Tuesday, March 21

Like a Cat

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it--and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again--and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.
Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar

Fred Kaplan in Slate: "If Only … The lessons of our Iraqi bungles."

My wife likes to watch CBS Sunday Morning. or The Geezer News, as I've been known to sneer if I'm sitting on the couch with her reading the Sundays, as I was this week. She's interested only in the Arts features they usually run, so she'd actually flipped the channel just as their Third Anniversary coverage began, and for once I had to ask her to change it back and turn up the volume.

They had dueling three-minute essays on Our Little Mideast Adventure: John Murtha vs, inexplicably, Bill "Handles" Bennett, a man who not only has lost his standing in the area of expertise he chose for himself, but ranks at least a battery commander in the Chickenhawk Brigade. How they wound up with Bennett is anyone's guess.

I admire Murtha for his stand, and for standing up to the sliming he must have known was coming from pipsqueaks unfit to mention his name, but he's not much of a speaker, and he's never really made his case forcibly (there are, I think, two reasons for that; commissioned officers don't rock the boat while higher-ups are standing in the bow, and the real risks we face from a military which will be fractured for many years to come are probably too great to speak aloud, at least from one of Congress' leading military figures). But Bennett! If CBS' intention on booking him was to provide three minutes of disjointed sloganeering, they got what they paid for.

That's by way of explanation for my ignoring the first of Slate's twin anniversay pieces, Christopher Hitchens on "Why (again) We (again) Were Right (again) To Invade (again)". Hitchens is now reduced to citing Stephen Hayes and vowing we'll all change our tune after those key documents are translated. If you didn't know he surveys the world from a Park Avenue condo you'd be tempted to toss the man a couple of quarters.

Instead, it's Fred Kaplan and the conventional view of the unreality that is the reality of Iraq, the litany of Bush administration blunders: the failure to understand Iraqi society, the failure to deploy enough troops, the failure to stop the looting, disbanding the Iraqi army. Though Kaplan leads off by posing the question, "Were the fiascos inevitable—built-in products of the nature of the war itself—or could they have been avoided, or at least might their impact have been minimized, if President Bush and his top advisers had made smarter decisions?" he immediately settles in to the comfortable list of "bungles" without another glace back. So once again we're cats with burned asses: there were people of standing who warned against this or that mistake, O, had we but listened!

That list is, sadly, real enough, as we all know. But focusing on it begs the question: are those simple errors in judgment, or are they part of a larger cluster of ineptitude, incompetence, and criminally negligent homicide? And events have already answered that one.

The failure to understand Iraqi society. Is this something which is explained by George Bush's reported ignorance of the major divisions of Islam? No. It's military incompetence of the first order and the shining glory of right-wing American hubris. (Last week Jonah Goldberg presumed to lecture the French strikers on economics, fer chrissakes.)

The failure to deploy enough troops This is the nut of nuts, and Kaplan falls into the "blame Rummy and his lightning force doctrine" trap.

Is anyone paying attention here? It's utterly immaterial that James Dobbins of the RAND Corp. estimated that, based on historical precedents, at least 250,000 troops would be needed (immaterial, and decidedly low; counting Coalition forces--remember them?--the invasion force was nearly 200,000 and that proved, um, less than ideal). Ask yourself this question: what has happened afterwards? Why have we had continual manpower and rotation problems since 2003? It's because we didn't have the troops! The "Rumsfeld Doctrine" rather conveniently required us to use about the number of troops we had available for short-term deployment without major disruptions in our other manpower requirements. There is nothing whatsoever to suggest that we decided on ~150,000 US troops through some ideal planning exercises except the word of the Bush administration, something which isn't worth the paper you wipe it on.

We went into Iraq with insufficient troop concentrations because to do otherwise would have required a delay of one-two years, depending on whether we made up the difference by a) building an international coalition which would have insisted on at least a year of continued sanctions and inspections, something which would have saved a hell of a lot of lives, or b) a draft, which would have taken one-and-one-half to two years to increase force levels, and would have shot the whole idea right out of the saddle the minute it was proposed. Manpower was not the equation; getting the war started on the politically desirable timetable was, and since we're doing all this soul-searching, let's start there.

The failure to stop the looting, disbanding the Iraqi army Again, the real nut was manpower, as well as operational planning focused on the Oil Ministry building and the persons or parts thereof of Hussein & Sons, to the exclusion of most everything else. Sufficient manpower would have solved those problems, or rather rendered them moot. But two things, here: the looting was a tragedy of global proportions, but what beyond that? The early lawlessness was no way to run a railroad, but it's hardly a root cause of our current mess. And that disbanding the army thing is problematic. Bremmer may be right when he says there was no army left to disband; and so we may be talking about supposed offers by Iraqi units to switch sides in the field. Whether that was ever in the cards is debatable.

And again, it's only debatable because the whole thing was a disaster. Other than manpower, those "blunders" are symptoms; the real question isn't what mistakes we could have avoided. The real question is how the hell we wound up with this group of fuckups in charge in the first place.


Anonymous said...

Because we are a nation of pinhead frontrunners. We have ESPN-ized national and world politics and people have become Republican voters just as they have become new New England Patriots fans. When the Repubs and/or the Pats stop winning, they will back some other team.

Yes, I know the Patriots were not even in this year's Super Bowl. I like ESPN.

Anonymous said...

Well, Doghouse, we'd have to ask Diebold about that, wouldn't we?