Friday, February 9, 2007

Four Wars and counting

Via Kevin Drum, here's Phil Carter at Slate, learning something from Secretary of Defense Gates, about why the U.S. effort in Iraq has become inherently futile.

The basic idea, attributed to Gates, is that there are (at least) four wars going on in Iraq:
1. a Shia v. Shia struggle in the South, with implications for the legitimacy and stability of the Shia-led central government;
2. a vicious Sunni v. Shia sectarian struggle in Baghdad;
3. an insurgency against the U.S.-supported central government;
4. an effort by Al Quaeda against the U.S.

A commenter on Drum's site makes the perfectly valid point that a fifth war, a Kurdish effort to capture Kirkuk from the Arabs and Turkmen, is presently in the offing.

The problem is not the multiplicity of struggles, per se, but the reality that anything the U.S. does tactically to win one of these struggles, tends to undermine its ability to obtain a favorable outcome from the other struggles. If the U.S. strengthens the central government by training and equipping its forces, for example, that training and equipment tends to flow into the sectarian militias, which are contending against one another in the south. And, Al Quaeda, though small and unpopular in Iraq, enjoys a great deal of leverage, because it is free to play the spoiler, with spectacular attacks aimed at destablizing the situation wherever the U.S. makes a bit of progress.

Kevin Drum draws the obvious conclusion, which Carter -- a military lawyer -- does not: "the conclusion from this is pretty obvious: continued American engagement is futile. No matter what tactics we use, at best we can win only one of these battles -- and only at the cost of making the others worse. "

The political storm in the U.S. over Iraq is presently stalled. The reason is quite simple -- a political storm is basically a struggle over narratives: who can tell the most appealing story, and the politicians are struggling to come up with a narrative, which will appeal to the American People. This is very difficult, because the U.S. has dishonored itself in Iraq, and there is no prospect for a "happy ending" to this drama. That makes all even faintly plausible, let alone truthful, narratives about Iraq seriously unpalatable to the American public. It does not help that much of the punditocrisy, which controls public discourse on television, is foolish, supported Bush's Iraq policy from the beginning, and is implicated in the failures of U.S. policy.

But, the further development of events in Iraq will not wait on creative dramatics in the U.S. The policy, whatever it is, is doomed to further and spectacular failure, and its principal author -- President Bush, is a deeply unpopular, lame duck President, with lots of authority, but rapidly diminishing political power.

Bush's approval ratings, just above 30%, are waiting to plunge into hanging territory. Below 30%, Presidents resign in disgrace. As events deteriorate in Iraq, and the Democrats in Congress, investigate the past, a narrative of incompetence and corruption will gain traction.

The American People will not want to swallow a narrative that blames America, but a narrative of failure is impossible to avoid, because failure is impossible to avoid. The only question is, in the narrative(s) adopted, who will be blamed. The Right may well decide to adopt a narrative, which blames the Left for undermining the troops, or some such, if they can keep such a narrative from becoming so ridiculous as to attract derision. The Left seems surprisingly open to adopting a narrative, which absolves Bush from responsibility for making things in Iraq much worse with his corrupt and incompetent Reconstruction, if they get to claim that the invasion, itself, in principle, was a bad idea and impossible to make work. The Left thinks such a narrative would innoculate American foreign policy against adventurism [-- just as Vietnam did . . . NOT!]

I still hold out hope that Congressional investigations of corruption and incompetence will eventually lead to a rejection of Bush's cult of stupid incompetence. Stupid people do not recognize stupidity; that's how they are stupid, so hoping the people, generally, are going to reject stupidity, per se, is hopelessly naive. But, people do, sometimes, recognize corruption, and they do, sometimes, defer to smarter and wiser, and not just to loud-mouth flatterers. There is some hope, for discrediting the Republican Party and much of the punditocrisy.

But, it is clear that Iraq is destined to create a still bigger political storm, because Iraq is spinning ever further out of control; all of the U.S. effort from this point on, will be futile. The chances that Bush will be able to plausibly blame the Democrats for the failure in Iraq is diminishing, rapidly.

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