Rosa Brooks has the ultimate Bushite modest proposal — let’s re-invade Vietnam.
Yesterday, the National Intelligence Estimate reported “measurable but uneven improvements” in the security situation in Iraq. While the White House has rushed to suggest that the modest gains were the result of escalation, the improvement can more plausibly be the product of Iraqi expectations of a U.S. withdrawal. (Some gains have also resulted because large numbers of Iraqis have fled their homes and ethnic cleansing has taken place.)
Much of the touted security gains have come in the Anbar province, a region that was not the target of Bush’s escalation. In fact, progress in Anbar pre-dated the surge and occurred while troop numbers were being reduced in the region.
The NIE states that local security arrangements such as those in Anbar province are being formed in response to imminent U.S. withdrawal, and that these “bottom up” security initiatives “represent the best prospect for improved security over the next six to 12 months”:
“[F]earing a Coalition withdrawal, some tribal elements and Sunni groups probably will continue to seek accommodation with the Coalition to strengthen themselves for a post- Coalition security environment” [...]
“The IC assesses that the emergence of ‘bottom-up’ security initiatives, principally among Sunni Arabs and focused on combating AQI, represent the best prospect for improved security over the next six to 12 months, but we judge these initiatives will only translate into widespread political accommodation and enduring stability if the Iraqi Government accepts and supports them.”
In April, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged, “The debate in Congress…has been helpful in demonstrating to the Iraqis that American patience is limited.” It appears that the Iraqi expectation of a U.S. troop reduction has actually produced tangible progress.
The New York Times reported that Sunnis’ perception of an impending withdrawal changed their attitudes. “Many Sunnis, for their part, are less inclined to see the soldiers as occupiers now that it is clear that American troop reductions are all but inevitable, and they are more concerned with strengthening their ability to fend off threats from Sunni jihadists and Shiite militias,” the Times wrote in July. In fact, leading Sunnis continue to demand a timetable for withdrawal.
Gareth Porter, writing for Inter Press Service, reported recently, “The apparent success of Petraeus’s shift from relying on U.S. military force to relying on Sunni troops to take care of al Qaeda could be used as an argument against continuation of the U.S. military presence in Anbar.” He added:
Recognition that there is a far more effective alternative to U.S. military operations to reduce al Qaeda’s influence would be a major blow to George W. Bush’s argument against a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops, which has relied increasingly on the threat of an al Qaeda haven in Iraq.
One key example of the mainstreaming of crackpottery that I mentioned earlier is things like the Max Boot. Here he is with a column explaining that George W. Bush’s endorsement of goofy revisionist accounts of Vietnam was “a skillful bit of political jujitsu.” He holds a variety of other crackpot views and has for years. His latest piece is in the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal, which are well-known venues for crackpottery and factually inaccurate claims. And, indeed, it was as a Wall Street Journal editorialist that he got his start.
Meanwhile, he’s now also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
That hardly means every other fellow at the CFR — much less every “member” — is a bad person with dumb ideas, but you can see why this sort of thing leads liberals to not have such warm feelings about the Council, especially when you consider that Boot tends to (undeservedly) have a much higher media than do worthier CFR types like Ray Takeyh.
In narrow military terms, the US had the capacity in 1972 to prevent South Vietnamese collapse, and in some sense the South Vietnamese position was stronger than it had been during parts of the 1960s. But these facts are almost irrelevant to the conclusion of the war; the North Vietnamese weren’t going to give up, and knew that they could force the US to pay a higher price than it was willing to by continuing the fighting. Everyone on all sides of the conflict understood these basic points, and only someone who utterly refuses to acknowledge the political dimension of military conflict could misunderstand the situation as badly as Rodman.
I concur. I should add that I was taught this material by Stephen Peter Rosen who’s something of a frothing right-winger. US military support for the Saigon regime had a fundamentally paradoxical quality to it. South Vietnamese forces had access to better equipment and training than did North Vietnamese forces, but they performed much worse than the North Vietnamese because their government lacked legitimacy. It lacked legitimacy because it was seen as a kind of corrupt quisling regime, a creature of French and then American imperialism. Massive external military support staved off military defeat, but made it completely impossible for Saigon to constitute itself as a politically legitimate alternative to unification under a nationalist regime in Hanoi.
Coming soon to an American Enterprise Institute near you, Brookings Institution scholar Michael O’Hanlon will be sharing a stage with such luminaries as Frederick Kagan, Jack Keane, Danielle Pletka, Thomas Donnelly, and Gary Schmitt.
This provides, I think, an opportunity to get a little more specific about blogger critiques of Very Serious People and clerisies and so forth. The crux of the matter is that we have here in Washington, DC a certain number of institutions working in the national security sphere that are essentially crackpot operations — AEI, The Weekly Standard, the Project for a New American Century, and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies come to mind. Now one can argue ’till the cows come home whether or not it should have been clear in August 2002 that these were crackpot operations, but over the past five years they’ve demonstrated themselves to indubitably be crackpot institutions.
