Inadvertent Wisdom from George H.W. Bush

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In Abu Dhabi last week, President George H.W. Bush was asked what advice he was giving his son about Iraq. Bush the Elder declined to answer at first. He said that if he shared his view of Iraq with the audience and "it happened to deviate one iota, one little inch, from what the President's doing ... it would be terrible." But he kept on talking: "It'd bring great anxiety not only to him but to his supporters." And talking: "In the early 1960s, Jim Baker and I were the men's doubles champions in tennis in the city of Houston," he said of the former Secretary of State, now co-chairing a panel that is supposed to make recommendations about what to do in Iraq. And then the former President talked some more: "If I were to suggest what they ought to do, it just would not be constructive and certainly would not be helpful to the President. It would cause grief to him."

How sad to watch a man who was such a subtle and sophisticated foreign policy President dance around—and inadvertently acknowledge—the phenomenal disaster created by his son. But the old man has a point: Junior is about to be deluged with advice about Iraq, and most of it will be worthless. There will be calls for regional diplomatic conferences and partition plans and new Iraqi power-sharing deals, plans to increase and plans to diminish the level of U.S. troops or to deploy them differently. Expert advocates will brilliantly argue all these possibilities, but each will have a fatal flaw: the expectation of a rational, cooperative reaction from the Iraqis. That is no longer possible. Iraq no longer exists as a coherent governmental entity. It is being atomized, according to cia Director Michael Hayden, into "smaller and smaller groups fighting over smaller and smaller issues over smaller and smaller pieces of territory."

Hayden's testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee a few weeks ago was largely overlooked, but it is stunning. He called the level of violence in Iraq "satanic." He said that as the violence increases, "the center disappears, and normal people acting not irrationally end up acting like extremists." In other words, if you're a resident of Baghdad, the most rational response is to seek protection from one of the militias—al-Qaeda if you're Sunni, the Mahdi Army if you're Shi'ite—or to get out of town. "It's impossible to get your teeth fixed in Baghdad," a U.S. intelligence official told me recently. "All the dentists have left the country."

And so we have reached the point where there is only one meaningful decision left for George W. Bush in Iraq: what to do with our troops there. The President will be tempted to follow the advice coming from the uniformed military rather than from a civilian group like the Baker commission. That's partly because he so foolishly ignored the military's views during the Rumsfeld era but also because the military is likely to share Bush's hope that Iraq is still salvageable. I spoke with several senior officials involved in or familiar with the Pentagon's Iraq review process last week, and they were unanimous in suggesting the need for more troops, at least in the short term, in order to secure Baghdad. They also suggested more and better U.S. advisory teams working with Iraqi military units. "And then we need to be patient," a senior military intelligence official told me. "It could be years before we see any real progress."

Of course, uniformed military leaders have been suggesting more troops were needed ever since the war began. But they've been saying it privately—in an abdication of military responsibility—for fear that they would suffer the same fate as that of General Eric Shinseki, who told a congressional committee that "several hundred thousand" troops would be needed in Iraq and was, in effect, fired by Rumsfeld. "We had a responsibility to speak up," said a general who served in Iraq. "You can say what you will about Paul Wolfowitz, but when he was DepSec, he was always on the phone with those of us who were downrange, asking how things were going and what we needed. But [while they were serving], even some of the generals who later turned on Rumsfeld would give the answer they thought they were supposed to give him: Everything's fine, sir!"

Now, finally, the uniformed brass seem poised to speak more candidly. But that doesn't make a military solution to this disaster any more plausible. "You know, we're trained to complete the mission," a senior military officer told me. "And that's our reflex reaction, to come up with a can-do plan—'Here's how you fix it, sir!' But we may lack perspective now. The situation may be reaching the point of no return." Indeed, the best advice for the military to give the President at this point may not be how to "win" in Iraq—but how to withdraw creatively, how to limit Iran's influence in the Shi'ite regions of the south, how to keep special-operations and quick-strike units based in the region, poised to attack al-Qaeda operations on a regular basis. The United States has lost the war in Iraq, but the "long war" against Islamist extremism will surely continue. The most pressing issue now is how not to lose the battles to come.