towel — or the new Democrat-controlled Congress forces him to do so.

As the situation on the ground in Iraq grows uglier, Washington increasingly seems willing to blame the downturn on Maliki's lack of clout and the poor performance of the Iraqi military. This strikes Anthony Cordesman, an expert on the war with the Center for Security and Strategic Studies, as a bit dubious. He said, Wednesday, "The idea that when you send the bull in to liberate a china shop, [and then] you blame the china shop for breaking the china is, shall we say, somewhat ingenuous, and probably misleading." But it may reflect a growing desire among many in Washington to wash their hands of a problem that, for the foreseeable future, may have no solution.