Meanwhile, a couple of ticks over to the left you have a series of basically establishmentarian organizations and individuals that, instead of doing what establishmentarian organizations are supposed to do and marginalize these crackpots, are mainstreaming them. The Saban Center at Brookings, CNN, and the opinion pages of The Washington Post are probably the biggest offenders here, but the rot has spread and to some extent afflicted other organizations as well. It’s a problem. It’s by no means something every single CFR member or center-left think tanker has contributed to, but too many have contributed to it, and until very recently too many others have done little to try to seize the mantle of authority from the people who keep mainstreaming crackpots whose theories have been tested and failed, over and over again, at a cost of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.
Brian Beutler asks:
Here’s a question that goes out to basically everybody–from liberals who think that the United States can’t possibly create political reconciliation in Iraq to conservatives who think Maliki (and Iran and Democrats) are standing in the way. Is political reconciliation really enough?
I’m pessimistic. In Ending Civil Wars Stephen Stedman, Donald Rothchild, and Elizabeth Cousens conclude that “Three factors are most commonly associated with a difficult environment” in stabilizing a country in the wake of a political agreement to end a civil war. Those are “Spoilers — leaders or factions hostile to a peace agreement and willing to use violence to undermine it; neighboring states that are hostile to the agreement; and spoils — valuable, easily tradable commodities.”
Internally, I see a high likelihood of spoiling. Even if you had a political accord uniting the two major Kurdish parties, the Sadrist, Dawa, SCIRI, and a sufficient number of Sunnis, the sheer quantity of factions would be a problem. If one Shiite faction felt others were ascending at its expense, it would have an incentive to deploy Shiite maximalism to undercut its rivals’ positions. Similarly if one Kurdish party saw the other gaining the upper hand. Nobody even knows what the deal is with the Sunnis.
Similarly, on the international front while it’s certainly possible that pro-Western Arabs, Syria, Iran, Turkey, and Israel would all loyally support a reconciliation accord it would require a substantial change in the regional diplomatic situation. At the moment, it seems inevitable that somebody would see events evolving in an unfavorable direction and seek to disrupt the accords. Last, Iraq is one of the most spoils-having countries on the planet. 20th century Iraqi history is chock-a-block with coups and attempted coups simply because a successful coup can make you very rich.
Iyad Allawi sure does seem to be spending a lot of cash on Republican lobbying firms. Personally, if I had $300,000 to spend I really, really, really wouldn’t spend it trying to persuade the US government to install me as Prime Minister of Iraq, but some people are more power-hungry than others.
Fred Kagan takes to the virtual pages of The Weekly Standard to assure us that the recent NIE concludes that the “surge” policy Fred Kagan designed is succeeding. That every other media organization in the United States reached the reverse conclusion independently isn’t something you should worry about too much (they hate the troops, dontcha know?) — after all, who better to assess Kagan’s work than Kagan himself? It does, however, make you wonder where Robert and Kimberly Kagan are on all this. . . .
Here’s a good piece by Haaretz on Turkish efforts to pressure Israel to pressure the Anti-Defamation League to take the view that there was no genocide of Armenians.
Part of what this highlights, I think, is that there are some real dangers to both Israel and to American Jewish organizations from Jewish civil society groups coming to be too closely aligned with Israeli policy. Since the Knesset cannot, in fact, control the actions of the ADL, or the AJC, or any number of other Jewish institutions in the United States, the government of Israel has a fairly strong interest in not being held accountable on the international stage for the actions of these groups. Conversely, the ADL and similar groups aren’t going to want to be leaned on in this way.
This is, I think, a disaster:
“It’s a horrible prospect to ask yourself, ‘What if? What if?’ But if certain things happen between now and the election, particularly with respect to terrorism, that will automatically give the Republicans an advantage again, no matter how badly they have mishandled it, no matter how much more dangerous they have made the world,” Clinton told supporters in Concord.
“So I think I’m the best of the Democrats to deal with that,” she added.
Two points in response. The first is that I think the Democrat best positioned to deal with GOP political mobilization in a post-attack environment is going to be the one who isn’t reflexively inclined to see failed Republican policies resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Americans as a political advantage for the Republicans.
The other is that I think there’s a pretty clear sense in which the further one is from Bush’s Iraq policy, the easier it is politically to say that the failures of Bush’s national security policy should be blamed on Bush’s failed policies. Obama has a straight shot (“this is why we should have fought al-Qaeda like I said”) and Edwards (and Matt Yglesias) has a straightish one (“this is why we should have fought al-Qaeda like I think in retrospect”) whereas I’m not 100 percent sure what the Clinton message would be. Most of all, though, I think the politics of national security call for a strong, self-confident posture that genuinely believes liberal solutions are politically saleable and substantively workable, not the kind of worry-wort attitude that says we need to cower in fear every time Republicans say “terror.”
