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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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Monday, 20 November 2006
What Now?
Topic: Iraq

What Now?

Monday, November 20, the week opened with no one much having any idea what we should do about the situation in Iraq - more troops in massive numbers should be sent, from Senator McCain, and Kristol and Kagan on the neoconservative side, and the rising young Democratic star, Senator Obama, saying it might be wise to manage a rapid but careful drawdown. The three coronals assigned to figure this out at the Pentagon had come up with three options - Go Big (pour in the troops, as many as needed to stabilize things), Go Long (reduce the numbers dramatically but stay for a decade or more training the Iraqis), or Go Home. There was the variation - Go Big then Go Long (a quick bump then a quick reduction and then a decades long training effort) - but we were to avoid "moonwalking out of there" (as in the tricky backward "I'm outta here" dance Michael Jackson used to do back when anyone cared what he did). The idea there is the last thing we want the Iraqis and the world to think is we're just being clever and disguising our bugging out. That whole business is explained here - the Washington Post's Pentagon reporter Thomas Ricks got the inside story. The president, on his way back to Washington from a dicey day in Jakarta, said he is waiting for the full report. He hadn't decided what he will choose to do.

And too, he's waiting for the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group to recommend something, and his own study group he set up to counter what they might come up with, as what the first group might recommend is "off the table" - partitioning Iraq to keep the angry sides apart, talking with Iran and Syria on stabilizing the region (we don't talk to "evil" people). At least the Pentagon fellows put thing is really simple terms, so he won't get all grumpy when faced with details.

But then Iran and Syria the same say just upstaged us all, as reported here -
President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has invited the leaders of Iraq and Syria to a summit in Tehran this weekend to discuss ways of ending the sectarian violence in Iraq, upstaging the US and underlining the growing influence of Iran.

Washington is still casting around with increasing desperation for an honourable [sic] exit strategy from Iraq, a strategy some say should include bringing Iran and Syria into the negotiating process.

Apparently, Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi President, has already agreed to the meeting, and Syrian leader Bashar Assad is expected to follow suit. News of the summit came after surprise talks in Baghdad between the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki and Walid Moallem, the Syrian Foreign Minister and the highest ranking official from Damascus to visit Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The White House is not happy. This is our problem to fix. Who are these people, and what's this about Iraq and Syria now reestablishing diplomatic relations? Who do they think they are?

The day also brought the neoconservatives in despair about the whole situation. Three of them - Kenneth Adelman, Michael Rubin and David Frum - appeared on CNN with Wolf Blitzer and discussed how it all went sour. Check out the video or the transcript or this analysis.

It hardly matters now. Key neoconservatives may now be distraught, but Cheney is still in the White House, carrying on. He's calling the shots.

Better attend to two retired Army generals, Barry McCaffrey and William Odom, on where matters stand now, as the past is, well, the past.

McCaffrey quoted in the Army Times -

"The country is not at war. The United States armed forces and the CIA are at war. So we are asking our military to sustain a level of effort that we have not resourced," he told Army Times.

"That's how to break the Army is to keep it deployed above the rate at which it can be sustained," he said. "There's no free lunch here. The Army and the Marine Corps and Special Operations Command are too small and badly resourced to carry out this national security strategy."
He says we need to bring home five brigades from Iraq before Christmas to keep the Army from "breaking" - and a redeployment strategy is just not feasible.

Odem says this -
Our leaders do not act because their reputations are at stake. The public does not force them to act because it is blinded by the president's conjured set of illusions: that we are reducing terrorism by fighting in Iraq, creating democracy there, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, making Israel more secure, not allowing our fallen soldiers to have died in vain, and others.

But reality no longer can be avoided. It is beyond U.S. power to prevent sectarian violence in Iraq, the growing influence of Iran throughout the region, the probable spread of Sunni-Shiite strife to neighboring Arab states, the eventual rise to power of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr or some other anti-American leader in Baghdad, and the spread of instability beyond Iraq.

These realities get worse every day that our forces remain in Iraq. They can't be wished away by clever diplomacy or by leaving our forces in Iraq for several more years.
But the president said in Vietnam, that he now sees the light - the Vietnam War taught us that we will win if we don't quit. That was an amazing assertion, as we sort of did quit there, and no dominos fell, no hoards of communist marines landed in San Diego and fought their way to Yuma, and now Vietnam is the potential "economic tiger" over there. Well, to be fair - he did kind of skip that war.

But the idea was we lose all credibility if we quit - we will be seen as what they used to call in those days "a paper tiger." Perhaps it's something else in the Middle East.

