Hope for Iraq not lost in Washington

You go to the polls; I hit the phones. Since the elections I've been burning my cell phone minutes trying to talk to every policymaker I could about how the elections are going to change Iraq policy. Here's what I've learned:...

You go to the polls; I hit the phones. Since the elections I've been burning my cell phone minutes trying to talk to every policymaker I could about how the elections are going to change Iraq policy. Here's what I've learned:

First, both parties are desperate to be substantially out of Iraq by 2008. Vietnam-haunted Democrats don't want to be saddled with the remains of the war if they retake the White House. Most Republicans don't want to wage another campaign under the Mesopotamian shadow. President Bush, however, is thinking about a decades-long struggle, not the next election, so the GOP could be heading toward a blood feud between "Let's end this" Republicans and "Let's win this" Republicans, with the potential bitterness lasting for years.

Second, the elections have served as an intellectual release. Some within the Bush administration had been frustrated by the relative lack of freewheeling discussion as the situation in Iraq deteriorated. But that's certainly changed. Since I've been covering this administration, I've never heard such wildly divergent views from important advisers about where we are and what to do next. Some officials retain great faith in the Maliki government; others have very little. Meanwhile, in the Senate, there have been private conversations about forming bipartisan strategies, and an end to the campaign-season freeze.

Third, the Baker-Hamilton commission may produce more peace in America than in Iraq. Essentially, the commission looks set to bring the two parties together by asking each to swallow a bitter pill. The administration probably will be asked to organize a regional conference, including Iran and Syria. This will be painful to some leading advisers, who think talking to Iran means abandoning the Bush doctrine (though others think a deal is possible and desirable).

The Democrats, for their part, could be asked to shelve calls for an imminent withdrawal. The Democratic Party is now divided between those, like Rep. John Murtha, who believe Iraq is unsalvageable and who want out, and those, like Sen. Joe Biden, who believe that with a change of policy it's still possible to head off full-scale disaster. The folks in the Murtha camp may squawk at the Baker-Hamilton emphasis, but the Democratic majority is not going to go McGovernite in the face of a bipartisan commission.


The fourth lesson is that events in Iraq are moving more quickly than adjustments in Washington. To put it bluntly, the era of the Green Zone may be coming to an end. That's in part because the Iraqi government is stumbling. Visitors to Baghdad have been surprised by the lack of urgency that many Iraqi leaders seem to feel in the face of national disintegration.

But it's also because the country is segmenting organically. According to the United Nations, 365,000 Iraqis have fled their homes and communities since the bombing of the mosque in Samarra in February, and more than 50,000 are retreating to their sectarian homelands every month. According to Sen. Jack Reed, "the generals are feeling the pressure of the growing fragmentation of the country."

The upshot is that while oil revenue has to be divvied up from the center, fewer Americans in Washington believe there is much hope for a strong, functioning central government in Baghdad. (America's representatives in Baghdad may disagree.) The whole debate is moving in the direction of decentralization and federalism. And the real question is not whether the center will give way to the regions, it's whether Iraqi society is so atomized that the regions, too, are ungovernable.

The folks in the Bush administration have a reputation for stubbornly staying the course. In fact, the Bush staffers are producing more churn and fresh thinking than anyone gives them credit for. And today, the most radical thinking is within the administration. One official described a future U.S. role that sounds less like a normal fight against an enemy and more, to use my metaphor, like an effort to corral six violent tigers that are constantly having feral cubs. The trick is to carefully define American interests in the midst of this chaos, the official said, and to focus on the tasks that directly impinge on those interests.

In every call I made last week, I heard anguish, open-mindedness and a genuine desire to put aside partisan feuds. Most of all, I heard Democrats and Republicans who know a lot about Iraq, and who are honest about the grim reality, but who haven't totally given in to the hopelessness that is so fashionable everywhere else.

DAVID BROOKS is a columnist for the New York Times.

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