The Tipping Point

The American public is turning against the war in Iraq.

In the obscure parlance of Capitol Hill, a "tipping point" is a critical mass, the point at which a decision or trend acquires the momentum to become irreversible. And the word is out: The war in Iraq is reaching a tipping point.

A new Gallup poll last week shows that 59 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. should withdraw some or all of its troops from Iraq, the largest number ever. Nearly half of that number, 28 percent, want all troops withdrawn. And, for the first time, most Americans say they would be "upset" if President Bush sent more troops.

Gallup also found that 56 percent of Americans now feel that launching the war was "not worth it." An ABC News/Washington Post poll this month had nearly three-quarters of Americans calling the casualty level "unacceptable." And another poll found that 42 percent now liken the Iraq war to Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the violence in Iraq continues to escalate. Different ethnic sides in the conflict continue to train and recruit their own militias, a precursor to possible civil war, and the American-backed government is powerless to stop them. Iraqis are nearly universal in their desire that the Americans leave. The pipe dream that a stable, Western-style democracy could be established at the barrel of a gun now has few believers outside the White House. For Iraqis, "democracy" has been a disaster, with the economy in shambles, most of the country embroiled in war, personal security a joke, reconstruction efforts nonexistent, utilities and other basic government services erratic at best, and quality of life generally believed to be even worse than it was under Saddam Hussein.

Something's got to give. It doesn't seem likely that it will be the Bush White House, stuck deeply in denial about how badly things are going. Finally, American media seem to be getting the picture, and with it, the American public. And if the White House isn't about to change its policies—by, for example, vastly increasing the number of troops on the ground, a course of action suggested by The New York Times' Tom Friedman last week—it's going to be the war itself that will change. For the worse.

The U.S. strategy in Iraq is now to train and deploy as many Iraqi troops as possible, to eventually replace American forces. That policy, to put it bluntly, has been a disaster. Even in an economy with few other jobs available, few Iraqis have proved willing to work for the Americans; of those who do, many are undertrained and underequipped, and in some parts of the country as many as three-quarters of them have wound up taking their equipment and defecting to the insurgents. Few are willing to fight fellow Iraqis.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has, from the beginning of this invasion, tried to fight it on the cheap: with far fewer soldiers than his generals recommended and a reliance on being quick, light, and using high-tech weaponry. He is heavily committed to that approach, just as Bush is heavily committed to not withdrawing U.S. forces. The upshot is the tipping point—a point that has been reached whereby, first, Iraq is likely to abandon its efforts to establish democracy and instead plunge into civil war, and, second, public opinion in America will become starkly at odds with the policies of the Bush administration.

The result will be a bloody and tragic Iraq in which Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds will be fighting one another, and American troops will be fighting, and shot at, by all sides in an effort to keep a lid on things. The U.S. presence in Iraq won't be enough to enforce any kind of security; it will be just enough to remind all Iraqis of why they're pissed off at the Americans.

Eventually, the only real solution to this mess will have to be some sort of truly international peacekeeping force, probably one organized through the U.N. The problem is that no matter how much domestic and Congressional pressure is devoted to such an approach, the Bush team is likely to be too stubborn to resort to it. The result, for the next three years or so, seems likely to be massive and unnecessary bloodshed in Iraq, and, eventually, a voter backlash against the Republicans.

For better or worse, Iraq will be George W. Bush's legacy. Unless he shows more flexibility and vision than he has shown thus far in five years of office, that legacy is likely to be a negative one. Because of Bush's obsession with Saddam Hussein, and the neocons' public pipe dream of imposing democracy in the Middle East, thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are likely to die on Bush's watch. The time is rapidly approaching whereby nothing anyone can do will avoid that grim outcome.

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