23 August 2005

More on Iraq.

As I have said before, I believe that the United States has a moral responsibility to ensure the reconstruction of Iraq. I think that this means that we need to keep troops there; others, including the gentleman who commented on the earlier post, believe that reconstruction cannot take place until after we withdraw. It is possible that this is correct, but even if it is, I don't think we could withdraw until arrangements have been made for someone else to take our place. I'm not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

In the meantime, I do firmly believe that we need to keep troops in Iraq. I also believe that we should have more troops in Afghanistan than we do now, and that we should be doing more to help Afghanistan build a functional and secure nation. That being the case, I guess I can be considered to be a "supporter" of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I certainly support the troops - with a number of family members on active duty, that's pretty much a given.

But as far as the recent AP/IPSOs poll is concerned, I am definitely not in the increasingly small group of people who support the way that the president has been handling the war. Even if I accept, for the sake of argument, that he got us into this thing with the best of intentions, the best I can say is that this thing has been one massive chain of mistakes from the start to the present. The painful fact is that although Bush was once a believer in the importance of a good exit strategy to the success of a military operation, the only exit strategy that we had for this thing - "they'll shower us with flowers and candy and then we'll all go home for the victory parades" - fell through pretty fast.

Since the exit strategy fell through, American casualties have mounted. At this point, more than 90% of American deaths have occurred since the president's ill-advised carrier landing. Nearly 90% of American deaths have occurred since the president took the unprecedentedly stupid step of inviting the insurgents to, "bring it on". More than three quarters of the fatalities have taken place since Saddam was captured. About one-half of one percent of the fatalities have occurred since the president's speech about the war on Monday. And there is no end in sight.

Bush has not done anything in this time that gives me any confidence that he really has anything that looks like a strategy for this conflict, and he's done little to show that he comprehends that some of the problems might actually be his responsibility. He's kept Rumsfeld on, and promoted Rice and Wolfowitz. The closest that he's come to articulating an exit strategy lately is the new, "as the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down," mantra. There's not a whole lot of detail there, and it's kind of hard to figure out what that will mean. As I type this, I'm looking at a group of troops from various services standing at attention waiting for the president to arrive to start a speech. The president is expected to take this opportunity to tell them that their sacrifices are not in vain, before returning to his extended vacation. I certainly hope that the sacrifices are not in vain, but I really don't know what the reason for them is anymore.

Both of the major groups - Bush & the Bushites and the Disorganized Dems - seem to have grasped the fact that the poll numbers indicate that there are lots of people out there who are not real happy about the way things are going in Iraq. Bush has responded, as he almost always does, with a simple, consistent message: "Stay The Course, Stay The Course, Stay the Course". The Democrats, as is too often the case, have not been able to put together a united position on this issue. More and more, however, prominent Democrats are heard discussing the need for a firm timetable, with dates, for American troops to leave Iraq.

Both messages are wrong.

Iraq, at the moment, is a nation with a population that is split into three major groups (Sunni, Shia, and Kurd). There are an enormous number of current and historical differences and disputes between and within these groups, but they are being asked to work together to forge a new nation. Into this situation, we inject the extra tensions caused by the occupation, add a security situation that allows these groups to address their disputes in very direct ways, and top the whole thing off with an assortment of terrorist groups and foreign fighters. This is not a simple situation, and it does not lend itself to the kind of resolution what you can present as a simple message. If you want to get the American people to support the situation, be honest. Admit errors. Explain the problems that exist right now. Outline the ways that you think you can address the problems, and detail the situation that you would like to see before you start to withdraw troops.

On the other side, recognize that this is a complex situation, and a situation that is not in any way, shape, or form stable. Situations that lack stability require flexible plans to solve. Fixed timetables for pullout do not give much flexibility. Here, too, we need to decide on goals and objectives. Dates don't do much more for the situation than tell the people you are fighting how long they need to hold out. A firm timetable with pullout dates may play well with people who know that they really dislike the war, but it sets unrealistic expectations. If you don't like the way that the administration is handling things, say so. If you think that we should remove our troops now, say so, but also explain why you think this is in the interests of both Iraq and the US. But if you think we should start pulling troops out at some point in the future, you need to explain why having a date to remove troops is more reasonable than having criteria that are based on conditions on the ground.

Right now, we are stuck in a situation that is a massive mess. Getting out of this mess at all is going to be very difficult. Getting out of this mess while still managing to retain any respect in the rest of the world seems to be virtually impossible. If we are to pull off either, we need our politicians to react intelligently to the situation in all of its complexity, instead of just exhibiting simplistic Pavlovian responses to the various polls that come out. We need them to acknowledge the complexities rather than playing for the sound bite. I hope that at least some of them, from either party, will rise to the challenge.

But I'm not optimistic.
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