Fred Kaplan has a bleak but, I fear, quite possibly accurate piece on Iraq today in Slate.
The key sentence is this one: "the U.S. militaryâthe only force in Iraq remotely capable of keeping the country from falling apartâfinds itself in a maddening situation where tactical victories yield strategic setbacks."
This is the essence of the present situation. For us Iraq has become the geopolitical equivalent of a Chinese finger puzzle, the more we exert ourselves the more the situation constricts around us and the higher the price becomes to get ourselves out, at least in any way that mainstream foreign policy types, among whom I would class myself, find acceptable.
And the key is Kaplan's point about tactical victories and strategic setbacks. Yet, I think we can go further and say that these don't 'yield' strategic setbacks, they are strategic setbacks in and of themselves.
Winning a pitched battle against Shi'a insurgents in the heart of one of Shi'a Islam's holiest sites (and by this I mean not just the Imam Ali Mosque, but the cemetery near it and the area immediately surrounding it) is itself a defeat for us.
(Here is a piece just out from the Post that illustrates the bind into which we've sunk the Army and Marines.)
As the shrewdest thinkers on the left and the right concede on this issue, our true strategic challenges in the Muslim Middle East are not conventional military ones, but hearts-and-minds challenges. The trick is to figure out how we can solve or ameliorate that hearts-and-minds problem while simultaneously destroying the relatively small (in numerical terms) but highly lethal groups that constitute an imminent danger. Or, to put it more crisply, how do we wipe out al Qaida (and al Qaida-like groups) without generating so much bad blood in the Islamic world that the Islamic world keeps producing new al Qaidas faster than we can destroy them?
It's not clear to me necessarily what the best way to strike that balance is. But I think this is probably the worst way -- engaging in pitched battles with fighters who pose no direct danger to the US whatsoever in a way that does profound damage to our standing within the population that al Qaida and other similarly-inclined groups hope to do their recruiting.
On Iraq specifically, think about where we've gotten ourselves. The Shi'a were supposed to be our friends. They were the ones most lorded over by Saddam. They were the community upon which we intended to build an Iraqi democracy.
Now, that is admittedly a broad brush and simplistic way to put it (though I'm not sure the architects of this adventure gave it much deeper thought). And it's quite true that al Sadr and his Mahdi Army do not represent all Iraqi Shi'a. But fighting a pitched battle in Najaf is probably the best way to move things in that direction.