Iraq: Finding the Diamonds?

Last week’s briefings for the press by U.S. civilian and military officials in Baghdad were uniformly upbeat, cautious, and predictable.

The first half of the message was straightforward: "Don’t judge too early. Give the ‘surge’ a chance." One division commander said all he needed was another year. The second half, anticipating the day when the administration will finally have to give Congress and the public a status report – however many times it may be rescheduled – was more speculative. The scenario suggested that the numerous, small military "successes" of the new strategy would put so much pressure on the Baghdad government that it would finally push through the necessary political accommodations needed to fulfill the administration’s vision of an Arab democracy aglow in the heart of the Middle East.

But is this realistic? After all, it seems that every government, international organization, and private civic entity that has in anyway been involved in Iraq over the last 52 months has come away burned by the experience, not burnished. And the conflagration shows no sign of ending, despite the administration’s attempts to find diamonds in the rough in Iraq.

War in Congress

Meanwhile, in Washington, Congress is afire with its own battles. 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 (D-NV) pulled the measure from consideration until after the August recess. Reid’s action shifted the congressional struggle over the Iraq War back to the House of Representatives where, under different procedural rules, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) is ready to move the strategy forward.

The first and most stringent bill that the House is to take up this week, in terms of mandatory timelines, is the "Iraq Redeployment and Reconstruction Act" co-sponsored by Mike Thomson (D-CA), Doris Matsui (D-CA), George Miller (D-CA), and John Murtha (D-PA). 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 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 Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), would make permanent that ban.

The House may also debate and vote on a new version of Senator Jim Webb’s (D-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 can 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 (ME), Collins (ME), Hagel (NE), and Smith (OR) have voted against the president’s position. Lugar (IN), Voinovich (OH), Warner (VA), and Sununu (NH) have warned the White House that political time in Washington – and thus military time in Baghdad – is running out and will soon expire.

Resistance Elsewhere

Several 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 at the Pentagon 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 (D-NY) of giving aid and comfort to the enemy by merely asking about withdrawal plans. "Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda," the Pentagon official responded to the senator’s query.

If the Pentagon uses such a tone when responding to a query from a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the military rank-and-file can easily imagine the letter they would get for talking to the press.

Since the beginning of July, another force seems to be 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, 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.

Ghost of Vietnam

Lastly, like the spirit of the unburied dead condemned to roam the earth, the ghost of Vietnam haunts the entire Iraq debate. The ghost of Vietnam is clearly on display in Congress, but also in the military where, albeit largely unconscious and psychological, it still drives the military’s can-do attitude regardless of the events on the ground.

This contradiction from the Vietnam era, between political reluctance and military overcompensation, is illustrated by the famous exchange between an American and a North Vietnamese colonel. It took place at the conclusion of the 1973 Paris peace talks that saw the final withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from South Vietnam. The American asserted that the United States never lost a significant military encounter of the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese colonel agreed, but then noted that his side won the more important political war.

Two years later, North Vietnam’s victory became clear: Saigon fell to the North’s army as the last Americans were evacuated from the roof of the U.S. embassy. In the United States, those two years – the notorious "decent interval" between military and political outcomes – proved sufficient to insulate politicians from a massive policy failure but was insufficient to insulate the Pentagon from charges that it "lost" Vietnam. After all, wars are fought and won (or lost) by the military, not by politicians.

In this context, it is noteworthy that President Bush remains insistent that the generals in Iraq, not politicians in Washington, will be the decision-makers. This insistence may be adding to the lack of clarity on Iraq policy. The three- and four-star generals and admirals still on active duty are the last of the Vietnam War 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 army, and the mid- and late-1970s when there were more bases and units than volunteers to fill the ranks.

Most are on their last assignment. At the end of their careers, they do not want to be associated with anything that suggests failure. Thus they will search for every flash of good news as evidence that sustaining political pressure on Baghdad will – like sustained pressure converts carbon into diamonds – transform the country’s current chaos into a durable, shining democracy.