I've spent a couple of days trying to decide what I was going to write about if, as was planned, today's post was going to be my forecasts for the coming year. That's a New Year's Day staple of both mainstream journalism and the blogosphere, after all. But on issue after issue, the more I looked at the forces aligned around the issue, the more perfectly each one seemed to stalemated. So the prediction on which I'm most confident is this one: twelve months from now, the American people are going to be very unhappy with their leadership, both Republican and Democrat. Last November 7th, more of the American people than I ever dreamed possible stood up and loudly, angrily, and in vast numbers demanded not just action but substantive change. And I don't think that they're going to get it.
On Iraq, by November 6th both parties were in agreement that the one option that was not on the table, the one thing that we absolutely could not do, was "stay the course." The agreement on this was so unanimous that White House spokesman Tony Snow tried, so blatantly dishonestly as to embarrass Orwell's fictional "Ministry of Truth," to deny that the President had ever said "stay the course." Even the President, who would notoriously rather saw off his own legs than admit to ever having made a mistake, has spent all of November and December trying to find any alternative other than "stay the course." And listening to him and his surrogates in the press and the blogosphere for the last week, they have made it clear that what they've decided to do instead is stay the course. Why? Because truthfully, no other option is available to them. They have committed themselves to a goal as impossible achieve as it would have been for South Vietnam to not merely survive but to have conquered North Vietnam. They will not accept any outcome other than the most improbable outcome, a peaceful and free market and secular/non-sectarian multi-party democracy in Iraq, something that apparently not more than 2 or 3 percent of the Iraqi people would accept even at gunpoint. The only way they could achieve that would be with a commitment on our part of hundreds of thousands of more troops for an occupation with a minimum duration of a couple of decades, and no more than 2 or 3 percent of the American people would accept that method even at gunpoint.
I know that there are people who are tired of Vietnam analogies, but consider this: by 1966 it was already clear to large numbers of people in this country that we weren't going to win in Vietnam. But Johnson and the Democrats (and many pro-war Republicans) knew that the only alternative to victory was for Vietnam's communists to conquer and slaughter the South Vietnamese, a possibility so repulsive that it wasn't even polite material for conversation. Which is why in 1968, despite literal riots in the streets over the prospect, the Democrats nominated "stay the course" Hubert Humphrey instead of pro-withdrawal Eugene McCarthy. So the American people elected Richard Nixon in 1968 on one and only one issue, the same issue that caused the American people to vote Democratic in 2006: he was the only candidate promising anything other than "stay the course." And when he was elected and saw what the alternatives to "stay the course" that were actually available to him were, what did Nixon do? He changed the policy -- to "stay the course." The war dragged on all the way to 1975, a whole seven more years, until Nixon's emasculated successor had no alternative but a panicked evacuation that left behind an estimated 12,000 of our allies to be slaughtered; we barely got the last of our own people out. The last helicopter was evacuating the last of our people from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon while the North Vietnamese Army's tanks were breaching the outer wall around the embassy itself. It took a military loss that thorough before any American politician could face any course other than "stay the course;" all that ever changed before then was the name of the policy and some of the window dressing.
George Bush has made it clear that no matter what happens short of a military loss on that level, he's not going to change his mind, either. But if the Democrats were going to try to obey the clear and unambiguous demand of the American people that we give up, admit failure, and retreat from Iraq while we can still do so in an orderly fashion, they would find that their hands are very thoroughly tied. It is, theoretically, within the authority of the joint houses of Congress to withdraw a war powers authorization while our troops are still in the field. This has never happened before, because nobody in America wants to see the constitutional crisis that would happen if Congress gave the military one order while the Commander in Chief was giving another. More easily and less dangerously, it is entirely within the constitutional authority of the US House of Representatives to simply zero out the budget for Iraq War operations. But what would happen if George Bush refused to budge? Constitutionally, the same thing that happened when Clinton and the Republican Congress got into a similar fight where he refused to sign off on the Republican budget: government shutdown. But in this particular case, the part of the part of the government that would be shut down would be all shipments of food, medicine, fuel, and ammunition to American troops while they are under fire. Do you seriously think for even one second that the Democrats have the guts to do that? It would amount to the Democrats and the Republicans sacrificing up to 140,000 American soldiers' lives in order to see who the public would blame, the Democrats for disarming them while in a war zone or the Republicans for refusing to withdraw them once they were disarmed. Not gonna happen.
