Magazine article The New Yorker

ALTERNATIVE REALITIES; COMMENT; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

ALTERNATIVE REALITIES; COMMENT; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Article excerpt

When the National Security Council met to discuss Iraq earlier this month, in Washington, the sense of urgency was palpable. The director of national intelligence described the deterioration of security in Baghdad and Basra; the Iraqi Army was near collapse, he said, and another explosion of sectarian violence was imminent. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that the American commander in Iraq was asking for two new combat brigades immediately and fifty thousand additional troops in the coming months.

"We've just heard a very dour intel briefing," the national-security adviser said, opening the floor to discussion. "With more resources, can we really get it right? Can we do it better than we've done in the past three and a half years?"

"What is 'it'?" another participant asked. "What do we mean by success? A democratic Iraq?"

"Can we achieve a stable, unified Iraq?" the national-security adviser persisted. "Does anyone here believe that's still possible? And, if not, then Plan A has failed and we have to come up with other options."

"Plan A is dead," the Secretary of State announced, and sketched out a new strategy to bring Iran, Syria, and Iraq's other neighboring countries into negotiations, in order to prevent civil war from spreading across borders. "We have to take what is a hugely eroded leadership position in the international community and try to turn it around. It's a hell of a long shot."

The meeting was remarkable for its clarity: the principals looked at unpleasant facts from every angle, asked fundamental questions about the choices available, criticized past failures, and agreed on new plans without concern for the political fallout. The old habits of wishful thinking and blind loyalty were gone.

If this discussion had taken place at the White House, one could be a little hopeful, not just for a change of policy but for a change of climate in which new policies might be imagined. Instead, it occurred a mile away, at the Brookings Institution, where a dozen civilian and military officials of previous Administrations had come together for a daylong war game on Iraq.

Conversations like this one are taking place in quiet corners of the government and the military, within small groups of trusted friends, but they are not happening where it matters. Obstacles to critical thinking are not exclusive to this Administration, with its incurious President and its ruthless political "commissars," as they are known among their colleagues. The fear of leaks, and the damage they can do to an appearance of unity and resolve, makes it almost impossible for top officials in any Administration to speak freely in groups of more than three or four. But the resistance intensifies when the White House is under siege. "The worse the situation gets," the imaginary national-security adviser said, "the harder it is to make the point that there's a problem." When the real Office of Policy Planning at the real State Department proposed writing a memo on the alternatives facing the Administration if its Iraq policy failed, the idea was dismissed by the department's real leadership.

The President's Iraq war is lost. Plan A--a unified and democratic Iraq that will be a model in the region--is no longer achievable. The civil war for which the Administration will not consider new responses is already at hand. Because no one in power can admit any of this, the United States is in the position of trying to hold still while the ground shifts violently underfoot. …

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