August 21, 2007

"It's An Awful Mess"

Given all the Vietnam talk of late, I found the below YouTube with voice-over of LBJ on the phone w/ McGeorge Bundy of topical interest:

LBJ's haunting question "What in the hell am I ordering them out there for?", is a question the current occupant of the White House never really had the depth of character, or essential dignity, to truly probe and ask himself, especially after the WMD claims wholly evaporated. But now, several years past the strutting Mission Accomplished follies, Bush must at very least better appreciate this quote from LBJ: "It's damned easy to get in a war, but it's going to be awfully hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in." Sadly, we fail to learn the lessons of history, over and over again.

Meanwhile, George Packer rues how isolated Bush is, compared even to LBJ:

But what’s striking about the moment when L.B.J. finally began to break is the nature of the forces that had led him to it: not just Clifford’s establishment friends and the bipartisan gray eminences of American foreign policy but also newspaper editors in the provinces and the power centers, party bosses like Mayor Richard Daley, of Chicago, moderate Republicans, and, above all, Johnson’s former colleagues in the Senate—his mentor Richard Russell, of Georgia; the majority leader, Mike Mansfield, of Montana; and even Eugene McCarthy, of Minnesota, who, though he was running an insurgent antiwar campaign against Johnson, maintained a back channel to his old friend in the White House. These were not just individuals but institutions that represented a broad center, able to appeal to politicians of both parties and, in a moment of crisis, speak to a truly national interest.

We had a moment, when the Baker-Hamilton report was released, where "politicians of both parties...in a moment of crisis" might have better taken action towards "a truly national interest" that represented a "broad center." But, alas, there were too many apparatchik whores (sorry, do you have a better word?) and other enablers still spouting on about victory. Well, that's just fine and dandy, save it's claptrap. The British have lost Basra. Relations with Maliki are cratering (the Iraqi PM, yesterday, after describing American criticism as "discourteous", rather a loaded term, went on to say: "No one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government. It was elected by its people..Those who make such statements are bothered by our visit to Syria. We will pay no attention. We care for our people and our constitution and can find friends elsewhere.") Meantime, other debacles are brewing:

Under a tree by a battlefield road in Iraq's "Triangle of Death," Lieutenant- Colonel Robert Balcavage meets his new recruits.

The men are Iraqi Sunni Arabs who are about to join the U.S. military's payroll as a local militia. They want guns.

"I am not giving out guns and ammo," the U.S. commander says. The men listen carefully as the interpreter translates.

"I've been shot at up here enough times to know that there's plenty of guns and ammo. Me personally. Some of you guys have probably taken some pretty good shots at me."

Slowly but deliberately, U.S. forces are enlisting groups of armed men -- many probably former insurgents -- and paying cash, a strategy they say has dramatically reduced violence in some of Iraq's most dangerous areas in just weeks.

It is a rare piece of good news in four years of war, and successes like this are likely to play a prominent part when U.S. commander General David Petraeus makes an eagerly anticipated report to congress in mid-September.

"People say: 'But you're paying the enemy'. I say: 'You got a better idea?'," says Balcavage. "It's a lot easier to recruit them than to detain or kill them."

But U.S. forces also say the militia -- dubbed the Concerned Citizens Programme, or CCP, -- is only a temporary measure. If the comparative peace is to hold, the mainly Shi'ite government must offer the fighters real jobs in its army and police force.

It's grossly negligent (at best) that American kids are dying for strategic incoherence on such an epic scale. If I were a diplomat at the State Department, I'd probably resign in protest rather than continue to serve an Administration bleeding American lives so irresponsibly. Arming Sunni militias (sorry, Concerned Citizens Programmes) rather than the National Army, as nascent and pitable as this last is, will almost certainly lead to more intensified Sunni--Shi'a fighting. Meantime, these bolstered Sunni forces (some of them simply ex-Baathists we supposedly went in to topple) will eventually be fighting for primacy against the very Government we've been trying to prop up in Baghdad. I find this mind-boggling in its short-sightedness and lack of overarching strategic direction (unless we've truly become Machiavellian, and are plotting to return the Sunnis to power to contain Iran!)

Am I being hyperbolic? Or would senior diplomats of talent, two or three scotches into a frank off-the-record discussion with an old confidante, say, more or less admit same? I can't know, but in my gut I suspect they can't be too optimistic about the way ahead. I mean, we've been here before. As Eric Martin points out, we had Jaafari. Unhappy, we went with Maliki. Next it might be Adel Abdel Mehdi, another Shi'a. But none of these men can change the fundamental dynamic: the Sunnis want to be returned to power, or at very least get a major slice of the pie, and the Shi'a don't want to allow them back in, nor give them a share of power beyond de minimis theater.

