Friday, December 08, 2006

ISG Follies & the Washington Quagmire

Washington's chattering class is working itself overtime this week to generate intelligent sounding analysis of the James Baker and Lee Hamilton-led Iraq Study Group (ISG) recommendations, released on Wednesday. As with most committee generated reports, it tried to satisfy everyone in the name of promoting unimity, and thus ended up pleasing no one. A media-driven buildup of the report's importance in the wake of the GOP's disastrous election showing, and a series of leaks over the past three weeks, at once over-inflated the ISG's efforts and then punctured its balloon before it even launched. Thus the ponderous report landed with a distinctly anticlimatic thud on the President's desk. For his part, President Bush had already rejected the main recommendations of the report - talking to Iran and Syria, and beginning a major, if slow, withdrawal combat troops. So not surprisingly, the primary reaction to the report is disappointment. Neoconservatives denounce it as "surrender," and those who hoped that the ISG would call for immediate withdrawal feel cheated.

Washington is left exactly where it was before the ISG delivered its hefty tome, which the President probably won't bother to read. The only aspect of the report on which all sides concur is that Iraq is a mess and it won't get any better.

So what to do? President Bush has announced that he will shortly unveil a new "direction" for Iraq, which we are supposed to believe will differ significantly from the current strategy of grasping for straws while American money and lives are wasted. Bush's sudden promise of a new direction probably resulted from the realization that the British, and the other remaining allies, are on the verge of withdrawing their own token forces from Iraq, leaving the administration without any remaining cover (read: pretense) of international support.

There are three choices for the administration: send more troops; grit our teeth and hold on hoping it will eventually get better is we stay long enough; or withdraw.

Sending more troops is supported by presidential-hopeful Senator McCain and many neocons who now clamor that the President's failure to send more troops in 2003 led to the debacle in the first place, which is odd, given how they savaged war opponents who warned that more troops would be needed in the first place. The problem with this strategy is simple: we don't have enough available troops to properly occupy Iraq. Worse, as Gregory Scoblete points out on TCS Daily, we never did.

Rumsfeld was clearly the odd man out in an administration that jettisoned its realist sensibilities in the aftermath of 9/11 in favor of a more ambitious use of American power. His preference to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis quickly stood in stark contrast to the administration's professed aims of constructing a democracy in the heart of the Middle East. His desire for a rapid exit undoubtedly hastened Iraq's sectarian fragmentation, but such a fragmentation was inevitable. The U.S simply did not possess enough manpower to accomplish what Rumsfeld's critics wanted to in Iraq.

In 2002, the U.S. had 487,000 soldiers in the active duty Army, 178,000 Marines, and 66,000 full time Guard and Reserve troops - a total 731,000, according to the National Defense Budget Estimates for 2007. Tens of thousands of these soldiers were deployed in South Korea, the Balkans, Afghanistan and elsewhere on a rotating basis. Rumsfeld may have been able to stretch and commit roughly half a million troops to the invasion of Iraq. But there's a catch.

"If they had put 500,000 troops in Iraq in 2003, they would have all gone home with no replacements by early 2004, just before the insurgency really took off," said military analyst John Pike, Director of "The question is not how many to put in initially, but rather how many can be sustained. The current number is sustainable indefinitely. A larger number would have required a larger Army."

An Army we did not have when contemplating the invasion of Iraq.

In his now famous Senate testimony, Army General Eric Shinseki suggested that "several hundred thousand" troops would be necessary to occupy Iraq. Rumsfeld reportedly relented in the war planning to allow for an additional 100,000 troops to be available to deploy in Iraq in the event of an emergency, alongside the initial invasion force of 150,000. Critics who assert that Rumsfeld sent "just enough troops to lose" implicitly argue that these additional forces would have been decisive.

Scoblete notes that a RAND study estimated that to successfully occupy Iraq, the US would need 500,000 troops on the ground.

At the time of the invasion of Iraq, the entire armed forces of the United States (including Navy and Air Force) totaled 1.4 million people. Those who continue to demand more troops for Iraq should explain where they propose to find them.

Appreciating that there were never enough troops to fulfill the goal of a pacified (let alone democratic) Iraq is one thing, but Rumsfeld's critics also insist that he should have enlarged the Army after 9/11 in anticipation of future wars. Yet as the RAND figures demonstrate, the increases they want (Kagan, for instance, has stumped for an extra 100,000) fall far short of the task they have set for the military.

