As historians look back, two words may encapsulate the folly of America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq — “then what?” Because, at every stage from the buildup and rationale for the war to the testimony last week of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, completely missing in action from the administration’s case was a simple, single question and answer. That question remains “then what?” Five years ago, we were told that the war would be a cakewalk. Iraqis would quickly find leaders to replace Saddam Hussein. And oil revenues would soon make the country prosperous. “Then what” was, in those heady days, redundant or naive.
Last week, even the redoubtable general and ambassador understandably chose to defer answers to the “then what” question. Iraq remains a close-run thing at best. So, Gen. Petraeus could reasonably propose March as the next station on the cross for reassessing the progress of the surge and the impact of the gradual troop withdrawals that will begin this year. And when March arrives, then what? Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker were in impossible positions. Both are surrogates for President Bush and his key advisers on Iraq, obviously limited in expressing their views on the broader strategic matters of waging the larger war against jihadist extremism beyond the confines of their areas of responsibility.
But suppose for a moment that it was not General Petraeus but President Petraeus testifying. And suppose it was Secretary of State Crocker, not Ambassador Crocker. What might each have said? Gen. Petraeus considers himself neither “optimist nor pessimist but a realist.” And Mr. Crocker gave perhaps the most revealing, if not cryptic, answer of the two-day interrogation. Responding to Sen. John McCain’s question about the ambassador’s level of confidence regarding Iraq, Mr. Crocker wryly answered it was “under control.” The body language suggested the ambassador harbored concerns he was not about to make public.
My guess is that in this scenario, President Petraeus would have sketched out a range of options — from a rapid troop withdrawal to sustaining the surge for a longer period by putting the nation on a real war footing. Then he would have offered a rigorous and even ruthless assessment of each.
Precipitous withdrawal has, as everyone knows, the risk of collapsing Iraq and spreading the violence. Putting this nation on a real war footing has different risks and could fail. However, merely explaining the choices would surely inform public debate in a way that simply has not happened. And the general might even have defined who the “enemy” is — al Qaeda; destructive centrifugal political, religious and social forces inside Iraq; or outside provocateurs such as Iran, Syria and even the effects of a prolonged American occupation.
Gen. Petraeus is not president, of course. And Mr. Bush had his course well planned long ago. Convinced that the “surge” is working, whatever that means, it was no surprise that the president’s speech on Thursday endorsed the Petraeus strategy deferring the vital question. And “then what?”
If anyone is interested in understanding where Iraq is headed, then they better start examining the critical measures that will determine the future of Iraqi society beyond the simplistic statistics of numbers of attacks and civilians killed or injured. In no order of priority, these measures include: the level of production of oil and electricity; the state of health care and educational systems; unemployment and under-employment; number of displaced Iraqis, including the exodus of chunks of the middle class; potable water and sewerage; the standard of living; political reconciliation; and the perception of a working justice system. In each measure, not only is there little progress.
Overall, progress has been negative. The latest U.N. and OXFAM studies confirm the sorry and declining state of Iraqi society. Yet, there is almost no public discussion of the “then what” question and what needs to be done to establish even a rudimentary basis for a functioning civil society.
Indeed, when asked about oil, Mr. Crocker said it could be until 2015 or 2016 before Iraq’s energy infrastructure would be modernized and fully working.
Let us be blunt. Despite presidential optimism over the surge, using these measures, both we and Iraq are failing in our efforts to create a functioning state. Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker are doing their best and we should not delude ourselves that anyone could do much better. The reality is that the president believes that his policy will not fail and thus ignores or defers this toughest question. And neither the public nor Congress can force him to change his mind. The tragedy is that waiting until January 2009 will be too late.
So, come March, guess what? Will we be any more able to face up to reality then? Possibly. We can hope. But hope is not a strategy.