'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Steady If Uneven Progress 

This week the Times ran a substantial story by Eric Schmitt about the possibility of troop levels in Iraq being cut by the end of the year. The piece cites "American and Iraqi officers [and] top Pentagon officials" who in quotes hedged with qualifiers speculate that by early 2006 the 142,000 troop strong occupation force might be reduced to 105,000.

The Pentagon sources say there's a consensus among policy planners of "steady if uneven progress" in combating the insurgency, echoing the "light at the end of the tunnel" rhetoric of yester year. Primarily by appealing to two metrics, the number of attacks on US troops and the number daily US casualties, curiously neglecting the number of Iraqis killed, Schmitt argues that the intensity of the insurgency has lessened since the January elections. Although it's only been two and half months since those elections, or one tenth of the twenty-five month Iraq War, the Pentagon sources see "several positive developing trends."

Taking the cited metrics at face value, there are several ways of explaining the February and March numbers. One is to realize that in chaotic environments like war-ravaged countries statistics that are dependent on the environment's stability often fluctuate wildly. Another is to start talking about downward trends like the various spokespeople in the Times article. Another is to note how high the two numbers were just before January 30th, as the insurgents ratcheted up their efforts, 140 attacks a day and 100+ US casualties in the month, and conclude that in February we saw not so much the start of a downward trend but the bursting of a bubble. Schmitt notes that March's death toll, thirty-six US troops, is the lowest since February of 2004. If thirty-six dead is low, acceptable, and a positive indicator, one wonders why we did not read articles about "steady if uneven progress" and the possibility of withdrawal at the beginning of March 2004? After all, at that point there had been a four month long downward trend.

Schmitt also brushes aside the significance of the notably under-reported attack on Abu Ghraib in which dozens of insurgents waged a military-style assault on an American stronghold, coordinating rocket propelled grenades with car bombs. Ironically a day after the "steady if uneven progress" piece ran, the Post reported of another military-style assault, very similar to the Abu Ghraib strike but receiving even less coverage: apparently "insurgents claiming links to al Qaeda tried to overrun a U.S. Marine base ... using gunmen, suicide car bombs and a firetruck loaded with explosives". If the average number of Iraqis participating in each attack is the primary consideration, we can say there is an upward trend in the intensity of the insurgency.

The Times piece is transparent propaganda -- there simply is not enough data to make well-supported claims of downward trends or uneven progress. A reasonable hypothesis is that the Pentagon sources are reciting talking points that are coming from above. But what is the purpose of this propaganda? Like the aforementioned "light at the end of the tunnel" rhetoric of the Vietnam era is it to sure up popular support for an unpopular war? Paint a rosy picture of a bad situation and hope that sooner or later reality catches up with your rosy picture? If this were the case, why would the Pentagon speak in absolute terms and make specific predictions, 105,000 troops by 2006, etc.?

Perhaps there's another explanation. Perhaps the prediction of the troop pull-out, if not the petering out of the insurgency, will turn out to be entirely accurate; it may even turn out to be a pessimistic prediction. Recall that half a year ago close to the climax of the 2004 presidential campaign season, Robert Novak wrote a much discussed column in which he claimed that "[i]nside the Bush administration policymaking apparatus, there [was] a strong feeling that U.S. troops must leave Iraq" in 2005, and that this feeling was not "predicated on success in implanting Iraqi democracy and internal stability. Rather, the officials [were] saying: ready or not, here we go." At the time, Novak's claim was viewed through the prism of the upcoming election and mostly discounted as a bit of spin meant to allow Bush to have it both ways: Republicans who liked the Iraq War would obviously vote for Bush; Republicans who hated the Iraq War and were tempted to vote for Kerry would be nudged back into the fold if they believed Bush would cut and run in '05. Interestingly a few weeks ago Novak wrote a follow-up to his Sept. 20 column, arguing again that disengagement from Iraq sooner rather than later was likely, this time citing the centrality of Rice to the new Bush administration. Rice wants out, Novak says, and has Bush's ear.

In the absence of an upcoming election there is little motive for either Novak or Novak's sources to manufacture this story. There's also plenty of evidence that corroborates Novak's claim, notably William Kristol's Dec. 15 Post op-ed, "The Defense Secretary We Have", in which Kristol called for Rumsfeld's dismissal, writing "Don Rumsfeld is not the defense secretary Bush should want to have for the remainder of his second term." For William Kristol, editor of the The Weekly Standard, the quasi-official newsletter of the neoconservative movement, to turn against Rumsfeld, the man who made their grandest dream a reality, solely because of Rumsfeld's "arrogant buck-passing" in the wake of the "hill-billy armor" controversy simply defies credibility. A more reasonable guess is that Kristol detected the same "feeling" in the Bush administration that Novak wrote about and was attempting to do something about it. After all, as Novak admitted in his September column, "getting out of Iraq would end the neo-conservative dream of building democracy in the Arab world".

Another development that makes more sense if the rumors of withdrawal are legitimate is the fate of high-profile neoconservatives within the Bush administration. Douglas Feith recently resigned. John Bolton is going to the UN. Paul Wolfowitz is going to the World Bank. The Bolton and Wolfowitz appointments, of course, rightly irritate liberals and leftists, but a point seldom made is that in a very real sense these appointments are demotions -- in the sense that Bolton and Wolfowitz are ideologues with an agenda; they would like to dictate and/or influence policy decisions but are being moved into positions that are fundamentally representational.

This point was made well by John Brown, the former Foreign Service officer who resigned in protest against the invasion of Iraq, in his TomDispatch piece "Why World War IV Can't Sell". Brown argues that the neoconservatives were useful to the Bush administration only in so far as the Iraq War was useful. The Iraq War was useful for propping up a president that was viewed as weak and feeble-minded. The neoconservatives were necessary to provide rhetorical justification for the Iraq War, but both the war and its architects have outlived their usefulness, as Brown writes:

If there's one thing the sad history of recent years has amply demonstrated, it's that the Bush White House is profoundly uninterested in ideas (even the superficial ones promulgated by the neocons). What concerns Dubya and his entourage is not thought, but power. They pick up and drop "ideas" at the tip of a hat, abandoning them when they no longer suit their narrow interests of the moment. (The ever-changing "justifications" for the war in Iraq are a perfect illustration of this attitude). The Bushies are short-term and savvy tacticians par excellence, with essentially one long-term plan, rudimentary but focused: Republican -- as they interpret Lincoln's party -- domination of the United States for years to come.

We are witnessing a struggle between two poles of power within the Bush administration, Karl Rove, representing the traditional interests of the Republican party, and the neoconservatives, and it is a struggle that Karl Rove is apparently winning. Karl Rove is interested in perpetuating Republican control of US politics for as long as he can manage it. The neoconservatives' primary concern in establishing an American empire. These two projects were in harmony during Bush's first term but are out of sync now. Such a turn of events shouldn't be too surprising given that it was widely reported that Rove was anxious to get out of Iraq in 2004. He even had a catchy "It's the economy, stupid"-type slogan to sell the idea, "No war in '04".

There is perhaps "steady if uneven progress" being made towards disengaging from Iraq, but it has very little to do with the eradication of the insurgency, and a lot to do with internal factions within the Republican party reigning in a powerful group of fanatics. If such forces are victorious, Iraq will still be occupied but occupied in the less intrusive manner in which other Middle-Eastern countries already are, with permanent military bases, and the country will be controlled in a manner similar to the way in which the US controls its other client states.

[Hat tip to Dane Baker for pointing out the Times article and providing good commentary on it]

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?