Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Serge in Iraq

I know, I know, it's not Serge in Iraq, it's Surge in Iraq. I spelled it that way to illustrate the power of words. Serge in Iraq sounds absurd, useless, suspiciously fay; Surge in Iraq sounds strong, manly, irresistible.

And that's part of the reason I don't like the idea. The word, which in the last week has cropped up everywhere in the media, is too easy to love. My sense is that, like the Vietnam era domino theory and the more recent examples of "ink spots" and "clear, hold, and build," the nomenclature does more to distract than it does to illuminate. Examined closely and thoughtfully, "surge" doesn't... well, it doesn't hold water.

A surge is a "sudden large increase, typically a brief one." Large? Where will the troops come from? The numbers most commonly discussed are in the 15 to 30,000 range. I'm not a military man, and have only common sense to apply here, but... if General Shinseki was right, and we needed at least 350,000 troops to secure Iraq almost four years ago when conditions were so much more favorable, I don't understand what an extra 15 to 30,000 that takes us up to about 150,000 is going to do now, when the situation is so much worse. As it stands, we can't even prevent saboteurs from cutting off Baghdad's electricity.

As for brevity, the talk is of six to eight months. Hard to see what can be accomplished in that timeframe, when in nearly four years conditions have become so dire. In any event, six to eight months doesn't sound like a long time for insurgents to wait for the surge to recede, after which we'll surely see surging insurgents.

Here's another concern: a surge is a zero sum game. A surge comes from somewhere, and wherever it comes from, there's an equivalent amount less there while the surge lasts. So where will the extra troops come from? We'll either extend deployments and shorten leave, which would put even more strain on the military, or we'll pull the troops from somewhere else, handing over more territory to insurgents in the process. Probably we'll do both.

Because surging in Baghdad means a vacuum in, say, the rest of Anbar province, the "surge" option would be more accurately labeled "pulling the goalie." AKA, a desperation move you try when time is almost out, you have no other options, and the game is otherwise certainly lost. Of course, "pulling the goalie" isn't as appealing a product name as "The Surge," and would therefore present a tougher sell to the public.

As I've argued before, Bush's goal now is to forestall further setbacks long enough to leave office without definitively losing Iraq. Whether the situation there will continue to deteriorate slowly enough, and whether the Republican establishment and the Democratic legislature will permit Bush to play it this way, is hard to say. At this point, all the possible outcomes are ghastly. My sense is that, like a defunct auto plant that is more expensive to close than to keep open, we won't make any real decisions on Iraq for quite some time, and not until things are dramatically worse there.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Only the Children?

It's holiday card time again, and again I've been struck by what seems to me a strange phenomenon. Most of the cards I receive from families include pictures only of the children, not of the parents.

I don't want to read too much into this practice, but... what does it mean? The parents don't matter? Only the children are important? Maybe the idea is that the children change rapidly from year to year, and so require a yearly photo to update the card's recipient, while the parents change relatively little. Or maybe it's the opposite -- the parents think they've changed too much, changes of which they'd rather not apprise their holiday card acquaintances.

A basic psychological test involves asking a child to draw a picture of herself, with no further instructions. The child's decision -- just the face? the whole body? is a family included? is there anything in the background? etc. -- reveals a lot about the way the child perceives herself. If the "children only" holiday cards test something similar, what do they reveal?

I don't think any of this is bad, by the way; I'm just trying to understand it.

Is the "only the children" approach purely an American phenomenon, or do other cultures do it this way, too? The holiday cards I receive from Japan tend to include photos of complete families, but the sample size is too small for me to be sure it means anything. I'm curious how holiday cards are done elsewhere.

Any other thoughts on the cultural origins and implications of the "only the children" approach? Am I alone in wondering?

Happy holidays,

Monday, December 11, 2006

Iraq Study Group: Success Through Failure

The first thing I noticed about the Iraq Study Group's report was the title of its policy prescriptions: The Way Forward. I couldn't help but smile when I saw it. "The way forward?" I thought. "Come on, what we're looking for is a way out!"

I know, I know, that makes me a "surrender monkey," too. Look, probably the heart of the matter here is that there are people who continue to believe Iraq is still salvageable, and that it is within US power to salvage it, on the one hand; and people -- like me -- who believe Iraq is past saving and that we therefore need to change our objectives to damage control. A shame the debate can't be conducted in a way that's respectful of the other side's motives -- except here on HOTM, of course... ;-)

Okay, substance. The meat of the report is in its diplomacy prescriptions: engage Iran and Syria and create something called the Iraq International Support Group, which would "include all countries that border
Iraq as well as other key countries in the region and the world."

