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November 29, 2006

Iraq Rx: A Shot of Realism
Posted by Marc Grinberg

Since the summer of 2005, I've heard from senior Democratic national security insiders, at regular strategy meetings and in personal conversations, that President Bush was going to start pulling American troops out of Iraq before the November election - they were 100% certain of it.  Now, I'm hearing from the same people that the pull out will definitely begin next year, since no 2008 Republican presidential contender want to deal with 100,000+ troops still deployed in Iraq. 

Of course, these folks were dead wrong the first time around and it seems likely that they'll be wrong again.  Yes, a rational reading of the political landscape would suggest that the President was going to begin a withdrawal before November and certainly before '08, but lets remember that President Bush can hardly be described as rational.

Yesterday, at the opening of a NATO summit in Latvia the President insisted that he's "not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete."  On this particular issue (though not many others), I'm inclined to take him at his word.

For those who believe an American military presence in Iraq can do nothing but make the situation worse, this is certainly bad news.  But for those of us who think that American troops can, at the very least, prevent things from descending into all out ethnic cleansing, hope hinges on whether this Administration's Iraq strategy can start working.

With "stay the course" Rumsfeld at the helm, the answer was obviously a big "no."  But, with Robert Gates, I am hopefully optimistic.  In Iraq, a shot of "realism" may be just what the doctor ordered.

Now, I am no fan of a Kissinger/Scowcroft-style conservative realist foreign policy.  I think realist strategy, namely balance of power, has proven time and again that alone, it fails to achieve the long term national interest.  Furthermore, the absence of values considerations in the making of foreign policy all too often leaves conservative realism - both its means and its ends - illiberal.  (Note: I explicitly say "conservative realism," which I think is different than the "liberal realism" of Anatol Lieven and Steve Clemons, among others - I'll address this in a future post). 

Nonetheless, it seems to me that a little bit of realist influence may be just what the Bush Administration needs to move forward in Iraq.

My problem with the Administration's version of neoconservative foreign policy is largely (and has always been) about means, not ends - which I think are in many (though certainly not all) ways similar to those of liberal internationalists (the promotion of democracy, development, liberalism, etc).  The last five years have shown that neoconservative means are simply unrealistic, since they are based on false assumptions about human nature and the international system (ex. that democracy would quickly spring up after the fall of Saddam; that the world would line up behind a morally motivated America, that military force alone can secure American interests, etc).

The only way the Administration's foreign policy could succeed in the pursuit of its neoconservative-influenced ends is through the use of realistic - that is, non-neoconservative - policies.  The Administration neocons are incapable of changing to a more realistic course, since it would require them to go against everything they know about how the world works (though you think they would see by now that what they "know" is wrong!).   But maybe, just maybe, a realist - who shares few of the assumptions and beliefs of the neocons - could succeed. 

Of course, the realists are no fan of neoconservative ends - in Iraq, this means democracy (or really anything better than simple "stability").  But assuming Bush continues to believe that he is the 21st century Truman - tasked by a higher power with remaking the Middle East - and he can channel Gates' (realist) energies towards this end, we may just make some progress.  Granted history has yet to show that you can make a realist design and implement policies in pursuit of decidedly anti-realist ends.  But if anyone can do it, I'm going to put my money on someone as stubborn and ideologically driven as Bush.

You will probably never get me to endorse conservative realism again, but here's to more realists in the Bush Administration - for once, they may be just what America needs.


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I think you've gotten yourself all tied up in knots here, Marc. But let's be specific: what is it precisely that you think Gates can and will do that Rumsfeld couldn't or wouldn't? And what makes you think Gates will have more success than Rumsfeld?

Well Rumsfeld was by no means a realist (though, he certainly wasn't a neocon either - to be honest, I'm not really sure what Rumsfeld's ideology was). So, for example, while Rumsfeld wasn't willing to consider engaging with Iran and Syria to help slow sectarian violence in Iraq, Gates has said we should ( Unlike Rumsfeld, Gates recognizes the importance of diplomacy, arguing that diplomatic communication has helped American "manage many potentially difficult situations" in the past. In this vain, I suspect that Gates would do a better job at reaching out to allies for whatever limited assistance they will give us (even if its just support for an international conference on Iraq) - Rumsfeld didn't even pay lip service to our non-British allies. The point is really that I think it was Rumsfeld (not Bush) that stuck us with "stay the course" even as it was so obviously failing. A realist (and one who its not clear even advocated for the war in 2003), is much more likely to recognize the failures of the current strategy and steer a new direction.