Despite launching an ambitious agenda for foreign military interventions, the Bush administration never bothered to increase the size of the US armed forces. For all its talk of the "global war on terrorism," the administration has refrained from drastically increasing the manpower of the organization on whose shoulders it promptly placed the burden of waging that war.

Which leads us back to the current connundrum. If we didn't have the troops to properly do the job in 2003, and we haven't increased the number of troops available today, then sending more troops is simply not an option since we don't have enough to make a significant difference. Ridiculous proposals of sending 20,000 more soldiers are throwaways, since doing so would accomplish nothing and sending 100,000 or more would probably break a military already under tremendous strain.

If we can't add additional troops, then perhaps we can tough it out. Clearly, this is the option the administration would prefer, feverishly praying for a miracle if we just hold out long enough. But Sunni and Shia bloodlust won't be restrained. There are scores to settle and heretics to kill. Iraqis won't abandon their traditional amusements simply because Saddam's statue has been toppled. If you ever wondered why George H. Bush wisely chose not to go to Baghdad, the last few years provide a graphic answer.

The American people rightly do not want to watch their sons being butchered and their treasury emptied in a vain effort to impose democracy on a people who do not seem capable of maintain it. The constant carnage has led the American electorate to re-examine the premises of the neoconservative Middle East agenda and find it desperately wanting. The key proposition that a lack of democracy in the Islamic world produced bin Laden was always laughable, but to modern-minded Americans, steeped in Enlightenment values) is may have sounded plausible. The spiraling bloodbath of Iraq and the rise of Islamic terror in Europe have revealed those dubious assumptions for the fantasy they always were.

Democracy, for all its manifest benefits, is not an antidote to radical Islam and the costs of an open-ended nation building mission far outweigh the benefits (to say nothing of America's decidedly mixed record when it comes to nation building).

A more robust nation building capability will provide no safety from Islamic terrorism and will at best deliver marginal gains to overall U.S. security - at enormous costs. Even if it were possible for the U.S. and coalition partners to transform countries like Afghanistan and Iraq into unified and stable democracies, al Qaeda terrorists would simply find new safe havens in other failed states, or in countries like Pakistan with "ungovernable" hinterlands that are off limits to large scale American military deployments. It is simply impossible for the U.S. alone or in tandem with NATO and the UN to secure and liberalize every last country in which Islamic terrorists could potentially find safe haven.

Besides, the ideology of jihadism need only claim mental real estate to be dangerous. It has thrived in cyber-space, creating a "virtual Umma" of the like-minded who can recruit, plot and train irrespective of the political system in their country of origin. We also know, thanks to the existence of "home grown" Islamic radicals in Europe and the demographic profile of the 9/11 hijackers, that bin Laden's radical ideology is immune to (is indeed partly a reaction against) Western freedoms.

Staying the course is thus profitless and politically impossible. The longer Iraq festers, the more dire the GOP's political position. It is only a matter of time before the GOP regains some semblance of its instinct for self-preservation and sends a delegation to the White House to inform the president that the party no longer supports his Iraq policy. Hence the White House scramble for a "new direction."

But the only viable new direction is withdrawal. Neoconservatives - who got us into this mess in the first place - now squeal that withdrawal will cede the Middle East to the Islamists, result in a bloodbath, mean a victory for our enemies and discredit the US. Some of that is true. The Sunni and Shia will likely engage in a slaughter as soon as we leave. But they are already doing that now and all signs point to a bloodbath whether we stay or not. The Islamists are growing in power everywhere in the Middle East as we speak, riding a wave of support created by the Iraq invasion and occupation and winning power by the ballot in every election we have pushed for - from Lebanon, to Egypt, to Saudi Arabia. Islamists are also winning elections in Pakistan and Turkey and Indonesia. So much for democracy. As for US credibility, the glaringly obvious failure of the occupation has already badly tarnished that; every day we remain mired in Iraq only increases the appearance of American impotence and incompetence.

The primary reasons for invading Iraq proved false. Saddam had no WMDs and was a threat to no one but his own people. The ideological agenda of forcibly spreading democracy to cure Islamism had been demonstrably proven erroneous. Throwing more American lives and money into the sands of Iraq simply wastes both, while weakening the US military and further damaging the US's strategic position. The only option for the US is to recognize that invading Iraq was a strategic error and withdraw our forces in as timely and dignified a manner as possible. Anything else is immoral.