And, repeat after me, there is no military solution that can be imposed by the Americans to resolve this fundamental divide. What is needed is international mediation (beyond Kouchner preening for the cameras, say) by dedicated non-American emissaries within Iraq, fully aided by a coordinated attempt by this Administration to defuse the regional temperature by engaging in real high-level negotiations with Syria (as we peel away the Syrians from the Iranian orbit, the Iranians will get less cocky about their regional position, so we can then better work to contain them). Put differently, only by fully employing our diplomatic tools could any 'surge', especially an unconvincing one (too few men, saved by the luck of the Anbar Awakening and, indeed, the fact we're now essentially bribing Sunni militias by arming them direct), only then might the surge have begun to help move us towards a strategically enhanced position. In a political vacuum characterized mostly by chimerical Green Zone posturing and politicking, however, the surge is merely a tactical variation that cannot convincingly change the underlying conditions preventing Iraq's emergence as a reasonably stable country with a cohesive central government sitting in Baghdad. As Chuck Hagel has written:

An international mediator, under the auspices of the UN Security Council andwith the full support of the Iraqi government, should be established. The mediator should have the authority of the international community to engage Iraq's political, religious, ethnic and tribal leaders in an inclusive political process...

...Special envoys have been instrumental in helping bring political reconciliation to other recent conflicts - Afghanistan, Kosovo, East Timor, Northern Ireland - adapted to the conditions in each country. Iraq needs the inter-national community's help and support if it is to turn away fromsectarian violence. If there is Iraqi resistance, we should be clear with all Iraq's leaders that this initiative is a condition of continued US support.

This approach would help begin to take the American face off Iraq's political process. The US is seen as the occupier. Our ability to influence the outcome in Iraq has been seriously eroded.

This approach would further invest the region and the rest of the world in helping to stabilise Iraq. Reversing Iraq's slide into chaos is a goal shared by nations around the world. Creating an international mediator would build on this common interest.

To succeed, this initiative must be complemented by other elements of a new regional US strategy. Stability in Iraq requires a sustainable and constructive comprehensive regional security framework, one that includes engaging Syria and Iran. We cannot allow last month's regional ministerial conference on Iraq in Sharm el-Sheikh to be a "one-off" event. The US must also announce a renewed commitment to address the Arab-Israeli conflict, with a Middle East special envoy who has the authority effectively to work the day-to-day political reconciliation effort. The appointment of Tony Blair is welcome. He has the stature, standing and experience that will be required. To succeed, he must also have the mandate and authority to address all issues, including the political issues that must be resolved to achieve the two-state solution.

More on related topics soon.

Posted by Gregory at August 21, 2007 11:13 PM
Comments

Bad as Iraq is, we'll be nostalgic for it once the bigger catastrophe of Iran begins -- which, as far as I can tell, requires only a single order from the bunkered minds of Bush and/or Cheney.

The "opposition" party is doing precisely nothing to give military commanders the legal cover they need to refuse such an order. With a couple of exceptions, they won't even talk about it. My bet is we're going to wake up some time *after* the '08 election, and find that we've begun the Iranian war. And the Dems will still be congratulating themselves for the poison chalice they just won.

Posted by: sglover at August 23, 2007 04:34 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"What was it all for, I wonder"
---Vir, Babylon 5

That's probably the most important line from the TV show Babylon 5, from Vir Coto, Londo Molari's atache, of the Centauri. G'Kar had just been freed, the Narns were going to be left alone and were celebrating outside. What did all their actions get the Centauris? All that warfare, what did it achieve?

And we're not even done yet.

Posted by: Dan at August 23, 2007 06:12 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Yes, well written. And perhaps the next time Packer is on the News Hour...he will be as eloquent, and hard hitting, and realistic, as he is here. Instead of the namby-pamby mush delivered by him, as a 'very serious person' type, that I saw last night on PBS.

Posted by: jonst at August 23, 2007 07:31 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What has always amused/amazed me about Bush et al is how they act as if all they have to do is say something, and it is so. They actually still seem to believe (or at least Bush seems to) that "message discipline" can be applied not only to RNC hacks and their ass-kissing friends in the media, but the entire rest of the world as well. It's as if they, despite being adults of rather advanced age (Bush, Rove and Cheney are in their 60s, Rumsfeld in his 70s, I believe) have no idea how the real world works, as opposed to the "Gosh, it'd be nice if I was King of the World and everyone had to do what I say" alternate reality that they seem to live in. That's what's kind of the most frightening, that they have no idea, apparently, that no one outside the U.S. has to give a damn what they say, and most people inside the U.S. no longer care, either. They carry on as if they have any authority at all in the world outside the U.S. government. Is it possible that they have no idea that they no longer do, or is this just more message discipline, that bullshit "act like the most confident person in the room and people will go along with it" advice (that is probably the explanation for so much incompetence in our country, both in the White House and outside of it)?

