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January 11, 2007

How Exactly?
Posted by David Shorr

So I'm sitting here, trying to grant every benefit of the doubt I can. What is our best shot here? What can we still hope to salvage from this debacle? Is our ability to do good in Iraq, to do right by Iraqis, completely exhausted?

As with much of foreign policy, the debate isn't about the ends we pursue, but how we pursue them. The vision of Iraqis (and everyone else for that matter) freed from repression and violence and pursuing their happiness is shared across the widest political spectrum. The proposition (thanks Bruce) is that a boost in the forces deployed in Baghdad will secure the streets of the capital so that ordinary peace-loving citizens create the social space and the political demand for Sunni-Shia coexistence and an end to the fighting.

That sounds nice.

I'm only half joking. I would actually accept the following as a desired end-state:

Yet over time, we can expect to see Iraqi troops chasing down murderers, fewer brazen acts of terror, and growing trust and cooperation from Baghdad’s residents. When this happens, daily life will improve, Iraqis will gain confidence in their leaders and the government will have the breathing space it needs to make progress in other critical areas. Most of Iraq’s Sunni and Shia want to live together in peace, and reducing the violence in Baghdad will help make reconciliation possible.

Of course there are huge assumptions embedded here, premises to borrow again from Bruce Jentleson's terminology. And the danger of granting the benefit of the doubt is that you risk joining in a fantasy. The description above is a lovely scenario and probably not entirely off the mark in depicting the emergence of peace. But how exactly is it brought to fruition?

What is taken for granted is that the application of our chosen means will produce our desired ends. We are to believe that the spirit of reconciliation lies just below the surface, just as the hunger for democracy was when we invaded. We merely have to push the militias into retreat and it will flower forth.

The president raised the question of what is different now, but didn't answer it. Here are some of the assumptions I spot:

  • Iraqi military and police units will report for duty in full strength, despite persistent problems.
  • For that matter, it's assumed that regular military and law enforcement are distinct and distinguishable from the militias.
  • Maliki can be counted on to enforce his pledge that "sectarian interference will not be tolerated"
  • An equitable agreement on sharing oil revenues will not only be reached but complied with (the apportioning of a society's resources is always one of the knottiest problems in a civil war)

Mainly I see a huge mismatch between the scale of the problem and the leverage being brought to bear. I'm not a military specialist, so I don't have counterinsurgency troop level calculator. All I know is that Baghdad is one of the world's largest cities, and it just doesn't seem practical that the US presence, combined with whatever commitment Iraqi soldiers and police bring, can squeeze the militias from the capital's nooks and crannies.

I'm still honestly receptive to -- even hungry for -- a more realistic set of priorities to start to turn things around before we pull out. I would consider extending the timeline to, say, 18 months to achieve them. I'm not sure what those are, but I don't think we heard them tonight.


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