IT'S THE AUTONOMY, STUPID
Another terrorist plot foiled! Insurgent prodigy Abu Assad al-Barney surrenders to coalition forces moments before releasing deadly Sentox nerve gas contained within his Improvised Explosive Diaper.
photo by Buck Sargent
If we in Congress don't end this war before January 2009, as president, I will.
-Hillary Rodham Clinton
Just when you think we're finally turning the tables in Iraq, the timetables turn back. More troops (or rather, same troops, longer tour), increased commitment, same expected fit thrown by those who'd just as soon plug their ears, look the other way and chant la la la la la I can't hear you......
The President has since warmed to the idea of once again setting benchmarks for the Iraqi government. Senior administration officials who wish to remain anonymous (due to the fact that I'm inventing them out of whole cloth a la the MSM) insist that these new benchmarks are completely different from the old benchmarks because this time the plan is to actually hold the Iraqis accountable to them. And despite still being nearly two years out, the presidential campaign season is already under way with Iraq as public issue # wahed:
"This was his decision to go to war [nevermind that I voted for it -- twice] with an ill-conceived plan and an incompetently executed strategy," said the Woman Who Would Eat Her Young To Be President during a recent early campaign swing through Iowa. "We [meaning "I"] expect him to extricate our country from this before he leaves office," she added. "The president has said this is going to be left to his successor... I think it is the height of irresponsibility and I really resent it." [Since I'm so clearly going to succeed him in office -- have you seen my fundraising numbers?]
What's more, the latest polls show that if the presidential election were held today a majority of Americans would be too confused by this fact to vote. Though if held on the regular date, er... okay, same result. But as an old platoon sergeant of mine liked to say, what's changed? Possibly nothing, potentially everything. Ready or not, here we come. Again.
Sure, "clear, hold, and build" has been tried before: we cleared out previously rough neighborhoods one by one, but with virtually no enemy resistance because they knew we were coming and simply shifted their arms and operations elsewhere until we left. The "clearing" isn't the problem, it's the "holding and building" that requires a significant presence of (honest) Iraqi forces that simply have not yet been widely available. They may still not be widely available, but every day that goes by another young Iraqi soldier or peace officer gains valuable experience that cannot be bought on the cheap.
It required three long years for an American born, educated, and (relatively) young man such as myself to obtain the necessary training, maturity, and intestinal fortitude required to strive, thrive, and survive on the mean streets of Iraq and then make it home again to tell the tale. I needed every advantage in the Western world just to learn my job and perform it well under pressure. But the Iraqis are learning on the fly, their range time taking place at Adhamiyah Proving Ground rather than some posh government installation where the silhouette targets also pop up whack-a-mole style but lucky-for-them style don't shoot back. You cannot develop an NCO corps overnight, anymore than you can immediately conjure up 40,000 additional Special Forces troops with a wave of your Executive Wand (Candidate Kerry's words, not mine).
Sergeants are the backbone of any professional army, which is why Muslim armies have never won a conflict in recent memory except against other Muslim armies. (And even then, rather inconclusively). They've never had NCOs before precisely because NCOs limit your ability to do things like oppress your own people, wage wars of conquest, or spill actual blood for oil. (The clear difference between Mr. Hussein Goes to Kuwait and Operation Desert Storm).
But just as you can only learn by doing in Iraq, the only way you can continue to do is by learning. Up in Nineveh province last year we thought we were kicking ass and taking names--for the most part because we were. But we later made it down to Little Hades by the Euphrates in late '06 and realized that the Iraqi courts and political system was kicking those same names to the curb and handing them right back their asses. We'd been busting our own humps trying to inculcate the concept of rule of law (something their culture should be vaguely familiar with, especially considering they all but invented it) though we've seemed to have ended up cloning our own 9th Circuit Court of Appeasement instead. (Motto: "We serve to commute so criminals won't have to.")
Once you learn what works and what doesn't, it becomes easier and easier to fix the bugs, plug the leaks, and even game the system if you have to by necessity. Though two can play: it would also help to suspend the practice of Iraqi politicians and parley-ment members possessing the power of the perse', or what has often amounted to a line-item veto over critical aspects of our military operations in Baghdad.
Si vis pacem, perseverum per diem.
I can't begin to recall how many Sadr City raids and rescue attempts were scrubbed en route last fall due to disapproval that emanated from Mr. Maliki’s office in the final moments. Pretend as they may, our generals had not been calling the shots in the prosecution of the war to its fullest extent. You can fault El Jefe Arbusto all you want, but if his commanders on the ground truly had the flexibility to call the shots as they claimed to, then they deserve at least a Simba's share of the blame for the mess we're now a part of.
Maliki is showing signs of having learned his lesson the hard way, but we never should have allowed things to digress to that point. As long as American troops are on the ground, American commanders should be directing them. Giving the Iraqis full autonomy ASAP should be a priority, but it shouldn't be the priority. They've got to demonstrate they can handle it first. Your kid got his permit, great. Are you just going to toss him the keys to the 'Vette?
