Thursday, February 28, 2008

Selling the Hundred-Year Sojourn

Though it has fallen somewhat below the political radar in recent weeks, the coming election will nonetheless be as much a referendum on the Iraq war as any other issue. The differences between the two remaining Democratic candidates on this score are negligible by comparison the position of the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain. Thus whatever the outcome of the Democratic contest, voters will be presented two clear alternatives on the issue of Iraq.

McCain's position is exemplified by his oft-quoted declaration that the U.S. should stay in Iraq for "a hundred" years, "as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed." Senator McCain has recently complained that these remarks are being distorted. His complaint has some logical basis, but as he himself admits, he could hardly expect otherwise. Democrats routinely cite McCain as if he endorses the decision to carry on with hostilities for one-hundred years, if necessary. The point of McCain's remarks, as he is quick to point out, is that American troops will be able to remain in Iraq for one-hundred years because (so he claims) hostilities there will end soon. Once the resistance to US occupation has been quelled, it will be possible for US troops to withdraw to bases and remain peacefully garrisoned in Iraq just like our forces based in South Korea or Japan.

Though Senator McCain may express some chagrin at the way his remarks are taken out of context, they are not, in fact, being distorted as egregiously as he would insist. Most often the "distortion" is exclusively one of omission: "John McCain says we will be in Iraq for one-hundred years." This kind of statement lacks the qualifiers that conditioned McCain's initial claim, but it does not substantively misrepresent his words. The rhetorical impact of such statements does not arise from a distortion of Mr. McCain's meaning, but from skepticism (latent or self-conscious) on the part of the listener that the stable homeostasis McCain predicts can ever be achieved. American troops have been in Iraq for five years now, and though we have seen rates of violence and casualties go up and down over the course of that time, a steady loss of American life has been a constant. Mr. McCain's vision of a future Iraq that is not lethal terrain for US soldiers is not something that experience has intuitively disposed American voters to accept.

This is the challenge facing McCain going in to the general election in November: persuading the American public that his vision of strategic success in Iraq is correct. For all that Senator McCain is being lampooned, one must admire that from the outset, he has laid down conditions for "victory" in Iraq much clearer than any articulated by the Bush White House over the entire course of the conflict: the US must stay and fight in Iraq until it is no longer necessary to fight to stay. In order to win the general election in November, McCain will have to persuade American voters that this vision of victory is both possible and necessary.

The possibility of arriving at the point where Iraq is no longer lethal terrain for US forces is the hardest sell. Critical as McCain has been of Bush administration policy under the Rumsfeld Defense regime, he shares President Bush's vision of Iraq as a basically bilateral struggle, between the US and its allies on the one hand and those opposed to US interests on the other. If there are only two contenders in Iraq, it should be possible to fight through to a point where one contender quits and the other is left standing.

If Senator McCain can persuade the American electorate of this bipolar picture, he may succeed in winning their assent to his strategy. An alternative picture, however, seems to enjoy broadly intuitive traction among the US populace. This is of Iraq as a multipolar conflict, implicating both a variety of groups and factions within Iraq itself and an array of interests among foreign nations throughout the region. This view perceives that alliances and conflicts among and between the different forces in Iraq are constantly shifting and realigning, making it impossible to predict what the long-term impact of any application of US power will be upon the course of future violence.

An example of the pragmatic differences between these two perspectives may be drawn from the recent "surge." From the point at which the increased deployment of troops was completed last summer until the end of last year, US troop fatalities in Iraq declined; from 101 in June to 23 in December. But 40 US soldiers died in January of this year, and 29 have died this month thus far. Senator McCain would interpret this as a clear-cut tale of bilateral struggle: from June to December of '07 US forces had our enemies on the run. In January and February they have rallied an counterattacked, with variable success.

Plausible as such a reading may be, it is not the only or most persuasive one. Those disposed to view Iraq as a multipolar conflict would insist that the greater infusion of US troops (along with other factors unrelated to US military action) had produced a proportional increase in stability. The point at which fatalities reached their nadir was thus not the place at which US enemies "rallied," but the point at which the capacity of US forces to assist in creating stability reached its margin of diminishing returns. Whether or not US casualties continue to fall is thus not dependent on whether US enemies are defeated, but on whether Iraqi society becomes more orderly; a contingency that is seemingly beyond US control from this point forward (unless we decide to gamble that a further infusion of troops might garner more order).

