'Plan B' for Iraq must be military and political

Picture the person you love most in the world. Now imagine that person shredded by a bomb or dropped off one morning in the gutter with holes drilled through the back of their head. Imagine your lifelong rage, and the terror of not knowing who wi...

Picture the person you love most in the world. Now imagine that person shredded by a bomb or dropped off one morning in the gutter with holes drilled through the back of their head. Imagine your lifelong rage, and the terror of not knowing who will die next. Now imagine this has happened to someone in nearly every family on your block, and on the next block, and in the whole town.

This is Iraqi society.

And yet Gen. George Casey and Gen. John Abizaid wanted to put the burden of nation-building on the victims and initiators of this maelstrom. U.S. war strategy for the past three years has been to lighten the American footprint in Iraq and compel Iraqis to undertake the policing tasks we ourselves couldn't accomplish.

Over this time a chorus has arisen to oppose this strategy. The members of this chorus -- John McCain, The Weekly Standard, whispering dissenters in the middling rankings of the military -- argue that it's simply unrealistic to expect human beings in these circumstances to become impartial nation-builders. These dissenters have argued, since the summer of 2003, that the United States must commit more troops to establish security before anything else becomes possible.

For over three years, President Bush sided with the light-footprint school. He did so for personal reasons, not military ones. Casey and Abizaid are impressive men, and Bush deferred to their judgment.


But sometimes good men make bad choices, and it is now clear that the light-footprint approach has been a disaster. If the United States had committed more troops and established security back in 2003, when, as Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek recently reminded us, the Coalition Provisional Authority had 70 percent approval ratings, history would be different.

It is now 2007, and Bush finally has replaced Donald Rumsfeld, Casey and Abizaid. The question now is whether the policy that should have been implemented in 2003 can still be implemented four years on -- after so many thousands have died.

Many in and out of the administration think so, hence all the talk about a surge -- putting 20,000 more troops into Baghdad, finally occupying the dangerous neighborhoods, finally starting a jobs program, finally forcing national reconciliation.

Unfortunately, if the goal is to create a stable, unified Iraq, the surge is a good policy three years too late. For that surge to succeed now, it would have to accomplish the following tasks: compel the Maliki government to deliver public services in a nonsectarian way; convert the Shiite theocrats who now dominate the Iraqi government into ecumenical multiculturalists; persuade the rabid Sunni leaders to accept a dependent role in the new Iraq; induce the traumatized Iraqi people to hang together as the blood flows; sustain, over 18 months, American political support for an arduous policy that begins with a 17 percent approval rating.

The odds that the surge can accomplish these tasks are vanishingly small. The tragic truth is that the social context for this military strategy has changed since 2003.

But another surge may be realistic. This surge would begin by giving up the dream of national reconciliation and acknowledging that Iraq is in the process of dividing itself.

As the best reporting from Baghdad makes clear, today's Iraqi leaders have little interest in healing the Sunni-Shiite divide. People are retreating to their sectarian homelands by the tens of thousands. In an ever-radicalizing climate, the Sadrs are supplanting the Sistanis, and genocidal Sunni leaders are replacing the merely racist ones.

Perhaps, in other words, it's time to merge the military Plan B -- the surge -- with a political Plan B -- flexible decentralization. That would mean using adequate force levels (finally!) to help those who are returning to sectarian homelands. It would mean erecting buffers between populations where possible and establishing order in areas that remain mixed. It would mean finding decentralized governing structures that reflect the social and psychological facts on the ground.


The record shows that in sufficient numbers and with sufficient staying power, U.S. troops can suppress violence. Perhaps more U.S. troops can create a climate in which decentralized arrangements can evolve.

We can't turn back time. But if the disintegration of Iraqi society would be a political and humanitarian disaster, perhaps we should finally commit military resources, and create a political strategy, commensurate with the task of salvaging something.

David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times.

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