But lately it appears that positive developments are developing quite positively:
- PM Maliki has been sounding off in interviews that the job he didn't really want in the first place isn't quite so fun anymore. "I wish my term was over" is a much healthier sign of future Iraqi democracy than "It's good to be king."
- The codename for the latest Baghdad security operation is "Rule of Law," which is a step above the previous slogan "Pleased to Release You."
- Corrupt ministry officials (redundant, I know) are finally being arrested and at least as of this writing are staying arrested.
- The al-Sadrists are becoming disillusioned with al-Maliki as he no longer seems to be bending over backwards in order to win friends and make amends.
Which brings us to the ever-thorny issue of timetables: to set them or not to set them, that is the ?
[WARNING: Major deviation from conservative talk-radio pointy-talky to follow.]
The Bush administration has always been reluctant to set any hard and fast dates for downsizing the U.S. military force on the ground, even as we're now sprinting toward a finish line that's not quite yet in sight. As they've sought to avoid providing insurgents an impetus for their own strategic surge, their professed ideal has been for the enemy to wake up one day in the not-so-distant future all set for their morning anticonstitutional and come to the startling conclusion that despite all their best efforts and worst intentions of the last few years, ultimately they have lost their bloody fight for hearts and spines.
Sure sounds good on paper. But unless you love severe cost overrun -- which is what we currently have in spading traces -- we can wait around for Shia Happy People Holding Hands but all we're going to end up with is Stuck In the Middle East With Y'all. Every government project requires at least a working "complete-by" date or you end up building a Bridge to the 21st century to Nowhere.
While I am loathe to admit to agreeing with Sen. Clinton on anything not related to mutual disdain for her husband ("What in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?"), I must confess that the hands-down winner of American Midol is in my humble opinion ... (gulp) ... correct. She doesn't want this Iraq monkey on her back and neither do I, especially at a time when she'll be far too busy redesigning the shape of the Oval Office into a ♀, replacing all the missing "H's" in the West Wing keyboards, and beginning construction on Bill's leakproof and pressfree Underground Tailroad for White House interns. Who has time for terrorism -- least of all "wars on terrorism" -- dragging you under when there's universal heath care plans to forcefeed the public with? While her campaign calculus could change once she's secured the Angry Left nomination, currently she's running on a platform of "I win, Iraq loses." Personally, I think she means it.
Regardless, by that point I wouldn't want to find Hillary on her back any more than Bill would. I don't trust another Commander-in-Clinton with an issue of such vital importance to our future national security, and leaving this up to a 50/50 electoral coin toss is simply too much of a gamble. To anyone who thinks HRC is unelectable, recall just how close JJFHK ("Jengis John" Forbes Heinz-Kerry) came to occupying the wrong desk in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For this very reason, President Bush must either secretly or publicly convince the Iraqis that both his and their fates are intertwined: When Mr. Bush's time runs out, so likely will the American gravy train of ground troops. Other than the same air and logistic support we routinely supply our allies around the world when needed, U.S. combat forces at the present levels will return stateside when their ranking superior retires to his ranch.
To say so publicly may indeed embolden the bad guys to lay low and wait us out, but isn't that exactly what we need right now? Time? Time for the Iraqis to strengthen their foundations, time for their institutions to work out the kinks, time for the people to finally see that self-government doesn't necessarily have to mean self-immolation. And frankly, I don't see many in the Republican field possessing the political cojones to inherit right out of the gate the kind of poll numbers that these days come with having the courage of your convictions. ("Senator Lieberman, the new RNC chairman is on line five...") Taking the Neverending Story angle away from the opposition's rhetorical arsenal may be the only way of halting their advance and preventing a Congressional rerun of That '70s Show. Like it or not, we may have to preemptively abandon Iraq in order to ultimately save it.
Various Iraqi officials from Maliki to President Talibani have routinely made their own pie-in-the-sky predictions for full handover of responsibility, with the PM's latest professing the need for another six months to a year. Wait, but didn't they say "six months to a year" a year and six months ago? Really, who's kidding who here? If they're ever going to succeed on their own, they have to be allowed to fail on their own. You can't guarantee they won't stumble and fall, you just have to hope you've prepared them the best you could. "Training wheels are potentially the least painful way to learn," say cycling experts. "But can also be the slowest."
Remember what the Gipper used to say about our dealings with the Soviets? "Trust, but verify." It's a bit of an understatement that our Iraqi friends have more at risk than skinned knees or wounded pride, so we should allow them the additional time and breathing space for their government that they've asked for, reverse our light footprint strategy--footprints in which Iraqis weren't yet ready to follow in--and then start the clock. ("Alright fellas, you've got 1 year, 10 months, and 27 days... don't waste it.") Because regardless of whether we end up with the Hildabeast or even the Senior Citizen Senator from Arizona, unless we want to see this remain the enduring symbol for Iraq's security right up through the 2028 Baghdad Olympics, perhaps it's time we finally held them to their word and to their obligations as a free people.
Ready or not, there we go.