Thursday, December 21, 2006

Iraq War: Uncharted waters, or, "surging into the abyss"

Yes, it's yet another of my pre-Christmas, Iraq-War-bummer posts.

Laura Rozen linked to this blog post by Jay Rosen (Retreat from Empiricism: On Ron Suskind's Scoop 12/18/06) that gives some really valuable insight into how our "press corps", already crippled by self-inflicted wounds and sniveling to conservative bullying, was pitifully unprepared for the Cheney-Bush admintration's willingness to lie on a scale that even Dick Nixon didn't try.

It reminded me that with a Democratic Congress coming in January plus Bush's New Way Forward in Iraq, i.e., "stay the course" but escalate, we're really in uncharted political waters here.  Several of the analysts that have been pretty consistently right in their understanding of the Iraq War are using dire language to describe what Bush's "surge" means.

Bush is betting the farm on the "surge".  Or, more precisely, betting the Army.  If he proceeds with the "surge", the a continuation of the level of conflict we've seen since mid-2006 will become the best-case outcome.

And the worst-case result will become far more likely: a collapse of what's left of the Iraqi government; the Shi'a militias start fighting the Americans; the Shi'a and Sunni militias make their civil war against each other a much lower priority to concentrate on fighting the Americans; the Shi'a cut the Army's supply line to Kuwait in southern Iraq; most of the Iraqi Army goes over to the JAM (Mahdi Army) or other Shi'a militias; the US Army has to fight it's way out.

The latter is a scary prospect.  Neither our "press corps" nor our politicians are really prepared to process an outcome like the worst-case.

The Cheney-type nationalists desperately use a stab-in-the-back excuse and try to blame it on the usual suspects: the "liberal press" and the Democrats.  And they would want to retaliate by bombing Iran.  Or Syria.  Or by torturing more Arab prisoners.  The Christian Right would mostly embrace some form of this response.

The "retail" version will sound something like this phlegmatic "milblogger" ranting about what he thinks the consequences wouldbe ifCongress steps in to block the "surge".  The first sentence contains what looks suspiciously like a Freudian slip.  Where most people would have said "a retreat in defeat from Iraq", he scrambles it to "retreat from defeat in Iraq".

A retreat from defeat in Iraq would be a crushing blow to our prestige as a fighting force worldwide and we can't afford that. Part of the utility of a powerful expeditionary military is it's deterrent effect on bad actors. The knowledge that if you start screwing around too much Uncle Sugar will send you some Marines certainly stops some percentage of aggression. The idea that we were defeated by an Arab Muslim terror army would be a huge factor in our dealings with all the folks we are currently having trouble with. Al Qaeda triumphant, recruiting at will all over the ebbing Western world, the Mullahs adding another client to the roster, Syria vindicated and elevated, Iraq as a living hell. I don't see much of an upside.  (Dems consider votes against reinforcement by Uncle Jimbo, Blackfive blog 12/21/06)

The "realists" may have the hardest time coping.  The Bakers and Hamiltons of the foreign-policy establishment would probably fall back on that Old Reliable, spend a lot more on the military budget.

The rabid Republicans will accuse war critics of saying "I told you so".  But they're going to say that no matter what we say or do, so their reaction shouldn't determine our approach.  Because, you know, we have been telling them so that this war was a rotten idea and that we need to extricate the US, not escalate.  In fact, "extricate not escalate" is not a bad three-word summary of what Bush should be doing right now but isn't going to.

If the Democrats have the stomach for it, either way the next few months are a golden opportunity for them to address the need for a realistic foreign policy and a military policy that matches it.  Things will be politically more volatile if the worst-case scenario comes about.  But that scenario would actually provide an even better chance to look at the real strengths and weaknesses of the Bush foreign policy *and* of the military policies of our infallible generals.  The United States would be safer and militarily stronger if we had more focus onproperly-trained combat troops with a realistic mission instead of being prepared to fight Soviet Army Central, if we had less mindless reliance on air power and more Arabic translators, more body armor and fewer corporate-welfare boondoggles like Star Wars.

Who knows?  The Democrats might even be able to demystify our sacred military institutions a bit so that we could think of the soldiers as human beings who shouldn't be sent off to fight useless wars instead of comic-book images of Noble Heroes and Brave Warriors whose lives are there to be sacrificed whenever some grand theorist like Richard Perle gets a hard on for invading some country.

