Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Fruits of Disengagement

Among the most under reported stories in the coverage of the Iraq crisis this week was that of the truce between rival Shi'ite militia leaders Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Together these two groups command the majority of Shi'ite paramilitary power in Iraq, thus their reconciliation, should it last, would remove one major fracture line of instability from the perilously fragile edifice of the Iraqi body politic. Little attention has been paid this development, perhaps in no small part because (like so many positive developments in Iraq) it is difficult to explain by reference to any proactive policy undertaken by the United States.

What, then, is the proximal cause of this truce? There are likely to be many factors, large and small, personal and societal, that have brought these two leaders to the table. The most obvious and profound change in the strategic landscape they inhabit, however, also has the greatest power to explain their current tactical choices. In recent weeks Great Britain has accelerated its withdrawal of forces from its zone of occupation in southern Iraq, a policy that Prime Minister Gordon Brown made clear this week would be carried rapidly forward to totality. That zone of occupation is (not so) coincidentally the area of Iraq in which Shi'ite militia power has operated most preeminently, and which has seen the bitterest fighting between SCIRI and the Mahdi Army over control of the organs of local power.

It is the withdrawal of British forces first and foremost that has compelled al-Sadr and al-Hakim to make peace. As long as the British garrisoned southern Iraq both leaders (and their respective organizations) were shielded from the worst consequences of a zero-sum contest for survival. Each group felt secure in jockeying for position against the other because each was confident of Britain's impulse to move against any group that was growing too powerful relative to its rivals. No matter how bitter infighting between SCIRI and the Mahdi Army became, neither group feared total annihilation because both believed Britain would intercede before such a cataclysm ever occurred. Moreover, the presence of the British attenuated the risks of expending human and material assets in a struggle against one-another, as the presence of British forces made Shi'ite militias less vulnerable to assault by Sunni and Kurdish paramilitaries. Now that the British are leaving, the buffer that existed for the Mahdi Army and SCIRI, both between one-another and against their ethnic and sectarian enemies, has been removed.

The truce between al-Sadr and al-Hakim may not last, but it is among the most substantive steps toward normalcy and stability that any groups within Iraqi society have taken since the destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra in 2006. Getting even one of the myriad fault lines in Iraqi society to heal, even temporarily, is an indispensable step toward restoring civic order and rebuilding robust political institutions. Wittingly or not, the British have thus shown the US the strategic principle that may ultimately be applied with greatest effect throughout the entire operational theater of the Coalition. Disengagement is the forward course toward restored order in Iraq.

Whatever tactical impact the "surge" may have had on improving security in Baghdad, US leaders cannot point to any discrete strategic improvement as profound as the Sadr-Hakim truce that it has effected since it was implemented. The surge is not an innovative plan, it is basically a variation of the "Oil Spot Strategy" proposed by Andrew Krepenevich back in 2005. Part of what Krepenevich prescribed seems to have been achieved in Baghdad, in very relative terms. Baghdad is becoming more orderly by virtue of having fewer dramatic attacks by Sunni militants and fewer sectarian killings by Shi'ite militias. In order for the second prescriptive element of the "oil spot" plan to take effect, however (for the orderliness of parts of Baghdad to "seep out" through ever greater areas of Iraq as an oil spot steadily pervades the fibers of a piece of cloth), "the surge" would have to operate on a truly strategic rather than purely a tactical foundation.

What is that strategic basis? As the new counterinsurgency manual sponsored by the current custodian of the surge, General David Petraeus, declares, "Long-term success in [counterinsurgency] depends on the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government’s rule." An "oil spot" counterinsurgency strategy is only really a strategy if it serves to bolster the sovereign authority of the government against which the insurgency is waged. The surge has done nothing to bolster the sovereign authority of Nuri al-Maliki's government, it has made David Petraeus (partial) master of Baghdad while continuing to underscore the impotence of the Maliki government through fiascos like the Blackwater massacre. The surge is thus an effective counterinsurgency tactic applied in the absence of a genuine counterinsurgency strategy.

This is underscored by the other tactical arena to which Bush apologists point as vindication of the surge- the struggle against Al Qaeda in Anbar Province. There Sunni tribes have been effectively recruited and armed to resist the encroachment of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a policy that has vastly amplified the effectiveness of Coalition operations in the region and greatly increased security. This development was not a product of the surge, however, but of the brutally repugnant behavior of Al Qaeda- Sunni tribes formed the Anbar Salvation Council months before the surge was contemplated by the Bush White House. Moreover, as positive a development as this is, it works at profound cross-purposes to the goal of fostering "the people's consent to government rule." The same Sunni tribes we are arming in Al Anbar are bitter enemies of the Maliki government in Baghdad, and the US alliance with them has driven them further from accepting the authority of the central government.

It would be foolish to suggest that the US should not have capitalized on the opportunity presented by the willingness of the Sunni tribes to join the fight against Al Qaeda, but it was even greater folly to embark upon such a course without taking steps to bolster the prestige and raw combat power of the central government and its armed forces. In effect the US has not been pursuing a single plan in Iraq, but has simultaneously been pursuing two mutually opposed tactical options. While the "surge" implements the principles of Krepenevich's "oil spot strategy" in Baghdad, the "bottom up" strategy being pursued in Anbar is a variation of the Biden-Gelb plan for "soft partition." The former plan hinges on a process of ever expanding centralization while the latter calls for progressive regionalism, thus the current situation is is the strategic equivalent of setting one crew to work repairing a bridge and another to begin tearing it down from the opposite bank. US leaders on both sides of the aisle grouse about the Maliki government's inability to politically reconcile with the Sunni community, but the US itself has impeded that process by enlisting Sunni tribes as allies and reducing their motivation to bargain reasonably with the Maliki regime.

Neither the tactics being pursued in Baghdad nor in Al Anbar will have lasting positive effects until we emulate the strategic principles exemplified by the British forces in the southern zone of occupation. Where the British disengagement from Iraq has driven al-Sadr and al-Hakim closer together, all of the travails of US forces in the north have only managed to drive the Sunni tribes and the Maliki government further toward positions of mutual hostility and suspicion from which civil war and anarchy become increasingly likely, if not inevitable. As long as the Bush administration remains committed to a permanent US presence in Iraq none of the tactical efforts of soldiers like General Petraeus, earnest and deeply reflective as they may be, will achieve positive strategic results. One can not fight a counterinsurgency on behalf of a government that one persistently undermines. Only when the US commits to a course of ultimate disengagement from Iraq- with the goal of having no permanent bases or significant garrison on Iraqi soil- will it be able to contribute to the restoration of civic order and robust political authority in that nation.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Where Was Tet?

Much of the logic from apologists for the Bush strategy in Iraq has begun to resemble that of the protagonist in an old joke:

A: Why are you banging your head against that wall?

B: It keeps the snakes away.

A: There are no snakes around here.

B: See! It's working!

Like the snake-warder who ignores the agenda of the snakes, Bush pundits declaim upon the situation in Iraq with very little thought for what the motives of the Iraqis themselves might actually be. One recent example was the broad anticipation, much discussed throughout the print, broadcast, and blog media, of a "Tet Offensive" on the part of Iraqi insurgents set to coincide with General David Petraeus' testimony before Congress. Insurgents were so determined to discredit "the surge," so this story went, that they would launch a series of high profile attacks in the lead up to the General's assessment report earlier this month.

Well, the "surge assessment" has come and gone, and the "Iraq Tet Offensive" has yet to materialize. The levels of violence in Iraq have remained high, but one can not argue that we have seen a significant spike in the numbers of attacks against either Iraqi civilians or Coalition forces. One might argue that the prevention of a "Tet" is one index of the the success of the "surge," but this is the equivalent of declaring that banging our heads against the wall has kept the snakes away.

So many predictions from the Bush White House and its supporters about the course of the war have come up wrong that it may seem gratuitous to comment upon this one. Moreover, the prediction itself was corollary to a very blatant act of political theater, thus it may have been issued as a form of "prophylaxis." In other words, whether those who broadcast this prediction felt it to be true, they were compelled to issue it against the chance that a spike in violence might occur, thus it is not a genuinely fair gauge of their prognosticative powers.

All of this being taken into account, it is nonetheless reasonable to examine the failure of the "Tet prediction" and what it says objectively about the trajectory of the Iraq conflict. Its logic is clear- it is predicated on the assumption that the Iraqis are closely calculating their actions to influence the conduct of the US government and military. The failure of the Tet prediction, whether any of its proponents really believed it or not, calls into question the logic upon which it was based. If the launching of a "Tet offensive" would have proved that Iraqi insurgents are determined to influence US policy, does not the failure of it to materialize at least suggest the opposite possibility- that Iraqis, insurgents or not, have little interest in the ultimate shape of US policy?

