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Reality Check.

The always compelling Dave Schuler is trying - again - to start a conversation on the future of Iraq. I think Dave would agree he's having limited success. Winds of Change is trying it, too, resulting in a lot of calls in comments to "nuke 'em all," and some more reasonable suggestions for "what we must do."

Almost everyone is talking policy. Seldom do people talk power. This may be where I disconnect. I tend to start from what can be done, not what should be done. We should be able to eat pie and not get fat. Alas, we can't. So there's not much point wishing, is there?

Several factors limit what we can do as opposed to what we should do.

1) We can't nuke 'em all and let God sort them out. Sorry, we can't: we're the good guys, remember? We're the Americans. So forget the armageddon fantasy.

2) We can't send in another 200,000 men and in effect re-invade Iraq. We don't have the men.

3) We don't even have the men for "keep on, keepin' on." The army isn't big enough. It was supposed to be supplemented by an Iraqi army under the direction of a competent, non-sectrian Iraqi government. Doesn't seem to be happening, and we don't seem to be able to convince the Iraqi government to try.

4) We can't re-institute the draft to grow the army much bigger because there is no one anywhere in politics today who could sell that to the American people. Imagine the speech where George W. (30% support) Bush announces that he's asking for authority to draft 200,000 men. Now imagine how many milliseconds it would take for the entire GOP to distance themselves from that proposal.

5) We can't tell the American people to shut up and be patient for ten years. There's an election a little over a year from now. 20 GOP senators will be defending. Half a dozen are potentially vulnerable. The entire GOP House contingent will be defending and many of them are vulnerable. A Democratic president backed by a Democratic Congress is simply not going to announce to the voters that we're staying in Iraq forever.

So every suggestion that we throw nukes, grow our force overnight, or simply "tell the American people" to sit tight and wait for ten years is politically, practically, ridiculous. The capability does not exist. The power -- whether hard or soft, military or political -- does not exist.

So, what can we do?

1) We can pretend we can still win with even fewer men. Because that worked so well the first time. This is the "kick the can down the road and try to pass the blame to the Democrats," option. I'm guessing this will be the Bush solution. (Tough luck, GOP Congressmen.)

2) We can talk about closing the borders and standing off in Kuwait and waiting to see whether civil war breaks out. Then we can watch the civil war. Maybe it won't be another Somalia. As for our ability to close the borders of Iraq, does the word Mexico ring any bells?

3) We can hope real hard. We can hope for a miracle that causes the Maliki government to set aside tribalism and reach a core set of agreements with the various factions. Yep, all we need is for the Shia and the Sunni, the Kurds and the Turkmen, the Iranians and the Saudis and the Turks to reach a deal, followed by a sudden outbreak of that well-known middle-eastern tolerance and competence and . . .

. . . and you see why I'm not optimistic?

The right's new line of attack is to demand that critics supply answers before criticizing. Because that's how you handle your doctor, your plumber, your auto mechanic and everyone else who fails you, right? You don't criticize unless you can prove you can do their job better?

Well, I have a counter: if you have a suggestion for how we can salvage Iraq, don't forget to include the means whereby your fantasy solution could come to pass. In the real world. You know, this real world.

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“Reality Check.”

  1. Blogger mw Says:

    Great post. All we can do now is deal with today's reality and face our very limited choices squarely. We are not able to provide a level of security that is adequate for any semblance of normal life in Baghdad. This state is not going to be acceptable to Iraqis indefinitely. We cannot stay there indefinitely. They live there, we don't. At some point they'll be there and we won't. The Iraqis, both friend and foe know this. Knowing this, they will and are positioned to reach for any security arrangement that will fill the gap we created, as well as try to further their sectarian ambitions for power.