Josh Marshall tries to work out what this all means -
… a few comments on the president's new obsession with the Vietnam War (sort of a sign of how bleak things have gotten in Iraq, on so many levels. Think about it: at this point, it's the president who's arguing that Iraq is another Vietnam).

The argument about the need to maintain "credibility" when deciding whether to withdraw from an ill-fated engagement is not one that, I think, can be dismissed out of hand. But those who wield this argument ignore another argument that is at least as important. If everyone really is watching, what do our actions tell other countries about how rational our national decision-making is about the use of our own power?

To be more concrete, showing other countries that we're willing to bleed ourselves dry because we don't have the common sense to cut our losses doesn't necessarily serve us well at all. Quite the contrary.

Also, and this is another point that I don't think gets raised often enough, a great power has the luxury to make various course corrections without its international standing or "credibility" collapsing in upon itself. In fact, those who don't get this seem to be concealing a profound pessimism about the United States' collective national strength. The Bush crowd (and of course Kissinger in his long-standing and twisted way) sees America's position in the world as exquisitely brittle, liable to being destroyed entirely by what happens in Baghdad or what sort of "mettle" we display in Iraq. (A similar mindset about the "demonstration effect" of whacking Saddam is, in a sense, what got us into this mess in the first place. But let's leave that to another post. )
Then there are the comparisons -
To use a crass but I think not totally inapt analogy, say Rupert Murdoch invests a lot of money in a big business deal in South America. And it just doesn't pan out. Which inspires more or less future confidence in Murdoch's reputation as an international media mogul: a willingness to keep pouring money into the failed venture basically forever, or pulling up stakes once it's clear the deal isn't working and moving on to more profitable ventures? Again, a crass analogy given the cost in lives and treasure we're talking about in Iraq. But I think the analogy and its implications are solid. Denial and moral and intellectual cowardice do nothing for ones "credibility."
And as for Vietnam -
Isn't this trip a really odd venue for the president to be arguing that staying the course basically forever is the only acceptable solution? Though it took a tragically long time, the US, for all the moonwalking, eventually decided to pull up stakes in Vietnam. And what was the result? One might make arguments that the Soviets and Soviet proxies were temporarily emboldened in Africa or Latin America, though I think that's debatable. But what of the real effects? The Soviet Union was dismantling itself within little more than a decade of our pull-out. And now we have a Vietnam that is politically repressive at home but proto-capitalist in its economy and, by any measure, incredibly eager for good relations with the United States.

If geo-political standing and international repercussions are really the issue we're discussing, it seems very hard to argue that our decision to pull out of Vietnam had any lasting or meaningful ill-effects. And there's at least a decent argument to the contrary.

And yet here we have President Bush, stepping on to Vietnamese soil to further our rapprochement with Vietnam, and arguing, in so many words, that the lesson of Vietnam is that we should still be there blowing the place up thirty years later.

We're really deep into the primitive brainstem phase of our long national nightmare of presidential denial and mendacity on Iraq. Poetically, politically and intellectually it's appropriate that Henry Kissinger is now along for the ride.
Yep, it's just like old times. It's just not working - but we are told it will. Almost forty years ago we were told there was a light at the end of the tunnel. They had to retire that old saw. Now we're told if we don't fight them there we'll surely fight them here. And the metaphoric light at the end of the tunnel a working free-market liberal democracy in Iraq where everyone gets along. We're told it could happen. They just don't mention any tunnel and any light these days - but it's the same thing.

But what are our options? Suzanne Nossel provides a comprehensive list that covers just about every one. And she suggests reasons why each has little if any chance of succeeding. It's rather sobering, but the standout is this -
9. If we don't begin a planned exit, there's a good chance we'll find ourselves in an unplanned one - It's surprising that by now we haven't experienced the Iraqi equivalent of the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut or the dragging of a corpse of an American soldier through the streets of Mogadishu a decade later. But it seems likely that that day will come.
Well, that is possible. Is it likely? Who knows?

But Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly says things really could get worse -
Conventional wisdom tacitly assumes that the worst that can happen in Iraq is a continuation of the current low-level civil war, resulting in the loss of thousands of Iraqi lives and dozens of U.S. soldiers each month. But as bad as that is, it's worth keeping in mind that the American occupation has actually made the Iraqi situation worse every single year since it began, and will probably continue to make things worse as long as we're there. And the worse the violence, the worse the Iraqi theocracy that eventually takes root in its wake is likely to be.

