Monday, April 07, 2008

Iraq: Is Anyone Listening to the Chorus?

Tomorrow, April 8, 2008, Washington, DC will be the setting of what should be high drama worthy of comparison to the best of ancient Greece. Ryan Crocker, the chief U.S. diplomat in Iraq and the Bush administration’s public point person for negotiations with Iran, and General David Petraeus, the ranking military leader of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, respectively, are scheduled to testify before Congress on what has happened in Iraq over the last eight months, and why, and to lay out their expectations about the course of events over the coming eight months.

One might think that Crocker and Petraeus would suffer in any comparison with Greek drama for no reason other than the Greeks conversed with the gods and heroes while the modern duo have mere humans to inform and act as messengers thereto. The point of the drama – like the point of the testimony – is not the content or story, all well-known to the audience, but the “enthusiasm” (literally the qualitative expression of the god within) that found expression in the chorus and the non-musical recitatives.

The drama in Washington will also be more directed by the depth of skepticism or support from members in both Houses. An added “feature” this year is the presence on the Senate Armed Service Committee of the major political party candidates vying for the U.S. presidency: Senators McCain (R), and either Clinton or Obama (D.

For some months, it has been quite obvious that the conduct of the war in Iraq, let alone the question of the origins of the war, would be on the hearts and in the minds of the public – and therefore be of interest to Congress. But this April also features two other protagonists whose appearance in the jousting lists seemed no accident of timing.

The first is a familiar source: the original staff of the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group (ISG, also known as the Baker-Hamilton Commission) that Congress established to look at all aspects of the superhighway into and a possible foot path out from Iraq, including the diminution of the war effort in Afghanistan. As in its original December 2006 report, the new assessment calls for devolving all government services except national defense and distribution of oil income to the provinces and local communities. Should Baghdad refuse, U.S. forces should begin withdrawing on a schedule that will reduce the chance of chaos. Should the Iraqis agree, the U.S. should continue to train and equip. Washington should also look at the distribution of its forces in the entire region to ensure proper balance considering the perceived threats.

The second entrant is an active duty officer who is on the promotion list for colonel and has been appointed a permanent professor of history at West Point. Colonel Gian Gentile, who served two tours in Iraq, challenges the popular misperception (as have others) that the decrease in violence in Iraq in the latter half of 2007 was the product of the “Petraeus-Bush” surge that brought 30,000 additional troops into Iraq. On the broader stage of five years in Iraq, Gentile is extremely wary that the wrong conclusions will be drawn and the wrong preparations made in shaping the army of tomorrow.

The core of the problem is the misplaced enthusiasm for the Petraeus tactic of counterinsurgency as the most appropriate response to any future military challenge the United States. Gentile attributes the failed 2006 Israeli response – the first failure of the Israeli Defense Forces in armed conflict with its Arab neighbors – to Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon to a misconceived doctrine which downgraded conventional warfighting skills of the IDF while elevating counterinsurgency.

This concern goes further. Because of the near-total embrace by the Bush administration of the Petraeus model for Iraq, Gentile fears that counterinsurgency will become the only response that future administrations, Democratic or Republican, will entertain. What will be missed in the analysis or denigrated as irrelevant will be the crucial role of two elements present in 2006 but not used before that year by the coalition. The first is the widespread use of bribery – essentially paying the largely Sunni “Awakening Council” militias to stop killing Shi’a militias and U.S. and coalition troops. The second “new” element has been the unilateral ceasefire ordered by Muqtada al-Sadr and renewed by him for an additional six months. This took his Madhi Army militia off the streets of Iraq’s towns, villages, and large cities, including Sadr City in Baghdad.

What Colonel Gentile misses – at least from his writings in the International Herald Tribune in January and the Wall Street Journal today, is that this is the same argument that emerged after Vietnam. The army knew it had not been prepared to fight an insurgency against a highly motivated opponent with experience in asymetrical warfare. Coming out of Vietnam, the question was whether to go back to training and organizing for pre-Vietnam style warfare or go deeper into special operations and counterinsurgency roles.

By the end of the 1970s, the decision was clear: the U.S. Army would return to its conventional roots. Big and armored were the preferred characteristics. Ten years later, in the first Iraq War, the decision appeared to be validated. In the Second Iraq War the initial invasion force followed the conventional warfighting model, only to discover that their new opponent lay not on pitched fields of battle but in their own perceptions of the people they are so often sent to kill in a drama whose curtain, when it falls, is final.

This brings us back to one other function of the chorus in Greek drama: foreseeing the possibility of a form of “resurrection” from the tragedy that humans had to endure.

For those with the will and the character to see beyond the normal human horizon, who, though suffering from an often almost unbearable tragedy nonetheless survive and in so doing surmount their fate, the Chorus holds out the possibility of attenuation, of a form of self-healing that serves as an example to others not to take the same path. In so doing, they find the strength of will and character to press on with life and rise, once again, beyond the usual limits of human horizons.

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