Sunday, August 05, 2007

Iraq: A Need for Wisdom

This past fortnight has been very interesting regarding some perspective over the entire issue of the Iraq war and on-going foreign policy.

It seems to me that recently, given the context of a way too early presidential campaign and the pressure from the main stream media and the far left on the panic to "end the war" that we have lost all perspective and wisdom on where we stand and what we should do. Good decisions are never made in great haste, panic or hysteria. Our founding fathers wisely structured the government to avoid the wide swings in popular opinion and manage policy from a perspective of contemplation and wisdom; hence, the nature of the Senate, the Judiciary and the Executive branch to have longer tenure and less responsiveness to the "will of the people" than the House or local politics. Unfortunately, given all the Senators who wish to be President and the nature of political parties to place elections over all other considerations we have been poorly served lately in the nature of comments from our Senate leaders and all the pandering politicians who seem to be so much more reactive than reflective on important situations and problems.

So many issues both in the press and in the campaigns seem directed toward saying what is good based on polls and not saying what is right or good for the country without regard to polls. I know this is an over-simplification as politicians always want to please the voters and get re-elected but there often comes along times that call for more statesmanship and leadership and this seems to be one of those critical times. I am reminded of Dick Morris and his columns which always look at every issue in terms of its polling strength and popularity and never any remarks about what is right or wrong -- and we see the same thing out of so many of our politicians and Senators on a day to day basis.

From The Federalist Papers here is James Madison in The Federalist No. 63:

As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought in all governments, and actually will in all free governments ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs, when the people stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, to mislead by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice and truth, can regain their authority over the public mind? What bitter anguish would not the people of Athens have often escaped, if their government had contained so provident a safeguard against the tyranny of their own passions? Popular liberty might then have escaped the indelible reproach of decreeing to the same citizens, the hemlock on one day, and statues on the next.

In The Federalist No. 10, Madison uses similar reasoning in explaining the many reasons to favor a Republic over a pure Democracy:

The two great points of difference between a Democracy and a Republic are, first, the delegation of the Government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest: secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

The effect of this first difference is, on the one hand to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good, than if pronounced by the people themselves convened for the purpose.

Now to the present. We have great disparity of opinion at present over: 1) what is happening and will happen on the ground in Iraq; 2) the consequences of withdrawal from Iraq; and, most importantly, 3) the long term strategic nature of Iraq and the Middle East as it concerns the well-being of the United States.

Several important pieces and occurrences that touch on these three vital questions have been appearing along with the detritus noise we get frequently. The perfect answers may indeed be unknowable but the decisions to be made require the best analysis and information obtainable. I have pointed out the importance of recognizing sunk costs in our decision making (here) so let's begin by not rehashing the past and make our decisions based only on the situation at present.

The pieces that stick most in my mind include the O'Hanlon and Pollack's Op-Ed in the NYT "A War We Might Just Win" which I discussed earlier (here) and two more pieces that really have my attention.

The first is a short commentary from Victor Davis Hanson in which he reviews all the frankly horrible mismanagement of the Middle East situation by all the recent Presidential administrations and surveys the Middle East situation in "Back to the Future?"; a large portion:

...[B]efore the United States abandons its present policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should at least recall the past record — which may be best summed up as the ying of Democratic appeasement and the yang of Republican cynicism.

Jimmy Carter now writes books damning our present policies. He should keep quiet. When the Iranians stormed the American embassy in Tehran and inaugurated this era of Islamic terrorism, his U.N. ambassador, Andrew Young, announced that the murderous Ayatollah Khomeini was “a 20th-century saint.” Moralist Carter himself also tried to send hardcore leftist Ramsey Clark over to Tehran to beg the mullahs to release the hostages — in exchange for arms sales.

Next came Ronald Reagan, who, to put it kindly, was bewildered by Islamic extremism. He pulled out American troops from Lebanon after Hezbollah murdered 241 Marines and thereby helped to energize a new terrorist movement that has spread havoc ever since. The Lebanon retreat was followed by the disgrace of the Iran-contra affair, when American agents sold the hostage-taking theocracy missiles and then used the receipts illegally to fund the Contras. Few now remember that Oliver North purportedly flew to Iran to seal the deal, bearing gifts for the ayatollah. No need to mention the intelligence the Reagan administration gave to Saddam Hussein during the savage Iran-Iraq war, or the way it continued Carter’s policy of arming jihadists in Afghanistan.