Senator McCain and his surrogates are already promoting the former assessment of the surge: "the surge is working." On the surface this would seem to be a rhetorically unassailable strategy, as it would appear to box in any Democratic opponent to the position that "the surge is not working," which will seem defeatist and unpatriotic. After five years of war, however, the American public is likely to intuitively see this for the false dichotomy that it is. The fact that the surge has had positive effects does not argue for the conclusion that the US is any more in control of the conflict than it has been since day one. The situation may not get any worse if the current status quo is maintained, but there is no guarantee that it is going to get better, and it must do so in order to give McCain's scenario credibility. It is entirely possible that the surge has brought violence and casualties levels down as low as this strategy can, and that they will continue to fluctuate within a variable band indefinitely as long as current tactics are applied.

The longer such conditions persists, the less likely McCain's prospective hundred-year sojourn will appear, and time is not on his side. The clock began ticking as soon as he made his "hundred years" remark. In the intervening months between that point and November, Americans will view conditions on the ground in Iraq as an empirical test of how long we will have to wait before McCain's peaceful "hundred year" sojourn begins. If US fatalities fall below the threshold they reached in December '07, or if there are marked indications that Iraq is becoming safer for US personnel (for example, a sharp decrease in the cost of providing security to American soldiers and officials), then McCain will enjoy an electoral boost similar to that which aided him in securing the Republican nomination. If the conditions of January and February remain characteristic however, skepticism of McCain's position will be even more widespread and intense by October than it is now, and Iraq will be a serious liability going into November's polls.

The only argument Senator McCain will be able to fall back on in the face of such skepticism is the necessity of fighting to preserve a permanent US presence in Iraq. Here McCain is on firmer ground, for he can appeal to Americans' fear that Al Qaeda could profit from a US withdrawal. Such arguments are not likely to gain much traction, however. McCain obviously feels that Al Qaeda will remain in Iraq until the US "flushes them out," but this is a position that has become somewhat fatigued among the electorate at large. Most Americans now realize that Al Qaeda had no purchase in Iraq before the US invasion, and that its recent decrease in strategic power in Iraq is due far more to Iraqi resentment of Al Qaeda brutality and fanaticism than military action by US forces. If it does not seem that a "peaceful sojourn" will be possible, Americans will be ill inclined to keep our soldiers in danger in order to do what Iraqi society seems well equipped to do on its own.

"Fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here" is likewise not an argument that will be broadly persuasive. Americans realize that this is asymmetrical war- the resources that Al Qaeda requires to create mayhem are minuscule by comparison to the resources the US must expend in order to hunt them down overseas. No one can really believe that the expense of fighting in Iraq, which can only be some tiny fraction of what the US has spent, has left Al Qaeda short the cost of a few boxcutters and a dozen or more airplane tickets. If damaging Al Qaeda's operational capabilities is forwarded as a justification of further operations in Iraq, most Americans are likely to be left with the impression, "there has got to be a better way."

The last "necessity" argument, one that McCain cites often, is the imperative to withhold any semblance of a propaganda victory from Al Qaeda. As soon as the US begins to withdraw, so this argument goes, Al Qaeda will trumpet to the world that it has driven the American infidel from Islam's heartland. Such a prediction is likely true, but this does not in and of itself make McCain's argument a persuasive one. If Americans remain or grow more skeptical of the prospects of a "hundred-year" sojourn, and Al Qaeda is certain to claim victory whenever the US disengages from Iraq (whether now or fifty years from now), the question then becomes: "How long do US soldiers have to die simply to refuse Al Qaeda bragging rights?" The world can see that Al Qaeda is vastly less powerful in Iraq now than it was back in the dark days when it controlled much of Anbar Province, and there is little prospect of those times returning, regardless of what the US does. Continuing to spend blood and treasure so that a bunch of thugs refrain from making a self-evidently hollow claim is not likely to be perceived as wise strategy by voters come November.

McCain and his supporters seem to believe that the Democratic position can be successfully portrayed as defeatism to the voting public, but their confidence in this regard may well prove unwarranted. Once the Democratic nominee squares off against McCain, he or she will have a very simple yet elegant message with which to counter McCain's more difficult "hundred-year" sell: "Senator McCain promises that if we stay in Iraq and continue to spend blood and treasure as we are now, we may eventually be able to sojourn there one-hundred years. But what if staying in Iraq has produced as much benefit (for both ourselves and the Iraqi people) as it is going to? What if the only way to improve the situation is to begin to disengage from Iraq? What if disengagement could actually reduce the violence and increase stability? There is no guarantee that it would work, but is it not worth trying?" Many American voters are already very receptive to this line of reasoning, and (depending on how conditions evolve in Iraq itself) by November their numbers may be vastly larger.

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