June 16

Reuters/Gary Cameron

In an interview with Katie Couric of Yahoo News, Secretary of State John Kerry today acknowledged the possibility that the United States may work with Iran to try to stop the march of the Sunni militant group ISIS through Iraq. Pressed on whether that might include military cooperation between America and its sworn enemy in Tehran — a rather extraordinary thing to imagine — Kerry was vague. But the Iraqi government is already asking the U.S. for air support and drone strikes against ISIS, and some kind of military action is looking more likely by the day.

You have to give the administration one thing: they aren’t raising expectations. It’s a bleak situation where the best possible outcome is still quite bad, and neither President Obama nor other officials are pretending otherwise. That’s a dramatic change from the previous administration, from whom we heard so often that victory was just around the corner (if you’ll recall, the Iraqi insurgency was in its “last throes” for years, a declaration Dick Cheney first made in 2005).

But 11 years after George W. Bush’s triumphant “Mission Accomplished” speech, virtually no one would buy any grand assertions about the glorious future to come once we’re done having our way with the puny adversaries who stand in our way. “Look, it’s a complicated situation,” said Paul Wolfowitz on Meet the Press, “in which you don’t just come up with, ‘We’re going to bomb this, we’re going to do that.’” No kidding.

You can decide whether it’s sad, ironic, or galling to hear that coming from one of the architects of the war, who like the rest of the Bush administration was brimming with optimism back in 2002 and 2003, confident that once we rolled over Saddam Hussein everyone in the region would walk gratefully into the light of pluralistic democracy.

As for the Obama administration, their discomfort is evident. They didn’t sent any representatives to the Sunday shows yesterday, leaving the debate mostly to those who advocated for the 2003 invasion, like Wolfowitz and Lindsey Graham (even Bill Kristol got to be on ABC’s “This Week”). Meanwhile, other members of the brigade that brought us the war are popping back up to give their two cents; here’s none other than Paul Bremer suggesting in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that we ought to put American troops back on the ground in Iraq.

All the Bush administration’s heroic rhetoric worked for a time. But as the war dragged on and Americans came to want nothing more from the Iraq War than getting out as soon as possible, Bush’s approval ratings plummeted to levels far lower than Obama’s are at now. Today, Obama doesn’t have nearly as far to fall. But judging from the way the administration is talking, officials realize that there will be no celebrations even if we make the right decisions. That’s because the potential outcomes range between bad and awful.

So they aren’t mounting any propaganda campaigns or trying to fool the public into thinking things will turn out better than they will. The grim reality of the outcome will be what matters most in the end, but least along the way we aren’t having so much smoke blown at us from the White House. That’s something.