Political Stalemate in the Iraq Endgame

George Bush yesterday:

The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad

Does anyone really believe this stuff anymore? Except, of course, in the sense that the sooner we pull out, the sooner we can rebuild the Army, and the fewer nationalist Arabs we will drive into fanatical hatred of the USA…

As far as I can tell, there is no longer any plan for ‘victory’ however defined in Iraq, not even of the Potemkin village variety. The military itself has begun to admit that the US has suffered a political defeat, even if it remains undefeated militarily:

The chief of intelligence for the Marine Corps in Iraq recently filed an unusual secret report concluding that the prospects for securing that country’s western Anbar province are dim and that there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation there, said several military officers and intelligence officials familiar with its contents.

If there is not in fact any credible strategy for victory (and there are basically no more troops to send), then staying the course is reduced to the Mr. Micawber strategy of trusting that ‘something will turn up’ — or of holding on in a death grip so that the next administration must make the hard choices.

“It’s hard to be optimistic right now,” said one Army general who has served in Iraq. “There’s a sort of critical mass of tough news,” he said, with intensifying violence from the insurgency and between Sunnis and Shiites, a lack of effective Iraqi government and a growing concern that Iraq may be falling apart.

Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The US involvement in Iraq has now taken on the look of that kind of insanity.

“In the analytical world, there is a real pall of gloom descending,” said Jeffrey White, a former analyst of Middle Eastern militaries for the Defense Intelligence Agency, who also had been told about the pessimistic Marine report.

Certainly the public has lost patience. And the media, smelling blood, show signs of waking from their torpor. I suspect that the political elites in DC who have not lost their minds now believe that retreat from Iraq is inevitable, but they are afraid to say so before an election. There are scenarios in which this retreat is accomplished with more or less loss of life, more or less loss of face. But if there is a realistic victory strategy, its proponents are being unusually modest. Do not mistake: this is the key. Even when the public comes to believe, as it seems to be doing, that the invasion of Iraq was both a fraud on the US public and a strategic error of historic proportions, most people will find it hard to support withdrawal so long as they can persuade themselves that victory is attainable. The problem for the war party is that any such claims look increasingly threadbare. And once it decides we are spending lives for nothing, the sleeping giant of US public opinion will lash out.

The Iraq debacle has harmed and will harm the United States (and let’s not forget it’s not so great for all those dead Iraqis either). Retreat seals the deal; at that point it is no longer possible to pretend that things will get better. For the people responsible, that means they must either shoulder the blame or find someone to pass it to — and the most obvious candidate is those who call for withdrawal. The tendency to run with the ‘stabbed in the back’ line feeds in to a common confusion in which the withdrawal itself is blamed for the entire war’s damage to the national interest. But in fact, if the situation is really hopeless, then withdrawal only staunches the self-inflicted wound caused by an unnecessary invasion, poorly planned, under-resourced, badly executed, and characterized by war profiteering and outright theft on a scale unimagined in either the Vietnam or Korean conflicts.

Indeed, we are less safe because of the battle in the streets in Baghdad — and in Ambar province. If there truly is no plan for victory more subtle than continuing to lose ground bit by bit, then it’s high time to bring our men and women home.

And yet, I don’t expect it to happen soon. One of the truer maxims in politics is that you cannot beat something with nothing. Sadly, both sides in the largely subterranean debate over Iraq offer what amounts to nothing: the war party offers the daily dose of casualties, the retreat to Baghdad, the bunker strategy amidst civil war. The light at the end of the tunnel is going out, but inertia remains the policy.

The other side, however, has little concrete to propose. Like the war party, it knows the end-state it desires, but not how to achieve it. There is not at present any serious plan for withdrawal on the table; partly that is because the most competent planners in the military cannot (if they are even allowed to contemplate it) discuss it. And partly, I suspect, it is because any plan for withdrawal, even a slow one, would leave chaos in its wake, a poor departure gift indeed. If leaving would create a vacuum filled by disaster, and thus seem to cause it, it may seem the better part of political valor to wait for the disaster to mature fully before leaving.

And thus our current gridlock: the public now wants us out of Iraq by an almost two to one majority. Yet the large majority of both our pro and anti war political leaders agree to temporize, wasting blood and treasure.

