Friday, November 30, 2007

Still No Way Out

NYT Editorial

There has been so much horrible news out of Iraq for so long that it is natural to want to celebrate better news. Sending another 30,000 American troops into Iraq has made life better: attacks are down, as are the number of American and Iraqi casualties. Some refugees are even venturing home. The news has cheered Americans and dampened Democrats’ enthusiasm for keeping up the pressure on Iraq policy. Unfortunately, it is just as important to look at what has not happened since President Bush announced his surge: Iraq’s leaders are no closer to making the political deals that are the only hope for building a self-sustaining peace.

Without a serious effort at national conciliation, American troops are just holding down the lid on a pressure cooker. Iraq’s rival militias, the insurgents, the bitter sectarian resentments and the meddling neighbors haven’t gone anywhere. Consider this all too familiar horror: yesterday, police said they pulled six bodies from the Tigris River about 25 miles south of Baghdad. They were handcuffed and showed signs of having been tortured. And five, including a child, had been beheaded.

Perhaps 160,000 American troops could hold down the overall casualty numbers indefinitely, but they cannot wipe away that sort of hatred. That’s the job of Iraq’s leaders. Either way, the American military doesn’t have enough troops for such an occupation without end, and the American Treasury can’t keep spending $10 billion a month to maintain it.

Mr. Bush’s escalation was sold as a way to buy Iraqi politicians breathing room to finally address the problems driving the sectarian violence: by agreeing on an equitable division of oil wealth, rules for provincial elections and ways to bring more Sunnis and former Baath Party members into the Shiite-dominated government.

Instead, Iraq’s politicians — and their American backers — have squandered the time and the best efforts of American troops. Mr. Bush’s generals are so frustrated that they’ve begun to complain publicly about the fecklessness of Iraq’s leaders. The ever-feckless White House, rather than looking for ways to compel Iraq’s leaders to perform, is lessening the pressure.

The Times reported this week that the Bush administration has scaled back its goals for political progress. Its newest low bar: Iraq’s dysfunctional government manages to pass a budget and approves legislation to allow former Baath Party members to rejoin the government. (And that was before the Iraqi Parliament dissolved into a shouting match over the Baath reconciliation bill and decided to put it off again.)

At least part of the recent good news can be traced to a new collaboration between American troops and Sunni fighters that last year were trying to kill Americans in wholesale numbers. The question is how long that collaboration will last if the Shiite-dominated government continues to deny the Sunnis access to basic government services and jobs.

There are also suggestions that Iran may be exercising more restraint. Fewer roadside bombs are apparently making their way across the border, and Tehran’s allies in the Mahdi Army are lying low. But Mr. Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, still have not begun a serious dialogue with Iran and all of Iraq’s neighbors about what they’re willing to do to help contain Iraq’s chaos.

Even after putting another 30,000 Americans in harm’s way, Mr. Bush still sees no need for a strategy to get all 160,000 troops in Iraq safely home. And as long as they know that this is the case, that Mr. Bush is willing to go on paying the bills — and protecting the Green Zone — Iraqi politicians will see no reason to compromise.

Americans need to ask themselves the questions Mr. Bush is refusing to answer: Is this country signing on to keep the peace in Iraq indefinitely? If so, how many American and Iraqi deaths a month are an acceptable price? If not, what’s the plan for getting out?

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