The deaths of 16 Americans in a Chinook helicopter might have an impact on how ordinary Americans think about the ongoing conflict in Iraq, although it seems to have had little or no impact on the imperial capital just yet. Or did it? In a "profile in courage" worthy of the next ghostwritten chronicle the Senate approved the president’s request for $87.5 billion for ongoing "war on terrorism" foreign aid and welfare by a voice vote, which means none of the brave Senators is on the record. Does that unwillingness to take a stand suggest that some in the Senate are starting to wonder how good an idea it is to be identified with what seems to be shaping up as a disaster in the making in Iraq?
On the other hand, even before he had made any public statements, it was not hard to predict that President Bush would issue more of his playground bully-like promises that "America will never run," at least as long as the president doesn’t face open mutiny in the armed forces. This folly in Iraq seems to be to so central to President Bush’s own conception of his presidency that it seems unlikely that almost anything will precipitate a serious reassessment of U.S. policy there. In some ways that might be seen as admirable, a case of a president determined not to cut and run because the task is more difficult than at first believed.
But this is a president who seems not to be closely in touch with reality on the ground certainly it is dissimilar to his own rather limited military experience and prone to believe what he wants to believe, even to the point of preferring cooked intelligence to real intelligence, once he has decided what he thinks he wants to do. If the various reports are even close to true, that this president also believes God asked him to run for president and God wants him to take out the infidels, this country could be in for a rough time unless it turns him out at the next election.
It is unfortunately characteristic of some recent converts whose conversion was more emotional than intellectual and therefore not especially mature, that they see their relationship with God not as a way for God to reprove them or admonish them to be better, but to affirm that God approves of them and what they have already decided to do in His name. I have no particular insight into President Bush’s spiritual journey, of course, and I’ve been reluctant for a long time to conjecture even this much. I hope the conjecture is completely incorrect, that the president goes to his knees in humility and openness, even to the point of being open to the idea that he might have understood his duty incorrectly and should change course. One may hope.
PUT IN HARM’S WAY
Those who serve as volunteers in America’s wars have reason to know they might be put in harm’s way, but that does not lessen our sadness and regret when harm comes their way. It will be interesting, however, to see what effect Bush II’s excellent little adventure in Iraq has on recruiting, especially in the National Guard.
I’ve heard reports, including a fairly credible survey conducted by the quasi-independent military newspaper Stars and Stripes, suggesting that military morale is sagging in Iraq. Washington Monthly even did an interesting piece suggesting that the Bush policy of endless wars for less-than-concrete goals might even harm the inclination of the professional military to identify with the GOP. But it has been every soldier’s birthright to gripe since the Peloponnesian Wars and before. More interesting information will come when it’s time to sign up for another hitch. I suspect it will be harder for the National Guard, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
CAN RUMMY DO ANYTHING? DOES HE WANT TO?
Beyond the human response of regret, it seems appropriate to develop an analytical response based on a no-nonsense assessment of what the mission in Iraq is and what it will take to do it. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld might have begun something like that process within the administration with his notorious memo. But his performance on the Sunday chat shows suggests that he is once again playing the good bureaucrat and falling in line with the tendency to look on the bright side and predict success. I’ll believe he’s really interested in provoking an intelligent reassessment of U.S. policy it’s remotely possible; his personal roots are those of an old-style Republican rather than a typical disillusioned former leftist neoconservative when he fires Paul Wolfowitz (whose obvious personal fear after the bombing of the hotel in Iraq where he happened to be staying, I suggest, is unlikely to change his attitude that more young Americans need to be called upon to sacrifice for the greater glory of the neoconservative vision).
Whether Rumsfeld does it, somebody on Congress does it, or the American people finally communicate what seems to me (and most of the pollsters) like growing disillusionment with the outcome so far in Iraq to the politicos, some hard questions seem virtually inevitable. As Ted Carpenter of the Cato Institute reminded me when I talked to him last week before the Chinook was shot down in May and June there were perhaps six or seven violent events a day in Iraq. By September there were about a dozen. Lately there have been 30 to 35 a day. And even before the Chinook disaster the number of U.S. casualties and fatalities was rising as well. To be blunt, there haven’t been enough Americans killed to have a serious impact on the military mission (assuming there is one beyond improvising and hoping for the best) in Iraq. But rising casualties should have a political impact back home.
ACCENTUATING THE NEGATIVE
President Bush and other administration honchos have complained that the media tend to focus on the negative in Iraq and have ignored the positive aspects of the occupation, like schools opened, nascent quasi-democratic institutions put in place, infrastructure repaired, markets opening and daily life becoming more normal. There is probably some truth to this, although it hasn’t been all that hard to find positive stories, and not just on Fox News. But until the violence starts to wane rather than get worse, the Bushies had better get used to stories about it and accept that fact as one of the realities with which they will have to deal.
The attacks simply cannot be ignored, nor can their importance be discounted. The media naturally gravitate toward bad news anyway; in some ways it’s part of the definition of news. They carried stories about the fires in California last week (pushing some of the bad news in Iraq off the front pages), but they do not run a celebratory story each day a fire does not break out (at least they won’t after a week of no new fires). Furthermore, the administration, despite its hunger for feel-good news, has not offered anything more than vague phrases about what would constitute progress and success in Iraq.
What is the target, for example, for hiring and training Iraqi policemen and turning over day-to-day responsibility for certain kinds of security to them? How much infrastructure repair constitutes progress? How many people should be in the Iraq army in three weeks, three months, six months, a year? Is there a target? How many functioning local governments are expected to be in place in the next six weeks or six months? Surely somebody in the administration has an idea or a wish-list? Is there a target for oil production in the next three months or six months?
