NEW YORK — The Iraq milestones come and go now almost unnoticed.
The American public, fatigued by the years of carnage and funerals, the dissembling and deception of their former leaders, simply hope for the best in Iraq. The day-to-day warfare there, once breathlessly reported and followed, is largely tuned out.
In such an atmosphere, maybe it shouldn't surprise anyone that the fifth anniversary of the Abu Ghraib scandal passed with barely a mention. It's all just too painful, too depressing. No one likes being reminded they've been a sucker, least of all the electorate of a self-righteous superpower. The attitude today seems to be: Just bear it for another year or so, concentrate on the "real war" in Afghanistan, and let the Iraqis sort out their own mess afterward.
But Iraq grinds on. America desperately wants to believe the optimistic narrative: Barack Obama's pullout by the end of 2011, a 21st-century version of Nixon's "Peace with Honor," has helped fuel a tendency from policymakers on down to use terms like "winding down" and "transitioning."
This is a long way from the "victory" demanded by the last guy. But how far a distance, really, is it from Dick Cheney's infamous "greeted as liberators" prediction, to Obama's vision of American troops handing off security to Iraq's own government for good a year and a half from now?
The past several weeks, at least among those still following the story, have provided reasons to worry about that theory. April has brought an upsurge in violence aimed at Iraqi civilians. More than 150 Iraqis, most of them Shiite civilians and Iranian religious pilgrims, have died in a series of suicide bombings that harken back to the darkest days of the war.
For perspective, it's worth noting that average monthly civilian death tolls in 2006 and 2007 exceeded 2,000, so a bad week in April hardly qualifies as a reversal of the progress made since then. But together with other concerns, this has some policymakers concerned.
In fact, despite the good news story which both discarded neocons and the newbie president's crew have every reason to want to embrace right now, crunch time is rapidly approaching in Iraq. The Obama administration's strategy for fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan is dependent on its ability to shift troops from Iraq, and sustained problems of the kind seen over the past week in Iraq will make that much more difficult.
Meanwhile, the Shiite-dominate Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been undermining the success of the so-called "Anbar model," also known as the "Sunni Awakening," which used money and promises of amnesty to lure Iraq's insurgents into laying down their arms. A spate of arrests by this government over the past several weeks of senior "Awakening" leaders has Sunni factions furious, with renewed risks of a return to all out civil conflict with the government and its U.S. protectors. The U.S. should call his bluff, threatening to cut of all aid and military assistance unless he halts such acts of revenge.
The final, less appreciated problem looming regards Iraq's finances. Whereas a year ago some in Congress bayed for a chunk of Iraq's budget surplus – fueled by high oil prices –to defray billions in American reconstruction aid, today Baghdad's budget appears headed for disaster. CENTCOM officers charged with monitoring Iraqi spending say Iraq's FY10 budget assumed an oil price of about $80 a barrel – about half what they actually cost today.
"They're burning through about $1 billion a month, and they have about a $13 billion surplus," said an American expert who just returned from Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity. "So, they have about a year, and then they're through." That means Iraq will soon be asking America to make up the difference. So much for a peace dividend.
Even before the recent upsurge in violence, the purity of the "16 month withdrawal" had been sullied by news that up to 50,000 American troops will stay behind after 2011 to run training and other programs for the Iraqi military and security forces.
Then, late last month, the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, said the deadline for pulling U.S. forces out of Iraqi cities — originally set for the end of June — would slip in some cases, perhaps indefinitely. In Mosul and Baquba, two cities where Sunni insurgents continue to hold significant influence, American forces will stay put into the long, hot summer months.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, two large bases will stay in operation, too: Camp Victory, whose 20,000 troops protect the Green Zone — and Forward Operating Base Falcon, a 5,000 strong encampement in southern part of the capital.
In spite of the howls of protest from Obama's left, this clearly makes sense. Pulling the plug and watching the country explode in a new round of civil war will do no one any good. But with Sunni-Shia anger again on the boil, and Iraq's finances in dire straits, the time left to ensure that Iraq is capable of assuming responsibility for its own fate is running low.
The United States needs to use its remaining influence over the Maliki government to force real reconciliation. Any other course simply encourages Sunnis to plan for the day when the U.S. is gone and, as they see it, they will have to fight for their survival.
Whether or not Obama's version of "peace with honor" arrives by the end of 2011, or two or three years later, then, is not the real question. At some point, America will decide it has exhausted all reasonable options, and will have to leave Iraq to its fate. Then and only then will the true question be asked: Did America really have to destroy Iraq to save it?
More Dispatches on Iraq:
The ground truth from Mosul
A Looming Power Struggle by Iraq's Shiite
Iraq elections a turning point for peace