Rethinking It All - Feckless Reassessments Portending Little Change
Something is afoot - as Sherlock Holmes would say, "Come, Watson, the game is afoot."
Wednesday, December 20, brought the new issue of the National Review, one of the two journals where one goes to find what Cheney and the neoconservatives think we should think, and what this country really ought to be doing. The other journal is the Weekly Standard, but after Jon Stewart neatly eviscerated its editor, William Kristol, on The Daily Show, those folks may lie low for a bit. Its just no fun to be hung by the absurdity of what you've said is so turning out to be well beyond foolish. Reality and logic do seem to matter after all. They laughed at him. That's no fun.
National Review editor Rich Lowry knows better than to face the guys at Comedy Central. In fact, in a stunning about face from the smug and condescending "we're winning big in Iraq and everyone else is wrong" columns the one always finds in his journal, the new issue brings us this - "Most of the pessimistic warnings from the mainstream media have turned out to be right - that the initial invasion would be the easy part, that seeming turning points (the capture of Saddam, the elections, the killing of Zarqawi) were illusory, that the country was dissolving into a civil war."
What's gotten into Rich Lowry? This is very odd. These folks never say such things. The "pessimistic press" may have been right all along?
On the other hand, the National Review has a website, The Corner, where there's a running stream of analysis from their array of writers. One of them is Stanley Kurtz. He explains the real problem. They were duped. The mainstream media faked them out -
Conservative distrust of the media's very real bias has inclined us to dismiss reports about problems in Iraq that are real.
In the end, I think the media bears fundamental responsibility for this. Had they been less biased - had they reported acts of heroism and the many good things we have done in Iraq - I think conservatives would actually have taken their reporting of the problems in Iraq more seriously. In effect, the media's consistent liberal bias discredits even its valid reports.
... It's a terrible shame that we've come to the point where our ability to believe news reports hinges on a those rare cases where the record shows freedom from liberal bias. The media has discredited themselves, making it tough to take them seriously even when they are right, and that has hurt us all.
Stanley Kurtz should turn down all offers to appear on The Daily Show. His position - that the media's ridiculous and perhaps treasonous refusal to pay more attention to repainted schoolhouses and such things, and its single-minded focus on insurgent attacks, ethnic rivalries, collapsing infrastructure, ineffective government, and corrupt police forces - was the real problem. That single-minded focus on the bad stuff made us ignore them, so we missed the bad stuff, and how were we to know bad stuff was really happening? As "not our fault" arguments go, this one may be beyond parody, actually. Jon Stewart might have trouble with it. What can you say? Sometime the jokes just write themselves, but that doesn't make them good jokes.
And the spin continues. Robert Farley notes here a sudden flurry of conservative arguments that the real problem in Iraq is that our troops have been hamstrung by rules of engagement that are too strict - they have to worry about not killing civilians, particularly women and children, and it's driving them crazy and means we'll lose this thing -
Why is this suddenly so popular? The argument carries a lot of wingnut water. First, it emphasizes that the problem in Iraq is that we've been too soft, and suggests that a more hard-line, brutal approach would put the natives in line. Second, it places implicit blame for the problem not on the people who actually designed the rules (the Army, Marine Corps, DOD, and the Bush Administration), but on those who we already know are soft and weak and don't care about American soldiers. Thus, the problem is defined as "Politically Correct Rules of Engagement", suggesting that the villains are likely liberals, Clintonistas, UN-niks, etc. Third, it allows wingnuts to express concern for the well being of the troops in the field, while ignoring the fact that the troops would be much, much safer if they weren't in Iraq, regardless of the ROE.
Where to begin? Brutality is best in dealing with angry insurgency is an approach that doesn't even rise to the level of needing a refutation. The appeal of such an approach is only visceral - it's lizard-brain stuff. But they just throw it out there. As Kevin Drum notes - "One way or another, conservatives are going to find a way to blame the Iraq disaster on liberals. I imagine they'll keep floating one theory after another until they finally find one that sticks." This one may not.
