Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Point of the Surge

This morning both the New York Times and the Washington Post have long articles on Iraq--the former on the situation on the ground, a most unusual piece of reporting, and the latter an interesting study of the bureaucratic battle in Washington. They suffer, oddly, from the new function of the lead paragraph and from the competition between them. The Times lead fulfills that new function: to try to show that the story is willing to give the Administration the benefit of any doubt. It reads:

"Seven months after the American-led troop “surge” began, Baghdad has experienced modest security gains that have neither reversed the city’s underlying sectarian dynamic nor created a unified and trusted national government.

"Improvements have been made. American military figures show that sectarian killings in Baghdad have decreased substantially. In many of Baghdad’s most battle-scarred areas, including Mansour in the west and Ur in the east, markets and parks that were practically abandoned last year have begun to revive.

"The surge has also coincided with and benefited from a dramatic turnaround in many Sunni areas where former insurgents and tribes have defected from supporting violent extremism, delivering reliable tips and helping the Americans find and eliminate car bomb factories. An average of 23 car bombs a month struck Baghdad in June, July and August, down from an average of 42 over the same period a year earlier.

"But the overall impact of those developments, so far, has been limited. And in some cases the good news is a consequence of bad news: people in neighborhoods have been “takhalasu” — an Iraqi word for purged, meaning killed or driven away. More than 35,000 Iraqis have left their homes in Baghdad since the American troop buildup began, aid groups reported."

It's those second and third paragraphs that kill me, and particularly the statement that "military figures" show that sectarian killings are down. Karen De Young of the Post explained that one last week--the military only counts a dead Iraqi as a sectarian killing if he or she was shot in the back of the head--if you are shot from the front, it's an ordinary crime. As I mentioned last week, every other count shows sectarian killings up last month, and the Times story certainly explains why--the civil war in Baghdad is continuing and clearly cannot be stopped.

The Post story focuses on Admiral Fallon, the new CENTCOM commander, who apparently has never believed that the surge is working or could work and is very concerned, as are the Joint Chiefs, with the effect of the war on the military (a concern that also played a big part in the winding down of the Vietnam War.) Indeed, it leaves the impression that only two or three major players believe in the surge any more--the President, the Vice President, and General Petraeus. But reading it, I began to feel more and more deeply that I now understand why we had a surge--to save President Bush and his leading advisers' self-image, and to insure that our eventual failure in Iraq would be blamed on someone else.

As the Post reminds us, the Iraq war seemed all but over last fall. Conditions had deteriorated rapidly throughout 2006 in Iraq, American casualties, as I mentioned were going up, and the American people had repudiated the war at the polls. Failure was, as it is now, only a matter of time. But acknowledging that was something that President Bush simply could not do.

The President, along with the neoconservatives in and out of government who trumpeted and still trumpet the glories of this war, have staked their entire self-image on this war. To admit that it was all a hopeless mistake would completely unhinge their self-image. Thus, to paraphrase Karl Rove, they had to create a new reality. Outside the government Fred Kagan and William Kristol (both second-generation neoconservatives) stepped forward with a plan: more troops. The President could not resist it. And General Petraeus, whose dissertation (which I read recently) showed in the 1980s a great concern with showing that the US Army could handle counterinsurgency missions, stepped forward to lead it. (I do not however want to heap too much responsibility on the general--had he never joined the Army, there would, I am sure, have been some one else.)

The point is not that the surge is going to work--the point is that its success or failure, rather than how to get out of Iraq, became the lead story for 2007 and will remain so into 2008. Meanwhile, and this is one of the best parts of the Post story, Ed Gillespie at the White House started a 24/7 propaganda operation at the White House to bully the press, legislators, Petraeus and his staff, and conservative bloggers with optimistic talking points. This has kept enough Republicans in line to frustrate Democratic attempts to build a veto-proof majority. It has also evidently intimidated Democrats from simply refusing to vote more money for the war, which would require only the majorities that they have. And it has insured, almost certainly, that there will be as many American troops in Iraq on January 20, 2009 as there were when the President announced the surge on January 10, 2007--indeed, probably a few more. The President, meanwhile, as we learned last week, is thinking about "replenishing the coffers" on the lecture circuit and starting a freedom institute in Dallas.

And that will do for George Bush and the Republican Party what the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 did for Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger--allow them to claim for the rest of his life that he won the war in Iraq, and that the eventual catastrophe was some one else's fault. ("If it feels good, do it, and if you've got a problem, blame some one else.") The Army and the Marine Corps will be in a completely deplorable state, the Iraq civil war will be continuing, we will have lost more than half of our credibility and influence in the Middle East, and Afghanistan, to judge from current trends, will be looking like a losing battle too; but the new Republican myth will be solidly established, and it will be a courageous new President indeed who immediately begins to pull out. It might be better, indeed, if it turned out to be a Republican, leaving the blame where it belongs. The least likely new President to begin a quick withdrawal, in my opinion, would be Hillary Clinton, who will be determined to show that she can be as tough as any man.

