On Iraq, our empty chamber


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Opinion On Iraq, our empty chamber

February 11, 2007 - Times - by PHILIP GAILEY 

The Senate, which fancies itself as the world's greatest deliberative body, couldn't even agree to vote on a nonbinding resolution opposing President Bush's troop surge in Iraq. It tied itself in procedural knots and came to a partisan stalemate after days of debating whether to debate more than one resolution. Maybe it's just as well, for it is becoming depressingly clear that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans in Congress really have anything serious to contribute to the Iraq debate. They appear disconnected from the realities in Baghdad and from public opinion at home.

Even if the House and Senate unanimously came out against the troop surge, what would it change in Iraq? The surge debate has become a distraction from the larger question of what we do when disaster in Iraq becomes a catastrophe in the Middle East.

For a sobering reality check on the situation in Iraq, tune out the political noise in Washington and read the latest assessment of the National Intelligence Estimate, which represents the consensus among the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community. It warns that the "overall security situation will continue to deteriorate" in the coming months if the sectarian violence is not quelled, which is not likely. And even if the violence is diminished, it goes on, "Iraqi leaders will be hard-pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation."

The conflict in Iraq is worse than a "civil war," a term that the NIE assessment says "does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al-Qaida (terrorism) and Sunni insurgent attacks, and widespread criminally motivated violence."

The report is not optimistic that the president's troop surge will work, but it also has this stark warning for war critics such as John Edwards, a Democratic presidential candidate, who favor a quick American withdrawal.

"If such a rapid withdrawal were to take place, we judge that the Iraqi Security Forces would be unlikely to survive as a nonsectarian national institution," it said. "Neighboring countries - invited by Iraqi factions or unilaterally - might intervene openly in the conflict. Massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable; al-Qaida would attempt to use parts of the country - particularly Al Anbar Province - to plan increased attacks in and outside of Iraq; and spiraling violence and political disarray in Iraq, along with Kurdish moves to control Kirkuk and strengthen autonomy, could prompt Turkey to launch a military incursion."

Imagine how much grimmer the picture would be if we had not, in Vice President Dick Cheney's words, made "enormous progress" in Iraq.

The NIE assessment suggests that the worst is yet to come in Iraq, no matter how many resolutions Congress debates and passes, no matter what the president does. As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote last week, it's time for the president and the Congress to snap out of their wishful and short-sighted thinking and begin planning for the worst in Iraq. "Congress and the administration should begin thinking about potential catastrophes in Iraq - and about how to protect the core national interests of the United States and its allies," Ignatius wrote.

Instead, too many senators, and especially those with presidential ambitions, appear more concerned about the politics of the war, just as they were when they gave Bush the authority to go to war. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner in the polls, told an Iowa audience recently that it was obvious Bush wants to hand over the war to his successor "and I resent it."

And speaking at the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Washington last week, Clinton made it clear she will not allow the war she voted for to become a drag on her presidency. "If we in Congress don't end this war before January 2009, as president, I will," said the New York senator, who opposes setting a withdrawal date or limiting funds for the war.

If she has a plan to end the war, why wait another two years to unveil it? She should tell us now, unless, of course, it is a secret plan she can only announce from the Oval Office.

What Democrats should realize is that as bad as things are in Iraq today, the next president could inherit a far worse situation. By then, Iraq's neighbors could be in the thick of the bloody conflict.

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