Thursday, October 26, 2006

Iraq: Light at the End of the Tunnel Roundup

Thoughtful publications and some scribes who fly solo are turning their energies toward offering solutions out of The Decider's Excellent Adventure in Mesopotamia and letting the president have it with both barrels.
Good, but isn't it so much easier to kick a guy when he's down? And aren't we forgetting that The Decider's main message -- that the U.S. must remain in Iraq until the insurgents are ousted -- is ridiculous in the extreme since the insurgents are there only because of him?
There is an element of preaching to the choir in the following round-up of possible solutions, which concludes with my own thoughts. There also is an undercurrent of pessimism, but then why shouldn't there be?

Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., says that the president has three choices:

* Stay the course (please, no laughing).

* Escalate.

* Start to disengage while pressing hard for a political settlement.

Holbrook, addressing The Decider in a Washington Post commentary, states that he believes the third choice to be the least bad option:
"In recent years, almost any advocate of a change in policy has been accused of wanting to 'cut and run.' Such rhetoric works against the bipartisanship that this crisis requires. But if you were to decide to draw down American troops -- without a fixed timetable -- and seek a political compromise, the responsible leadership of the Democratic Party would surely work with you, especially if the Iraq Study Group . . . recommends significant changes in policy, which you could use as a starting point for rebuilding a bipartisan national consensus.

"This crisis is far too acute for recrimination. If we are still at war during the 2008 campaign, as seems likely if you do not change course, it will benefit neither party but will leave your successor with the same choices you now face, but under far worse circumstances."


Let's not forget that the New York Times was a feckless cheerleader for the war early on and took way too long to join the reality-based community.

No pussy footing for the Times these days. It now states the obvious saying that Iraq cannot be "won." The question is whether the U.S. can get the hell out without leaving behind a civil war that could spread throughout the Middle East.

In a lengthy and passionate editorial, the Times says that:

* Defense Secretary Rumsfeld must be fired because there is no chance of a genuine shift in strategy while he is running the Pentagon.

* It must be made clear that the U.S. will not keep permanent bases in Iraq in furtherment of an American imperial agenda.

* The president must demand that oft-postponed reconciliation talks led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must commence immediately.

* In connection with reconciliation talks, negotiations must begin with the Iraqi leadership on a timetable for withdrawing American troops by making clear that America’s willingness to stay longer will depend on the Iraqis’ willingness to compromise.

* It must be up to the Iraqis to decide the ultimate shape of their country, and U.S.-driven proposals to divide it into three ethnically controlled regions must be dropped.

* Stabilize Baghdad for once and for all, although that will only happen if enough troops are transferred from elsewhere in the country, especially the Sunni-dominated west.

* Open lines of communication with Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria. All are threatened to some degree by an Iraqi collapse and need to help forge a solution.

The Times concludes by saying that:
"While the strategy described above seems the best bet to us, the odds are still very much against it working. At this point, all plans to avoid disaster involve the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass. In America, almost no one — even the administration’s harshest critics — wants to tell people the bitter truth about how few options remain on the table, and about the mayhem that will almost certainly follow an American withdrawal unless more is done.

"Truth will only take us so far, but it is the right way to begin. Americans will probably spend the next generation debating whether the Iraq invasion would have worked under a competent administration. Right now, the best place to express bitterness about what may become the worst foreign policy debacle in American history is at the polls. But anger at a president is not a plan for what happens next.

"When it comes to Iraq the choices in the immediate future are scant and ugly. But there are still a few options to pursue, and the alternatives are so horrible that it is worth trying once again — as long as everyone understands that there is little time left and the odds are very long."

Earlier this month, I put up a post on Greg Djerejian's argument that the way out may be something akin to the Dayton Accords (brokered by Richard Holbrooke) that ended the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina in November 1995.

Djerejian, writing at his always thoughtful Belgravia Dispatch blog, says that there must be a continued major U.S. troop presence while diplomacy is pursued, otherwise civil war is inevitable.

