Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Now What?

In the Iraq Study Group report coming out, they argue that in terms of strategy from here, we have a choice between "going big," "going long," and "going home" (boy, sometimes the jokes just write themselves don't they... "This report sponsored by Pfizer, makers of Viagra"; or, "hey, who let Clarence Thomas on the committee?"). I have no idea which would most likely lead to the best overall outcome (an empirical question, after all), but we can at least look at the presuppositions underlying each.

Going Big

This is the line advocated by John McCain. The idea is that we need a massive influx of troops to completely occupy the area. This will lead to pacification and we can then begin to draw down forces. The assumption underlying this is that the sort of violence we see right now in Iraq is occurring because we're seeing this sort of violence right now in Iraq. Iraq is like a tipping glass, it is stable in its normal position, but in danger when knocked over. On this view, the war as we've mismanaged it has caused the glass to tip out of its normal position and it takes a large force to stabilize the situation returning it to its normal peaceful equilibrium. Once there is an absence of violence, the line goes, the large majority of people will decide it is better like this and the whole scene will cool down.

In its favor, one should never underestimate people's desire for a stable world in which to live their lives and raise their kids. Perhaps there is a stable normal state that just needs re-establishing. But on the other hand, the fact that works against this basic presupposition that stopping the violence will stop the violence is that you have a country in which you have long-standing animosity and an unequal distribution of a very valuable viscous natural resource. There does seem to be reason to be worried that, contrary to the central assumption, anytime one takes the lid off the pot it will begin to boil over again.

Going Long

This is the Bush administration's line. It is akin to Ali's rope-a-dope strategy. We're tough enough to take the best they can hit us with and after a while we will simply wear them down and be able to take them out. Like the tortoise in the story, victory lies at the end of a long, long road, we just need to stay on it as long as it takes. Victory is assured if just stay the course (and no longer use phrases like "stay the course").

On the one hand, it certainly is true that not sticking around in the 1980s was part of the reason Afghanistan took the turn it did and led in part to 9/11 which led to the drumbeat for wider war. The Pottery Barn rule -- if you break it, you bought it -- does seem to be in effect and to have made a mess and left seems wrong on a whole host of levels. But in the other direction, the current strategy has been a miserable failure, like the person with a dead battery who keeps turning the key hoping this time the car will start, to keep doing what you know doesn't work and clapping louder does not seem the most rational choice.

Going Home

The idea behind either phased or rapid redeployment of American troops is that a significant part of the reason for the violence is our presence in Iraq -- we're not just fighting the insurgency, we're actually causing it and doing so at a rate greater than we can suppress it. If you want to put out the fire, step one, stop pouring gasoline on it, you moron. The idea is that having conducted this operation so badly, we have squandered any good will we may have had with the Iraqi people and as long as we continue to occupy their land, we will continue to fan the flames. Without the US presence, there will be a brief flare up leading to more violence, but a long cooling down period moving slowly towards long-term stability in a way that could never happen with American troops remaining in the country.

In its favor, we can look at a poker metaphor: When a player bets big, it is either because he has a great hand and wants to try to either force everyone else out of the game and take the chips on the table, is bluffing and trying to make everyone think he has a great hand and then takes the chips on the table, or he wants someone else to go in big and take a lot of chips. For this to work, there has to be good reason to believe he has a powerful hand. When a player quietly keeps feeding the pot, it means he either has a sure winner and is trying not to scare people off or he has a hand that very well may win, but he needs to see more cards to determine whether it is worth playing for big money. The problem is that if other people on the table have good reason to think they have you beat with, your strategy choices become less and less effective. With each new card that shows up on the table, you lose the ability to maneuver and the good player knows when to fold 'em. A good lay down is crucial to playing poker in the long run. The longer we are in Iraq, the weaker our hand is looking and it seems like we are just throwing away money and lives.

On the other hand, if we leave all hell could break loose. If Iraq partitions, you could have long-term instability, an invasion of the north by Turkey, another Iran in the south, and a central region without resources, with a chip on its shoulder, and the ability to continue wreaking havoc. And, yeah, that's just what we need in a Middle East that is already in shambles and geo-politically crucial to world stability.

So which presupposition, if any, is right? If I knew, I'd probably have more than a blog...