Petraeus, aware of the import of his recitation of the bleeding obvious, later tried to withdraw this gaffe. But it was a genuine gaffe - the truth blurted out by a general who could not help himself. This exchange may be - and certainly should be - the turning point of the Iraq debate. Wars that make us less secure are not wise endeavors. In fact, this week has been unexpectedly revealing, it seems to me, of the rapidly rising stakes now involved.
This week is, I fear, the last chance to salvage something from Iraq, while actually leaving the place at some point with the military intact (if severely damaged) and avoiding a wider, and far more dangerous, regional war with the US in its center. Petraeus is intellectually honest to recognize that the current conflict in Iraq, with insufficient forces to pacify the country but sufficient to enrage Muslims and recruit Jihadists everywhere, is actually a boon to our deadliest enemies, and to Iran. It is clearly, palpably, making us less safe. It is recruiting and training the next generation of Islamists, giving them the skills to wreak havoc on a scale not yet seen. The inexorable logic of this is that, as we continue on the same path in Iraq, as chaos continues this fall (as I fear it will), as Iran makes even more mischief, and as the US moves closer and closer to an explicit policy of backing the Sunnis against Maliki and the Iranians, a war with Iran becomes unstoppable. The vote this week, in other words, is perhaps one last chance to arrest our enmeshment in the growing war in the Middle East before a full-scale war with Iran breaks out.
The consequences of such a war are as unknowable as they are terrifying. An air-attack on Iran's nuclear sites would likely lead to a Shiite uprising in the South of Iraq - that's why the Brits are trying to get out of there as quickly as possible - and mass casualties across the country. It would align the new Shiite "government" in Baghdad much more closely with Iran, and force the US into a hideous alliance with Sunni dictators and Sunni tribes. We would have no other global allies. We would still have insufficient troops to win. And we would not just have created a regional civil war in the Middle East; we would have taken sides in it. Such a development could unleash a wave of Islamist terror across the West far more lethal than anything we have yet seen - and even bring the Sunni-Shiite conflict to the streets of Western cities. Such warfare would likely lead to an intensification of the imperial presidency at home, with all the consequences for the Constitution that would entail. There is a disconnect right now, I fear, between the enormous stakes we are deciding and the awareness of most Americans of what may be about to engulf them.
I may be wrong about this. I sure hope I am. We all know I'm an excitable fellow. Perhaps the next six months could lead to political reconciliation in Iraq and continuation of the small, tactical successes of the surge. Perhaps, the empire we are now cementing for our lifetimes in the Middle East will bring peace and democracy in a generation or five. But I don't think the lesson of the last five years has been optimism about Arab culture. And I would feel remiss if I didn't voice the foreboding I feel at this juncture. The logic of war is a very powerful one. By refusing to cut our losses now, we may not, in other words, be choosing some kind of status quo. Waiting for 2008, as Jon Rauch has urged, may not be an option - because events and our leaders may well force our hand before then. Democrats who reassure themselves that this cycle of failure will hurt the GOP are not taking into account that the chaos can be used by Cheney, Bush and Giuliani to create more chaos, more war, to polarize the country more deeply, and concentrate more power in their hands.
To put it bluntly: Cheney and Ahmadinejad have fifteen months to get the war they both want. So far, these last five years, Cheney and Ahmadinejad have gotten everything they wanted.