The original Tet Offensive from which this metaphor derives was deeply rooted in the strategic interests of US opponents in Vietnam, most particularly the Communist Party of Vietnam. Historian have long understood that Tet was a tactical defeat for the insurgents of South Vietnam, any strategic advantages US opponents derived from it were entirely in the realm of propaganda. This was a fair trade off for the CPV, the architects of Tet, however, in that the tactical assets that were expended during the offensive would eventually have become a liability if and when the US withdrew from Vietnam. A robust force of South Vietnamese guerrillas, many of whom were not Communist, might have resisted the speedy subjugation of South Vietnamese society to the authority of the CPV, thus it was expedient to "sacrifice" them in a largely symbolic (but nonetheless politically efficacious) act of resistance.

No such logic is operative in Iraq today. The foremost concern of every interest group in Iraq is its position relative to other Iraqis, and all groups are only interested in US policy to the extent that it affects that internal power dynamic. Any tactical assets that any Iraqi party expends in attempting to move US policy are assets they will miss if and when the US leaves and the internal struggle over the fate of Iraq begins. Almost no group in Iraq, therefore, has a long-term interest in expending any assets to influence the course of "the surge." Security in Baghdad may have improved, there have been no strikes recently as spectacular as the bombings of the Iraqi parliament and the al-Sarafiya bridge in April. But this development has little bearing on the strategic interests of most Iraqi groups currently participating in the conflict.

This judgment is corroborated by the new counterinsurgency manual sponsored by David Petraeus. That text declares that a conflict like that in Iraq cannot be assessed by conventional means, using maps depicting the dispositions of forces and terrain. It proposes an alternative conceptual model for analyzing the course of such a conflict, dubbed a "logical line of operation (LLO)," an example of which is charted at left. Along the vectors articulated by this model very little strategic rationale for the success of "the surge" may be found. Whatever effect the "combat operations" of the additional troops deployed during the surge may have had, no one can argue that there has been much movement from the left side of this graph toward the right side since the beginning of extra deployments in January. Indeed, anyone who studied this chart with an eye toward the intrinsic motives of the Iraqi participants in the conflict would have refrained from predicting a "Tet offensive." Just as the surge has produced little movement from left to right along this LLO, a "Tet offensive" would have done very little to hinder it- less, certainly, than would have justified the expenditure of assets needed to contend with other Iraqi factions in the long term.

The latest "Tet prediction" moment (for it is not the first, and will not likely be the last) has come and gone without raising many eyebrows. It is dismaying, however, not merely for exemplifying how little US policy analysts understand the motives of the Iraqis, but how little interest they evince in even attempting to do so. I wish that US leaders would begin to scrutinize this litany of failed predictions and rethink the ill logic that has guided them since the Iraq policy began, but I do not hold out much hope of such an event. For the foreseeable future it seems that we will continue banging our heads against a wall in order to keep the snakes away.

Friday, July 20, 2007

A Tale of Two Occupations

The US occupation of Japan was obviously a major historical model upon which Bush administration officials drew in planning for the invasion of Iraq. The United States' perceived success in bringing postwar order and democracy to Japan stood testimony, so our leaders thought, to the possibility of replicating that success in Iraq. Such logic failed to grasp the underlying historical dynamics at work in both mid-twentieth-century Japan and current-day Iraq. In essence, one may say that in 1945 and 2003 the US did approximately the same thing to two radically different societies, effecting, unsurprisingly, vastly different results in either case. Where the defeat and dissolution of the Japanese Imperial Army helped bring Japan back from the brink of self-destruction and set it once again on a progressive path, the dismantling of Saddam Hussein's military produced quite the opposite effect. Understanding why this is so is essential to grasping not only the ill wisdom of having invaded Iraq from the outset, but the few effective options that might produce positive results in Iraq moving forward.

Japan prospered so well after being defeated in World War II because the defeat itself rid Japan of the single most dysfunctional and malignant institution of twentieth-century Japanese society: the Japanese Imperial Army. Though the Army had played a somewhat progressive modernizing role in the early Meiji Era, with the acquisition of colonies in the wake of the first Sino-Japanese War of 1895 the Japanese military began to grow and evolve in ways that were destructive of Japanese social stability and prosperity. Serving under hardship conditions among hostile populations, constantly harassed by guerrillas and rebels, compelled to adopt ever-increasingly brutal tactics in the struggle to maintain imperial authority, the colonial garrisons of the Japanese military developed a world view that was at once clannish, belligerent, paranoid, expansionist, and utterly contemptuous of civilian political leadership.

Due to the perceived urgency of their mission, the proximity of Japan's colonies to the metropole, the influence of geopolitical forces (the spread of Eurasian communism, the Great Depression, etc.), and the lack of inhibiting checks and balances in the Meiji Constitution, the colonial garrisons steadily grew in scope of power and control. Each expansion of Japan's territorial domain brought more insecurity, the favored military remedy for which was always further aggression and expansion. This, in turn, drew more resources into the military and made its penetration into political and social life more total. Thus the militarization of Japanese state and society steadily accelerated over the first decades of the twentieth century, becoming incredibly rapid in the years between the Mukden Incident of 1931 and the final defeat of Japan in 1945. By 1945, ordinary Japanese citizens found themselves co-opted into doing things they would not have dreamed of scant years before. For example, the incredible speed with which the military expanded led to the creation of bizarre rituals for rapidly acclimating new personnel to the culture of the armed forces. New officers were asked to behead unarmed prisoners or participate in atrocities against civilians, so as to induce a sense of alienation from civilian life and forge a bond with the military unit through shared transgression.

Deeply malignant as it had become, the Japanese army was a conventional military and could be defeated through conventional strategic means. Deprived of the large capital assets that gave it structure and the state offices through which it was organized by a sustained campaign of positional warfare, the Japanese military could not retain institutional coherence. Free from the destructive influence of the military, Japanese society followed an intrinsic dynamism that quickly tended toward restored prosperity. In the absence of the army Japanese state and society still retained many other institutions and cultural resources that could serve as the matrix of restored civil order: the imperial throne, commonly revered Shinto and Buddhist religious establishments, a robust school system, a shared language and history, a tradition of representative government. Americans often point to constitutional innovations "imposed" upon Japan by the US occupation, but in the absence of fundamental indigenous social, cultural and political resources no new institutional structures would have sufficed to create civil order in Japan ex nihilo.

The historical situation of Iraq at the time of the US invasion in 2003 was vastly different than that of Japan. It would be wrong to call the Iraqi military a "benign" force, but it would be equally inaccurate to label it the most malignant and destructive influence on Iraqi state and society. The most destructive elements of the Iraqi state were affiliated with the Ba'ath Party and a narrow oligarchic clique centered around Saddam Hussein and his Tikriti kin. The military had been thoroughly co-opted to serve the oppressive ends of these malignant groups, but it was never the "hand at the switch" setting the policy of the Hussein regime. As complicit as the military was in the crimes of the Hussein regime, it did serve as an institution that could provisionally mediate between and somewhat ameliorate the ethnic and sectarian tensions of Iraqi society. Hussein himself exploited the "social coherence" potential of the military at the expense of the military's operational efficiency. Large units that were tactically non-functional were kept on the books as a way of "buying off" young men that would otherwise be unemployed, thus turning the military into an ad hoc social welfare program. The Iraqi military was not a force, like the Japanse Imperial Army, which generated its own doctrine and pursued its own initiatives, but was one that served the whims and agendas of agents independent of itself.

The swift destruction of the Iraqi army through the same kind of campaign of positional warfare that had brought down the Japanese military was not, therefore, an effectvie remedy for Iraq as the latter victory had proved to be for Japan. Since the forces that had oppressed Iraq had never wholly identified with the army, they were able to survive its collapse, and live on in the form of the insurgency that still persists today. Moreover, Iraqi state and society never possessed the kinds of resources that Japan could summon toward the restoration of civil order. Absent the military, Iraq was left without social or cultural structures that could create genuine community. There is no common Iraqi language or ethnicity and little shared sense of history. What cohesive institutions do remain, such as the Shi'ite clerical establishment, enjoy the allegiance of only part of the community and attract the violent enmity of the rest.

Where demilitarizing Japan had been the key solution to Japan's social and political problems, such is not the case for Iraq. By destroying the Iraqi military the US deprived Iraq of one of the only truly pan-communal institutions it possessed. To date, the US has yet to restore the Iraqi military to anything approaching its former potency. The Iraqi Army as it currently exists is only one of many armed factions, and absent the heavy weapons (tanks, planes, helicopters, artillery) that the Hussein-era military once possessed it remains suspended in a state of virtual parity with the various militias and insurgent groups that operate throughout Iraq, totally lacking in the prestige, authority, or raw combat power of a genuine sovereign military.

Until a viable and full-blooded Iraqi army exists once again there is no chance of building authoritative state and social institutions in Iraq, and until such institutions are built Iraq will know no stability or peace. Creating a fully-armed Iraqi military will create a power contest that may become very violent. The final outcome of that contest will be decided by Iraqi leaders, and because the US can not predict who those leaders will ultimately be or control what sort of institutional order they ultimately impose, America chooses not to entrust real power to its Iraqi partners. The risks of entrusting military power to Iraqis may be real, but if the US should refuse to trust Iraqis one is forced to ask why American soldiers should die to aid a people whom we hold in such contempt. Whatever US leaders decide to do the fact shall remain: though dismantling the Japanese military may have been an effective remedy for Japan, only fully rebuilding the Iraqi military will set Iraq back on the path to order and stability.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

No Suribachis Here

Last year saw the release of two films directed by Clint Eastwood devoted to the Battle of Iwo Jima. The first, "Flags of Our Fathers," told the story of the US servicemen whose raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi was captured in a famous photograph by Joe Rosenthal. Its companion, "Letters from Iwo Jima," tells the story of Iwo Jima from the perspective of its Japanese defenders. Both films garnered critical acclaim, but it was the latter story that most vividly engaged the moviegoing public.

