CNN covers the basics – the economy may be deteriorating, and most people feeling both panicked and helplessly depressed, but in the race for the White House, or whatever you want to call it, the two frontrunners, McCain and Obama, are running on what to do about Iraq. Most Republicans support the war and so far have voted for McCain. Democrats strongly oppose the war, and Hilary Clinton voted to authorize it in the first place, so Obama seems to have the better judgment, famously saying he doesn’t oppose all wars, just dumb wars, and he has the lead.
McCain, who thought the surge was a fine idea, and maybe would have committed even more troops, now says, “I think that clearly my fortunes have a lot to do with what’s happening in Iraq.” They do. He says we’re winning, and doesn’t mind if we’re there for a hundred more years. Americans don’t back down. We do what we said we’d do. Things will work out in Iraq.
Obama repeatedly says, “I intend to bring [the war in Iraq] to an end so that we can actually start going after al Qaeda in Afghanistan and in the hills of Pakistan like we should have been doing in the first place.” McCain warned that was a dumb idea – “If we left Iraq, there’s no doubt that al Qaeda would then gain control of Iraq and then pose a threat to the United States of America.”
CNN says the polling shows that McCain wins on this issue.
As Andrew Sullivan notes here, “McCain insists on not revisiting the decision to invade and occupy Iraq.” McCain suggests that’s pointless, so instead, Sullivan comments – “He wants a debate solely on the surge. I can understand why; but I doubt it will work.”
Matthew Yglesias disagrees:
I’m by no means sure it will fail. A certain notion of can-do pragmatism is deep in American political culture, and that kind of forget the problems of the past let’s roll up our sleeves and talk about what’s working now attitude has a certain appeal. But it shouldn’t work. And the reason it shouldn’t work is that a given military strategy doesn’t just “succeed” or “fail” in a vacuum, it needs to be understood in some kind of strategic context. If you understand the war as a giant mistake which created a large problem that’s now in need of a solution, that creates one set of ideas about what counts as a solution. If you understand the war as an opening salvo in a campaign to use the US military to remake the Persian Gulf, then working becomes a very different matter.
That said, the politics of the war will depend, crucially, on the actual situation.
So the surge proponents think things will get better and better, eventually, and the skeptics wonder if that’s even the point. Everything depends on defining the problem you’re trying to solve. The two sides could not be further apart – one side shouting “The surge is working!” Violence is way down, the bad guys are on the run, and we’re not taking casualties much these days. The other side is muttering, “No, we achieved a hard-won temporary calm that has led to nothing at all, strategically.” In that view Iraq is no closer to being a real country of any kind than it ever was, and now we have to stay there in full force just to maintain this shadowy, twilight waiting room, a place that’s not total chaos now, but not order yet, a sort of dangerous no particular place at all, that may never be what we wanted.
But what if things are hopeless on both counts – the surge will eventually not work, and there’s no hope for a local government, much less a nation, to ever emerge?
That’s what Fred Kaplan argues in Welcome to the Quagmire – with the subhead “The next president may be stuck with more problems in Iraq than Bush ever faced.”
The contention is that things are now so bad that Obama or Clinton, for all their vows that they would end the thing, cannot, and McCain just doesn’t understand what he’s committed himself to.
Kaplan points to three items floating about on Thursday, February 28, which indicate just how grim things are.
There was this from the New York Times, but reported everywhere – Iraq’s three-man presidential council vetoed a law that called for provincial elections in October. Mike McConnell, our director of national intelligence, called the veto “somewhat of a setback.” Kaplan says that’s “an understatement of staggering proportion.” Anyone can see why:
When the parliament passed that law two months ago, Bush and his supporters – including Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain – heralded the vote as a major sign of reconciliation among Iraq’s sectarian factions and thus a vindication of the surge. The point of the surge, as Gen. Petraeus and others have said, was to create enough security in Baghdad that Iraq’s political leaders could get their act together. The vote suggested some accommodation might be in the offing. The veto dashes those hopes.
