September 15, 2006
It seems like every few months that passes in Iraq there comes another decisive moment, where the good guys either have to prevail or back out. The past two months have seem to qualify as such a "turning point," with nonstop horrific car bombings perpetrated by Al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents, and revenge killings by Shiite militia forces. The U.S. response was woefully inadequate -- beefing up troop strength in Baghdad by a brigade and extending the duty of a few units. Bleak as things seem, it would be foolish to put much stock in any predictions -- either optimistic or pessimistic. The truth is, we simply can't tell how much moral and physical resources the terrorists have left.
In recent days it was learned that Marine commanders are becoming pessimistic about containing the insurgency in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, west of Baghdad. Iraqi government forces have had little success in standing up to the tribal warlords, necessitating a heavy U.S. troop presence. For how long? The Pentagon responded by stressing that the overall security situation in Iraq is more complex, and indeed much of the country is fairly peaceful, and much progress is being made. Not in Baghdad or the Sunni triangle, though. See DefenseLink. Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, who commands the Multinational Corps in Iraq, said that Anbar province is of secondary important, and that "Baghdad is our main effort right now." Retreating into the fortress is not an encouraging sign, if that's what it is. See Washington Post.
Another worrisome sign is that Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT), a moderate who has consistently supported the war in Iraq, now supports legislation calling for U.S. troops to be withdrawn from Iraq next year. He led a House subcommittee hearing today, seeking frank assessments from Mideast experts. Prof. Fouad Ajami said he thinks the war in Iraq was "fated" from the day the terrorists struck us in 2001. The United States simply had to confront and defeat an Arab country, since the airline hijackers were Arab. He has often criticized U.S. foreign policy, but on this question he implied that the U.S. response was understandable. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) seemed a bit irritated by this, wanting unequivocal support for his anti-war stance, but it's an interesting point.
In the Washington Post two weeks ago, John Lehman wrote "We're Not Winning This War." (First James Webb, now Lehman -- what is it with these defeatist former secretaries of the Navy who served under Reagan?) To be perfectly honest, Lehman made some convincing points. Above all, the primary objective of the war -- to retore global security by dissuading other countries from flirting with WMDs and terrorists -- does not seem to be working in Iran, Syria, or North Korea. The rogue regimes comprising the "Axis of Evil" (which is not really much of an axis) is as defiant as ever.
Another way to assess the war is whether it is pushing the Iraqi government and security forces toward more competence and professionalism. The Winds of Change blog (via Donald Sensing), cited a U.S. Marine in Iraq who is becoming exasperated with the refusal of Iraqi military officers to rise above their past brutal, corrupt, tribalist ways. Hence the rise of the Shiite militias, which work tacitly with the Iraqi government. This goes to show that winning or losing in Iraq is the hands of the Iraqi people themselves -- we can help them, but ultimately U.S. actions will not be decisive.
After a period of quiet reflection during his August vacation, President Bush has come out swinging, with a series of major speeches. In Salt Lake City earlier this month, he invoked the term "Islamic fascism," a welcome blunt depiction of the threat we face that angered many people who seem to think being nice wins wars. More recently he warned that giving up in Iraq would show the enemy that we lack the will to prevail, making us more vulnerable to terrorism. I think he is probably right about that, but he really needs to make some tough decisions to show that he has the will to prevail. What should he do?
Above all, Bush needs to take decisive action in terms of deploying U.S. forces. Shifting a battalion here or a brigade there is not going to win this war. Incremental, risk-averse moves are one of the similarities with Vietnam that I find disquieting. If U.S. forces really are exhausted and at the end of their rope, then it is time to either expand our regular armed forces by at least ten percent, or else pull back. The former alternative would require a large tax hike, which would deeply annoy many conservatives. It is one hell of a dilemma. This is precisely the sort of situation where a wartime president ought to convene a special summit of leaders from both parties to reestablish a semblance of national unity in the war effort. They could be joined by retired "elder statesmen" such as former secretaries of state George Shultz, Zbigniew Brezinzski, or Henry Kissinger. (Frankly I doubt that Warren Christopher or Madeleine Albright would be of much use, but their presence might help a little.)
Many people ask whether we would have liberated Iraq if we had known what they ultimate consequences would be, but such speculations are pointless. I supported Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, and even if worse comes to worse, I would stand by that original judgment. At various points during and immediately after the war, many observers (including me) criticized the way the war and the occupation were being conducted, and it is very possible that things could have turned out much better than they did in real life.
Steven Den Beste, who used to run his own blog, begs to differ from the widespread notion that 9/11 "brought us together." There is a particularly thoughtful comment by , who argues that Western intellectuals tend to blame their own governments for the problems of the world because their whole purpose in life is tied to influencing policy making, and non-Western governments are simply impervious to rational persuasion by outsiders.