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Funeral Surge

When George W. Bush set out to sell his surge, he never imagined that he would need to convince the plan’s intellectual authors of its wisdom. But, a week after Bush delivered his State of the Union address, the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Kagan began furiously distancing himself from the escalation. “This is not our plan,” he told Salon. His writing partner, former Army Vice Chief of Staff Jack Keane, informed the Senate Armed Services Committee, “[I]t makes no sense to me.” It’s not just the president’s wonk base that has fled. Republican senators have begun looking more like the defeated Republican Guard, melting into the Democratic opposition. Bush’s prime- time defense of his escalation policy was followed by five new Republican draft resolutions opposing it.

So who in Washington actually believes this surge will work?Apparently, the one man who still believes in Mission Accomplished. We speak, of course, of Dick Cheney. A day after the State of the Union, he sat down with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer for a remarkably feisty interview. When Blitzer mentioned the broad consensus that the administration had bungled its Iraq policy, the vice president dismissed such talk as “hogwash.” In fact, he said, “Bottom line is that we’ve had enormous successes, and we will continue to have enormous successes.” He denied that Iraq was a “terrible situation.” For a man with such a supposedly dark worldview, he is awfully cheery.

This isn’t spin applied to make the best of a bad situation. Cheney has repeated his optimistic take on Iraq so often that you can’t doubt his belief in it. And, therefore, he properly qualifies as a delusional individual. Now, Cheney may or may not be the most influential man in the White House these days. But his assumptions about Iraq continue to hold sway. Despite their plans for an escalation, administration officials fail to grasp the scale of our problem in Iraq—or its urgency. There’s a reason why the plan has virtually no defenders outside the president’s chain of command.

For the last week, Cheney and Bush have defended the plan by placing the onus on its critics. “Those who refuse to give this plan a chance to work have an obligation to offer an alternative that has a better chance for success,” Bush has argued. This is, to borrow Cheney’s phrase, hogwash.

But, OK, here’s an alternative: Stop making things worse. It’s now clear that the Maliki government is not going to unify the country; it’s interested in U.S. participation only to the extent that it can turn our Armed Forces into an instrument of sectarian warfare. Our military must get out of the business of helping Shia death squads—a business in which the surge will only implicate us more deeply.

Does this mean we have no further military role in Iraq? No, it does not. We have a strong interest in staying to fight Al Qaeda, and we have a powerful responsibility to mitigate ethnic slaughter and protect Iraqi refugees as the civil war deepens.

There is, for that reason, something unsettling about Democratic rhetoric at this juncture. While the vast bulk of the Democrats’ proposals are reasonable—benchmarks for the Iraqi government, a renewed focus on battling Al Qaeda—some of their speechifying is less than appealing. Hillary Clinton says she “resents” that Bush's successor will inherit his mess; Barack Obama talks about letting Iraqis tackle their own problems; every other presidential candidate decries the continued Iraqi dependency on the United States. They may be right to disdain Bush and his war. But they are also evading America’s moral responsibility for the fate of the country we invaded. We set events in motion, and now there are ethnic groups that depend on our protection from catastrophes that will follow our withdrawal. Some of these catastrophes may be inevitable. But that doesn’t justify throwing up our hands—or rhetoric that raises public expectations of an easy and guilt-free withdrawal.

The current swirl of binding and non binding congressional resolutions is hardly satisfying. But this glut of legislation was born of desperation. The Bush administration continues to push ahead on its course in spite of public opinion, congressional consensus, and bloody reality. These resolutions may be the only vehicles for sending a message to the obstreperous bunch in the White House. And, even when the surge happens, these resolutions could help lay important political groundwork for foisting a new strategy on the White House in the future. Sooner or later, even for Dick Cheney, reality must intrude.

This article appeared in the February 12, 2007 issue of the magazine.