Like Vietnam, the most critical questions in Iraq are political, not military. Arguably the political war in Vietnam may have been lost in Dien Bien Phu, but it was undoubtedly over by the end of the Tet offensive in 1969 — a political disaster despite a military defeat for the North. The costly endgame lasted four years and ended ignominiously.

Are we condemned to repeat it?

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3 Responses to Political Stalemate in the Iraq Endgame

  1. Dave Howard says:

    Professor Froomkin,

    You have written an excellent post. Thank you.

  2. janinsanfran says:

    Yes, we seem doomed to repeat it — or raise the ante and bankrupt ourselves even further economically and morally.

  3. Steve Schear says:

    It may very well end the relatively brief (since WW II) American Empire, which started out with so much hope and promise but failed due to all the usual greed, corruption and lying that spells the end of empire. If so, we can only hope that the unlike the fall of Rome we are not facing a new Dark Ages and that it serves as a warning to future aspirants so the next champion of liberty does not quickly succumb to hubris and decay.

    If I had place responsibility for our fall it would be the rapid declines of the pre-college American educational system, the mismanagement of our currency, independent and effective press and especially the lack of proportional representation.

    Joseph Kennedy’s quid pro quo enabling the formation of teachers unions in exchange for their votes set the stage. The NTA has often stymied excellence in the classroom and thwart teaching excellence. Without adequate skills economic prosperity, the middle class and democracy are imperiled. Without adequate intellectual preparation, especially historical and geographic, citizens cannot readily make proper sense of world events and are easily led by fools and knaves. In Alexis de Tocqueville’s, “Democracy in America,” he warned of the potential for an administrative despotism that would be unlike any other tyranny ever experienced in history. “It would resemble parental authority, if, father-like, it tried to prepare its charges for a man’s life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood.”

    Democracy and federalism depended on of the “…diverse knowledge and discernment it assumes on the part of the governed. The government of the Union rests almost entirely on legal fictions. The Union is an ideal nation which exists, so to say, only in men’s minds and whose extent and limits can only be discerned by the understanding. Everything in such a government depends on artificially contrived conventions, and it is only suited to a people long accustomed to manage its affairs, and one in which even the lowest ranks of society have an appreciation of political science. But what happens when this “diverse knowledge and discernment” disappear? When these “artificially contrived conventions” lapse and few if any citizens know how the nation was able to establish its economy and tolerate the individuality that was the cornerstone of its prosperity, how does a constitutional regime respond? I think since the Southern Secession we have a clear answer: effective elimination of the republic, steady erosion of individual liberty and the imposition of tyrannical means to hold together a Union that is only a shadow of its former vision.

    Tocqueville believed that political parties were ”an inherent evil of free governments. The press was prone to gratuitous muckraking. The electorate tended to vote mediocrities into high office. Above all, there was the danger of the ”tyranny of the majority.” But that risk, he believed, was held in check by the vitality of some distinctively American institutions that tended to preserve individual freedom: the decentralization of government, the power of the courts, the strength of associational life and the vigor of the country’s churches. In the end it seems his assessment may have been premature and optimistic. Our government has become ever more centralized. The courts rarely have shown courage when deciding fundamental challenges to ever wider federal power grabs. The strength of face-to-face “associational life” has been replaced by on-line encounters.

    The newfound religion of the current administration for democracy may turn out to be too little too late, unwise and disingenuous. Many of the so-called new democracies (e.g., Russia under Yeltsin and Putin, Venezuela under Chavez) routinely ignore constitutional limits on their power and deprive their citizens of basic rights. Perhaps democracy cannot take root and thrive unless some minimum per-capita income is achieved (e.g., >$5,000). The recipe for democracy may be simple: first get rich (thereby acquiring a middle class, civil society and the rule of law), then democratize. Id so, placing democracy first, as the administration has done in Iraq, can only end in failure.

    It is as predicted by the rules of war, a theory and art that extend back to Sun Tzu (6th century BC) and beyond. The weapons change, but the art of war remains as constant as the arrogance is ever-present. (Thanks Ian G)

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