Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Cue Sunset

I've been grappling with the question of whether or not the US will be initiating a substantial withdrawal of forces in Iraq in the near future since at least March of 2005, when a Bob Novak article I cited set off a tit-for-tat exchange between myself and Greg Djerejian of Belgravia Dispatch. That Novak article (which I did not endorse as fact - despite Greg's suggestion) stated that the Bush Administration would begin withdrawing troops from Iraq in late 2005/early 2006 regardless of the situation on the ground. Greg was incredulous:

[After January 1, 2006] and only if conditions allow (ie, Sunni participation in nascent political governance structures moving in right direction; insurgency continuing to weaken) only then would there perhaps be major draw-downs in '06....No, Eric's got this one wrong. Sorry. (Yes, indeed, I'd have to eat a lot of crow if Novak had the story right. But I'm pretty confident on this one.
Since March, the situation has grown even murkier. I tried my hand at an analysis of the likelihood of an imminent withdrawal (or lack thereof), and the many related issues, in a three part series in August of 2005 (found here, here and here).

Recent developments seem to be conspiring to serve a plate of "crow" to Mr. Djerejian. Fred Kaplan minces no words:

Brace yourself for a mind-bog of sheer cynicism. The discombobulation begins Wednesday, when President George W. Bush is expected to proclaim, in a major speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, that the Iraqi security forces—which only a few months ago were said to have just one battalion capable of fighting on its own—have suddenly made uncanny progress in combat readiness. Expect soon after (if not during the speech itself) the thing that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have, just this month, denounced as near-treason—a timetable for withdrawal of American troops.

And so it appears (assuming the forecasts about the speech are true) that the White House is as cynical about this war as its cynical critics have charged it with being. For several months now, many of these critics have predicted that, once the Iraqis passed their constitution and elected a new government, President Bush would declare his mission complete and begin to pull out—this, despite his public pledge to "stay the course" until the insurgents were defeated.

This theory explains Bush's insistence that the Iraqis draft and ratify the constitution on schedule—even though the rush resulted in a seriously flawed document that's more likely to fracture the country than to unite it. For if the pullout can get under way in the opening weeks of 2006, then the war might be nullified as an issue by the time of our own elections.
Regardless of whether or not Kaplan is correct, there are many reasons for the Bush administration to be searching for an expedited exit. Chief among them: (a) most Iraqis want us out and thus any long term designs on controlling strategic oil assets and/or the maintenance of permanent military bases will be highly problematic; (b) domestic political concerns (Bush and the GOP are taking a major hit in the polls on the Iraq issue with elections looming); and (c) (last and perhaps most importantly) militarily we cannot sustain the current troop levels into the foreseeable future.

Kaplan discusses the political landscape:

The political beauty of this scenario is that, even if Iraq remains mired in chaos or seems to be hurtling toward civil war, nobody in Congress is going to call for a halt, much less a reversal, of the withdrawal. The Republicans will fall in line; many of them have been nervous that the war's perpetuation, with its rising toll and dim horizons, might cost them their seats. And who among the Democrats will choose to outflank Bush on his right wing and advocate—as some were doing not so long ago—keeping the troops in Iraq for another five or 10 years or even boosting their numbers. (The question is so rhetorical, it doesn't warrant a question mark.)

In short, Bush could pull a win-win-win out of this shift. He could pre-empt the Democrats' main line of attack against his administration, stave off the prospect of (from the GOP's perspective) disastrous elections in 2006 and '08, and, as a result, bolster his presidency's otherwise dwindling authority within his own party and among the general population.
And the military realities:

Top U.S. military officers have been privately warning for some time that current troop levels in Iraq cannot be sustained for another year or two without straining the Army to the breaking point. Rep. John Murtha's agenda-altering Nov. 17 call for an immediate redeployment was not only a genuine cri de coeur but also, quite explicitly, a public assertion of the military's institutional interests—and an acknowledgment of Congress' electoral interests.

Murtha wasn't merely advocating redeployment; he was practically announcing it. As he told Tim Russert on the Nov. 20 Meet the Press, "There's nobody that talks to people in the Pentagon more than I do. … We're going to be out of there very quickly, and it's going to be close to the plan that I'm presenting right now."
I remain of two minds on the issue of a major withdrawal over the next six to twelve months. On the one hand, I am very aware of the fact that our military cannot continue this engagement along the current trajectory (though presumably we could adjust levels without a complete extraction). I am also cognizant of the fact that our presence is an irritant that can exacerbate the strength of some insurgencies and give rise to other factions altogether. Nevertheless, I remain concerned that too hasty a withdrawal could open the flood gates to a full blown civil war. Witnessing, with shock and awe, the incompetence of the Bush administration's handling of this entire affair and serial disfunction within its policy making circles (from pre-war lies and distortions to underpreparedness for the task and myriad basic mistakes in the aftermath), I am left wondering why I should expect different results from their handling of the withdrawal and the many concomitant policies that must be enacted and implemented in order to prevent many of the most dire outcomes. The same folks that bungled the first three years of this endeavor are supposed to get the highly delicate and nuanced dismount correct? I remain unconvinced.

Above all, I think it is important to note that, despite so many assurances and speeches to the contrary from the Bush ("stay the course") team, and despite their willingness to hurl base insults at political opponents for mentioning things like timetables, any withdrawal from Iraq initiated over the next couple of months would not be based on positive developments with respect to the situation on the ground.

The facts are the facts: the insurgencies continue apace (with no major reduction in their capacity for destruction or frequency of attack), vast regions of the country remain violent war zones, the political problems separating the various ethnic/sectarian groups in Iraq remain as pronounced as ever (with an increase in partisan violence and the emergence of ethnic/sectarian "death squads" targeting civilians), the political institutions (even after what could be successful elections in December) remain in their infancy - too feeble to provide an overarching calming force (yet), and in form and substance most of the pressing issues that threatened the maintenance of a peaceful and stable Iraq that existed last year are still around today. Withdrawing from Iraq may be justified on certain grounds (some listed above), but it would be utterly disingenuous to attribute any pullout to what would have to be a shocking near-instantaneous turn around in the situation in that country.

But if Bush is looking for his Hollywood ending, I expect his many supporters to do their best to paint a picturesque sunset for him to ride off into. In reality, though, such an idyllic image will be merely a facade meant to conceal a smoldering catastrophe of potentially epic proportions.

[UPDATE: The indispensable Hilzoy has a great post on the fast food helpings of "crow" being served to some of the blogosphere's usual suspects. Poor guys got all worked up about Biden's planned withdrawal timetable, only to be left high and dry by the Bush administration which was quick to claim Biden's plan as their own. Doh!!! Any Bush administration led withdrawal could create a double inverted, reflective loop of cognitive dissonance for the partisan hacks. After all, aren't Bin Laden and Zarqawi waiting for the conclusion of the timetable to take the throne in Iraq? Isn't our presence in Iraq allowing us to "fight 'em over there" not over here? What gives? (h/t to the Poor Man Institute)]

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