There might still be options that are good for the Iraqi people but to achieve them we would have to forego the idea that the US can continue to occupy and control that country. One such option is to begin withdrawing all US forces immediately in as orderly a manner as possible while spending a huge amount of money to help rebuild the destroyed infrastructure of that country.
The reasoning behind this argument is that although there are no guarantees that it will succeed, people who have something of their own that they would regret losing are more likely to want to preserve it. Nothing more surely drives people to destruction and violence than the feeling that there is no hope for the future and that things are just going to get worse. This is what results in people being apathetic and fearful about, or giving tacit support to, the armed groups roaming the country wreaking havoc.
If people have jobs and functioning schools and hospitals, can walk in the streets and see signs of progress and chances of a better life, they are less likely to want to join the militias and death squads that are destroying people and things, and more likely to establish mechanisms for maintaining peace and security. All the money that is currently being spent on keeping the US military in Iraq in a futile quest for establishing permanent control would be far better used in improving the actual lives of Iraqi people.
But it is clear that this suggestion is not going to be accepted since withdrawing troops from Iraq is seen by Bush as ‘losing’ and he will not allow it, whatever the consequences.
But the reality is that Bush’s options are disappearing fast. I don’t mean options for ‘winning.’ Those have long since completely ceased to exist except in the fantasies of the pro-war extremists. What is disappearing for Bush are the options to avoid being crowned with the dubious honor of the US president who decided to wage a disastrous and elective war against a weak country and lost.
I suspect that at some point, probably late 2005 or early 2006, the realization must have sunk in to even the most fervent optimists in the administration that there was no victory to be had in Iraq. All the ‘turning points’ that had been so eagerly looked for, such as elections, the formation of a national government, one supposedly key military offensive after another, had all come and gone and the situation continued to deteriorate.
The only two options that remained were to expand the war to other countries like Iran and Syria in a desperate ‘double-or-nothing’ type gamble or to tread water until 2008, trying to persuade the American public that the situation in Iraq was better than it seemed, so that the problem could be handed over to the next president who would then be branded with the stigma of being the person who ‘lost’ Iraq.
What the Iraq Study Group report did was suddenly narrow that window of options. While Bush has plainly signaled that he is going to ignore the group’s recommendations, what he finds is that the report has suddenly shifted the whole debate about Iraq in a way that leaves him very little room to maneuver.
The problems raised for Bush by the ISG report become immediately apparent from its Executive Summary. Starting with its opening sentence that destroys the idea that things are better in Iraq than they seem (“The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.”), it then urges scaling down military actions (“By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq.”), ramping up diplomacy with Syria and Iran (“Given the ability of Iran and Syria to influence events within Iraq and their interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq, the United States should try to engage them constructively.”) and ends by linking the whole Iraq problem to the Arab-Israeli stalemate (“The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability.”)
All these points have been raised before. But until the ISG report came out, these ideas were dismissed as the ranting of extremists and defeatists. But since the ISG consists of solid establishment greybeards, the position they advocated has suddenly shifted this position from the fringes to the center, and has drastically narrowed the range of rhetorical options available to the White House. It should be noted that the ISG report was not calling for the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq, providing further proof that the bipartisan goal is to have a permanent military presence in Iraq. So while the report can hardly be called radical, it still causes problems for the White House in several ways.
For example, the claim that things are great in Iraq but that the problem is that the media is not reporting the good news is no longer credible. The claim that things will get better soon is no longer believable. Just two months ago, when asked about how the US was doing in Iraq, Bush could assert that “absolutely, we’re winning” but this week his spokesman said that the White House is not going to answer that question anymore. The very next day, Bush answered the question anyway, implying that he approved of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace’s construction: “We’re not winning, we’re not losing.”
This last statement shows how desperate his rhetoric has become, essentially reduced to bluster. It makes him sound more and more like the Black Knight in the duel scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Black Knight, like Bush, is convinced of his own invulnerability saying: “I’m invincible. . .The Black Knight always triumphs.” Then after King Arthur chops off his arms and legs, leaving just his torso and attached head on the ground, the Black Knight says: “All right, we’ll call it a draw.” (See video of that scene here.)
Under pressure, White House has been forced to say that they will come up with a new plan. Originally this new plan was to be delivered in a speech by Bush before Christmas but now that deadline has been pushed into the new year because of the claim that his widely publicized ‘listening tour’ of various relevant government agencies at the Pentagon and State Department is taking longer than expected. It is curious that this business of listening is being portrayed by the White House as something to be applauded. Shouldn’t the president have been in constant discussions with these bodies all along about what to do about such an important matter as Iraq?
