"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Chuck Hagel on Iraq

I have no idea whether or not this editorial by Chuck Hagel will be considered 'seminal' in shaping future Congressional policy, but it seems to sum up several strands of thinking on how we're doing over there and why we should leave. It does not flow smoothly in bringing these strands together, so my response will be equally disjointed; but some points have merit. Many do not.

There will be no victory or defeat for the United States in Iraq: right, and wrong. There will certainly be no 'conventional' victory celebration, no signing of surrender documents on battleships. Yet we have seen what a reasonable person could consider many small victories: free elections, a new constitution, the conviction (and hopefully rapid execution) of Saddam Hussein. These small victories are what will ultimately win in Iraq, if we can capitalize on them. As to defeat: we can call it what we want, but the insurgents will recognize defeat when they see it. Perhaps we'll have helicopters plucking people off our embassy rooftop; perhaps we'll just call it "phased withdrawal" and pull out over a few months, ceding province after province to the forces of chaos and barbarism. Failure in Iraq may be glossed over by many names, but our enemies - along with the rest of the world - will be all too ready to label it 'defeat'. And much more blood will be spilled because of it.

The future of Iraq was always going to be determined by the Iraqis: yup. Success there was always going to be about how many Iraqis wanted a future for their children, and how many would rather see their neighbor's children dead. I thought that the past elections proved that the latter were in short supply; now, with bodies piling up by the hundreds, I wonder.

Iraq is not a prize to be won or lost. It is part of the ongoing global struggle against instability, brutality, intolerance, extremism and terrorism: Now, Chucky, you need to make up your mind. Iraq is not some colonial bauble, to be sure, but the insurgents certainly see it as a prize to be won; indeed, the first of many in their effort to establish a global caliphate. If it's their prize to win, it's ours to lose. And Iraq either is part of the war on Terror, as you label it here, or not (you mention something about taking the focus off the real terrorist threat in Afghanistan later in the column). Don't go Kerry on me; you can't have it both ways.

There will be no military victory or military solution for Iraq: only partly true. There is no purely military solution; as with any counterinsurgency, success requires political and economic victory as well. However, without the military element present to kill insurgents and provide security, a counterinsurgency will never get off its feet.

We are once again learning a very hard lesson in foreign affairs: America cannot impose a democracy on any nation: this statement is proof that most of our leaders can't see past Vietnam. I seem to recall the United States imposing two very successful democracies in Japan and Germany not too long ago. Democracy was not a completely foreign concept in the latter, but the former was a culture at least as alien as that in the Middle East. Yet we succeeded. The difference? We fought a total war against those two countries. We annihilated their military, destroyed their industry, and turned their cities into rubble. We overwhelmed them with so much power that they knew they were beaten. And once they were brought as low as we could take them, we built them up again. We chose not to travel that path in Iraq, because we wanted the world to know our beef was with Saddam's regime, not the Iraqi population. This choice necessitated a limit on force, consequently making the 'building-up' process longer and harder. But to say that it's impossible is to ignore history.

Honorable intentions are not policies and plans: true. Platitudes do not win wars: plans win wars. Our president would be better served to use his speeches to outline the specifics of how he plans to beat our enemies, not reiterate, time after time, how evil they and their ideology are.

It may take many years before there is a cohesive political center in Iraq: true, if it ever happens at all. But until we determine that we've reached the point of rapidly diminishing returns, why be so eager to abandon Iraqis to their fate? Many ordinary people placed their faith in us to help deliver a brighter future; we owe it to them to keep that faith. Now, that future is theirs to embrace until they decide to turn their backs on it. Some have already, but that faith is not completely broken. It hangs in the balance; our future, and theirs, depends on shifting that balance back to hope, not despair.

. . . regional powers will fill regional vacuums, and they will move to work in their own self-interest - without the United States. This is the most encouraging set of actions for the Middle East in years: factually, the first statement is accurate, almost a truism. The second statement could justify its optimism if more Middle Eastern states were like, say Lebanon or Israel. But it's not Israel or Lebanon who will be filling the void in Iraq; it's Iran and Syria, and those are the last two countries that we need to see advancing their own interests. We've recently seen the methods by which they advance their interests: assassination (Syria) and open war (Iran via Hezbollah). And we know what their interests are: regional power (both) and Allah-sanctioned extermination (Iran). Note that 'justice', 'freedom', 'democracy', and 'peace' are not among their goals. This, Mr. Hagel, is not encouraging.

