Thursday, January 11, 2007

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The thing about credible commitment....

The masses ain't too thrilled with the surge option. This has little to do with the actual merits and demerits of the option. According to Mystery Pollster:

[T]he data above suggest that general assessments of President Bush- both among speech watchers and other Americans - are driving judgments about the troop surge. Since the majority of Americans are skeptical of Bush, they are also skeptical of this new proposal.
So what about the actual plan? Over at NRO, John Derbyshire confronts the paradoxes of the latest Bush plan on Iraq:
The central and most glaring contradiction is the implied threat to walk away... Yoked to the ringing declaration that, of course, we can't walk away. We seem to be saying to the Maliki govt.: "Hey, you guys better step up to your responsibilites, or else we're outa here." This, a few sentences after saying that we can't leave the place without a victory. So-o-o-o:

—-We can't leave Iraq without a victory.

—-Unless Maliki & Co. get their act together, we can't achieve victory.

—-If Maliki & Co. don't get their act together, we'll leave.

It's been a while since I studied classical logic, but it seems to me that this syllogism leaks like a sieve.

Tom Maguire offers a valiant attempt to bail out the syllogism:
However, it *may* be that Bush is simply greasing the skids for something resembling an "acceptable" US defeat. Increasing our troops shows our commitment and gives the lie to Osama and others who took from Vietnam, Beirut and Somalia that the US lacked the stomach for an extended fight.

However - if we "lose" because the Iraqis don't have the will to a fight, well, we didn't really lose, now did we? We're not the paper tiger, they are. Say it with me, say it a lot, and maybe someone will believe it.

Look, of course this is pretty thin, but let me throw it out there as a possibility - Bush's plan is meant to lead either to something resembling victory, or to a face-saving withdrawal.

Even Tom knows this is weak beer, but it's worth pointing out one empirical flaw in Maguire's reasoning: what Bush is proposing now is exactly what happened in Vietnam, Beirut and Somalia.

In each case:

1) The United States suffered a pivotal attack that altered their perception of the enemy (the Tet Offensive, the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, and the 1993 Black Hawk Down incident);

2) The American response at some point after the attack was a show of escalation, not de-escalation (Nixon/Kissinger escalation in Vietnam, naval and air bombardments in Lebanon, six-month force expansion in Somalia);

3) After this display of strength, the U.S. withdraws;

4) Despite the increase in forces and retaliatory attacks, everyone recognizes the withdrawal for what it was.

I see very little reason to go through this charade again.... but I'm willing to listen to commenters who disagree. To them, I must ask -- how with the surge option be anything other than a more grandiose version of the Clinton administration's response to the Somalia bombings?

[So you're saying that no matter what we do, our credibility is damaged for the future?--ed.] Not necessarily. In Calculating Credibiliy: How Leaders Assess Military Threats, Daryl Press argues that the past is not a significant factor when leaders assess the credibility of other states' actions.

posted by Dan on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM


I don't think you're asking the right question--or even a question that it makes a lot of sense to ask--because none of us can know if what is being proposed will work. Maybe the generals Bush is listening to for all this know; maybe they don't. But I doubt very much if any of us do.

The question is, is it in the interests of the U.S. to establish some kind of Iraq that (a) will not produce terrorists, (b) will not produce weapons for terrorists, (c) will pose no threat to its neighbors, (d) can defend itself from attack, (e) will insure domestic tranquility, and (f) will serve as an example for oppressed middle-easterners? If yes, then we have to let our leadership try to do it; if no, then what do we want to bring about?

posted by: JohnF on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM [permalink]

The only way it's different is if Petraeus's new role, the 150% increase in Baghdad forces the new troops represent, and the supposed new freedom to whack at the Mahdi Army changes the power equilibrium within the governing coalition. If that works somehow, the optimistic scenario is that the government becomes more credible as a pan-Iraq entity, thus enabling new and improved civil/military initiatives in Anbar to damp down the Sunni insurgency. This seems nothing like the Clinton hit-and-run stuff. The Vietnam analogy is just too far-fetched to fit this war into it.

Personally, I would have focused on minimizing Iranian and al Qaeda influence in Iraq and let the Shia/Sunni strife settle itself the hard way. But I could be wrong about that approach.

posted by: srp on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM [permalink]

The only way it's different is if Petraeus's new role, the 150% increase in Baghdad forces the new troops represent, and the supposed new freedom to whack at the Mahdi Army changes the power equilibrium within the governing coalition.

Ummmm.... Wasn't the dashing Creighton Abrams supposed to pull America's bacon out of the Vietnam fire, after that plodding bungler Westmoreland mucked everything up?