And the New York Times reports that this veto will be hard to reverse. There still is a serious power struggle not only between Sunnis and Shiites, but also among the various Shiite parties, and Kaplan notes how discouraging that is:
Unless the veto is somehow reversed, its effects may unravel the tenuous alignments that have helped to reduce the mayhem and casualties these last few months. On one level, the veto might spur Muqtada Sadr, the powerful Shiite militia leader, to suspend his six-month moratorium on violence. It is widely believed that Sadr called this moratorium in order to pursue power through political means. Now that this route has been blocked, he may resort to his earlier methods. (The Times reports that the Sadrists “were furious at the veto.”) On another level, it is bound to infuriate Sunni groups, who had hoped that provincial elections would boost their political power in Ninevah and Diyala, which are fairly calm today but have been scenes of riotous violence in the recent past.
If so, the surge fails. McCain can hope, but this veto is something he hasn’t mentioned. He cannot.
The second item was in the Washington Post – the volunteer forces of the “Sunni Awakening” – the tribal militias in Anbar, Diyala, and other provinces that have formed alliances of convenience with us to defeat al-Qaida jihadists – are backing away from the arrangements:
As the Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan and Amit Paley report, the Sunnis are increasingly frustrated by the Iraqi government’s refusal to recognize their political clout – especially reneging on its promise to let more than a handful of their militias into the national army and police – and by what they see as the U.S. commanders’ insufficient advocacy on the Sunnis’ behalf.
In fact, the Post item notes this:
Since Feb. 8, thousands of fighters in restive Diyala province have left their posts in order to pressure the government and its American backers to replace the province’s Shiite police chief. On Wednesday, their leaders warned that they would disband completely if their demands were not met. In Babil province, south of Baghdad, fighters have refused to man their checkpoints after U.S. soldiers killed several comrades in mid-February in circumstances that remain in dispute.
These are the tribesmen fought alongside al Qaeda and then decided to fight with us, but that seems to be falling apart. One Sunni commander in Diyala is quoted as saying this – “Now there is no cooperation with the Americans. … We have stopped fighting [against] al-Qaida.”
This is not good. As Kaplan puts it:
And so the biggest success of the U.S. operation in Iraq – which was always a gamble, one very much worth taking but not very likely to endure beyond its tactical aims – may be teetering on the verge of collapse before even those tactical aims (the defeat of al-Qaida in Iraq) are achieved.
So, grand strategy aside, the specific tactics no longer work. That’s two strikes, or as Kaplan says:
First, Iraq’s sectarian factions are nowhere near reconciliation. The point of the surge was to create enough “breathing space” to allow for such a political goal. If the goal isn’t reached by July – that is, within the 15-month span that was always, inexorably, the duration of the surge – then, in strategic terms, the surge will not have succeeded.
Second, there are many reasons for the reduction in violence and casualties these last few months. The surge and, still more, Gen. Petraeus’ counterinsurgency tactics are among them. So are Sadr’s cease-fire and the Sunni Awakening – neither of which has much to do with the surge, one of which (the Awakening) was initiated by the Sunnis before the surge was even announced. And now, both Sadr’s cease-fire and the Awakening are imperiled.
Now what? That question leads to the third news item, the New York Times reporting that the commander of all forces in the Middle East, Admiral Fallon, thinks there should be a “pause” in troop withdrawals from Iraq after the last of the surge troops depart this July – but that this pause should be brief and that the withdrawals should resume soon after. That seems a tacit admission that things are falling apart, and we’d better try to keep a lid on those things, see what happens, then think about letting some of our folks go home, if possible. He says the pause in the withdrawals should be short. That may be PR.
Kaplan says this is nothing new:
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called for such a pause in December after returning from a trip to Baghdad. Before the trip, Gates had been talking about continuing the drawdown of troops from today’s 20 combat brigades to the 15 that would remain after the surge brigades go back home in July and to 10 by the end of the year. He changed his tune after Gen. Petraeus told him that he might not be able to keep securing the Iraqi people with such a small force. Hence the “pause.”
But Kaplan is fascinated by Fallon saying that the pause should be brief, just long enough to allow “all the dust to settle.” That’s new:
Do Fallon’s remarks reflect the views of the Bush administration or of Secretary Gates? Certainly there is, and has long been, a tension between the institutional Army and some of the commanders in the field over this very question. The former has always been skeptical about extending the war in Iraq. Senior officers are concerned that the lengthy and repeated tours of duty, especially the toll it has taken on the retention of junior officers and the recruitment of new enlistees, might break the Army. The latter brush aside those concerns and focus on what they need to accomplish their combat missions. Gates has found himself straddling this tension – very concerned about the health of the Army but also worried about the chances of failure in Iraq.
