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

Reagan's Folly

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

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

Reagan's Folly - Stuck in Holiday Traffic

Wednesday, November 22 - the day before Thanksgiving - and everyone was on the road. It was a day to stay home - just south of the airport (LAX) a truck full of nasty chemicals overturned and they closed the southbound 405, so if you thought about heading down past Long Beach into Orange County or even down to San Diego, you had to think about some other way to get there. Nothing was moving and there were those guys in the HAZMAT suits - just another disaster on the world's busiest freeway, just by the giant airport, as the largest crowd of the year was trying to get somewhere else. Wait… it seems the 101 freeway just over the hill in the San Fernando Valley is, officially, the world's business freeway. It's hard to keep it straight. They all look alike when its three hours after midnight and the six lanes each way are at a dead stop and twenty thousand cars are idling quietly. And disaster is a disaster. They happen all the time.

And traffic disasters are minor stuff. You'll get there eventually, wherever "there" happens to be. It's the rest of life that's the problem.

Ronald Reagan, of all people, got it right back in 1982 - "If history teaches anything, it teaches self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts is folly."

And that's where we are these days.

Some of it is minor, as in this story from central New York, an evangelical student burns down an Episcopalian church. They had their theology wrong -

    Cleveland said Lussier confessed to robbing the Christ Church and setting fire to both houses of worship. He also allegedly admitted to sending threatening letters to three churches in his hometown. He was charged with two felony counts of third-degree burglary and a count of third-degree arson, a felony.

    "He didn't think they were following the Bible the way they thought they should," Cleveland said. "He holds to the principle, but he said he went about it in the wrong way."

Well, before he torched the buildings he did gather all the Bibles, bagged them carefully, and made sure they didn't go up in flames. Burning those would be wrong, of course. No word on the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. This should make for an interesting case when the fellow comes to trial. His defense - he had to stop a pernicious misreading of what Jesus really meant - will sound a lot like what is said these days in Iraq. Sarasota is hardly Baghdad, but the idea is the same. There the mosques get blown up - and people too - because the other side just didn't get their theology straight. Of course it's more than that - the history of who had been on top and did nasty things plays a part, as does family and tribe. But it's not that much different.

The scale is different. There things are far more grim -

    The number of Iraqi civilians killed in sectarian violence last month has reached a new high of more than 3,700, a report for the United Nations said today. Despite the Iraqi Government's commitment to address human rights abuses, the influence of armed militia is growing, and torture continues to be rampant in the country, the report by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) said.

    The civilian death toll for October was 3,709 - the highest to date - according to the UN figures. The report also said that more than two million have fled their homes since the US invasion to escape the rising sectarian violence. "Hundreds of bodies continued to appear in different parts of Baghdad handcuffed, blindfolded and bearing signs of torture and execution-style killing," the report said. "Many witnesses reported that perpetrators wear militia attire and even police or army uniforms."

And we are under this self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts - things are not getting better, and we are not bring peace and democracy and other goodies to these folks. Those who can leave are getting out, fast. Those who stay keep a low profile and hope for the best, as friend and family die left and right.

But we will fix things. But Andrew Sullivan suggests we probably can't -

    Tragically, the "government" we have instituted cannot meaningfully represent all Iraqis, because the sectarian divisions, deeply exacerbated by the anarchy of the last three years, have become too deep. The government forces themselves - police and military - are increasingly indistinguishable from sectarian militia forces. The Maliki faction is indistinguishable from the Sadr militia. We do not even know at this point which Iraqi faction is capable of delivering order, or where. Which Shiites have actual control of the streets in the South? Which Sunnis can deliver stability in Anbar? Torture and murder have become endemic. We can retrain as many Iraq soldiers and policemen as we want, but it's no use if we are merely training them to be more skillful in a civil war. That's our fundamental dilemma.

    We have only one lever over Iran and Syria - and it is - paradoxically - the chaos we have unleashed. Those regimes do not want to see Iraq completely disintegrate. So a policy of drawing down troops, redeploying to Kurdistan, and waiting to see who emerges from the hideous process of ethnic cleansing and civil war is just about the only option we have left. Iran and Syria will have to ensure that a regional conflagration doesn't tear their entire neighbor apart. That is both a blessing for them - how profoundly they would have loathed a democratic Iraq - but also a curse. It means that both neighbors have to worry about instability spreading from outside to within. This is the silver lining of the Iraq failure. And it is a very slim one.

Did Reagan say something about folly?

If self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts is folly, wasn't it just last month that the president said that he was "trying to figure out a matrix that says things are getting better" in Iraq. It was matter of framing things - a PR problem. Now it's these 3,709 dead folks. Framing that in a way that says thing are getting better is a bit of a challenge.

