Politics Must, Must, Must, Must Read
posted by January 20 at 12:03 PMon
New York Times war correspondent/political reporter Michael R. Gordon on the disjunction between political rhetoric and the actual strategy being pursued in Iraq:
The American officers I met were hardly of one mind on how to proceed in Iraq, but they were grappling with decisions on how to try to stabilize a traumatized country with a hard-headed sense that although there have been significant gains, a long and difficult job still lies ahead — a core assumption that has frequently been missing on the campaign trail.
The politicians, on the other hand, seemed more intent on addressing public impatience with an open-ended commitment in Iraq, either by promising prompt withdrawal (the Democrats) or by suggesting that victory may be near (the Republicans).
Anthony Cordesman, a military specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who regularly visits Iraq, put it this way: “You have to grade all the candidates between a D-minus and an F-plus. The Republicans are talking about this as if we have won and as if Iraq is the center of the war on terrorism, rather than Afghanistan and Pakistan and a host of movements in 50 other countries.
“The Democrats talk about this as if the only problem is to withdraw and the difference is over how quickly to do it.”
On the ground with the troops, it is clear that a major military change was in fact made in Iraq last year — not so much the addition of 30,000 troops, but the shift to a counterinsurgency strategy for using them. That strategy made the protection of Iraq’s population a paramount goal in an effort to drive a wedge between the people and the militants and to encourage Iraqis to provide intelligence that the American military forces need to track down an elusive foe.
But counterinsurgency is inherently a long-term proposition, and that assumption has driven much of the military thinking about the future, even as it heightens the political debate at home.
“Unless you are suppressing insurgents the way the Romans did — creating a desert and calling it peace — it typically can take the better part of a decade or more,” said Andrew Krepinevich, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“The paradox,” he added, “is that counterinsurgency requires convincing the Iraqis of our staying power. At the same time, the American people view success in terms of how quickly we can pull out.”
I haven’t seen it laid out like this before, but the difference in the way that Obama and Clinton (and, god forbid, troops-out-now Edwards) discuss the potential problems ahead in Iraq has had a huge influence on my preference for Obama, who’s at least willing to indicate that withdrawal won’t be all safe American troops and happy Iraqi children:
Senator Hillary Clinton has advocated that the United States rapidly draw down forces while retraining a residual force to fight terrorists, protect the Kurds, deter Iranian aggression and possibly support the Iraqi military. But it is striking that those assignments do not include the core mission of the counterinsurgency doctrine: protecting Iraqi civilians from sectarian violence, which she sees as involving American forces in a civil war.
She was asked in an interview to explain her thinking. “We would not be trying to insert ourselves in the middle between the various Shiite and Sunni factions,” she said last March in her Senate office. “This is an Iraqi problem — we cannot save the Iraqis from themselves.”
But that raises the question of whether American forces could really stay within the security of their bases if thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed outside the gates. It would probably not be long before the media and perhaps the troops themselves asked whether the nation that had taken the lid off Pandora’s box by invading Iraq had a responsibility to protect the defenseless.
Senator Barack Obama has pledged to withdraw combat forces, but perhaps not counterterrorism units or trainers, within 16 months of taking office. Mindful of the risk that such a wholesale withdrawal might lead to an escalation in sectarian killings, he has said that he would be prepared to send American troops back into Iraq as part of an international force to stop genocidal attacks. (That is hardly a far-fetched scenario; a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq issued in January 2007 by American intelligence agencies warned that the quick withdrawal of all American forces would probably lead to “massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement.”)
“It is conceivable that there comes a point where things descend into the mayhem that shocks the conscience and we say to ourselves, ‘This is not acceptable,’ ” he said in a November interview in his Chicago office. “We don’t know whether this is, in fact, a problem, but I acknowledge that you never know what could happen.”
But fighting their way back into Iraq in the middle of a raging civil war might well be far more difficult and dangerous for American forces than their current operations.
I don’t necessarily like any of the Democrats’ plans for getting out of Iraq, but the problem is tangled enough that I don’t think I can personally identify a better approach. I especially despise the line that Clinton is taking—“We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves”—as I wrote in a Slog post back in February. We created the power vacuum that sectarian interests rushed in to fill, and we can hardly go around blaming Iraqis for failing to instantaneously suture ages-old ethnic rifts that were—no matter what any D appeaser said at the time—creaking audibly under the surface of the Saddam Hussein regime.
I should also say that I appreciate Michael R. Gordon taking the Republicans to task, too. The word “victory” should never be pronounced with regard to the Iraq war. If it were ever possible, which I doubt, it isn’t possible now—because our enemies changed in the middle of the conflict, because we’re trying to protect most Iraqi civilians and trying to capture or kill others, because it’s technically an occupation now, and not a war at all.
As a country, and within the Democratic party, we need to be thinking about these things right now. Withdrawal wouldn’t draw the book to a close; it would merely end a chapter. The next one doesn’t look pretty.