Why was this? Though many would argue (and I would agree) that, from an artistic perspective, "Letters from Iwo Jima" was a stronger film, I would assert that there is a further cause for its broader and more profound impact. Given the state of the world today and the current moment of US foreign affairs, "Letters from Iwo Jima" is a more topical and timely film for American audiences. Though "Flags of Our Fathers" was an artful and insightful work, it failed to strike a timely chord on two counts. Firstly, its central insight, that even during a righteous war the US government was not above the use of exploitive propoganda, is not a message that can surprise many Americans today. Secondly, the cinematic audience must sense that the key image of "Flags of Our Fathers" has little relevance to the current conflicts in which the US is embroiled. However cynically US leaders may have manipulated Joe Rosenthal's classic photo, it was nonetheless an unambiguous image of victory. After more than four years the conflict in Iraq has yielded no such image, and the realization is dawning that on the long road ahead one is not likely to materialize.

The relative anachronism of "Flags of Our Fathers" is contrasted by "Letters from Iwo Jima." The latter film's portrayal of the brutally self-annihilating defense by the Japanese Imperial Army resonates very poignantly with the destruction wrought by suicide bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan today. "Letters" presents a mirror in which many of the same sociological forces at work in Iraq today may be seen reflected.

One of the tragic ironies of Iwo Jima is that Joe Rosenthal's famous photo was taken on the fourth day of fighting. That image, of the US flag flying at the highest point of the island, marked certain tactical victory for the US. With Suribachi in American hands there was no way that the Japanese defenders of Iwo Jima could prevail, yet the battle went on for another 31 days, the Japanese fighting on suicidally in the face of certain defeat. Almost 7,000 US servicemen died; more than 20,000 of the island's 22,000 Japanese defenders perished.

Why would the Japanese give their lives in such numbers to a lost cause? The answer is not in some deep cultural tradition of conformity or a cult of "bushido." Though patriotism was a factor for some, as "Letters" portrays, these nobler impulses can not be wholly seperated from an acute pathology that had seized Japanese state and society in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor. War, revolution, colonialism, industrialization, the Great Depression, the perceived threat of communism, and the general corrosive shock of modernity had impacted Japanese society in such a way as to progressively entrench and institutionalize self-destructive values and imperatives. Japanese leaders and citizens had come to accept, despite some of their nation's most ancient traditions and deeply held values, that torture and terror were essential instruments of state control, that dissent must be quashed, that diplomacy was ineffectual, and that the mass suicidal sacrifice of the nation's youth was preferable to retreat, negotiation, or surrender. Whether or not the individual soldiers who died on Iwo Jima did so out of a sense of higher calling or personal conviction is not ultimately knowable. What can be asserted with relative certainty, however, is that the power structures that had taken hold in their homeland left them very little choice.

In similar fashion to pre-war Japan, chronic corrosive forces have impacted Iraqi society over the course of the twentieth century, and nihilistically self-destructive imperatives have achieved institutional purchase in elements of Iraqi society today. There is virtually no chance that Iraq will ever see a Sunni caliphate or a Shi'ite theocracy ensconced in Baghdad, yet bombings and murders continue on a daily basis in pursuit of these imaginaries. Unlike the Japanese Imperial Army, however, the destructive forces that create mayhem in Iraq cannot be defeated or defused through a sustained campaign of positional warfare.

Joe Rosenthal's photograph was so inspiring to the American public in 1945 because it visually encapsulated a tactical fact- the seizure of the highest point on Iwo Jima signified forward movement along a territorial trajectory that brought the US one step closer to victory. No such strategic logic is operable in Iraq. Coalition forces occupy the whole of Iraqi terrain, yet they are no closer to ending the insurgency today than they were four years ago.

The closest thing to a "Suribachi moment" that the Iraq crisis has yielded was the famous image of Saddam Hussein's statue being pulled down in Baghdad in the first weeks of the invasion. We now know all too well that that image did not signify an end to bloodshed and chaos, but a beginning. The great weakness of Saddam Hussein's regime was not best expressed in the image of his statue being pulled down, but in the need for the statue to be erected in the first place. Hussein's regime was pathological, to be sure, but its dissolution has only unleashed even more destructive and entropic forces that pulsed beneath its brutal facade and that now murderously rend the fabric of Iraqi society. These forces cannot be defused by the seizure of critical terrain, nor do institutions exist whose power can be harnessed (like that of the Japanese imperial throne) to bring violence to a halt. In the face of such realities Coalition forces cannot end the current crisis using the conventional tactics and strategies that brought down the Japanese Empire. New institutions must be created and new values established that can displace the destructive forces that hold Iraqi society in thrall. That is a victory that cannot be won on a battlefield by foreign soldiers, but can only be secured through an arduous and painstaking negotiation conducted amongst the Iraqis themselves.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Korea Delusion

Recent statements by Bush administration officials to the effect that the President envisions a "Korea model" for the future trajectory of US involvement in Iraq add a new dimension to the vast edifice of distortion, delusion, and sheer lunacy that is the Bush Iraq policy. Previously one had to guess (though Tom Englehart is right, one did not need to look hard to see the clear signs) at the Bush regime's plan to maintain a permanent US troop presence in Iraq. Now discussion of the "Korea model" has drawn the curtain away from Oz and revealed the Bush strategy in all its demented glory. The willful ignorance embodied in such invocations would be comic if it had not been, and did not continue to be, so tragically destructive of human life.

Bush's Korea fallacy is the product of a logical defect that, unfortunately, is not exclusive to him alone. Many American leaders and intellectuals share in it. The President and his advisers look around the world for historical "models" to draw upon in constructing Iraq policy, and in doing so they assume that any strategic situation the US currently inhabits is autonomously of American making. We conquered Japan, we turned it into a democracy, we remained in the archipelago to steward the newly democratic society we had created. We saved South Korea from Communist takeover, we remained on the Peninsula to see that it remained free.

Such thinking completely ignores the real roots of current US geostrategy in Asia. The US remains in Japan because the Japanese people want it there. In the wake of WWII demilitarization was a goal broadly embraced by the vast majority of Japanese across the political spectrum. There were critics of the strategic partnership into which Japan would ultimately enter with the US, but its most powerful opponents were not advocates of a remilitarized Japan that would take charge of its own strategic defense. Rather, opponents of alliance with the US wanted to see Japan become a ward of the UN and to have Japan's defense entrusted to a multinational force administered by the UN Security Council. Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru did not enter into the series of treaties that have structured US-Japanese relations ever since because he was bending to American will. Rather, he saw alliance with the US as the most pragmatic way to achieve the collectively desired Japanese goal of demilitarization (as, in his view, custodianship by the UN was a practical impossibility). If the collective political will of Japan had been determined to evict US soldiers from Japanese soil, there is no way that a significant US troop presence could have remained in Japan for the long run.

On those same principles, the US continues to garrison 37,000 soldiers in South Korea for one reason only- because the South Korean people tolerate their presence. Although successive postwar governments of South Korea have required a steady US troop presence in order to remain sovereign in the face of the threat from the North, such dependency has not robbed them of legitimacy in the eyes of South Korea's people. Because the citizens of South Korea generally accept the legitimacy of their government they are willing to tolerate a garrison of US soldiers as an unfortunate necessity until there is some dramatic change of the status quo in the North. If this were not true guerrilla attacks against US forces in Korea would be as frequent as they are in Iraq.

The Iraqi people as a whole will never tolerate a significant US troop presence to the degree that the people of South Korea do, and any cursory examination of the history of Iraq would demonstrate why. As brutal as the regime of Saddam Hussein was, the Sunni citizens of Iraq generally supported it and felt represented by it. The force that displaced Hussein will always remain suspect and hostile in the eyes of a significant proportion of Sunni society. Moreover, Iraqi Arabs more broadly, both Sunni and Shi'ite, will always harbor suspicions of and animosities toward the US because of Iraq's historical experience of colonialism. The US may never have directly colonized Iraq, but as a predominately English-speaking and Christian nation many Iraqis feel there is little to choose between the US and its ally Great Britain, a country that did ruthlessly exploit Iraq as a quasi-colony in the wake of WWI. It does not help the US case that our President Woodrow Wilson did not promote self-determination for Arab-speaking former Ottoman colonies with the same fervor or effect as he did for the European colonies of the Austro-Hungarian and German empires, thus abandoning the people of the Middle East to the tender mercies of the French and British.

