Building on Realism

Andrew Sullivan, the blogger and former New Republic editor, who supported the war and to some extent still does but became horrified at torture and official justifications for it and the lack of frankness, called it "The Year We Questioned Authority," or "the year we stopped going along. We gave up blind trust and demanded real accountability. We finally had it with a war in which Bush’s bromides didn’t even begin to match the facts on the ground."

Although the approval ratings are inching up upward again, it was not a good year for the president or his administration. Which suggests it was not a bad year at all for critics of the administration from a number of points on the political spectrum. Now comes the hard part of working toward the withdrawal of a significant number of U.S. troops from Iraq, then getting the issue of removing the physical presence of the U.S. from Iraq at least on the table, and then working toward consideration of developing a different foreign policy for the United States that will make war less likely, not the first-reach option in every instance.

A president who began the year assuring one and all that the election had given him plenty of political capital, and now he planned to spend some of it, ended the year having squandered most of it while making himself significantly less popular. His never-specific proposal to overhaul Social Security spun its wheels until he quietly abandoned it (see, he can acknowledge miscalculations, just don’t expect him to do so verbally in public). Then came Cindy Sheehan to give latent doubters about the war permission to express their doubts more openly. Then came Hurricane Katrina, which showed the president to be not only out of touch (probably forgivable) but presiding over an administration that demonstrated profound incompetence (not so forgivable).

The nomination of poor Harriet Miers not only embarrassed her profoundly, it showed how reliant this president is on cronies, and how contemptuous he is of those outside the tight circle, let alone anything resembling a larger public interest. His immigration-reform proposals sank like a stone, rejected by most members of his own party. The criminal indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay left Congress virtually leaderless and feeling increasingly independent and feisty. The criminal indictment of Vice President Cheney’s top aide, "Scooter" Libby, brought the wheels of justice to the White House doors.

The Congress, in an unexpected show of basic human decency, mustered big enough majorities for Sen. John McCain’s amendment to ban torture, more tightly defined than the president would have preferred, by any American operative, civilian, military, or CIA, that the president had to give in. At least it saved him from a decision about whether to veto it, thus using the only veto of his presidency to defend the practice of torture or semi-torture. He still seems clueless about just how shameful a legacy that would have been.

Pumping Up the Executive

And, of course, there was the revelation that Bush signed an executive order authorizing the National Security Agency, a military outfit that had heretofore been (mostly) confined to intercepting communications overseas because of long-standing privacy concerns, to do wiretaps and other surveillance on people in the United States, almost certainly including citizens – without the bother of getting a warrant from a court that had rejected fewer then half a dozen requests in 22 years. Every president seeks to protect and expand executive power, and the most auspicious time to do so is during wartime or other crises. But this president’s efforts have been downright breathtaking.

It’s useful to remember, in partial explanation, that the administration is populated by people influenced (or outmaneuvered if Lawrence Wilkerson is to be believed) by the Dick Cheneys and Don Rumsfelds. These were Nixon appointees for whom the lesson of Watergate was not that it was shameful to abuse power, but that the institution of the presidency had been damaged to the point of being crippled by the unfortunate reaction to the scandal, and that the most urgent task of the near future was not just to restore the presidency to its former autocratic splendor but to build it to new heights of arbitrary power.

Even without that impetus, however, this president has shown a consistent desire to increase his power and to exercise it, preferably in secret and without oversight or questioning by impertinent critics. That tendency has come back to bite him, revealing a hubris combined with an inability to admit mistakes that most sensible Americans find at least troubling. Whether the wounds will be permanent we’ll find out over the next year or so. And of course, if only by talking to friends and neighbors, we can influence the outcome.

Next Year the Withdrawal

With midterm congressional elections coming up, the administration is already signaling a modest drawdown – 5,000 or so according to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld – of U.S. troops in the near future. Our challenge is to work on public opinion effectively enough that a much larger reduction is happening, or at least firmly promised, before the end of the year. That means developing, discussing, and publicizing – and being open enough to honest critiques to consider modifications to – an array of exit strategies.

A good deal of the intellectual spadework has been done. Fred Kaplan, in this piece from, discusses three of them. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark’s plan he considers "surprisingly impractical" and a little incoherent, in that he recommends both increasing the number of U.S. troops for border patrol and anti-insurgent activities, and reducing the number of troops by 30,000 following this month’s parliamentary elections.

Kaplan finds James Fallows’ piece in the December Atlantic (unfortunately part of its must-pay package online) more realistic but a bit depressing. The U.S. can start to withdraw troops fairly soon, Fallows believes, but only if it steps up its commitment to training Iraqi military and police – "building more facilities," in Kaplan’s summary, "recruiting more translators, and changing our military culture so that the trainer of an Iraqi battalion gets more rewards than the commander of an American battalion." Without such an additional commitment to nation-building – actually state-building, which is not quite the same thing – for years, Fallow believes, we must "face the stark fact that it has no orderly way out of Iraq."

18 Months and Out

The most interesting proposal, a rather lengthy one, comes from Barry R. Posen, a political science professor slated to become director of MIT’s Security Studies Program. He argues that unless the United States rather promptly announces and then begins to implement visibly a plan to remove U.S. troops over the next 18 months, its interests in the area will suffer and it will find itself with no graceful way to leave, except with an elaborate but deceptive cover story or with its tail visibly between its legs.

Posen lays the groundwork carefully. "The United States and its Iraqi partners are fighting a tough counterinsurgency campaign against determined, deadly, well-funded, and well-equipped forces," mainly Ba’ath remnants and Iraqi fundamentalist sympathizers in league with foreign terrorists. The insurgents’ strength has continued to grow, while "Iraqi administrative progress is hard to find" and "Progress in the Iraqi security forces is mixed at best."

Doesn’t that imply an indefinite U.S. commitment? Not at all. "The American presence in Iraq – and official declarations that the U.S. military there will ‘hunt down’ the terrorists – exacerbates these problems. First, Iraqi politicians will not apply sustained pressure to their security forces to improve themselves so long as they know the Americans will remain to protect the state from the insurgents. Second, the Iraqi units themselves will not grow in capability and confidence so long as they are relying upon American command and control." So long as the American crutch is there to lean upon, "the political leaders of Iraq’s three main factions will not make difficult compromises."

Besides "infantilizing" the Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces, "The American presence fuels all four social sources of insurgent support. Sunni Arabs almost surely see the United States as the agent of their fall from the top of the social order and the American presence as an obstacle to restoring their power and resources. U.S. military action, however precise by historical standards, nevertheless directly harms Iraqis and their extended families. Every killing or arrest produces more insurgents, and it is easy to see how when every victim may have two or three brothers and many more male first cousins. Finally, and obviously, the American presence stimulates both religious and nationalist opposition."

Posen calls for intensified training of Iraqis as the U.S. prepares to leave. But he hardly advocates an isolationist stance. He believes the U.S. has a legitimate interest in the region’s oil, but it doesn’t need direct or even indirect control over production or distribution. It mainly needs to know it won’t go to outright enemies and that it won’t be cut off arbitrarily or for political reasons. So he advocates maintaining a strong and highly visible "over the horizon" force in the Persian Gulf, mainly naval, but with the capacity to transport troops if needed, and more pressure (though not regime change) on Iran and Syria.

The Boston Review, which ran Posen’s piece, will have a forum in its February issue allowing people like Joe Biden, Barbara Bodine, Juan Cole, Russell Feingold, Chris Preble, and others to discuss and critique his proposal. That could be a beginning of a more extensive national discussion that should include not only how to get out of Iraq without incurring too much more damage but also what kind of policies we might pursue going forward.


Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).