A Fire We Can’t Run From

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 01/07/07):

«Sometimes you just have to let a fire burn.» George Shultz, a former secretary of state who was trained as an industrial economist, is said to have made that remark about labor negotiations that have reached an impasse. There is a growing sense among Americans that we must apply this precept to Iraq.

But how far should we let the Iraqi fire burn, and at what cost to the rest of the neighborhood? And how do we keep faith with people trapped inside the building?

Iraq has become a bloody abstraction for most people — a collection of nameless victims — so I will try to personalize it with a particular Sunni and Shiite caught in the inferno.

The Sunni is Fasal al-Gaood, a former governor of Anbar province and one of the six tribal leaders killed last week by a suicide bomb at the Mansour Hotel in Baghdad. For the past four years, members of the Gaood family have been trying to find a way out of the Iraqi nightmare. They have appeared frequently in this column, sometimes by name, sometimes anonymously; they have risked everything to save Iraq from the intimidators.

The Shiite is Ammar al-Hakim, who is taking command of the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, because of the illness of his father, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. In April 2005 I spent a morning with Ammar when he made his first trip to the United States. I will never forget his description of visiting the Lincoln Memorial and looking up at the face of the man who kept America together during the carnage of its own civil war. He wants to save his country, too.

In the end, Iraq will stand or fall because of decisions made by people like the Gaoods and Hakims. But what should Americans do, at a time when respected politicians such as Sen. Richard Lugar are voicing the nation’s deep frustration with the war — and the sense that we may have to let the fire burn itself out?

Maybe we should think like firefighters. They try to save every life they can, but they don’t take crazy risks. When a fire is really roaring, they don’t stand in the middle of the inferno. The potential loss of life is too great, and the likelihood they can stop the fire too small. So they make strategic choices: They try to contain the blaze, letting it burn out in the red-hot center while they hose down nearby buildings and construct firebreaks that can check the fire’s spread.

What’s unimaginable is that a firefighter confronting a dangerous blaze would simply roll up the hoses, jump in the engine and drive away, consequences be damned. He might be furious at the people who caused the fire and frustrated with the first engine company that let it get worse. But those aren’t reasons for abandoning the scene.

The firefighting analogy is imperfect. But it does convey two points that are worth considering as the national debate deepens over what America should do in Iraq.

First, it’s increasingly clear that, despite President Bush’s surge of an additional 30,000 troops into Iraq, U.S. forces cannot stop the sectarian inferno there. I hope that Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites can reach an accommodation. But if they can’t, America at some point soon will have to decide whether this is a situation where, as Shultz said, you just have to let the fire burn — and do everything possible to rescue those who are trapped.

Second, the red-hot fire in Baghdad doesn’t mean that America should withdraw its troops entirely from Iraq. That’s just too dangerous when the risks include a sectarian war that could engulf the Middle East, a humanitarian crisis that could include millions of refugees and an oil price that could spike to $150 a barrel.

A «firehouse strategy» would make triage decisions. It would deploy U.S. forces so that they aren’t caught in the middle of collapsing walls and blazing timbers. It would emphasize the training of Iraqi forces to fight the blaze. It would build firebreaks so the disaster doesn’t spread to other rooms in the Iraqi house. Most of all, a firehouse strategy would try to keep this sectarian blaze from jumping national boundaries. U.S. and Iraqi troops can create buffers by moving significant forces toward Iraq’s borders — to help keep Iraq’s neighbors out and to prevent al-Qaeda and other groups from exporting terrorism.

This nation is so angry about Iraq that we sometimes forget what would be obvious if it was a four-alarm blaze in a nearby city. Some fires do have to burn, but leaving the scene isn’t an option.