Unwind the Coil of Denial on Iraq

Given the political, logistical and strategic unsustainability of our current policy, it's pretty clear that we are - indeed - going to pull out of Iraq at some point soon, and leave a big, big mess behind. It follows that the most pressing policy questions now facing the United States are all about how to do this. It will be a difficult road, given that massive bloodshed is likely to follow quickly on almost any troop drawdown, even if accompanied by some kind of partition plan.

Yet the discussion in Washington and the media is focused on other, less consequential things - the surge, the non-debate in the Senate. The foolish question of whether a bunch of politicians nattering on about an incremental policy shift "discourages" the troops. We've also got any number of Iraq war sideshows, many of which will prove important in a historical sense, laying out the massive scale of Iraq screwups. The head-scratching, "what were they thinking?" stuff. The Libby trial. Shipping billions in shrink-wrapped cash into a war zone.

Part of it is, of course, that George W. Bush is "the decider." As long as he's there, deciding, and all attention focuses on him, it's his war, his own little self-indulgent drama. Add a war with Iran to the mix and the hard questions on a way forward only multiply. His personal denial becomes a kind collective one, an almost welcome distraction from the terrible choices that await.

But we won't help the Iraqis, or our troops, until we collectively grapple with the untenability of our current situation, and confront the actual choices - military, political, moral - involved in disengaging from Iraq. What do we do about refugees? Can we protect people who supported us? Can we stop ethnic cleansing? Can we stand aside while that happens, if that is deemed to be in our strategic interest? Given that our basic, underlying reasons for acting on the world stage have been so undermined by the Iraq war, it will also mean taking stock of the damage, analyzing just how weakened we've become.

It's easy to say "pull out now!" But to actually proceed, I think, will mean unwinding the tight coil of denial about our own moral agency in a disastrous war, and about what happens when we leave.