Anyway, I'll be glad to see the "credibility" phantasm laid to rest, if it ever is. Recently, some middling internet personality asked, apparently sincerely, how a defeat in Iraq might affect "the American psyche", and it's easy to imagine more prominent chin-strokers agonizing about this on the TeeVee talkfests. Worrying about these abstractions, and believing that people should kill and die for them, is a symptom of how neurotic and delusional our political life is.

posted by: sglover on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM [permalink]

I don't think it really matters one way or the other what we do in Iraq over the next year or so...our credibility is already shot as far as Asia goes.

We are no military threat to China, India and Russia.

Where credibility really matters in Asia these days, economic strength, we are beggers...

posted by: alphie on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM [permalink]

"After a display of strength, the U.S. withdraws"

A fairly rare cooked explanation of the meat involved in each one of these instances. Three relatively unrelated circumstances, three relatively unique responses, one common end result, then everyone but Mr. Drezner understands the withdrawal for what it was.

Interesting. Common, these days. But interesting.

posted by: RD on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM [permalink]

"Ummmm.... Wasn't the dashing Creighton Abrams supposed to pull America's bacon out of the Vietnam fire, after that plodding bungler Westmoreland mucked everything up?"

Yes and ironically as Abrams was generating success with this strategy, Nixon and Co. cut a deal with the N. Vietnamese. Still, we probably could have achieved a stalemate similar to Korea had not the Watergate Congress of 74 refuse defense funding for promised air support for S. Vietnam, signalling the North Vietnamese that it could steamroll into the South, causing a flood of refugees etc.

Bush, like him or not, is bucking the polled majority of Americans and that takes cajones, something Clinton lacked unfortunately. Bush might be wrong in the end but given the likely disastrous consequences of a pullout, it is probably worth the risk. Or is the Congress prepared to accept the consequences for rejecting the funding request? Doubtful

posted by: Jaybo on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM [permalink]

What, I wonder, would be the "pivotal attack that altered their perception of the enemy" in Iraq?

posted by: Nanonymous on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM [permalink]

Since the war began, Bush has had the ability to fight it without serious political opposition. He had license to conduct any strategy, change strategies as often as he liked, etc., within the material capacities of the U.S. And he and all those under him have failed to secure and hold Iraq. (Although I give them credit for toppling Saddam--the one good outcome I can see in this debacle.)

Since he has been tragically unsuccessful so far, why do we we think his new plan will work? The arguments I've seen have been about the plan--is this plan the right one? Can an infusion of 20K soldiers make the difference? But the real question is, can we trust the leadership we have not to screw it up? Here we have to judge based on past successes and conclude no. At least that is my conclusion.

My biggest worry is that in bolstering Iraq, we will shortchange Afghanistan when it seems to need us most.

posted by: RWB on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM [permalink]

You're assuming if this fails, Bush won't propose an even larger escalation?

posted by: Lord on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM [permalink]

I served in Iraq in 2004 in the Army Reserve, and agree that the situation is very bleak. It’s doubtful that a surge, in and of itself, will have much impact in the theater. And while people pay lip service to “we can’t afford to lose in Iraq”, I really don’t think the consequences of losing have fully registered with the American public.

What do we do if a phased withdrawal from Iraq it degenerates into a Cambodian-like genocide? Afghanistan in the 19990s? Bosnia-like blood bath? A civil war like Lebanon in the 1980s?

People who think the situation in Iraq is so bad should consider that it wouldn’t take much for it to be exponentially worse. The United States could be on the verge precipitating genocide – not by invading, but rather by invading, toppling an existing government, and not having the fortitude to stay until a new government could maintain security.

I will probably be heading back to Iraq in the fall, and am not really looking forward to it, but I wish people would stop making it sound like Passchedaele. It is a very challenging insurgency, but it will be much better for the U.S., Iraq, the region, and the world - much more humane, in the long run - if the U.S. resolves to win what will clearly be a protracted struggle in Iraq.

posted by: Mike Foley on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM [permalink]

Oddly many a Soviet officer thought the same way about Afghanistan.

Did not make it any more winnable for them, mate.

Iraq is in the full throws of what I call "Lebanese logic." Foreigners are not going to change that. Above all Americans with their impoverished understanding of the region, and lack of linguistic and cultural skills. You, simply, are toys for the factions.

posted by: The Lounsbury on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM [permalink]

Sometimes one has to let nature take its course. Does anyone think America would have been better off if foreign powers settled the our civil war for us?
Does anyone think any fewer would have died? Set in motion, events proceed by their own internal logic to their own inevitable end. Submerging animosities under the cloak of occupation merely delays it.

posted by: Lord on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM [permalink]

I'm inclined to agree with Lord and Lounsbury. The presence of US forces in a strategy of "mediation" is doing nothing but prolonging the inevitable. The social network necessary to build a cohesive Iraq simply doesn't exist. The middle/upper class is either dead, fled or unemployed and poor. A surge of 20,000 troops isn't going to make unemployed young men not join the Mahdi or Sunni insurgency.

posted by: subadei on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM [permalink]

A plan to surge as a show of strength followed by withdrawal won't decrease the credibility of our threats of force - we already invaded Iraq and the world certainly takes our threats under this administration seriously. Our crediblity has suffered more due to the lack of legitimacy of this war, and our inability to impose our will on other nations through military force alone.

