The responses yesterday to Senator Clinton's acceptance of an occupation of Iraq through what would be her first four years in office were fascinating. Some, like me, are somewhat astonished that Bush has succeeded quite as well as he has in ensuring that America occupies Iraq for the indefinite future. If Clinton is conceding all this in a primary campaign where she faces an anti-war base, you can imagine what she is privately expecting and will be forced to say next year. And she's not wrong. By not getting out now, we are, I think, effectively deciding to stay for ever.
By "for ever", I don't mean literally for ever. I mean around 100,000 troops for at least another five years, and, I suspect, much longer. This is the only logical consequence of the current state of play in Iraq and America, after Petraeus's and Bush's triumph over the Senate's Republican doubters. If Iraq were a viable country, and its government a viable government, and it was asking the US to be present as a friendly support in the region, such a massive long-term commitment would not be alarming. (It would also, of course, not be necessary.) But it's clear to me that the civil war within Iraq - at various levels of heat - will not end within the next generation. and therefore our military commitment, presage on preventing a civil war, will not end within the next generation either. The civil war goes too deep. Hewitt talked to John Burns about this, and Burns helpfully argued that the current post-surge delusion - a stabilized soft partition - is not, alas, in the cards:
I’m a little suspicious of that, because I think that the contending parties in Iraq are identified by one thing that they do have in common, which is that they view this as a winner takes all game... We're dealing here with a problem that has its origins right at the very earliest stages of Islam, 1,400 years ago. And Iraq sits right on the fault line of that schism between what we now know as the Sunni and the Shia.
What happened when the American invasion of Iraq occurred in 2003 was lifting the weight of terror which Saddam Hussein had managed to suppress that schism, if you will, has exposed it. And the notion that Sunni and Shia in Iraq can resolve differences which are so deeply rooted in history, as their more recent experience on the Shia side of repression, and on the Sunni side of seeing their ruling power usurped, the notion that that can be resolved in any brief period of time, I think, is entirely notional. I think it’s going to be a very long time before there is what you might describe as a lasting settlement.
Hewitt asks a revealing question:
Do you expect that that same sort of restiveness will endure, even if some kind of rapprochement is worked out over the next four, five, six years in Iraq, between Shia and Sunni?
That's the most insanely optimistic time-line (this is Hewitt, remember): four, five, six years. A more realistic timeline is somewhere near forty, fifty and sixty years. We have to acknowledge this cold fact: if we stay in Iraq, it is for ever. And it is an occupation of a country in a civil war - for ever. There is absolutely no guarantee that in five years time, exactly the same dangers of chaos would not exist were we to withdraw. In fact, there's no reason to believe that the current arguments against withdrawal won't apply just as well in twenty years' time as well. If you believe the army and police will overcome sectarian divisions before the people do, then you have a case. But please. You think?
If we are committing ourselves to this, then we need to do so openly. The president and his supporters and the pro-occupation candidates owe it to us to explain why a thirty year occupation of the most dysfunctional "country" in the Middle East in the process of a slow-burn civil war is in our interests.