Monday, December 18, 2006

Bush Sending Serge to Iraq?

So of the options that a group of Pentagon strategists put forward, President Bush is now considering the "go big" option. The idea is to send a surge of troops in order to pacify Iraq, or at least the Baghdad region in hopes of changing the current dynamic.

There are two possibilities here. Either the hope is that the new troops will provide a shock to the system that will radically alter the situation on the ground or it will provide a short window of lessened violence which would cynically allow the President to have something to point to, declare victory, and start a draw down claiming to have won in Iraq.

The hope that a surge of troops will alter the situation is based upon the same basic strategy as putting a young child having a tantrum on a time out. The idea is that right now emotions are so stirred up and the child so out of control that it is impossible to reason with the child and the melt down is only spiraling down and down. There is nothing constructive that can be accomplished through engagement either by trying to speak calmly or threatening punishment. But after a cool down period, the child will listen and respond differently. At that point, the child will be rational and we'll have a teachable moment where we can talk about what precipitated the tantrum, how he or she reacted to it, what could have been done differently, and how the outcome would have been more positive if the other route had been chosen.

By putting a whole bunch more boots on the ground, the hope is to significantly decrease the sectarian violence and therefore diminish the reprisal attacks. The thought is that violence is fueling violence and if we can just get a temporary moratorium, we can stop the spiral. Once order is imposed, the vast majority of people will prefer the order and cooler, more moderate heads will prevail. Those who want to return to the previous state of violence will be marginalized and a state of normalcy will become normal.

If that's the plan, I hope it works. Don't think it will, but I hope it does. The reason I believe it will fail is that the time out metaphor fails on a number of fronts. First, we are not dealing with children here and the US is not the big Daddy. The factions in Iraq are organized with well armed militias. They have definite agendas that are worked out and supported by religious and cultural worldviews. Additionally, the US has lost any possible credibility or moral authority we might have had. We are not seen as an honest broker with the best interest of the Iraqi people at heart and therefore have no power, even if the violence is temporarily quelled.

Second, while there is no doubt that violence begets violence, the time out metaphor requires a peace as an equilibrium. Time out type strategies will be effective when you have a teetering cup of coffee with a flat bottom. On its edge, the cup is unstable, but return it to its normal orientation on a flat table and everything will relax. But that is not the case here. Everything that started the violence -- a bloody history of oppression, religious tensions, an uneven division of natural resources, desires for national independence -- is still there. The thorns will still be in the lion's paw after the Novocaine wears off. What we have is perhaps better modeled by the Israeli/Palestinian conflict where cease-fires do diminish the number of tit for tat killings for a while, but then the violence gets up a head of steam and everything is back to the horrible place it always seems to be.

Had this surge come at the beginning of the adventure as people like Eric Shinseki were advising, everything would have been different. The US could have claimed some sort of moral authority. There was a period when the Iraqis were suspicious, but optimistic or at least open to the possibility that the US would be able to bring order and a better life. If we had come in large instead of light and never let things get out of control in the first place, everything would be different. But the PNAC plan of protect the oil, give no bid contracts to Halliburton, Bechtel, and other major GOP contributors, and stay out the way so that liberal democracy would spontaneously appear was the preferred choice -- because after all, it worked so smashingly in Afghanistan (with the accent on "smash").

Coming in heavy now may succeed in overwhelming the insurgency and the warring factions. It may inflame things further, but hopefully the military folks are thinking things through and being allowed to do it right. There does seem to be some reason to believe it could provide some respite from the civil war. As with the Israel/Palestine case, putting a lid on the pot will hopefully give a short window of depressed violence, if enough troops are brought in (where they'll come from, I don't know). But I don't think anyone who looks at this situation where we have the current President protecting al-Sadr and his militia, Sunnis who are fighting back, possibly with Saudi support which could soon go open and provide them with much more power, and Kurds who are making Turkey nervous with their plans.

My guess is that we are looking at the cynical option. The Bush folks know that the situation is unwinnable, but could never admit an error. They need to not only save face, they need to be able to punch the Democrats in theirs, reality be damned. The Bush people are looking to make this the two minute warning, bring in troops to call halftime, and then be the entertainment where they can bring their dog and pony show on the field, say that if the Democrats had their way the game would still be ongoing, declare fake victory, and leave.

Afterwards, of course, the manager from Pottery Barn will not have his calls returned.