At this point, the NSC staff made a new argument, one that sought to link the fraught situation in Iraq with the political realities at home. The time for taking corrective action was growing short and there might only be sufficient political support in the United States for one last push. If the United States aimed low, as State was advocating, it might squander the only chance to change the military and political equation in Baghdad.
"We need to keep in mind, as we consider the options, that we have a window here -- a short window, of course, but one in which we might be able to make the pitch that we need to focus on building up Maliki's capabilities to deal with issues," Feaver said. "Once we adopt another approach, particularly if it deals with limiting our footprint, we will never be able to recapture this window."
Advancing the NSC's case, McGurk argued that the discussion of a Shia narrative was too simplistic. The sectarian violence was being stoked by a very specific Shia agenda, that of Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery anti-American cleric. Maliki, McGurk continued, was "beholden" to the Sadrists, who had joined the Shia political alliance, been granted control of the Health and Transportation ministries and were using them to pursue their campaign of sectarian cleansing.
"To a Sunni, what is important at this moment is not the constitution or an oil law," McGurk said. "It is the fact that you can't go to the hospital without risk of showing up in a gutter with a drill through your skull. That's what happening in the Health Ministry, and it's a Sadrist phenomenon, not a Shia one."
Not all Shia were opposed to an American role, McGurk reported. When Mowaffak al-Rubaie, then Maliki's national security advisor, said that he planned to recommend that American forces move to the periphery of Baghdad, the son of the influential Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani responded that Iraq still needed "more neutral forces."
"Are we prepared to simply say the Sadrists won, and we have lost?" McGurk asked. "Is a Shia center, represented by Sistani, no longer salvageable? I am not prepared to go that far."
Rice acknowledged that there were numerous Shia groups, but did not necessarily see that as a plus. "We need to work with different actors within the Shia community," Rice said. "But nothing is going right. This is a devastating conclusion. But this is not an academic seminar. OK, so what should we do?"
"Is the situation in Iraq irretrievable?" Rice asked. "I do not think so. It might be retrievable. But not with more of what we've been doing with this government. Deploying U.S. forces to force Iraq to do more also won't get there."
Bush was moving to embrace a troop surge and Rice, his closest aide and confidante, was not yet on board with what would be the president's biggest Iraq decision since his decisions to go to war itself.
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After the long back and forth over what was not working, Rice outlined her plan. The United States would need to reassert itself diplomatically in the region.
"We have lost the initiative in the region. We look like Gulliver, tied down. The region is scared. Bandar is worried that if we talk to the Iranians we will cut a deal with Iran," Rice added, referring to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the head of the Saudi national security council. "We must get this initiative back."
She also argued for a more limited role for U.S. forces in Iraq. The United States would continue to fight al Qaeda and it would become more "aggressive" about Iranian-sponsored attacks in Iraq. But it would limit its role in containing sectarian violence to stopping mass killings "on the scale of Srebrenica."
"On the security side, we will do less ‘door-knocking' police work, give up on neighborhood ‘clear, hold, and build,' concentrate more on Special Forces work with McChrystal's people," she said, referring to Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's Joint Special Operations Command, which was hunting al Qaeda and Iranian-backed operatives in Iraq.