There were just as many cynical realists in George Bush Sr.’s foreign policy team. In the debate leading up to the first Gulf War, Secretary of State James Baker justified attacking oil-rich Saddam Hussein for the sake of “jobs, jobs, jobs.” And when our coalition partner, the even oil-richer House of Saud, objected to removing the murderous Hussein regime after its retreat from Kuwait, we complied — to the point of watching Saddam butcher thousands of Kurds and Shiites.

Bill Clinton also often weighs in with ideas on the Middle East. But during his two terms he passed up an offer from Sudan to hand over bin Laden. Shortly afterwards, the terrorist openly threatened us: “To kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim.” The Clinton administration also didn’t do much about eight years of serial terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, American servicemen in Saudi Arabia, the East African embassies or the USS Cole. The $50 billion U.N. Oil-for-Food scandal did not reflect well on Clinton’s multilateral model of dealing with Saddam Hussein.

The point of reviewing prior American naivete and cynicism is not to excuse the real mistakes in stabilizing Iraq. Instead, these past blunders remind us that we have had few good choices in dealing with the terrorism, theocracy, and authoritarian madness of an oil-rich Middle East. And we have had none after the murder of 3,000 Americans on September 11.

After four years of effort in Iraq, Americans may well tire of that cost and bring Gen. Petraeus and the troops home. We can then go back to the shorter-term remedies of the past. Well and good.

But at least remember what that past policy was: Democratic appeasement of terrorists, interrupted by cynical Republican business with terrorist-sponsoring regimes.

Then came September 11, and we determined to get tougher than the Democrats by taking out the savage Taliban and Saddam Hussein — and more principled than the Republicans by staying on after our victories to foster something better.

The jihadists are now fighting a desperate war against the new stick of American military power and carrot of American-inspired political reform.

They want us, in defeat, to go back to turning a blind eye to both terrorism and corrupt dictatorships.

That’s the only way they got power in the first place and now desperately count on keeping it.

The second major piece that is a must read is an interview of John Burns who I regard as the best foreign correspondent writing today. He has been with the New York Times for many years yet still maintains his personal integrity and strives to report the facts. My problem with the NYT is twofold, of course, the editorial side (making the above Op-Ed even more startling) and secondly, the growing tendency to have analysis and opinion creeping into the news at the NYT.

The interview is with Hugh Hewitt who is certainly conservative but here shows he can just ask questions and we hear/see the answer. Please read it all. Here are some cuts from that interview, "New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner John Burns on Iraq, Iran and How the Surge is Working.":

[These are selections from the transcript of comments by John Burns.]

David Petraeus is a man who’s had a remarkably distinguished military career, and he is very clear that he thinks his responsibilities lie not to the White House alone, but to the White House and the Congress conjointly, and through them to the American people. I don’t think that this is just a profession, a claim. I think he really intends that, and he’s been very careful not to make commitments at the moment as to what he’s going to say, though we may guess it. And I think he’s going to say that the surge is having its effects, it hasn’t turned the tide of the war, there’s been too little time for it, and I think he and Ambassador Crocker, who will be his partner in that September report, are going to say one thing very clearly, and that is a quick, early withdrawal of American troops of the kind that is being argued by Nancy Pelosi, for example, would very likely lead to catastrophic levels of violence here. And in that, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker will be saying something which is pretty broadly shared by people who live and work here, I have to say. The removal of American troops would very likely, we believe from all indications, lead to much higher, and indeed potentially cataclysmic levels of violence, beyond anything we’ve seen to date....

