As the civil war in Iraq fast approaches terminal velocity, the Bush administration is fighting a war of words, and it seems to be losing that one, too.
An administration once famous for sticking to "the message" like a burr on a fuzzy dog is now all over the map, speaking out of both sides of every mouth.
It's a civil war. Is not. Is too.
Last week, we were fighting a homegrown Sunni Muslim insurgency in Iraq. This week, we're fighting a war that's largely the creation of al-Qaeda foreign terrorists. Meanwhile, while we debate what the meaning of civil war is, the war between Iraqi Shiites and Iraqi Sunnis spirals beyond anyone's control.
Last week, the administration said that al-Qaeda was on the ropes in Iraq. It made up no more than 2 percent or 3 percent of the folks killing Americans and Iraqis. Military spokesmen in Baghdad and the U.S. Central Command's Gen. John Abizaid said we'd decimated the al-Qaeda leadership in Iraq and the group wasn't likely to be much of a player in Iraq's future.
This week, President Bush declared that al-Qaeda is the primary enemy in Iraq, fomenting the sectarian slaughter, which he said is definitely NOT a civil war.
If we keep changing enemies, we keep changing allies, too. Last week, and every week this year, the White House line was that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was our guy in Baghdad, and we'd sink or swim with him.
This week, the White House gave The New York Times a classified memo from National Security adviser Steven Hadley—just in time for Bush's scheduled meeting with Maliki in Jordan. It says it's time for our guy to fish or cut bait.
Either Maliki gets the job done—or else. All he has to do is end the civil war (or the "sectarian violence," as the White House prefers to call it); restore security in his own capital; and heave his most powerful supporter, anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, overboard.
From the beginning, Baghdad, Iraq's capital and center of gravity and the place where Shiites and Sunnis co-existed like oil and water, has been at the heart of our problem in Iraq. We didn't invade with enough troops to take the place down hard and then secure it.
Then we thought the problem was the Sunnis in Anbar province to the West—which conveniently fit the administration's "central front in the war on terror" theme—and sent the Marines there to flatten Fallujah and try to put the lid on Ramadi.
Now while Baghdad spins out of control, a leaked Marine intelligence report says, in essence, that we've also lost the fight for Anbar, which has largely fallen to Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda in Iraq. We've ground the Marine Corps down in Anbar, trying and failing to gain control at a staggering cost in American dead and wounded.
Yet all Marine requests for more troops beyond the 30,000 already there have fallen on deaf ears at the Pentagon and the White House—and in fact top commanders have pulled some troops away from Anbar to focus on Baghdad.
All this while Gen. Abizaid tells angry Democrats and Republicans at a Senate Armed Service committee hearing that the American commanders in Iraq are unanimous in their view that sending in more U.S. forces—as if more could be found—isn't the answer and that they don't want any reinforcements beyond a temporary surge of a few thousand.
In Latvia en route to a planned woodshed session with Maliki in Jordan, President Bush said that he'd be flexible in seeking a solution in Iraq, but declared that he'll never withdraw American troops until the mission is accomplished.
If he's to be believed, that pretty much precludes the Baker-Hamilton Commission from suggesting any solutions stronger than a much-too-late international conference with Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and friends, essentially begging them to pull our chestnuts out of the Middle East fire we started.
Even if Bush weren't flirting with plans to overthrow them, why would the rulers of Syria and Iran, who've been spoilers in Iraq throughout, now want to help the Bush administration with anything, anywhere? The Saudis, who counseled against invading Iraq, are weighing their options if the Americans leave. They have no intention of sitting idly by while Shiites and Kurds massacre their brother Sunnis.
As this theater of the dangerously absurd and absurdly dangerous plays to SRO crowds, the war of words goes on without quarter or common sense.
This week we were treated to an official American description of the mass murders on the streets of Baghdad by al-Sadr's Shiite militias as "extra-judicial killings."
We can only hope that the Pentagon—famous for groaning shelves laden with contingency plans for everything from an invasion of Tierra del Fuego to pre-emptive strikes against Iran and North Korea—has a plan for a fighting retreat from a hostile nation where both sides of a civil war take a break from killing one another to concentrate on killing us.
You can be sure that if such a plan does exist, a "fighting retreat" will be called a victory parade or a retrograde movement intended to restore peace in our time.
Or maybe just "Mission Accomplished, Part II."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is former senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young." Readers may write to him at: P.O. Box 399, Bayside, Texas 78340; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.