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March 31, 2008

Max Boot: Even Wackier Edition
Posted by Patrick Barry

I second Michael’s move to have Max Boot declared March’s Global Village Dunce, but I also want to point out another reason why the strategic conceptions girding Boot’s argument -- that withdrawal from Iraq will mean devastating victory for al-Qaeda – are just massively flawed.  This weekend Boot made explicit what I have long suspected is the point of reference for all conservatives making the ‘Iraq in Flames’ argument – the Soviet failure to defeat the Mujahadeen during the Soviet-Afghan War: 

Just as Islamist militants were emboldened by the Soviet Union's retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, so they would be encouraged by our premature departure from Iraq.

Implicit in conservative’s reliance on this historical analogy, and their fear that a withdrawal from Iraq will cede victory to Al-Qaeda and send the United States on a path of irreversible decline, is an assumption that the Soviet Union’s collapse came as a direct result of the Red Army’s defeat in Afghanistan at the hands of the Mujahadeen.  What follows is a crude outline of this utterly absurd logic:

  1. American-backed Mujahadeen fight Soviets in Afghanistan.
  2. Mujahadeen defeat Soviets.
  3. 2 years later, Soviet Union collapses.
  4. Mujahadeen triumph = Soviet collapse.

Boot and his cronies are essentially trying to say “Hey America, did you see what happened to the Soviets after we paid the Afghans to kick their ass? Well that’s what’s going to happen if we re-deploy from Iraq.”  Not only does this massively overstate the role that United States played in upending the USSR (whose economy had been stagnant for over a decade and whose per capita GDP in 1989 was a little over 2/5th the size of our own), but the situations aren’t even close to being similar in the first place. 

As bad as the Bush Administration has made things in Iraq, the choice faced by the United States there is not existential. American re-deployment is not the same as American defeat for precisely the reasons that Michael and others have outlined – that Al Qaeda will likely have a pretty tough time declaring victory when there are 30,000 more American troops stationed right on their doorstep.  Conservatives like Boot are too busy playing Cold War analogy games to grasp this relatively simple, but important strategic distinction. 

Joe Lieberman's Hypocrisy
Posted by Michael Cohen

I have a confession to make to DA readers - and it's a pretty embarrassing one (worse than revelations about my unrequited crush on Dana Perino): I used to like Joe Lieberman. In fact, back in 2004, I actually supported him for President. However, after catching him on This Week yesterday, I feel the need to hang my head in shame.

Here's what Joe had to say about John McCain:

In my opinion, before we solve the problems the American people need us to solve in Washington, health care, the economy, education, global warming, Social Security, fiscal imbalance, we have to solve a problem within a political system, which is hyperpartisanship, a mud fight:  I don’t care what’s really good for the country; I care what’s good for my party.  That’s outrageous.

Of these three candidates, the one who has the clearest record of reaching across party lines, controversially sometimes, to solve a problem, is John McCain.

I wonder if Joe Lieberman would be able to square that sentiment with this one expressed by John McCain on January 24th of this year:

Senator Clinton decided that she wants to surrender, she wants to raise a white flag, she wants to set a date of immediate withdrawal from Iraq after we’ve been winning.

Or how about this on February 27th:

If we do what Senator Obama wants to do, and that’s immediate withdrawal, that would mean surrender in Iraq.

And this on March 13th:

In answer to a question on Iraq, McCain said the Democrat Formula for Iraq is clear: "Surrender to Al-Qaeda and leave."

Hmm, both leading Democratic candidates want to surrender to Al Qaeda - that sounds like just the kind of language that will bring the country together and end the hyperpartisanship in Washington. Good work Joe!

The Know-Nothings
Posted by Adam Blickstein

America has nearly 150,000 members of our armed forces on the ground in Iraq. There are thousands of other personnel—spanning the diplomatic, political and logistical world—scattered around the country.  We have ostensibly our largest intelligence operation in the region, narrowly focused on all aspects of the military and political situation in Iraq. And from the American perspective, Nouri al-Maliki—and his government—might be the most closely watched, either tacitly or overtly, political figure in the world.  So one would expect that when a dog scratches his ear on a corner in Baghdad, let alone the Iraqi Security Forces launch a major military offensive in Basra during which Maliki leaves Baghdad for the streets of Basra to personally oversee the operation, American officials in the Green Zone or Central Command or Washington might get a heads up.  Well, yesterday on Meet the Press, CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden basically admitted that he and our military leaders, including General David Petraeus, and our diplomatic and political officials, including U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, and our intelligence officials, were in the dark with little to no foreknowledge of the most important test for the Iraqi Security Forces since the surge began and another "defining" moment for Maliki’s government:

GEN. HAYDEN:  I, I don't know what on--what went on on the ground in Baghdad prior to the operation.  I do know that this was a decision of the Iraqi government by the prime minister and personally by the prime minister, and that he's relying on Iraqi forces, by and large, to take this action.