Until we are able to lead a renewal of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, mindless destruction and slaughter will continue: ah, the traditional red herring of Middle Eastern policy. There is almost nothing in that region which hasn't been justified by the 'Israeli occupation', from political oppression to human rights violations to state-sanctioned terror. Well, guess what sports fans: it's a separate issue. Getting the Palestinians their own state should not affect our policy toward a nuclear Iran or a murdering Syria. Oh, those countries would like it to, because it then makes every issue a non-starter until there's peace in Palestine, and all it takes to remove those issue from the table is an intifadah here, a proxy war there, until real peace is farther away then ever. And at that point, Iran will have nuclear weapons and Syria a new colony in Lebanon. Don't buy into the lie, Mr. Hagel.

This latest set of events is moving the Middle East in the only direction it can go with any hope of lasting progress and peace: I'm not entirely sure what events he's referring to. If it's the refusal of the Lebanese to be intimidated by Syrian thuggery, or of the Kurds to let themselves be dragged into civil war, then yes, it's that kind of attitude that promises a hopeful future. If it's legitimizing the murderous tendencies of Iran and Syria by inviting them to the table, then sorry, you're a long way off.

We are perceived as a nation at war with Muslims . . . this debilitating and dangerous perception must be reversed: yeah, maybe, maybe not. We are perceived that way, because institutional Islam loves to portray itself as a victim prostrate before the West's aggression in order to avoid any suggestion that something within the instutition itself needs to change. Many Muslims hold on to this perception because it's much more edifying than the truth. The truth? Muslims are much better at killing themselves than we are (Syria at Hama, Saddam any week of his reign, the insurgents any day of the week). And America has done more to help Muslims than most Muslim nations. It was America that brought relief to Indonesia after the tsunami, America that helped Pakistanis after their devastating earthquake, America that removed the Taliban's religious oppression and Saddam's blood-soaked regime. We give millions of dollars to Palestine, fight AIDS in Africa, and what do we get in return? "We're at war with Muslims." We've done our part to fix the perception problem; it's the other side that won't see the forest for the trees.

We are destroying our force structure: are we straining it? Yes. Destroying? That would take a lot and I don't think we're there yet. For one thing, we have thousands of troops languishing on Cold War bases in Germany and Europe. Europeans don't seem to like us anymore, and the Soviet horde is no longer a threat; so, instead of redeploying from Iraq to Okinawa, how about we redeploy from Germany to Iraq? I'd suggest keeping our guys in Korea for now, since that area is starting to warm up. But we've done our share for Europe, hell we've been responsible for their defense for half a century. Time to move on and move out.

The United States can still extricate itself honorably from an impending disaster in Iraq: now, make up your mind. Is Iraq a disaster? "Part of the ongoing global struggle against instability, brutality, intolerance, extremism and terrorism?" One of the "encouraging set of actions" in the Middle East? Or simply undergoing an "imperfect, stuttering and difficult" movement? And how, exactly, is leaving millions of Iraqis to the mercy of jihadists and thugs an honorable exit?

To squander this moment would be to squander future possibilities for the Middle East and the world: a nebulous statement that says much while doing little. What possibilities are being squandered? Our overall standing with Muslim countries? Possibly. Iraq's ability to conduct diplomacy with its neighbors? Perhaps, though it's hardly desirable from any standpoint. The chance for democracy and freedom throughout the rest of the region? Now there's something worth not squandering, though I don't see how leaving the region to its own devices will accomplish that. Leaving that region to its own devices is why we're there in the first place: because they can't play nice with their neighbors or their own citizens. It is our presence there that encouraged Lebanon to throw off her Syrian shackles, and Libya to abandon its WMD program before its turn on the chopping block. The only progress made in that region has been because other countries took our promises of support for freedom and promises of retribution for terror at face value. Now we've been there for awhile, and everyone is looking to see if our promises have staying power. If it turns out they don't, then our enemies will chalk one up in the win column and look to turn our defeat into a rout. Maybe Chuck was trying to say all this; I'm thinking no.