But that's not all. The dynamics of violence are nonlinear in the extreme, and the odds of an Archduke Ferdinand moment continue to rise inexorably as our occupation continues to make things ever worse and ever more unstable. A year from now, we could end up in the middle of a full-blown civil war costing a thousand American lives a month. We could end up taking sides in a shooting war against Turkey, a NATO ally. We could end up fighting off an armed invasion from Iran. We could end up on the receiving of an oil embargo led by Saudi Arabia. Who knows?

All of these developments may be individually unlikely, but you're not trying hard enough if you can't dream up plausible scenarios leading to each one of them. Pundits and policymakers alike should keep this in mind when they're mentally totting up the costs and benefits of staying in Iraq and concluding that we might as well try a Last Big Push because, heck, it can't do any harm to try. In fact, it can. The longer we stay in Iraq, the worse things are likely to get.
So how about a cynical interpretation of that from Richard Einhorn, as in -
"A year from now, we could end up in the middle of a full-blown civil war costing a thousand American lives a month. We could end up taking sides in a shooting war against Turkey, a NATO ally. We could end up fighting off an armed invasion from Iran. We could end up on the receiving of an oil embargo led by Saudi Arabia. Who knows?"

Possibly.

Or suddenly tomorrow, the scales could fall from al-Sadr's eyes, and from Maliki's, and from everyone else's, and they would realize that after the horror of the Saddam years, it is simply crazy to fight amongst themselves for control of such a potentially wealthy country like Iraq when there are plenty of petro-dollars (or petro-euros) for everyone.

Or maybe tomorrow Osama bin Laden will get on TV and say, "Mein Gott, what a schmuck I've been. After deep study of Torah, and after discovering the joys of matzo ball soup, I've decided to convert and become a Lubavitcher. As for my ex-friend Ayman al-Zawahiri, the heretic! He's renounced all religious belief and become Richard Dawkins personal physician and valet."

Hey! Y'never know.

Let me put this another way, to make the point clear. I'll ask, and answer, a rhetorical question or two.

Are any of Kevin's scenarios even remotely plausible?

Yes, mathematically, they are. They could conceivably happen.

Are the scenarios I proposed even remotely plausible?

Yes, mathematically, they are. They could conceivably happen.

Are they of equal plausibility?

No, of course not. Kevin's scenarios are far more likely than mine.

What is the approximate probability of one of Kevin's scenarios happening? Of mine?

Roughly 10% to 65% for Kevin. As for mine, roughly .000000000000000001% to .00000000000001%.

Using everyday language, how would you best summarize these probabilities?

It's somewhat possible, to likely, that one of Kevin's scenarios may actually turn out to be an accurate prediction.
So why did no one think of these possibilities three or four years ago? Or more importantly, as many probably did, why were the possibilities dismissed and those who raised them marginalized, or let go, or quit in frustration? Why did we think "the power of positive thinking" was anything less than a silly catch phrase to motivate salesmen? Positive self-delusion can be useful if you're cold-calling, trying to sell timeshares is Tucson. It keeps you working the phones, even with all the hang-ups. As the basis for the foreign policy of the most powerful nation in the world, it's deadly. But here we are, a government of Willie Lomans - "personality always wins the day."

But we will, it seems, send more troops, in spite of the possibilities.

Michael O'Hare wonders about that -
It's not clear, I have to note, what these extra divisions will actually do: is there something to attack with arms? A strong point to seize and occupy? A fortress to invest? Maybe it makes sense, and maybe Truman and MacArthur, or Lincoln and Grant, or Bismarck and Von Moltke, could pull this trick off. But we have Rumsfeld to thank for the insight that you go to war, or make your big push, with the administration you have, not the one you wish you had. I think an enterprise like "straightening out Iraq with one short commitment of lots more troops" is completely beyond the competence of the people who will run it, from the president down at least several levels into Rumsfeld's defense department, and maybe into the star ranks that remain after his housecleaning of generals who said what was true. ... My call is that this is a very bad bet.
But then, Iraq and Syria and Iran may work it all out themselves, without our help. It may not be what we like, but there was what happened in Vietnam, and things finally did work out for the best.

Heck, the same day as all this Rupert Murdoch pulled the plug - his Harper Collins folks will not publish the book and his Fox television network will not air the special. OJ Simpson will not be explaining how he murdered his wife and her friend, if he did it (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). The affiliates wouldn't show the special, and the book was a big mistake. Cut your losses. Move on. Murdoch should call the White House.  He has the answer.

Posted by Alan at 21:26 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 21 November 2006 18:22 PST home

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