"Ugly choices" in Iraq -- but after the election is over

As the U.S. death toll mounts, the military admits that its plan to secure Baghdad hasn't worked.

Published October 20, 2006 1:37PM (EDT)

If you need proof that the Lord works in mysterious ways, you can't do much better than this: At a ceremony in Miami Thursday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that Donald Rumsfeld "leads in a way that the good Lord tells him is best for our country."

The words of support for the secretary of defense come as military officials are all but admitting that the war in Iraq isn't working, at least not the way that Rumsfeld and his colleagues have been prosecuting it so far. As the New York Times reports this morning, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV told reporters in Baghdad Thursday that the military's 12-week effort to secure the capital isn't going exactly as planned. The U.S. death toll is up sharply -- 74 Americans have died in Iraq so far this month -- and there's little to show for it on the other side of the ledger. The secure-Baghdad campaign, Caldwell says, "has not met our overall expectations of sustaining a reduction in the levels of violence."

The military will work with Iraqi officials to "refocus" its efforts, Caldwell said.

On a larger level, the Bush administration is in for some refocusing as well. As David Sanger and David Cloud write in the Times, the president now faces some of his "ugliest choices" yet in the three-and-half-year-old war: He can rearrange U.S. forces again, as he did when he launched the Baghdad plan over the summer, or he can take the bigger step of reassessing the entire mission and lowering the bar for what "victory" means. As the Times notes, Bush has already stopped talking about the idea of creating a real democracy in Iraq.

As the Washington Post explains, the need for a change in U.S. policy stems from both reality on the ground in Iraq and political pressure back home. "Growing doubts among GOP lawmakers about the administration's Iraq strategy, coupled with the prospect of Democratic wins in next month's midterm elections, will soon force the Bush administration to abandon its open-ended commitment to the war," lawmakers and foreign policy experts told the paper.

"Soon," of course, means "sometime after Nov. 7." The Republicans might be happy to have Americans believe that a change is coming after the midterm elections -- remember all the talk of troop reductions we've heard so many times before? -- but they really can't be seen as jumping ship on the "stay the course" plan before voters go the polls. So while the president now acknowledges that the war in Iraq is looking at least a little like the war in Vietnam, he's apparently content to leave matters in the hands of the maker for at least a few more weeks. If the current death rate continues, an additional 70 Americans will have died in Iraq by Election Day.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2006 Elections Donald Rumsfeld Iraq Iraq War Middle East War Room