It's possible Gates will want to do something different. But what can our military do different? If we assume that no one will actually listen to us and cooperate with us unless we force them, then any new actions have to center around the military.

We could nuke somebody.

We could spread smart minefields on iraq's borders and do a lot of patrolling with UAVs.

We could do massive airstrikes on cities that fall to one or more of our enemies.

We could put more of a presence on the ground, shooting at everything that moves when we get attacked. But this approach leads to increased US casualties, and it hasn't gotten us anything much so far.

We could put more men on the ground and respond to tips from iraqis. Kidnap whoever the tipsters tell us to, and try to get information from them. Traditionally that has gotten us something like a 15% success rate -- 6 out of 7 tips have been completely baseless. But that last 1 in 7 might get usdeful results, and if we had more men to follow up -- particularly more arabic-speakers -- it might do some sort of good.

We could shut down the food distribution, and distribute food ourselves. No food to anybody who looks disloyal. Could we starve out the oposition?

We could take the schools and teachers and primary-school students and evacuate them all to the USA. They would be safer there, and also they'd be hostages to their parents' good behavior. We wouldn't tell anybody in the USA that bad things might happen to kids whose parents were suspected insurgents, but the iraqis would believe it without a second thought, even if we never made the threat official.If the kids wind up staying in the USA the older ones will make great arabic translators in a few years if we invade somewhere else. If they learn some english and go home they'll make it far easier if we wind up invading iraq again. Much easier to run an occupation when the locals understand your language.

I'm running out of ideas. What can we do different militarily? When we have no sunni friends and very few shia friends, what does a military victory mean? And how can we get any other kind?

All of these "isms" are giving me a headache. I more than half suspect they are a product of conspiracy, the object of which is to allow academics, columnists and bloggers who do not and never will participate in the making or oversight of foreign policy to discuss it using a frame of reference convenient to them, and thereby persuade themselves that they are in the game.

Let's do a reality check or two. What was the more salient fact about the Truman administration's foreign policy, that it was "realist" or that it was run by George Marshall and Dean Acheson, two of the ablest men of their day, having each of them the complete confidence of the President they served? Does it make sense to call the administrations of both Nixon and the elder Bush "realist" when Nixon sought constantly to increase American options and make foreign policy less a matter of reacting to events while Bush's whole orientation was toward passivity and reaction -- to Kohl, to Gorbachev, to Bandar -- whenever possible? Which is the vital fact about the younger Bush's administration, that it was "neoconservative" or that Bush entered office almost entirely ignorant of foreign policy and inherited from Bill Clinton an emaciated State Department and a Pentagon already much more powerful relative to State than it had been in 50 years?

There are all these discussions going on now about "isms" that assume it is doctrine, or at least doctrinal orientation, that matters in foreign policy rather than facts, institutions and personalities. That's never been the case before, and it isn't the case now.

Well...we are screwed if we don't get out of Iraq. They are going to run us meaning the taxpayers. All of our taxes go to the corporate contractors over there just so they can raise gas prices and irresponsibly funnel money to who knows where. The responsible thing to do with our money would be to put it towards building infrastructure in Iraq and actually providing aid. We could even do this elsewhere in the world for less money than this war. I wonder what the history books will say about this war in 100 years. "Oh, instead of helping in global poverty through the Millennium Development Goals, the US spent billions of dollars in a war that they could not win but on the basis of moral high ground."

"But assuming Bush continues to believe that he is the 21st century Truman - tasked by a higher power with remaking the Middle East -

Just to clarify the issue, Marc: do you consider this statement as a positive or a negative point? A case can easily be made that it is just precisely this sense of Divine Mission In The Great Game - supported for so long by the US' Great National Freakout over 9/11 - which is, far from being the answer to our current problems in Iraq, the fundamental cause of them.

Leaving aside the point about whether George W. Bush really IS the "21st-Century Truman"*; it seems that the basic strategy employed by the Bush 43 Administration's - buoyed up by its putative "leader"'s overblown sense of being God's Own Champion has led, thus far mostly to disaster: why would anyone want to promote this self-destructive delusion any further?

* AFAIC, the answer to this question is
"No F----- Way!" Besides the points mentioned by Zathras above, old Harry S rarely ever got "above himself": he seems mainly to have viewed himself as an ordinary man, thrust into a position of horrific power and responsibility, who had to deal with things on a basis of common sense, measured judgment, and the reliance on the advice of those who just might know better. Of course, Truman didn't get everything right; but he was still lightyears better than the pathetic crew we have running things nowadays.

Realistically, we should address the Millennium Development Goals because reducing poverty will improve US and Iraqi national security. The Borgen Project is working for the fulfillment of these goals.

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