Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Keeping it Simple

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

"It's Complicated"

How did Einstein put it? "Everything should be made as simple is possible, but not simpler."

It's a good thing he's no longer around. Everyone is hurling simple-minded stuff back and forth - if you question the efficacy of the escalation of the war you obviously want "to cut and run" and you don't support the troops and maybe you're a traitor.   You think maybe we may have to stay in Iraq for a long, long time, because that's the least dangerous of all the bad options, and then you're told you've been "drinking the cool-aid" and you're into the "Cult of Bush" and you just cannot think for yourself, and maybe you really are just a mindless follower, and a coward to boot.  None of that is very helpful.

It's never that simple.  And current events just get too damned complex at times.  You can reduce things only so far, before you begin to sound not just intolerant, but foolish.

Sunday, February 11, marks fifteen hundred days since the president stood under that Mission Accomplished banner on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego and say that, well, major combat operations were over. That turns out to have been true in only a very limited way - using a quite narrow definition of "major combat" - and everyone would be advised to forget that whole scene and just move on.  We have other problems to deal with.  On February 8 we learned that Iraq's number two health official had been arrested - accused of diverting resources to "sectarian kidnapping and murder." It's more complicated than anyone imagined - some of the good guys are bad guys.  And over at McClatchy Newspapers, Tom Lasseter is at it again - he reports on corruption and incompetence plaguing most of the Iraqi forces we're training up.  And over at the Christian Science Monitor there's an item on the new Iraq security plan - glitches of an alarming sort there.

And it was simple in the first place.  There was the new Pentagon report on the Office of Special Plans - Douglas Feith and his crew, in an alternative intelligence service thought up by Paul Wolfowitz and approved by the now-departed Rumsfeld, fed the White House what really was going on way back when.  They were the ones that convinced the White House the CIA and State and NSA and all the rest of the agencies were full of fools and cowards - Saddam Hussein really WAS working with al Qaeda and there really WERE weapons of mass destruction. It wasn't illegal, just dangerously misguided. On the other hand, Senator Jay Rockefeller is now raising the possibility that Feith may have violated the 1947 National Security Act by failing to keep congressional oversight committees informed of his office's activities.  Yipes.  It wasn't that simple after all. Nothing is simple.

And, just to complicate matters, there are now and then echoes of the thirties, as in the February 9 matter regarding Elie Wiesel -

    Nobel laureate and Holocaust scholar Elie Wiesel was dragged from an elevator and roughed up during a peace conference at a San Francisco hotel last week, police said Friday. The author was not injured.

    The assailant approached Wiesel in an elevator Feb. 1 at the Argent Hotel and requested an interview, police Sgt. Neville Gittens said.

    When Wiesel consented to talk in the hotel's lobby, the man insisted it be done in a hotel room and dragged the 78-year-old off the elevator on the sixth floor, Gittens said.

    The assailant fled after Wiesel began to scream, and Wiesel went to the lobby and called police.

    Gittens said police are investigating the incident as a crime. He said investigators were aware of a posting at an anti-Semitic Web site in which a man claimed responsibility for the attack, but declined to comment further.

Oh my. That might mean something, or not.   Are there still the far-right supremacist nuts out there, raging about what they call the people who run the western world - ZOG - the Zionist Occupation Government? The world is complex enough as it is.  Can't we just fight the bad guys in Iraq? One thing at a time, after all.

But even Defense Secretary Robert Gates is now saying it just isn't that simple in Iraq - as we seem to be fighting four wars there, not one.  Oh great.

Gates explains the four this way - "One is Shi'a on Shi'a, principally in the south; the second is sectarian conflict, principally in Baghdad, but not solely; third is the insurgency; and fourth is al Qaeda, and al Qaeda is attacking, at times, all of those targets."

And what is the mission that we're supposed to accomplish now? How do you even begin to decide what the best outcome is?

Enter Phillip Carter with some thoughts. He's an attorney and a former Army officer, and writes on legal and military affairs. He just returned from a year advising the Iraqi police in Baqubah - with the Army's 101st Airborne Division. He's been there.

Back in September 2006 he was already puzzled - How was it that we were making tangible progress in developing Iraq's security forces, government, and economy, yet the overall security situation was worsening?

And he now figures Gates is right. There really are four wars.  The question he poses now is how many of them can we win?

The basic problem -

    The multifaceted nature of these four wars has frustrated American strategy since 2003. Successes in one area produce setbacks in the others, with al-Qaeda hovering above the fray to spoil progress whenever it threatens to bring stability to Iraq, as they did by bombing the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in February 2006 after the successful Iraqi elections. Consequently, any strategies implementing the "counterinsurgency playbook," smart as those plans may be, will necessarily prove insufficient because we aren't just fighting an insurgency anymore.

So you have to think about it.