But the president has some ideas. Wednesday, December 20, he held a press conference to let us know what he'd been thinking about - a massive increase in the size of the military, which would take time, and perhaps sending thirty thousand more troop into Iraq, which wouldn't, as we'd keep folks there beyond their return rotation dates (many in their third rotation) and shuffle others around and speed up those in the pipeline. And by the way, "we're not winning" the war in Iraq. On the other hand, we're not losing either. So expect rough times and lots of casualties and he'll get back to us next month with the actual plan to assure victory, and he might even explain what victory in this case means.
The big news was his saying "we're not winning." A month ago he said we were, we surely were.
This may be a grammatical issue -
President Bush's tortured grasp of the English language is legendary, but I submit that during this morning's presser he actually provided an important clue to understanding what it is he's been saying about Iraq. He is speaking in a new tense that the rest of us have thus far failed to note the existence of: the fantasy tense.
The actual exchange went like this -
Q - Mr. President, less than two months ago at the end of one of the bloodiest months in the war, you said, "Absolutely we're winning." Yesterday you said, "We're not winning, we're not losing." Why did you drop your confident assertion about winning?
THE PRESIDENT: My comments - the first comment was done in this spirit: I believe that we're going to win; I believe that - and by the way, if I didn't think that, I wouldn't have our troops there. That's what you got to know. We're going to succeed. My comments yesterday reflected the fact that we're not succeeding nearly as fast as I wanted when I said it at the time, and that conditions are tough in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad.
Ah. Garance Franke-Ruta explains this -
Bush could easily have used the future tense and said, "we will win." Or he could have used an imperative construction: "we must win." But he didn't. He used the present tense and now says that his use of the present tense should merely be understood to mean what "I wanted" and what "I believe that we're going to."
Thus, the present tense when used by Bush lacks its traditional meaning and should be understood, according to the president himself, only as an expression of his desires and beliefs. In short, he is speaking in something that must be understood as "the fantasy tense." The "I believe/I want/I hope this happens" aspect just happens to be implicit, making the tense sometimes hard to recognize.
Is that clear? It isn't? That may be the point.
And there's that other confusion about the recent midterm elections. The president said everyone was wrong about the results of that election. Sure, the Democrats won control of both the House and Senate, but that wasn't a rejection of the war at all - people were really saying they expected a victory, and wanted a change in policy that would give us that. They liked this war lots - they just thought the strategy should be adjusted a little, here and there. The press just foolishly read it the other way.
Steven Benan doesn't agree - "[T]he electorate just isn't where he thinks it is. 70% of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of the war, not because people want a different strategy, but because Bush rejects the one strategy with majority support - get the troops out of Iraq." But he's not the president, is he?
And we have our clear objectives -
- "We began the year with optimism after watching nearly 12 million Iraqis go to the polls to vote for a unity government and a free future. The enemies of liberty responded fiercely to this advance of freedom."
- "And I want the enemy to understand that this is a tough task, but they can't run us out of the Middle East; that they can't intimidate America."
- "What is going to happen is we're going to develop a strategy that helps the Iraqis achieve the objective that the 12 million people want them to achieve, which is a government that can - a country that can sustain itself, govern itself, defend itself."
- "A free country that will serve as an ally in this war against extremists and radicals."
Or as Matthew Yglesias parses it -
- We're in Iraq to build a democracy.
- No, we're in Iraq to find a permanent base for US military forces in the Middle East or, at a minimum, to demonstrate resolve detached from specific policy goals.
- No, we're in Iraq to build an internally stable government.
- No, we're in Iraq to create a government that will take America's side in regional disputes.
And his conclusion -
Needless to say these are different and, in some ways, contradictory goals. This is why we're not winning in Iraq and never will. We don't have coherent objectives we're pursuing. And there is no set of objectives such that the objectives are both achievable and worth the cost of achieving them. The sane thing to do at this point is to set a goal of removing American troops from the killing zone quickly and then to start thinking and arguing about how, exactly, this can be done in a way that minimizes risks to the troops and the rest of the region.
