Washington Post: Assessing Defeat In Iraq genre: Just Jihad & Six Degrees of Speculation

Chasing Our Tail

When one thinks of the expression, "The tail wags the dog", the vision one gets from a literal interpretation can seem comical. When one thinks of the expression in relation to real events...events like the war in Iraq, not only does it fail to coax a smile, it is a sad commentary on the misguided calculations following the events of 9/11.

To understand the magnitude of the miscalculation, consider the many explanations offered to justify our invasion of Iraq:

1. We were told that Sadaam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could end up in al-Qaeda hands. Included in this particular "miscalculation" were the aluminum tubes, yellow cake from Niger, mobile biological weapons labs, and a possible clandestine meeting with an al-Qaeda official.

2. Hussein failed to honor numerous United Nations resolutions and while he may not have had weapons of mass destruction, he intended to obtain them and his sporadic cooperation with the UN inspection program proved as much.

3. By bringing the war on terror to Iraq, we are fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here in the Homeland. The argument suggests that Iraq has become the focal point in the war on terror which has provided us an opportunity to face and defeat an otherwise hidden enemy.

4. The world is better off without Sadaam Hussein in power. He was a vicious dictator who killed thousands of his own countrymen, had rape chambers, and routinely tortured innocent citizens.

5. The Middle East, given our oil dependency, is vital to our national security and an American presence in Iraq will be a stabilizing factor in the region.

6. The Iraqi people were liberated from an oppressive regime and given the opportunity for democratic self rule. When millions voted in the subsequent elections, it no doubt proved that Iraqi's were determined to embrace democracy.

7. The enemy wants to destroy our way of life and the best way to combat that mentality is to bring freedom and liberty to the people of the Middle East through an active plan of exporting democracy to the region.

8. We now hear the final justification...the one that tells us that leaving will have disastrous consequences...the one that brings us full circle. At the outset, it would have been disastrous if we didn't invade...and now...over four years later, it will be disastrous if we leave.

Along the way, each of these rationales has been sold to the American voter with clever slogans and statements intended to invoke fear in order to obtain approval. However, 2006 marked a turning point in the success of that strategy and voters sent a message that they were tired of the ever evolving explanations for what they essentially viewed to be a failed effort.

Today, in a Washington Post article titled, "We've Lost. Here's How To Handle It", we continue to see the degree to which the Bush administration is out of touch with a reality that most Americans have already embraced...a reality that accepts that all of the above reasons have little meaning in light of the stark and somber events taking place in Iraq on a daily basis. What was believed to be true and what we were told would eventually take place have both failed to materialize...and voters simply lack the willingness to accept further excuses and further delays.

Last week's bloodshed in Iraq and the bombing of what remained of the historic Shiite shrine in Samarra and of two Sunni mosques in Basra were more reminders of a terrible truth: The war in Iraq is lost. The only question that remains -- for our gallant troops and our blinkered policymakers -- is how to manage the inevitable. What the United States needs now is a guide to how to lose -- how to start thinking about minimizing the damage done to American interests, saving lives and ultimately wresting some good from this fiasco.

No longer can we avoid this bitter conclusion. Iraq's winner-take-all politics are increasingly vicious; there will be no open, pluralistic Iraqi state to take over from the United States. Iraq has no credible central government that U.S. forces can assist and no national army for them to fight alongside. U.S. troops can't beat the insurgency on their own; our forces are too few and too isolated to compete with the insurgents for the public's support. Meanwhile, the country's militias have become a law unto themselves, and ethnic cleansing gallops forward.

But the most crucial reason why the war is lost is that the American people decisively rejected continuing U.S. military involvement last November. As far as the voters are concerned, the kitchen is closed. U.S. policymakers have not yet faced this hard fact. Some disasters are irretrievable, and this is one of them. Unless we admit that, we cannot begin the grueling work of salvage.

