Washington's hall of mirrors

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The bitter but unmistakable truth about Iraq is this: From the vaunted "Petraeus Report" onward, U.S. policy will have one overriding purpose, deflecting blame for the ongoing catastrophe everywhere but where it belongs -- on President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Bush remains incapable of accepting responsibility, Cheney of admitting error. All the rest is misdirection. Anybody who imagines differently hasn't been paying attention.

Alas, the inattentive group includes most Washington thinkers, Democrats included. We're fast approaching that point in the political cycle when facts inevitably yield to the inward-reflecting funhouse mirror of a presidential campaign, and reality itself seems illusory. A historian might argue that sort of intellectual decadence signifies an empire in decline.

The signs are everywhere.

Item: It turns out Gen. David Petraeus' report won't be strictly his own work. The Washington Post reports that White House staffers (assuming anybody still works there two weeks hence) will draft the document. Right-thinking pundits chide anybody so naive as to think otherwise.

Item: Two Brookings Institution "scholars" falsely masquerading as Iraq war critics publish a New York Times column titled "A War We Just Might Win," asserting that the "surge" is working. Never mind that both led cheers for the war since before it began, that their salaries are paid by the Saban Center for Middle East Studies, funded by an Israeli-American neoconservative who supported President Bush in 2004, and that their Baghdad adventure was Pentagon-sponsored and scripted from beginning to end. (Surprise! Troop "morale is high.")

Item: Several days later, six sergeants and a corporal returning from 15 months in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne risked Pentagon ire by collaborating in a New York Times column headlined "The War as We Saw It." Shortly before publication, one of its authors, Staff Sgt. Jeremy Murphy, takes a bullet to the head. He's expected to survive.

The grunts'-eye view is less optimistic. "To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome," they write, "can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched."

They report U.S. military superiority offset by failures everywhere else. American soldiers still can't distinguish friend from six or eight varieties of foe. Claims about the increasing skills of U.S.-trained Iraqi cops and soldiers are "misleading rhetoric. ... The truth is that (Iraqi) battalion commanders, even if well-meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their (sectarian) militias."

Arming Sunni tribesmen against al-Qaida strikes them as extremely risky. Giving away guns and money always wins temporary friends in the Middle East. But why think they won't eventually turn U.S.-supplied weapons against us? Not to mention against the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government?

Why would any Iraqi trust Americans? The soldiers say U.S. efforts to help them "have failed most miserably. Two million Iraqis are in refugee camps in bordering countries. Close to 2 million more are internally displaced and now fill many urban slums. Cities lack regular electricity, telephone services and sanitation. ... [M]en with guns rule the streets, engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act. Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence."

Anybody who needs to be told which of these columns got all the play inside the Beltway must not watch TV news.

Item: Ayad Allawi, former U.S.-appointed Iraqi prime minister, pays the Washington lobbying firm of Barbour Griffith & Rogers (founded by former GOP chair and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour) a reported $300,000 to represent him. Anchored by prominent former Bush administration officials, CNN reports, they begin "blasting e-mails all over town," suggesting that their client replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Allawi himself gets a Washington Post byline for a column claiming, "Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed to take advantage of the Iraqi people's desire for peaceful and productive lives." On cue, President Bush suggests al-Maliki's the big problem. No sooner does the White House back away from those ill-advised remarks than Democratic Sens. Carl Levin and Hillary Clinton suggest that Iraq would be better off without him.

The avowedly secular Allawi, for the record, won 14 percent of the vote when he ran against al-Maliki's Shiite Islamist Dawa Party in 2005.

The politically unspeakable truth is that Iraq no longer exists, except as an abstract noun. Bush administration incompetence, combined with savage sectarian, tribal and criminal infighting have destroyed it. Who holds office inside the Baghdad "Green Zone" makes no difference. Murderous ethnic cleansing has divided Iraq into hundreds of warring enclaves whose only commonality is hatred for Americans.

Expect no official Washington acknowledgement before January 2009, at the earliest.

Gene Lyons is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock. E-mail: genelyons2@sbcglobal.net.<I>;

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