These historical grievances are compounded by more recent trends. Many Iraqis are angered by the role the US plays in supporting Israel and its lack of either interest or success in promoting the claims of the Palestinians for a sovereign homeland. Though Israel/Palestine is a very visible and emotional issue, perhaps of even more significance to Iraqis is the US role in the development of the petroleum industry throughout the Middle East. In nations like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait the US has provided technological and political support to narrowly despotic and regressive regimes in return for a share in the profits from private exploitation of oil resources and steady access to cheap free-market petroleum. Iraq has historically resisted this model of development, preferring a mixed economy in which petroleum resources were largely state-owned and nationally managed. Suspicion of the US in this regard is not exclusively "guilt by association" with past policies. Bush spokespeople have trumpeted their concern about the "failure" of Iraqi parliamentarians to draft and pass a law mandating the disposition of oil revenues in a federal Iraq, but such protestations elide the role of the US itself in hindering an effective compromise. US officials have insisted that Iraqi law structure the petroleum industry on free-market principles and allow US companies to participate in and profit from the development of Iraq's oil resources, a self-serving position that flies in face of long Iraqi trends going back to before the Hussein era.

In addition, the problematic relationship between the US and Iran precludes the presence of US troops becoming routine or legitimate for much of Iraqi society. Though the position of the Shi'ite clergy is a contested issue even among Shi'ite Iraqis, the institution is broadly revered and enjoys sweeping authority. The deep historical ties between the ulama of Iraq and Iran are not severable, thus as long as the US remains in a rhetorical battle with Iran's theocrats it will be viewed by many Iraqis, even some who agree with many aspects of US policy, with ambivalence and/or hostility.

Thus, though not all Iraqis are violently anti-American, suspicion and animosity toward the US is prevalent through a broad enough spectrum of Iraqi society to make a "Korea model" completely unworkable in Iraq. No Baghdad government that depends upon or even tolerates a large US troop presence in Iraq will ever enjoy sufficient authority to stabilize and pacify Iraqi society. As long as US soldiers remain on Iraqi soil a critical mass of Iraqis will remain irreconcilably opposed to the regime in power. These forces are never likely to possess the power to forcibly drive the US out of Iraq or overthrow the regime in Baghdad, but they will have enough support (some active, some tacit) in Iraqi society to fight on and keep Iraq in perpetual turmoil until such time as US troops depart.

The only way to defuse such forces is to remove the proximal condition that feeds their base of support- US troops. A plan to garrison Iraq a la South Korea is a plan to condemn Iraq to unending torment. The fact that President Bush and his advisors did not recognize this fact before invading Iraq was a shame, the fact that they still do not do so after more than four years of crisis is beyond a disgrace. All patriotic Americans on any part of the political spectrum should rise up to decry the folly of Bush policy on this score. Those who would defend Bush leadership in the face of such grotesque fallacies must be deemed either ignorant or disdainful of the best interests of the nation.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Al Qaeda in al-Anbar

Proponents of the Bush administration's Iraq policy (such as Frederick Kagan) point repeatedly to one phenomenon as vindicating the whole past and future US strategy in Iraq. In recent months a swell of opposition to Al Qaeda has arisen among the predominately Sunni tribes of Anbar Province. Beginning last September, an alliance of tribal sheiks has formed into the Anbar Salvation Council (ASC), a group dedicated to driving Al Qaeda and other foreign jihadists from the soil of Iraq. The group represents a substantial (if not majority) constituency within Anbar, and its formation has completely transformed the strategic situation of Coalition forces operating within the province.

The ASC has joined cooperative negotiations with the Shi'ite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Its member sheiks have encouraged Anbari citizens to join the local police forces and militia, substantially increasing the manpower resources and prestige of local security forces. US soldiers find themselves operating with new mobility and effectiveness throughout Anbar Province, partnered with new allies possessed of intimate knowledge of the regional terrain and local society.

Pundits such as Mr. Kagan leap from these facts to the conclusion that the US occupation of Iraq should be intensified and extended. Now that "we" have Al Qaeda on the run, so goes this logic, we should keep the pressure on. If current troop levels committed to this point have produced such positive results, more troops kept longer will work to even better effect.

Such logic is fundamentally flawed. It ignores the basic fact that the current strategic turn in Anbar is not the result of any positive action undertaken by the US. The Sunni sheiks of Anbar have not formed the ASC out of fear of US power or love of US virtue. In fact, virtually all of its members admit freely that they were actively campaigning to make Anbar a living hell for US forces not so long ago. No change in US policy shifted the allegiance of the ASC's members, rather it was the repellent policies and tactics of Al Qaeda that drove Sunni tribal leaders into the camp of the Coalition.

Such a development was virtually a foregone conclusion from the outset. The Sunni Arab society of Anbar has historically been markedly secular and nationalist, conditions which made it fertile ground to serve as a base of support for Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime. The US invasion made Anbar's Sunni tribes welcome Al Qaeda's jihadist to the region as allies against the foreign invader, but prior to the US invasion Anbaris had never been positively disposed toward Al Qaeda or its militant brand of Islam. Al Qaeda's zealous and sanguine campaign to create a universal Islamic caliphate was sure to alienate the denizens of Anbar Province sooner or later. In March of 2006 I wrote that a staged withdrawal of US forces was advisable because it

...will drive a wedge between the most extreme elements of the Sunni insurgency led by Al Qaeda and secular Sunni Arabs with whom they are currently allied. In the face of the threat posed by the US ideological and nationalist tensions have already somewhat undermined the operational unity of the Sunni Arab insurgency, in the absence of that threat those tensions would likely cause the insurgent “coalition” to crack and hemorrhage personnel into the political process.

Current developments in Anbar do not prove my assertions wrong- quite the contrary. The fact that a schism between Al Qaeda and its Anbari allies has emerged even before US forces begin to withdraw only demonstrates that this fracture point is extremely fragile, so much so that it can be depended upon to break under its own strain with virtually no action by the US whatsoever (as I wrote in November of 2006, "once the US leaves the Iraqis will pass [the jihadists] like a kidney stone"). Withdrawal of US forces will not rob the ASC's campaign of momentum. US troops were not half as effective in Anbar before the formation of the ASC, thus it is the ASC itself and not the presence of US troops that is of crucial importance to the strategic trajectory in Anbar.

Beginning to withdraw US troops now will not lessen the ASC's animosity toward Al Qaeda, it will only compel the Sunni sheiks into closer partnership with the Maliki government. Such a development is profoundly to be desired, both from the perspective of the US and of Iraq itself. The only long-term hope for Iraq lies in the establishment of an effective and sustainable Iraqi central authority, and the extension of the Maliki government's reach into Anbar would be a critical first step in the development of just such a state apparatus. If anything, developments in Anbar evince the danger of withdrawing US forces too late rather than too early. One must not forget that members of the ASC were killing US soldiers until they decided that their hatred of Al Qaeda eclipsed their hatred of the US. When the moon eclipses the sun it does not mean that the sun is altogether gone, the good money is always on its reappearing. Keeping US forces in Anbar risks producing "occupation fatigue" that could cause cooperation between the tribes and the Coalition to fray, if not collapse. A timely and well-coordinated withdrawal of US forces from the region (coinciding with an expanded presence of the Iraqi military) is the best strategy for maintaining positive momentum in the struggle against Al Qaeda.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Of China and Sub-Prime Bondage

Much attention has been focused recently on the potential impending crisis of sub-prime mortgages on the U.S. housing market. The past few boom years of soaring real estate prices both fueled and were fueled by a spate of irregular mortgages issued to financially insecure borrowers. Loans made on little or no collateral with widely variable interest rates have left many homeowners in danger of bankruptcy and foreclosure, as they find that their yearly interest rate has skyrocketed even as the value of their property has dropped far below its previous market price. Analysts fear that a wave of defaults could create a vicious cycle of foreclosures and fire-sale liquidations that would bleed U.S. real estate markets of massive equity.

While this situation is well reported, little has been said about its link to Chinese fiscal policy and U.S.-China trade relations. My brother, Lee Meyer, a securities analyst and salesman specializing in East Asian markets, observes an integral link between the forces sustaining the endemic Sino-U.S. trade imbalance and the growing crisis of sub-prime mortgages. China's foreign currency reserves have grown to 1.2 trillion dollars U.S. The reasons for this mounting pile of cash are well-understood: China has kept the value of the Renminbi (RMB) relative to the dollar artificially low so as to keep prices in China low and spur employment and economic growth. The ancillary effects of this policy have not been widely commented upon, however.

What relation may be drawn between Chinese fiscal policy and the sub-prime mortgage market? $350 billion of China's foreign currency reserve is held in U.S. T-bills. A further $230 billion of this cash, however, is held in bonds issued by U.S.-backed agencies such as Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. These latter instruments are bonds that consolidate the debt of homeowners toward the purchase of their houses, much of which was generated by the issuance of risky sub-prime mortgages.

