Two weeks ago, I received a bleak message from an Iraqi Sunni friend named Talal Gaaod. It worried me because Gaaod has been working hard for the past two years to rally Sunnis to support a new Iraqi government. But as the country has drifted deeper into anarchy this summer, Gaaod's confidence has been shaken.
The rough language of his e-mail conveys the situation better than a hundred polished Pentagon reports: "The political process, and the American project, it has failed," Gaaod wrote. "Believe me, there is no need to waste anymore one penny of the American taxpayers' money and no more one drop of blood of the American boys." He added: "Continuing on the basis to build a democratic process in securing the country, it's only a dream."
Gaaod argues that the violence has become so brutal that it's no longer possible to talk about political solutions, at least in the short run. Because U.S. forces have been unable to contain the insurgency, ordinary Sunnis have been intimidated and overwhelmed. The only weapons the insurgents lack now are armored vehicles, but Gaaod fears they may get those soon, too.
Gaaod argues that the pragmatic solution is martial law, in which generals drawn equally from Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds take control of security. The military men would work with a government of technocrats. Until order is restored, the Iraqi businessman insists, it's useless to talk about loftier hopes for the country.
What makes Gaaod's new pessimism so disturbing is that he has been trying to help U.S. officials connect with the Sunnis of western Iraq. Like most Iraqi Sunnis, he had contacts with Saddam Hussein's regime, but since its ouster, he has helped American officials organize several conferences for Sunni leaders in Amman, Jordan, where he now lives. Working with tribal allies inside Iraq, he helped convene meetings in Fallujah, Mosul and Ramadi to talk about reconciliation. But these efforts have not worked; sometimes, the American military was arresting or shooting the very Sunni leaders that Gaaod was trying to bring to the table.
The alarm bells are ringing in Iraq this summer. I don't agree with Gaaod that it's time to abandon Iraqi democracy. And I don't think the Bush administration should jettison its baseline strategy of training Iraqi security forces to take over from U.S. troops. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's trip to Iraq this week carried the implicit message that America's time, money and patience in Iraq are not endless. The Iraqis must step up and find their own solutions.
Wise observers see new cause for anxiety. John Burns of the New York Times suggested last Sunday that an Iraqi civil war may already have begun, in the Sunni suicide attacks against Shiite targets and in the anti-Sunni death squads that are said to have been organized by Shiite militias. Michael Young, the opinion editor of the Beirut Daily Star, wrote a column yesterday, "Preparing for a shipwreck in the Middle East," in which he cautioned: "The American adventure in Iraq -- creative, bold and potentially revolutionary -- threatens to sink under the weight of a Sunni insurgency that has fed off the Bush administration's frequent incompetence in prosecuting postwar stabilization and rehabilitation."
A useful rule about Iraq is that things are never as good as they seem in the up times, nor as bad as they seem in the down times. That said, things do look pretty darn bad right now, and U.S. officials need to ponder whether their strategy for stabilizing the country is really working.
Pessimists increasingly argue that Iraq may be going the way of Lebanon in the 1970s. I hope that isn't so, and that Iraq avoids civil war. But people should realize that even Lebanonization wouldn't be the end of the story. The Lebanese turned to sectarian militias when their army and police couldn't provide security. But through more than 15 years of civil war, Lebanon continued to have a president, a prime minister, a parliament and an army. The country was on ice, in effect, while the sectarian battles raged. The national identity survived, and it came roaring back this spring in the Cedar Revolution that drove out Syrian troops.
What happens in Iraq will depend on Iraqi decisions. One of those is whether the Iraqi people continue to want U.S. help in rebuilding their country. For now, America's job is to keep training an Iraqi army and keep supporting an Iraqi government -- even when those institutions sometimes seem to be illusions. Iraq is in torment, but the Lebanon example suggests that with patient help, its institutions can survive this nightmare.