Gates the Gardener

“The only way you deal with the threat we face from al-Qaeda or from Iran and these other places is to have a policy in place that has bipartisan support and that can be sustained through multiple administrations. So when I talk about gardening, it may be the next administration or the administration after that that harvests all this.”

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 in the Global War On Terror (GWOT).

Time: Eight years at most, possibly no more than four. This time line has driven the Bush administration’s original agenda to finish the 1991 war against Iraq – an agenda that almost was derailed by September 11 2001. But the Afghanistan “diversion” did affect Iraq insofar as it served as a false precedence for the conduct of the aftermath of the Iraqi campaign. That mistake soon made it clear even to the White House that its plan to draw down the bulk of the invasion force by September or October 2003 was not possible given the continuing and growing opposition to coalition forces. U.S. troop strength remained at 120,00 or higher.

Time. The Pentagon projects that by April 2008, unless it calls up additional National Guard units and soldiers in the Individual Ready Reserve, it will have to scale back the number of brigade combat teams in Iraq. Secretary Gates opposes any further extension of the number of months in a normal tour of duty in the Iraq war zone. Moreover he also has rejected calls for a draft. Meanwhile, military commanders in Iraq are saying they need to keep the pressure on the foreign fighters and indigenous insurgents, and the only way to ensure this is by maintaining the artificially inflated troop levels well into 2008 and a residual force of 30,000 to 60,000 for two or more years after that.

In the United States, fewer and fewer people seem willing to give the Pentagon this much time, this much forbearance.

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 present their report.

One can therefore expect that Gates’ assessment presages what will be reported in September: progress on the military and security fronts; setbacks and missed deadlines on the political front.

As already noted, there is a distinct groundswell among U.S. field commanders in Iraq against cutting force levels anytime soon. In fact, among senior officers the discussions are about what can be done to give troops “situational breaks” – time away from constant danger and constant atrocities – that does not require moving the troops out of the war zone.

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.

There is also the very distinct – and more frequently voiced – view that 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 – an estimated 60,000 a month – are voting with their feet. For many that 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 but, on the death of his benefactor, is suddenly thrown out of the only life he has ever known – a high-walled garden – and onto the street. A minor accident propels him into the “care” of a high society family where his simple, direct observations of the natural rhythms of life in the garden are so far removed from the fighting, back-stabbing, and hypocrisy that normally pervades relationships among the “ruling class” that what he says is interpreted as pearls of wisdom.

Time in the form of death threw Chauncey into the tyranny of the clock and the bedlam of modern living. In his simplicity he took no notice – or perhaps took notice and then moved on.

That is what Nature does – it moves on, always. And in the garden, all is well – and always will be well – for Chauncey and anyone else who will live in harmony with Nature.

Unfortunately, Iraq is not a garden, Secretary Gates is not Chauncey, and there is no harmony in the Middle East. But the Grim Reaper – he will get the harvest.

Col. Dan Smith can be reached at: