Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Long Goodbye

Hi everyone, sorry I've been away so long. It was crunch time on the new manuscript and I barely had time to keep up with the news, let alone think and blog about it. But the book is done. I'm thrilled with it... and thrilled to be back to trying to get to the heart of the matter of things.

The big news today is President Bush's announcement that we will send an additional 20,000 troops to Iraq. In trying to figure out what this means, I've started with the following question:

If we had committed an additional 20,000 troops four years ago when we first went in -- when conditions were infinitely more favorable -- would the outcome have been substantially different?

I'm no military expert, but the answer to this one seems to be no. It's hard for me to imagine that the current debacle could have been avoided if only we'd sent in about ten percent more troops four years ago. It's even harder for me to imagine that the increase will turn things around today, when Iraq is in a civil war.

Yes, I know the troops are only being sent to Baghdad. But even if the small increase were sufficient to pacify Baghdad, I can't help but wonder: if control of Baghdad could lead to control over the whole country, why didn't we just focus on Baghdad to begin with? What am I missing?

So if the 20,000 increase is -- at least logically -- bound to be useless, why are we doing it?

Here I see three possibilities.

First, as I've discussed before, the architects of the war are intent on doing all they can to continue the war long enough to hand it off to the next administration, thereby saddling someone else with the responsibility of ending it -- and of being blamed for its outcome.

Second, the architects are trying to force the Democrats to cut funding, cap troop levels, or otherwise refuse to give the administration what it's asking for. If the Democrats don't accede to all the administration's requests, the administration's narrative will become, "We had a plan, and we were about to win by implementing it, but the Democrats prevented us, therefore the Democrats lost the war."

Third, by explicitly holding Iraqi Prime Minister accountable in the speech and articulating various benchmarks for measuring Iraqi progress, the administration can shift the onus of failure onto the Iraqi government when things continue to deteriorate. In other words, we simultaneously demonstrate that we are going the extra mile with the additional troops, while articulating the criteria by which we can blame Maliki when the extra mile proves too short.

Note that what these three possibilities have in common is the notion of blame-shifting. Note also that they're not mutually contradictory.

For a while, I thought the Republican establishment and the new Democratic legislature would come together to end our involvement before the 2008 presidential race begins in earnest. Now I wonder if I wasn't being naive.

Democrats will be reluctant to to anything decisive that Republicans could use to blame them for the war's outcome. Rather than taking a stand now that could cost them the White House, I think Democrats will instead do little, thereby keeping the blame for the war pinned squarely on the Republicans; capture the presidency; and deal with the mess at that point. Various Republicans will figure out what the Democrats are up to, and will react by further distancing themselves from the administration's decisions. This Republican dance might save some individual Republican seats in '08, but it won't do anything to end the war before then. So, in the vacuum created by Democratic cynicism and Republican fecklessness, the administration will continue to do pretty much what it wants until a new president takes office.

Maybe I'm being too cynical. Maybe the president really believes the 20,000 troops and other already-tried half-measures he outlined in his speech will make a difference. Maybe the Democrats will feel the call of conscience more strongly than the lure of expediency, and act accordingly. But if I had to bet, I know where I'd put my money.

You can't blame the politicians, at least not entirely. My sense is that American society isn't yet ready to face the magnitude of the Iraqi fiasco, or of our irredeemable losses there. What happens Iraq after we leave, particularly to anyone who might be viewed as having collaborated with us, will be appalling. Apparently, the only way we'll be able to face those horrors is if we suffer more beforehand. Then, when we pull out and the sectarian bloodletting begins in earnest, we'll be able to tell ourselves we did all we could to prevent it, we had no choice, it wasn't our fault, the outcome was beyond our control.

In other words: the function of our men and women who will continue to die and be maimed in Iraq is to create American losses severe enough to enable us to at last abandon our hopeless enterprise there. That's what the war is about now. And it's likely to run on for at least two more years.


Mindy Tarquini said...

I find your analysis chilling. And hopeless.

I disagree with this:

My sense is that American society isn't yet ready to face the magnitude of the Iraqi fiasco, or of our irredeemable losses there.

In the face of political maneuvers such as you outline, it doesn't matter what 'American Society' thinks. Nobody is listening to them.

Society is also a broad term. I think plenty of Americans want this ended, and said as much at the polls in November. The question is whether we'll draw strength from the knowledge we can make a difference and get on the horn to our senators and congressmen to remind them.

Good post, Barry. Thanks.

JA Konrath said...

I have nothing to add, but I really liked your use of the word "onus."

Heh heh. Onus.

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year! Congratulations on finishing the book; I can't wait until it comes out!

I like your blog, but I don't like the heart of this matter. Sometimes the truth is just too depressing.

It is interesting how it's worked out for Bush--one of the least smartest presidents off his leash. Scary.

I don't think it matters after what or when we failed. The truth is, we completely f-cked it up. If we can't improve the situation, we should get out.

ZenPupDog said...

