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

The Momentum of War

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

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

The Momentum of War

Momentum -

1 - a property of a moving body that the body has by virtue of its mass and motion and that is equal to the product of the body's mass and velocity; broadly, a property of a moving body that determines the length of time required to bring it to rest when under the action of a constant force or moment
2 - strength or force gained by motion or through the development of events

The Democrats may have won the House and Senate in the midterm elections, but the new Congress doesn't convene until January, and anyway, in spite of the talk of things changing in the country, they don't have the momentum. The war in Iraq, by virtue of its mass and motion (accelerating and increasing violence as two of the three major factions there find ever more horrific ways to kill those on the "other side" in greater and greater numbers), has its own momentum. And what we started in early 2003, with an invasion, the removal of the government there, and an ongoing occupation to get things working there in some sort of way, has its own momentum. There's a whole lot of mass and motion involved there too.

Newton's First Law of Motion states that bodies at rest tend to remain at rest, and that bodies in motion tend to remain in motion. Those bodies that are in motion move at a constant speed in a straight line. This is called inertia, or in the case of what happens to be in motion, momentum. You have to take that into account. Nothing much is going to change very quickly, if at all. Momentum must be countered with some sufficient force. The Democratic majority in the two houses may not be it.

And this is pathetically insufficent -

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats, who won majorities in the U.S. Congress in last week's elections, said on Sunday they will push for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq to begin in four to six months.

    "The first order of business is to change the direction of Iraq policy," said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is expected to be chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the new Congress.

    Levin, on ABC's "This Week," said he hoped some Republicans would emerge to join Democrats and press the administration of President George W. Bush to tell the Iraqi government that U.S. presence was "not open-ended."

That's not an opposite and equal force to counter the momentum, much less reverse it. It's wishing.

Sunday, November 12, the talk was of this -

    After meeting with President Bush tomorrow, a panel of prestigious Americans will begin deliberations to chart a new course on Iraq, with the goal of stabilizing the country with a different U.S. strategy and possibly the withdrawal of troops.

    Tuesday's dramatic election results, widely seen as a repudiation of the Bush Iraq policy, has thrust the 10-member, bipartisan Iraq Study Group into the kind of special role played by the Sept. 11 commission. This panel, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D), might play a decisive role in reshaping the U.S. position in Iraq, according to lawmakers and administration officials.

    Those familiar with the panel's work predict that the ultimate recommendations will not appear novel and that there are few, if any, good options left facing the country. Many of the ideas reportedly being considered - more aggressive regional diplomacy with Syria and Iran, greater emphasis on training Iraqi troops, or focusing on a new political deal between warring Shiites and Sunni - have either been tried or have limited chances of success, in the view of many experts on Iraq. Baker is also exploring whether a broader U.S. initiative in tackling the Arab-Israeli conflict is needed to help stabilize the region.

So they will meet with the president and then begin deliberations - which seems to involve sitting around and trying to think of something that will slow the war's self-sustaining momentum and, one day, reverse it.

Then there's this assessment - Why the Baker Commission on Iraq Doesn't Matter.

There are the unpleasant actual facts -

    The situation in Iraq is "even worse than we thought,'' with key Iraqi leaders showing no willingness to compromise to avoid increasing violence, said Leon Panetta, a member of the high-powered advisory group that will recommend new options for the war.

    … Private assessments by government officials are much more grim than what is said in public, Panetta said, "and we left some of those sessions shaking our heads over how bad it is in Iraq.''

    U.S. forces can't control sectarian violence and powerful militias. One of the most disturbing findings, Panetta said, is that many Shiite religious leaders who are a big part of the government have no interest in deals or compromises with Sunnis and other groups, and are "playing for time because they say it's their show.''

So this assessment is that the "meeting between the overgrown child in White House and the would-be foster parents of the Iraq Study Group led by James Baker" doesn't matter much. Not only has it long been obvious that the Shiite leadership had no interest in compromise, they essentially couldn't compromise with their Sunni counterparts.

That goes like this -

    Nor, as the U.S. government has been embarrassingly slow to learn, is there anything we can do to force the Shiites to make concessions. Even as Iraq spiraled into the abyss, this was demonstrated when Team Shiite shut Baathists out of the government formed this spring, just as it had excluded them from the previous one… "Too many Shiites have died at the hands of Baathists (both during Saddam Hussein's reign and since then) for them to take any chances."

    The increasing sectarian atrocities this year have only made matters worse. So it's almost laughable to think that anything Baker and his team come up with will manage to change the basic power equation in Iraq - one in which all sides would rather fight than share power peacefully with their increasingly bitter enemies.