When one parses out the motives for Chinese fiscal policy, the link between it and the sub-prime mortgage crisis becomes clear. The PRC can only keep the value of the RMB against the US dollar artificially low by parking the profits from its massive trade surplus in U.S.-denominated assets. This has created a constant fund of cheap cash available to lenders in US housing markets. Bankers do not need to stringently calculate the risks associated with sub-prime loans because they know that they can always sell off that debt to an eager Chinese treasury in the form of a US-backed bond. The chronic need of the Chinese fisc to hypercirculate RMB has thus created a number of economic aberrations, including a Shanghai Stock-market bubble at home and a US real-estate market bubble abroad.

What the long term effects of this situation will be is anyone's guess, but most economists would agree that when there is a bubble it is bound to burst. The effects will not be good, the only open question is their ultimate severity. One lesson from the situation is clear: US complacency about the domestic political situation in China is self-defeating. US leaders express frequent frustration over Chinese fiscal policy and the distorting effect it has on Sino-US trade, but this ignores the deeper structural motives that perpetuate the anomaly. Chinese leaders continue to prime the economic pump that is causing securities and real estate bubbles for fear of the political consequences of any degree of economic slowdown. They hope that they will not be held to account for failing to deliver fundamental political reform as long as the Chinese economy continues to enjoy robust growth. How long this inherently unstable situation can be sustained is an open question. The political consequences of acute economic collapse are likely to be far more grave than the instability that might be engendered by proactive and preemptive reform, but this contingency does not seem to have registered upon China's leadership. If such an acute collapse does occur it will most likely cause the US suffering to parallel that of China, and at that moment America, having enjoyed the prosperity that inflated real estate markets brought, will have reaped the whirlwind.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Spitzer Makes History, Democrats Should Follow

In fulfillment of a campaign promise, newly elected Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York has proposed legislation to the New York State Assembly that would legalize same-sex marriage in the state. Though the prospects for passage of the bill are low even in a legislature controlled by Mr. Spitzer's own party, already he has made history by being the first governor to give the support of his executive office to this issue. In doing so the Governor shows remarkable courage and integrity, flying in the face of the conventional wisdom that though it is inconsequential for President Bush to propose a constitutional amendment "defending marriage," it would be political suicide for any Democrat aspiring to executive office to champion the cause of same-sex marriage rights.

Eliot Spitzer has shown a way for Democratic candidates going into the election in 2008. "Wedge issues" such as same-sex marriage and reproductive freedom have fueled GOP electoral support for decades, and the conservative media have so dominated the national discourse on these topics that Democrats remain in perpetual retreat in these realms. When George W. Bush declares that he is willing to amend the constitution but Hilary Clinton or Jonathan Edwards or whatever other Democrat one cares to mention declares that s/he is for "civil unions" but against same-sex marriage the President looks like a person who has the courage of his convictions and Democrats look like intellectual and moral cowards.

Same-sex marriage and reproductive freedom are civil and human rights issues, they are concerned with securing for ourselves and our fellow citizens the liberties and protections promised to all Americans in the founding principles of our Republic. Opponents of these concerns may have a moral sensibility that deserves respect, but such respect should not extend to a dilution or repudiation of the profound philosophical and moral principles upon which the urgent advocacy of same-sex marriage rights and reproductive freedom rest. Relying on the courts to secure same-sex couples and women their civil rights is a failing strategy. History shows that the courts have been a regressive force as often as they have been a progressive force on issues of civil and human rights. Moreover, housing such concerns in the courts places a distorting strain on those institutions that they were never designed to sustain and that is harmful to our Republic in the long term.

I would urge all Democratic candidates in the upcoming election to follow Eliot Spitzer's lead. A bold advocacy of same-sex marriage rights and reproductive freedom would raise quite a hue and cry, and would no doubt energize the conservative base of the GOP. But at the same time it would cast the debate over these issues into clear terms and foreground them in ways that would bring out the real majority tenor of American public opinion. The next Democratic presidential hopeful should call for our Constitution to be amended to defend same-sex marriage rights in all fifty states and to permanently defend a woman's right to choose an abortion throughout the Union. Such a move might drive some conservative independents toward the GOP, but it would bring far more disenchanted liberals back to the fold who are tired of the moral equivocation of recent Democratic campaigns. Moreover, though a bold advocacy position might not achieve a constitutional change, it would demand a precise and logical debate on these issues that would deflate much of the obfuscatory rhetoric that has served the GOP so well. A genuine debate about these issues might just demonstrate to Americans on both the left and right that they are not quite as far apart on these issues as television and radio pundits make them out to be.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Wrong Reid on Iraq

Last week's comments on Iraq by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, to the effect that "this war is lost," mirror the dysfunctional thinking of the Bush regime. I stand with Congressional Democrats who oppose the White House's conduct of Iraq policy, but Mr. Reid's critique is at best a poor political strategy for effecting a remedy. Mr. Bush persists in casting Iraq as a "win or lose" situation, but this logic is itself one of the reasons why the US remains mired in a strategic deadfall in Iraq. Declaring the war "lost" only throws gasoline on the fire of delusion that the Bush White House has ignited and keeps stoking.

If Democrats agree with Mr. Bush that Iraq is a "win-lose" scenario and insist that the only aspect in which the President is wrong is that we have already "lost," they will find their political support among the American electorate evaporating. Americans may be very disenchanted with the reasons why the US invaded Iraq, but they remain persuaded when supporters of the Iraq policy like Senator McCain assert that the consequences of failure in Iraq would be too dire to tolerate. If the electorate is faced with a choice between someone who declares the war "lost" and someone who professes to have a plan to "win," no matter how implausible, they will choose the latter.

To prevail in the political arena Democrats must point out that every aspect of Bush policy concerning Iraq is erroneous, including the regime's insistence on viewing the crisis as a "win-lose" conflict. No one can win or lose in Iraq except the Iraqi people themselves, the only meaningful long term gauge of outcomes in Iraq is the stable political system that eventually emerges from the current instability. That system may be very different from what US leaders had hoped to establish in Iraq in 2003, but there is little chance that the groups fighting US forces in Iraq today will control or even have much of a hand in shaping that emergent government. In the end, no matter what US leaders do, it will not be the US that prevents groups like Al Qaeda or the Mahdi Army from controlling Iraq, it will be the inherent dynamic of Iraqi society itself.

As long as US soldiers stay in Iraq, social forces in Iraq are not wholly free to negotiate a new political order. Once US soldiers depart, a negotiation will ensue that will determine the stable shape of the Iraqi state. This negotiation may be a very violent one, and it may produce a government that would be an unhappy one for the Iraqi people. The worst case scenario is probably a government much like that of Saddam Hussein, only led by a Shi'ite military officer who is slightly less anti-American than that latter despot. The US can not ultimately control whether such an outcome occurs. However, the likelihood of this worst-case scenario depends in part on the manner in which the US disengages from Iraq. What the US must do now is to disengage from Iraq in a manner that best facilitates the evolution of Iraqi politics along progressive lines. The recognition of this reality is not an admission of defeat, it is a resolution to do what is right both for the security of the US and the liberty and prosperity of the Iraqi people.

This is the case that the Democrats must take to the American people. It is a more complicated one to make, and it requires discussing the particulars of the Iraqi political situation with more detail and nuance than has ever been expressed by the Bush administration. To do less, however, is not only to paternalistically scorn the intellectual faculties of the American people, it will be a gross tactical miscalculation at the polls. Americans are concerned enough to want leadership in these troubled times, and they are smart enough to know real leadership when they see it. Mr. Reid's comments do not express real leadership. They follow the logic of Mr. Bush's rhetoric, and if Mr. Reid is going to follow the President the American people will take his example.

It is imperative that America acquire new leadership in the coming election. As critical as I may be of Mr. Reid and other Democratic leaders, I remain a committed partisan out of the conviction that the Democrats could only do better, on both foreign and domestic policy fronts, than the depths to which Republican leadership has brought us since the election of 2000. Because the stakes in the 2008 election are so high, I would implore Democratic leaders to genuinely differentiate themselves from the Rovian politics of the Bush era. Give the American people the benefit of the doubt, you will be surprised at the results.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Reading Signs in the Rubble in Iraq II

In February of last year the Golden Mosque of Samarra was destroyed. In the rubble of that blast could be seen the whole future history of the Iraq crisis until now. That attack was the single most successful tactical strike launched by any party in the Iraq conflict. It reshaped the entire political and military situation of Iraq and created repercussions that continue to reverberate powerfully today.

Last Thursday a truck bomb destroyed the monumental al-Sarafiya bridge across the Tigris River in Baghdad. On the same day a suicide bomber struck the cafeteria of the Iraqi Parliament, killing one person, the Sunni Parliamentarian Muhammad Awad. The Islamic State of Iraq, a group affiliated with Al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for both attacks. In the same way that the rubble of the Golden Mosque portended much that has transpired in the last year, in the twisted girders of the al-Sarafiya bridge and the destruction of the Parliament cafeteria one can see the future of President Bush's Baghdad security plan. Neither attack will likely prove to have achieved the enduring tactical effect of the Samarra bombing, but taken together they evince systemic problems that will likely prove the security plan unworkable.