The plan is that with the surge, aimed primarily at al Qaeda, who are responsible for most of the spectacular attacks, the major suicide bombings, for example, that have driven the sectarian warfare here, the belief is, or the hope is, that with the surge, they can knock al Qaeda back, they can clear areas which have been virtually sanctuaries for al Qaeda, northeast, south, west and northwest of Baghdad, and in Baghdad itself, and then have Iraqi troops move in behind them. The problem here is time. How much time does the U.S. military have now, according to the American political timetable, to accomplish this? I think most generals would say, indeed have said, most serving current generals here have said that a drawdown, which took American troops from the 160,00 level they’re at now quickly down to 100,000 or 80,000 over the next, shall we say, year to eighteen months, that’s too fast. If you do that, I think they would say, though they don’t put it quite this frankly, that this war will be lost for sure. Given a little bit more time, they think that it is realistic to think that the Iraqi forces can move in behind them, and can take over the principal responsibilities for the war. The problem is, of course, that American generals have been saying this now for four years, and as we know, the Congress is beginning to run out of patience with that. But I think that they have a good plan now, at least if there is any plan that could save the situation here, any plan that could bring a reasonably successful end to the American enterprise here, it’s probably the plan they have right now....

I think it’s probably fair to say that the Iraqi political leaders, Sunni, Shiia, Kurd in the main, are somewhat further apart now than they were six months ago. In other words, the Bush administration’s hope that the military surge would be accompanied by what they called a political surge, a movement towards some sort of national reconciliation, uniting around a kind of national compact, that has simply not occurred. Indeed, the gulf between the Shiite and Sunni leaders in the government is probably wider than it has ever been. There’s a great deal of recrimination. There’s hardly a day when the Sunnis do not, as they did again today, threaten to withdraw from the government altogether. There’s virtually no progress on the key benchmarks, as the Bush administration calls them, matters like a comprehensive oil law that will settle the issue of how oil revenues, which account for 90% of government revenues here, will in future be divided and spent between the various communities, and many other issues, eighteen of them, benchmarks identified by the Congress, there’s very little progress on those benchmarks. Where there is some progress is at the grass roots level, some progress, though we’re beginning to see tribal leaders, in particular, in some of the most heavily congested war areas, beginning to stand up and say they’ve had enough of it, and to volunteer to put forth their young men, either to join the Iraqi police or army, or to join in tribal auxiliaries, or levees if you will. That’s probably the most encouraging political sign. But at the Baghdad level, unfortunately, the United States still does not have an effective political partner....

...[Y]ou would think it would be so, wouldn’t you, that the threat of withdrawal of American troops, and the risk of a slide into catastrophic levels of violence, much higher than we’ve already seen, would impel the Iraqi leadership to move forward. But there’s a conundrum here. There’s a paradox. That’s to say the more that the Democrats in the Congress lead the push for an early withdrawal, the more Iraqi political leaders, particularly the Shiite political leaders, but the Sunnis as well, and the Kurds, are inclined to think that this is going to be settled, eventually, in an outright civil war, in consequence of which they are very, very unlikely or reluctant, at present, to make major concessions. They’re much more inclined to kind of hunker down. So in effect, the threats from Washington about a withdrawal, which we might have hoped would have brought about greater political cooperation in face of the threat that would ensue from that to the entire political establishment here, has had, as best we can gauge it, much more the opposite effect, of an effect that persuading people well, if the Americans are going, there’s absolutely no…and we’re going to have to settle this by a civil war, why should we make concessions on that matter right now? For example, to give you only one isolated exception, why should the Shiite leadership, in their view, make major concessions about widening the entry point for former Baathists into the government, into the senior levels of the military leadership, that’s to say bringing in high ranking Sunnis into the government and the army and the police, who themselves, the Sunnis, are in the main former stalwarts of Saddam’s regime. Why would the Shiites do that if they believe that in the end, they’re going to have to fight a civil war? This is not to reprove people in the Congress who think that the United States has spent enough blood and treasure here. It’s just a reality that that’s the way this debate seems to be being read by many Iraqi politicians....

I think the war is close to lost, but I don’t think that all hope is extinguished, and I do think, as do many of my colleagues in the media here, that an accelerated early withdrawal, something which reduced American troops, even if they were placed in large bases out in the desert to, say, something like 60-80,000 over a period of six to nine months, and in effect, leaving the fighting in the cities and the approaches to the cities to the Iraqis, I think the result of that would, in effect, be a rapid, a rapid progress towards an all-out civil war. And the people who are urging that kind of a drawdown, I think, have to take that into account. That’s not to say, I have to say, that that should be enough to inhibit those politicians who make that argument, because they could very well ask if that’s true, can those who argue for a continued high level of American military involvement here assure us that we wouldn’t come to the same point three or four years, and perhaps four or five thousand American soldiers killed later? In other words, we might only be putting off the evil day. It seems to me that’s where this discussion really has to focus. Can those who argue for staying here, can they offer any reasonable hope that three, two, three, four years out, the risk of a decline into cataclysmic civil war would be any less? If the answer is no they can’t, then it seems to me that strengthens the argument of those who say well, we might as well withdraw fairly quickly now....