But that wouldn't be winning, would it? No one has sufficiently defined what winning exactly is in this case. But we know what it isn't. Perhaps that will have to do.
John Dickerson, the political editor at SLATE, was bothered by something else that occurred to him regarding this press conference - What Has Bush Learned From His Mistakes? His answer is nothing -
At his press conference Wednesday, the president was asked what lessons he's learned after five years of war. He's been asked a version of this question many times since he had such trouble answering it in April 2004. He has tried various responses over the years and none has been satisfying. This morning's answer also fell short: "It is important for us to be successful going forward is to analyze that which went wrong, and clearly, one aspect of this war that has not gone right is the sectarian violence inside Baghdad." [Yes, the sentence structure is odd - AMP]
It is progress of a kind for the president to talk about the need to examine past failures - there was a time when he didn't even admit them - but the answer still failed. First, Bush didn't actually answer the question. He talked about what went wrong, but not what he learned. Second, Bush seemed to suggest that the sectarian violence in Iraq was unforeseen - not so much something that went wrong, but a surprise they didn't anticipate. But war planners did know the sectarian violence was coming. The State Department, Army War College, and CIA analysts all predicted that the Shi'a and Sunnis would go after each other (apparently they've been at it for a while). The president and his team ignored or discounted these assessments.
It's hardly surprising that the president didn't answer a question at a press conference. Bush regularly answers the wrong question at length to give the appearance of answering without actually doing so. He gives a response when what we want is an answer.
And we didn't get one. This is no surprise. He's a politician. What puzzles Dickerson is "why Bush is keeping up this avoidance act while at the same time trying to rebuild his trust with the country." By not answering this specific question, Dickerson says he is trading away "perhaps his only chance to get people to listen to him again."
And he shouldn't do that -
People don't trust the president on the war, and they don't approve of the job he's doing. They haven't for a long time. They think he's either lying to them or that he's out of it. The tricks he has offered to win them back to his strategy - from scaring the public about Democrats and their proposals, to hyping the consequences of not following his policies, to poking his finger in the air - have not worked. This is a problem for him, because in January he will give yet another Big Speech on Iraq. In it he will offer his new strategy for completing the mission.
But why will anyone listen to Bush's new approach?
Yep "fool me once"… no, watch the president saying it himself - "There's an old saying in Tennessee - I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee - that says, fool me once, shame on - shame on you. Fool me - you can't get fooled again."
Close enough, or as they say, close enough for government work.
But we are getting a double dose of spin so we let our guard down -
First, Bush's people are trying to show that the president is working really hard to find the new answer. He has ordered reviews at the State Department and Pentagon and held repeated meetings with military officials. He's also studying the Iraq Study Group plan (even though he has pretty much trashed its major recommendations). Second, the president and his aides are trying to show that he actually understands how grave the situation is in Iraq. On Tuesday, he told the Washington Post that America is not winning in Iraq, matching the candor for which his incoming secretary of defense was praised during his confirmation hearings.
But that is clearly not enough to turn things around. At best that is "only enough to keep people from thinking he's not delusional." It's not a plan. It's looking busy.
The recommendation -
To get people to buy into his solutions, the president has to put candor into his policy review. He has to prove that the new solutions weren't cooked up with the same broken process that cooked up the first batch of bad solutions. Which brings us back to the question of what lessons he's learned. He's been accused to living in a bubble, so who told him things during this round of meetings that he didn't want to hear? Whom did he seek out at the State Department that he would not have in the past? Who yelled at him? Who talked him out of a bad idea? What gut instinct that he trusted in the past has he learned to think twice about? He should answer the question about what he's learned from his mistakes, how he incorporated those lessons into his new policy process, and how the strategy he's put forward is the fruit of that new way of operating. That might - might - persuade some Americans to give him one more chance.