    Events have shown that even the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are little more than overwhelmed bystanders at this point... or, at best, speed bumps slowing down an otherwise full-speed descent into the hell of civil war. The underlying dynamic has been in place since before the American invasion, when both sides planned in advance their response to the toppling of Saddam Hussein - the Shiite religious leaders by plotting to use our promises of democracy to install a hard-line sectarian government, and Saddam himself by carpeting the countryside with weapons and explosives to ensure that the U.S (and the Shiites) would face the most well-armed insurgency in history.

    The impotence of the American military during the nationwide rampage of looting after Saddam was deposed convinced every Iraqi faction that no one could secure their interests but themselves, and conversely that the path to power was wide open to whoever could acquire the most armed strength. Since then, our inability to impose our will has only become more obvious - the Shiite religious leaders seized the political initiative in November 2003 when Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani vetoed the U.S. scheme to concoct our own constitution for Iraq before holding elections, and a devastating guerrilla offensive in April 2004 forced us to essentially withdraw from Anbar province, more or less conceding that we could never defeat the Sunni insurgents militarily.

    Those decisive moments have largely dictated the events of the past three years, not to mention the ultimate conflagration that will erupt when the U.S. is no longer able to sustain its presence in Iraq. So there's really no need or reason to work up much fear, hope, or anything else about what Baker and/or his group propose.

    The Baker commission's only reason for existence is to provide a formal channel for telling the President that there's no pony in Iraq - that failure/defeat is not only an option, it's basically the only one left. The question is whether he'll listen even now.

Well, the president's personality-based inertia aside, the "facts on the ground" don't offer much hope.

What bold move will change everything? We're hardly about to convene a regional summit and chat with Iran and Syria about working out some sort of stability in the area - the president has made it clear we do not hold any sort of talks, even secret back-channel talks, with countries we consider evil, as that only legitimizes them or even rewards them. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said publicly, and repeatedly, there is absolutely and unequivocally no reason to talk with them - they know what they're supposed to do. And of course, after a publicly belittling like that, they certainly have no reason to talk. She shut that door, and locked it.

And we're hardly about to change positions on what most say is the core issue in the region and return to the position of previous administrations, deciding to play "honest broker" between Israel and the Palestinians. It's a little late for that, after the Israel-Hezbollah war that dismantled Jordon that we urged should continue, and our latest veto of a UN resolution condemning Israel for killing nine civilians in their ongoing attacks on Gaza. The Israeli government said it was a technical error that killed the nine kids. That's good enough for us. We decided early on in this administration that what former presidents of both parties thought was important - getting the parties together to cool things down - wasn't. The thought seemed to be that changing Iraq would change everything in the region, and thorny issues a few hundred miles west of Baghdad would be resolved as regimes changed and people woke up to how things could be - with Jeffersonian democracies springing up left and right. That actually was our position. And we're not about to back down from our matching Israel-can-do-no-wrong stance. We'd appear weak, and foolish, and there'd be a heavy price to pay with Israel and here at home. And of course it would solve nothing now - an "abandoned" Israel might just, on their own, take out most of Iran's nuclear sites, their command and control apparatus, and most roads and bridges, if we stepped back our support for them. All hell would break loose from Pakistan to Turkey - not to mention crazed anger in Muslim countries around the world, like Indonesia - but Israel has its own survival to consider. So nothing can be changed there. We made our decisions.

So any sort of change in all this is hard to imagine.

In football (our version), momentum is a problem. You seem have "The Big Mo" and then you've lost it - and it's hard to get back. What can change things? Sometimes it's a lucky call from the refs, or the other team makes an unexpected bone-headed mistake. Suddenly you're back in the game and everything is falling your way again. But you can't depend on that, so you try a trick play - a quadruple reverse or some fancy Hail Mary thing no one expects.

In gambling, it's a bit different. You've been on a roll and then, for some reason or no reason, it's all snake eyes, all the time, or in poker, you're just not getting the cards. You find yourself deep in a hole. You're just about to lose everything. And in that case there are only two alternatives - cut your losses and walk away (to the bar, as your drinks will now be on the house), or double-down. So you can stay in and make it all back - double your bets and assume the law of averages, or at least what statisticians call "the return to the mean," will save your butt. It could happen.

Robert Kagan and William Kristol think so. In the Sunday, November 12, Financial Times, they say Bush Must Call for Reinforcements in Iraq. Send ten or twenty or thirty thousand more guys in there - maybe more. Slap these people around and make them cut the crap. The problem is we've not taken this seriously enough. It's time to double-down. Heck, we might even find those WMD (no, they didn't go that far).