There's that Shi'a on Shi'a business principally in the south. This requires very delicate political maneuvering. Military action would "undermine the goal of building a legitimate and stable government for Iraq."  You don't roll in the tanks and roll up the male population.  That would make things much worse.

But then there is all the sectarian conflict, principally in Baghdad.  This requires a "massive imposition of force and control."  That would make things much better.

Then there's the insurgency, which obviously requires a traditional counterinsurgency approach.  There first thing you obviously do is training of indigenous troops - a core of those, willing to deal with the troublemakers, is key.  We get to step back and stop being targets of resentment, and real targets for bombs and bullets.  Hated occupiers can't fix things in this case, but as is reported again and again, our effort so far "has merely trained and equipped the partisans fighting Iraq's sectarian civil war."  We're arming and training both sides, or all sides, because we can't screen who joins up for the training, and the current Iraqi government won't, as everyone is jockeying for power and not tell us about it as they do.

Then there's al Qaeda - they play the role of spoiler anytime it looks like any one of the other three wars might be abating. That's not helpful.

Carter backs this up with detail -

    Gates' first war in the south is a classic internecine political struggle between Shiite factions seeking dominance over the south's oil-rich land and its religiously significant cities such as Najaf and Karbala.

    American politicians and generals have struggled mightily to control these tensions since 2003; Coalition Provisional Authority proconsul Paul Bremer spent enormous amounts of time juggling the interests and intrigues of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, rebel cleric Muqtada Sadr, and secular Shiite aspirants to power like Ayad Allawi and Ahmad Chalabi. Today, the problem is that Iraq is governed by a fragile Shiite coalition, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which relies on all kinds of Shiite groups for its power. Any efforts to stamp out the Shiite-on-Shiite conflict will inflame Maliki's base and possibly destroy his government. The same is true of efforts to neutralize Sadr and his Jaish al-Mahdi militia. Thus, stopping the first war would undermine the goal of building a legitimate and stable government for Iraq.

    The second war, the bloody sectarian conflict, is an even thornier question. The textbook approach for managing internal tension calls for a massive imposition of force and control, which is how Saddam kept order before his fall and how Tito controlled Yugoslavia. The United States has chosen not to do this, both because it lacks the troops in Iraq to impose order, and because it recognizes that such a police state would undermine its goals for creating a liberal democracy. So, the United States has opted instead for a lighter approach, seeking a "political" solution to the sectarian conflict that would bring together warring Shiite and Sunni factions. However, every attempt to reach out to Sunni militants is impeded by simultaneous U.S. efforts to crush the Sunni insurgency, and every attempt to rein in the Shiite militias threatens the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, so these political overtures invariably fail.

And you don't even want to know about the third and fourth wars. Go read it, if you wish.

It comes down to this -

    America has sacrificed more than 3,000 men and women, and $500 billion, to fight a war in Iraq that we have never fully understood. For nearly a year, senior administration officials refused to use the phrases "insurgency" or "guerilla war," only changing their rhetoric when their top general in the Middle East contradicted them publicly. Today, it is clear that Iraq has mutated into something more than just an insurgency or civil war, and it will take much more than cherry-picking counterinsurgency's "best practices" to win. Secretary Gates appears to be both intellectually honest and curious enough to find the right words to describe this war - these wars. Finding and executing the right strategies to fight them will be much tougher.

No kidding.  And Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly adds this -

    Phil doesn't say it, but the conclusion from this is pretty obvious: continued American engagement is futile. No matter what tactics we use, at best we can win only one of these battles - and only at the cost of making the others worse.

On the other hand, it is nice to know that someone in the administration takes what Einstein said to heart - "Everything should be made as simple is possible, but not simpler."

It's a start.  But one does wonder how Gates explains all this to the "keep it simple" incurious president. Perhaps Gates is a very patient man.


In Princeton, New Jersey, where he taught, the Einstein brick in the walk with bricks for all the famous alumni and faculty. George Bush went to Yale.

In Princeton, New Jersey, where he taught, the Einstein brick in the walk with bricks for all the famous alumni and faculty.

Photo - Just Above Sunset archives, from April 2005

A comment from Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis -

    It has been said over and over that Iraq and its three sorts of inhabitants cannot, and will not, co-exist. Even history says so. What then inspires the United States' attempt to reverse the basic facts of the matter?

    Piecemeal tactics aside, what strategy should the United States pursue, to achieve what goal? Not the dream goal, not the imaginary goal, but a goal compatible with United States' interests?

    What are, after all, the interests of the United States, in Iraq?

    "Sunday, February 11, marks fifteen hundred days since the president stood under that Mission Accomplished banner on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego..."

    After 1500 days, 3000 deaths, the wounded, the half-trillion dollars - for what exactly? Has it been worth it so far?

    How much further? To where?

    Sooner or later America is going to ask these questions.

This item posted - in its final version - February 11, 2007

[Keeping it Simple]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik