Friday, December 16, 2005

The Speech That Should Have Been

Yesterday's election in Iraq gives new cause for hope in the ultimate success of the Coalition mission. By all initial accounts the vote transpired even more smoothly than the elections of January that occasioned so much optimism. This latest round of voting is even more promising, as the large Sunni turnout opens new potential for that community to be drawn away from the insurgency and into the political process.

Against this context even opponents of the war must concede that President Bush's series of four speeches bode some good. Even if one feels (as I do) that the invasion was a mistake, the return of Iraq to stability and peace is obviously in the interests of the world at large, and the sustainment of US public support for the Coalition mission is essential to that end. In this sense the speech series obviously achieved some effect, polls show that US public apprehension about the Iraq conflict has decreased (marginally, but measurably) in recent weeks. Though the speeches themselves contained much that may be dismissed as empty rhetoric, in all fairness they displayed more candor than we have ever seen from this administration on the issue of Iraq.

Even so, I would predict that the morale-boosting effect of the speeches will be short-lived, and that their ultimate impact will be, on balance, more negative than positive. Pundits have pointed to distortions and ellisions within the speeches, but it is not for these that I would take the President to task. Having had such a complete void of candor from this administration, I can no longer evince surprise when it finally emerges within very strict limits. Rather, it is the overall logical thrust of the President's "plan for victory" that I find ill-conceived and rhetorically ill-advised.

The administration's division of the Coalition mission into military, economic, and political aspects is in itself sound, but in all these arenas the President described a process in which the US has far more control than is at all possible. This thematic message pervaded all four speeches, but a few examples may illustrate both its flaws and its dangers. On the political front the President invoked the example of Japan:

"After World War II, President Harry Truman believed that the way to help bring peace and prosperity to Asia was to plant the seeds of freedom and democracy in Japan. Like today, there were many skeptics and pessimists who said that the Japanese were not ready for democracy. Fortunately, President Harry Truman stuck to his guns. He believed, as I do, in freedom's power to transform an adversary into an ally. And because he stayed true to his convictions, today Japan is one of the world's freest and most prosperous nations, and one of America's closest allies in keeping the peace. The spread of freedom to Iraq and the Middle East requires the same confidence and persistence, and it will lead to the same results."

Democracy in Iraq is a laudable goal, and I agree with the President that it may ultimately be possible. But if and when it does happen, it will be because the Iraqis themselves, in a time and manner particular to their volition and situation, bring it to fruition. It is a mistake to assert that the US "plant[ed] the seeds of freedom and democracy in Japan," or that the current Japanese political system is wholly an American imposition. Japan enjoyed a period of robust liberal democracy during the late Taisho era (1911-1925), it was only after the advent of the Great Depression that it experienced a slide into militant autocracy. The post-war democratization of Japan was as much a return to normalcy as a novel restructuring. The proof of this is the counter-case of South Korea. That country was garrisoned by the US as intensely for as long a duration as Japan, yet it remained a brutal police state until recent decades. If democracy could be imposed by US power that process should have transpired at the same pace in both Japan and South Korea. The disparity of these two cases demonstrates that if and when democracy emerges it does so on the timetable dictated by the intrinsic social and political conditions of the country in which it occurs.

Turning to Iraq, it is clear that though yesterday's elections are a hopeful sign, the political road ahead is highly unpredicable and likely to be fraught with conflict and digressions. Too many variables completely beyond the control of US power remain in play for anyone to speak with any confidence about what the political situation in Iraq will be from month to month. Whatever the conceptual merits of the institutions currently under construction in Baghdad (and many Iraqi observers express dismay that they are dangerously flawed from the outset), in practice they will only become as efficacious as the elected Iraqi leadership make them. Much hinges on the willingness and commitment of Iraqi leaders to operate in good faith within the institutional parameters they themselves have laid down.

