Assessing "Progress" in Iraq
Bill Long 9/9/07
On the Eve of General Petraeus' Testimony
Even before General David Petraeus has uttered one word on Capitol Hill regarding whether the "surge" of 30,000 additional American troops in Iraq since February has brought some kind of "progress" to that troubled land, the spinmeisters on both sides of the aisle are trying to shape and skew the debate. There will be lots of numbers thrown around in the next few days, as well as detailed consideration of methodology used to measure "improvements" in the security situation around Baghdad. In addition, the two assessments made on progress toward the 18 "benchmarks," one by the General Accounting Office (which concluded that acceptable progress was being made on 3/18 benchmarks) and one by the Administration--the Initiatial Benchmark Assessment Report (concluding that progress was being made in 8/18 areas), will no doubt be cited by both sides.
The purpose of this essay is to say what I believe will happen in the wake of Petraeus' (and Crocker's) testimony. In short, I believe the Bush Administration has already determined that enough "progress" has been made to justify it not cutting back on troop levels or deployments for the rest of its term of office. In addition, I now believe that the reason that Bush et al. will be so intransigent on the issue for the next 16 months is so that when Democratic Administration is elected (as it almost certainly will be) in Nov. 2008, and the decision then follows to "bring home" most of the troops (as almost certainly will happen), the Republicans will then have a campaign issue for at least 30-50 years--that the Democrats are "losers" who decide to "cut and run" and that the Democrats really cannot be trusted with issues of national security. Thus, while most historians argue that lame duck Presidents try to do the "right thing" in order to assure a positive legacy, my thesis is that President Bush will hold firm because he wants to give the Republicans their political marching orders until our children retire.
If this assessment is correct, it means that the ultimate losers in the political process will not only be the people of Iraq but also the people of the United States.
But what strikes me above all at the present time in our involvement with Iraq is the way that Iraq presents condundrums for both political parties. The remainder of the essay is meant to show how we are in a "lose-lose" situation in Iraq. This is true for three reasons: (1) Both Sides are "Right" in the Debate; (2) Both Sides cannot have their Perspectives Completely Honored; and (3) Compromise is Seen By Both Sides as Betrayal.
I. Both Sides are Right
As said above, at this time in our political history we are evaluating whether the "troop surge," i.e., the addition of about 30,000 American troops to Baghdad and other trouble spots between Feb and June 2007 (to bring the total American troop presence in Iraq to about 160,000-Why don't we hearing about the "coalition of the willing" anymore? Where are the other nations when we need them? Was this "coalition language" just a charade?) is "working." As might have been expected when the "surge" began about seven months ago, the results have been mixed. "Progress" has been made, depending on whom you consult, on three of the 18 or eight of the 18 "benchmarks"--a list of security and political goals that would indicate that "progress" is being made in "resolving" the issues of the war. Some of the security benchmarks are to reduce the overall level of violence in Anbar province and in Iraq generally; the political objectives (always more elusive) are the passage of an oil law distributing revenues throughout the country, a new policy on "de-Baathification" (i.e., we concluded that we were too hasty in elminiating all of Saddam's people from the government formed after 2003), achievement of national "reconciliation."
The philosophy with which we entered the "surge" was that increased troop presence would bring about increased security and that this would give the Iraqi government time and space to begin the tough process of national reconciliation. The problem is that even if deaths and violent attacks have been reduced in "8 of the last 11 weeks" (to quote Gen. David Petraeus), there seems now to be little connection between the goals of security and political reconciliation. We, in a sense, put our eggs into the basket of connection between the two. It did make sense, didn't it? Once people stop killing each other, they must want to live peaceably and amicably with their neighbors. Right? Well, not really. It could be that they are more peaceful with each other now (or relatively more peaceful) because we are holding most of the guns and then can't retaliate. But they can "wait us out" and then get back to the animosity after we have left.
Well, this gets us to the "problem" of Iraq. Both sides, Republican and Democrat, are correct now with respect to what we should do. Republicans argue that since we "broke" the country (i.e., by entering in, deposing their leader, destroying their infrastructure and overseeing the creation of a new military and political process), we have a "moral obligation" to stay until we "fix" it. They certainly are right. It you promise to make a situation better (which is what we were doing in 2003--when we blissfully expected democracy to rise up out of the ashes of Saddam Hussein's regime), and you need to break down before you build up, then certainly you can't leave once you have broken things down. You have to stay until things are "built back up." There are massive problems with this analogy, but this is the basic point made by many Republicans--and they are surely right.
The Democrats are no less right. They, in general, want a pullout of our troops from Iraq. Or, at least, a timetable when this will be accomplished. Their point is equally compelling. We didn't "count the cost" when we entered Iraq; we were misled in some of the justifications for invasion; we now see that the war has changed in its focus, from a war of liberation to a domestic struggle between long-entrenched religious groups; we are caught in the middle and are the target for both sides; we are in "over our heads"; we are losing people and pouring billions of dollars into a war that is yielding nothing for us; let's admit that we have gone far enough and that we should withdraw.
