Outside editorial: Baghdad envoy speaks truth to Washington

Posted: Friday, September 14, 2007

This editorial appeared in The Washington Post:

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Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, deserves credit for frankly and soberly delivering a message this week that neither his audience in Congress nor his superiors in the Bush administration wanted to hear: That a political solution in Iraq will take considerably more time than Washington has counted on. Again and again, the Bush administration has drawn up wildly unrealistic timetables for restoring stability to Iraq, from the sketchy plans for a transitional government in 2003 to this year's "surge," which envisioned Iraqi political leaders striking a series of fundamental accords in a matter of months. Democrats in Congress have been equally delusional, arguing that a fixed timetable for U.S. withdrawal will somehow cause Iraqis to settle.

Mr. Crocker's testimony, along with that of Gen. David H. Petraeus, ought to have punctured some of these illusions. He said, in essence, that it should not be surprising that Iraqi leaders have not met the political benchmarks they agreed to under pressure from Washington, given the chaos and violence that have racked the country and given their own lack of consensus about what kind of state Iraq should be. The ambassador, an Arabic-speaking veteran of the Middle East, said he sees "seeds of reconciliation" among the political leaders he meets with - something he conceded was not readily apparent from Washington.

But he repeated variations of the following words again and again in two days of testimony: "This process will not be quick. It will be uneven and punctuated by setbacks, as well as achievements, and it will require substantial U.S. resolve and commitment. There will be no single moment at which we can claim victory. Any turning point will likely only be recognized in retrospect." Nor is the "secure, stable, democratic Iraq" that he thinks is still possible assured. "How long that is going to take and, frankly, even ultimately whether it will succeed, I can't predict."

The challenge for President Bush and Congress is to bring U.S. policy in Iraq into alignment with the realities the ambassador described. Military operations predicated on the idea that an Iraqi political settlement is months rather than years away do not make sense. If the surge is to be continued - as Gen. Petraeus indicated - Mr. Bush ought to lay out realistic objectives for it. The same goes for a continued U.S. combat commitment to Iraq after the additional troops deployed for the surge are withdrawn.

Mr. Crocker's own support for a continuation of elevated U.S. troop deployments is hardheaded. Without them, he says, Iraq will probably revert to the escalating sectarian violence of 2006, when the country came close to unraveling. The result would be "massive human suffering well beyond what has already occurred" and grievous damage to U.S. national interests. "Our current course is hard," he said. "The alternatives are far worse." That's not a very hopeful or inspiring message, and it could be a tough sell in Congress. But it has the advantage of being grounded in rational judgments about what is happening in Iraq.

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