Defenders of the Bush plan have pointed to measurable successes that have been achieved in its early phases. Unfortunately, those successes have been mainly in the realm of reducing sectarian violence perpetrated by Shi'ite militias throughout the capital. Until now it has been statistically unclear whether or not the security plan and its US troop increase has been having a measurable impact upon the other grave security concern in Baghdad: bombing attacks by Sunni insurgents such as the Islamic State of Iraq. These latest bomb attacks cast serious doubt on any positive assessment of the effectiveness of the security plan in this latter realm.

Keeping Shi'ite militias off the streets is a task for which the mobility and firepower advantages of the US military provide effective leverage. Though the capability of the Shi'ite militias to "go to ground" would make it very difficult for US forces to completely neutralize them, any standing "hot war" conflict with the US would cost the militias dearly in manpower and material resources, as prior conflicts between the US and the Mahdi Army have shown. The commitment of new US forces to Baghdad has thus succeeded in making the militias "blink," and turn down the heat in their campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The challenge of protecting Baghdadis from suicide and car bombers, however, is one for which the technological dominance of the US military provides less advantage. The destructive combat power of US troops provides no deterrent or genuine protection against those who are already resolved to die. As the insurgent attacks themselves require little in the way of personnel or materials, ramping up the US troop presence in the capital does not really increase the strategic risks for the insurgency. Whether they succeeded by blind luck or careful planning, Thursday's attacks registered points that cannot be ignored by anyone observing or experiencing the security situation in Baghdad. The attack on the al-Sarafiya bridge demonstrated that the insurgency can target vital infrastructure and materially degrade the conditions necessary for effective policing of the capital. The attack on the Parliament showed that the insurgency can penetrate the areas where the strictest security measures have already been put in place, sowing doubt that the security plan will be able to make the ordinary citizens of greater Baghdad, where nothing even approaching such strict measures have yet to be implemented, any safer.

In defending against attacks like those on Parliament or the al-Sarafiya bridge no technology exists that can genuinely stand in place of observant eyes and ears on the ground, scanning for suspicious activity. On this principle it would be difficult to know how many troops would be "enough." In a city of six million people, how many soldiers would create enough vigilance to prevent attacks like those of last Thursday? One can choose whatever number one desires- double, triple, or quadruple the number of US soldiers called for in the current plan. It would be impossible to know the effectiveness of such numbers until they were implemented. Such speculation is in any case moot, as the recent extension of Iraq tours for US units from 12 to 15 months suggests that at the levels programmed into the current security plan the US military is already working at something close to its maximum threshold. Moreover, the security plan itself puts US forces into a paradoxical bind. In expending manpower and energy on keeping Shi'ite militias off the streets, the US is intensifying the difficulty of warding off the insurgency. Without the eyes and ears provided by militia forces, the burden placed upon US soldiers to stand sentinel against insurgent attacks becomes even greater.

Senator John McCain is quoted in today's New York Times as supporting Mr. Bush's security plan, declaring that he has no "Plan B" for how to ameliorate the crisis in Iraq. In real terms the security plan itself is in fact probably "Plan X" or "Plan Y" if one counts through all of the various shifts in tactics and policy attempted by the Bush regime since the invasion of 2003. What Thursday's attacks demonstrate is not merely the weaknesses of this latest plan, but that there should never have been a "Plan A"- the invasion of Iraq- in the first place.

As much as this is true, one must note that there is another sign to be read in the rubble of the Iraqi Parliament and the al-Sarafiya bridge. Though these attacks target an irredeemable vulnerability of Mr. Bush's security plan, they also evince the strategic and moral impoverishment of the insurgency. Any movement grounded so firmly in gratuitous destruction has little long-term chance of enduring success. One must keep in mind that the political forces which perpetrated these attacks only possess the traction that they do in Iraqi society because the US invasion opened up a space for them. The US can thus go a long way toward eroding that traction by constructively disengaging from Iraq. This is the "Plan B" that Mr. McCain fails to grasp, though in fairness there seem to be few leaders on either side of the partisan divide in the US who do.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Stop Chasing Victory; Start Making Sense in Iraq

The time for US leaders and citizens to cease imagining the Iraq crisis in terms of "winning" and "losing" has long past. The US faces no tangible enemy that it may defeat in Iraq. Conversely, virtually any potential "victory" for US foes involves such suffering and loss for the putative "victor" that to call such a triumph "Pyrrhic" would be a ludicrous understatement. The Coalition mission right now, to the extent that it has any coherent and viable motive principle, is not a military or even a political contest in any meaningful sense. US leaders must stop using the logic and rhetoric of competition and begin to conceptualize and articulate the Iraq mission as a nation-building enterprise. Only when the US and its allies realize that they need to help make Iraq, not war, will any path to resolution of this crisis emerge.

Though erroneous logic prevails in almost all corners of the US discourse on Iraq, any review of the reigning climate of confusion must begin with the Bush regime. Though Mr. Bush and his subordinates speak constantly of "victory," they give no specific definition of what such a state would entail. "A free and democratic Iraq" is too vague to serve as any standard. Iraq already has as democratic a government as it has ever enjoyed and freedom is running riot through the streets of its cities and towns, yet no one could call the current state of affairs "victory." The shape of Bush "victory" must be inferred from the negative spaces in Bush rhetoric.

Mr. Bush's refusal to state definitively that the US desires no permanent troop presence in Iraq would seem to indicate that such a permanent troop presence is precisely one of his fundamental criteria of "victory." Right now in order to remain in Iraq the US must tolerate the death of about 50-150 US soldiers per month. Mr. Bush seemingly intends to fight until this number reaches zero. Once Iraq is no longer hostile terrain for the US military "victory" will have been secured.

The first question one must ask of such a "victory" is how one reaches it. After four years of occupation Iraq is deadlier terrain for US soldiers today than it was in March of 2003. Undaunted, the US military has implemented a new "counterinsurgency" doctrine. Such a doctrine is no doubt quite useful in addressing the tactical problems faced day-to-day by US units operating in Iraq. But a "counterinsurgency" strategy will not win through to any enduring victory.

The task of fighting the insurgency in Iraq is bedevilled for US soldiers by the fact that the insurgency is not fighting the US, nor is it compelled to. The insurgents have no ultimate stake in whether or how long the US remains in Iraq, their one critical task is to prevent the success of the constitutional government in Baghdad. Some insurgent attacks on US soldiers are no doubt motivated by anti-American feeling, and all such attacks are useful to the insurgents as propaganda among certain Iraqi constituencies. But the insurgency is not bound to any timetable or specific "to do" list in its strategic orientation toward the US military. The insurgents may attack the US if and when they choose to, very little is at stake if the insurgents choose not to attack US soldiers on any given occasion or in any given period.

Herein lies a deeply intractable conundrum for the US military: how does one fight an opponent who is only incidentally interested in fighting oneself? The liabilities of this conflict are stacked almost exclusively on the side of the US, and US assets of firepower and mobility are trumped by insurgent advantages of local knowledge, time flexibility, and logistical proximity. Beyond this, the US military finds itself locked in the jaws of a Catch-22 that could spin Yossarian's head clear off his shoulders:

The US is fighting the insurgency;

the insurgency is fighting the government;

the continued US military presence undermines the government's legitimacy,


Every tactical move the US military makes against the insurgency, whether it inflicts damage upon the insurgents or not, aids the insurgency in its struggle against the government.

This situation would be bad enough, and would argue strongly against the practicability of a plan for the type of "victory" the Bush administration is chasing. This analysis only begins to enumerate the complexities faced by the US military in Iraq, however. If the insurgency was the Coalition's only worry "victory" might be imaginable in some impossibly rosy best-case scenario. But the insurgency is by far the easiest of the challenges confronting the US and its allies. Even as the insurgency fights to destroy the government the US helped establish, elements of that same government are mobilized to assault both the Coalition and the larger fabric of Iraqi civil society. Paramilitaries such as Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army cannot properly be called "insurgents," in that they are deeply implicated in the political process the Coalition is fighting to protect. Yet such Shi'ite militias rampage through major urban centers throughout central and southern Iraq, killing Sunni civilians and Coalition soldiers in a sustained campaign of ethnic cleansing punctuated by occasional expressions of anti-foreign rage.

In essence, the US military has been tasked with protecting a government that does not yet exist even in embryo. Elections have been held and cabinet posts filled , but exquisitely convoluted battles rage over which institutions will hold real power in Iraq and who will be authorized to speak for those institutions. One small corner of this drama has been playing out in Diwaniyah (80 miles south of Baghdad), where US and Iraqi Army forces have been locked in battle with the Mahdi Army for three days, inciting anti-US protests among Shi'ites throughout southern Iraq. The proximal cause for this conflict was an assault by the Mahdi Army upon the municipal police headquarters of Diwaniyah. Was this attack motivated by anti-US feeling? Anti-Sunni hatred? None of the above. The Mahdi Army targeted the Diwaniyah police because they had been infiltrated and were controlled by the Badr Corps, a rival Shi'ite militia under the leadership of Ayatollah Aziz al-Hakim. The struggle in Diwaniyah is thus not ultimately over whether the US will remain in Iraq or even what role the Shi'ite clergy will enjoy in Iraq's new order. It is over what groups within the Shi'ite community will be authorized to represent the Shi'ite clergy in the political arena.

