Thursday, January 25, 2007

Defeatism feels so good--for now

This WSJ editorial by Daniel Hettinger clear-sightedly, and with some puzzlement, describes the remarkable defeatism that seems to be spreading throughout the American Congress and public like some easily transmitted virus. Defeatism is the new feel-good emotion; it allows us to lay down the heavy burden we took up on 9/11.

Why is so much of Congress intent on a "you say tomato, I say tomahto" attitude towards President Bush and the surge, even though they have offered no viable alternatives to his plan? Even though the stakes are remarkably high if we abandon Iraq and it falls to greater chaos, and/or more closely into the orbit of Iran?

Well, as Hettinger writes: As a political strategy, unremitting opposition has worked.

Most of today's politicians are pragmatic, rather than principled (perhaps it was ever thus); and their pragmatism tends to focus on a single goal: getting re-elected.

Unremitting opposition--with no need to come up with a better alternative--has defeated the Republicans, put the Democrats in power, and contributed to the lowest approval ratings for Bush of his Presidency (he's done his bit in that endeavor, as well). So it's not surprising that so many Republicans (especially those in somewhat liberal states) are jumping on the oppositional bandwagon as well.

Hettinger's frustration is almost palpable. But the current military leadership has even greater cause for frustration. As Hettinger writes:

On the "Charlie Rose Show" this month, former Army vice chief of staff Gen. Jack Keane, who supports the counterinsurgency plan being undertaken by Gen. David Petraeus, said in exasperation: "My God, this is the United States. We are the world's No. 1 superpower. This isn't about arrogance. This is about capability and applying ourselves to a problem that is at its essence a human problem."

...The mood of mass resignation spreading through the body politic is toxic. It is uncharacteristic of Americans under stress. Some might call it realism, but it looks closer to the fatalism of elderly Europe, overwhelmed and exhausted by its burdens, than to the American tradition.

As I wrote the other day, it's as though we were intent on repeating Dunkirk before there's any need to. Our weariness this time has come when the sacrifice has been relatively light, and the consequences of loss are great.

In relation to this loss of will, commenter "Unknown Blogger" asked an interesting question on another thread. He (or she?) first quoted my statement:

I wonder whether the unrelentingly gloomy prognostications in the press, the short attention span of modern life, the lack of knowledge of history, and the frivolity reflected in the overheard comments with which I began this piece don't make it impossible to sustain anything like the sort of mindset we are going to need for this battle.

Then he asked:

I think what you describe above may be play a role in why the President is having trouble sustaining political support for this war, have you also considered the following?:

1. The changing nature of the mission - from removing a "grave" WMD threat to nation-building.

2. The Administration's relentless public insistence for years that everything was going fine even when it obviously wasn't, the endless "turning of corners" that just led to more blind alleys (the "gloomy prognostications" haven't been coming only from the press - the DOD's own reports have been showing it for years, among other sources), the implicit (and even explicit) assumptions before the war that it wouldn't *really* be so hard, and wouldn't take *too* long.

3. The acknowleged unpreparedness for and mishandling of the occupation and insurgency: Why should the public be convinced that *now* they'll get things right?

4. The uncertainty of the consequences for US security after even the most positive of outcomes: Given all the other actors (and potential actors) in the world, how exactly a free and democratic Iraq, even after a guerilla war lasting many years and costing tens of thousands of lives and billons of dollars, will decisively reduce the likelihood of another major terrorist attack on the US remains unclear.

Excellent questions all, each perhaps worthy of a separate post. But I'll take them briefly here:

(1) I've been thinking about my next couple of "change" posts (yeah, yeah, right, they say; we'll believe it when we see them), which will cover--among other things--the buildup to the Iraq War.

I recall that I always assumed some form of nation-building would be part of the task. If you go back and look at the speeches Bush gave, one of our goals was the freeing of the people of Iraq from Saddam's clutches. I don't have the time right now to do the research and look at what he actually said on the subject of nation-building itself--my recollection, however, is that he didn't say anything like "we will need to fight an insurgency for years."