    My best guess is the end state is a Moqtada al-Sadr led Iraq. I hate the idea, but he is wildly popular with the majority Shia, he has an army, and like any good politician he will promise whatever the Iraqi people want to hear. In this case - the promise is a semblance of security in an Iraq free of American occupiers. Make no mistake - that is exactly what a majority of Iraqi's want, and that is what al-Sadr is offering. I don't know if he can deliver. No one does. The Iraqi's don't know that he can deliver or how much blood will be shed in getting there from here. But they do know now that we cannot deliver a peaceful safe Baghdad for them.

    If this is right, and al-Sadr is the end-game, the only question is how and when we get there. At some point we will have to take the risk that things will not get appreciably worse when we leave. We could be wrong, but it is inevitable that we will have to take that risk at some point. It is only a question of when. If we had other, more competent leadership, we might be able manage a transition in Iraq with at least a facade of democracy in place and a minimum of additional bloodshed. With this administration, we are likely to see nothing but an objective of not letting al-Sadr take over on their watch, and pushing the problem over the horizon to the next administration, at enormous additional cost to our treasury, our military, our standing in the world, and an even greater cost to the Iraqi people.

  2. Blogger Hallq Says:

    You forgot "we can agree to protect the Kurds on the condition they behave themselves." Really, that would be better than nothing, even though it would mean risking another Somalia in the rest of the country.

  3. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    Damn. You're right. It was in an earlier version (I was calling it the 20% solution) which I rewrote and then didn't check carefully enough.

  4. Blogger Dave Schuler Says:

    “Limited success” would be a major improvement, Michael. I think that the positions have hardened on practically all sides into caricatures of sensible positions bordering on the insane.

    I can't even bring myself to participate in the conversation at WoC because so much of the commentary is so nuts. And WoC is one of the most reasonable sites in the blogosphere.

    I think it's an exaggeration to suggest that to increase the size of the military we need to institute a draft. What is most needed is to authorize an increase in the size of the military to its pre-1990's levels.

    I also think we need to start sub-prioritizing our priorities, distinguishing what's important from what's not important.

    This, by the way, is my biggest gripe against the Left Blogosphere. Viet Nam wasn't strategically important. Afghanistan isn't strategically important. Hard to say but true. Iraq is strategically important.

    I think that we need to maintain a substantial troop presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future, largely because there's no other way to secure American interests in the region. However, we also need to re-focus with a narrower definition of American interests than is currently the case. I have no idea how large “large” is. With a larger military and, probably, a smaller troop presence in Iraq we could maintain such a presence, essentially, forever from a logistical standpoint. The political standpoint is another matter and I've been kvetching about that since before the invasion.

    I have lots of other unpopular beliefs.

    For example, I think that the Congressional political leadership knows just as well as I do that withdrawal from Iraq is not an acceptable outcome (whatever their constituents may want) but they're secure in the knowledge that a) opposition to our presence in Iraq is working for them, politically and b) no matter how much they bitch we won't withdraw from Iraq before the 2008 election.

    The last thing our military wants is to have to fight its way out of Iraq the way the Soviets did in Afghanistan but that's what a near-term withdrawal would mean. I don't think that losses taken withdrawing from Iraq will do a lot to help Democratic presidential hopefuls.

  5. Blogger Dave Schuler Says:

    but he is wildly popular with the majority Shia

    An exaggeration. the non-Khomeinist Ali al-Sistani is more popular than al-Sadr is and IMO we have nothing whatever to fear from a non-Khomeinist Shi'a-dominated Iraqi government. Sunni Arabs in Iraq feel otherwise, of course.

    The Shi'a in Iraq do not speak with a single voice. IMO the greatest likelihood for bona fide civil war in Iraq is Shi'a-on-Shi'a fighting in the south which, in turn, would be likely to invite direct military intervention by the Iranians.

  6. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    I think it's an exaggeration to suggest that to increase the size of the military we need to institute a draft. What is most needed is to authorize an increase in the size of the military to its pre-1990's levels.

