Portents of Failure

It has not been a good week for the dwindling band of true believers who still think just a little more effort using somewhat different tactics will yield something resembling a U.S.-Iraqi-quasi-government military victory, or even a tolerable stability, in Iraq. Earlier this month Henry Kissinger told the Associated Press that "A ‘military victory’ in the sense of total control over the whole territory, imposed on the entire population is not possible." He also said the Iraq mess is a more complicated problem than Vietnam, where he was a key figure in engineering the U.S. withdrawal.

"The Vietnam War involved states, and you could negotiate with leaders who controlled a defined area." Having leaders in control does tend to simplify matters if you’re into shuttle diplomacy, though that seldom bodes well for the people under said control. While he still repeats the line that a premature withdrawal from Iraq would unleash chaos, he said pointedly that "One needs to be prepared to negotiate with adversaries."

About the same time, retired Gen. (and former "drug czar") Barry McCaffrey, issued a downbeat assessment on Iraq, based on meetings there with Gen. David Petraeus and other senior commanders. Gen. McCaffrey compiled an 8-page document on his trip in his capacity as a professor at West Point, in which he opined: "The population is in despair. Life in many urban areas is now desperate." Unlike an essentially upbeat assessment he offered after a trip in 2005, he now believes the U.S. military is in "strategic peril." Militias and armed bands of believers or thugs or both are "in some ways more capable of independent operations" than the Iraqi army.

Gen. McCaffrey hasn’t lost all hope, and he also thinks substantial U.S. military forces should be in Iraq for a matter of years, not months. But his assessment seems more reality-based than those of the armchair strategists in Washington.

A few days later Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, generally considered the most powerful Shi’ite cleric in Iraq, who has generally been judicious in his occasional ventures into politics, sometimes actually being helpful to the U.S. cause, announced that he was opposed to a U.S-backed proposal to partially reverse the 2003 policy of "de-Ba’athification," allowing some lower-level government workers from Saddam’s regime to return to government. Al-Sistani’s opposition probably means the proposal, which most U.S. officials believe is a key to getting more Sunnis involved in politics than in more overt violence, is doomed.

This is a serious setback to hopes of a political solution in Iraq, which everybody, even the administration, says is vital to any hope of stability. Most observers now believe that the original de-Ba’athification order, promulgated by former U.S. proconsul J. Paul Bremer (who is "almost as smart as he thinks he is," as a retired diplomat put it to me) was a huge mistake. It put many thousands of Sunnis in mid-to-low-level positions, and most of the army, out of a job and at loose ends, prime candidates for joining or quietly supporting an insurgency. And it deprived the rudimentary Iraqi government Bremer and his band were trying to cobble together of a great deal of essentially technical expertise that was unavailable elsewhere.

Now the U.S. wants the Sunnis, who dominated Saddam’s government and fear they will be treated by the now-dominant Shi’ites much the way Saddam treated the Shi’ites when he was in power, to come to the negotiating table and feel some sense that their interests will be respected in the emerging government. Sistani threw a big spanner in those works.

All this is backdrop to several dramatic developments this week. A huge crowd, apparently pulled together at the behest of "radical" cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (whose whereabouts still seem something of a mystery, at least to the U.S.), demanded immediate U.S. withdrawal, shouting "Death to America." On Wednesday the Washington Post reported that three retired four-stars had already turned down the honor of becoming the White House’s "war czar," with authority over the Pentagon and State Department.

On Thursday Defense Secretary Gates announced that troops in Iraq and Afghanistan would be staying for 15 months instead of a year, acknowledging that the military is severely stretched. Meanwhile the Army is stepping up prosecution of deserters in hopes of discouraging the apparently increasing number of U.S. military people who are seriously considering desertion. And an explosion in a cafeteria in the Iraqi parliament building, inside the highly-fortified Green Zone, killed at least eight people, two of them parliament members, and injured some 23 people.

Perhaps the most piquant quote of the week came from retired Marine Gen. John J. "Jack" Sheehan, a former top NATO commander, explaining why he turned down the position of "war czar" over both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. "The very fundamental issue is, they don’t know where the hell they’re going," he told the Washington Post. "So rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, No thanks.’" Sheehan also "said he believes that Vice President Cheney and his hawkish allies remain more powerful within the administration than pragmatists looking for a way out of Iraq."

Another general who turned down the job might be even more interesting. Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane worked with the American Enterprise Institute’s Fred Kagan back in December to produce the slide-show that eventually became the "surge," although Keane and Kagan recommended a much larger infusion of troops. But he confirmed that he had turned down the job of supervising the implementation of the plan, saying "It was discussed weeks ago." Retired Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston also reportedly turned down the job.

One can understand some impatience within the administration at the perception (and most often the fact) that different departments, like Defense, State, CIA, AID, etc., are often working at cross-purposes. Often enough this is simply the inevitable result of gigantic bureaucracies stuck in their ways and accustomed to guarding their turf as a tribal instinct rather than due to deep-down disagreements, but it certainly makes coordination difficult.

But this administration shows again that its instinct in any crisis or non-crisis is to gather and centralize power in the White House itself. The idea is that the new czar would report directly to Bush and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and have "tasking authority" over other agencies. Such centralization almost never provides the efficiencies promised – the central managers simply can’t know enough about conditions on the ground – and it should be alien to Americans, whose founders provided checks and balances precisely to deter such accumulation of centralized power.

It is still remotely possible to hold out hope that the surge and the tactic of dispersing U.S. and Iraqi soldiers among the population and tasking them with policing duties will bring stability, though Sistani’s stance makes a political solution seem more faraway then ever. A modicum of stability might provide the president with the opportunity to undertake a relatively "graceful exit," though he has publicly spurned such a notion. But he doesn’t seem to want it. The problem for most Americans, including those most at personal risk on the front lines, is that the longer an exit is delayed the less graceful it is likely to be.

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).