Saturday, May 26, 2007

Iraq and Democratic confusion

It's kind of a confusing time to be a Democrat. (Yeah, like it's ever any other way!) But for all the legitimate worry about whether the Dems caved too soon on the war funding bill and a withdrawal timeline - of course, they did cave too soon - when it comes to the Iraq War we also have to keep our eyes on the ball. And, when it comes to the Iraq War, the ball hasn't been in the American court for a long time. Whatever rhetoric the Dems or our "press corps" or whoever else want to wrap around it, what we're dealing with is managing defeat.

Joe Conason in
Dithering Democrats Salon 05/25/07 worries that the Republicans are going to adopt something like the famous "Hamilton-Baker" plan. William Arkin argues that's just what Dear Leader Bush is setting up to do (A Bloody August Could Precede the Fall Early Warning blog Washington Post 05/25/07). Tom Hayden looks more closely at how this could play out in Escalation or Not? Bush Accepts Baker Huffington Post 05/25/07.

I've said it before and I'll probably have reason to repeat it more than once. This Iraq War is a disaster for the United States. I'm far more interested in seeing the US get out of this war than I am in seeing the Democrats benefit from it politically. The authoritarian Republicans have come to see everything everything as partisan politics. But policy politics counts for a lot in the real world. And staying in this war is bad policy for the United States.

So let's remember that adopting the Hamilton-Baker recommenations may play well in the Establishment press. The priests of High Broderism will undoubtedly hail such a move as statemanship of the higest order. But check out what Tony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has to say about the Iraq Study Group's recommendations in hindsight at the CSIS Web site about how little the Baker-Hamilton recommendations are worth in the subtlely titled
The Iraq Study Group Absurdity and Iran 05/22/07.

The recommendations didn't look so good at the time, as Cordesman himself wrote. And, he says, they look even worse in retrospect:
Not everything dies when it should, and the Iraq Study Group is a grim example. Even at the time it was issued, it was a remarkably vacuous and unrealistic report. Its key recommendations were hopelessly impractical, and the detailed report – while good on some aspects of historical diagnostics – ended in a long list of sometimes contradictory conceptual recommendations lacking any justifications, details, and operational plans. It was at best a warning of what overblown committees seeking a lowest common denominator could not accomplish.

Looking back, The Iraq Study Group Report emerges as even worse. Its key recommendations never made sense. For example, there was never any chance that the development of the Iraqi Army could be rushed forward in ways that would permit rapid US force reductions, and recent months have made it all too clear that the Iraqi Army needs more time, more aid, and more US embeds and support. The existing schedule for creating an Iraqi Army already was far too fast. The months that have followed have shown it takes time, patience, and resources to build an effective military force. It takes political conciliation to allow it to operate in ways that serve the nation. Without internal Iraqi political conciliation, the Army can end up either fracturing along sectarian and ethnic lines or become a Shi’ite dominated force with a separate Kurdish force in the Kurdish area.

The ISG’s recommendations to speed development of the Iraq police force to serve the same purpose of enabling faster US withdrawals were truly absurd. ...

The ISG never addressed the issue of Iraqi conciliation in any meaningful way, or the level of internal civil conflict. It did not explain how its implied time schedule could avoid pushing the country towards civil war or suggest any practical ways to heal the fractures inside Iraqi society. It offered no useful plans for new incentives, and implied that a weak national government without strong Sunni participation, with a steadily more divided Shi’ite majority, and a Kurdish faction interested in autonomy, could somehow be pressured into effective action by some form of US benchmarks and deadlines.(my emphasis)
Conason argues in his article that the Democrats should have embraced the ISG plan as soon as it came out, by which time Cheney and Bush had already rejected it. But I just don't see much advantage, even in a political-posturing sense, to embracing a plan that was largely useless to begin with.

Events in Iraq are driving the course of the war and will continue to do so. Familiar saying like "riding the tiger" obviously apply. But the task facing the US is to extricate ourselves from a lost war while minimizing the damage. And conceiving it as other than "minimizing the damage" is unrealistic. This is Bush's War and the Republican Party's baby. The Democrats with a razor-thin majority in the Senate, and a majority that depends on hardline war supporter Joe Lieberman, are in a weak position to force through a withdrawal plan in the face of authoritarian discipline among the Republicans. The history of the anti-Vietnam War movement can be very misleading here. In those days, there really were moderate and even more-or-less liberal Republicans. That's just not the case today. The Republicans who pose as being critical of the war line up to vote for the administration position almost to a person.

The fact that 70% or so of the public want withdrawal to begin can't overcome the Republican prowar sentiment in the Senate. It's entirely possible that Congressional Republican support for the war could start seriously collapsing. But don't count on it. The "moderate" Republicans have racked up a very bad record during the Cheney-Bush administration.

The Democrats' most important tool to keep up the pressure and increase the chances of Republican defections on the war is through aggressive Congressional oversight, i.e., investigations. It's hard to see how support for the war can go much lower, since it's already down to pretty much white Protestant fundamentalists. But the intensity of opposition to the war can certainly increase.

Amazingly, Cordesman still says that The Surge is still the best plan. But Cordesman has been consistent and realistic-minded in seeing that the Cheney-Bush course would require ten more years or even longer of active US military involvement in Iraq. And he has been very explicit that he does not see The Surge as a good option, because such a thing does not exist:
The US has no good options in Iraq, either to stay or leave. At best, it can now only try find the least bad path of uncertainty and work out the best compromises over time. To do this, it must focus on its overall longer term strategic interests in the region, working with its friends and allies, and looking both at what can be done in Iraq and in the region as a whole. (my emphasis)
Tom Hayden has been around long enough for nearly everyone to have something against him. But he knows a lot about antiwar politics. And he reminds us that a Cheney-Bush withdrawal strategy could be tricky for the Democrats precisely because some of the most prominent Dems embraced teh ISG report:
This de-escalation scenario can be more problematic for the Democrats and the peace movement than an open escalation scenario. With an [Iraqi] oil law in hand, there will be powerful forces arguing that American casualties must come down as the presidential year of 2008 begins. What will the Democrats do and the media declare if some troops start coming home? After all, five of their powerful Beltway insiders have signed and promoted Baker-Hamilton.

Of course, all the players are talking about combat troops only, a future offensive against al-Qaeda in Iraq, and in these circumstances the war could re-escalate after de-escalating, or a fall 2007 "incident" could inflame the crisis again. It's happened before. It's about dampening and dividing the voters during an election year.
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