Tuesday, August 22, 2006

President Bush on the path of least resistance in Iraq

This President is inclined to take the path of least resistance in terms of policy in Iraq. This means refusing to acknowledge the reality on the ground in Iraq today and doing little or nothing differently as increasing numbers of people die. It may sound odd to describe a war policy as passive but that is exactly what this one is – we have committed just enough troops and resources to avoid defeat (for the time being) or victory. In other words, we are not in control of events -- events are slowly taking control of us

At President Bush’s press conference yesterday, Mr. Bush defended the current Iraq policy. (David Corn does an excellent job dissecting his press conference here.) He said we will stay in Iraq as long as he is President as if that alone guarantees some sort of success. The problem is the sectarian violence is spiraling out of control and Mr. Bush refuses to see this as civil war. The President said, “I hear a lot about ‘civil war’… [But] the Iraqis want a unified country. … Twelve million Iraqis voted. … It's an indication about the desire for people to live in a free society.” But according to Fred Kaplan in Slate,

What he misses is that those 12 million Iraqis had sharply divided views of
what a free society meant. Shiites voted for a unified country led by Shiites,
Sunnis voted for a unified country led by Sunnis, and Kurds voted for their own
separate country. Almost nobody voted for a free society in any Western sense of
the term. (The secular parties did very poorly.)

However, conceding there may still be some (but not much) room left for disagreement about where a civil war exists or not, the President not only does not seem to grasp we have a failing strategy to secure unity and democracy but seems to think of the goal as the strategy. Kaplan continues,

Asked if it might be time for a new strategy in Iraq, given the unceasing
rise in casualties and chaos, Bush replied, "The strategy is to help the Iraqi
people achieve their objectives and dreams, which is a democratic society.
That's the strategy. … Either you say, 'It's important we stay there and get it
done,' or we leave. We're not leaving, so long as I'm the president."

…"helping Iraqis achieve a democratic society" may be a strategic
objective, but it's not a strategy—any more than "ending poverty" or "going to
the moon" is a strategy.

Strategy involves how to achieve one's objectives—or, as the great British strategist B.H. Liddell Hart put it, "the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy." These are the issues that Bush refuses to address publicly—what means and resources are to be applied, in what way, at what risk, and to what end, in pursuing his policy. Instead, he reduces everything to two options: "Cut and run" or, "Stay the course." It's as if there's nothing in between, no alternative way of applying military means. Could it be that he doesn't grasp the distinction between an "objective" and a "strategy," and so doesn't see that there might be alternatives? Might our situation be that grim?
Kaplan raises a key problem in this debate and that is narrowing of options. We seem to be faced with a choice of either staying the course of babysitting this deteriorating situation in Iraq or simply abandoning the country leaving the population to fester in this worsening mess. We have a responsibility to make the best of this situation but the Bush administration has no strategy and no policy beyond empty rhetoric. In the meantime, American soldiers and a lot of Iraqis are dying. There needs to be discussion beyond the two options presented by this administration.

One writer exploring other options (cited here, here and here previously) is former ambassador Peter Galbraith. He sees the situation as too far gone – especially considering this administration’s unwillingness to commit even more resources to the country -- for a united Iraq to work. He argues it is time to consider working with the reality of the three spheres already operating separately in Iraq. He writes in the New York Daily News,
Yesterday, President Bush told reporters that, though he is "concerned"
about talk of civil war in Iraq, "We're not going to leave before the mission is
complete" - meaning, until a stable and unified Iraq can defend itself.

But it is time for the administration to face an uncomfortable
reality: There is no longer any such thing as a single nation called Iraq. In
the north, Kurdistan has its own government, army and flag, and it does not
allow the Iraqi flag or army on its territory. The Shiite south is ruled by
religious parties and militias. The Sunni Arab center is a battleground between
Sunni insurgents and the U.S. military operating in alliance with mostly Shiite
Iraqi troops. In Baghdad, Al Qaeda offshoots dominate many of the Sunni
neighborhoods in the city's west while the pro-Hezbollah Mahdi Army controls the Shiite east.

Iraq's supposed "government of national unity" is not very united,
and governs almost nothing.


So the real question is not "How do we hold Iraq together?" but
"What would it take to put it back together?"

At a minimum, the U.S. would have to disarm the Shiite militias and
end the Sunni-Shiite civil war. Disarming the militias means taking on
well-armed fighters supported by Iran. To end the civil war, U.S. troops would
have to become Baghdad's police force. These missions would require many more
troops than we have in Iraq today and would lead to greater U.S. casualties.

But even if we could put Iraq together, is that a worthy goal?
Iraq's Kurds have created a Western-oriented aspiring democracy in the north.
What U.S. interest is served by forcing them to live in an Iraq that is
theocratic and allied with Iran? And if Iraq's Shiites want their own state, as
apparently they do, why should we commit our military to stopping them?

Iraq is already partitioned. The question now is whether America
should pay a higher price in blood and treasure to reassemble a country that a
sizable proportion of its people do not want.

Whether or not Galbraith is on the right track or not at least he is raising reasonable alternatives to a failed policy neither the White House nor many of its critics are doing. We need more discussion like this and we need it quickly – people are being dying.

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