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.