For the most part, I can agree with the above assessment. However, blaming the loss of the war on the sentiment of the American voter is truly the ultimate misuse of the expression, "The tail wags the dog". I would offer a far different characterization. For four years the American public was content to be wagged by countless cleverly crafted sound bites...meaning they accepted that the tail was wagging the dog. Today, the American public hasn't suddenly become the tail...what they've done is assert their right to place all four feet squarely on firm ground and demand that the proverbial tail, our elected government, begin to face reality and function accordingly.

In fact, history suggests that the consequences of a U.S. defeat will not be that dire. First, the risk of a regional Shiite-Sunni war is modest. The region has endured many civil wars: Algeria, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Yemen. While some have drawn in outsiders, none has led to war among those outsiders. Such meddlers tend to seek advantage in their neighbors' civil wars, not to spread them, which is why they rely on proxies to do their fighting. You can already see that pattern at work in Iraq today: All of Iraq's neighbors, especially Iran, are trying to protect their interests there, but all are also carefully calibrating their involvement.

As for al-Qaeda: True, its Iraqi branch has established a stronghold in Anbar province, and trained fighters from Iraq are, predictably, returning to their home countries, hardened by combat and looking for blood. But thus far, the chief jihadist threat to the West continues to emanate from Pakistan, not Iraq. The proportion of foreign fighters in the insurgents' ranks is smaller than ever -- perhaps 10 percent of the total number of Sunni combatants. Moreover, al-Qaeda's Iraqi forces are already under pressure, not just from the United States but also from other Sunni leaders jealously guarding their own turf. And beyond all that, it's simply too late to stop jihadist blowback from Iraq, which will persist regardless of whether U.S. forces remain.

The Post goes on to outline the elements of a managed defeat...terminology that I can embrace but that I would argue is semantic gymnastics. Let me explain. This war was likely a losing proposition from the outset...so it seems a stretch to even suggest that victory was an alternative. Perhaps that isn't wholly accurate but even assuming that the war had been properly executed from the outset, the differences may have included marginally better security and possibly hastened rebuilding...but the underlying sectarian dynamics would have remained unchanged...leaving victory still unachievable.

Further, if one returns to the prevailing motivations for executing the invasion of Iraq...a response to 9/11 and an effort to win the war on terror...one might, at best, conclude that Iraq was a wrong turn in the road. At worst, it was an enabling force in creating further animosity towards the United States and a tool in the efforts to recruit more terrorists. If it accomplished the latter, it was, by its very initiation, a losing proposition. Notwithstanding, I believe it is safe to conclude that winning or losing in Iraq was irrelevant to the primary goal.

I think its also worth noting that an admission of defeat by the government (meaning primarily the Bush administration) will shift the discussion away from should we or shouldn't we have invaded Iraq towards what was the cost of the mistake...what one might call the accounting or reckoning period. While we all have a sense of the costs associated with the war in Iraq...including damage done to U.S. standing in the world...we have yet to begin discussing what we might have done with the money had we had it to spend on other programs important to voters. Beginning that dialogue so near to the next presidential election can't be a debate the GOP wants to engage.

While I agree that the Post has identified some keys to managing the defeat...containing Iran, improving the grim outlook for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and accepting the reality that democracy will not be the tonic that will fix all that ails the Middle East...I'm not sure the average voter will focus on those or any other measures of consolation.

I suspect voters may choose to attach their own footnotes to the Iraqi fiasco...one that will suggest that the dog should wag the tail...and that the government learn to stop chasing its tail long before the dog has to force the issue.

Image courtesy of www.buygoogle.com

Daniel DiRito | June 18, 2007 | 9:11 AM
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1 On June 18, 2007 at 4:48 PM, Rambie wrote —

Great article!

Maybe the "American Voter" is sick of the excuses and mismanagement of this war and wants out before we make it even worse... no it's easier to just blame the voters as being gutless.

Thought Theater at Blogged

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