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July 3, 2005 - Failure Is an Option?

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Okay, you could compare this week's presidential address on what the real situation is now in Iraq - full text of the speech here - to Nixon's "Silent Majority" speech (here) back in the days of the Vietnam War.  Taking the lead from Digby at Hullabaloo we tried that here.  Both were exhortations to "stay the course" no matter how we got to where we are.  We cannot pull out.  That's no way to end this war.

The parallels are spooky.

But are they useful?  Perhaps not.

Although Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, commented –


NIXON: "But I want to end it in a way which will increase the chance that their younger brothers and their sons will not have to fight in some future Vietnam someplace in the world."

Did he?


No.  We may be there again, and in the commentary all over in the days following the speech comparisons to the Vietnam War were growing by leaps and bounds.

Be that as it may, others are just dumbfounded by now having to deal with a third rationale for why we in Iraq.  Just after the speech John Kerry on CNN's "Larry King Live" said we had just been offered such a "transformation" to this third reason for the war - "The first, of course, was weapons of mass destruction. The second was democracy, and now, tonight, it's to combat the hotbed of terrorism. But most Americans are aware that the hotbed of terrorism never existed in Iraq until we got there."

True, but is that relevant?  Perhaps through incredibly bad judgment, for reasons that will forever be obscure, we have created this new hotbed of terrorism, alienated almost all the nations of the world and made ourselves almost universally reviled (see this and this in the latest issue of Foreign Policy for detail and discussion), inspired the jihadists everywhere - with many pouring into Iraq now, and learning there to become far more efficient and effective, and others gleefully planning new attacks elsewhere - and have come close to stretching our military to the breaking point.

It's a bit of a mess.

As Kevin Drum puts it bluntly: "These guys still can't face the reality of what's happened to their lovely little war. They willfully ignored the advice of the uniformed military officers who had actual experience in fighting modern wars, and because of that they didn't know what they were getting into before the war, they didn't know what they were up against after the war, and they're apparently still clueless about what to expect in the future."

So what?  What do we do now?

BUSH: "To complete the mission, we will prevent al-Qaeda and other foreign terrorists from turning Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban - a safe haven from which they could launch attacks on America and our friends. And the best way to complete the mission is to help Iraqis build a free nation that can govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself."

A comment from a pro-war fellow here


The inference here is clear.  The U.S. intervention, and its ill-planned, under-manned, haphazard execution, has made Iraq more of a terrorist threat than it might otherwise have been.  I say "might," because an eventually unconstrained Saddam could well have become such a menace.  But the president here outlined the case of the war critics: that this war may have made matters worse; that Iraq could become another Taliban-Afghanistan; and that is now why we can't afford to lose. …


But he goes on to say that these are fights over the past, and the question is now what?


Bill Montgomery (Billmon) over at Whiskey Bar has an idea: Failure Is an Option

And why would that be?


The critical reaction to Bush's speech - I'm talking here about the "respectable" establishment critics, not the antiwar left and right - seems to revolve around three points:

- Bush falsely tried to connect Iraq to 9/11.

- He lied when he said we have enough troops in Iraq.

- Failure in Iraq is not an option.

Unfortunately, all three statements are wrong. (Actually the second one, the bit about not having enough troops, is correct but also completely irrelevant. We don't have any more troops to send, and Bush and his establishment critics both know this.)

It's true, of course, that Bush shamelessly waved the bloody shirt of 9/11 in hopes (probably vain) of recovering his war president mojo. And we can sit around and make stupid jobs about Bush and fat jokes about Karl Rove and dream of the day when we can spit on both their graves for what they have done. Why not? It's therapeutic.

But it doesn't change the fact that Bush has managed to make himself right at last: Iraq indeed has become the central front in the war against Al Qaeda (although the eastern front in Afghanistan is heating up quickly, and there's always the risk of a breakthrough on the Southern front - Saudia Arabia - or the Western front - the Maghrib and/or Europe.)

But saying that Iraq is now the central front in the war on terrorism is neither an argument nor a strategy. At the moment, it's pretty clear the Cheney administration and its pet military commanders don't have a strategy, other than to pin their hopes on a political process that is going nowhere slowly, and that in any case is extremely unlikely to break the insurgency's base of support - at least, not before it breaks the American volunteer army.


So Bush has managed to make himself right at last?  Seems so.

