It's an excruciating read. Here's my summary: we've made real progress against the organized professional leadership of al Qaeda. Everywhere else, we've lost ground. One reason we've lost ground - both strategically, ideologically and politically - is because of the bungled war in Iraq, which has produced the worst of all worlds: an ineffective occupation that doesn't bring democracy, has turned the image of the U.S. into Abu Ghraib, and has inspired many more decentralized and dangerous Jihadists across the globe. As a supporter of the war in Iraq, it's clear that over three years later, it has spawned more terrorism, and is now causing more innocent deaths on a daily basis than Saddam's vile regime. Whether this was inevitable or a function of the way it was conducted will be debated for decades. But this much we know: it was conducted dreadfully anyway, on the cheap, and without even minimal strategic intelligence and care. At this point in time, there's no way to spin this except as a fiasco that has obviously made us less safe right now and in the immediate future. The only arguments the Bush administration has left is that in 2050, historians may regard it as a turning point, and that leaving now would be even worse. The first argument is pathetic; the second argument is true but only underscores their unforgivable recklessness.
The NIE further concludes that our continued ineffective presence in Iraq is spawning more terrorism, and that our departure would also be a huge morale boost to the Jihadists and foment even more hell. Great. (What the war has done to increase Iran's power and potential danger is not addressed in the sections I've read. But it surely adds to the negatives.) What's clear to me is that we therefore have a gamble ahead of us: do we withdraw from Iraq in some way - either completely or to Kurdish areas - or do we seriously try and get the occupation right? At this point, I'd say the argument is very finely balanced. Obviously, the first step must be to get rid of the people so far responsible for the Iraq disaster. Until Rumsfeld is dismissed, we have no hope for any improvement. General Casey needs to be fired as well, along with several other military leaders who have presided over this mess. For the first time in this administration, we need some accountability. Then we have a decision to make. Do we have the troops necessary to make this work? Or do we not? If we need a draft, do we have the guts to say so and debate it?
My own view is that we should either drastically up the ante in Iraq - by adding tens of thousands of new troops in a serious, concerted attempt to provide order for the first time; or we should withdraw. Anything in between continues the same worst-of-all-worlds nightmare. We knew occupying a Muslim country would be a very high-risk venture. Which is why it had to be done with overwhelming force, meticulous planning, and an equally painstaking political strategy for the aftermath. We know now that Rumsfeld and Cheney just wanted to bomb the crap out of the place to prove they had more testosterone than the Democrats and to scare a few leaders in the Middle East. But the time for their amateurism is over. Either get serious or leave, guys. And make up your mind soon.
(Photo: U.S. troops in Baghdad this month, by Yuri Kozyrev for Time.)