Before the war started, I remember hatching some 'EVIL' James Bond villain plan to take down the Ba'athists ... and sadly those seem more realistic than the big new way forward from Mr. Bush's plan that seem more of the same quagmire that is stealing lives and maiming brave soldiers.

Maybe it's I'm a nasty minded individual who thinks if a 'rogue nation' wants nuclear weaponry - you give it to them until they change their minds. Publicly and with advance warning to allow any 'innocents' time to get clear, plant a gadget with a countdown in the capital city and tell them that 'unconditional surrender' is the only way to avoid detonation ...

PS The baby you saw at Westwood is now walking!

Anonymous said...

What is scary is my guy (Rudy Giuliani) saying he supports the troop increase … after hearing McCain is going to run on the same idea (except he wants even more troops, I had thought maybe he was stealing from his wife’s medicine cabinet), that kind of brainstorming has made my 2008 choice for President an easy one — Barack Obama. Fortunately, I still get to blame Slick Willy for everything, including my voting for Bush. Unfortunately, while the Republicans bail on Bush (for their own sake--nothing to do with national interest), the Democrats will do exactly as Barry says and let it all get worse to benefit their 2008 run for the white house (again, nothing to do with national interest). This fiasco suggests to me two things: there’s something to be said for both parliamentary government and/or dictatorships.

"The speech" this week was a despicable, face-saving, exit strategy that puts 21,000 more lives at risk (aside from those already there and the Iraqi people themselves) … it is as offensive as the idea/fact we’re protecting Muqtada al-Sadr for the “democratically elected" Prime Minister Nouri al-Malicki's sake.

I do hope we drop something on al-Sadr before we finally blame the Iraqis for not holding up their end and we limp away once and for all. I hope we get that one thing right at least. A nuke on Sadr (and his city) seems more than appropriate from where I sit, but we'll likely not go near him or it.

You were right, Barry. This was the worst foreign policy blunder in our history. It didn’t have to be, and shouldn’t have been, but it is.

While Clinton disgusted me, Bush has completely disappointed me. I can only hope Obama is half as intelligent as he sounds and/or 1/3 as productive as he is charistmatic.

Barry Eisler said...

MG and Joshua, good points on American society. Maybe a better way of putting my original point would be, the societal consensus for a pullout isn’t yet unequivocal enough. I’m just speculating, of course. But if: (i) politicians as a species are driven primarily by their desire to be reelected; (ii) most of them have keen noses; and (iii) the electorate were as convinced as, say, I am, that the least worst option now is an immediate pullout (subject of course to the requirements of safety of our troops), then the legislature would take action now to accomplish the pullout. In the absence of that immediate action, my guess is that the missing element is (iii). But there are a lot of variables and I could certainly be wrong (as in fact I hope I am).

Joe, always good to see you… ☺

Spyscribbler, many thanks and I hope you enjoy it!

ZPD and Charlie, it sounds like you guys are ready to start a new political party… ☺ ZPD, congratulations on the little one! Charlie, I agree that Bush is (among other things) a massive disappointment. In my unguarded moments, I use other words, but leaving aside the inflammatory, what defines this guy for me is the opportunities he’s had, the good he could have accomplished… and his actual record of disaster. It’s not just Iraq, BTW; how much good might those troops have accomplished in Afghanistan, which seems slowly to be slipping away? I'm afraid that, a year or two from now, it will be widely understood that we lost in Afghanistan because of the overwhelming distraction of Iraq. Interesting NYT article today, BTW:

I’ll try to post about something happier next time… but (in case you couldn’t tell!) I’ve got Iraq on the brain. I do think it’s the biggest foreign policy mistake in US history; it’s ongoing and worsening; and it produces so much of the kind of linguistic bullshit that fascinates me (long term surge, permanent surge, sustained spike, reinforcing success, catastrophic success are just a few that spring immediately to mind) that I can’t let it go.

BTW, in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, Edward Luttwak discusses one possible silver lining, along the lines I’ve argued before: when we finally do pull out, the wider war that the conventional wisdom fears will pit Sunnis and Shiites against each other and change the narrative of the war from Islam vs the West to Islam against itself (Andrew Sullivan also makes this argument, on The Daily Dish). In less enlightened times, pitting your enemies against each other was correctly known as divide and rule. In Bush’s case, Luttwak argues, the outcome will be an accident rather than a strategy, but the result will be the same.

Anonymous said...

I think the real discussion should be about the most important comment made in your blog post:

"You've finished the book!!!"

What's the title? When's it coming out, What's it about? Does it include the word "onus"?

Barry Eisler said...

LOL! Thanks, Todd... the new title is Requiem for an Assasssin, out at the end of May (exact date soon), no inclusion of onus, and as for what it's about... let's just say that Rain is up against his most dangerous enemy ever: himself...


Anonymous said...

You have made some very good points, very depressing and, unfortunately, most probably true. The blame game will continue in DC while our young men and women die for essentially nothing. bushco started this war for what? Oil? Revenge? to shut Hussain up on his dealings with bush 1 and reagan?

I fear for our future - in 6 short years bush has destroyed any shred of credibility this country had. I don't know if we can survive the next 2 :(