Without those kinds of benchmarks, it is virtually impossible to assess progress except in vague or anecdotal terms. So properly functioning media, even media inclined to want to tell positive stories about Iraq, will have a hard time telling the story except in vague or anecdotal terms. An administration that wants positive stories (assuming attacks like the Chinook attack don’t escalate, making this entire discussion moot) has an obligation to define its goals in terms more concrete than "more democratization" or "more schools open."
Unfortunately, as Ted Carpenter suggested (and I have no reason based on the evidence available to doubt it) "So far there seems to be no overall strategy, no timeline for accomplishing certain goals. Even more important, however, the security environment is central to the effort. If you don’t control violence and sabotage, any other achievements can be transitory at best." That comports with what just about everybody I have talked to with experience in the area has been saying since about April. For a time it seemed almost too cold-blooded to me get the security aspect right first before you start rhapsodizing about reconstruction and democratizing but events have proven the advice sound.
The question is whether the administration or the military even knows how to get the security aspect right. It’s not all that easy, after all, and it might not be what the U.S. military is trained to do or especially good at.
A fascinating document in this regard was discussed at some length last week by Fred Kaplan on slate.com. The Center for Army Lessons Learned in Ft. Leavenworth put out a 30-page unclassified report on military intelligence in Iraq. The report noted that with 69 tactical human intelligence teams in Iraq, commanders had expected about 120 "information intelligence reports” a day, but were getting about 30. The reason was, according to the report, "not because of lack of activity but because of the lack of guidance and focus" from their superiors. The superiors turned out to be junior officers who "did not appear to be prepared for tactical assignments." Furthermore most of them "lacked advanced analytical capabilities."
Among the phrases that appear repeatedly in the report are "very little to no analytical skills," "junior officers who had no formal training, " information overflow," "no internal analysis capability," "lack of competent interpreters" and so on. HUMINT databases were stored on separate computer systems, many loaded with incompatible software, with no capacity to share data among different intelligence operating units. Furthermore, intelligence personnel were often ordered to take part in operations that kick down doors and raid buildings. As the Lessons Learned report dryly puts it, "THTs [tactical HUMINT teams] rely on the rapport they generate with the local population and their ability to collect information. Putting them on a door-kicker team ruins that rapport."
LITTLE TASTE FOR NATION-BUILDING
Ivan Eland, director of the Center for Liberty and Peace at the Independent Institute in Oakland, suggested to me that much of this is not surprising. The U.S. military has little taste for nation-building and the kinds of tasks involved therein, including intelligence and counter-insurgency. Our military is built to be a high-tech attack weapon, and as the initial war demonstrated, it’s quite good at it. Furthermore, attack operations and procurement are the way to get ahead in today’s "army of one."
What the military really needs now are more effective ways of dealing with guerrillas. At least a number of military leaders on the ground have acknowledged that U.S. forces are now in a guerrilla war. Our political leaders seem reluctant to do the same, preferring to focus on those pesky "foreign" terrorists and demanding that Syria and Iran get a lot better control of their borders than the United States has of its. But is the U.S. military, even having acknowledged that this has deteriorated into a guerrilla war, capable of waging an effective counter-guerrilla campaign?
To ask the question is in no way to disparage the courage or willingness of the troops we do have on the ground. But counter-guerrilla activities are fairly specialized and few military people in the world are really very good at them. If you haven’t been trained to do counter-insurgency (or even routine police work, which is what much of occupation resembles) or been led to expect to be in other countries for long periods of time (as the British military was at the height of the British empire) it isn’t realistic to expect to be able to pick it up on the fly.
FEW ATTRACTIVE OPTIONS
At this point, as Ivan Eland pointed out to me, few of the options in Iraq are attractive. Leaving in the wake of even so horrendous a disaster could create an impression of weakness and irresolution. The administration has staked a great deal on a successful outcome in Iraq and the promises are coming home to roost. However, "this attack is almost surely a harbinger of more ambitious attacks to come," Mr. Eland said.
Sending more troops would be politically difficult, in that it could look like an admission that the previous policy was a mistake, and more troops would be more targets. In that light, Delaware Democratic Sen. Joe Biden’s suggestion that Congress might be willing to go along with more troops might be seen as a political trap for the administration, sort of a "please don’t fling me into that briar patch" ploy from a leading Democrat. If the administration is going to fail, perhaps it would be better for it to fail on a larger and more obvious scale, after the Democrats have cooperated in giving them all the resources they said they needed.
More foreign troops? Well. Leaders in other countries can read headlines as well as Americans can. How many now will be more eager to send troops to help save America’s bacon and be sitting ducks? And how many will send enough troops to matter while the U.S. has sole control there? Turning over more of the control of the transition to democracy to the UN might lead to more foreign troops being authorized (although in most countries this will be more popular with politicians who want to participate in the eventual political/commercial outcome in Iraq than with the people generally. But as long as U.S. troops are in Iraq guerrillas will keep attacking, and they will attack troops from other countries too. They have already hit the UN and the Red Cross.
At some point perhaps not immediately for face-saving purposes (proving that "saving face" is at least as important in modern American politics as in Asia or the Arab world, which Americans tend to view as if they were making an anthropological study) the administration should consider declaring victory and bringing the troops home. If that decision is made, however, the sooner the better. The Campaign Eternal is already underway. It will look better if the decision to cut our losses comes now, when hardly anybody except the fawning media is paying attention to criticism from the other party, and looks like a decision based on realistic assessment rather than one forced by political exigencies.