And there is much that follows on why more troops would not make a difference - our military has made itself enormously unpopular in Iraq: "It's hard to see how putting more jittery, haji-hating American soldiers on the streets of Iraq is going to help peel away the insurgency's 'soft support' or induce more Sunnis to cooperate with a government led by Shi'a fundamentalists."

Fine.  And he sees that, with or without more troops, "it seems inevitable that Iraq will continue to descend into chaos and (ultimately) something close to Hobbes's war of the all against the all - a condition which may already be near at hand."

The situation?  This staying-the-course business is likely to result in a completely failed state and the Pentagon is stuck with the worst of both worlds:


… trying to fight a counterinsurgency campaign with a ground force that is far too small to pacify the country, but far too big (and visible) to avoid acting as the insurgency's recruiting officers. Meanwhile, a hefty cut of whatever supplies or weapons are given to the Iraqi security forces are likely to end up in hostile hands - meaning the Army could wind up being the insurgency's quartermaster corps as well."

Can it be this bad?  Can't we just soldier on?



Under the circumstances, the mindless chants of "failure is not an option" are starting to sound like the desperate prayers of the terminally ill. Failure is always an option - particularly for morons who launch a war of choice under the impression that they can't possibly lose it.

Is the war hopelessly lost? I tend to think so, although I'm realistic enough to admit that I don't have all the facts, and couldn't interpret them all correctly even if I did. I know there are some military analysts whose opinions I respect who think the war is lost - analysts such as William S. Lind, who, for all his wing-nuttery on cultural and social issues, is one smart cookie when it comes to "Fourth Generation" warfare:

"There's nothing that you can do in Iraq today that will work," said Lind, one of the original Fourth Generation Warfare authors. "That situation is irretrievably lost."

Even if Lind is wrong, it would seem rational and wise to plan for the eventuality that he may be right. (I know, I know: When has the Cheney administration ever been rational and wise about anything? But somebody should be thinking about these things.)

What's the correct response, if the war in Iraq is indeed lost? It seems to me that planning would have to be done on the tactical, strategic and grand strategic levels.


And he provides an outline of how that would work.  And that is recommended reading, a detailed discussion of phased withdrawal options and realignments of alliances and priorities.

Likely?  Hardly.

And there is good reason –


... it would require us to admit that the traditional thrust of U.S. foreign policy - the relentless drive to open the globe to American trade, American capital, American ideas and American values - has left us facing some hard questions, like: How far is America willing to go to ensure the rest of the world adapts to its economic and cultural preferences?

And: How does America reconcile its stated aspirations for "democracy" and "freedom" with its more prosaic needs for cheap oil, cheap labor and pliable regimes willing to guarantee our access to those things?

And, most importantly: What do we do when we encounter cultures - or large groups within those cultures - that refuse to accept or even negotiate over the terms we are offering?

At this point, Americans aren't even willing to ask those questions, much less answer them.


So we muddle on.  And failure is an option.

The best summary of "The Speech to Explain Everything" is from Tom Tomorrow over at This Modern World.  That would be his Shorter George Bush: "We really screwed the pooch, and now you have no choice but to let us try to clean up the mess."


A note on whether we can change the "traditional thrust" of how we approach the world -

A reader's letter on the Andrew Sullivan site that strikes me as about right –


"It seems to me that so much of the political divide boils down to the issue of American exceptionalism. The dominant conservatives have blind faith in American exceptionalism (more and more fueled by religious faith) and have no reservations about the use of American power. The most vociferous liberals categorically reject American exceptionalism and any use of American power (internationally). Independents (as well as independent thinking liberals and conservatives) seem to be tolerating simultaneously seeing that America is great, we do have special role in the world, and that we are capable of intentional and unintentional bad acts. We therefore see the use of American power as sometimes appropriate but approach it cautiously. Too bad that, in the current climate, any politician capable of independent thought gets eviscerated and 'disciplined' by their own party."


As was said in these pages on June 22, 2003


If Canadians were like these guys - the conservative Republicans who have the helm down here now - they would be out to transform the world and put a Tim Horton franchise on every corner in every third-world country, and force people to watch endless curling events. And every single one of my pleasant Canadian friends would ask the same question. Why do that? What's the point? There is national pride, and then too there is pure foolishness.


Foolishness or not, we are where we are, still doing the Manifest Destiny thing.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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