So What's Our Role in Iraq's Civil War?

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Of all the signs that the American people are fed up with the war in Iraq, the one that the administration should fear most was put forth last week by a longtime supporter of both the president and the war, Virginia Republican John Warner.

While chairing a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Warner suggested that the president might need a new congressional resolution authorizing our presence in Iraq, since the conflict there has become (or, best case, may yet become) a civil war.

Now, that would be one challenging resolution to write. Once you've come up with "Whereas the conflict in Iraq is now a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis," what is it, exactly, that we are therefore supposed to resolve? In an Iraqi civil war -- which is precisely what we now confront -- what is the mission of U.S. forces?

There are, after all, civil wars and civil wars. In the carnage that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, it was chiefly the genocidal aggression of Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian nationalists that needed to be checked, and in time U.S. forces and their allies did just that. But the slaughter in Iraq is the work of many hands on both sides of their religious divide. And the role of American soldiers in an intra-Islamic conflict is impossible to plausibly articulate. (Imagine, for instance, that a small Islamic army had been plunked down in Europe during the Protestant-Catholic strife of the 16th and 17th centuries. Its mission would have been about as clear as ours in Iraq today.)

For the Bush administration, then, any admission that the Iraqi civil war is in fact a civil war destroys whatever remains of its justification for our presence there. For while it is true that the withdrawal of our forces will probably unleash even greater sectarian mayhem, it is also true that our presence cannot stop it and that our presence there has also greatly diminished our diplomatic and military capacity to accomplish anything else anyplace else.

If Iraqis have embarked on a bloody partition of their nation -- and to all appearances they have -- then the one remaining task for any non-indigenous force within Iraq is to help ensure that that division takes place with as little slaughter as possible. In the best of all possible worlds, the Iraqi parties would agree on their new lines of demarcation.

Agreement or no, however, the job of keeping the mayhem to a minimum would best be performed by forces with no perceived stake or history in the conflict -- that is, by a United Nations deployment of troops from nations that are neither Muslim nor Christian.

For George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, however, such a messy and sad resolution would make unmistakably clear the full dimensions of their folly. It's not true that they don't have a plan for Iraq. Their plan is to avoid having such a resolution occur on their watch, to delay the disintegration of Iraq, for which they more than anyone else are responsible, until Bush is out of office and they can lay the blame for this catastrophe on his successor.

There's also a more immediate reason why they need to stay the course. A recent poll of Republican voters commissioned by the Republican National Committee and reported on in yesterday's Los Angeles Times found that the best way the GOP could motivate its base in the upcoming election would be to contrast "the president's commitment to defeat the terrorists in Iraq" with the Democrats' supposed lack of commitment to that goal. (The quote is from pollster Fred Steeper's memo to Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman.)

The problem here is that only the Republican hard core still has confidence in Bush's Iraq policy, and a campaign focusing on affirming that policy would further inflame not only Democrats but independents as well. But with Republicans worrying about how just to turn out their base, staying the course in Iraq does retain a certain warped logic.

Once it's acknowledged that the war in Iraq is a sectarian civil war, however, staying the course has no logic for anyone. Which is why Bush remains determined to dispute any such characterization. "You know, I hear people say, well, civil war this, civil war that," he told reporters at his Crawford, Tex., ranch on Monday. "The Iraqi people decided against civil war when they went to the ballot box. And a unity government is working to respond to the will of the people. And, frankly, it's quite a remarkable achievement on the political front, and the security front is where there's been troubles."

As long as there's an Iraqi government, apparently, there can be no civil war in Iraq. Another problem solved in the neat little world of George Bush.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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