Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Don't Believe the Hype - It's a Sequel

I suppose it's not surprising that so many right wing pundits, politicians and bloggers are clamoring to declare the latest anti-Sadr operation a success and (yes, yet again) a sure sign that Sadr is finished. Once President Bush signaled early on in the campaign that the resulting action would prove the "success of the surge," those onlookers that were still committed to defending the prolongment of the Iraqi occupation became invested in this narrative. Then again, declaring the death of Sadr has been a sort of preoccupation for many of those same observers, regardless of the fact that by their count, Sadr's got more lives than an alleyway teeming with cats giving birth to kittens.

But contrary to the beliefs of those deeply enthralled with "Green Lantern Theories" of geopolitics, and other assorted subjectivists, blind cheerleaderism in the face of contradictory empirical evidence does not lead to victory. Quite the opposite in fact. Belief alone does not create reality, it gets demolished by it. Further, underestimating the strength of an adversary, and/or overestimating your own strength, is not a sign of patriotism, superior fortitude, courage or support for your "side." Such myopia is a disservice to your neighbors.

While it is one thing to encourage such unconditional support and discipline from rank and file supporters for political expediency sake, propaganda drift is an insidious and seductive danger capable of blowing back on the disseminators. For one, the propagandist's story is a pleasing one, and humans are hardwired to gravitate toward a rendition of reality that is more comforting. Furthermore, practically speaking, if a priority is placed on achieving outcome X, it becomes imperative to espouse interpretations of events that are consistent with the realization of outcome X.

Certain storylines are thus promoted, while others argued against, not because of their respective relation to the truth, but rather the wider implications if one or the other is accepted. It was this kind of pressure from above that so greatly corrupted the intelligence gathering and analysis process both before and during the Iraq war (as chronicled quite masterfully by A.J. Rossmiller in Still Broken - review forthcoming). When locked in this circularity, it becomes possible not only for a group of policymakers to believe their own hype, but to insist that analysts produce intelligence products that conform to their desired worldview (any other read of events is flawed). The next step is tragic: those same policymakers then adopt policies based on that warped view.

Along these lines, underestimating Sadr has been a persistent affliction clouding the vision of Bush administration officials since even before the invasion began - when few, if any, in Bush's policy-making circle even knew of Sadr's existence. The most recent anti-Sadr campaign is, in many ways, the product of this perpetual self-delusion. Gareth Porter argues:

Behind this furious backpedaling is a major Bush administration miscalculation about Moqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, which the administration believed was no longer capable of a coordinated military operation. It is now apparent that Sadr and the Mahdi Army were holding back because they were still in the process of retraining and reorganisation, not because Sadr had given up the military option or had lost control of the Mahdi Army. [...]

Some observers have expressed doubt that the Bush administration would have chosen to have al-Maliki launch such a risky campaign against well-entrenched Shiite militiamen in Basra until after the Petraeus-Crocker testimony had been completed. But that assumes that Vice President Dick Cheney and the Pentagon recognised the potential danger of a large-scale effort to eliminate or severely weaken the Mahdi Army in Basra. [...]

For many months the Bush administration, encouraged by Moqtada al-Sadr's unilateral ceasefire of last August, had been testing Sadr and the Mahdi Army to see if they would respond to piecemeal repression by striking back...

Resistance to such operations by the Mahdi Army had been minimal, and Bush administration officials attributed Sadr's apparent acquiescence to restraining Iranian influence and the decline of the Mahdi Army as a fighting force. [...]

Petraeus, meanwhile, was convinced that the ability of the Mahdi Army to resist had been reduced by U.S. military actions as well as by its presumed internal disorganisation. His spokesman, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, declared in early November, "As we've gone after that training skill levels amongst the enemy, we've degraded their capability..."

Then came Sadr's announcement Feb. 22 that the ceasefire would be extended. That apparently convinced Petraeus and the Bush White House that they could now launch a large-scale "cordon and search" operation against the Mahdi Army in Basra without great risk of a military response.

That assumption ignored the evidence that Sadr had been avoiding major combat because he was in the process of reorganising and rebuilding the Mahdi Army into a more effective force...

Which should serve as a warning to those feverishly spinning the most recent engagement as a massive defeat of Sadr and his militia: careful which storyline you choose to tout. Always check back with reality, and remember to scrub against the lessons of history (recent no less!). After all, someone might believe you.

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