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SUNDAY, DECEMBER 3, 2006
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OP-ED

Call it what you want, Iraq is a quagmire

By Eugene Robinson

Coherent speech is not one of George W. Bush’s gifts, so it’s brave of him to hang so tough in a fight over semantics. Ultimately, the latest line the president has drawn in the sands of Mesopotamia — that there’s not a civil war, no matter what anybody says — is indefensible, like all his previous lines. But who cares?

I’m being flip; of course we should care about the terrible carnage in Iraq. But arguing whether it does or does not meet some textbook definition of civil war is a distraction and a waste of time. Whatever you call the chaos that American bumbling has allowed, it is what it is. “Stuff happens,” as Donald Rumsfeld once said.

Call it civil war, call it “stuff,” call it whatever you want. Historians will make the final judgment, long after American troops have come home. Assuming they ever do come home.

“We’re going to stay in Iraq to get the job done,” the Decider said Thursday at his news conference in Amman, Jordan, with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. To paraphrase a president who knew how to speak well, there he goes again.

More than three weeks after an election in which the Republican Party lost control of both houses of Congress because of the debacle in Iraq, there has been no real indication that the president heard what voters said. Yes, he did get rid of Rumsfeld, but the basic policy in Iraq has been the Decider’s. Rumsfeld just screwed up the execution, and his public statements about the war were becoming so impolitic and flat-out weird that Bush had been planning his defenestration for some time.

Having been whopped upside the head with a two-by-four, metaphorically speaking, other Republicans are now paying attention. “We certainly got the message,” incoming Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the other day in a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters. U.S. policy on Iraq, he said, is “heading in some different direction. That’s perfectly apparent.”

One would think so. But a lot of things that are apparent to most other people seem to escape the president’s notice.

Just look at what has happened this week. First, someone inside the administration leaked a memo by Stephen J. Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, that would dissuade even the most reckless gambler from betting the rent money on the Maliki government. “The reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action,” the memo said.

Then, as Air Force One was nearing Amman, Bush learned that a reception he was supposed to attend with Maliki and Jordan’s King Abdullah had been canceled. No snub intended or taken, the president’s spokesman said. But since when does any foreign leader cancel any kind of meeting with the president of the United States? At the last minute, no less? Perhaps Maliki was a bit annoyed at that leaked memo questioning his intentions and/or his competence.

Or maybe he was thinking of his standing back home. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who heads the country’s biggest sectarian militia and controls a crucial bloc of seats in the Iraqi Parliament, was already following through on his threat to boycott participation in the government if Maliki went to Amman to see Bush.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — leader of another charter member of Bush’s “Axis of Evil” — was releasing a letter to the American people that definitively proved only one thing: Ahmadinejad is feeling his oats. He is convinced that the United States is bogged down in Iraq, and that his campaign to elevate Iran to great-power status is going better than he could have hoped in his wildest dreams.

Back in Washington, the ballyhooed Iraq Study Group — the wise elders who were supposed to provide much-needed adult supervision —seemed ready to call for a gradual pullout from Iraq, but not ready to say when. But whatever advice James Baker and his fellow eminences eventually offer, it will be irrelevant if the president isn’t willing to listen.

And, evidently, he’s not.

“I know there’s a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there’s going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq,” the president said in Amman. Then he repeated his bottom line: that U.S. forces will stay until “the job” is done. Never mind the question of whether there’s any worthwhile “job” that can still be accomplished there.

So don’t get your hopes up, people. Sounds to me as if the Decider has already decided.

Washington Post Writers Group

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