    I used to argue the same thing. And you may be right. But I'm looking at the likelihood of increased deployment times, noting the lowering of recruitment standards, and the metastisizing unpopularity of this war, and I'm not convinced we can pull off a major up-sizing now without a draft.

    On the other hand, retention is good - though I expect it to decline.

    I don't want a draft because I think the job of being a soldier has become much more akin to a profession, requiring a professional's level of committment. I think on the plus side a draft would slow the rush into war, but on the downside I expect it would increase casualty rates.

    I agree with everything you just said about Vietnam, disagree in part on Afghanistan, and agree that we do still have major stakes in the ME and Iraq in particular.

    My question is whether you think it is politically possible to shift from a stance of "we're going to stay until victory," to a stance of, "look, we need to be able to continue Al Qaeda and keep the oil flowing."

    The best chance of keeping a significant presence in Iraq lies, I think, with an unliklely person: Hillary Clinton. I don't think voters are going to send a Republican to the White House unless he can distance himself from the Bush positions. Voters won't elect Bush Redux. Whereas a democrat might have a chance to make the case for continuing (much lower level) engagement.

  7. Blogger Dave Schuler Says:

    My question is whether you think it is politically possible to shift from a stance of "we're going to stay until victory," to a stance of, "look, we need to be able to continue Al Qaeda and keep the oil flowing."
    This is what I've been complaining about for some time as the need to unsell what they've been selling.

    I think that the Democrats are treading a very, very narrow and dangerous line. I can't decide whether it's heedless or contemptuous but I continue to suspect they're going to find pretexts to do something quite different from what many Democratic activists want. Reminds me a little of Nixon's secret plan to end the war in Viet Nam.

  8. Blogger Dave Schuler Says:

    BTW, on the subject of Iraqi Kurdistan. I've been trying to dig up solid info i.e. from people who actually have studied the history and politics and speak the language and have been finding it quite difficult.

    I think we would do well to consider the Iraqi Kurds more skeptically. While the popular American narrative is that Iraqi Kurdistan is a burgeoning democracy it may be otherwise. Consider this: the “democratically-elected” Iraqi Kurd leaders are hereditary tribal chiefs. The “political parties” are actually tribes.

    Do they actually have the ability to restrain their fellows from terrorist behavior in Turkey and Iran? It would be nice to know the answer to that question before putting our metaphoric eggs in that particular basket.

  9. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    I am starting to have the same unsettling sense that we've been too facile about the Kurds. What bothers me is the apparent disconnect between the picture of them as rational actors, fully in charge of their country, and the fact that they've been unwilling or unable to stop the PKK.

    I get the same feeling when we talk about the Anbar Sunnis. That situation has Taliban The Sequel written all over it. The enemy of my enemy is only my friend as long as we have an enemy. If the tribes finish off Al Qaeda I suspect they'll wait all of five minutes before turning on us.

    It occurs to me that it is suspicious in the extreme that the Anbar Sunnis became helpful only after it became clear that we were most likely leaving sooner rather than later. If I'm a tribal leader jealous of my power I'd think, "Let's get the Americans to help us kill off these foreign jihadis before they go home. That leaves us in power, and well-armed to boot."

  10. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    As for Congress, that situation is so poisonous I'm surprised they're behaving as well as they are. I've said before that after 6 years of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, a democrat has to be a fool or a saint to do anything at all to make life easier for Mr. Bush.

    I'm a Democrat, I've been arguing for years now that we needed to win, we needed to get rid of Rumsfeld and his Easy Bake war doctrine, that we needed a bigger military, that we needed to put a lot more pressure on the Iraqi government, yada yada yada, ad infinitum till I'm sick of myself. And what I've gotten from Republicans is accusations of weakness, stupidity and treason.

    The left wing of the Democratic party was always opposed, but moderate Dems like me have been dumped on just as much by the GOP. There's a point at which you throw up your hands and say "fuck 'em, they made the mess, let them fix it."

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