Even key Republicans are finally beginning to grasp how dire is the Iraq situation.
While Condoleezza Rice was on an emergency trip last week to Baghdad, insisting that Iraqis are "making progress," the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee was giving a bleak assessment of his trip there, also last week.
Virginia's Sen. John Warner said bluntly that if the Iraqi government was unable "to function" and reduce the violence "in two or three months," the U.S. government would have to consider whether "a change of course" was needed. "And I wouldn't take off the table any option at this time," this hawkish senator added.
He didn't suggest, however, what "a change of course" might mean.
Indeed, Warner's subsequent words showed why it's so hard for honest politicians, whether Republican or Democrat, to find a viable alternative to the administration's failed Iraq policy. The senator blamed Iraqi leaders for their inability to stop the violence and restore sanity and services to their people. "You do not see them ... doing what is necessary," he said.
Warner is correct that Iraq progress - and the prospects for a U.S. troop withdrawal - depend heavily on the competence of Iraqi leaders. But what if Iraq's government is incapable of salvaging the country's future - and American policy?
Top U.S. military commanders in Iraq have been making a similar point for more than a year: Unless Iraqis can pull together a workable national government that includes majority Shiites along with Kurds and members of the disaffected Sunni minority, the country will disintegrate. Moreover, if there's no functional government, the Iraqi military we're training won't be able to fight the insurgents who are pulling Iraq apart.
What Warner - and Rice - saw in Baghdad, however, is an Iraqi government that barely exists. For weeks, unnamed U.S. commanders and officials in Baghdad have been telling journalists that they are losing faith in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They say he is unable to check sectarian violence and foster national reconciliation. Even Rice warned that Maliki's 6-month-old government had reached "a critical time." Her own plane was forced to circle Baghdad for nearly an hour before landing because of a mortar attack near the airport.
On my last trip to Iraq in June, it was already clear that the prospects for a Maliki government were far from rosy. Why should anyone be surprised?
Having lived under dictatorship, or in exile, for decades, Iraqi leaders have no experience in running a country. Maliki was a compromise choice, a man whose chief qualification was that he had served as an aide to the previous (and incompetent) Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and came from Jaafari's Dawa Party. The choice was made by the majority coalition of Shiite parties, who fought among themselves for weeks over the pick.
Cabinet posts were doled out to the various sectarian parties according to the number of assembly seats they had won in elections. Many ministers are more loyal to their parties than to the Maliki central government, and operate independent fiefdoms. Maliki didn't even appoint a Cabinet secretary (the official responsible for coordinating ministries and Cabinet meetings) until last month.
The interior minister, Jawad Bolani, was chosen because he had no close affiliation to any party. The hope was that such "independence" would enable Bolani to purge the ministry of sectarian death squads that have infiltrated the police and commando forces. But, lacking a political base, Bolani has proved too weak - with one recent exception - to control or clean out this crucial ministry.
It is difficult to see how Iraq's government will get much better. There were far more competent candidates than Maliki in the running when he was selected - such as Vice President Adel Abdel Mahdi of the other large Shiite party, known as SCIRI (the Supreme Council for an Islamic Republic of Iraq). Kassim Daoud, a secular Shiite who served as national security adviser to former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, would also have been a good choice.
The Iraqi Constitution provides for a shift in prime minister if the national assembly issues a vote of no confidence. Yet it is hard to see how such a shift could happen. The Shiite alliance would have to agree on an alternative candidate. Iran, which has strong ties to the two big Shiite parties, would also play an indirect role in vetting the choice.
Given how much trouble the Shiites had in agreeing on Maliki, I find it hard to believe that they could easily concur on another choice. Moreover, Maliki has the backing of the powerful, radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who commands a large bloc of seats in the assembly.
Some Iraqi critics of Maliki argue privately that the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, could impose an alternative candidate. I don't think this kind of heavy-handed move would work. Many Shiite politicians are already suspicious of Khalilzad, a Sunni Muslim, whom they accuse of coddling Sunnis in his effort to entice them into a national unity government.
So the United States is stuck with a dysfunctional Iraqi government that will be hard pressed to stabilize the country. This further undercuts any effort to change course in Iraq and reduce the number of U.S. troops there. Unless she's blind, Condoleezza Rice must have grasped this unpleasant truth by the time she left Baghdad.