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At War with America's Inner Demons

Stirling Newberry's picture

America is not at war with the Taliban, nor at war with Al Qaeda, nor with any other physical enemy, but at war with its own inner demons. When David Woods declares that Petreus' strategy "works" as a "fact" – he is blessedly, if post-ironically, able to ignore the "fact" that the people in his own example were assassinated. The supposed proof is Iraq, or rather the real proof is that Iraq has fallen out of the headlines. A strategy for self-government that leaves a trail of assassinated partners, is not working.

A Failed State in Iraq

That is what Petreus' strategy is about: getting Iraq out of the headlines. In essence this generation in power has been living 1967-1973 over and over again, trying each time to close off social upheaval by Nixonian tactics of spending like a liberal, but running the show like a conservative. Trying over and over again to amalgamate Eisenhower, JFK, and LBJ with Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge. Trillions have been spent on the effort to run a liberal state, through conservative means. But does it work? Did it "work" in Iraq?

9 police men were killed in suicide bombings around Iraq not long ago, and Baghdad remains the murder capital of the world. While the plural of anecdote is not data, individual tragedies do add up to statistics. And from the statistical viewpoint of basic services, Iraq is spiraling downwards, as wide spread power outages continue. It is not without a point that this is important. One of the key steps in stabilizing the former Yugoslavia, was providing power. Iraq has two large rivers, and oil, and large reserves of conventional natural gas, and cannot generate enough electricity. A few days ago, the energy minister was forced out over the continuing crisis.

Iraq's oil production, which supplies virtually all of its hard foreign currency, is between 1.7 million barrels per day, and 1.9 million barrels per day, which is roughly the amount allowed by the oil for food program in 1999. It brings in a great deal more currency, but only because oil pries are still, in real terms, above any time in history other than the great oil spikes of 1919-1921, 1979-1981, and 2007-2008. A fact not of Petreus' strategy but of global economics.

If the security situation is bad, and both domestic and external economics are poor, the political situation is just as bad. In the three months since the elections, there is still no conclusive result.

Jim Muir writes:

It's now well over three and a half months since general elections were held in Iraq, producing an inconclusive result. The secular Sunni alliance headed by Iyad Allawi came out slightly ahead of the mainly Shia bloc of incumbent Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki. But neither can form a government alone, and putting together a coalition is proving difficult and time consuming.

Contrast this with the "hung" parliament in the United Kingdom, which had a government in a week. Perhaps the wrong one for the moment, but one loosely reflective of the will of the electorate. Iraq has nothing but continued backroom deals and the present PM pleads for other powers to stop meddling so that a government can form. That means Saudi Arabia and Iran. But there are indications that Iran is backing his stay as PM.

Thus, in no way can it be said that Petreus' strategy has "worked" because there has been no improvement in basic services, economic output, oil production, personal security, civil society, political determinacy.

Has it improved the geo-political situation? This is hardly the case Instead US ally Turkey grows closer to Syria and Iran and the Israel-Palestine situation has deteriorated, with a war in Lebanon and Gaza as the offspring.

Is Iraq more secure from Iranian influence?

The Congressional Research service produced a hawkish report that states:

To the extent that Maliki is less pro-Iranian than is ISCI or Sadr, the January 31, 2009 elections represented a clear setback for Iran and its interests. ISCI, which was hoping to sweep the elections in the Shiite south, did not come in first in any Shiite province. In most of the Shiite provinces, the Maliki slate came in first, and his slate won 28 out of the 57 seats on the Baghdad provincial council, and it won an outright majority in Basra – 20 out of 35 seats on that provincial council. ISCI’s best showing in the south was in Najaf, where it tied with the Maliki slate with 7 seats each on the 28 seat provincial council. ISCI has few opportunities to forge coalitions that will determine who will be governor of a particular province.

But this is whistling past Dixie. If this was such a setback, why has no government formed? Why is the PM begging for an end to meddling? Kenneth Katzman's report is full of perhaps, and other generally empty assertions that Iran's influence in Iraq is waning, and maybe Iraqi Shiism could free itself from Iran. But other than one election, it offers no proof. One might as well say that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenhagger proves that California's Democratic Party is waning in influence.

Instead reports, even from embedded media, show that Iran is replacing Al Qaeda as the source for rockets, explosives, and other weapons. Iran's influence continues to grow in Iraq, with the US forced to engage in a failing border patrol effort.

Thus, if one is talking about Iraq, one sees a failed state, all of whose gains in stability are ascribable to the withdrawal of the river of American money and the fighting of the American occupation. Out is what worked. The state of Iraq today is little different than if America had invaded and left by 2004. The deaths, and costs, of 2005-2008, bought nothing in final results on the ground, and there is no objective indicator otherwise. Al Qaeda, instead, as pulled out of Iraq, because they were not there before the US occupation anyway. Al Qaeda never had any major political presence there, other than to damage the United States, with America gone, so too is Al Qaeda.

The Real Enemy that Washington Fights

So why is it than within the village bubble Petreus is seen as a savior? Because the real enemy in Washington, is the fear of being made to look defeated. On the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, it is a fitting topic, since the pattern of that war exhibits the shape of the American long wars since then, and other major powers long wars, most particularly the Franco-Algerian War and the French War in Indo-China. That pattern is of a response to an emergency, the staving off of the source of that emergency, and then the attempts to leverage this to some larger objective, which is seen as within reach, and then a gradual failure of this over-reach, until finally public support ebbs below the level required to fund the endeavor. At which point some means to an exit is found.