Convoluted as it undoubtedly is, the Diwaniyah incident embodies only one of myriad such volatile schisms which riddle every element of Iraqi society. Individually, either extinguishing the insurgency OR putting a stop to interethnic and interpartisan violence would most likely have proven beyond the capacity of the US and its allies to accomplish militarily. Together they present a completely insurmountable strategic task.

What can or should be done? Though the Bush strategy for "victory" is logically bereft, Mr. Bush's critics among the Democrats have come up with little better in the way of long-term proactive thinking. Democratic leaders like Senator Carl Levin talk of setting political "benchmarks" for the Iraqi government to meet, but this is in effect an altered form of the same kind of "win-lose" game theory propounded by the Bush White House. In the same way the Bush White House cannot explain how deploying US troops can make Iraq safer for US troops, Mr. Levin cannot explain how a government that cannot defend itself meets "benchmarks" or what effect it will produce should it do so. Senator Hilary Clinton (among other Democratic leaders) has proposed ideas that combine all of the worst elements of the Bush strategy with none of its merits. She would withdraw most US troops from Iraq and leave a small contingent behind to fight Al Qaeda, thus completely subverting the chances of the nascent Iraqi government by treating Iraq as a geostrategic chessboard for the furtherance of US interests. Iraq would burn bright and hot as US troops engaged in a wild goose chase that could do little damage to Al Qaeda and bring even less security to the US.

The situation in Iraq is so complex that not only are positive steps difficult to conceive, developing criteria by which progress toward some goal might be measured is virtually impossible. If US casualties were the only significant gauge of "victory" or "defeat" some murky picture might be discernible. But such numbers exist alongside and are ultimately eclipsed by the 2,800+ Iraqis who have died per month over the last year of the conflict (according to UN figures). In relative terms this is the equivalent of more than 36,000 US citizens dying violently per month. Iraq is a society in cataclysmic and self-devouring collapse. All notions of US "victory" or "defeat" are rendered meaningless by this glaring and tragic fact, and all other goals are superseded by the urgent necessity of turning Iraq back toward sustainable stability.

The Coalition must abandon all notions of "victory" and focus exclusively on this latter goal of returning Iraq to stability. The strategic principles that should guide such a nation-building effort are:

1) Coalition casualties are a less important gauge of success than Iraqi civilian casualties. All policies should be focused on reducing the number of Iraqi deaths in the long term, even if it requires a short term rise in Coalition casualties.

2)All aspirations for a permanent US military presence in Iraq must be abandoned. The ultimate strategic goal of the US should be to disengage from Iraq in the manner that affords that nation its best chances for enduring stability.

3)Aspirations for a cease of hostilities against US forces must be abandoned. Not only will it be impossible for US forces to stay in Iraq, no exit will be possible free of continued lethal violence against US personnel. Iraq will remain provisionally lethal terrain for US soldiers until the day the last soldier departs, our best hope is for that departing soldier to leave behind an Iraqi government and military that can survive and ultimately restore order.

4)Aspirations to bring a total end to the insurgency and/or interethnic and interpartisan violence before the final departure of Coalition forces must be abandoned. Though the number of Iraqi civilian deaths should stand as the ultimate gauge of policy success in Iraq, the US and its allies must be prepared to see that number hold steady and perhaps even rise immediately after Coalition forces depart Iraq. The goal of nation-building should not be to force a Pax Americana on Iraqi society, but to help foster the creation of an Iraqi state authority that will, over time, be able to bring Iraqi society into order. Though the Coalition may take (and has taken) steps to help create such an authority, it may only fully establish itself after Coalition troops have fully withdrawn.

5)The US should embrace the goal of full autonomy for the Iraqi state and military, and undertake all risk and expense necessary to supply the Iraqi government and army with all the economic and military assets it will need to assert and defend its authority. The US should abandon self-serving interests such as privatization of Iraq's oil markets if it will aid the Iraqis in coming to a political settlement that will strengthen the foundations of government authority.

These are the basic principles of what I would term a strategy of nation-building rather than "victory." In several posts below I have outlined specific policies that would help advance such a strategy toward potential, provisional success.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Congress, Iran, and the Surge

Both the US House and Senate have passed spending bills that fully fund the Bush regime's Iraq deployment yet place provisional constraints on its continuing duration. The White House and its spin machine are in full lockhorn mode, broadcasting the message that if and when George W. Bush vetoes this legislation Congress will be guilty of starving the troops and leaving them bootless. The brazeness of this politicking would be impressive if the message was not so derivative. This is old wine in a new bottle- no matter how badly the Bush White House mismanages the Iraq policy it always comes back to somehow being Congress' fault.

In typical Bush regime fashion, the divisive belligerence of this latest offensive comes unalloyed with any empirical assessment of whether Congress' very mild conditions are in any way an impairment of current policy. An objective assessment would have to conclude that Congress' legislation can only enhance, not impair, the chances of the ongoing Baghdad security plan. The President's "surge" seems to have made some headway in reducing violence in the Iraqi capital. But there is no indication that any of what has been achieved depends on Baghdadis' belief that the surge will be permanent or enduring, quite the contrary.

We have seen no arrests of major militia leaders, no stockpiles of guns confiscated from Shi'ite paramilitaries. The security plan's access to neighborhoods like Sadr City was obviously brokered by a negotiated truce between the Shi'ite militias and US Centcom. Would that truce hold if groups like the Mahdi Army felt that US troops would be patrolling Sadr City indefinitely? This seems highly unlikely. One strongly suspects that one of the conditions which has made it possible for joint US-Iraqi Army teams to patrol through Sadr City in force and unmolested is the understanding that the "surge" is a temporary state of affairs.

This fact is underscored by the recent actions by Iran's Revolutionary Guard. The seizing of British marines and the escalation of that hostage drama on the world's television screens would be puzzling given all of the saber-rattling occasioned by Iran's nuclear program. Such actions would seem to be tempting fate, unless Tehran felt that the precariousness of the Baghdad security plan allowed it to bargain from a position of strength. Why the marines were seized and what Tehran hopes to gain from this fiasco are questions about which I would not speculate. But Tehran seems to feel that the prevailing homeostasis in Baghdad precludes US military action against Iran for the moment, and in this they are probably correct. As soon as American bombs hit Iranian targets Baghdad would most likely become a much deadlier place for US forces, as their prevailing truce with Shi'ite militias collapsed.

The fact that Shi'ite militias view the US surge as temporary does not preclude it from achieving provisional gains. Groups like the Mahdi Army are no doubt lying low in the assumption that once the surge winds down they can go back to business as usual. US Centcom must know that this is the case, but are counting on the fact that any window in which the Iraqi military and police can be shown as taking even partial control over security throughout Baghdad will help normalize these institutions and solidify their authority, making a return to unrestrained militia mayhem impossible. Whatever the merits of this plan, it is all too likely that the longer it is sustained the more it will encounter a harsh margin of diminishing returns. If Iraqi military and police effectiveness is seen to depend too much for too long upon an increased US troop presence, the Iraqi people's faith in the security plan will erode and its long-term impact will be squandered.

Congress' moves to limit the duration of the surge and the US deployment more generally are thus in accord with the general climate of expectations that may facilitate its provisional success. If anything, Congress' restraints did not go far enough in curbing the White House's tactical profligacy. The security situation in Iraq will only improve for the long term if and when the US openly commits to a complete withrdrawal from Iraq and complete autonomy for the Iraqi government and military. Mr. Bush would be wise to sign Congress' legislation, if he does not the only one to blame for depriving the troops will be he himself. Let him veto the bill and let every Republican representative and senator campaign while trying to explain why he or she did not vote to override. Mr. Bush's faith that his current rhetoric will be politically effective embodies the same kind of miscalculation that cost the Republicans so dearly in the mid-term election.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

China Ad Astra

Speaking in Sydney, Australia on Friday, February 23, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney asserted that a recent anti-satellite missile test and China's general military buildup are "not consistent with China's stated goal of a peaceful rise." At a press conference concluding the latest session of the National People's Congress, PRC Premier Wen Jiabao deflected questions about the missile test and China's decision to increase military spending by 18 percent, asserting, "China’s position on the peaceful utilization of outer space remains unchanged." Inquiring minds no doubt want to know which of these leaders has got the story straight.

The incommensurability of Wen's and Cheney's remarks exemplifies a deep-seated clash of perspectives. For the Chinese, expressions of concern over China's presence on the "final frontier" smack of racism and 19th century propaganda about the "Yellow Peril." For Europeans and Americans, Cheney's ideas enjoy a long pedigree extending back to Napoleon's famous injunction, "Let China sleep, for when she awakens, she will shake the world." The Chinese view is undoubtedly well-founded. The idea that technology already possessed by other powers (say, the US) poses a unique threat in Chinese hands is a paternalistic one at the very least, especially in the wake of events like the most recent Gulf War. On the other hand the proposition that any nation of more than one billion people, whatever their race or creed, poses a distinct challenge to the international "balance of power" is not ridiculous.