That leaves it to the Iraqis themselves to end the war. And unfortunately, I think we just saw, from a couple of the details regarding Saddam's last minutes, why we can't believe that that's going to happen, either. The man to watch is the spiritual leader of all of Iraq's Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. See, here's the relevant spiritual law, the tightrope that he has to walk. The Koran is clear and unambiguous that under no circumstance are Muslims to war on other Muslims. None. But as early as the first generation after the prophet's death, Muslims had figured out a Koranic loophole: the Koran does authorize not just war, but slaughter, of "apostates," of people who make an Islamic profession of faith but then follow after false prophets. So the Sunnis and the Shiites have in many places and in most times considered each other to be slaughterable apostates. While there have been a few famously great caliphs and emperors who have managed to separate the two sides and enforce ceasefires, the default has been Shiite versus Sunni or Sunni versus Shiite war wherever possible, and oppression of the weaker by the stronger where the weaker lacked the strength to fight. So the one thing that Sistani can not do, can not do, is sanction Iraqi majority pro-peace Shiites waging war against the near-majority pro-massacre, pro "ethnic cleansing," Shiite militia of would-be Shiite dictator Moqtada al Sadr. That would involve Shiites killing Shiites, and he can't be seen as permitting that. And al Sadr's troops know this, which is why they were openly taunting Saddam in the death chamber. Sistani would apparently, or so we're told, rather persuade al Sadr to lay down arms and for the Iraqi people to live in peace, with the Shiite majority quietly and peacefully oppressing the Sunni minority. But even so, Sistani dares authorize no weapon stronger than persuasion. And al Sadr is determined to slaughter every Sunni in Iraq to avenge Saddam's murder of his father; persuasion isn't going to go anywhere with him.
The US can't take the Sunni side in this war. The only two organized military factions we could back would be the Baathists and al Qaeda. Oh, in theory we could declare that now that Saddam and almost his entire top structure are dead that we're suddenly okay with Baath socialism as the pro-secular force, try to carve them loose from their al Qaeda allies-of-desperation, and back them for the same reason we backed Saddam early in his career. But with our military shattered, we don't have the strength to put them in power against the determined opposition of, at that point, more than 70% of the Iraqi public. We can, and have, taken President al Maliki's Shiite side, hoping to end up with nothing worse than a peaceful oppression of Iraq's Sunnis. We can even try to sustain the hope, floated in the last few weeks, that al Maliki can put together a pro-peace inter-sectarian coalition of Baathist Sunnis and pro-peace Shiites. But the Sunni Baathists can't ally with al Maliki's Shiite secularists as long as al Maliki is powerless to raise a hand to stop al Sadr's tens of thousands of Shiite soldiers from ethnically cleansing whole Sunni neighborhoods. That leaves our only alternative, if we stay in there, being to try to spend decades separating the warring sides. With the forces we have, what that boils down to is being too weak to stop them from slaughtering each other, but maybe strong enough to try to stop them from pursuing justice or revenge for the various slaughters, a recipe for thoroughly turning both sides against us, without stopping the slaughter in the least.
I honestly think that at this point the American people have resigned themselves to the fact that if we withdraw, as the American people clearly want us to do, it'll lead to a genocidal slaughter of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Iraqi Sunnis, and probably a prolonged war of secession by Iraqi Kurdistan. The American political class is not reconciled to this outcome, and will continue to powerlessly try to prevent it, at economy-wrecking and nation-wrecking cost in taxpayer money and American blood, until at least some time in 2009. And maybe not even then. So by December of 2007, I expect the American people to be screaming as loudly as they were in 1969.