Fallon is in the middle of this, and, if he really wants a very short pause in the draw-down – and it’s not just PR – he seems to be on the side of saving the military before it’s ruined and giving up on the grand strategy – a unified, secular, pro-western, free-market, democratic Iraq, one that welcomes our permanent bases, recognizes Israel, and sells us lots of oil, and one where everyone gets along, no matter what they think of theological matters from the seventh or eighth century. If you scale back the military mission you can forget all that – that would take even more than the one hundred years McCain proposes for our keep-the-lid-on occupation.
Back home, if Fallon gets his way and the pause in the draw-down is short, Clinton or Obama can proceed with the careful withdrawal each proposes. The big decision will have already been made. If Fallon is just blowing smoke, talking about troops coming home because that is what he has been told to do in an election year, then all bets are off. Clinton or Obama will have to decide matters. One assumes McCain would pour in even more troops, and keep tours at fifteen months, no matter what warnings he gets from the generals – but it doesn’t seem he’ll get the big strategic win, that New Iraq, in his lifetime, or ours.
Kaplan – “The way things are going, the next president, whatever his or her preferences, may be stuck with more severe problems than Bush ever was – and will almost certainly have to make decisions that are harder.”
All this is rather depressing, but the odd thing is that Kaplan never mentions George Bush. It’s as if Fallon and Gates and Petraeus are running the show, working things out on their own, with no commander-in-chief being, well, the commander-in-chief, deciding things. Perhaps, but for Cheney, it was always so. That’s the most depressing bit of slap-in-the-face reality. That Kaplan doesn’t feel he even needs to point this out, that it’s a given, speaks volumes, as they say. One day those volumes will be written. For now we need to work out a few things, on our own.
It’s okay. The concept was wrong from the beginning.
You see, once there was a CIA officer named Marc Sageman. He collected data on more than five hundred Islamic terrorists; the idea was to understand who they are, why they attack, and how to stop them. Then he retired. Then he wrote a book, Leaderless Jihad: Terrorist Networks in the Twenty-First Century. David Ignatius summarizes the book in the Washington Post on Thursday, February 28:
The heart of Sageman’s message is that we have been scaring ourselves into exaggerating the terrorism threat – and then by our unwise actions in Iraq making the problem worse. He attacks head-on the central thesis of the Bush administration, echoed increasingly by Republican presidential candidate John McCain, that, as McCain’s Web site puts it, the United States is facing “a dangerous, relentless enemy in the War against Islamic Extremists” spawned by al-Qaeda.
Yeah, yeah – sometimes skepticism is okay:
The numbers say otherwise, Sageman insists. The first wave of al-Qaeda leaders, who joined Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, is down to a few dozen people on the run in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. The second wave of terrorists, who trained in al-Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan during the 1990s, has also been devastated, with about 100 hiding out on the Pakistani frontier. These people are genuinely dangerous, says Sageman, and they must be captured or killed. But they do not pose an existential threat to America, much less a “clash of civilizations.”
It’s the third wave of terrorism that is growing, but what is it? By Sageman’s account, it’s a leaderless hodgepodge of thousands of what he calls “terrorist wannabes.” Unlike the first two waves, whose members were well educated and intensely religious, the new jihadists are a weird species of the Internet culture. Outraged by video images of Americans killing Muslims in Iraq, they gather in password-protected chat rooms and dare each other to take action. Like young people across time and religious boundaries, they are bored and looking for thrills.
You know where that leads:
Sageman’s harshest judgment is that the United States is making the terrorism problem worse by its actions in Iraq. “Since 2003, the war in Iraq has without question fueled the process of radicalization worldwide, including the U.S. The data are crystal clear,” he writes. We have taken a fire that would otherwise burn itself out and poured gasoline on it.
McCain with his can of gasoline, and Obama and Clinton being worried, and being called cowards, traitors and quitters. What a world. Sometimes hope seems pointless.