MR. RUSSERT:  Were you aware of it?

GEN. HAYDEN:  I was--in terms of being prebriefed or, or having, you know, the, the normal planning process in which you build up to this days or weeks ahead of time, no.  No, I was not.

MR. RUSSERT:  You didn't know it was going to happen?

GEN. HAYDEN:  No more so than Dave Petraeus or Ambassador Crocker did.

Hayden is hedging to what extent that he knew prior to the operation that it was going to happen vis-a-vis leaving it ambiguous what Petraeus or Crocker knew when (a question for Petraeus and Crocker at next week’s Congressional hearings). But what he is admitting is that there was very little to no preparation for it on the American side.  Either way, if our apparatus in Iraq knew nothing of the planned offensive, it is a major structural failure and top-to-bottom breakdown of our military and intelligence ability there, one which further calls into question the legitimacy of our presence in Iraq. If we had even the smallest hint that Maliki was going after Sadr’s forces in Basra, then we did nothing to either stop it or worse, allowed Maliki to pursue what was going to be a losing venture from its inception.  If this was the case, we either underestimated the Mahdi Army’s ability to repel the ISF’s offensive or overestimated the ISF’s ability to quell Sadr’s forces in Basra. 

But it’s possible that either eventuality is irrelevant for the administration. Why?  Because Petraeus, Crocker, and Republican officials are going to use what happened in Basra—whether they had foreknowledge of the situation or not—as another excuse as to why a pause in troop reduction this summer is necessary.  It’s possible, perhaps conspiratorial, to presuppose the Administration threw Maliki and his authority under-the-bus knowing that any operation against Sadr’s forces would provide sufficient evidence that the U.S. still needs to maintain a high, pre-surge troop level in Iraq.  For them, it’s always been a zero-sum game. The Administration still holds its own political priorities above those that represent the best Iraq policy for Iraqi’s and Americans alike.

That Wacky, Wacky Max Boot
Posted by Michael Cohen

There is so much wrong with Max Boot's op-ed in today's Washington Post it's hard to know where to begin in critiquing it, but I think this paragraph provides a pretty good jumping off point:

An early American departure is the last thing that most Iraqis or their elected representatives want. (In a recent ABC/BBC poll only 38 percent of Iraqis said that coalition forces should leave at once.) It would be cheered, however, by our enemies in al-Qaeda, Iran, Syria, and elsewhere. Just as Islamist militants were emboldened by the Soviet Union's retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, so they would be encouraged by our premature departure from Iraq. Once we were out of Iraq (which Gen. David Petraeus has called "the central front of al-Qaeda's global war of terror"), they would be able to devote more resources to other battlefields such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This notion that "our enemies in Iran, Syria and Al Qaeda" will be cheered by an American "retreat" from Iraq, is classic neo-conservative obfuscation - conflating all of our supposed enemies as if the threat from them is equal. Is Syria and Iran's threat to America on par with Al Qaeda? Of course not. Syria and Iran may not like America, but so what - neither country is actively plotting to attack the US mainland. Iran is likely supporting groups that are attacking American troops in Iraq, but if our troops were not there it's hard to see why Iran would prod a much bigger enemy with pointless terrorist attacks.

Indeed, whatever Gen Petraues or George Bush or John McCain say about Iraq being the central front in the war on terror the FACT is that Afghanistan and Pakistan is where AQ is at is strongest.  Leaving the quagmire of Iraq, where AQ has been dealt a pretty harsh blow by Iraqi Sunnis (a fact readily trumpeted by neo-cons like Boot) and focusing on AQ's presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan would actually do enormous damage to Al Qaeda's ability to wage its war on America. It may seem hard to remember five years later, but protecting America against terrorist attack was supposedly the key motivation for going into Iraq in the first place.

It is simply the height of comedy that Boot argues our leaving Iraq would allow Al Qaeda "to devote more resources to other battlefields such as Afghanistan and Pakistan" all the while ignoring the fact that it would also allow America to devote more resources to these two battlefields.