Anyhow, he concludes that:
"T]he key will be to gain greater international support, whether diplomatic, economic or military, use the confederation process to attempt to de-radicalize many Shi’a, not least so as to free up resources to deal with the most hardened Sunni elements, keeping in mind too that the Sunni will have the biggest stake in seeing the re-integration process per an Iraq Dayton-style process ultimately bear fruit, so will ideally gradually become more aligned with international aims for the country."
If simply adjusting tactics or drawing up a new game plan were all that were necessary to turn the corner in Iraq, then U.S. forces would already be on their way home, says John Dickerson, Slate's chief political correspondent.

Dickerson notes in a commentary that U.S. commanders have tried a series of different tactics, including "clear, hold and build," but that model hasn't lived up to its billing, nor has the "stand up, stand down" strategy of equipping Iraqi police and security forces so that U.S. forces can reduce their duties. A year ago, commanders predicted that the strategy would mean 50,000 troops would be going home by November, but they're now saying it will be spring, if not later. Two different strategies to contain violence in Baghdad also have flopped.

Says Dickerson:

"What's being lost in the semantic game over 'stay the course' is the new set of choices that really confront the administration. They are not tactical. They are strategic and they are all painful: partitioning Iraq into semiautonomous regions, changing the Al-Maliki government, asking for diplomatic cooperation from neighboring countries like Syria and Iran, or adding more U.S. troops. If the administration were as flexible as it has been proclaiming recently, it would be talking about these options. It has either refused to consider them or stayed mum. If the White House is doing away with the old slogan, perhaps it should mint a new one: 'All options are ugly.' "
. . . to repeat it. That is at the heart of historian Niall Ferguson's argument that U.S. leaders need to learn some history, specifically the mistakes the British made when they invaded and occupied Iraq 90 years ago. (*)

Alas, he says in a Los Angeles Times commentary, it's probably too late:
"The number of troops currently in Iraq is less than 140,000. That's roughly as many soldiers as Britain sent to the same country to defeat an insurgency in 1920 — at a time when the population of Iraq was a 10th of what it is today. The low level of military participation in the United States is, admittedly, something of a national tradition. A hundred years ago, the armed forces accounted for 1.6% of the French population, 1.1% of the German population and 0.9% of the British population — but only 0.1% of the American population. The difference is that today the U.S. is trying to play the kind of role that the European powers played back then. It's an empire, to put it bluntly, with too few legions. "

Among the people rearranging the deck chairs on the USS Baghdad are the folks who say that as long as the U.S. maintains its will to fight the enemy it can't lose.

Neocons in particular posit this argument when they trot out the tired canard that the U.S. was winning in Vietnam when it upped and pulled out.

Elrod drives an 18-wheeler through the hole he pokes at The Moderate Voice in debunking this myth:
"Willpower is certainly an important element in warfare, and especially so in democratic societies where the people must consent to keep up the fight. But the loss-of-will advocates fail to account for why people tend to lose the will to fight in the first place. It isn't because they can't accept casualties, or don't see the consequences of defeat. It's because they see their own leaders as grossly incompetent and unable to win. . . .

"The people have given up on Iraq not because it's hard, but because our leadership has so utterly failed to plan and execute the war. We must either vote out of office everybody associated with this war and start over with fresh ideas and personnel, or we must demand that we cut our losses and move on. Loss of will is not the cause of our failure in Iraq. Loss of will is the logical consequence of our utter failure to win in Iraq."
Your Faithful Correspondent has been reluctant to call for an immediate phased withdrawal of U.S. troops because I have believed that it's the U.S.'s responsibility to clean up the mess it created.

But in the eight months since the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samara, which marked the beginning of civil war, I have seen, heard or read nothing to indicate that things will get better the longer American troops stay. Certainly not the relentlessly optimistic but hollow pronouncements by U.S. commanders that Iraqi forces can be trained up to the point where they can take over security responsibilities.

And the chances of the central government asserting power through compromises agreed to by Shiite and Sunni leaders is zero given the bloodbath that has followed the Golden Mosque blast.
Technically, there are nearly 280,000 Iraqi troops and police officers. But those figures are wildly misleading because of desertions and the reluctance of many soldiers to fight outside their home provinces or against certain militias. When U.S. commanders asked for an additional six battalions to assist in the late, lamented security sweep of Baghdad, Iraqi commanders were able to muster barely two.

Meanwhile, the national police force is a corruption-ridden, militia-infiltrated joke.

