Running out the clock

My wife and I listened to the President’s speech on Iraq as we returned from puppy training last night. The full text of the speech is here. There’s a slideshow version of the Iraq Strategy Review. I think the Washington Post’s summary is a fair one:

President Bush appealed directly to the American people last night to support a renewed campaign to pacify Iraq, saying it is necessary to add new troops so that the beleaguered Iraqi government can regain control of the streets of Baghdad and revive the process of political reconciliation and economic rebuilding.

In a nationally televised address, Bush acknowledged for the first time that he had not sent enough troops to provide security in Iraq last year. Standing in the library of the White House, he described the situation in Iraq as “unacceptable” to the American people and to himself. “Our troops in Iraq have fought bravely. They have done everything we have asked them to do,” he said. “Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me.”

Bush said he will order more than 20,000 soldiers and Marines to help the Iraqi government provide security in Baghdad and fight the Sunni insurgency in Anbar province. But he emphasized that Iraqi soldiers will take the lead in the new fighting, and he said that the focus of American troops will be to advise and support Iraqi forces, with the additional U.S. troops embedded in Iraqi units.

He also emphasized the need for the active participation of the Iraqi government in pacifying Iraq and promised development funds.

John Robb of Global Guerrillas and Thomas Barnett provide interesting contrasting reactions to the speech. John Robb believes that the plan is built on faulty premises:

Of course, the failure of these periodic efforts may be due to an inability to revisit a key assumption upon which the present US effort is based: that strong states tend to form naturally if provided the right minimalist conditions. I believe the opposite is true: that states, once broken, tend to remain hollow and in perpetual failure. The reason is that in the current environment minimalist conditions yield social disintegration…

Thomas Barnett is more optimistic:

What I saw in the president’s speech last night was more the realization that jobs are the ultimate exit strategy, thus the first enunciation of something very close to what Steve DeAngelis and I have been advocating for a while with Development in a Box (right down to the infrastructure czar).

Hat tip to James Joyner for both links.

I lean more to Robb’s view but for somewhat different reasons. I believe that the President’s understanding of both the American experience and human nature, while consistent with his own experience and beliefs, are flawed.

I don’t necessarily see “social disintegration” in Iraq. What I see is the foreseeable consequences of the re-assertion of remaining institutions there.

After 30 years of Saddam’s rule in Iraq only a handful of institutions remained: Saddam, the government bureaucracy, the military, and tribal and sectarian ones. Saddam had swept viable political opposition away. There was, basically, nothing in the form of liberal democratic institutions in the country. Individuals with those aspirations, yes, but not much in the way of institutions.

When Saddam fell and the government bureaucracy and the Iraqi military evaporated in short order (de-Ba’athification was the last straw in this process), the institutions that remained were those of tribe and sect. And, as the President acknowledged, there has been a concerted effort to pit those institutions against one another that have been largely successful. Elections in Iraq have merely been a facade of democratic process behind which those remaining institutions have re-asserted themselves.

A month or so ago Gen. John Abizaid said something to the effect that, given infinite time and infinite resources, the present strategy would succeed. That may well be true for reasons I’ve touched on before. Eternity is a long time.

But, unfortunately, however plentiful money and manpower may be (why we haven’t engaged in a military build-up five years into the War on Terror is a subject worth discussing at another time), there are multiple clocks merrily ticking away. There is the clock of the patience of the new Congress, now controlled by Democrats and that of the American people who, while possibly still willing to give the President some benefit of the doubt, are clearly dubious of the value of the present strategy and, indeed, the objectives in Iraq to which last night’s speech added only a little becoming humility. There’s also the clock of the last years of President Bush’s term in office. Those who predict an end to the need for a substantial U. S. military commitment to Iraq before that term expires are becoming fewer and fewer. Much to the consternation of Congressional Republicans.

There’s also the Doomsday Clock that measures the time until our species destroy itself. North Korea and, presumably, Iran are determinedly pushing the minute hand of that clock towards midnight.

7 comments… add one
  • Jim Alexander

    While I find Robb’s analysis goulishly compelling, I am tracking closer to your position. If a thing never existed, it cannot disitegrate. We are asking those with proper aspirations to realize their goals (and ours)with precious little operational experience ito bolster thier success. The tribes, sects and extranational players have a huge head start where experince is concerned.

    I too listened to the President. If what he described is, as I believe, a push to build an exit that can be swallowed then there had best be a considerable set of cards up his sleeve. I expect this is not the case. He started this effort with a solemn resolve backed by an ill-concieved and cavalier plan. I see little to suggest that he will break out of the box he has crafted for himself and employ our military and diplomatic resources to their best advantage and our best interests. I respect the office of the President of the United States and give Mr. Bush his due. He, however, has not lead this war effort effectively and the “new” plan seems, on the surface, to be “too little in the middle” for we are no where near the end of the real conflict we are engaged in.

  • If your assessment is correct, and I think it is, I think the American strategy may still succced.

    The reasons, however, would be different; since “the institutions that remained were those of tribe and sect”, the country will end up effectively divided. The effect of the new American strategy would be to make such division much more “manageable” or “stable”, keeping Iranian and Syrian interests at bay until the different parts of Iraq reach a modicum of stability/manageability.

    I fear that this may be the real endgame, but one you could not publicly advocate.

  • Actually, tribal culture existed and was, in many ways, encouraged under Saddam. Besides direct relatives, Saddam gave little actual authority to anyone who wasn’t a “Tikriti.” Even Saddam was a tribalist since those were the only people he could half-trust.

    Additionally, the climate of oppression under his rule, especially among the Shia, led to a strong tribal system that encouraged distrust of anyone outside one’s tribal circle. State informants and spies were always a worry under Saddam.

    Finally, with the creation of the no-fly zones after Gulf War I, the Kurds and, to a lesser extent, the Shia, became somewhat independent. In the Shia areas this did not translate to centralization of power but to more tribalism.

    Tribal leaders are the real power-brokers in Iraq, and that is something the Administration, for the most part, doesn’t realize.

  • The above would be incorrect.

    Initially the Baathist system was quite modernist in its approach, only after the series of failed wars, with the system and economy in a fragile state, did Sadaam explictely return to the tribal system.

    His dependance over time on near relatives of course increased, but was more nepotism in its early stages than tribal.

    One has to differentiate between the very stages of his rule, in the end.

  • Lounsbury,

    Your correct there were stages of Saddam’s rule. I should have been more explicit in that I was talking about the last decade of Saddam’s reign.

  • In that instance, then your comments are quite correct. It’s good to keep in mind the trajectory over time – in part since so much of American thinking as I have seen it reported was based on a strange muddle of early Sadaam reign (secular, modern society) and late Sadaam reign (atrocities, etc).

    Being muddled about the situation helped, with a fine dose of really stunning incomptence, lead to disaster.

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