Of course, Boot and other neo-cons argue that America leaving Iraq would be a public relations boon to Al Qaeda and they would be emboldened as they were after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. This is regular refrain from President Bush and Senator McCain. But it's also a pitch perfect example of the phenomenon that Zbigniew Brzezinski describes in the Sunday Washington Post, "The case for terminating the war is based on its prohibitive and tangible costs, while the case for "staying the course" draws heavily on shadowy fears of the unknown and relies on worst-case scenarios."

In all honesty, who really cares if Al Qaeda is emboldened by us leaving Iraq? These guys sent 19 young men on a suicide mission to destroy the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Capitol - don't you think they are already pretty emboldened to attack America? They can be emboldened all the want, but if they have the full force of American military and diplomatic power aimed to destroying them it ain't going to do them a lot of good. I know neo-cons love historical analogies but the reason why Al Qaeda was successful after the Soviets left Afghanistan is not because they were necessarily emboldened. It's because Al Qaeda was allowed to develop a base of operations in Afghanistan as the United States and others dropped the ball and let the place fall apart. To paraphrase Snoop, "emboldened ain't got nothing to do with it." Moreover, didn't Vietnam teach us that staying in military quagmires to maintain US credibility is a self-defeating proposition?

Finally, Boot make the more astounding claim, in critiquing Brzezinski's Sunday piece, that "he simply takes it on faith that the risks of withdrawal are smaller than the costs of commitment." For any supporter of this war to criticize a war opponent for making a cost/benefit argument is rich indeed. This entire war has been based on the utterly misguided notion that the benefits of going to war in Iraq would outweigh the costs.
Even if Iraq turned into a Jeffersonian democracy tomorrow, could anyone realistically argue that this "benefit" justifies the extraordinary "costs" that America has been forced to bear over the past five years? I think not. And of course, the possibility of Iraq turning into a Jeffersonian democracy anytime soon seems pretty slim indeed.

March 30, 2008

Monopoly of Force
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

CIA Director Michael Hayden claimed today that the latest incursion into Basra was a good thing because it is an indicator that the government is trying to establish order.  I have to agree with David that this is basically bull.  Hayden stated:

I mean, I mean, a lot of people in this country have criticized the Iraqis for, for not stepping up, for, for not taking advantage of the breathing space that's been created by, frankly, coalition military activity.  Here's a case of an Iraqi leader stepping up.

Really?  I don't think what I had in mind by having the Iraqis step up, is for one faction to step up and try to annihilate another one.  I don't understand how this is political progress.  It is quite likely that the forces working on behalf of the government are no more loyal to the central government then the Mahdi Army.  The Badr Corps, many of whose members are integrated into the Iraqi Security Forces, are loyal to ISCI.  What if Sadr's party wins the provincial elections or if he were to come to power through an election at some point in the future?  Would these same forces support his legitimate government?  Probably not.  It seems to me that they would instead turn against the government.  Their loyalty lies with SCIRI / ISCI, which is a faction of the government, but not with the government itself. 

Hayden also said:

And, and you're right, about 70 percent of the city controlled by militia, armed gangs, criminal elements.  It's, it's, it's a real stew down there, Tim, in terms of the different factions.  And they were in a bit of an equilibrium between and among these armed factions over the past several months, and violence had been reduced.  But I don't think anyone could think that that equilibrium was an acceptable long-term solution...They were beyond the writ of the Iraqi government, they were exercising the attributes of sovereignty, I mean, exclusive use of violence, for example.  It should be the province of the Iraqi state.

If our goal is really to help the government establish a monopoly of force in Iraq  then why did we organize 80,000 Sunni militia members who are by definition an extra-governmental force?   Six months from now or a year from now or whenever the "Sons of Iraq" / Concerned Local Citizens start fighting it out with the central government are we going to say the same thing?  Are we going to say that this is the natural course of events?  That this is by definition political reconciliation? That these groups were beyond the control of the Iraqi government and that this delicate balance could never hold?  No.  Our whole strategy is based on the fact that such a tenuous cease fire will in fact hold and we're going ahead and supporting these groups.  And in fact, we're specifically trying to avoid what is going on in Basra right now by trying to bring the CLCs into the ISF.  Although until now this effort has been relatively unsuccessful.   

Basically, the same scenario that the Administration is now trying to spin as success in the South, is the same scenario that in the central part of the country would be defined as a total catastrophe. 