My first reaction to all this was, are you kidding? Ain't gonna happen. Too many competing interests, too many countervailing motives. And even if you could put something like this together, what good would it do? Iran probably has some influence over various Iraqi Shiite factions, but the insurgency itself is still primarily Sunni. And even if Iran was restraining Iraqi Shiites from retaliating for Sunni provocations, it seems to have lost that capacity after the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra last February. And even if Iran had the continued capacity to tamp down Shiite violence in a material way, what could we offer the mullahs that would give them incentive to do so?

Now Syria. Suppose we really could "flip" Assad from the Iranian embrace and get him to back our goals in Iraq. How much impact would Syrian cooperation have? You'd have to believe that a significant amount of financial and material support for Iraqi violence is coming from Syria. That is, but for Syrian misbehavior, things in Iraq would be markedly better. I might be wrong, but that's not my read.

But wait, there's still more: The ISG also wants a reenergized Israeli/Palestinian peace process. At this point I was thinking, what do Israel and Palestine have to do with Sunnis and Shiites killing each other in Iraq? And if we can't get out of Iraq until the Israelis and Palestinians are at peace, we're going to be there for a very long time. I was tempted to dismiss the Report as a fantasy.

But then I looked at it on another level. And I think I see what the ISG is really up to.

My guess is, they're "enlarging the problem," as it's known in some policy circles. By engaging other countries on the solution for Iraq, we make them part of the problem of Iraq. Then, when the problem turns out to be unsolvable, we are no longer solely to blame. The narrative then becomes, "The whole middle east -- in the form of the Iraq International Support Group -- tried to fix Iraq, to no avail. It's not working, and we don't want to participate in this larger process anymore. So we're leaving -- not so much leaving Iraq, as leaving this useless regional forum. The failure was everyone's, and it's your problem now."

Remember, the Report also calls for substantial US troop reductions by 2008. Why 2008? Well, there's this presidential election then... and two years is about enough for all that aggressive regional diplomacy to prove itself useless so we can use it as cover to leave.

The ISG has also built in some solid CYA provisions. The Report's recommendations have to be enacted in toto, Baker and Hamilton have argued, otherwise none of it will work. They know no commission report in the history of the Republic has been accepted in toto, and that this one won't be, either. When Iraq disintegrates, therefore, they can say, "Not our fault. We told the president the only chance he had was if he adopted the whole report -- and he didn't."

Bottom line: Taken at face value, the Report's policy recommendations are useless -- practically irrelevant -- for quelling Iraqi violence. But quelling Iraqi violence was never what the ISG set out to do. Despite the silly "way forward" rhetoric, the real purpose of the ISG was to find us a way out -- and a year or two of the failed diplomacy it recommends has as good a chance of that as anything.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Iraq's Disintegration: What it Means

Well, tomorrow's the big day: the Baker Group issues its report on what we should do about Iraq. That the report has been so eagerly anticipated is a measure of the public's understanding of how bad the situation has become. The Bush administration has shown itself capable of managing almost nothing in Iraq; the hope now is that this bit of foreign policy outsourcing will help mitigate the disaster.

Ironies abound. The war was intended to put the fear of God into Iran and Syria; now, it seems, the Commission report will recommend that we seek their help in extricating ourselves. Want to take a guess at the Mullahs' price for cooperation? Stop interfering with Iran's quest for nukes. Translation: if we want the Mullahs' help in getting out of Iraq, we have to accept the nightmare scenario that was part of what brought us in.

I've been arguing since August 2005 that Iraq's disintegration is inevitable and that US policy should be to make the inevitable as least bad as possible. I get a decent amount of angry mail about this position, mostly of the "it's defeatists like you who will cause our defeat" type (the syntax is interesting; these letters won't acknowledge that the defeat is already an accomplished fact). I also get accused of being delighted at our defeat. That's absurd (although apparently comforting to people who like to level such accusations). In fact, I wish we could have relatively bloodlessly toppled Hussein and installed a democracy that would spread throughout the dysfunctional middle east. But it's not going to happen. I sound off about Iraq because I abhor denial, which has no survival value, and admire realism. And I believe the sooner the Bush administration accepts reality in Iraq, the fewer American families will lose sons and daughters there.

I don't understand why some people can't accept a foreign policy situation that has become unsalvageable. At an individual level, we don't have trouble with the notion of events that have moved beyond our control. We can understand the concept of inoperable cancer in an individual; what prevents us from recognizing the phenomenon in a country? Iraq is simply beyond saving now. The body is breaking down; further surgery won't save it, and might even hasten its demise. We need to shift our focus to pain management.