Though one need not be gratuitously pessimistic, it would be foolhardy to deny that powerful forces of sectarianism, ethnicity, ideology, tribalism, and regional tension militate against a happy outcome. Already there are troubling signs, such as raids by US soldiers that revealed secret Interior Ministry detention centers at which Sunni detainees had been tortured by Shi'ite paramilitary commandos. Only a few such instances in which Iraqi leaders display a willingness to abuse or abandon the strictures of the constitutional order could cause the legitimacy and functional integrity of the new Iraqi government to completely collapse. This is not to suggest that such a collapse is inevitable or that even if it occurred it would preclude the possibility of democracy in Iraq altogether. One must admit, however, that the road to a stable and free Iraq may be a long and hard one, and the US has no control whatsoever over how long and hard it becomes.

On the military side, President Bush laid down this strategic principle in his first speech at Annapolis: "As Iraqi forces take responsibility for more of their own territory, coalition forces can concentrate on training Iraqis and hunting down high-value targets, like the terrorists Zarqawi and his associates." Here again the President's strategy assumes a far greater degree of control than the US will ever achieve over the strategic situation in Iraq. As I have stated in previous posts, the combat-readiness of Iraqi forces will not evolve along a schedule laid down by US policymakers, it will depend on the pace at which the Iraqi government establishes its authority and legitimacy.

More than this, the notion that US forces will ever be freed to "pursue high value targets" rests upon a bevy of logical oversights and miscalculations. The very concept of "high value targets" begs the question "high value to whom?" In coming months the nascent Iraqi government is not likely to make the same distinction that US policymakers do, between those insurgents who are motivated by purely local regional or sectarian grievances and those like Zarqawi who are part of a larger global conspiracy aimed (in part at least) at the US. The Iraqi government is certain to view any and all insurgents as "high value targets," and may well resent the notion that US forces remaining on Iraqi soil focus their efforts only on those combatants deemed particularly dangerous to the US. Such a strategic realignment would certainly strain relations between the US military and its Iraqi hosts, eroding the already very limited influence that US policymakers have in all arenas of the Iraqi scene.

Even if such tensions were not a concern, the plan is of itself tactically impracticable. Since the beginning of the insurgency US forces have been hampered by their relative lack of linguistic and cultural skills essential to gathering intelligence and identifying insurgents. Given this fact, the notion that the same US forces will somehow be able to isolate one small segment of the insurgency as targets is absurd. That task would in any case depend upon the assistance of Iraqi forces in gathering and assessing intelligence, and again Iraqi forces are not likely to blithely lead their American partners only to the targets of US interest.

The "high value target" principle moreover bears distressing implications about the administration's ultimate intentions in Iraq. It would seem to suggest that they remain determined to continue the Coalition occupation until Iraq has been cleared of Al-Qaeda affiliates. Such a plan holds out very little hope of a "light at the end of the tunnel." Even if key leaders like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are captured in coming months, Al-Qaeda's foothold in Iraq will not be dislodged until the new Iraqi government achieves a position of unassailable legitimacy and stability, and that process is likely to take many years and require the exit of US forces. A determination to keep US forces in Iraq until Al-Qaeda is wholly gone is a recipe for a viscious-cyclical quagmire.

Given all these perils, the President would have been well-advised to give a very different speech or series of speeches. Exhorting the American public to the possibility of victory in Iraq is all well and good, but that victory, if and when it comes, will be of Iraqi, not US making, and may fall far short of what Americans would consider a "rosy" outcome. There are good arguments for keeping US forces in Iraq a while longer (how much longer is open to debate), but if the President expects the American people to accept those arguments he should admit to them that much of what happens in Iraq in the months and years to come remains beyond the control of the US. If some cataclysms do in fact occur in the road ahead, US support for the Coalition mission will only remain steady if Americans are frankly and openly warned of their potential. Though Bush's speeches evinced more candor than he has ever expressed, they fell far short of the degree of candor that will be required if the Coalition mission in Iraq is to remain politically sustainable.

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