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Iraq Metrics, the Surge, Master Narratives & Values (Pt.1)

September 18, 2007

This is no doubt another overly-ambitious initiative on my part, but I’ll give it a shot.

Tim C. has asked for clarification on what I consider to be accurate metrics of progress in Iraq. Although I feel like I have adressed this subject ad naseum over the past couple of years, I thought it would be a good time to approach it more directly.

The middle east has been in turmoil as long as I can remember. My first real political memories were of the Carter years, especially the Iranian hostage crisis. As I have learned more about politics, I have come to believe that our middle east policy, whatever benefits in the short term it may have achieved, has been a disaster in the long term. That policy, which has spread over many different administrations- Carter, Regan, Bush I, and Clinton, was one that studiously avoided direct military intervention as long as borders were not officially crossed. The so-called “realism” of the day meant we picked some bastard we would deal with and bite our lip. On the surface it seemed to work tolerably well, but as we all know now, underneath a festering resentment was growing that proved to be stronger and deadlier than anyone had the imagination to foresee, not just in the horror of 9/11, but the rise of a global networked insurgency tied to a militant Islamist theology whose goal was the destruction of the West- indeed all that opposed their evil goals.

So in the way I believe only an insane person tries the same thing expecting different results, I came to believe that our strategy must change. I would hasten to add I was not an immediate subscriber to these ideas, but neither did I hold them in contmpt from the beginning either. Jeff Goldstein at Protein Wisdom has a great post (in response to one of his more well-spoken liberal commenters much resembling Tim) “On the Surge and Macro Strategies” where he argues:

The status quo in the middle east is reinforced by US foreign policy “realism.” But it was decades of such realism — and failure to respond to increasingly provocative attacks from jihadists — that gave us 911. So the argument for the ME tipping the other way — toward more complete Islamic rule as a direct result of our current foreign policy — I find unpersuasive, not because it couldn’t happen, but rather because it is precisely that contingency which we have been trying to forestall by changing the conditions inside the region. And to do so, we have changed foreign policy strategy.

This is the context all in which arguments about metrics need to be made in relation to the past. As far as the future is concerned, I think everyone more or less agrees that a precipitous pull out would be an epic disaster resulting in the death of millions more in the region. Furthermore, I don’t think anyone disputes that a future drawdown must be forthcoming. I just think it needs to be made on the basis of the success of the mission rather than feeling good about bringing troops home. Goldstien continues:

Has the gamble worked? Not yet, no. But given all that has militated against its success — not the least of which is that political cynicism of the very party that has always claimed to support liberation and the spread of democracy in theory (but, once given the opportunity to bring it about, has suddenly found a new savior in James Baker, and has traded in idealism for political expedience) — I’d say the fact that we are now still in a position to pull this dynamic restructuring off, and that Iraqis are turning away from al Qaeda and are moving slowly (but, I think, inexorably) toward a political solution to sectarian violence and ethnic troubles (which may manifest in the very kind of federalist arrangement we once had here at home) that could end in a representative Arab democracy, is a minor miracle.

That so many countries in the region find such a resolution threatening enough to send in foreign fighters is demonstrative of their fear that such a success would result in a drastic change in the region’s political culture — one that would effectively end aristocracies and marginalize pure theocracies.

And the only weapons such countries have to beat back this physical and memetic threat are terrorism and propaganda — not having the armies to try to halt progress by force of national arms.

That some here in the US haven’t been able to recognize this — that they in fact agitate for the very conditions that would lead the enemies of democracy, pluralism, and natural rights to declare victory and once again beat back the hopes of reformers in the region — is either a grave error in judgment or something much worse: a political ploy to regain power (by discrediting attempts being made by a Republican administration that resembles Kennedy Democrats more so than Bush I realists) at the expense of throwing the entire ME into turmoil.

Personally, I’m clinging to the “grave error” thesis, but the unwillingness to accept the Petraeus/Crocker testimony, and let stand the personal attacks against Petraeus is just one more indication that what is at issue is not and has never been about “metrics”. The political ploy theory is justly applied to some in Washington, but I find it hard to believe it would be the conscious choice of people like Tim.

More likely a suspect I think is the radical commitment to the ideal of non-violence and dialogue as the way to resolve all problems nurtured by remnants of a fundamentalist theology that holds one as “citizens of the heaven” transformed ever so gently into becoming “citizens of the world” by the Leftist idea that America is inherently an agressor and a bad thing in the world.

When I think of “measuring success” it’s in a world where there is no perfect past, and also no American villian that stands out. I know Clinton gets a lot of grief for letting al Queda grow in the 90’s, which I think is somewhat justified, but Clinton was living in a different age. The world is in the decades long process of learning how to deal with the new reality of networked global insurgency.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Timmy C. permalink
    September 19, 2007 11:23 pm

    looking forward to metrics part II before i comment….

  2. September 21, 2007 1:34 pm

    I will reiterate my belief that very little of the criticism from the left of Bush’s actions in Iraq has anything to do with the Middle East. The battle they fight is for the Soul of America, and their own ascendancy on the American sociocultural scene. Events abroad, except perhaps in western European media, are of little actual importance. They are mere counters in the American political game. It’s a war, people will die, things will go wrong, Americans get tired of every war after three years, and they can use those politically.

    I don’t think that the rank-and-file progressives started out this way in 2001. But they have been gradually moved in that direction by the opinion-makers on the left. Progressivism is enforced socially more than intellectually, and conservatives have little defense against that.

  3. Timmy C permalink
    September 25, 2007 4:36 pm

    To try to encourage part II here, here is the original question that I kept hoping for a clear answer:

    “I disagree with but respect the advice of those who say “The building [of Iraq] is so important that we must stay in the burning building until the roof actually begins falling down on our people, and then we leave.” (I *THINK* this is your position)….