The original hope of the administration seemed to be that, somehow, the Iraqi people--with the help of former expat Iraqis who would return--would get their act together more quickly. I remember hearing that and not really believing it to be so--hoping that it would be so, certainly, but assuming the way would be much longer and harder.

Perhaps that's just a sort of natural pessimism on my part--or realism--but I assumed that it was clear that the aftermath of the war could be a lot harder than that, and that our intervention meant we might have to stay there for a long while. In fact, I believed the "hot" part of the war itself would probably go on for years, with street and guerilla fighting far worse than it has been, both for American troops and even for the Iraqi people.

But that's just me, perhaps. And I'm not saying it to show my prescience; I wish I had been more wrong, as it turns out. But I do not understand those who thought otherwise--and that includes the Bush administration, if they really did think otherwise. I would have hoped they had been more ready for the sort of thing we are facing than they apparently were, and this was a big disappointment to me from the start--beginning with my profound unease about the way they handled the looting.

I understand, however, why the war wasn't presented in that light at the outset, and why the WMDs and the "flaunting the UN inspections" arguments became paramount. After all, the latter was true, the former was thought to be true, and they both were solid arguments that would appeal to supposed "allies" whose help we wanted to get. Why not emphasize them, then, rather than some lengthy and difficult occupation that might or might not be necessary in the process of rebuilding the country?

What's more difficult to understand--and to forgive--is the lack of preparedness of the administration for the very real possibility of a lengthy and difficult occupation.

But UB's first question was a different one, and the answer is this: I do think the perceived changing nature of the mission (at least in emphasis) was part of the reason the public has lost faith in this war.

Which brings us to:

(2) Once again, perceptions are strange. I never really heard a simple message of "everything is fine" from the administration. What I heard was that things were improving there--and for quite some time they seemed to be. The turning point was more recent; the bombing of the Shiite shrine and the increase in sectarian violence. I do believe this has been a turning point, as well, in public perception of the way the war is going, and in the spread of the idea that the situation is hopelessly chaotic.

Although I agree that this trajectory and direction in Iraq is a bad one, I don't see it as hopelessly chaotic. I see is (as General Keane said) as a problem we can apply ourselves to.

That's really the heart of the difference, not the events themselves. As I've written many times before, virtually all wars have setbacks when it would be easy to give up. Until Vietnam (or perhaps, arguably, until Korea), Americans didn't give up so easily. And that (at the risk of being repetitive) is a matter of will, not of these particular facts on the ground. There is nothing about these events that says "all is lost."

(3) I've given my answer in (1), and it is this: yes, our unpreparedness for the occupation was definitely a factor. So, why should the public think we'll get it right now? Because, once again, the history of almost all wars represents just such a learning curve. The public today wants instant gratification, even in war. Not possible, except in the first Gulf War--whose unfinished nature, paradoxically (although it pleased the public--easy in, easy out) was a significant part of what led to the need for this one.

(4) This is not a factor for me at all. I think those who would have expected a successful resolution of the Iraq War to have decisively reduced our terror risk are living in a dream world, and are underestimating this enemy to an almost fatal degree. Such wishful thinking is misplaced and dangerous; Islamist totalitarians will not be so easily deterred, I'm afraid. They take the long view of history, and see their rewards as taking place not just in this world, but in the next. They have more than enough of the patience we lack.

For me, one of the major reasons for this war was to set a standard for what would result when nations repeatedly defy weapons inspections. If one is to be serious about not letting WMDs fall into the hands of regimes such as Saddam's (or Iran's, or North Korea's), and if there was to have been any hope for the UN at all in that role (I now believe there is none), then the Iraq War was a pivotal moment in firmly declaring to all who would do as Saddam did that they'd have to answer for it. I believe that the power vacuum and confusion in Iraq today has not only empowered Iran to have greater influence locally, in Iraq itself; but that our losing heart with Iraq has signaled to Iran to go right ahead and develop WMDs, because we (and of course the UN) won't do a thing about it. Same for North Korea.

Defeatism is painless, I guess. For now. The only thing is--it might end up being suicide.

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