Step One: Solve An Intractable Problem

Wesley Clark has his rebuttal of the idea of a “surge” in Iraq containing the usual litany of arguments: that all we’ll do is add more casualties, and make the Iraqis less likely to come up with the necessary political solution. Now, if all we’re doing is adding more troops without substantially changing the rules of engagement, Gen. Clark would be right. If that’s Bush’s plan, it won’t have much success.

What is needed is a fundamental restructuring of the way we’re fighting. Clark and Bush make the same mistake: putting too much faith in the utterly dysfunctional Iraqi political apparatus. There isn’t going to be an amenable political solution until the sectarian militias are dissolved — and the Iraqis either cannot or will not do that on our own. At least for the time being, we have to stop being deferential to the Iraqis and start ensuring that the elements that are causing the violence are stopped — and that means attacking the Sadrist allies of the al-Maliki government.

Granted, that’s no easy task. The next few months are likely to be the hardest of the war. The risks are great, and our nation is going to have to ask our troops in Iraq to perform things that will test them as never before. However, we have no choice but to engage the enemy on the field of battle that exists now. We can’t rewind time and put Saddam Hussein back into power. We can’t allow Iraq to decay into a petri dish for terrorism. We can’t just leave. We have no alternative but to fight, and as Mario Loyola astutely points out from the right, that requires a very fundamental shift in tactics.

Clark then gets into the old Middle Eastern bugaboo:

America should take the lead with direct diplomacy to resolve the interrelated problems of Iran’s push for regional hegemony, Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Isolating adversaries hasn’t worked. The region must gain a new vision, and that must be led diplomatically by the most powerful force in the region, the United States.

As I’ve mentioned before this morning, direct diplomacy only is worthwhile when there are mutual interests that allow for a constructive solution. Syria and Iran have no interest in having a democratic Middle East. They don’t want a sovereign Lebanon and Iran’s stated goal is to wipe Israel from the map. Exactly where is the middle ground in those positions?

We have to get real: we’re not going to solve anything in the Middle East through “direct diplomacy” — we’ve been trying for decades, to no avail. Even if one accepts that the “neocon” plan has failed (an argument I find dubious), there’s no sense in replacing one failed plan with another.

That’s why the Democrats don’t have a constructive position on Iraq — the reality of the situation is much harder than the one in which sitting down and talking with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would produce results. An American withdrawal from Iraq would leave a failed state that would export violence, fanaticism, and terror across the Middle East. The destabilizing effect would be profound — but the Democrats by and large don’t want to deal with those harsh realities. It’s almost a form of denial — they would prefer we could just ignore this war and the consequences it has created. While that’s understandable, it isn’t productive.

We are in the situation we are in. Trying to solve intractable problems through diplomatic means won’t save us: it will just make things worse. This nation must make some very difficult choices in the next few weeks: either we stand firm against terrorism or we cede the battle to the enemy. The shape of our future hangs in the balance — the Middle East is in the throes of an ideological civil war, and the effects of that war will reach us here in America whether we like it or not. We can’t ignore the problem, we can’t wish it away, and we can’t merely hope for the best. Like it or not, we have an obligation to the future to finish what we started, and we cannot falter at this critical point in history.

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