- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2006

With the Camp David “war summit” on Iraq over and the glow from last week’s victories — finally installing a government of national unity and eliminating Abu Musab Zarqawi — fading, straight talk about Iraq is sorely needed.

Alas, the explosion of vicious partisanship and the highly destructive adversarial proceedings that pass for politics in Washington today have driven what is left of truth and candor from the field of battle. Without both, and without the courage to admit what we do not know or fail to understand about Iraq, no matter how much money the United States pours into that fractured state, long-term peace and stability will not be obtainable. Indeed, even if we can find the “right” strategy, assuming one exists, it could be too late.

First, let us try to put ourselves in the places of the 26 million Iraqis. If the violence and chaos in Iraq were transposed to the United States, here is what Americans would be facing. In the belt that includes more than one-third of our population — stretching from Boston to New York and Philadelphia, encompassing Washington, Atlanta and Chicago and then meandering through St. Louis and Denver to Los Angeles and San Francisco — each week about 3,000 Americans would die violently in the insurgency. That’s the same number who perished on September 11. That makes about 12,000-15,000 dead Americans a month or 150,000 a year killed in the violence.

By comparison, some 300,000 American service personnel died in World War II, admittedly from a population that was half the size. The violence would extend to all members of the community, including merchants and business people on whose products many depend for their livelihoods and sustenance.

In these cities, tens or hundreds of thousands of well-armed militiamen and gang members would be free to roam, taking the law into their own hands with the national army and police forces afraid or unwilling to intervene.

Meanwhile, America would be occupied by a foreign force conducting operations of its own in which innocent American citizens were killed or driven from their homes on a daily basis. Electricity would be available for less than half a day. Fresh water and sewage facilities would be in short supply, and lines at the gas pump would be measured in hours of waiting time. Underemployment and unemployment would be a staggering 50 percent.

In the face of this adversity, a large number of affluent Americans would be emigrating or fleeing to more peaceful shores, producing a huge brain drain. Meanwhile, neighboring states would be eying old territorial claims and encroaching on America’s resources.

Of course, this is not happening here. However, most Americans are simply unaware of the realities that are part of Iraq today and indeed commonplace in too many parts of the world.

What can be done? First, we need a national dialogue, not a debate, on Iraq. Debate has made both political parties inflexible and unwilling to accept the merits of opposing views. Neither listens to the other. There are those who favor withdrawal as the best means of inducing Iraqis to stand up, but done precipitously, the Iraqi security forces would implode, probably leading to a full-out civil war. And there are those who argue to stay the course, but continued U.S. presence surely has a negative downside, antagonizing much of the Iraqi public.

We need to understand what choices we have and what consequences each brings. We have not done that yet.

Second, having held a Camp David summit, the Bush administration must do the same with Congress, including members of both parties to discuss and explore a way ahead. A dialogue with the American public is also essential. And outreach to friends and allies in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere is necessary. Part of this dialogue should call for a regional conference to discuss Iraq’s future.

Third, while military force cannot win a political victory in Iraq, it surely can lose one if mishandled. The administration has been consistent in accepting the judgment of military commanders on the ground in Iraq as to the required forces. With all respect to Generals John Abizaid and George Casey and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, this is a time for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior military commanders to be more engaged in considering our choices, including surging additional forces for a set period to provide the new government with a respite, during which it can strengthen its political base.

As one whose somber forecasts about Iraq have sadly proven accurate, I am not prepared to predict failure yet. However, we are close. Let us hope that we have the wisdom to confront the truth and the courage to respond to it.

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