Then there's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a bad joke who is beholden to Shiite interests and incapable -- and unwilling -- to crack down on sectarian militias, especially if they're Shiite, even though it has become beyond obvious that they've moved from protecting their ilk to outright ethnic cleansing.

Need further evidence that he's part of the problem and not the solution?

When U.S. and Iraqi forces on Wednesday raided Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of the Shiite militia led by radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Al-Maliki disavowed the operation and said it would not be repeated. Furthermore, he wants no part of any timetable on the measures that his government needs to take.
It breaks my heart to say so, but it is time to:
* Begin a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops. It is of paramount importance that The Decider not be allowed to dump his mess on his successor.
* Pass legislation to create a restitution fund to compensate the Iraqi people for their pain and suffering. Nine hundred bucks per Iraqi would seem like a good start. (To see how I arrived at that figure, see The Other Cost of the War in a separate post below).

* Dump stewardship of Iraq in the lap of the U.N., which of course the White House has treated like a crazy uncle much of the time.

* Open a dialogue with Iraq's neighbors, notably Syria and Iran. Both nations have helped underwrite the insurgency, but they would have the most to lose if Iraq devolves into anarchy, resulting in a flood of refugees across their borders.

Iraqi is nearly at not the tipping point, but the breaking point, and time is of the essence.

* * * * *
(*) I blogged up a storm the other day on the similarities and differences between Iraq and Vietnam. In an effort to keep from getting too long winded, I did not note that a more apt comparison is the British and American invasions and occupations.

Which leads me to plug T.E. Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," a great book in its own right and the greatest book on the British version of the Mess in Mesopotamia. If you want to impress your friends, read the unabridged 2004 Oxford University Press edition, which restores this masterpiece to its original length. "Lawrence of Arabia," the movie based on the book, isn't too shabby, either.


Vigilante said...

Yes, I buy into this four step program:

* Begin a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops. It is of paramount importance the The Decider not be allowed to dump his mess on his successor.

* Pass legislation to create a restitution fund to compensate the Iraqi people for their pain and suffering.

* Dump stewardship of Iraq in the lap of the U.N., which the White House has treated like a crazy uncle.

* Open a dialogue with Iraq's neighbors, most notably Syria and Iran. Both nations, of course, have helped underwrite the insurgency, but they would have the most to lose if Iraq devolves into anarchy, resulting in a flood of refugees.

All appropriate measures at this point.

Shaun Mullen said...

Thank you, but we won't hold our breath waiting for any of them to actually happen.

Cassidy said...

We're not leaving Iraq until at least January 2009. Seriously, we're not. That's Bush's plan. And it IS a plan.

Also, Rumsfeld is not leaving, unless it is part of a last-ditch attempt to salvage the 2006 elections.

Shaun Mullen said...

Even a month ago, I would have agreed with you on both 2009 and Rumsfeld. But the sound you hear -- barely discernible a while back and now a distant roar -- is growing louder and louder. It is the sound of outrage.

Events on the ground in Iraq are so out of control (can you say ethnic cleansing?) that I do not believe either Dubya or Rummy will be able to stand the heat much longer before major concessions to reality will be forced on one and the other will decide that it's time to spend more time with his family.

Yes, I know these people are stubborn, but what is unfolding is unprecedented in American history and the worst is yet to come. Mark my words.

Cassidy said...

That sound has been around for a while now.

I think one of the problems with being a blogger is that we are overinformed. That is, we have a lot more information sinking into our heads, but we also assume that everyone else knows what we know, and that everyone is as mad as we are. I agree that we need to get out ASAP (the only serious plan I have ever heard), but that doesn't mean that everyone wants them home ASAP. In fact, just under a quarter of all Americans do.

I mean, both you and I have been writing about the outrage we and others feel since the spring it seems, and what has changed? Nothing. We're in Iraq until January 2009. Maybe a few thousand troops will come home here and there, but nothing is changing.

The only way something may change is if (a) Bush's number plummet below 30% or if (b) somehow the Democrats force the White House's hand. And with just one house in our control the chances of that happening are pretty slim.

Shaun Mullen said...

Good points all, especially about bloggers being overinformed. Additionally, most Americans are tuning out the war.