Whatever we may make of the original intent of coming here, if the United States did not have a problem with Islamic extremism in Iraq before 2003, it certainly does now. You only have to look at the pronouncements of Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahiri, his deputy, to see that they regard Iraq now as being, if you will, the front line of the Islamic militant battle against the West. And so if American troops were withdrawn, I think that there would be a very serious risk that large parts of this country will fall under the sway of al Qaeda linked groups. Now we could debate what that exactly means. Al Qaeda’s a holding company. Does that mean that Mr. bin Laden would be able to direct affairs in Afghanistan? No, I don’t think he would. I don’t think he does now. But it would mean that Islamic extremists who bear the worst intent towards the United States would have a base similar to the base they had in Afghanistan before 9/11 from which to operate, and I think it’s very likely that they would then begin to want to expatriate their hatred of the United States in some way or another. In fact, it’s already the case, that there are parts of Iraq which are under the sway of groups that swear allegiance to al Qaeda. And just to speak of one of them, the city of Sumarra, where I was yesterday, it’s about sixty miles north
of Baghdad, is definitely under the sway of al Qaeda right now. And that would likely get very much worse in the event of an accelerated withdrawal. So I don’t think it’s purely propaganda, political propaganda on the part of the Bush administration to say that there would be a major al Qaeda problem here. It seems to me it’s absolutely self-evident that there would be....

This a long and very important interview, well worth your valuable time to read it all.

I will have many other comments later but my focus is to stick to real analysis that is food for thought and not all the sound bites from all the players in the politics of it all including the inane comments from Senators and the Presidential candidates; while those comments make the news and are interesting from an entertainment and political perspective those biased and self-serving comments often offer little insight into the depths and complexities of the situations involved.

I think the Iraq war will be the defining issue of the 2008 presidential election with the Democratic nominee determined to withdraw and the Republican candidate determined to stay. In reality an exit cannot practically be quick and easy regardless of the intent to "end the war." The issue is how soon we draw down, by how much and what carnage do we cause and foment in the drawdown/withdrawal/retreat/cut and run.

The second most important issue will be health care with both sides agreeing to a goal of universal coverage relatively quickly but with Democrats in a favor of a single-payer government solution and the Republicans for a multi-payer, portable and tax driven solution for coverage.

I also predict, contrary to what the polls suggest, it will again be a very close election but the issues will be more clearly defined than in a long time: Hawk v. dove, big government v. less-big government. An exciting, sometimes bitter, and close election is again on the horizon.


Cabe said...

As to Iraq, I think we need to step back and learn more about Iraqi society, history, and the Islamic faith. Perhaps then might we learn why things have gone the way they have, and how we might more intelligently move forward in such a complex and unknown situation. I listen to so many 'experts' butting heads without a clue or willingness to delve into the complex layers and movements in Iraqi society. I am simply aghast at some of the ignorance being displayed by some of our leaders in Washington. From Tom Tancredo's absurd remarks regarding the need to bomb Islamic holy sites, to the Bush administration's messianic belief that democracy could be spread under the guise of force and occupation.The world is so much more complex than that. Then, after reading Rory Stewarts recent piece on Afghanistan, its no surprise that many Dems. and Repubs. might be happy to throw troops at Afghanistan at the very moment things appear to be improving in a general sense. I see very few in the news, media, or even academia that truly seem to embrace both the complexity and history of the area. We already appear bigoted and Islamophobic, and in many instances we are. I talk with very few people who are able to differentiate between extremism and the Islamic faith. We here in the US want so much for the world to be simple, black and white, right and wrong. It is often an uncomfortable road to understand the grey areas and where reason is often born on both sides of the issues. Very few seem to be either intellectually equipped or emotionally strong enough to face the darkness where are own actions and thoughts often venture. As to what is right and wrong: even if politicians were free from election-self interet, I don't see many that are up to the task. There are many smart folks who have served and lived in the Middle East who believe that things will not likely improve while we are an occupying force.

Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.