September 01, 2005

Column 2005-9-1: Special 2005-8-28 Edition

Today's Brooks offering is completely reasonable: Brooks points out that past floods exposed injustices and caused social change -- bolstering his argument with well-chosen historical examples -- and that we can probably expect something similar from Hurrican Katrina, given that most of the people currently suffering in the hurricane's aftermath are poor and black. This is all a pleasant surprise, allowing me to go back to his August 28 column, which I never discussed, and go over that one instead.

On August 28, Brooks presented a counterinsurgency strategy for the administration to use in Iraq. In essence, Brooks suggests that it might be a good idea to try to lock the barn door after the horses have left and the barn has been burned to the ground. I'm not going to dispute the merits of the Krepinevich "oil spot" strategy that Brooks likes so much (in which American forced would take over a handful of territories, largely abandoning the rest, and provide total security and cash in the areas they controlled, thus winning over the natives): for all I know, it would have worked (according to Brooks, it worked in Malaya in the 1950's and "other places" which are not specified.) But it's far too late to implement it now, not for military reasons (though there are certainly military difficulties) but for political ones. To be fair to Brooks, he is at least bright enough to recognize that this is the case. He points out that the "oil spot" strategy, relying as it does on a heavy troop presence and playing down American advantages in technology and firepower, is anathema to the Rumsfeld way of fighting wars. And he notes that the war has not been fought with an eye to the long term, but instead from one "turning point" to the next. However, he blames these problems on Rumsfeld and the "military brass" respectively, and turns to Bush as a man who has been misled by his advisors but who will be eager to correct his mistakes once he realizes them. Of course, the problems that Brooks mentions are intimately connected, and stem partly from the fact that the administration failed to make any preparations for a long-term insurgency (Wolfowitz: "It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army.") and partly from the political imperatives of obtaining popular support for a pre-emptive war and maintaining that support as the stated reasons for fighting the war evaporated.

Recall that the war was to be over in "six days, six weeks. I doubt six months." It was sold as a quick little war that would show that America was invincible: the mighty American army would carelessly flick Saddam out of the way, expose his stocks of WMD's and ties to Al Qaeda, and leave the grateful Iraqis their very own democracy, all in less than a year, while the American people looked on proudly. Rumsfeld certainly wanted a chance to prove that light, mobile forces with overwhelming firepower were the wave of the future, but this vision of the war also required a small fighting force, partly as a demonstration of American might and partly so that the vast majority of the American people could sit on the sidelines and cheer without having to worry about loved ones in danger (or, far, far worse from a political perspective, the possibility of a draft). Of course, it took only a few months for this narrative to start to break down, and to break down in almost every possible way, leaving the administration with the problem of maintaining public support as it became clear that the war the public supported was not the one the U.S. was actually fighting. The democracy part of the war rationale, being the only part that had not collapsed irretrievably, was therefore elevated above the others, and to compensate for the fact that the war had turned from a preemptive strike to an exercise in nation-building, the administration constantly announced that we were winning and everything would be over soon. Well, they were a little more subtle than that: a series of turning points were each hailed as the sign of the imminent end of the war. Perhaps the administration even believed its own hype. At any rate, a "heavy troop presence" and an "acknowledge[ment] that this will be a long, gradual war" -- two things that Brooks thinks are required to implement this "oil spot" strategy -- were exactly what the administration did not want.

And at this point it is far too late to do anything about the situation. Disregarding the folly of thinking that a man who does not believe that he makes mistakes (or at least refuses to admit to them) would get up and essentially concede that almost everything his administration has done in Iraq thus far was wrong, and even leaving out the domestic political repercussions of saying that we need to completely start over in Iraq and prepare to be there for a decade at least with twice as many troops as we have at present, the plan simply would not work in the current environment. It would require more troops than we currently have in Iraq, and it seems unlikely that most Iraqis would welcome more American troops. It would require largely abandoning the political process that the U.S. has invested so much in, or at best leaving the Shiites and Kurds to govern themselves while the U.S. engages in massive counterinsurgency operations in Baghdad and the Sunni heartland. The constitution-writing process has no place in the "oil spot" strategy. Providing countrywide security for the referendum on the constitution is definitely counterindicated by the strategy. Attempting to reinforce the power of the central government throughout Iraq is also not compatible with it. Most likely, the result of a move to the "oil spot" strategy would be to further divide the Sunnis from the rest of Iraq, which is hardly the desired result. Keeping in mind that political considerations are always paramount with this administration, though, this analysis is completely unnecessary. Perhaps in ten years the strategy would have worked, but over the next few years it would be a political disaster, and that is why it will never be implemented.

It is notable, though, the Brooks is willing to admit that at the moment the U.S. is failing in Iraq. He is not yet blaming it on Bush, but perhaps he is simply setting himself up to desert the sinking ship. Brooks does have a certain amount of animal cunning, and with this column he acknowledges the problems in Iraq and presents a solution. It's an unworkable solution, to be sure, and Brooks may well be perfectly aware of that fact, but it allows him to say in a year or two that he saw the problems and pointed out what the administration should have done, but they failed to change course and so he has no choice but to regretfully abandon his support for the Iraq venture, an excellent idea sadly bungled. Of course, he may just be a moron who refuses to accept that the time for discussing strategies for winning is past: the U.S. has lost, and the only realistic thing to do now is to try to determine how to keep any further losses to a minimum. Either way, though, a respected conservative thinker like Brooks -- how he acquired the first and third of those adjectives remains a mystery -- has come out and said that the American occupation of Iraq has been horribly mismanaged from the beginning. It's another indication that the tide of public opinion is beginning to turn, and none too soon.