A surge that produces temporary order in Iraq can provide the cover for a more orderly withdrawal. The further effect on credibility will be minimal. Unfortunately a more likely scenario under Bush/Cheney is the threat and use of force against Iran.

posted by: Tim on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM [permalink]

It seems clear to me that Bush cut and ran in Iraq two years ago when he first fired Jay Garner and then held elections to replace Paul Bremer as proconsul.

In both Germany and Japan the US carried out successful occupations because it stayed the course with a clear agenda, in each case the agenda being to carry through a conservative modernisation that had been derailed a decade earlier by the temptation of fascism.

In Iraq such a policy was possible. All that was required was a clear recognition that most of what Garner or Bremer was there to do was simply the continuation of Saddam Hussein's program, Ba'ath, or the creation of a reconstructed secular Arabism.

This apparently simple and obvious fact somehow eluded Washington. The neocons, who are all fairly bright though many of them quite nuts, missed it because they had far larger, and hence utterly silly, aims, stupid things like an entirely democratic whole Middle East. The rest of the crew seem to have missed it through simple incompetence.

It's worth remembering that non-neocon Republicans thought of Donald Rumsfeld, whom I have worked with back when he was a Congressman, as a shining light. He isn't. He's a not particularly intelligent poseur, and his validation as a business success rests upon one small accomplishment: he was hired by the board of a large pharmaceutical company to put a legitimate face on a decision they had already taken, to dispose of one of their divisions. Rumsfeld carried out this cosmetic task and took home a large paycheque for it, and hence was taken seriously by Republicans who chose not to look too closely.

So, rather than carry out the obvious task, occupy and rebuild, Bush and company chose something different. They carried out premature elections in an unreconstructed country, and then handed the mess they had created to the folks who had been elected.

What we are seeing now is the last stages of the cutting and running that started three years ago.

posted by: David Lloyd-Jones on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM [permalink]

Served in Iraq in 2003-2004. That was the time to surge. Now it's good money after bad.

The Iraqis have voted, all right. They voted with their feet and chose sectarian militias. Nothing we do is going to change that.

In the summer of 2003, we could have provided Iraqis with security; we could have provided them with reconstruction (or, more specifically, with follow-through on reconstruction -- what we did was check-the-box on a PowerPoint slide and move on); we could have patrolled/controlled the borders of Iran/Syria.

Had we had a true coalition, and not the "contributions" by El Salvador and some others (I knew those guys, very nice chaps the lot of them -- all 2 dozen), we might have been able to establish some kind of meaningful footprint.

But we didn't.

Germany in 1945 -- Eisenhower had, in the American sector (which wasn't even the total area of what would become West Germany), 16 soldiers per square mile.

Iraq in 2003 -- Bush had, in 7/8 of the country (less Basra governate), 0.75 soldiers per square mile.

You can't control terrain with that kind of body count.

That was the problem then, and it is the problem now, and escalating in Baghdad isn't going to change that. It's time for us to come to grips with the fact that we are largely irrelevant in the political dynamic there.

posted by: Hemlock for Gadflies on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM [permalink]

To them, I must ask -- how with the surge option be anything other than a more grandiose version of the Clinton administration's response to the Somalia bombings?

Well, in one sense it's a radically different situation than the others, because rather than the US supporting a weak government that will be defeated by a numerically stronger and more powerful foe when the US leaves, the US is currently now restraining the Shi'ite-led Iraqi governmen from cracking down on Sunnis (and only Sunnis) with much more force.

The inevitable consequence of US withdrawal will not be the current Iraqi government falling; rather, it will be the incorporation of Sadr's men into the Iraqi government, and a full-on crackdown on their former Sunni oppressors.

The Sunni insurgents and the Shi'ite militias may both be acting as enemies of the USA, but they're also strongly enemies of each other. US forces have sacrificed some ability to make alliance with the Shi'ites by trying to court the disaffected Sunni minority and stand up for equal treatment rather than revenge.

I can at least understand the Shi'ite militias; they understand that they have the numbers and will have a great deal of power once the US leaves. The Sunni insurgents much less so; they will lose once the US leaves, assuming that they don't draw Saudi Arabia into a wider war.

posted by: John Thacker on 01.11.07 at 06:58 PM [permalink]

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