In another example of the pushback against Colonel Reese’s call for a slightly accelerated timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, The New Republic’s Michael Crowley makes an appeal to the “tar baby conundrum,” as I termed it back in March 2008:
The tar baby conundrum goes something like this: If things in Iraq are chaotic and violent, well, we just can’t leave can we – I mean, what about the oil…? On the other hand, if things in Iraq are quieting down, we can’t leave lest we disturb the peace. Especially because once we leave, the various factions will have at it. Even Petraeus said so.
Here is Crowley on why Obama should reconsider his plans for pulling US forces out of Iraq:
Moreover, the strategic calculus has changed since Obama unveiled his withdrawal plan in October 2007. Back then, American troops were dying as they policed a civil war that looked nearly impossible to resolve peacefully. Today, however, there’s reason to think that it’s U.S. troops who are the only thing holding Iraq together.
Of course, Crowley was amongst the chorus of voices issuing warnings back in 2007 that withdrawal in the midst of such heightened civil war violence was too risky. Only now, according to Crowley, we can’t leave because of the relative peace. Either way, we stay.
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Quote of the day material from Rory Stewart who cleverly sums up the mindset of our "strategic class" – an echelon of "experts" that establish a disturbing level of continuity in outlook from one administration to the next, Republican or Democratic:
Since arriving at Harvard in June last year, [Stewart]has been consultant to several members of Barack Obama’s administration, including Hillary Clinton, and is a member of Richard Holbrooke’s special committee for Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. “I do a lot of work with policymakers, but how much effect am I having?” he asks…
“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says …’”
Well, that and we’ve got a better driver for the plummet. Stewart continues:
On the day we meet, the New York Times reports that it looks as if Obama’s policy of increasing troops in Afghanistan will work. Stewart has a different take. “The policy of troop increases will look ridiculous in 30 years,” he says. “They’re not going to make America safer from al-Qaeda. The theory of state-building is suspect. I’m not sure that the state they aim for is conceivable, let alone achievable. We should be pursuing a much more conventional development strategy in Afghanistan. And, if you want to combine that with a Special Forces unit that would make things uncomfortable for Osama bin Laden, then so be it.” He sighs. “But you can’t say that sort of thing to the policymakers. They’re grand, intelligent, busy people who have no interest in this kind of abstraction. They’re not interested in values, virtue, outlook …
Or "Very Serious People," to use the parlance of our times.
As is customary with the ebb and flow of the Iraq withdrawal debate, Col. Timothy Reese’s widely disseminated memo calling for a slightly accelerated timeline for removing troops from Iraq has provoked responses from those that warn against deviating from the original timeline (at least in terms of getting out ahead of schedule), and those that advocate pushing the ultimate withdrawal date back a decade, or longer (as necessary).
The latter link is from a Barbara Walter column in the Los Angeles Times which argues that the risks of a civil war re-erupting in Iraq should compel us to maintain a troop presence in Iraq for "an additional five to 10 years" beyond the 2011 deadline imposed by the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) previously agreed to by the governments of Iraq and the United States.
In making her case, Walter undermines the narrative of the successful Surge. Recall, the Surge was supposed to create space for the various warring factions to forge a lasting political reconciliation. Its critics, however, have claimed that the Surge has only managed to freeze conflicts in place, conflicts which would be thawed out and revisited at a later date (and even then, the Surge was only able to achieve this with the help of extenuating circumstances):
A country that has experienced one civil war is much more likely to experience a second and third civil war.
That’s partly because violence tends to exacerbate the political, economic and social problems that caused war to break out in the first place. But it is also because the first civil war often ends with no clear victor and no enforceable peace settlement. As soon as the combatants have rested and resupplied, strong incentives exist to try to recapture the state. [...]
Combatants who end their civil war in a compromise settlement — such as the agreement to share power in Iraq — almost always return to war unless a third party is there to help them enforce the terms.
While she may have a point about the likelihood of various civil wars reigniting, it’s less clear that there has ever been even a compromise agreement to "share power in Iraq." That power sharing agreement, the elusive ‘political reconciliation’ that was, again, the primary goal of the Surge, has yet to emerge. The current governing pact has never really had widespread buy-in from various insurgent and insurgent-friendly groups – hence the need to expand beyond the four corners of the current political set-up, amend the constitution and reach accords on various other key issues such as federalism/centralism, control of oil, incorporation of Sunnis into the security forces, etc.
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Joshua Landis takes a look at Syria’s opposition movement:
"Syria’s opposition movement is in shambles. Obama’s victory changed the calculations of the opposition in exile. US government supplied MEPI money, which sustained some, has dried up. But mostly, Syrians, who had hoped that President Bush would “reform the greater Middle East” as promised, understood it was not to be. President Assad is
firmly in control at home; the Iraq fiasco has re-legitimized authoritarianism in the Middle East, at least tmeporarily; and Obama
has little choice but to engage with America’s erstwhile enemies in the
region, as he is now doing.
"The National Salvation Front, of which Sba’i was a leading member and articulate and passionate spokesperson, has crumbled. The Muslim Brotherhood announced it was pulling out of its alliance with ex-Vice President Khaddam in April and was seeking a new relationship with the Assad regime. The immediate pretext for this move was the Gaza war, but the M.B’s rational for linking up with old Baathists, such as Khaddam, disapeared with the departure of President Bush."
A senior U.S. military official and adviser to the Iraqi military’s Baghdad command, Col. Timothy R. Reese, wrote a rather blunt memo that has recently found the light of day (copy here). In the memo, Reese argues that the U.S. should accelerate its withdrawal from Iraq based on the following factors: we have already accomplished what was possible for us to achieve militarily, the way forward involves Iraqi issues best-suited for Iraqi solutions (or not) and, further, that our continued presence is actually increasing tension, resistance, risk to our troops and the potential for a serious rift in relations.
Reese argues that we have lost leverage over the Iraqi government, and the ability to influence the political/military landscape. Political reconciliation – the endgame that the Surge was supposed to secure – is backsliding, as corruption and self-dealing have settled in as the norm:
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Ben Smith is impressed with the Obama administration’s relatively low-key approach to counterterrorism:
One of the most striking differences between the Obama and Bush administration is the handling of domestic terror arrests. The Bush White House trumpeted every arrest and disrupted plot — in some cases, ones that were nowhere close to fruition — as a major win in the War on Terror and a reminder of the need to be vigilant.
The Obama administration, by contrast, keeps them relatively quiet. There hasn’t been a statement from the White House, or any comment save a Justice Department press release, on the arrest of seven men on charges that they helped raise money and provide training for attacks in Israel, and trained to participate in attacks in Israel and Kosovo.
The decision not to talk about terrorism is just that — a choice, with the goal of ending the "politics of fear" that Obama denounced during the campaign.
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A little over a month ago, Andrew Sullivan had a fascinating piece on the evolution of the New York Times’ willingness, or lack thereof, to use the term "torture" to describe, well, torture (for definite lack of a better word). As Sullivan demonstrates, prior to the Bush administration, the Times repeatedly and reflexively referred to interrogation methods such as sleep deprivation, waterboarding, hypothermia, stress positions and physical beatings as torture. No euphemism, no equivocation, no even-handed airing of the torturers’ rationale/argument and no concern for the associated political controversy. It was simply torture.
In recent years, however, the Times has begun to use euphemisms to describe those exact same techniques. What was torture was now "intense interrogation," "harsh interrogation and "detainee abuse" – though recently, and to much self-congratulation, the Times has mustered the courage to call what they once freely termed torture, a "brutal mode of..interrogation." Baby steps for a previously ambulatory being.
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