Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Time is not on our side

David Ignatius's op-ed piece in today's WaPo points out, rightly enough, that looking at the historical record suggests that you can only beat an insurgency by convincing the insurgents that nothing they can do will convince you to leave. This process, according to American military planners Ignatius cites, takes an average of nine years.

The problem is that convincing Iraqi insurgents that nothing they can do will convince us to leave is directly at odds with Bush's stated exit strategy -- "We will stay as long as necessary to get the job done, and then we will leave." Indeed, convincing insurgents that you're not leaving is, by definition, at odds with any exit strategy.

You can only beat insurgents if they believe, they really believe, that you don't plan ever to exit. Of course, if Bush were to tell the American public that the goal was a neverending occupation of Iraq, the collapse of the last shreds of public support would be instant. (This, incidentally, is what the neocons are referring to when they wring their hands about the American people not having the "character" necessary to be "good imperialists.") But unless we say that, we can't beat the insurgency.

Then again, as Igantius goes on to point out, even if you have the absolute commitment to stay forever, you still may not win. An absolute commitment is, in short, a necessary but not a sufficient condition for victory against an insurgency. Even when the occupiers are in fact absolutely committed to staying -- think of the French in Algeria -- they often lose anyway.

With all this in mind -- basically, having accepted that we are losing and in fact cannot win against the iraqi insurgency -- Ignatius goes on to propose a recalibration of goals, boiling down to three points:

  • To keep the country de jure intact, learn to live with a regime with an anti-American ideology, since anti-Americanism is the most likely unifying ideology sectarian lines
  • To have the best shot at avoiding a civil war, learn to live with de facto partition, more or less along the lines of the antebellum Northern and Southern "No Fly Zones"
  • To prevent an Islamist takeover, learn to live with an Iraqi regime that makes Islamists "up each morning afraid that they will die" -- i.e. a regime with a ruthlessly murderous secret police
If you look at those three conditions, it sounds an awful lot like... replicating Saddam's old regime. You can see why the Bush regime is loathe to go down this path, which will be ugly no matter how much spin and gloss is applied.

Then again, perhaps there is a way to square this circle: perhaps Bush can exercise what we might call "the Caeserist option," to declare forthrightly that America is an empire and not a republic. Neocons like pop historian Niall Ferguson actually advocate something like this . He says that American should accept that they are an imperial nation and indeed embrace this role. The desirte to believe that "America just doesn’t do empire. After all, we threw off the colonialist yoke in order to establish our free institutions," is, in his view, "precisely the problem." The people of the United States, in his view, need to get over the romantic idea that other people have the right to self-determination, and just instead set the world straight. "Having undertaken the overthrow, the regime change in Iraq," Ferguson argued, "there is no alternative but to follow through successfully with the project of nation-building, no alternative other than a chaotic and miserable end."

But Ferguson is wrong. Not because the end won't be chaotic and miserable -- it will be. He's wrong because his assumes that successful nation-building is actually still an option, that all we need is the will to do it. But that's not true. Moreover, there is an alternative to nation-building, and it's one that will soon be exercised.

When that happens, the world won't come to an end when this alternative gets execrised. What will come to an end, however, are the neocons' Cromwellian fantases of creating an empire of righteousness. And that's the real reason they're hysterical about the prospect of American withdrawal from Iraq.

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