II. Both Perspectives Can't Fully Be Honored
Currently, as we know, the Republicans control the White House and the Democrats the Congress. This wasn't the case from 2003-early 2007, however. The Republicans had both of these branches in their control. But they began to lose their credibility with more and more of the American people as the ideology which got us into Iraq now seemed to dissolve right n our hands. So we are left in Sept. 2007 with a government that is increasingly at war with itself. Of course partisanship is nothing new in Washington; some would say that Washington thrives on it.
But in this case the partisanship means that neither side can "win." Oh, there will be small victories along the way, but both sides will feel very strongly that they can't push through their agenda. The President will, in my judgment, not do anything to lessen the fiscal and military commitment to Iraq in the remaining time of his Presidency (16 months); indeed, I think that one of the reasons he will not change anything is not because he is a stubborn man but because he will want to give his party reason for the next 50 years to call the Democrats cowards--i.e., the party that cuts and runs from Iraq. The President, in my judgment, may give some lip service to withdrawal (though this is doubtful), but will not do so in any credible way. He is thinking about "history" at this point--the future history of how Republicans can "blame" Democrats on losing another War for us.
The Democrats, on the other hand, cannot get their way. Indeed, if we just pulled the troops out tomorrow, we really don't know what we would see but there is a good possibility that Iraq would erupt into a violent power struggle. But, guess what? The unspoken (and it cannot be spoken) desire of many Democrats, especially those closely allied with Israel, is to see an Iraq precisely in this situation. Iraq was seen by Israel in the 1970s and early 1980s to be one of the more significant security threats to their continued existence. The best way to keep Iraq from having nuclear ambitions or from trying to invade Israel is to make sure that they are weak or involved in interminable internecine strife.
Thus, though the Republicans ultimately can be criticized for not knowing what to do in Iraq when we got there, the Democrats today can be criticized for not knowing what to do when we leave there.
III. Betrayal and the Future
But the real problem in all of this is that after the problem is "resolved," which will probably take another four or five years, we will have such divided feelings over Iraq that it will fuel partisan bickering for at least another 50 years. On the one hand, Republicans will accuse Democrats of betraying America and our friends. They will argue, and they already have been arguing, that Democrats are the "cut and run" party, that they really don't have it in them to fight a war, that they are therefore "weak" on national security and can't be trusted to lead a national government.
The Democrats will argue, on the other hand, that there really isn't any wisdom in continuing a fight that we entered under false pretenses, that has not gone the way we anticipated and is one in which we have become the target of attack rather than the "savior" of the people.
Both sides in the future will point to the "lessons of Iraq" in order to justify their positions--either that the Democrats are weak on national defense or the Republicans can't be trusted and will tell lies just to effect their own interests. But what will be the "lessons" of Iraq? Is the lesson that we should pre-emptively enter into countries to remove dictators from power when we think they might some day threaten our interests? Is the lesson that we should count the cost before entering (i.e., that we should know how to "win the peace" before we go in to win the war?)? Is it that we just need perseverance in the face of international opposition? Is it that revolutions are slow things and that we must just hunker down for decades in a place because that is the length of time it takes for new concepts to "take?" Is it that we should give up idealism on how we think we can "change" not simply the political orientation of another part of the world but also our ability to get people to change their minds about each other? Is it that we need to treat our troops better? Is it that we ought to be more humble about the reach of our power in the 21st century? Or, is it that we should, like "old money" in America, not try to "show off" our wealth but simply work behind the scenes to assure that radicalism doesn't grow, that countries are better off economically, that lives are better for people around the world? There may be tons of other "lessons" from the War in Iraq, too.
I am no Jeremiah, but I am weeping for my country today. Every path we chose is wrong, yet both sides are right in diagnosing our problems right now. We cannot act without causing a huge amount of continuing carnage. Each side is building up lessons each day to put in its arsensal so that it can shoot them at the opposing party for the next half century. Surely we are bequeathing to our children an ugly America of a new kind. And it is happening right before our eyes.
Are we "doomed" as nation? I certainly don't think so. But we are, I hope, growing up. Maturity means that you realize the limits of what you can attain, focusing on those things that you can do while laying aside things that are beyond your ability. Maybe that will happen to us. But I am one who believes that there are valuable things to learn even in the midst of national problems. If the fruit of pain often is understanding or wisdom, I think that the current situation in our War in Iraq can help us understand other periods in our history.
The major period I am thinking about now is between 1865-1875--when we were just coming out of the Civil War. That is a "foundational period" for understanding the growth of America, especially in the area of law (the 14th Amendment, for example, was ratified in this period--1868). By examining the partisanship of today, coupled with the weak and fumbling legal justifications for the War in Iraq, we can more easily understand some of the complex legal issues and partisanship coming out of the Civil War. It was worse then. But now we have the privilege of understanding that period with renewed depth. All, therefore, is not lost...