But in the shorter run, we all need to recognize that Cheney and Bush are gambling the fighting capability of the American Army on a long-shot "surge".  Our "press corps" and even many war critics have not been talking much about that option, for fairly obvious reasons.  But now it's staring us in the face as a very real risk and prospect for the coming months.

In Behind Bush's "new way forward" by Sidney Blumenthal Salon 12/20/06, Blumenthal makes this (informed) speculation on Bush's outlook on the Iraq War:

The mere suggestion of doubt is fatally compromising. Any admission of doubt means complete loss, impotence and disgrace. Bush cannot entertain doubt and still function. He cannot keep two ideas in his head at the same time. Powell misunderstood when he said that the current war strategy lacks a clear mission. The war is Bush's mission.

No matter the setback it's always temporary, and the campaign can always be started from scratch in an endless series of new beginnings and offensives - "the new way forward" - just as in his earlier life no failure was irredeemable through his father's intervention. Now he has rejected his father's intervention in preference for the clean slate of a new scenario that depends only on his willpower.

Tom Engelhardt in Good Evening, Vietnam 12/20/06 also has a good take on the ways that bad "lessons of Vietnam" contributed to some very bad judgments in the Iraq War:

Yet from the beginning, no American critic had the Vietnam War era more firmly lodged in the brain than the top officials ofthe Bush administration. It was as if their invasion was always aimed, as in a suicide mission, directly at America's well-guarded Green Zone of Vietnam memories. After all, much war planning was based on what they considered the "lessons" of defeat in Vietnam.

From the dead-of-night way they brought the dead and wounded back from Iraq to the Pentagon's decision to embed the dreaded media, long blamed for defeat in Vietnam, in military units, Iraq was to be the anti-Vietnam battlefield. If we had, as the right believed, never lost an actual battle in Vietnam, but lost every one on the home front, then the major campaigns of the Iraq War would first be launched and managed on that home front (and only secondarily in Iraq).

But even as the White House and Pentagon were attempting to erase all Vietnam-like thoughts from the reality they hoped to mold both in the Middle East and in the U.S., even as they were avoiding the "Q-word" or the infamous phrase "light at the end of the tunnel" (for which, in the years to come, they would substitute an endless string of Iraqi "milestones," "landmarks," "tipping points," and "corners" turned), they were themselves hopelessly haunted by Vietnam.

Then there's this from the resolutely restrained British Chatham House, formerly known as the Royal Institute for International Affairs, on Tony Blair's foreign policy,
Blair’s Foreign Policy and its Possible Successor(s) by Victor Bulmer-Thomas Dec 2006 (accessed 12/21/06):

• Although Tony Blair did not express much interest in foreign policy before becoming prime minister, in Labour’s first term it must be judged a qualified success. A key feature was Blair’s ability to demonstrate Britain’s European credentials while forging a close working relationship with President Clinton.

• The post-9/11 decision to invade Iraq was a terrible mistake and the current débâcle will have policy repercussions for many years to come. The root failure of Tony Blair’s foreign policy has been its inability to influence the Bush administration in any significant way despite the sacrifice – military, political and financial – that the United Kingdom has made.

• Tony Blair’s successor(s) will not be able to offer unconditional support for US initiatives in foreign policy and a rebalancing of the UK’s foreign policy between theUSand Europe will have to take place.

Finally, here is Vali Nasr on Surging into the Abyss TPM Cafe 12/21/06:

Wrong-headed military and political steps provoked the Sunni insurgency in 2003-04, and then more mistakes helped fuel sectarian violence in 2005-06. Another set of mistakes can turn 2007 into the year that U.S. provoked a Shia insurgency. That may prove to be the mother of all mistakes. Hell in Iraq will come when the Shia south—accounting for 60% of the country’s population, largest urban areas, oil, supply lines to Kuwait, and only gateway to the Persian Gulf—rises up against the U.S. Then we either have to get out of Iraq altogether and very quickly, or we will have to commit to many more troop surges to deal with the problems created by the first one.

Into the abyss with Dick Cheney.  That really does sound scary!

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