Sunday, November 25, 2007

Pottery Barn Rule: Iraq's isn't the only government the war has broken.

For their current cover story Mother Jones Magazine has invited 50 experts from generals to antiwar activists to comment on questions of when and how to exit Iraq. The results are interesting largely because there is no clear consensus. The people asked had opinions ranging from 'get out now' to 'we can never leave'. Predictions about what would happen when we exited ranged from 'they'll work it out somehow' to 'apocalypse now'. What is clear, however, is that there are no clear answers. Anyone looking for an easy out or an easy solution is looking for something that just doesn't exist. For anyone paying attention the reason should be self-evident. It may be the case that if we 'broke it' we 'bought it', but is also the case that we broke it. That is, actions have consequences. The fact that the Bush administration launched this ill-advised and illegal war and the fact that they handled it sold poorly over the past five years simply can't be undone by a few thousand extra troops or any period of time or any amount of money.

But it's just as wrong to imagine that withdrawing all the troops immediately will have the salutary effects that staying the course hasn't. It simply isn't true that merely doing the opposite of what's failing will succeed. Yes, of course, it is the case with the continued American occupation is in itself fueling the insurgency. But to go from that to saying that withdrawing all troops immediately will remove the only impetus for the conflicts within Iraq relies on new less simple a model of Iraq and then the 'they hate us for our freedoms' analysis or the idea that the Iraqis will naturally strive towards something like American-style democracy if only we given the breathing space to do so. However damaging the hopes for the future of the Iraqi people that the sense of being occupied by a foreign occupier may be having, other dynamics have been released by the fall of Saddam Hussein that have nothing whatsoever to do with America or the occupation. Simply put, there is no way to simply put the dynamics at play in Iraq today or to easily say what the best way to withdraw is or what will likely happen in any of those scenarios.

This hasn't stopped any of our politicians on either side of the aisle from falling into the same familiar traps and lazy intellectual shorthand that has characterized what passes for debate over our Iraq policy from its misbegotten inception. Witness this morning the performance of John McCain on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos. I counted about three times, but there may have been more, than McCain repeated what is sure to be the new Republican talking point. "Six months ago the Democrats were saying the surge could not work militarily." McCain didn't name the these miscreant Democrats. And I'm not sure exactly who was saying that it wasn't possible for the military to establish some greater amount of security in Iraq. To my knowledge, most of the critics of The Surge™ acknowledged that, with enough people, enough time, enough violence, enough force and enough money, some measure of greater security could be achieved in Iraq. But then what? The argument for the beginning has been not that the military couldn't succeed in military objectives, but rather that there isn't a military solution to the complex set of problems facing the Iraqi people today. Even the President acknowledged when he introduced The Surge™ that increased security was merely the precondition for the real work that needed to be done in Iraq. That work is political and social and economic in nature. And it's exactly that work that has never been attempted by the current administration.

This is not, however, stop John McCain from using 'progress' on the military front to launch a new round of right-wing triumphalism and launch a new round of partisan attacks against the Democrats. For their own part, the Democrats demonstrated their continued tone deafness to the launching of right-wing talking points in the form of a lackluster performance by New Mexico Governor and presidential candidate Bill Richardson. Richardson demonstrated once again why it is, despite being one of the most antiwar of the presidential candidates, that his campaign just can't seem to catch fire. Rather than picking up on and directly challenging McCain's assertion that the Democrats predicted that the surge could not possibly succeed militarily and turning the table on McCain by pointing out how wrong he was in supporting the war in the first place, Richardson played into McCain's framing. This allowed the talking heads in the following segment to repeat the charge that the Democrats just don't seem to be able to welcome good news in Iraq.

To be fair, the box of the Democrats find themselves in is not entirely of their own creation. The American people are of two minds when it comes to getting out of Iraq. They want out. But at the same time they also don't want to lose. In fact, they want out because of their sense that we are currently losing. This opens the door for someone to come along to promise a plausible path to victory. Not that the America people aren't skeptical at this moment about such promises, but we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that they aren't persuadable. When it comes to withdrawing, they do want to start bringing our troops home sooner rather than later. But they want to do so in an orderly fashion. In 2006 they elected a Congress with a mandate to do the one thing that Congress can't do, and that is the planned, phased withdrawal coupled with an internationalizing of the peacekeeping operations in Iraq. Congress is the left with very few bows in their quiver. This is not the least the case because of the power grab of the Bush administration over the past six years. It turns out that those Checks and Balances that those whiny liberals have been bellyaching about actually matter. And now that they've eroded Congress has considerably less power to do the things that the American people now find they want them to. It also turns out that ending a war is a lot more difficult than starting one. Which is another point that those whiny liberals tried to make before we started it.

So it seems likely that we will continue our occupation of Iraq more or less at its present level, minus the drawdown that was part of the plan for The Surge™ from the very start. The Bush administration simply is not equipped to do anything differently. If by some miracle the common sense faerie sprinkled wisdom and insight over 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, the Bush administration also doesn't possess the political capital to pull off the thing the American people would like them to. In Iraq and internationally the Bushies are spent. And the one thing that Congress can do to start to bring the troops home, which is to cut off funding, is the one thing the American people don't want them to do. Just like in Iraq, actions have consequences and dynamics have been unleashed that can't be easily and done. Just like in Iraq, our current political situation does not allow for the easy answers that partisans on both sides seem to think are available to them.

Yes, Iraq is broken. But so too is the American political system. And sadly, nothing short of regime change will be able to fix that.

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