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Photos and text, unless otherwise noted, Copyright 2003,2004,2005,2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Wednesday, 15 November 2006
Echoes of the Past
Topic: Making Use of History
Echoes of the Past
Wednesday, November 15, 2006, General John Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States needs to maintain - or possibly increase - current troop levels in Iraq because it has only "four to six months" left to stop sectarian violence from spiraling completely out of control.

For those of us of a certain age this sounds awfully familiar. Iraq is not Vietnam, of course. There was support for the French (pretty much secret), then when they were gone, advisors, then a few troops, then a few more, then a few more. As the numbers got really large, the explanation was always the same - a jump in troop levels will settle this thing once and for all, and rather quickly, so trust us on that. We topped out at six hundred fifty thousand, and that Vietnam business didn't work out well. And they didn't even have oil reserves.

Here we go again. The twist this time is the timeline involved isn't ambiguous at all. We have six months. It's always six months.

Tim Grieve does the heavy lifting, with Stop Us If You've Heard This One Before. The "next six months" are always critical in Iraq. And it's getting a bit absurd - in that Samuel Beckett way. Those two fellows may be waiting, but Godot never shows up.

Grieve notes that Tony Blair told reporters in January 2004 that Iraq was about to enter "a very critical six months." (That's here.) Republican Senator Hagel said "the next six months will be very critical" in August 2005, and Joseph Biden, the Democratic Senator, said "the next six months are going to tell the story" in December 2005. Who are you going to believe? Our ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said in July that "the next six months will be critical in terms of reining in the danger of civil war." (That's here.) Last month General Casey said that "the next six months will determine the future of Iraq." (That's here.)

And the left on the web, led by Duncan Black, has a great deal of fun with Thomas Freidman of the New York Times. Freidman has a record of, for years, saying "the next six months in Iraq are critical." It's all documented. Many now sarcastically talk about progress in Iraq in a new time unit - a Freidman. Abizaid is saying with have one Freidman or less to get this fixed. The intended effect of such a die warning gets blunted. Your eyes glaze over and you silently mutter, been there, done that.

You just can't keep saying that, twice a year, year after year. "No, no - really - this time it's true!" Whatever.

Tim Grieve suggests a reframing -
Maybe the next six months in Iraq really will be the critical ones. Maybe they won't be. But here's a modest proposal either way. Instead of talking about the future of Iraq in terms of months - hey, we'd all like a little more time! - let's quantify it a different way. At the current rate of things, six additional months in Iraq means that 416 more U.S. soldiers will die. Are we willing to bet their lives on the odds that the six monthers are finally right this time?
That may be the essential question. A Freidman is actually four hundred sixteen deal soldiers - our guys. In May tell us again this will only take another four hundred sixteen. Tell their families.

But the pressure is on for more troops. Robert Kagan and William Kristol in the Sunday, November 12, Financial Times, say Bush Must Call for Reinforcements in Iraq. They suggest fifty thousand more - minimum. Senator McCain, who badly wants to be the next president, has said he thinks twenty thousand more would fix things right up - "We're either going to lose this thing or win this thing within the next several months." We've only got one Freidman after all.

He's on the Senate Armed Services Committee and tried to get General Abizaid to admit the he, John McCain, was right after all. That didn't go so well -
MCCAIN: Did you note that General Zinny who opposed of the invasion now thinks that we should have more troops? Did you notice that General Batise, who was opposed to the conduct of this conflict also says that we may need tens and thousands of additional troops. I don't understand General. When you have a part of Iraq that is not under our control and yet we still - as Al Anbar province is - I don't know how many American lives have been sacrificed in Al Anbar province - but we still have enough and we will rely on the ability to train the Iraqi military when the Iraqi army hasn't send the requested number of battalions into Baghdad.

ABIZAID: Senator McCain, I met with every divisional commander, General Casey, the core commander, General Dempsey, we all talked together. And I said, in your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American Troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq? And they all said no. And the reason is because we want the Iraqis to do more. It is easy for the Iraqis to rely upon to us do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.
Abizaid might just as well have called him a fool. Or maybe he was just being realistic -
Abizaid added that, even if it were in Iraq's best interest to increase the presence of U.S. forces, it would be difficult for the Pentagon to find additional combat troops without increasing the size of the active-duty military.
We don't have the troops. But then McCain is positioning himself for a presidential run. Cut him some slack. If things are going the way they seem to be going, McCain needs to be able to say, in September 2007, somewhere in Ohio or Colorado, that he SAID we needed more troops, and look what happened. He'll seem very wise and patriotic.

Abizaid probably understood quite clearly what was going on. It's a civilian thing. And Abizaid was reasonably polite.

But McCain needn't work on his positioning. The convention wisdom is that the Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton Iraq Study Group, in combination with Robert Gates taking Rumsfeld's job at the Pentagon, will save the day in Iraq. Baker and Gates are daddy's guys - sent in to save Junior. They'll fix things.

Apparently Junior isn't too happy. Robin Wright in the Washington Post broke the story that the administration has suddenly stared up its own study group, a parallel organization to offer better recommendations than daddy's guys. Or maybe not -
The two reviews are not competitive, administration officials said, although the White House wants to complete the process before mid-December, about the time the Iraq Study Group's final report is expected.