Last week, the media reported — and the White House confirmed — that the so-called “Petraeus report,” which will document the conditions on the ground in Iraq, will not be authored by Gen. David Petraeus, but rather by the White House.
Yesterday, Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) “bravely agreed to attend a meeting of the antiwar Americans Against Escalation in Iraq.” Davis was asked by Iraq war veteran John Bruhns whether reports of the “Petraeus report” being “filtered through the White House” were true.
Davis responded that he assumed that the White House would “tweak” the report:
I just would assume that if it goes through the White House, they will take it and do what they, you know — I’m sure they will probably tweak it.
Davis added that it’s up to lawmakers to “ask the hard questions… notwithstanding what the report says.” He acknowledged that there have been generals in the past who have “come up and taken the party line,” but he said he’s “going to give Gen. Petraeus the benefit of the doubt on that.”
(HT: The Crypt)
I got a bit sidetracked into TNR-bashing when I tried to address this subject previously, but I’m interested in Jonathan Chait’s view that neoconservatism used to be an honorable, idealistic enterprise that has only very recently become a kind of mindless militarism combined with support for torture, indefinite detention, etc. Now, of course, the original neoconservative foreign policy doctrine was to oppose Jimmy Carter’s injection of a larger dose of human rights into US foreign policy and to argue in favor of more vigorous American support for anti-Communist dictators. But I assume we’re talking here about what might be termed “second wave” neoconservative foreign policy — neo-neoconservatism, if you will — and for this I think it’s useful to turn to the foundational document, Kristol and Kagan’s 1996 essay “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy”.
In yesterday’s speech Bush said: “‘An interesting observation, one historian put it, ‘Had these erstwhile experts’ — he was talking about people criticizing the efforts to help Japan realize the blessings of a free society — he said, ‘Had these erstwhile experts had their way, the very notion of inducing a democratic revolution would have died of ridicule at an early stage.’” Avi Zenilman getting the historian in question to comment:
A historian quoted by President Bush to help argue that critics of the administration’s Iraq policy echo those who questioned the U.S. effort to bring democracy to Japan after World War II angrily distanced himself from the president’s remarks Thursday.
“They [war supporters] keep on doing this,” said MIT professor John Dower. “They keep on hitting it and hitting it and hitting it and it’s always more and more implausible, strange and in a fantasy world. They’re desperately groping for a historical analogy, and their uses of history are really perverse.”
The book is Embracing Defeat and, since as revealed in the Natalie Portman discussion, I took a class on modern Japan once, I’ve read the book. Were one so inclined, one could have subtitled this one “why analogies between post-war Japan and post-war Iraq are wildly inappropriate,” though since it was published in 1999 that’s probably not what Dower had in mind.
Here’s a passage from the Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency:
Of the preceding characteristics, knowledge of objectives, motivations, and means of generating popular support/tolerance will often be the most important intelligence requirements and the most difficult to ascertain. In particular, generating popular support/tolerance often has the greatest impact on the insurgency’s long-term effectiveness. This is usually the center of gravity of an insurgency.
Center of gravity, it should be said, has a technical meaning in military circles derived from Clausewitz. The enemy’s center of gravity is the thing you need to change to win the war. If the support of the population is an insurgency’s center of gravity, then they key metric by which you want to measure a counterinsurgent’s success is the counterinsurgent’s impact on the attitude of the local population.
Here’s Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack trying to clarify exactly what they did on their July trip to Iraq: “Although we were able to meet with several dozen Iraqi civilians—from people on the streets to local shaykhs—because we were nearly always in the presence of American military personnel, we felt we had little ability to gauge the mood of the Iraqi people.”
Kevin Drum arranges some Brookings Iraq Index data into tables to allow for an apples-to-apples comparison of the summer 2006 to the summer of 2007 and discovers that the surge is working if your definition of “working” doesn’t require a decrease in violence or an increase in the viability of Iraq’s basic infrastructure. Of course, even if you saw continued deterioration on those fronts, you might still take solace in good news from the political front except that there . . . isn’t any good news on the political front.
Last, I would remind readers that the summer of 2006 was worse than the summer of 2005 which, in turn, was worse than the summer of 2004. Meanwhile, at the time the summer of 2004 was conventionally considered to be very bad situation. We’ve managed to fail to badly that less-intense forms of failure now look like progress if you squint hard enough.
Given that Kevin’s data just comes straight from the Brookings Iraq Index project, one wonders how it is that Brookings fellows like Peter Rodman, Michael O’Hanlon, and Kenneth Pollack seem so unaware of it. Surely the Brookings communications staff should be capable of getting this information into the hands of the organization’s own staff.