Time. According to the cliché, it heals all wounds. But judging from the last few days, one suspects that the cliché might not hold true in non-western societies.
Time: that would seem to be the operative concept for the way ahead, at least from the perspective of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates after nearly a week in the Middle East visiting, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia and then, on his own, stopping in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
The purpose of the swing was to fire up lukewarm allies and neighbors of Iraq to take more – and more concrete – action that would contribute to quelling violence in Iraq. Although he did not visit Baghdad, Gates said the military “surge” had started to show results, and it was now time for regional players to intensify their anti-terror and anti-al Qaeda efforts.
Time: Eight years at most, possibly no more than four. This time line has driven the Bush administration's agenda to finish the 1991 war against Iraq and then, after September 11, to conduct the Global War on Terror. The White House had planned on drawing down the bulk of the invasion force by September or October 2003. U.S. forces never fell below 120,000.
Only 55 days remain until the mid-September status report from the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker is due to Congress and the American public. Little will change between now and then, except perhaps an uptick in the number of attacks by al-Qaeda-in-Iraq in the two weeks before Crocker and Petraeus report. One can therefore expect that Gate’s assessment presages what will be reported: progress on the military and security fronts; setbacks and missed deadlines on the political front.
There is already a distinct groundswell among ground commanders in Iraq against cutting force levels anytime soon. In fact, senior officers want to retain the surge troop levels well into 2008 and possibly into the beginning of 2009.
What seems lost in all this is exactly what the surge was to accomplish: gaining time and “breathing room” for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to submit to the Iraqi parliament legislation dividing the oil wealth, organizing and protecting elections for provincial and local governments, and scaling back the draconian de-Baathification decrees that denied employment under the new regime to anyone who registered as a Baath party member.
But al-Maliki ran out of time. Parliament has gone on a month’s summer recess, congratulating themselves as they depart in limiting the recess to one month instead of the scheduled two.
Al-Maliki himself may be running out of time. While Gates was traveling in the Middle East, the largest Sunni party in the Iraq parliament announced it was withdrawing its six cabinet members from the government. This comes on top of the on-and-off boycott of cabinet meetings by ministers from Moqtada al-Sadr's faction.
The basic deficiency running through all these events is the complete absence of trust – a condition that takes time to develop but one which is lost in seconds. In Iraq there is no trust among and within the sectarian, ethnic, and tribal factions. And this in turn precludes the formation of a viable national government capable of providing public security and routine services to the population.
The people are voting with their feet an estimated 60,000 a month. For many, fleeing is all they have time and strength to do if they are to survive.
Secretary Gates' reference to himself as a gardener calls to mind Peter Seller's role as Chauncey (or Chance) the gardener in the movie "Being There." Sellers portrays a simplistic, innocent man who has lived a completely sheltered life who, on the death of his benefactor, is thrown on on the street. A minor accident propels him into high society where his simple observations of the rhythms of life in the garden are interpreted as pearls of wisdom by rich and powerful people.
Time in the form of death threw Chauncey into the rush of the clock, but he in his simplicity took no notice. For in the garden, all is well – and always will be well.
Unfortunately, Iraq is not a garden and Secretary Gates is not Chauncey.
That much time there is not.