April 09, 2008

Barack Exposes the Bush Fallacy in Iraq

In truth, I find it hard to work up a head of steam against General David Petraeus. I tuned in yesterday to watch a little of his testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee, and there he was in his usual formation sitting next to the other Siamese Twin of the Surge, Ambassador Ryan Crocker. They both seem like decent guys. Petraeus is smart, wily, adept, and clearly very competent. I think he was given a fairly simple mission, at least in its verbal formulation if not in its execution: get the violence in Iraq under control. Despite liberal wishing that the situation were much worse, bloodier, than it currently is, it's not. That's because Petraeus is a task-oriented, can-do man in the great tradition of Yankee ingenuity. Bush told him to calm things down and Petraeus went to work. He did whatever he had to do. He arranged to put the Sunni insurgents on the U.S. payroll, and now there are well-armed "Sons of Iraq" rousting al-Qaeda remnants in Anbar province and elsewhere. He built walls between warring neighborhoods in Baghdad. He based U.S. soldiers out in the boonies, like police stations. He beefed up the Iraqi army and police. While a lot of credit for the comparative peace is often given to Muqtada al-Sadr for arranging a truce and stand-down for the Mahdi Army, who's to say Petraeus wasn't instrumental in making that happen? He works 24/7 over there; he knows what's going on.

He was honest in acknowledging that Nouri al-Maliki went off the reservation when he impetuously decided to attack Sadr's militia in Basra. Professionally, it must have appalled Petraeus; that's not how you plan a military operation. Yikes, he probably thought; right before I testify to Congress, this shmendrick pulls a stunt like this. Petraeus was also candid in admitting that Iran's influence in Shia-controlled Iraq is pervasive, exactly as one would expect when two Shia-controlled countries exist side by side, and the ruling personnel of Iraq used to hide in Iran during the Saddam years. So what?, Petraeus in effect said. All of his many three-color charts prove that the death rate, the hostile-incident rate, the general-mayhem rate is down, down, down. It isn't Petraeus's fault that the debate about Iraq has been so dumbed-down that the infusion of $12 billion a month, the expenditure of American lives (whether in a trickle or a torrent), the breaking of the once-proud U.S. military all hinge on a simple calculus: is it more or less violent in Iraq? He didn't set the terms of the political debate. If it's less violent, we have to stay to keep it that way; if it's more violent, we have to stay so it doesn't get worse.

The Democrats let it get that stupid. Instead of going deeper, asking more fundamental questions, they have often chosen to fight the facts. It is not less violent!, they thunder, even though it is. We are not safer at home because of this war!, even though no one, of course, can tell, as Petraeus smilingly admits.

There was one electrifying exception to the parade of fatuous interrogators at yesterday's session: Barack Obama. What a mind this man has. I can see why the other Senators, in a sort of paternal way, marvel at his skill. Using his brief six-minute window, he asked short, leading questions which completely knocked Petraeus off his well-rehearsed game.

It went this way. Suppose, mused Barack, the idea is to allow us to bring the troops home. Everyone agrees that's the goal. So you, General, have referred to certain "metrics" as determinant of that possibility. Violence; Iranian meddling and interference; government cohesion and reconciliation; elimination of terrorist nests. He then posed a series of easy hypotheticals. Suppose that we reach the point where violence is about like it is now, or less, and Iranian influence is no worse, the government is functional, with some corruption but generally in control, and the Iraqis are keeping the lid on al-Qaeda. Can we begin withdrawing? Petraeus didn't know. So Obama kept pushing Petraeus to refine the "parameters" of success. Do we have to reach the point of zero violence? Zero Iranian influence? Zero al-Qaeda insurgence? Zero corruption? Of course not, the General said. Then how much above zero is tolerable? He didn't know that either. He doesn't know how "fragile" things are in Iraq, what its tolerance for chaos really is. It must be less than it is now, because Petraeus thinks we need to stay and to stop withdrawing soldiers in July. How much less? Who knows? Maybe we'll just be able to tell when we get there.

There you have it: the central Bush Fallacy neatly exposed. We don't know when we can leave because there's no way to tell, at any point in time, if the situation we've created is stable enough to remain in place after our departure. We'll never know in a place as volatile, as sectarian, as inherently unstable as Iraq, with its ethnic and religious forces always exerting centrifugal forces on cohesion. This is what happens when an ambitious, competent, bright man like Petraeus goes to work for a menial intellect like Bush. He's working on a dumb project. He's doing what he's supposed to do, follow orders and get the violence under control, all to conform to the terms of a stupid political debate, but it leads nowhere. Indeed, it leads to ruin.

I think, on the whole, General David Petraeus would a helluva lot prefer to be working for Barack Obama.

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