I'm just wondering. Bush has so little authority left anymore, I have to wonder why he bothers saying anything publicly. Who does he think he's still talking to, besides that 27% (or whatever it is now) who still think he's awesome? Obviously, he still has power as the president, but why does he bother making speeches to people who see each one only as another opportunity to hold him up as clueless and arrogant? Is there no one in the WH who can tell him the truth, or has he and Rove and Cheney driven all those people out?

If I didn't clearly recall how assholishly he and his cronies (and the various Republican "leaders") acted just a few years ago, especially immediately after the 2004 election, I'd almost feel sorry for him. Almost. Remember when he was talking about his "mandate"?

Posted by: LL at August 24, 2007 12:39 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I find this mind-boggling in its short-sightedness and lack of overarching strategic direction

Actually, this would make sense if we were leaving. If you don't want to withdraw under fire, that's one less group shooting at you.

Of course, the above would depend on cutting a deal with the neighbors for a modicum of stability, and recognizing that Iraq as a nation-state no longer exists.

Posted by: Happy Jack at August 24, 2007 01:09 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Chuck Hagel?

STFW.

Posted by: Dan Collins at August 24, 2007 02:35 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Exactly how likely does Greg really think it is that "diplomacy", by anyone, can resolve the current mess, given that central clash between fundamental Shiite and Sunni interests that he talks about? It's crucial oil revenues that we're talking about, remember: the Shiite and Kurd regions have lots of the stuff; the Sunni regions have very little (which is the problem with trying to use national partition to stop the bloodletting). Now add the desire for revenge for several centuries' worth of frequently gory repression of the Shiites by the Sunnis, plus an utterly loony intensity of religious hatred between the two groups. Stir well. (By the way, did anyone catch that recent NYT piece on the frantic -- and almost completely fruitless -- attempts by the US military to make teenage Sunni and Shiite detainees stop murderously hating each other?) You'll padon me for thinking that in this case "diplomacy" -- by the notoriously impotent UN or anyone else -- is rather like trying to use a condom as a life preserver during the Titanic sinking; and indeed, judging from his phrasing throughout his piece, Greg really agrees.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw at August 24, 2007 04:44 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg, this is pure gold:

It's grossly negligent (at best) that American kids are dying for strategic incoherence on such an epic scale. If I were a diplomat at the State Department, I'd probably resign in protest rather than continue to serve an Administration bleeding American lives so irresponsibly. Arming Sunni militias (sorry, Concerned Citizens Programmes) rather than the National Army, as nascent and pitable as this last is, will almost certainly lead to more intensified Sunni--Shi'a fighting. Meantime, these bolstered Sunni forces (some of them simply ex-Baathists we supposedly went in to topple) will eventually be fighting for primacy against the very Government we've been trying to prop up in Baghdad. I find this mind-boggling in its short-sightedness and lack of overarching strategic direction (unless we've truly become Machiavellian, and are plotting to return the Sunnis to power to contain Iran!)

I wonder about that last parenthetical more and more these days.

Posted by: Eric Martin at August 24, 2007 04:06 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg, based on a thorough reading of the Discourses, Florentine History, the Prince, and the Art of War, I don't think returning the Sunnis to power would be "Machiavellian" at all.

There is a great quote from Book I of the Discourses when Mach explains that perhaps the biggest mistake that the leader of the Decemvirate made was to make enemies of those whom he had previously been friends, and then to make enemies of those that hated the Decemvirate's guts, while actually *trying* to make friends with his natural enemies.

Basically, Mach would argue that the people who like us are the Shi'ites and the Kurds, and pissing them off would destroy our support, while the Sunnis are our enemies, and under no circumstances should we expect to be able to win their friendship.

I think that Mach would have recommended a very brutal but very swift course of action back in 2003 of utterly decimating the Sunnis - exile or ethnic cleansing. Otherwise, he would have argued that what we're doing right now is completely ridiculous, and that we're going to lose.

Posted by: Greg at August 24, 2007 04:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Forget elementary morality: if Machiavelli had had enough sense to come in out of the rain, for cold-blooded strategic reasons he wouldn't have favored either slaughering or exiling the Iraqi Sunnis, for the simple reason that this would turn the entire Moslem Sunni world (and maybe even some Shiites) murderously against us, with considerable reason. Including those in that other country that already has both 50 A-bombs and a considerable number of al-Qaida sympathizers...

I'm still waiting to hear from Greg -- when he has the time -- just how likely he really thinks it is that diplomacy, by the UN or anyone else, can retrieve this situation any more than it's been able to improve the situation in Palestine or Sudan. It didn't do any good in Northern Ireland, after all, until both sides had finally gotten tired of butting their heads bloody against a brick wall, and the Shiites and Sunnis (and Kurds) in Iraq are far from that point; they want to find out first just how much they really can gain through raw military force.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw at August 24, 2007 08:21 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

About Belgravia Dispatch

Gregory Djerejian, an international lawyer and business executive, comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.


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