Friday, July 20, 2007

Iraq: The discussion turns

Iraq: Finding Fool’s Gold

The briefings for the press from civilian and military officials in Baghdad were uniformly upbeat if cautious. The message was: Don’t judge to early.” Give the “surge” a chance (one general wants another year). Then, when (the re-scheduled) judgment is due, scoop all the gold (success) together as some of the iron pyrite (failures) might swell the stash.

And there is plenty of fool's gold that needs to be separated.

For the second time in a week, the Senate failed to impose cloture on debate on an Iraq war-related amendment to the 2008 Defense Authorization legislation. With that, Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the measure from consideration until after the August recess.

Reid’s action shifted the Iraq war spotlight back to the House of Representatives where, under different procedural rules, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is ready to move the “ball down the field.”

But as with the Senate, there are obstacles.

One is the psychology of the Vietnam War experience. It is helpful to remember that the three and four star generals and admirals still on active duty are the last of the Vietnam veterans. They were part of the U.S. Army that withdrew from South Vietnam. They lived through the post-Vietnam reduction-in-force, the transition to the all-volunteer, and the “hollow force” of the mid- and late-1970s when there were more bases and units than volunteers to fill the ranks.

Most are on their last assignment, and at the end of their careers, they do not want to be seen or associated with anything that suggests failure.

But they do not have the final word, especially with a Congress that is deeply divided and struggling to pass legislation that will direct the course of U.S. involvement in the Gulf.

The first and most stringent bill that the House is to take up next week, in terms of mandatory timelines, is the “Iraq Redeployment and Reconstruction Act” co-sponsored by three California and one Pennsylvania Democrats – Mike Thomson, Doris Matsui, George Miller and John Murtha, respectively. This legislation would give the president just 30 days from enactment into law to begin drawing U.S. forces out of Iraq.

Another effort expected would extend indefinitely the current ban on spending any appropriated funds for permanent bases in Iraq for U.S. troops or to “exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq.” Such a ban is part of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2007 Defense Appropriations Act (PL 109-289), but is in effect only for that fiscal year. This year’s legislation, H.R.2929, to be introduced next week by Congresswoman Barbara Lee (CA), would make permanent that ban.

The House may also debate and vote on a new version of Senator Jim Webb’s (VA) proposed amendment, defeated by four votes in the first Senate cloture test last week. The legislation, expected to be offered as a “stand-alone” bill, reportedly will require the Pentagon to observe a minimum “dwell time” at home for war veterans before they could be redeployed into combat zones. The Webb amendment included a provision allowing the president to waive the requirement for “national security reasons, a provision that will either be narrowed or omitted entirely.

The White House, if concerned, is publicly holding to the same position: the president is commander in chief and only he can run the war. But there is a correlation of forces, to use a familiar Cold War phrase, which is becoming irresistible. The number of Republicans in the Senate who have called for a strategy change is steadily growing and will soon provide the needed votes for cloture. Already Senators Snowe, Collins, Hagel, and Smith have voted against the president’s position; Lugar, Voinovich, Warner, and Sununu have warned the White House that political time in Washington – and thus military time in Baghdad – is running out and will soon expire.

A number of senior uniformed military leaders seem to understand this connection better than the political ruling class. There are plans, detailed ones, for withdrawing, but no one will own up to this “on the record” because they do not want their name suddenly appearing on the list of pending retirements.

The sensitivity of this topic in political circles was made clear when the Defense Department’s Under Secretary for Policy, Eric Edelman, in effect accused Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of giving aid and comfort to the enemy by the mere fact of asking if there are withdrawal plans in existence. “Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda,” read the Pentagon official’s response to the Senator’s query.
If the Pentagon uses that tone and tenor when responding to a query from a member of the Seante Armed Services Committee, it is not hard for the military rank and file to image the letter they would get for “talking.”

Since the beginning of July, another “force” seems to be organizing itself and gaining strength: the urban press. This might come as a shock to many in Washington and New York who have been railing against the coverage of the Post and the Times. But a July 15 informal survey of mid-size urban newspapers by the trade publication “Editor and Publisher" concludes that more and more of these media outlets (print, ipod, internet) are calling for the start to the process of withdrawing. Among those cited by the trade publication are the Philadelphia Inquirer; Detroit Free Press; Wichita, Kansas Eagle; Boston Globe; and Sacramento Bee.

At the conclusion of the Paris peace talks, the North Vietnamese readily conceded that U.S. forces won every significant military encounter of the Vietnam War. But they also knew that they had won the more important political challenge, even though two years would pass before they captured Saigon as the last Americans were evacuated from the roof of the embassy. That two years proved insufficient to insulate the military from the overall judgment that the U.S. lost the Vietnam War – after all, wars are fought and won (or lost) by the military.

That is one reason the military commanders will look for every nugget of success that can be mined and inserted into the September 15 report to Congress.


Blogger rasphila said...

Wars, as you say, are won or lost by the military. Unfortunately for the generals, grand strategy—the decision whether to go to war, what the goal of the war is, and what "victory" means—is not in their hands. It is in the hands of policy makers whose judgment can fail badly.

This is obvious in the case of Iraq. The President and his advisors made the decision to invade, without considering advice that contradicted their ideology. When Gen. Shinseki, who knew about nation-building from his Bosnia experience, dared to suggest that the invasion might require a larger force, he was pushed out. When virtually every knowledgeable group, including our own State Department, raised questions about the invasion, the Administration discounted or even ridiculed their doubts.

The bottom line here is that, although the generals are right to be worried about how history will see them (and about being treated like Gen. Shinseki), the war was effectively lost when the first units crossed the Iraq border—not in the short run, but in the long run, which is the only time frame that counts. And it was not the military that lost it. It was the blunders of policy makers who would not listen to good advice and thought they could impose their will on history.

5:05 PM  

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