Sunday, April 11, 2004

A few months ago, I was cynical enough to suggest that if our occupation wasn't actually achieving much on the ground, as it didn't seem (by neutral reports) to be, then our best strategy might be to simply withdraw to minimize the blood on our own hands.

Comes now this week, with the rival factions crystallizing into a coordinated opposition against us, and the best, brightest, most committed, most compassionate soldier we could ever have would still find himself, as Jim Henley says,

hitched to an engine called circumstance dragging him down a hard black road to a destination labeled GROZNY, and he will claw at the pavement the whole way there trying to slow his progress and in the end he will get there anyway, because the outskirts are visible already: "artillery was brought in for the first time."

The question from some war proponents of the beginning was this: why wouldn't we choose to establish a beacon of democracy at the heart of the Arab world, so that all other peoples and states in the region would follow its lead? I never understood why they were so sure we'd be able to do that -- nor, for that matter, why they thought anyone else in the Arab world would follow its lead.

But in the event, we seem to have blown it. We have a Governing Council which is referred to routinely, even by the sort of liberated women who ought to be our natural supporters, as "the puppet council", and even they are starting to resign when confronted with our latest attacks. On which Col. Lounsbury has a quip which is worth a treatise:

One's pimpdom is over when your own whores don't want to be seen with you.

So, a few months ago, we had two clear options: withdrawal, or continued occupation. (Imagine "third way"s all you like, you still must choose: take troops out or leave them in). Now, we have two clear options: withdrawal, or bloody battles to put down the insurrection -- after which, the cities conquered, we would -- what? hand them back? Well, that's what we say we're going to do.

In which connection, it's worth thinking a bit about what the "beacon of democracy" was supposed to achieve. At the very least, it was supposed to show the world that we were not the brutal, sadistic conquerors of bin Laden's propaganda. And yet, looking at the pictures of "collateral damage" which have been saturating al-Jazeera since we went in, we seem to be showing them that's what we are. And there may be a touch of propaganda to it, but we would be unwise to dwell on that -- they're a news organization, and this stuff is certainly news. (Though, speaking of selection bias, check out this framing of the issue, from a Centcom spokesman:

I think it's important, Rush, to keep in mind well over 95% of the country is at peace, returning to normalcy, and the population is really just trying to get back to life. They want to improve their socioeconomic status, they want to exercise their new rights. I mean that sort of stuff doesn't get enough attention, and it's so important because the rights that these people are exercising now are unheard of in this part of world, and that's the snapshot you get as you travel across the country.

Sure, 95% of the country is at peace. It's just the cities that are going up. Most of the country is empty desert).

Reality check: everybody on the planet knows that we could, if we chose, start playing by Hama rules. Diego Garcia isn't going anywhere, and B-52s can still fly out of it. And if we do, or just as much if we engage in a full-scale urban battle, running the population through a meat grinder while not even letting them escape (we aren't, if they include military aged males -- do we want them to keep shooting at us?), we will have proven that we are the kind of people who do that.

Which, anon, a few of us seem to be -- we've got a New York Post columnist here calling for the whole neighborhoods to be pulverized by B-52s, and a letter to the editor here calling for the firebombing of Fallujah. The first would be an atrocity to at least rival 9/11; the second would beggar it. And then there's Senator Trent Lott, who wanted to just mow the whole place down months ago.

If we withdraw though, the hawks say, we look weak. That will certainly be what bin Laden and Co. will say -- it's his best line, under the circumstances. But if we stay in, following anything like our current policies, he'll say we're butchers. He's got a great line, either way. So, if you're pondering which of these things you'd prefer to see in Osama's next recruiting tape, please consider that one of these alternatives does not involve American kids getting blown up.

One final note: It's not as if I think withdrawal is a great option. It sucks. I'd love to see a better one. But continuation of the current policy under the current leadership ain't that. Nearly a year ago, they were telling us that resistance was the dying embers of the Baathist regime. I'm not sure they were ever right about that, but regardless, rather than snuff them out, they've fanned the flames to the point where they threaten to consume the country. A UN transitional regime under European leadership, with a strong Arab presence for day-to-day security in the cities might yet have a chance, if it had friends among the Iraqi leadership -- Sistani is a theocrat, to be sure, but he's got enough human decency to not want a civil war, which is the only reason we went as long as we did without an uprising. And it would be a face-saving way out for us. But I have a hard time seeing Dubya's crowd agreeing to that unless their sweetheart deals for Halliburton were preserved up front. They have their priorities.

But the longer we go without some kind of change, the more we just compound the damage. Our hawks keep saying that bad as Iraq is, it's no Vietnam. After a year, neither was Vietnam. If we keep screwing up long enough, though, then fifty years on, someone's going to be saying that as bad as we blew it in Vietnam, it was still no Iraq.

Links via Atrios, Billmon, and their commenters...

Update: As I was writing this, occupation leadership was having second thoughts; for the moment, at least, they're trying to negotiate with the insurgents. See survey posts by Juan Cole and Billmon. If the negotiations succeed, maybe we can find a way to get out without a bloodbath first. But as both point out, any success will be a significant climbdown by Bremer's crowd. Muqtada al-Sadr is hardly likely to passively agree to submit to arrest by coalition authorities. So what happens to that warrant? And of course, poor follow-through from the American side, or worse, perceived insincerity, lands us right back in the soup...

Further update: According to this Reuters report, our military staff isn't yet entirely clear on the whole "negotiation" concept. Via Atrios...


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