Tim Grieve gives it a go -

    That's the highest number of civilian casualties in any month of the war so far, and it's a staggering number when you consider that Iraq's population is less than one-tenth that of the United States'. If the death toll were equalized for population, it would be as if more than 42,000 U.S. civilians had been killed in the war last month.

    An Iraqi government spokesman told the Associated Press that the U.N. number was "inaccurate and exaggerated" because "it is not based on official government reports." Pressed to explain what an "official government report" would show, the spokesman said that one is "not available yet, but it will be published later."

    If the president still needs a matrix or a metric or whatever, perhaps he could spend Thanksgiving simply reading the list of ways that Iraqis are dying in his war now. "Hundreds of bodies continued to appear in different areas of Baghdad handcuffed, blindfolded and bearing signs of torture and execution-style killing," the U.N. report says. "Many witnesses reported that perpetrators wear militia attire and even police or army uniforms." Sectarian violence is the primary killer, but the AP says Iraqis "also continue to be the victims of terrorist acts, roadside bombs, drive-by shootings, cross fire between rival gangs or between police and insurgents, kidnappings, military operations, crime and police abuse."

    One more metric for the president: In a poll taken in September, 61 percent of Iraqis said they support attacks on U.S. troops. Seventy-one percent want U.S. forces out of their country within a year, and more than half of those want them gone within the next six months.

Could we say they're just a little grumpy, and they'll get over it? That may not fly.

The same day gave us this - "A car bomb exploded inside the government Green Zone on Tuesday in an apparent attempt to kill Iraq's controversial speaker of parliament …"

The Green Zone in Baghdad, behind the walls, where the government works and we have our top folks, is the safest place there. Oops. This is a first. And it's ominous.

And this will take some careful framing - "BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) - More than 140 bodies have been found dumped across Baghdad over the past three days, police said Wednesday. Police said 52 bullet-riddled bodies were found Wednesday, with 20 of them blindfolded, tied up and possibly tortured."

That may be a record. And this is not like being stuck on the LA freeways. Wherever we thought we were going, we're not going to get to that particular there. Maybe there will be a miracle change in something that fixes everything, but that seems unlikely. As the most popular way of putting things goes these days, you can look for that pretty pony, but there's no pony hidden deep in that steaming pile of horseshit.

And the attempt to keep that hope for a pretty pony alive gets harder all the time, as Associated Press reports in this item. The president does hear these sorts of things - his audiences are carefully vetted - but his father was in quite friendly Abu Dhabi, where he feels quite at home, giving a pleasant speech on his family's accomplishments, when a woman rose from the audience to say this - "We do not respect your son. We do not respect what he's doing all over the world."

If the AP is to be believed, the president's father seemed "stunned" when the audience, full of young business leaders, "whooped and whistled in approval."

His voice was "quivering." He gave this reply - "This son is not going to back away. He's not going to change his view because some poll says this or some poll says that, or some heartfelt comments from the lady who feels deeply in her heart about something. You can't be president of the United States and conduct yourself if you're going to cut and run. This is going to work out in Iraq. I understand the anxiety. It's not easy."

Something is up. He wouldn't say he would handle the situation in Iraq differently than his son had. That was a trap, but he gave a hint - "I have strong opinions on a lot of these things. But the reason I can't voice them is, if I did what you ask me to do - tell you what advice I give my son - that would then be flashed all over the world ... If it happened to deviate one iota, one little inch, from what the president's doing or thinks he ought to be doing, it would be terrible. It'd bring great anxiety not only to him but to his supporters."

What did Reagan say about self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts? Well, silence will have to do. That's a subset of folly that's a bit less dangerous. He has apparently not told his boy the he won't be getting a pretty pony this holiday season. And he won't be telling his son that the reason why. What can you do? You stick by your kids. But forget about the pony.

We are, at least, training the Iraqi Military, and that will make things all better. As they stand up we stand down, and all that. But then there's this from the Pentagon reporter at the Washington Post, Thomas Ricks (the fellow who wrote Fiasco, and didn't call it Folly) -

    Some advisers reported being personally targeted by infiltrators. "We had insurgents that we detected and arrested in the battalion that were planning an operation against me and my team," Allen said.

    But Iraqi officers may have had even more to fear, because their families were also vulnerable. "I went through seven battalion commanders in eight weeks," Allen noted. Dixon reported that in Samarra both his battalion commander and intelligence officer deserted just before a major operation.