While this latter principle may be true, it does not provide an easy calculus by which development of China's military strength may be judged inimical to peace. Pundits will always fret over the "balance of power," but such concern is only useful if it is done in full acknowledgment of the fact that the international "balance of power" is an infinitely more complex phenomenon now than it was in the age of Napoleon or Metternich. Dick Cheney (and others) presumably singled out China's anti-satellite missile test because it involves a technology that (according to their view) presupposes a conflict between China and another sovereign power. Only a nation-state can maintain militarily useful satellites, so goes this reasoning, so if China is developing weapons to destroy satellites it must anticipate a conflict with another sovereign power.

It takes little examination of the facts of the 21st-century world to realize that this line of thinking is erroneous. An increasing number of private groups and corporations deploy satellites in space, it is not inconceivable that a nation state might someday view a privately owned satellite as a threat. One does not have to imagine a James Bond scenario in which a mad scientist controls a laser in space. For example, if terrorists hacked into the computers of a company whose satellites could acquire images of important economic or military targets, a sovereign government pursuing an "all options" strategy might be very relieved to have such a system as China tested at its disposal.

In similar ways many of the fears about China's military power are rooted in antiquated or distorted notions of how the international balance of power works today. China's size is always cited as the root of international concern, but such thinking discounts the ways in which size is a liability as much as an asset. Pundits too often assume that a nation's ability to project force is uniform throughout its territorial domain, thus China's capacity to take military action against Vietnam is greater than the U.S.'s ability to project force against Cuba. China's logistical "home court" advantage only begins diminishing as one moves away from its sovereign borders, thus Vietnam is poised to bear the full force of Chinese military power.

Yet the history of China well demonstrates that the internal coherence of a state fluctuates in inverse proportion to its size. The further one moves from Beijing, the less firm CCP political control becomes. Thus when a PRC military unit penetrates one kilometer into Vietnam the CCP has not, in essence, projected force one kilometer. That distance must be measured between the operational zone of the unit in question and Beijing itself. At one kilometer into Vietnam, the CCP has thus projected force more than two thousand kilometers.

Moreover, most pundits vastly overestimate the importance of China's population to the calculation of its effect on the balance of power. Warfare has evolved over the course of the late 20th and early 21st century to give far greater prominence to technology than manpower. The US military is a mere fraction of the size to which it grew over the course of WWII, yet the entire military of that era could not match the combat power of a single brigade or carrier group of today. The most recent Gulf War provided the empirical proof of this principle. Despite having one of the world's largest standing armies, Iraq was defeated with lightning speed due to the vast technological superiority of the US military. Until China possesses technology to match that of the US, the size of its population or armed forces does not really figure into a calculation of the balance of power.

Then should not the world be concerned about China's acquisition of space-age technology? Concern may be warranted, but not paranoia. Most experts would agree that China is decades from developing military technology to match that of the US, and in the decades it would take to develop that technology the US will remain a moving target. Even if and when the day came that China and the US were on a technological par, war would not be inevitable or even likely. Until some technology is discovered that negates the threat of nuclear ballistic missiles the deterrence of "mutually assured destruction" will continue to restrain the strategic options of all powers.

Even if a war between superpowers is averted, would not a technologically advanced China be more prone to aggression against its neighbors? Here the realities of China's own internal political coherence are not the only facts to bear in mind. Though the speedy defeat of Saddam Hussein demonstrated the power that advanced technology affords, the subsequent aftermath of that conflict has been an object lesson in the limits of that power. The world is a very different place than it was when Napoleon spoke his sage advice. Nationalism, capitalism, industrialization, telecommunications, and economic globalization have created a world in which even a technological superpower faces discrete constraints upon its potential to project force beyond its borders.

Unless profound changes occur to stabilize China's internal political dynamic it is difficult to contemplate the circumstances in which the PRC would enjoy more success projecting force than the US has experienced in Iraq, space-age technology or no. Certainly China's political institutions as they currently exist could not withstand the kind of strain that the Iraq war has placed upon those of the US. One can never predict all the contingencies that might prompt a government to war, and it would be foolish to declare outright that China (or any other nation, including the US) poses no threat to peace. But where historically the Chinese are no less prone to conflict than anyone else, they are also certainly no more so. Whether China will ever pose a threat to peace is in this sense an imponderable, but in real terms one can predict that no matter how much China spends or what type of technology it comes to possess, the PRC will not pose a threat to the global balance of power any time in the near future.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Mogadishu Calling

The New York Times reports this week that U.S. Special Forces and air units were operating in Somalia during the recent fighting that drove Islamist forces from Mogadishu, a fact that comes as no surprise. The Bush administration, in essence, made a second, more successful pass at waging war by proxy in Somalia. Whereas previously Bush agents had attempted to stem the rising tide of Islamism by providing cash and weapons to clan warlords, in this second phase they have partnered with the Ethiopian military to undo the Islamist takeover that the first proxy war failed to prevent. Though the recent campaign has managed to install the internationally recognized Provisional Government of Somalia in the capital, the rapidly degenerating situation provides another sign of the incompetence and shortsightedness of Bush foreign policy.

The use of US air power underscores Bush administration priorities. Helicopter gunships targeted suspected Al Qaeda operatives active in Somalia; this appears to be the central strategic goal around which the entire recent campaign was built. This narrow focus upon military responses to the threat of Al Qaeda is in lock step with Bush policy since the administration's inception, and evinces the same flawed strategic thinking that has set the cause of US security so far back in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Though Al Qaeda operatives may well have been killed in these US raids, the overall campaign has done little to deny Al Qaeda safe haven and strategic purchase in Somalia. An Islamist insurgency has begun to wreak havoc in Mogadishu, and America's Ethiopian partners are withdrawing, having no will to sustain anything close to the level of casualities the US has endured in Iraq.

Here again is a lesson that the Bush White House seems determined to ignore no matter how many times they encounter it. Al Qaeda suffers very little from momentary personnel losses, as it is a political movement that requires few warm bodies for front-line action and is constantly recruiting and replenishing its human resource base. Attacking and killing Al Qaeda's standing personnel will never have a long term strategic effect unless such an effort is paired with an exponentially more intense campaign directed at its political recruitment capacities. The Bush administration, however, seems satisfied that "finding the terrorists" and "killing the terrorists" can stand in place of a genuine long-term foreign policy. This is the essence of the ludicrous "fly-paper" theory propounded in support of the Iraq war. In the same way that the Bush administration fails to understand that the momentary benefit of killing Al Qaeda operatives in Iraq is vastly offset by the strategic advantages of fertile anarchy and safe haven that have accrued to Al Qaeda as a result of the US invasion; they cannot see that the threat of Al Qaeda in Somalia will never be ameliorated until order and relative prosperity return to that beleaguered nation.

Where Iraq had no significant Al Qaeda presence prior to the US invasion, growing Al Qaeda operations in Somalia do pose a clear and present danger to US security. Moreover, unlike Iraq, Somalia could benefit from a US-led multilateral intervention. The Bush administration has not undertaken a more robust intervention in Somalia for three reasons: 1)though such an intervention would require military forces, it would more urgently require lengthy, intense efforts at diplomacy and economic aid for which the Bush White House has little patience; 2)such an intervention would provide little commercial profit to US enterprises akin to oil revenues to be garnered in Iraq; 3)the crippling commitment of US military forces in Iraq precludes robust action elsewhere in the globe.

One might object that to criticize Bush policy in both Iraq and Somalia is a contradiction in terms. Where Bush is held to task for being too aggressive in the former instance he is condemned for failing to be aggressive enough in the latter. But the issue is not whether aggressive tactics are good in and of themselves, it is whether our leaders have the foresight and knowledge required to understand when and where they might be applied to best effect in the post-9/11 world. Somalia is a completely failed state which has been the subject of many years of desperate international efforts to rebuild state infrastructure and repair civil society. If the US had stepped in to provide genuine leadership in this instance it would have garnered copious good will and enjoyed the support and cooperation of virtually the entire community of nations. Bringing order to Somalia would be arduous and require sacrifice to be sure, as the "Black Hawk Down" incident of the Clinton administration showed. But the prospects for success in Somalia have always been better than Iraq, and (prior to the US invasion of 2003, at least) the task was more vital to the global struggle against Al Qaeda.

The Bush administration's recourse to war by proxy in Somalia is more than an opportunity lost. Coupled with its application of aggressive force where Al Qaeda is lacking yet oil is abundant, it sends the signal to the rest of the world that the US will only take on the commitment of an extended intervention when there is economic gain to be had. The Bush White House has abdicated the moral authority of "world policeman" in favor of the image of "world profiteer." In the political struggle against Al Qaeda this is a tragic misstep. Many have noted that Al Qaeda's ideology is as imperialist as any. Even as this is apparent, enough (for Al Qaeda's needs) young Muslims throughout the world would rather sign on to create an Islamic imperium if they feel that the alternative is an American corporate imperium. Hopefully the next US administration will have the courage and wisdom to embrace the challenge of nation-building in all its complexity and diversity throughout the globe. Perhaps then the moral authority of the US will slowly be redeemed, and the terrible damage of the Bush years can begin to be undone.