And pigs might - might - fly. Dickerson rightly points out that White House officials and Bush supporters "have always thought questions about mistakes and lessons learned are merely press attempts to make Bush whip himself in public." And they should get over it. That's unlikely. The January "new way forward" speech will just be another speech.
The game is not afoot, really.
Fred Kaplan offers an analysis of what is afoot. That would be "the hottest briefing in Washington these days," a fifty-six-page PowerPoint presentation, Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq. This is by Frederick Kagan, the military analyst of the American Enterprise Institute. The president thinks it's wonderful.
Fred Kaplan does not and explains why in The Urge to Surge -
It proposes "surging" 20,000 extra troops to secure Baghdad as a necessary and sufficient first step to securing and rebuilding the whole country.
It's being taken very seriously in White House and congressional quarters. I don't understand why, because it's not really a serious study. Numbers are grabbed out of thin air. Crucial points are asserted, not argued. Assumptions are based on crossed fingers, not evidence or analysis.
The upshot is that Kagan's surge involves more troops than the United States can readily mobilize and fewer troops than it needs for the kind of victory he has in mind.
He proposes a classic "clear and hold" method to secure the capital. Troops sweep into Baghdad's nastier neighborhoods and clear them of insurgents and other bad guys. Some troops stay behind to maintain security, while others move on to clear the next set of neighborhoods; some of those stay behind, while others move on; and so forth. Once Baghdad is stabilized, still more troops will pour into other troubled cities. Meanwhile, security allows reconstruction to proceed.
This is followed by a detailed analysis of why the numbers just don't work. They don't.
And consider this -
However they're counted, a lot of extra troops are necessary, because not only do they have to "clear" a neighborhood of bad guys, some have to stay there ("hold" the area) while others move on to clear the next neighborhood. (This was the problem at Tal Afar. The city was cleared, but then the troops were called to Baghdad, and the insurgents returned.)
In Kagan's plan, after Baghdad is secure, we have to go clear and hold the rest of Iraq. This means still more troops will be needed, beyond the initial surge, because the troops in Baghdad have to stay there.
Where will these troops come from? Kagan says that the Pentagon will have to expand the size of the Army and Marines by at least 30,000 a year over the next two years. However, according to some very high-ranking officers who deal firsthand with these sorts of issues, the Army can recruit, train, and equip only about 7,000 combat troops a year. This is a physical limit, constrained by the number of bases, trainers, supplies, and other elements of infrastructure.
Kagan writes, "The President must call for young Americans to volunteer to defend the nation in a time of crisis." Given the unpopularity of the president, and of this war, this seems unlikely. After the Sept. 11 attacks, when Bush was at peak popularity, and when the country was experiencing a surge of patriotism, Congress passed a bill expanding the size of the Army by 30,000 troops. Five years later, the Army has actually expanded by just 23,000 troops. It's still 7,000 troops short of that target. How does Kagan expect to attract 30,000 more in just one year, much less to do so two years in a row?
… if Kagan's advice is followed, the surged troops will have plenty on their hands. Kagan writes that they will have to fight the bad guys - and provide food, water, electricity, and other essential services. It's not as if they haven't been trying to do all that for the past three and a half years.
How long will the surged troops have to stay? Kagan writes that "the security situation" "improves within 18-24 months and we can begin going home." But given the way the numbers add up, this seems extremely unlikely. For one thing, they'll have to be replaced by Iraqi soldiers, but if all the American troops are engaged in counterinsurgency, who's training the Iraqis? Current administration policy calls for embedding U.S. advisers within Iraqi units. Kagan is opposed to that policy. He favors expanding U.S. units and having some Iraqi units tag along. He claims that those Iraqis will be trained "much more effectively" his way, "because they will be partnered with and fighting with our excellent soldiers."
This is simply wrongheaded. Indigenous soldiers are best trained by taking the lead in military operations. They gain most legitimacy in a counterinsurgency campaign if the local population sees them as being in charge, not as sitting quietly in the occupier's back seat.
