I Promise to Try to Stop Blogging About Iraq

In light of the tragic death of a young Iraqi reporter, one of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who’ve died in the course of the Iraq war thus far, Matt Yglesias asks an important question.

But a military campaign with no coherent political objectives is just a slow-motion disaster. It’s not saying anything against our troops to observe that when their orders don’t have any larger purpose beyond keeping the them deployed in Iraq that they can’t possibly succeed. After all, what could they be succeeding at?

They could be succeeding in giving Iraqis the time and resources they need to build a functioning society.

Since AQI was only ever a small group of people whose importance existed primarily in administration rhetoric, why shouldn’t we be able to crush them? But at the same time, while Bush would like to claim a success on this front, officials are quick not to claim too much success, lest that success suggest that it’s time to pack our bags and go home.

Basically, if the policy’s failing, that means we must continue it. And if it’s succeeding, that means we must continue it.

This is very perceptive, but a little off. Let’s leave aside the encouraging news, and let’s leave aside the fact that political reconciliation doesn’t happen on demand. When it was determined that the policy was failing, we changed it. We also settled on a series of somewhat arbitrary metrics to measure the success or failure of the new policy. Some very good things then happened, and the policy continued to adapt in real time. There was little movement along most of the arbitrary metric, backsliding in some, and progress in others. Of course, the arbitrary metrics failed to capture the changed strategic picture because they were not designed to do so. (How could they have been?) Given this changed landscape, some think we should continue a policy of not withdrawing. Everything else about the policy is subject to change in response to an ever-changing political and military situation.

How strange is this, really? It’s not neatly captured in an aphorism, which is the great failing of those of us who care about the climate crisis. It is easy to explain to people that a higher gas tax hits you in the wallet. It is very difficult to explain to financially strapped people how their way of life contributes to ecological destruction, and why this matters to very vulnerable people and to them. But we do our best.

A key part of any successful strategy will be some minimal expectation of stability, which in this case means a sustained commitment of American forces over a long period of time. As we all know, this is not a popular position. I do think President Bush, who I frankly think should have been ejected from office long ago, has done a relatively good job of making it clear that he believes US troops will need to remain in Iraq for the long haul. To the extent there is any ambiguity on this point, I think it is right and proper for pundits like Matt to make it perfectly clear that the current strategy requires just such a sustained commitment. Troop numbers will decline, but for the current strategy, of marginalizing and defeating the most irreconcilable sectarian militias and co-opting the rest, to work, troop numbers will have to stay pretty high.

What we need are Democrats and Republicans who are willing to make this case forthrightly.

What of the news that this young Iraqi reporter was likely killed by a member of the so-called Awakening Council, which is united with US forces in the fight against AQI? I can’t say I find this surprising.

I hate cheap historical analogies, but I don’t hate them enough not to use them: As Stalin swept across Nazi-occupied Europe, his soldiers committed horrible crimes along the way. These were young men trained to kill, and sometimes to do worse. The most miserable thing about any war, I’ve been led to understand by parents who’ve lived through one, is that all of the instincts that make us human are blunted and contorted into something truly horrible. I hate to tell you this, but there are murderers and thugs in the Awakening Council, and there were murderers and thugs in the Rwandan Patriotic Front that halted the genocide and a small handful even in the tightly disciplined militaries of the West. (A movie like i>Redacted makes us uncomfortable, but crimes like those portrayed in the movie really have marred American history.) My guess is that there are more in the semiliterate tribal militias or Iraq and of Sudan’s Darfur region, and all of them are opportunistically aligned against yet other brutal killers.

This ought to make us deeply uncomfortable. It’s not clear to me how extricating ourselves from this decidedly gray world is possible. Withdrawal won’t do it: we will still be deeply implicated in the killing to come. Colonizing space is one option, though one fears the same patterns would reemerge. And frankly, I’m not quite willing to give up on this planet.