    I guess the whole thing could be better served by better definitions. Here is a bit from the Christian Science Monitor:

    “If we can’t agree on present conditions, then it’s critical that we have tripwires at both ends of the effectiveness spectrum: one for success, and one for failure.

    The former is difficult to determine because it’s shifted considerably. In 2005, the White House defined victory in Iraq in three stages that culminate in a peaceful, united, stable, and secure partner in the war on terror. But just this month, President Bush appeared to lower the bar, saying: ‘Either we’ll succeed, or we won’t succeed. And the definition of success as I described is sectarian violence down….’

    Meanwhile, the tripwire for failure doesn’t seem to exist.

    Obviously, the United States must not share its failure guidelines with the enemy. But if such standards were crystal clear among America’s leaders, we would see much greater consensus in Washington…”

    So what would your definition of a “trip wire for failure” be?”

    I do this because I think the author was right: a greater definition of both success and failure would greatly help discussions like this one.

    The closest I ever got from you was: “Tripwire: we’re a long way from my idea of a tripwire” but nothing clearer….”

  4. September 26, 2007 5:55 am

    I think those tripwire and success metrics are artificial requirements. They have a superficial appeal, as it seems to go to the heart of any question of “what are we trying to do and why.” But they don’t actually go to the heart of those questions, they just have the appearance of it. I thought the same thing in Bosnia and Kosovo when people were pressing Bill Clinton in similar fashion. It is a fair question to ask, but the questioner must understand that the answer will *necessarily* be messy, variable, and ambiguous. It’s like asking “What defines a successful parent?” Any answer that one gives admits of immediate qualifications and exceptions. Even good answers to that question can be easily demolished in conversation by any person who is not looking for an answer, but looking for an argument.

    For that reason, I think the “how do we define success” question is a great question to ask when it is asked honestly, but worse than useless when asked slyly. The way one tells the difference is to retreat first to earlier questions: what was the situation and what were our real choices? What are the probable results of each of those choices? What were the possible catastrophic results of each of those choices?

    Every possible course of action involves a roll of the dice. It is only within that framework that any discussion can take place. I believe there have been war opponents who have offered this discussion honestly, but they are, quite frankly, rare. More usual is a question-begging or trapping discussion in which the arguer’s objective is not to solve the problem, but to score points.

    This is a general accusation, and not specific to Timmy C. But it is now my *general* practice, not an unfortunate exception, to retreat first to the metacommunication questions surrounding any serious discussion of the greater war on terror. I now need to establish that a real discussion will actually take place.

    After that, my short answer: the War in Iraq is going extremely well by historical standards, and was even before the Surge. Unfortunately, the modern standard – applied with equal unfairness to both Republican and Democratic presidents – carries an expectation of bloodlessness, uninterrupted success, ongoing popularity, and comfy predictability that has little connection to reality.

    Lots of people want to kill us, for reasons that have more to do with their own pathologies than anything we have done wrong. Some are fanatical and want nothing else than defeating us. Others would more passively prefer us “gone,” and there is a full range between. These many people have shifting alliances and varying amounts of power and influence. That is the starting point. No solution to that problem is quick or clean.

  5. Timmy C permalink
    September 26, 2007 2:19 pm

    AVI wrote: “It is a fair question to ask, but the questioner must understand that the answer will *necessarily* be messy, variable, and ambiguous.”

    Fine. But to be fair, neither you or dave have even offered an ambiguous, blurry definition yet.

    You gave a brief paragraph of how well you thought the war was going really well from a long view, but not a listing of things that signify when we’ve “won” or markers as to when it is “lost.”

    So outside of basically saying “you don’t want to answer if people aren’t honestly asking” what do you think?

  6. Timmy C permalink
    October 1, 2007 8:49 pm

    Just to “prime the pump” on definitions of success or failure… I’ll start.

    At this point in the conflict I actually would go with these three markers as defining success in Iraq…although clearly I’d hope for more.

    I’d agree with Will Marshall’s comments here:

    “Specifically, we should redefine our military mission in Iraq as enforcing three “noes” that are essential to protecting America’s strategic interests — no safe havens for al Qaeda, no genocide, and no wider regional war.”

    If we can cross those markers, then we should be willing to call that success…anything above and beyond that that we can get, great. But that is what we should target…at least as first goals.

    As to markers for failure, I agree with the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the Pentagon, Admiral Mullen….

    He called out as a key metric recently:

    Political reconciliation and economic growth are equally important to stabilizing Iraq, he said. “Barring that, no amount of troops and no amount of time will make much of a difference,” he told the committee.

    I see our current strategy pre-and-post surge as a “finger in the dike and hope” plan. It does nothing to really pressure for change if the key structural problems the government has, nor the issues that enflame the insurgency and civil war.

    So we should look to key warning signs the lack of political reconciliation related benchmarks, or if we see things go backwards.

    And I would think this a smart choice of a marker from Republican Sen. Graham:

    Graham told TIME Wednesday that the Iraqi leaders have 90 days to start resolving their political differences with real legislative agreements or face a change in strategy by the U.S. “If they can’t do it in 90 days,” he said, “it means the major players don’t want to….”

    “We’ve won the day here politically, to give them the infrastructure they need to do this. It’s been missing up until now. I am vocally saying it’s up to [the Iraqis] to deliver. We’ve done our part.”

    Though he would not elaborate on what kind of plan he would push if the Iraqis fail to meet the deadline, Graham did say a change in strategy would be warranted. “If they can’t do it by the end of the year,” he said, “how do you justify a continued presence?”

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