One reassuring moment in President Bush's press conference today came when he said that if he did decide to surge more troops to Iraq, he would do so only if there were "a specific mission that can be accomplished with more troops." Kagan's briefing doesn't spell out that mission, doesn't show it can be accomplished with more troops, at least not with the number of extra troops that are remotely available.
But this seems to be the plan. This is what we'll be told is January is just what we'll do. And that's what is really afoot.
Actually what's really afoot - enlarging our military, already larger than the next twenty militaries in the world, combined - is getting the empire thing right. Getting the number of Imperial Storm Troopers right, and in the right places at the right time, to fight the Rebel Alliance, is hard work when you have to operate in a pseudo-democracy with a somewhat free press and elections at awkward times and all the rest. No, wait. That was Star Wars, where the Rebel Alliance was the good guys - Luke Skywalker and Yoda and all. Things got switched around. How did that happen?
Note - by the weekend key generals had caved and undermined the Joint Chiefs. The commander-in-chief wants to escalate, and you may think that is a dumb idea, but he is the commander-in-chief. You have to bow to his position and his judgment, and his vast military experience. Since he has none of the latter, you have to bow to his will. The Kagan plan is what will be presented in January.
Kevin Drum offers this comment -
Conservatives long ago convinced themselves against all evidence that we could have won in Vietnam if we'd only added more troops or used more napalm or nuked Hanoi or whatever, and they're going to do the same thing in Iraq unless we allow them to play this out the way they want. If they don't get to play the game their way, they'll spend the next couple of decades trying to persuade the American public that there was nothing wrong with the idea of invading Iraq at all. We just never put the necessary resources into it.
Well, screw that. There's nothing we can do to stop them anyway, so give 'em the resources they want. Let 'em fight the war the way they want. If it works - and after all, stranger things have happened - then I'll eat some crow. But if it doesn't, there's a chance that the country will actually learn something from this.
I wish it were otherwise. But it isn't.
The matter seems to be settled.
Digby at Hullabaloo -
There is no chance this is going to work, so I do not hold out even the smallest hope that this could be worthwhile in literal terms. It is purely to save face for George Bush. The American involvement in this war is over - they're just delaying the inevitable until he can crawl back to Crawford and dump the whole disaster in the next guy's lap.
As for the long term, it doesn't matter how spectacularly they fail, they will never admit it. We would have won "if only" no matter what actually happens. If only we'd put in more troops earlier, or more troops now, or reinstituted the draft or dropped some daisy cutters or whatever. These people live in a fantasy world in which they are always right but others are continuously conspiring to rob them of whatever they really need to prove it. In the long run, they will insist that the war could have been won if only the wimps hadn't lost their nerve. And they will persuade a fair number of people that this was true - Americans don't like losers and don't like to think of themselves as losers. The paranoid strain will be happy to re-argue, re-litigate and re-write history down the road to say that America was betrayed from within. It's what they do.
There is some short term political gains to be had, however sick it is to think in these terms. In the long run they will create their own myth but in the short term, they are going to have to deal with the reality that is going to continue to appear on people's televisions every night. And that will rebound to St. John McCain and any other Republicans who jump on this bandwagon as it hurls over the cliff.
This is McCain's plan. He's been clamoring for more troops for a long time and he specifically says today that 20,000 to 35,000 will do the trick. He's now going to have to get into those John Kerry style explanations whenever it comes up ("I was for more troops before others were for more troops and it would have worked if only they'd done it earlier but I thought that it was worth sending in more anyway and in fact we need more troops even now.") There's no pithy sound bite to explain why he still thought sending in more troops after the war was already lost would be a good idea.
So, there's a very, very thin silver lining. Other than that, this is a disastrous failure on top of a disastrous failure and the military, which took great pride in learning the lessons of Vietnam, is once again playing the part of political pawn. Every American who dies from this point forward dies for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney's vanity.
So be it.