HOLBROOKE v. KRISTOL….Charlie Rose hosted Richard Holbrooke and Bill Kristol on his show a couple of days ago and asked them what to do in Iraq. At about 43:00, here was Kristol’s answer: “Let’s see where we are 3-6 months from now.” Groan. A little later Rose pressed him on what it would take to convince him that Iraq was unsalvageable (49:30):

If the government falls, if Sadr becomes the unquestioned leader of the Shia, if we have real big civil war and ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, then it may well be that unfortunately the terrorists will have done their job, we will have failed to defeat them early enough to prevent them from lighting the matches that set off the timber.

Holbrooke, who I have considerable respect for, pointed out that we are well down the road on all three of those criteria, but unfortunately wasn’t willing to go much further than Kristol when it came to concrete action. He said carefully that “the situation in Baghdad is approaching the point of untenability” but declined to recommend either a pullout, an increase in troops, or staying the course. So what does he recommend?

Holbrooke did at least do a good job of putting a stake through the idea that more troops are available. Kristol made the laughably timid suggestion that perhaps 40,000 more troops in Baghdad would quiet things down, and Holbrooke reminded him that we needed more troops than that just to keep the peace in Kosovo, which has one-tenth the population of Iraq. (Given its population, we’d probably need 150,000 troops in Baghdad alone to have any chance of keeping things under control there.) Moreover, as he pointed out, we don’t have 40,000 more troops, we’d be idiots to pull them out of Afghanistan, the American public wouldn’t stand for it, and George Bush has shown no inclination to do it. So it’s not going to happen.

Holbrooke is a guy with a ton of credibility. When he says that diplomacy has to be backed up by a credible threat of force, he obviously means it: he recommended military action twice in the Balkans during the 90s. At the same time, when he says it should be a last resort, he obviously means that too: he devoted uncounted thousands of hours to serious, toughminded diplomacy during the same period. Some of it worked and some of it didn’t, but his dedication to the cause is hardly questionable.

And despite his continued unwillingness to flatly face the reality that we can’t afford to stay in Iraq any longer, he had by far the better of the argument when the subject turned to Iran. Diplomacy is not, he reminded Kristol, in and of itself a sign of weakness. Of course we should be willing to talk directly to Syria and Iran, rather than leaving the job to third parties that we don’t really trust to represent our interests in the first place. Kristol could do little more than splutter that there was no point since these countries already knew what we wanted and should just go ahead and knuckle under right now. It displayed an appreciation of human nature and the realities of foreign affairs that a junior high school student would have gotten low marks for.