Editorial: About-turn confirms all is lost

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This week, the United States may have experienced what history will recall as the Iraq war's Cronkite moment. The New York Times, previously an unswerving supporter of President George W. Bush's handling of the conflict, called for an American withdrawal "without any more delay than the Pentagon needs to organise an orderly exit". Echoes of CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite's 1968 appeal to President Lyndon Johnson to cut his losses in Vietnam rang loudly. The plea by Cronkite, often called "the most trusted man in America" and initially a hawk on Vietnam, proved a turning point in that struggle. The about-turn by the New York Times may be similarly influential in confirming to middle America that all is lost in Iraq.

Not that Mr Bush was conceding as much yesterday when he released an interim White House report on the war. The document conceded the situation was "complex and extremely challenging", the economic picture "uneven" and political reconciliation slow. But it tried to put the best-possible gloss on this by rating Iraq as "satisfactory" on eight of 18 Congress benchmarks, "unsatisfactory" on eight and "mixed" on two. The problem was that the failures were of far greater significance in terms of the development of a viable Iraqi state.

Most grimly, the report confirmed Iraqi security forces were still plagued by sectarianism and heavily dependent on US troops to conduct operations.

Crucially, they were not enforcing the law in an even-handed manner, thereby depriving Iraqis of any real reason to feel allegiance to the state. Placed beside this, US military successes in the likes of Anbar province are of little significance. What is relevant is that, after four years of American endeavour, there is no national army, only Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish soldiers who consider their ethnic or religious groups far more important than defence of the Iraqi Government.

Mr Bush argues that not too much can be read into this report because the last of the 28,000 troops involved in his "surge" arrived in Iraq only last month. Any change in approach would not be made until a final report was received from the commander on the ground, General David Patraeus, in September. But the reinforcements are far too few, and far too late, to influence the course of the conflict. The final report will confirm a situation utterly beyond repair.

Logically, that should be the catalyst for a staged retreat. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll suggested seven out of 10 Americans favoured withdrawing nearly all US troops by April. The New York Times' critique will have reinforced that sentiment. Yet it is probable that US soldiers will remain in Iraq in large numbers until after the Bush presidency ends in 18 months.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is Mr Bush's stubborn desire to "stay the course". It has been apparent for a long time that his policies are not working. Last year's report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group emphasised, quite correctly, the importance of negotiating with Iran and Syria over Iraq and the wider Middle East. It was shunned.

In September, to insinuate the war is still winnable, Mr Bush will doubtless cling to any progress achieved by the US troop build-up, ignoring the fundamental unreliability and ineptitude of the Iraqi security forces and many other failings.

The Democrats, who control Congress, will tut-tut but not want to overplay their hand. Criticism of anything to do with the American armed forces is problematic. They do not wish to jeopardise an election they are odds-on to win by appearing unpatriotic. The Democrats' job will be to pick up the pieces and orchestrate as seemly a withdrawal as possible. In the meantime, thousands, some Iraqi, some American, will die.

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