There are few good options in Iraq. Fresh eyes and fresh plans are necessary. I do not want to see our troops refereeing a civil war with each side taking shots at them. But the worst thing we can do is "extricate" ourselves in the hope of returning "stability", as the realists would say, to the region. "Stability" was the cop-out that brought us the first Gulf War, a decade of no-fly zones, al-Qaeda attacks across the planet, 9/11, a dictator in Baghdad who thought he could flout the international community indefinitely, and a tyrant in Tehran who thinks that when it comes to nukes, we'll blink first. Stability is a disease that is killing that part of the world, making it culturally stagnant and radicalized and, ultimately, a threat to us. The Middle East needs a huge dose of instability if it's ever going to shed its backwater status. We gave it its first big injection; what happens now is up to us, and them. Our efforts to make that instability constructive have been half-hearted thus far, but it would be far more deadly to wash our hands of the whole affair and go back to simply "engaging" and "containing" threats there. We do that, I guarantee we'll have to go back at some point to undo another mess, take out another threat. That whole area needs change; we have a foot in the door to accomplish it. Be it in Kurdistan or Baghdad, we need to stay in the region and drag it, kicking and screaming, into the modern world. That is what is in their, and our, best interest.


Anonymous said...

I can understand where you're coming from in a lot of this, right up until the point where you go off on 'stability' and start mixing and matching things together that aren't remotely related. The decision to leave Saddam in power did lead to a pair of the things that you list there; 'a decade of no-fly zones, and a dictator in Baghdad who thought he could flout the international community indefinitely.' The rest of the items in that list Al-Qaeda attacks around the planet, 9/11 & the situation in Iran are in no way related to Iraq. There is zero correlation/causation there. Al-Qaeda was allowed to fester in nations such as Afghanistan, the Sudan and other failed states (of which Iraq was not one) and the current leader in Iran was elected DEMOCRATICALLY by the Iranian people. There are lots of causes of both of those things, but our decision to leave Saddam Hussein in power was not one of them.

Cincinnatus said...

I'm not trying to connect anything and everything with Iraq; my point is, the collective decision by the West to value "stability" over change and freedom led us to a "tipping point" that ultimately tipped into our backyards on 9/11. Our decision to leave Saddam in power did not directly lead to 9/11; yet it, along with our weak response to numerous other acts of aggression and oppression in the region, cumulatively convinced groups like al-Qaeda that no matter how big they went, we wouldn't fight back. It's also put us in a position where nations like Syria and Iran think that they can threaten and meddle as much as they want - in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Israel - without consequences.

It's our decision, both past and present, to try and "contain" and "stabilize" that region, rather than deal out those consequences, that needs to be reversed. Nothing in the Middle East will improve unless we shake things up. We've taken the first steps in doing that by eliminating dangerous regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq; what happens in the near future will be determined by how strongly we follow through.

Events are not always directly connected in the Middle East; but the web of cause and effect runs thick and deep there. Nothing is truly unconnected from everything else. Even when the connection is false (i.e. the Israel-Palestine problem being the cause of all violence and repression), the culture there still happily connects it.

Incidentally, I wouldn't call the election of a man vetted by a board of unelected and authoritarian mullahs 'democratic'.

Ammianus Marcellinus said...

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won election in a runoff in 2005 with 61.69% of the national vote that had 60% voter turnout. It was a free and fair election; that a complete nutjob was elected it besides the point. Democratic elections are no panacea in the short-term and, one of the big problems for this administration, is that they can't acknowledge that, in the short-term, democracy in the Middle East will be largely bad for us as the populations there would like to be lead by people who are, by and large, hostile to our interests. If we're going to really advocate completely democratizing the area, we need to realize that the results, at least in the short-term, will be ones we don't like. Iran demonstrates this, as does the elections of Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestine, respectively. I'm not criticizing our policies from a realist perspective, I'm just noting that if we are 100% committed to democracy as the 'solution' to our problems in the Middle East, things will clearly get worse before they get better. No amount of work on our part (at least by military means) will change these sorts of results when the general population clearly is in favor of these sorts of parties & individuals.