And it's not just those two thinking this way. In the first NBC "Meet the Press" after the midterm elections, Tim Russert and his bookers decided to continue their "no Democrats" policy and invited John McCain and Joe Lieberman to come in for a chat on "what it all means and where we are going."

Lieberman, of course, did not run as a Democrat - he lost the primary - and told Russert now that he's won his senate seat back as an independent, he wouldn't rule out caucusing with the Republicans and voting with them on all issues, and at the same time he'd keep his Democratic committee chairmanships and meet with the Democrats if they were nice to him (he didn't mention kissing his ring), as he's moved beyond political parties. Russert asked what Lieberman was going to demand of senate Democrats for his cooperation - what he would force them to do to get his support. Lieberman hemmed and hawed for a bit and said he was not going to do anything like that, really. He's having a bit of trouble settling into the "I'm better than anyone else" role. It's a work in progress.

In any event, as NBC carefully booked no Democrat who won any seat in either house, they had the floor, or screen, or camera, or whatever. They both called for a massive increase in the number of troops we have in Iraq.

There's a video of McCain saying that here - "We're either going to lose this thing or win this thing within the next several months." So it's double-down.

Russert noted that on December 8, 2005, McCain had said, "Overall, I think a year from now, we will have a fair amount of progress [in Iraq] if we stay the course." McCain was forced to admit he had "proven not to be correct." But things are different now? That seems to be the idea. Lieberman too had said not six months ago that things we're going great in Iraq and the evil media was reporting it all wrong, and undermining the president. Now he says pour in the additional troops. They agreed. So that's how things are. The transcript is here.

Summing it up is Duncan Black here -

    Well, reading the tea leaves it's pretty clear what's going on. The Iraq Study Group which Democrats have decided is going to save them is going to recommend either sending in more troops (McCain/Lieberman position this morning) or beginning to bug out. Elite Consensus will tell us to double down one more time, send in another 30,000 troops or so, while condemning the Democrats as defeatists. There won't be enough Democrat support to use what little levers of power they have (not many) to force the administration's hand. So more American soldiers will have their lives disrupted and families torn apart, more of them will die, more Iraqis will die, so that soulless Joe "no one wants out of Iraq more than I do" Lieberman can prop up his feeling of self-importance.

    God I hate these people.

But you cannot fight the momentum here. The president is hardly the sort of man to cut his losses and walk away to the bar for a stiff one, or three or four. He was an alcoholic through his early forties, and now he doesn't drink. And those other ideas - talk with Iran and Syria, and go all "neutral intermediary" on the Israel-Palestine issues? After six years of having none of that he's hardly likely now to eat crow and reverse his positions there. And although he cannot explain what winning in Iraq means - no one can, exactly - he sure as hell isn't about to preside over anything that looks like losing. Every business in which he was involved failed - he needs this. When you've never won anything and you're backed into a corner, there's only one option, double-down. They're not his chips anyway, not his kids off to join the hundred fifty thousand we have there now. Why not?

Duncan Black is reading the tea leaves right. Things in motion just have their momentum.

Operationally we're talking about this -

    "Roughly, you need another 20,000 troops in Iraq, but that means expanding the Army and Marine Corps by as much as 100,000 people," the Arizona senator told reporters after a campaign event for Republicans in New Hampshire's North Country.

So where do we find those people? There aren't even enough unemployed former senators and representatives.

The day before Kagan and Kristol and McCain and Lieberman gave the president the only option he would consider this hit the wires -

    The Pentagon is developing plans that for the first time would send entire National Guard combat brigades back to Iraq for a second tour, the Guard's top general said in the latest sign of how thinly stretched the military has become.

    Smaller Guard units and individual troops have already returned to Iraq for longer periods, and some active duty units have served multiple tours. Brigades generally have about 3,500 troops.

    The move - which could include brigades from North Carolina, Florida, Arkansas and Indiana - would be the Pentagon's first large-scale departure from its previous decision not to deploy reserves for more than a total of 24 months in Iraq.

There aren't more chips for this game. And if McCain is right - we're either going to lose this thing or win this thing within the next several months - signing up another hundred thousand to get the twenty thousand chips necessary for this big hand of poker doesn't fit his timeline. They'd be ready in eighteen months. By then the game, he himself says, would be over.

Time to head for the bar. Big Mo won. George can have a ginger ale.

This item posted November 19, 2006

[The Momentum of War]

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