Wednesday, December 29, 2004

We're losing in Iraq

One line that American "hard power" enthusiasts like to parrot is (a version of the stab-in-the-back hypothesis) that the U.S. cannot lose militarily in Iraq. Leave aside that this is at best an irrelevant claim when fighting an insurgency, since it's the political battle that matters; it's also just not true, as this piece by Georgie Anne Geyer makes clear:

Today in Iraq... our "answer" has been that we can get out when Iraqi forces are trained, when elections are held, and when Iraqis themselves win back the country from the "insurgents" or "terrorists" or "guerrillas" (or whatever we finally determine they are).

But in only the last two weeks, American generals and civilian officials are, in fact, admitting that they have... problems. In Mosul, the Iraqi police force has "faded away." American generals speak of a "virtual connectivity" of the insurgents never seen before, as they use the Internet to pass along techniques, tactics and advice to one another. American generals now admit that almost all of them are Iraqis; we have created the Iraqi terrorists who were not there before....

American generals now speak in interviews about the "cellular expansion" of the insurgents. They see a constant spread of new, small cells with no clear command and control links that can form quickly, exploit and sacrifice, rather than relying on hard-core or closed, secure cells and forces. The Independent newspaper in London estimates there were at least 190 suicide bombers in the last 12 months (one might pause to think that they had something they believed in to take such a terminal measure)....

The truth no one really wants to deal with is that this war could very easily be lost by the United States. All the insurgents have to do is hang on another year. All we have to do is what the French and the British did in their colonies: Let themselves be exhausted and finally destroyed by their hubris, their delusions and their arrogant lack of understanding of the local people. (Emphasis added)

Might an iota of historical consciousness have helped? Perhaps not, since the problem with this regime is not exactly a total ignorance of history, but rather an understanding of history just shallow enough to divine spurious lessons, but not deep enough to understand the contingency and sheer luck that underpins so many historical success stories. (Which is precisely why war should always be a last resort.)

With that said, I suspect Geyer's timeline may be wrong: the United States can and (now that George Bush has been reelected) probably will hang on for a very long time without suffering a Dien Bien Phu, i.e. a final cataclysmic military defeat. The temptation for the Bush regime to hang on as long as possible is very high, for an elementary psychological reason: as long as one does not admit to defeat, one can always hope against reason that some deus ex machina will arrive to vindicate a losing cause. It's the same reasoning that causes people to stay in marriages for long after it is obvious they have failed, tailing into ever more interpersonally destructive behavior; or why companies engage in ever more reckless financial gambles as they see themselves sliding toward bankruptcy, with the result that the final balance sheet is even more catastrophic.

In this respect, the right-wing critique of Kerry may have been justified: since his own historical fate would not have depended on the perceived wisdom of the initial decision to go to war, but only on the proper handling of the postwar, he could have made decisions without the having to consider whether it would vindicate the original decision. In other words, a President Kerry would have been much more psychologically able to pull the ripcord on the burgeoning disaster. By contrast, Bush is in a much more tenuous position: just as Johnson had to keep escalating the Vietnam War to vindicate his initial decisions, Bush will be sorely tempted to keep raising the stakes on his own Mideast gambles.

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