Until not long ago, Americans made fun of the French for their alleged love of finding solutions before they knew what the problem was. It now seems that the habit has crossed the Atlantic to affect the American political and media elite.
The focus of this French-style quest for "elegant solutions" is Iraq that, so we are told, was the key issue in mid-term elections earlier this month.
The common assumption is that a majority of voters were unhappy about Iraq, and thus voted against President George W Bush's Republican Party. But we are not told why they were unhappy. Nor are we told what alternative policies they voted for, because none was offered.
This double ambiguity has opened the floodgates for all sorts of ideas, some fanciful, others derelict. Peddlers of these ideas project them into the space created for speculation by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group led by elder statesman James Baker III.
Two such ideas appear to be the talk of the town in Washington.
The first is to cut-and-run, at times presented in a more palatable version as whistle-and-walk-away. Supporters of that idea are not interested in what might happen to Iraq or the Middle East as a whole. They want to settle scores with Bush, even open impeachment proceedings against him. In Britain, the cut-and-run coalition is interested in humiliating Prime Minister Tony Blair rather than finding a more effective policy on Iraq. For most members of the cut-and-run coalition, the toppling of Saddam Hussein was tantamount to a secular version of "The Original Sin" which nothing short of the political destruction of Bush and Blair could expiate.
The trouble is that cut-and-run is easier said than done.
It is always easier to send an army in than bring it out.
In 1968, Richard Nixon, campaigning for the presidency, claimed that he had a "secret plan" to take the American forces out of Vietnam. No one ever found out whether or not such a plan existed. But it took the United States six more years, to get that last helicopter out of Saigon. By then, Nixon, driven out of office by the Watergate scandal, was sulking on the sidelines.
Cut-and-run was easier in Vietnam then than it would be in Iraq.
In Vietnam, the Americans had a negotiating partner in the shape of the Communist regime in Hanoi. They knew who to give the keys to, so to speak. In Iraq, there is no such negotiating partner. Even if Saddam Hussein were brought back, he no longer has the murderous machine he would need to gain power and provide the Americans with cover while they run away. Handing the keys to Al Qaeda would be equally problematic if only because the self-styled Jihadists, although able to kill defenseless civilians,, do not have the clout to cover the American retreat against other enemies the US has in Iraq.
Some may not be interested in such complications. They might want to throw the keys in the midst of the melee, much like a bone to fighting dogs, and let the various armed groups in Iraq fight over it.
But even that is easier said than done. When you run away, you need somewhere to run to on your way home. The US-led coalition has some 160,000 troops in Iraq backed by a vast network of logistics and a string of bases that cannot be dismantled overnight. Even with the expositional abilities of the US military, it took General Tommy Frank almost eight months to build up the force that invaded Iraq in March 2003. Most military analysts agree that it would take at least three times longer to wind down the coalition's military presence in Iraq, provided Kuwait, Jordan and Turkey agree to help.
But why should they when it is obvious that if the Americans run away before new Iraq can stand on its feet , Iraq will either plunge into civil war or fall under a Baath-Al Qaeda regime that would be deadly for all its neighbors?
All in all, therefore, the cut-and-run option and its whistle-and-walk-away variation are non-starters if only because there is no one to whom the US can surrender. And, if there was going to be a regime capable of holding Iraq together, then why not try and make sure it is a friend of the US?
The second a la mode solution circulating in Washington is the "talk- to- the- mullahs" scenario that also comes in different versions.
There is nothing wrong in talking to the mullahs or anyone else for that matter. But the fact is that Tehran today cannot give the US what it needs in Iraq. The most that the mullahs can is to stop making mischief in the Shiite provinces, by curbing Muqtada Al Sadr, their wild card in Iraq. However, the mullahs have no control over either the Saddamite bitter-enders or Al Qaeda terrorists.
Some advocates of the "talk –to-the-mullahs" option hope that the Islamic Republic might send troops to defeat the Saddamites and Al Qaeda once the Americans begin to leave. But imagine a Persian army entering Iraq! Would it be pouring water on fire or adding fuel? One reason why some Iraqi Arab Sunnis, and many of their brethren throughout the Middle East, are not prepared to back the US coalition is their fear that Washington might have a secret plan to hand Iraq over to the mullahs through pro-Iranian Shi'ite politicians in Baghdad.
With the American election over, it may be possible to have a genuine debate about Iraq, starting by a definition of the problem before "elegant solutions" are offered.
Speaking in London last Monday, Blair defined the problem clearly:
"In Iraq, terrorism has changed the nature of the battle. Its purpose is now plain: to provoke civil war. The "violence is not therefore an accident or a result of faulty planning. It is a deliberate strategy. It is the direct result of outside extremists teaming up with internal extremists - al-Qaeda with the Sunni insurgents, Iranian backed Shiaa militia - to foment hatred and thus throttle at birth the possibility of non-sectarian democracy. These external elements are, of course, the same elements driving extremism the world over. This is crucial to our understanding of the right strategy to combat it. The majority of Iraqis don't want this extremism - they showed that when they voted for an explicitly non-sectarian Government. But the terrorists are trying to propel them towards it."
What all this means is that the struggle in Iraq is part of the broader war against global terrorism. It is also clear that a majority of Iraqis do not support the various terrorist groups operating there and, thus, it would be treacherous to abandon them before they can defend themselves.
Although numerous terms are used to describe Iraq, only one reflects the reality of the situation: war. The US-led coalition didn't go to Iraq for a picnic. It went there to fight to dismantle one of the most vicious regimes in recent history and to replace it with a regime chosen by the Iraqi peoples. Those objectives have been achieved but are challenged by the elements that Blair talked about.
The message to those in search of "elegant solutions" is simple: this is a war, stupid!
And what are the options in a war?
One can fight to win. One can surrender to the enemy. One can panic and run away.
These are the options in Iraq. So, let the debate begin.