    Iraqis also had some complaints about their U.S. advisers, most notably that junior U.S. officers who had never seen combat were counseling senior Iraqi officers who had fought in several wars. "Numerous teams have lieutenants … to fill the role of advisor to an Iraqi colonel counterpart," the Lessons Learned report stated.

    Farrell, the officer in east Baghdad, said some advisers were literally "phoning in" their work. Some would not leave the forward operating base "more than one or two days out of the week - instead they would just call the Iraqis on cellphones," he said.

    Dixon was grim about the experience. "Would I want to go back and do it again?" he asked. His unambiguous answer: "No."

Yeah, but we were told things were going great with all this training, as here. That was one year ago. Someone was being optimistic, or self-delusional. Take your pick.

Perhaps one should listen to the officers involved -

    Bing West, a former Marine officer who runs a government-consulting firm and who has been to Iraq numerous times captured the situation thusly:

    "140,000 American soldiers, 3,000 advisors. My goodness gracious, less than two percent. If you're serious about building up the Iraqi forces there's something wrong with that equation. I think just coming back from Iraq that really throughout our ranks you sense they know that. They get it. So almost independent of the Congress and the executive branch, the military is most likely going to move in a major way - reducing the overall forces but really building up the advisors. Why? If you go to any Iraqi battalion or any police unit, the first thing the advisors there tell you is they can't stand without us. They're not ready yet and probably will not be for several more years. So if you hear one chorus from over there, it's to embed more Americans with the Iraqis – then you don't need as many Americans."

    Jay Garner, the retired Army general who was the American viceroy in Iraq until he was shoved out by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003, was also on the panel. Garner gave the problem some scale by offering a guesstimate on how many Iraqi units still need significant advising and training.

    "What we have right now is a 100-plus certified Iraqi battalions - about 110, I think," Garner said. "I'm not sure what certified means but it does not mean that they're capable of operating by themselves. A few of them are maybe somewhere between five and ten." Each Iraqi battalion has between 400 and 600 men.

Ah, just about all of the Iraqi forces being called certified can't operate effectively without being "robustly advised" in Garner's opinion. No pony there.

And Christy Harden Smith reports listening to Thomas Hammes, the retired Marine colonel who wrote "The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century," during a recent National Public Radio interview saying we need sixty US advisors with each battalion instead of the current ten, and they would need to be non-commissioned officers and be maintained for "a very long period of time." This would mean an additional ten to twenty thousand troops being sent to Iraq.

No pony there. And she points to Frank James in the Chicago Tribune with this -

    Not only does the U.S. military not have enough service members devoted to advising and training, but as Ricks's piece indicates, many of the people we've assigned to advise Iraqi forces don't have the right skills or experience to do the job.

    All the experts I've listened to recently expect the Iraq Study Group led by former Secretary of State James Baker and Lee Hamilton, the former Indiana congressman, to recommend that the U.S. ramp up its advisory and training activities. That is a key part of any responsible exit strategy.

    But as Ricks's story and other evidence indicates, the U.S. is frighteningly far from where it needs to be if we are, in good conscience, to move our forces from Iraq and leave behind an indigenous military adequate to the task of dealing with the insurgency and sectarian violence.

Ah, but there is self-delusion. It'll work out. On the others hand, good numbers of Iraqis are seeking asylum in Scandinavian nations. Finland is fine. You can get used to all the herring.

Smith's assessment -

    Someone is going to need to sit down with the Shrub soon and have a talk. Because the rose-colored glasses schtick isn't working with anyone whose brain has half a working synapse, and it is getting worse by the hour in Iraq. And it is worth asking, over and over again until someone gets a straight answer, where the President got the idea that the Vietnam War was winnable with just a few more bombs? Because if that is the perspective that he and his advisors bring to the table in any consideration on Iraq, then we are going long and then some… until some time after 2008, at the very least.

    This is a mess of George Bush's making, of his choosing, of his pushing. The accountability for this failure is at his feet.

    The neocons bear a lot of responsibility for pushing their agenda and failed "flowers and candy" idiocy along - they are not even remotely blameless in this no matter how quickly Richard Perle tries to scuttle away from the bright lights and back into whatever lair he resides in the off-political-seasons. And Adelman and his ilk sure don't get a pass either.

    But Iraq and its endless ripples of violence and hatred and cultural and secular division… this will all be laid at George Bush's feet as his legacy, his Presidency, his monumental hubris and failure.

    It is past time for accountability.

Yep, "If history teaches anything, it teaches self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts is folly." The man should listen to his hero.

Geez, out here we're only stuck in traffic.

This item posted November 26, 2006

[Reagan's Folly]

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