As I've traveled through the region since the war began, I have heard the same sentiments from high-ranking government officials in Jordan, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia: only a strong Sunni general could tame Iraq. But what about the rightful claims of the Shi'ite majority? "Oh, the Shi'ites usually go along," I was told in Saudi Arabia. "They're simple country people."
There was a breathtaking cynicism to all this. There was also utter disbelief that President George W. Bush actually thought he could bring democracy to a medieval society in which the strongest social units were tribes. Saddam was dangerously excessive, the neighbors agreed, but so were the Iraqi people--"the most violent in the neighborhood," a Jordanian told me. It went without saying that the Shi'ites usually endured unspeakable brutalities before they agreed to "go along." But this was realism, Middle East style.
Three years into this awful adventure, the question is, What is realism, American style? The U.S. effort in Iraq has been a deadly combination of utopian fantasy and near criminal incompetence. The absence of thoughtful military preparationthe Bush Administration's unwillingness to acknowledge the threat of a guerrilla insurgencyis laid out in greater detail than ever before in a new book, Cobra II, by General Bernard Trainor and Michael Gordon. It remains a mystery why Donald Rumsfeld, the architect of this disaster, has been allowed to continue as Secretary of Defense. There is some good news in Iraq today, says Andrew Krepinevich, a leading counterinsurgency expert: "After the recent wave of sectarian violence, all parties--even many of the Sunnisrealize they need us to keep the peace. The bad news is we still don't have a real campaign plan for doing that."
What would a realistic American policy look like now? There are three possibilities, none of them attractive: a top-down political solution, a bottom-up security solution and a staged retreat. Krepinevich and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution support the bottom-up "oil stain" strategy. This is a classic counterinsurgency plan, in which U.S. forces would refrain from whack-a-mole search-and-destroy sweeps, like the overhyped helicopter assault north of Baghdad last week, and instead concentrate on providing a strong local police presence and economic development in the 14 out of 18 Iraqi provinces that are relatively stable. If progress can be achieved in those areas, the argument goes, the "oil stain" of stability might spread through the rest of the country. The problem is, this strategy will require far more troops and timefive years, at leastthan most Americans seem prepared to support. "We may have passed the tipping point," Pollack admits. "We may no longer have the credibility with the Iraqis, or the American public, to make this succeed. But the only alternative is an ethnic bloodbath."
The top-down political solution is to impose with force a power-sharing deal, perhaps including a partition into Kurdish, Shi'ite and Sunni provinces. In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, military historian Stephen Biddle argues that Iraq's internal strife is not a "Maoist people's war" like Vietnam's was: it is a communal civil war, and the Bush policy of rapidly building an Iraqi army "throws gasoline on the fire ... Sunnis perceive the 'national' army as a Shi'ite-Kurdish militia on steroids." Pollack agrees: "We have about 50 Iraqi battalions capable of fighting now, but not one of them is blended ethnically." Biddle argues that U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad's efforts to broker a deal need to be strengthened by U.S. threats "to manipulate the military balance of power"in other words, to support one of the ethnic factions, as the British colonial empire used to do. It is true that an Iraqi solution is impossible without a grand political bargain (including a formula for distributing oil revenues), but the idea that the U.S. can manipulate such an outcomeby force, no lessseems fanciful at best.
The third potential course is retreat, which Bush will never countenancebut which is no longer unthinkable, given the evaporation of public support for the war. Retreat would leave anarchy in Iraq and quite possibly lead to a regional war of Sunnis against Shi'ites. The President won't admit it, but on the third anniversary of his war, the only plausible reason for remaining in Iraq is to prevent an even greater catastrophe. That is realism, American style.
To see a collection of Joe Klein's recent columns, visit time.com/klein