It disturbs me greatly to see how many policy makers still accept that idea, it seems, that failure in Iraq, which is inevitable, is not an option. A recent experts' report notes that the Iraqi police force is hopeless, which is true, and has the gall to suggest that we should disband it and start from scratch! Senator Clinton actually calls for Maliki's replacement, rather than announce more sensibly that who will govern Iraq is not properly the concern of the United States. Again and again centrist pundits intone that while it was a mistake to go into Iraq, getting out will be catastrophic--ignoring that the great humanitarian catastrophe we fear has already occurred, and will probably only be marginally worse after we leave.

In 1948, when I was a year old, Charles A. Beard warned in his last book that America's world role would destroy American democracy. Beard was wrong about American intervention in the Second World War, which he had opposed, but he identified a real danger which is now coming to pass. For 60 years Americans have increasingly believed--especially within our leadership--that we have a right and a duty to determine who should govern just about anywhere in the world. (Only in the Bush Administration 2002 National Security Strategy did this become official policy, however.) Meanwhile, we have a habit of electing people as President who have a highly developed sense of their own uniqueness and an inability of admit that they are wrong, and a national security bureaucracy which, while it can recognize the folly of particular foreign adventures, still lives off of our world role. Worst of all, since Vietnam, Republicans have lived off the idea that opposition to foreign intervention is weakness at best and treason at worst. I listened to Limbaugh for about an hour on Friday, and he and his callers were agreeing that media figures who, for instance, suggested that we not believe President Bush on the eve of the Iraqi War (one media figure whose name I didn't recognize had supposedly said we should trust Saddam Hussein) were truly treasonous. (It didn't occur to either Limbaugh or the caller, of course, that on the issue of WMD Saddam was telling the truth.) Such accusations have resonated sufficiently among the American people to help decide the Presidential elections of 1980, 1984, 1988 and 2004, and to win Republican control of the Senate in 2004.

Indeed, one could argue that failing foreign adventures, which the "reality-based community" will inevitably oppose, are now a key element of Republican strategy. The first President Bush won a significant foreign policy victory in 1991 when he liberated Kuwait, but that didn't allow him to demonize domestic opponents, and he lost the election. His son turned catastrophe into victory. When I reviewed The Fourth Turning by Strauss and Howe in 1996, I had to speculate on what might cause the next great crisis, and I predicted that it would be a problem that our own response tended to exacerbate. The crisis in the Middle East, so far, is filling the bill.


Anonymous said...

Very good, as usual. I'd like to highlight one of your points; the complicity of the Republicans and particularly their Congressional leadership. As you point out, without cooperation of a significant number of Republicans, its essentially impossible for the Democrats, even if they behaved somewhat more boldly, to reverse the Iraq commitment. The Republican Congressional leadership and Presidential candidates are enabling this fiasco and bear a large share of the blame. It may be that they hope to dump the responsibility for failure on a subsequent and presumably Democratic administration. If so, this is a reprehensible abdication of responsibility. On the other hand, they, no less than the President, could be unable to look reality in the face. As with all things related to this White House, its either vicious partisanship or complete incompetence, or some mixture of the two.

Nur-al-Cubicle said...

While watching General Patraeus' testimony yesterday, I noticed that he would cut off Congressmen who questioned him with some acuity and let those lobbing softball questions drone on.

Anonymous said...

The liberal print media sense that Bush has the upper hand in the political battle over Iraqi policy because most voters, sick of politicians of all stripes, are going to defer to the military on how and when to get out of Iraq.

Bush, knowing this as well, put Petraeus - a general with a needs-to-be-tested military tactics hypothesis - in there so that time could be bought for some as yet undefined but hoped for way to save Big Oil's grab for Gulf oil fields. At this juncture, the longer Bush can stay in Iraq, the more likely some justification (an Irani "provocation" adequate to scare a majority of American voters) will emerge for a still more aggressive grab against the Shia majority in the region (ie, Iran). Though it is a long-shot, it is preferable to handing over Iraq's oil to forces hostile to Big Oil.

Liberals generally fear confrontation, and the Post and Times, most of all, fear being labeled irrelevant (as has been since its Betrayus ad). Liberals don't stand on principle when it comes to their immediate interests.

No wonder it is so difficult for most Americans to get clear on the issues.

Steve Clark