IN THE NEWS
The Bush Administration has been murmuring lately about a possible spring withdrawal of some US forces from Iraq. The common response I've heard to this proposal—which may just be a trial balloon at this point—is, Huh? As an official policy position, it makes little sense to those who have been trying to understand together the Bush Administration's thinking and map it to the reality in Iraq.
At this point in a classic Star Trek episode, the computer trying to correlate several contradictory statements blows up ina shower of sparks. Iraq is the central front in the battle against terrorists…Brzt…But drawing down US forces would weaken that front…Error…But we are training new Iraqi troops every day…Zznk…But almost none of these troops are combat-ready…Bweep…But the Baghdad electrical grid is doing so much better…Ka-chunk…But the important measures of progress against the Iraqi insurgent groups show that we're not winning…Zrft…Illogical…Illogical…Landru, Landru, help me! Heeeelp meeeeee! KA-BOOM!
What exactly is going on here? I'll run through several possibilities, and then make an educated guess.
- All the information we have about Iraq is wrong. From a vantage point on the other side of the planet, it's impossible to get a good picture of what's really happening there. Many of the most important forces at work in that war—for example, the nature of support for the insurgent groups outside of Baghdad and a few other cities with a strong US/UK presence—are almost impossible to gauge with the tools we have. The Bush Administration may have information we don't, in which case they may have the data that justifies a reduction in the US deployment to Iraq.
- Our interpretation of the data is wrong. Maybe all the information is there, but we're reading it incorrectly. Sure, there are bombings every day, and their lethality has been rising. As horrific as they are, and as much as they draw the news cameras to them, they don't represent the reality of life in Iraq. Alternately, the news we receive may accurately portray the most hotly-contested areas, particularly in the "Sunni triangle." According to this view, we're missing the calmer picture of the rest of Iraq. Therefore, if the insurgents are contained to particular locations, the US can withdraw troops while still helping the Iraqi government corral the insurgents.
- The Bush Administration doesn't understand how badly the war in Iraq is going. Maybe they're looking at different measures than the rest of us, or perhaps at the top levels of the Administration, there's no rigorous analysis at all. The modus operandi of the White House, which does not seem to take bad news in stride, may have led to a lot of internal spinning and wishful thinking. (Insider accounts, like Larry Diamond's Squandered Victory, point in this direction.)
- The Bush Administration's "policy" is really a political message crafted for the mid-term elections. According to this hypothesis, the hyper-politicized White House is putting as good a face it can on the Iraq War before the 2006 elections. Incumbent Republicans face a lot of anger about Iraq. A planned withdrawal—whether, in the White House's private meetings, it's serious or not—could reduce some of that emotion.
- The British government has decided to withdraw, so the Bush Administration feels it has to put the best face on a fait accompli. Perhaps Blair has said to his American ally, "Enough is enough, it's time for the British government to focus on terrorists in Britain, not Iraq." If Great Britain pulls out of Iraq, the United States will have a hard time sustaining the effort alone. In that case, the Bush Administration might want a face-saving exit, rather than be left holding the bag (full of suicide bombers).
- The real target of this announcement is the Iraqi government, whom the Administration feels it can pressure into making better progress. The statistics on the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces is not encouraging. The United States might be threatening a withdrawal just to put pressure on Iraqi leaders to do better fast, or else they'll be left completely to their own devices.
- The military's manpower meltdown has reached unsustainable levels. Drop in recruitment and retention, the exhaustion of the Guard and the reserves, and the limits on who can be re-deployed from other theaters add up to the following conclusion: unless the basic equation changes in fundamental ways (major force re-structuring, a draft, etc.), the Department of Defense has to shrink the Iraq deployment.
- The Bush Administration has decided to declare victory and leave, regardless of the consequences to Iraq. The "check box" mentality that the Bush team has inherited from the private sector is now driving the endgame for Iraq. Sovereignty handed over? Check. Elections? Check. Security forces trained? Check. In this hypothesis, none of these achievements really exist, but they look good in PowerPoint presentations. In this style of leadership, it's not important whether the speaker making these claims really believes them, as long as the stockholders or the voters do.
Having laid out the possibilities, let's start shaving the list down. First, we can't go anywhere with the notion that there's information the Administration has that's wildly at variance with what we see in the news. Regardless of who's in the White House, we have to proceed with the information we have. This particular White House, of course, invites a higher degree of skepticism about purported "facts" that, "If we could only show them to you, you'd feel completely differently." Remember all the overheated speculation about the secret information the US government might have had concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, ties between the Hussein regime and Syrian governments, and an alliance between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government? Of course you do.
Are we interpreting the facts the wrong way? I think that, for significant portions of the US population, there are strong tendencies to read the news from Iraq in completely positive or negative ways. Fox News is definitely guilty of putting a positive spin on the war effort, but bloggers like Atrios are equally guilty of uncritically accepting every piece of news as signs of an imminent collapse of the Coalition/Iraqi effort. The signal-to-noise ratio is worsened by the number of analysts in the print and electronic media who, frankly, don't have expertise in guerrilla warfare and terrorism. However, if you listen to the military and civilian professionals who have worked on these matters full time, they don't present a very rosy picture.
In the end, whether or not the news accurately depicts the situation in Iraq may be moot. As countless students of revolutionary warfare have noted, the effects of a political message are what ultimately matter. In political warfare, you can complain that the enemy's message was unfair. In maneuver warfare, you can complain that the enemy didn't attack your defenses where you thought they would. In both cases, the complaint is rather pointless.
Some of these hypotheses are just too difficult to test with the available information. Who can say for sure what's being said in the Oval Office in the most private meetings, or what's happening inside Tony Blair's brain? Blair speaks passionately, it seems, about the importance of continuing the fight in Iraq, but he also has to be worried about what the 7/7 bombings portend. Which will ultimately guide his decisions? Probably more than just his own thinking, since he has many other political and bureaucratic factors to weigh.
My guess—and at this point, it's just a guess—is that we're seeing a combination of different forces at play. There are clear signs that the top levels of the Bush Administration genuinely do see the Iraq war in a more positive light than the general population. There are also reasons to believe that the DoD's manpower crisis has reached a critical level. Recent polls show that Republican legislators do face a lot of antipathy about Iraq—even if the Democrats continue to look as though they can't lead us to victory, either. All of these pressures may be pushing through different channels of government to the very top, where senior decision-makers may be pre-disposed to seeing progress that isn't really there. Any one of these officials may be of two minds about Iraq: (1) the insurgent groups are defying our best efforts; (2) on the other hand, we could turn the corner tomorrow.
For further enlightenment, let's go back to Star Trek for a moment. On no less than four occasions in the original series—the episodes "Return of the Archons," "The Ultimate Computer," "The Changeling," and "I, Mudd"—Captain James T. Kirk talked a computer or robot into self-destruction, just by pointing out a logical contradiction. Clearly, the major forces behind the Star Trek scripts, Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana, had a lot of faith in the power of reason. Even psychotic machine overlords and genocidal robots could be forced into a logical corner where they had to admit, You know, you've got me there.
Of course, Star Trek was a TV show. In reality, individual human beings live with cognitive dissonance all the time. When several people reach the stage of "groupthink," they can believe all kinds of crazy things. Huge, complex bureaucracies like the US executive branch can pursue several conflicting policies at the same time. The fact that George W. Bush hasn't self-destructed when presented with contradictions in his own thinking shouldn't surprise us.