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Saturday, July 14, 2007

New York Times vs. reality

LONDON — The New York Times has been wrong on Iraq for so long that it has become a tradition, and they respect tradition at the Times. Its Monday (July 9) editorial calling for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq caused a great stir in the United States: "It is time for the United States to leave Iraq, without any more delay than the Pentagon needs to organize an orderly exit."

But an "orderly exit" is not a real option anymore, and in any case that is not where the logic of American politics leads in the short run.

It would still be possible to get the 160,000 American troops out of Iraq without scenes reminiscent of the U.S. retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in Korea (1950), let alone the British retreat from Kabul (1842). There would be embarrassing TV clips as jubilant Iraqi mobs looted the Green Zone, but the token British force in Basra and the U.S. troops holding the supply lines up to Baghdad can still get out southward via Kuwait, while the bulk of the American force could withdraw north to the friendly territory of Kurdistan and evacuate by air from there.

The problem is the collaborators. Tens of thousands of people will probably be killed if they don't leave Iraq when the Americans do — from humble drivers and translators all the way up to senior political and military figures who are too closely identified with the U.S. occupation forces. But given the current state of American opinion about Arabs and terrorism, the U.S. will not welcome Iraqi refugees today in the same way that it took in Vietnamese refugees 30 years ago.

The U.S. is already being much less generous than European countries in accepting Iraqi refugees, while by far the greater part of the refugee burden falls on Jordan and Syria. But if the U.S. isn't going to save the collaborators (and it won't, apart from a few high-profile names who know the U.S. ambassador personally), their deaths will be the roadside counterpoint to the eventual American withdrawal.

However, for all the drama in Washington as one high-profile Republican senator after another loses faith in the war, and all the theatrics in the U.S. Congress about deadlines for "troop drawdowns," there will be no withdrawal of American troops from Iraq this year, and almost certainly not next year either. For the New York Times did get one thing right: President George W. Bush's strategy now is to pass the problem (and the blame) to his successor.

"It is frighteningly clear," wrote the Times editorialist, "that Mr. Bush's plan is to stay the course as long as he is president and dump the mess on his successor." What he or she did not say is that most other political forces in Washington are content to go along with that strategy, even if they must publicly insist otherwise.

All political attention in Washington is now fixed on the November 2008 election. That is already too close for a high-speed American withdrawal from Iraq to be forgotten before the voters go to the polls, so mainstream Republican opinion will back Bush's strategy down to 2009 even in the knowledge that it will ultimately fail. The alternative, an early withdrawal, is probably worse in terms of the election outcome in Congress. (I suspect that senior Republican strategists assume that the presidency is already lost.)

The same logic would dictate that the Democrats should push hard for an early withdrawal, in the belief that the distressing scenes that would accompany it would hurt the Republicans badly. But the Democrats lack the confidence to act on that belief. Indeed, they suspect that they will end up with a lot of the blame for the U.S. defeat in Iraq no matter what they do.

If the Democrats forced a troop withdrawal now, the GOP would accuse them of "stabbing America in the back." If the pullout comes after they win the 2008 election, then the disaster will happen on their watch, and the fickle public will have already forgotten who really caused it. So — goes the prevailing logic in the Democratic camp — let's at least win the election before we get blamed for the mess.

If the Bush administration comes under really heavy pressure after the mid-September report to Congress by Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, it may withdraw U.S. troops to the various "enduring bases" it has built in Iraq and leave the locals to fight it out in the streets, but that is the most that is going to happen before early 2009.

God knows whether that means more or fewer Iraqi deaths in the long run, for the fighting in Iraq will certainly not stop when the Americans leave, and it's not clear whether the American presence is currently making the civilian death toll lower or higher. We can calculate that close to 2,000 more Americans troops will die by early 2009 in the service of these political strategies — or maybe as few as a thousand, if they are pulled back into the enduring bases. And then, after the U.S. election is over, we will find out what happens to Iraq after America finally leaves.

Gwynne Dyer is a journalist based in London.

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