Monday, March 19, 2007

Iraq: The fourth anniversary

U.S. involvement in the conflict in Iraq now surpasses the time the U.S. fought in World War II. The initial victory toppling the tyranny of the Baathist regime has eventually been overshadowed by the incompetence of the occupation, the failure to recognize the breakdown in the country, and the failure to act in a timely manner to correct course. Unemployment of approximately one-third of the population and the absence of security forced people to turn to the private militias of religious zealots for protection.

A poll by the BBC/ ABC/ USA Today of Iraqi citizens reveals a loss of the optimism many held in the early days following the downfall of Saddam Hussein. Thirty-nine percent of Iraqis said things are good in their lives now compared to seventy-one percent who responded affirmatively to the same question in 2005. Those who expect things to be better for their country is now forty percent as opposed to sixty-nine percent two years ago. The poll also revealed a polarization in opinions between Shia and Sunni Arabs with the former being somewhat optimistic.

(Northern Iraq – Kurdistan – is the exception to what is going on in the rest of the country. It is relatively peaceful in large part because it has become a state within a state by keeping central and southern Iraq at arms length. Michael Totten has an interesting report here.)

The repercussion of the war for the United States is great. According to the Washington Post, the drain of the Iraqi conflict is leaving the U.S. military seriously weakened with no strategic reserve of troops or equipment to respond to a major crisis elsewhere in the world. And, of course, there is the matter of the war in Afghanistan that this administration seems to have forgotten or simply doesn’t care about.

Today, the President gave a pep talk marking the anniversary of the war in Iraq. He warned of hard days ahead. After years of denial about the social and political breakdown in the country resulting in sectarian violence, the administration came up with a plan – the “surge” – as an attempt to preserve the status quo through use of the military. This administration, of course, uses the military as a one-size-fits-all solution to any problem. Aggressive diplomacy with Iraq’s neighbors as well as with the warring parties within Iraq is out of the question. Calling for international assistance to help quell the violence is out of the question. Recognizing the reality of the divisions of Iraq and urging reorganization (i.e., some degree of a partition) is out of the question.

Fred Kaplan sums up the President’s speech in Slate:
"Success will take months, not days or weeks," he said—the exact reverse of Vice President Dick Cheney's insouciant assurance on March 16, 2003, three days before the invasion, that the war would be over in "weeks rather than months."

In the meantime, Bush said, "there will be good days and there will be bad days"—the exact same words he used in a campaign speech in Pennsylvania on Oct. 7, 2004.

"Today the world is rid of Saddam Hussein"—that was the lead of the speech. A great bit of news indeed, but, much like the events in Iraq itself, the speech went downhill from there.

Imagine that President Harry S. Truman had not put into motion the Marshall Plan, the Bretton Woods Agreement, NATO, and the various other institutions that propped up Western freedom in the destructive wake of World War II—and that, on the fourth anniversary of V-E Day, the greatest boast he could make was: "Today the world is rid of Adolf Hitler." It would have been a great boast, but beside the point as Paris and Rome collapsed amid poverty, despair, and subversion.

So it is with George W. Bush, whose failure to repair postwar Iraq is particularly disgraceful, since this war was launched at his initiative, not as a response to aggression.

In his speech today, President Bush warned, "If American forces were to step back from Baghdad before it is secure, a contagion of violence could spill out across the entire country" and possibly "engulf the region."

He's right, but it's clear the U.S. Army can't block this contagion all alone—not in Baghdad or the rest of Iraq, much less across the Middle East. The surge falls far short of the required troop levels, as calculated in Gen. David Petraeus' own manual on counterinsurgency. And, given the supply shortages, maintenance backlogs, and overextended troop rotations, it's unclear that even this surge can be sustained through the end of the year.

So, what is President Bush's plan for outreach? Where is his initiative for regional security? If Maliki can go talk to the tribal elders of Ramadi, when will Bush go meet with the leaders of Iran and Syria?

The fourth anniversary of the invasion presented an opportunity for reassessment and bold moves. Instead, it was used as yet another midmorning prayer call for unearned patience and trust.

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