Last week, I asked if Iraq's further disintegration really is the disaster for the west that the conventional wisdom claims. The usual scenarios suggest that when Iraq disintegrates:

1) al Qaeda will establish bases there as it did in Taliban Afghanistan.
2) The Shiite south will become a vassal of Iran.
3) Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be drawn in on the side of the Sunnis, Iran on the side of the Shiites, and internal bloodshed will become a wider regional war. AKA, "instability in the middle east."
4) The price of oil would skyrocket.

Let's look at these one by one.

1) AQ will establish bases in Iraq as it did in Taliban Afghanistan.

Maybe, maybe not. I don't think anyone knows what things will be like on the ground as Iraq continues to break apart. But certainly the Sunnis -- and AQ is a Sunni organization -- will be under a lot of pressure from the Shiites. And certainly the US will maintain "over the horizon" quick reaction forces in Kurdistan and Kuwait capable of attacking AQ and anyone else as we deem appropriate.

2) The Shiite south will become a vassal of Iran.

I don't buy it. Once upon a time, this was the conventional wisdom about China and Vietnam, too: they're both communist, so Vietnam will do China's bidding. In fact, within four years of America's departure, Vietnam and China were at war again, as they had been intermittently for a thousand years. My bet is that, in ignoring the differences in Persian and Arab culture, history, language, and geopolitics, we are making the same mistake in Iraq. In other words, what unites Arab Shiites and Persian Shiites is America's presence. Deprived of a common enemy, they'll be inclined to fight each other. More on this in a moment.

3) Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be drawn in on the side of the Sunnis, Iran on the side of the Shiites, and internal bloodshed will become a wider regional war. AKA, "instability in the middle east."

Possibly. But is this so bad? Why do we insist on taking responsibility for all the middle east's problems? Why not let the neighbors have a go at sorting things out for a change?

There's a natural schism between the Sunnis and Shiites throughout the region and indeed the world. In many ways, America's presence in Iraq has helped both sides paper over their differences (witness popular Sunni Egyption support for Shiite Hezbollah, and Hezbollah's training of Sunni Hamas militants). If, after the US departs Iraq, the Sunni/Shiite feud there spreads to reignite regional sectarian animosity, I think we can live with that. I'd rather Sunnis and Shiites fighting each other than united against us.

That hoary foreign policy phrase "middle east instability" needs to be reexamined. It's been said too often, and now has all the clarifying freshness and insight of a mantra. The middle east is unstable and always has been. Outside powers haven't managed to stabilize it yet, and our latest efforts have coincided with a resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; the election of Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza; the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon; a Syria/Iran alliance; the Israeli/Hezbollah war; and a resurgent Iran on the threshold of becoming a nuclear power. I wonder if a laissez-faire would do worse. It would certainly cost less.

4) The price of oil would skyrocket.

Yes, with the remnants of Iraq's oil production taken off line, and possible disruptions elsewhere in the region, the price of oil would rise. Our economy might take a short term hit. I think that as a society we ought to be willing to endure this rather than continuing to send young Americans to be killed for no real gain.

But here's the beautiful part: the economy would adapt. Economies are like organisms, and grow stronger in response to graduated stress. Japan's multinationals, for example, had a tough time of it during the 90's when the yen was at an all time high against the dollar, but they adapted their tactics and actually became more competitive in the face of exchange rate stress.

I once owned a salt water aquarium, and learned that marine fish are among the most fragile organisms because they've never had to adapt to change. They've evolved in an environment of constant temperature, pH, and salinity. Alter any one of those variables even a little, and marine fish die because they've never had to adapt to change before.

The tragedy of US petropolicy is that its sole aim has been to maintain the constancy of the external environment, rather than focusing on how to increase the underlying organism's adaptability. As a result, our economy is as vulnerable to an oil shock as a marine fish is to sudden change in salinity. If we had any sense, we would manage a process of gradual change -- that is, a gradual increase in the price of oil through a carbon tax -- so the economy would learn to adapt, and grow stronger. A managed process would have been less painful than the inevitable course of events imposed from outside. But still, our economy will survive those events, and, after the initial pain of adjustment, will emerge stronger than it was before. Despite us, in other words, rather than because of.

What do we do? Accept the inevitable. Draw down to garrisons. Ride it out. The fall of Saigon was going to be the end of the world, too. But thirty years later, Vietnam is a capitalistic, albeit authoritarian, nation, on the brink of WTO entry and a bulwark against a resurgent China. We'll survive the current misadventure, too. The only question is, how much worse will we make things first. We'll have a better idea tomorrow, when we find out what the Baker commission recommends, and how the Bush administration reacts to it.

P.S. I guess I'm on a Monty Python kick... but the way Bush keeps talking about "finishing the job" in Iraq made me think of this scene from The Holy Grail...