March 28, 2008

Can't Tell the Players WITH a Scorecard
Posted by David Shorr

Courtesy of Ilan, we have Tony Cordesman's reminder that the fighting in Iraq is not what it seems. The central-government-versus-renegade-militias narrative doesn't fit neatly. Excellent point. Cluing into the power struggle dynamics is indeed critical to understanding what's going on.

But here's another reminder. Isn't the fact that the Center v. Militias story line doesn't fit itself highly significant? I don't usually go in for simple binary good guy / bad guy breakdowns, but isn't this a situation where it should actually be appropriate? If a governing authority is legitimate, then the government should have a legal monopoly on force. And if Iraq's rulers are one more set of contestants for power rather than truly being at the helm of the state, can I ask what the hell we're doing there?

The Cheney Theory
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Eric Martin takes me to task over my assertion, based on the Washington Post coverage, that the U.S. government didn't know this was coming.  He has a point.  For full disclosure I should have pointed out that last week Cheney met with ISCI's leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.  There has been a great deal of speculation that in exchange for letting the provincial elections law pass through the Presidency Council, Cheney agreed to give ISCI the go ahead to go to town on JAM in Basra.  It has also been widely reported that a number of Iraqi Generals were talking about this operation a week ago.  Both good points that throw into question whether the Bush Administration saw this coming.

Still, the reason I don't buy this theory is that the timing makes no sense whatsoever from a domestic political perspective.  If there was a quid pro quo, the Bush Administration would have asked for a waiting period until after the Petraeus Crocker testimony.  Why go with such a high risk operation a week before the progress report to Congress?  Makes no sense.  This Administration is pretty incompetent about a lot of things, but for the most part they  seem to understand political timing. 

At the end, Eric argues that given the Administration's not so stellar record with the truth, we shouldn't take them at their word.  Fair enough.  But I'd also argue that given the Administration's long history of incompetence on Iraq, it's quite possible and in fact likely, that they just completely missed this.

Admiral Mullen on Afghanistan and Iraq
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen gave an interview to NPR this morning

If the current round of fighting subsides and the U.S. withdrawals from Iraq go ahead as planned, Mullen says, he's exploring the idea of shifting troops to Afghanistan — an effort that he says is vastly under resourced.

"So, should we be in a position where more troops are removed from Iraq, the possibility of sending additional troops there — where we need them, clearly — certainly it's a possibility. But it's really going to be based on the availability of troops. We don't have troops — particularly in Brigade Combat Team size — sitting on the shelf, ready to go."

Iraq in 30 Seconds
Posted by Moira Whelan

News has been coming fast out of Iraq, and folks are collecting information and trying to decipher what is going on. At this time, most analysts are saying the situation is unclear. One contact of mine working in Iraq gave this quick assessment which is interesting:

Best case scenario: the Iraqi central government seizes this opportunity to demonstrate strength and unity. They hold strong and isolate the problems in Basra. They gain confidence going forward, but ultimately 1/3 of Iraq becomes ungovernable.

Worst case scenario: the Iraqi central government and the military do not step up, and all hell breaks lose. 

I’m not saying this is absolute, but bottom line, I think “bleak” is a good description at this point.

Heads Up
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

You'd think installing the guy and having 150,000 troops there to underwrite his government would at least buy American forces a heads up. You'd be wrong

Maliki decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies, according to administration officials.

Well, then at the very least, you'd think that with 150,000 troops stationed in Iraq, the Administration would have some idea of what is going on.  You'd be wrong.

With little U.S. presence in the south, and British forces in Basra confined to an air base outside the city, one administration official said that "we can't quite decipher" what is going on. It's a question, he said, of "who's got the best conspiracy" theory about why Maliki decided to act now.

Well, then you'd assume that if Maliki  decided to do this without giving any real indication to the U.S. government, we aren't actually going to get our troops involved in the fray.  Wrong again.

U.S. forces in armored vehicles battled Mahdi Army fighters Thursday in Sadr City, the vast Shiite stronghold in eastern Baghdad, as an offensive to quell party-backed militias entered its third day. Iraqi army and police units appeared to be largely holding to the outskirts of the area as American troops took the lead in the fighting.

Well, I guess things really are taking a bad turn in Iraq.  Actually, you're wrong about that to.

The words from Dayton were "remarkable" and "victory" and "rebirth."  "Normalcy," President Bush said, "is returning back to Iraq."

"Culture of dependency" isn't just a talking point invented by opponents of the war.  It's a way of life for the Iraqi government.  They do stupid things that put our troops at risk for their own political benefit because they know that American troops will step into the breech and cover their asses. 

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