Anatomy of a Wrong Approach
The third or fourth time I heard Vice President Cheney tell Fox News's Chris Wallace on Sunday that al-Qaeda was gambling that the United States "doesn't have the stomach" to keep up the fight in Iraq, it crossed my mind that Cheney may be staring at the wrong part of the national anatomy.
The question, really, is not whether we have the stomach for the fight but the brains to figure out what to do in Iraq.
The vice president's effort to reduce it to a question of courage -- to suggest that those who want to expand the war are braver than those urging steps to limit it -- is a standard rhetorical trick. Whenever any Bush policy is questioned, someone from the administration almost automatically charges that its critics are soft on terrorism.
Iraq requires thought, not just gut instinct, because we are struggling with a situation we've never faced before. What does America really know about how to deal with a Shiite-Sunni civil war in a land devastated by years of dictatorship, damaged by invasion, infiltrated by terrorists and surrounded by countries with their own territorial ambitions? Not much, which is why it behooves us to move with caution.
The most serious thinking, inside and outside the administration, has concluded that it is fundamentally up to the government in Baghdad to curb the militias controlled by rival Sunni and Shiite clans. President Bush says the Iraqis can't do it alone, so he is sending more troops, 20,000 of them, to help Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his forces.
Trouble is, no one knows if those Iraqi forces will show up to fight or, if they do, whether they will target anyone other than their Sunni enemies.
The Iraq Study Group and a good many others urged Bush to demand action from Maliki before offering any further help. They said, let him show an effort to take control of the corrupt and sect-filled ministries, launch serious constitutional reform, divide up the oil revenue, start delivering services.
Bush instead bought Maliki's argument that none of that is possible until Baghdad is more secure, and securing Baghdad means sending more troops into its high-risk urban warfare.
Given the decision that Bush has made, is there anything Congress can do to protect American interests and save as many American lives as possible? Yes, there is. The lawmakers should hold Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates strictly to account for monitoring the action -- or inaction -- of the Maliki government.
There is a lot of talk now on Capitol Hill about nonbinding resolutions opposing the "surge" of troops, or some sort of measure to limit or cut off the funds for that deployment. No such action is likely to have any impact on the president. The deployment has begun, and Bush is adamant about his authority as commander in chief to continue it.
What Congress can demand is regular, frequent -- even weekly -- updates from the Pentagon, relayed from the able Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander in Iraq, about what the Iraqis are doing. The State Department should be delivering similar reports from the embassy in Baghdad on the operation of Maliki's government. Members of Congress ought to be traveling to Iraq themselves, checking out the reports with the troops who are bearing the brunt of the fighting.
The administration may complain about this intense monitoring and call it micromanagement. But after the blunders of the past three years, neither the president nor our allies in Baghdad have earned the right to operate with a free hand.
If Petraeus and his staff can provide specific measures of Iraqi military cooperation and progress, good. If the U.S. Embassy sees signs that the Maliki government is getting its act together, better yet. And if members of Congress can confirm these impressions on the ground in Baghdad, then take it to the bank.
If not, then Congress should call on the president to "show some stomach" and tell Maliki that the game is coming to an end.
Without a credible threat to walk away, there is every reason to believe that Maliki will attempt to use this expanded American force as a shield for the Shiite effort to drive the Sunni minority out of their homes and far from any share of power.
That is not a goal worth one American life. And if it turns out that's what all this amounts to, then we will have no choice.