The fact that a president who boasts that he is ‘the decider’, who knows instinctively (and divinely?) what is right and wrong and what to do, who disdains policy wonkery, now proudly says that he is listening to all and sundry about what to do in Iraq suggests to me that this is just another stalling tactic until a new public relations program is put into place to buy yet more time. The problem is that it raises the expectations of the speech to unrealistic levels. After all these extended and high level discussions, Bush cannot go on TV and say that he has decided to not change anything. So any moment now we can begin to see an systematic effort to lower expectations, so that they can hope that even some minor changes in policy will be treated as if they were major moves.
At present, the ‘new thinking’ seems to be about how to find acceptable new wrapping for the same old policy. Even Donald Rumsfeld’s final memo on the war on November 6, 2006 dealt a lot with the problem of how to present the war to the public.
We have also heard about the choices between the “Go Big, Go Long, or Go Home” options proposed by a Pentagon study group.
“Go Big,” the first option, originally contemplated a large increase in U.S. troops in Iraq to try to break the cycle of sectarian and insurgent violence. . . That option has been all but rejected by the study group, which concluded that there are not enough troops in the U.S. military.
. . .
“Go Home,” the third option, calls for a swift withdrawal of U.S. troops. It was rejected by the Pentagon group as likely to push Iraq directly into a full-blown and bloody civil war.
. . .
The group has devised a hybrid plan that combines part of the first option with the second one — “Go Long” — and calls for cutting the U.S. combat presence in favor of a long-term expansion of the training and advisory efforts. Under this mixture of options, which is gaining favor inside the military, the U.S. presence in Iraq, currently about 140,000 troops, would be boosted by 20,000 to 30,000 for a short period, the officials said.
Perhaps test marketing of the clearly favored “Go Long” brand did not go well, because it has now been replaced by new buzzwords, the “surge” strategy, which looks a lot like “Go Long” but with a new name. Perhaps it was felt that the public, anxious to get out of Iraq, would balk at “Go Long” with its implication of a long-term commitment, but might buy “surge” with its suggestion of a quick rise and fall, a very brief engagement.
Those of us who lived through Vietnam have seen this before. General William Westmoreland kept asking for just a few more extra troops that would finally and quickly tilt the scales in that war. But once those troops went in, things did not get better, and yet they stayed. As a result of a repeated series of “surges” that flowed but never ebbed, the US ended up in 1968 with over half a million troops in Vietnam and still lost.
The dumping of Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary takes a little of the pressure off as people are usually willing to give a new person some time to figure out what is to be done. So that may buy about one Friedman Unit of time. Will the new Defense Secretary Robert Gates turn out to be another Clark Clifford (who replaced Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara in 1968) who came into office as an establishment war-hawk but then realized that the situation was hopeless and that it was time to pull the plug on that ill-fated war? Perhaps, but even if he does, Gates will have a tougher time pushing for de-escalation than Clifford had with Lyndon Johnson. Johnson had by then already realized that Vietnam was a lost cause that had doomed his presidency, so much so that he had decided to withdraw his name from contention for re-election in 1968. Bush, on the other hand, still seems to be convinced that as long as US troops are still in Iraq, that means the US (and hence him too) has not lost.
In the end, the only concrete result of the ISG report may have been to cause the White House to deep-six the phrase “stay the course.” What the White House is probably doing now is searching for a new name for marginal changes in the old policy that will conjure up ideas of change and progress while allowing them to tread water for four more Friedman Units to tide Bush over until he leaves office in January 2009.
I suspect that in January 2007 we will hear Bush give a speech in which he announces “A New Way Forward” or “A New Direction” that will involve a new strategy called “surge”. Or use other words if these words have become stale by then or don’t test well with the public. And the main idea will involve an increase in troops because once you have eliminated the options of withdrawal (because Bush thinks it is synonymous with defeat), and keeping things the same (which has become politically untenable after all the expectations that have been raised), the only option you have left to show that you are doing something new when you don’t have any new ideas is to raise the number of troops, even though this move is unlikely to change anything.
And war supporters will urge everyone to be patient and wait for the ‘new’ strategy to show results. The key question is how many more FUs the public will accept.
POST SCRIPT: The Blasphemy Challenge
The gospel of Mark (3:29) says that god will forgive anything except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The Rational Response Squad is offering a free copy of the DVD The God Who Wasn’t There, (which is a pretty good documentary by Brian Flemming on the lack of historical evidence for Jesus) to the first 1001 people who makes a video blaspheming the Holy Spirit and uploads it to their website.
It looks like they have a lot of takers who not only are not afraid of losing their immortal souls but seem to be having a lot of fun doing it. You can check out their videos.