Horns of a dilemma, fractal image by Gedeon Peteri, gedeonp.com Horns of a Dilemma (Image: Gedeon Peteri)

On the horns of a dilemma


I count myself among the 69% of Americans who disapprove of how the Iraq war has been conducted (Newsweek poll, 17-Mar-07). Like many other Americans I believe we need to get out. But I am frustrated and dismayed by the debate over the war because it is dominated by extreme and unhelpful positions.

On one side, you have the Bushies who insist that "winning" is the only option. We "have to" win, they say, because if "we fail in Iraq, the enemy will follow us home" (George Bush, 6-Mar-07). This thinking has brought us to "the surge," an escalation by another name. What makes these people crazy is being "it" in the game of "Who lost Iraq?"

On the other side, you have the "bring the troops home now" hard-core, anti-war activists like many in the Democratic base and groups like United for Peace and Justice. The war was a mistake, they say, and it is not worth the sacrifice of any more troops and treasure. What makes these people crazy is the sinking feeling that all that money and all those deaths and injuries have been a waste.


Politically, this used to be framed as "stay the course" versus "cut and run." The term "stay the course" is now out of favor at the White House, and "cut and run" is anethema and political suicide. So now the fight is about "benchmarks" and "redeployments" with or without deadlines.

And so the tug of war plays out, in Congress and along Pennsylvania Avenue between Capitol Hill and the White House. Each side fights ferociously to have its side prevail.

tug-of-war on a cliff Alternate graphic, courtesy of Jim

The problem with looking at the Iraq war this way is that both positions take us off a cliff. Neither one recognizes all of reality.

If we keep trying to "win" we'll be there forever. That's intolerable.

If we withdraw the troops under current conditions, all hell probably will break loose. That's not in the American interest.

The Bushies argue for more time, claiming that "the surge" is working, that violence in Baghdad is down. There's some truth in that, but that's not the proof that the Bushies claim it is. There have been other surges and they, also, have resulted in a temporary lull in violence. But as soon as the troops move on to quell trouble somewhere else, the violence erupts all over again. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), now an ardent cheerleader for the surge, once quite accurately described this as "playing whack-a-mole."

Saner heads have not advocated so much for withdrawal as for a different strategy, doing something different rather than more of the same with more people. The Bushies claim they are doing something different, but the intense diplomatic and political effort called for by the Iraq Study Group and others is notably absent. It is largely because of frustration with the inability to force a change of course in Iraq — W is, after all, the Commander in Chief — that accounts for rising support for benchmarks and deadlines. It's the next-best thing that is possible, short of cutting off all funding, something for which there is not now sufficient political will.

Regardless of what you think about the choice to wage war on Iraq or how it has been conducted to date, we are where we are. And where we are is that the US has created a terrible mess and has a profound moral obligation to better the situation. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell called this the Pottery Barn rule, "You break it, you own it."

What I find particularly frustrating is that a very small shift in the debate could lead to a workable plan, probably in short order. What's required is to identify each side's objectives that can be supported by the other side. That's known as looking for a "win-win" solution.

Instead of insisting that we have to "win" — whatever that means — let's agree that what we have to do is make the best of a very bad situation. Everybody can agree to that. That shifts the question from Are we winning? to a more action-oriented question, What can we do?

Instead of insisting that we have to "bring the troops home now," let's agree that spending American blood and treasure accomplish something worthwhile, that it not be wasted. Everybody can agree to that. That shifts the question from When are they coming home? to a more results-oriented question, What are they accomplishing?

Note that both of these shifts imply benchmarks, something else that everybody now agrees on.

What's not to like? Of course it would be hard. People would have to lower their voices and listen to each other. People would have to give up hardened rhetoric. People would have to collaborate with each other instead of compete. People would have to give up the game of chicken they're playing. All these would be terribly difficult in the toxic atmosphere that prevails in Washington. But it may be the only way out.