Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Iraq: Broken or Just Cracked?

Putting Iraq “Back Together Again”

“Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall…And all the king’s men
Couldn’t Put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.”

Yes, Jim Lehrer started the simile, but George Bush stayed with it, thereby trivializing the discussion about the president’s plan to send another 21,500 U.S. troops – 4,000 Marines and five Army combat brigades – to Iraq in the next four months. (In fact, the initial units are already moving.)

Bush has been promoting his “new strategy” since he spoke to the nation January 10, but so far to little effect. So when Lehrer noted a growing perception in the Middle East and elsewhere that the U.S. is getting ready to shift responsibility to Iraqis for the continuing violence in Iraq, Bush was quick to deny that the U.S. was even contemplating dumping the problem on Iraq – at least not before November 2007.

Despite the president’s protestations, the “new strategy” is a not-too-subtle attempt to impose a Washington solution on a U.S.-induced, Baghdad-located problem. Bush desperately wants to turn the page and forget the past – hence his willingness to assume responsibility for past mistakes, errors that he says will not be repeated. Should Prime Minister al-Maliki fail to come through on any part of the new strategy that the White House assigned Iraqis (more troops, more money for reconstruction), al-Maliki becomes the “fall guy” for what the U.S. destroyed but cannot now repair – or in the imagery of the nursery rhyme, broke but “couldn’t put back together again.”

What came to mind as Lehrer and Bush parried over whether Iraq was broken (Lehrer) or only “cracked” (Bush) were illustrations of the Humpty-Dumpty (H-D) rhyme that invariably depict H-D as an egg. When H-D “falls,” obviously he (it) always cracks – and usually breaks.

In the president’s own words, “if I didn't believe we could keep the egg from fully cracking, I wouldn't ask 21,000 kids – additional kids to go into Iraq to reinforce those troops that are there.”

Now one real world lesson every grocery shopper learns early is to inspect eggs before buying them to avoid getting a cracked (or broken) one. Sometimes, however, one may sneak through the inspection process. That’s far different, however, than deliberately breaking eggs before buying them because you don’t like the clerk or the store owner. Translating this scenario into the language of the rhyme, H-D represents a fragile society whose social contract has been broken by tyranny (or rebellion against tyranny) or by external invasion. Invariably, whatever emerges as the new compact and whenever it emerges, it will not replicate what has just been broken.

Moreover, seeking counsel from “all the king’s men” does not guarantee that what evolves from the chaos of the old system will be any better. In fact, if the “king’s men” are mired in the past, as so many in the current administration are, what they recommend may turn out to be worse than the old order. This is the caution – or one of the cautions – in Robert Penn Warren’s novel, All the King’s Men. Jack Burden, one of the novel’s protagonists, learns that every decision yields the unforeseeable and the unintended, either of which can painfully overwhelm the intended consequences of an action. Jack Burden and George Bush have in common the inability to recognize and accept this reality, for each envisions himself as somehow being separate from and “above” the interconnections that introduce randomness into human calculations.
That Bush has not quite leveled with the U.S. public could further complicate matters. In his January 10 speech, he spoke at length about the “Iraqi plan,” but the deafening silence from Baghdad suggests the plan’s origin was in the White House. Even congressional Republicans were excluded.

There is also a question about just how many of the 21,500 “surge” will be directly working in support of the Iraqi forces, both those already in place as well as the three new units from the north. Unlike former great empires – the Assyrian, Roman, Spanish, and more recently the Nazi and Soviet –the U.S. is extremely careful to have “force protection” units whose mission is to “watch the backs” of engaged U.S. combat formations as they conduct operations. This phenomenon reflects both the U.S. penchant for minimizing casualties and a rejection of the “classic” solution – an occasional massacre of an entire village or tribe – to the challenge of maintaining control over a large, restive population with a minimum number of troops.

Moreover, Bush plans to increase the number of “embedded troops working with and training Iraqi soldiers, but what is again unclear is just how many will have the primary duty of “force protection” as opposed to training. Obviously, the White House will avoid any distinctions as this would suggest that at least some Iraqi soldiers, police, and even politicians are less motivated by nationalism than by sectarianism.

A consequence of so much emphasis on force protection is to inhibit an understanding of a people, their culture, their needs, and their expectations, thereby often prolonging the perceived need for to subdue resistance to the “new order.” In the long run, the prospects for creating (or mending) a broken social compact that recognizes human rights and the rule of law can be hindered significantly.

There is an old saying that one has to break eggs to make an omelet. But somewhere I read recently a variation of this that was attributed to the now infamous Pentagon Office of Special Plans that many believe cooked the intelligence that led to the March 19 invasion of Iraq. Ironically, this version highlights the utter folly of “preventive war” that has driven this administration and cost the lives of scores of people of many nationalities:

“If you break some eggs, you better make an omelet.”

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