Wednesday, September 19, 2007

What will the Iraq end-game be?

I have been overcome by a certain malaise when writing about the Iraq war or George W. Bush. What ever your view, Iraq, and the President's legacy, will remain with us for quite some time. While the news has been filled with Iraq reports, the President's televised address, and General Petreaus's Senate testimony, sifting through the information and misinformation is not only incredibly time consuming but largely fruitless. Which is why I greatly appreciate the work of George Packer.

I have followed Mr. Packer's writing since first reading the incredibly even-handed Dreaming of Democracy which Packer wrote in early 2003 before the fateful invasion of Iraq. With hindsight that peace proved to be incredibly predictive of the now historic lapses in judgment that accompanied Operation Iraqi Freedom.

I have also read Packer's book The Assassin's Gate which devotes 480 pages to America's activities in Iraq after the invasion. Packer has also written numerous pieces on Iraq for the New Yorker but it is his latest report entitled Planning for Defeat which brings to light a few more unfortunate truths.

Both General Petraeus and President Bush have hinted at future troop reductions in Iraq, those men say the draw downs are due to recent success, but in truth they are the product of more mundane forces. The American "surge" in Iraq will have to end at some point next summer. It will end for logistical reasons--brigades will have to rotate out because their tours will be over-extended. The surge's 160,000 troops will inevitably be reduced to 130,000 which will eventually be further reduced due to political pressures at home. (All of the Democratic presidential front-runners are calling for a withdrawal of troops.) But what then?

This is the answer Packer seeks in his article, the conclusion of-which is grim: Iraq will continue to slide into sectarian factions. Barring an incredible turn of events, control in Iraq will continue to rescind away from the central government and into more localized control. These are conditions no one wants to talk about and if the military is doing any planning in this area it is highly secretive. Hillary Clinton has asked the Pentagon for a briefing on their Iraq exit strategy but her request was largely rhetorical, insinuating that surely the pentagon plans to leave Iraq at some point, right? But would anyone be surprised if no such plan exists?

And if it doesn't exist, which is highly likely, it is not because the military does not know how to plan. It is because the administration fears even the thought of planning for defeat. Such a thing would, in the mind of a true believer like Bush, be
like kryptonite, radiating its negative energy through the Department of Defense and draining the will to fight. We are living with a President who only sees what he wants to see, and he has proven acutely representative of a country who also sees what it wants, but in slightly different ways. Where the President believes victory first comes from the absolute abolishment of the hint of failure, Americans want to pull the plug on the whole operation, back out, and hope the radicalism we have unleashed in Iraq never manifests itself on our shores. This too is selfish and wishful thinking.

President Bush, most of the Republican presidential candidates, and a hand-full of hard core supporters, continue to talk about victory in Iraq, a concept which has moved from the removal of WMDs to hoping that the Iraqi central government can gain enough traction to run the country. The point of the surge was to buy the Maliki government some time to do this. This seems highly unlikely since the government has become "dysfunctional" according to a recent report), unable to overcome the sectarian rifts that separate its constituents. The big winners could be the tribal warlords, insurgents, and Iran, a country with a vested interest in seeing Iraq's Shi'ite majority remain in power.

Perhaps our leaders have come to grips the very real possibility that Iran's stature will be enhanced. Maybe this is why the administration has upped its rhetoric against that country and why we are now arming Sunni groups to defend themselves. America says this is to battle Al Quada, but the long-term goal could be to build a proxy buffer against Iran. Adept readers will recognize this is essentially the very same role Saddam Hussein filled when his Sunni minority ruled Iraq with an iron grip, and kept an eye on its blood enemy Iran.

So perhaps in the end, after all that blood and treasure, the administration is taking steps to duplicate as closely as possible the situation as it was before we ever went into Iraq. But will anyone realize it when we declare victory and pull out? Removing Saddam paved the way for a Shi'ite led, sectarian government in Iraq, thus matching Iran's. The solution to a very minor problem has created two intractable issues at the heart of the Middle East. That this possibility could have eluded the minds of the war's creators seems baffling but not all that surprising when you consider the people who cooked up the idea in the first place.

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