The White House's decision changes the dynamics of what happens next to U.S. policy deliberations. The administration will have its own working document as well as recommendations from an independent bipartisan commission to consider as it struggles to prevent further deterioration in Iraq.
Right. See Stephen Colbert's take on that in this video clip - and Colbert aired that before anyone know about "the alternative" Iraq Study Group. It's not so funny a day later.

David Kurtz adds some realism by checking everyone's odd assumptions -
(1) That the ISG recommendations will be substantive, well-founded, and more than mere political cover for a change of strategy yet to be unveiled. Perhaps they will be prudent recommendations, but I don't know why anyone would assume that yet.

(2) That the Administration will first embrace and then effectively implement the ISG recommendations. This assumption seems wildly at odds with this Administration's track record in both respects….

(3) That Bob Gates is going to make a dramatic difference over the next two years. First, I remember the last time we were promised wisdom, experience, and a steady hand from a member of Bush 41's old team. That was Dick Cheney. Second, the options available to the U.S. for proceeding in the Middle East range from very bad to horrendous. Neither Gates nor anyone else is going to be able to clean up this mess in the next two years.

(4) That things can't get any worse. Things can always get worse. We could see Turkey and Iran militarily staking claims to parts of Iraqi territory. We could have terrorist brigades from Iraq running missions into Saudi Arabia and Jordan to destabilize the regimes there. Iran could assert itself militarily in the Gulf. The Middle East is Murphy's Law squared.

(5) That the sooner we start implementing the ISG recommendations, the sooner our troops come home and the more American lives will be saved. First, see (1) through (4) above. Second, I still have a hard time envisioning a Republican Administration bringing home all the troops in short order and leaving oil-rich Iraq in chaos in the midst of a vital oil-producing region. We may very well witness a spike in the number of American troop causalities in the process of trying to extricate ourselves or in the process of trying to prevent a larger regional conflict.
And the assumptions don't matter. Late in the evening there was breaking news. The president will preempt Senator McCain. The decision has been made. It's escalation -
President George Bush has told senior advisers that the US and its allies must make "a last big push" to win the war in Iraq and that instead of beginning a troop withdrawal next year, he may increase US forces by up to 20,000 soldiers, according to sources familiar with the administration's internal deliberations.

Mr Bush's refusal to give ground, coming in the teeth of growing calls in the US and Britain for a radical rethink or a swift exit, is having a decisive impact on the policy review being conducted by the Iraq Study Group chaired by Bush family loyalist James Baker, the sources said.
Yeah, it will have a decisive impact - Baker's group will be left flat-footed. The president has decided. He's the decider.

So the word is - if you read this carefully - that Vice President Cheney has sat down with Baker and told him what's really going to happen. We're sending in twenty thousand more troops. Go tell the former president, daddy, to go hang around with his new buddy Bill Clinton and play golf or whatever he wants.

What we find out is that it now goes like this -
  • Increase US troop levels by up to 20,000 to secure Baghdad and allow redeployments elsewhere in Iraq
  • Focus on regional cooperation with international conference and/or direct diplomatic involvement of countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia
  • Revive reconciliation process between Sunni, Shia and others
  • Increased resources from Congress to fund training and equipment of Iraqi security forces
No talks with Iran or Syria, only with the good guys, and it's time "to draw a line in the sand and defy Democratic pressure for a swift drawdown." No one tells this guy what to do.

And the president takes no crap from anyone -
To the certain dismay of US neo-cons, initial post-invasion ideas about imposing fully-fledged western democratic standards will be set aside. And the report is expected to warn that de facto tripartite partition within a loose federal system, as advocated by Democratic senator Joe Biden and others would lead not to peaceful power-sharing but a large-scale humanitarian crisis.
So no "democracy" talk any more, and no partitions - just brute force.

And there's the force of will -
"You've got to remember, whatever the Democrats say, it's Bush still calling the shots. He believes it's a matter of political will. That's what [Henry] Kissinger told him. And he's going to stick with it," a former senior administration official said. "He [Bush] is in a state of denial about Iraq. Nobody else is any more. But he is. But he knows he's got less than a year, maybe six months, to make it work. If it fails, I expect the withdrawal process to begin next fall."
So everyone is wrong, and their ideas evil, and Henry Kissinger is whispering in his ear. It's like old times. Maybe he'll bomb Cambodia while he's at it. Oliver Stone can make a film about it later. Can Anthony Hopkins play a Texan?

The official quoted in the item isn't happy -
Bush has said "no" to withdrawal, so what else do you have? The Baker report will be a set of ideas, more realistic than in the past, that can be used as political tools. What they're going to say is: lower the goals, forget about the democracy crap, put more resources in, do it.
Well, it is decisive. And it makes the Iraq Study group look like cowards and fools, or so the thinking goes. And whatever General Abizaid was saying - that more troops don't help, and in fact would just keep things from moving forward, and no general on the ground wants them for that reason - also looks foolish and cowardly.

Damn, the man has turned into Richard Nixon and it's late 1973 all over again. For those of us of a certain age this sounds awfully familiar. Iraq is not Vietnam, of course.

Posted by Alan at 21:31 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 15 November 2006 21:44 PST home

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