The political dynamic can be shown in the way that General Douglas MacArthur attempted to leverage the offensive generated by his landing at Inchon to conquer the territory that had been held by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, that is the communist regime in the north. This attempt to shift containment to rollback trigger the entry into the war of the forces of the People's Republic of China, under Chairman Mao, who sought some means to strike back for American support for the Nationalist regime in Taiwan.

The logic here is that the power granted by a crisis should be leveraged, but to some end which is orthagonal to the original crisis, to some end which elites have dreamt of, but know they could never propose on its own without a crisis as a freestanding policy. No one could have proposed in 1949 to simply invade North Korea and unify the Peninsula. However, the offensive took on a life of its own, and MacArthur dragged his superiors, including the not notably weak willed President Harry S. Truman, along with him. Marshall and others thought they could, and had, limited the potential consequences, but this proved impossible.

Far in the north, with American forces spread thin, with little cover, and unprepared despite clear intelligence, the Chinese struck, and American forces were often encircled and then cut to ribbons with piercing infantry columns that rushed through gaps in the thin lines of the advancing United Nations forces, and then ambushed the UN forces as they retreated.

This then is the pattern: in some section of the elites, there is a vision of a possible negative wedge: a better essential situation, that merely needs some push. Getting over the hump, however, seems impossible because of the cost in time and blood. The crisis is a grant of authority, and that grant is seen as a chance to use the resources available to make the necessary changes. "Never waste a crisis." This is not, in itself, an evil. Great crisis has often lead to far greater change in the end than originally envisioned, and often the basis for avoiding the next crisis must, in fact, be laid at the moment of solving some great crisis.

However, just because a crisis can be used well, does not mean that it is often not used as an excuse for aggrandizement of the leadership class. The difference between a great leader and a great failure, is often in their diagnosis of what caused the crisis in the first place.

In Iraq, the attacks of 9/11 from Afghanistan, were leveraged, not merely to remove Saddam, who had become an irritant to the leadership of the NATO powers, but to turn Iraq into a virtual colony of American enterprise, drilling, building, and contracting. However, by 2005, the cost of doing this has far over-run the willingness of the American public to support it.

Declare Defeat, and Go Home

It is at this moment that the logic of crisis exploitation becomes a trap: if change is frozen except from crisis, then being regarded as incompetent to deal with basic crisis is effectively a death sentence to real power. Thus when faced with the appearance of impotence, a governing coalition that wants to see power, and by this it is not merely a party, but also a social or demographic cohort, must then take whatever measures needed to produce, not victory, nor even the appearance of victory, but a wall of complacency. America simply does not care about Iraq, in the same way it does not care about the Congo, and does not care about Zimbabwe.

This is America's inner demon, the appearance of ineffectuality, a lurking creeping everyone has the right to laugh moment that is closely related to high school. It is this that Petreus' strategy produces. A sense that if things are not working, it is someone else's fault. We did our part, we were humble and brave and effective, and it just happens that the people we were working with couldn't keep themselves from being assassinated.

The fear of being reduced to ineffectuality is what haunts the image of wreckage on the way to a rescue mission doomed Carter. Do something, check off boxes, and get it out of the headlines.

Iraq is a failed state, and by objective measures, it is where it was in 1999, only with a deterioration of civil society. The removal of Saddam was accomplished by 2004, but the war slogs on. It was not mission creep, but as with Korea, mission gallop.

Under ordinary circumstances, there is political war of attrition. Those in power want to do something, but cannot. As David Brooks observes:

The system is basically set up to maximize kvetching. Government is filled with superconfident, highly competitive people who are grouped into small bands. These bands usually have one queen bee at the center — a president, senator, cabinet secretary or general — and a squad of advisers all around. These bands are perpetually jostling, elbowing and shoving each other to get control over policy.

Sudden crisis moments create incentives to "do something" and resources to do it. The public, and not just the American public, chooses someone to "do something." Political elites attempt to match the mood of the crisis to their favored policy. For example cutting taxes on the very wealthy. They do not have solutions, but instead, merely seek an opportune moment to do what they want to do. From this there is the expression that there is nothing more inevitable than a bad idea whose time has come.

On the reverse side of failure, for often policies looking for excuses were merely failures waiting to happen, there is another call to "do something." But this is to preserve the sense of honor or power or competence of the state. Someone is found to do this. Often the someone decides that the only thing to do is what was being done, only with haste. A modern example is how right wing de Gualle came to power, had the constitution rewritten, with the public belief that he would win the war in Algeria. Instead, he withdrew from Algeria, which had been occupied by France since 1830.

The Frogs of War

What this means is that there is, in any decision to retreat from a war that has overstayed its objective, a body of people who do not want to fight wars all the time, they are not pro-war, but are anti-weakness. They fear not defeat, in the sense of a failure to achieve objectives, but personal defeat, and personal ridicule. These represent the swing vote to exit of the crisis, and not coincidentally, the vote political and social, who will keep the resources flowing to whatever the failed policy is long enough for those emeshed in it to unwind. The only thing worse than a war that stops, for the arms manufacturer, is one that stops on short notice.

The frogs of war are that chorus of people who demand we stay in the war for reasons other than the effect of the military instrument on the situation. It is not the club, nor the effects of hitting others with it, but what failure says about those wielding the club. "Moral duty" is thrown around as a phrase, meaning, it doesn't matter if we are making things worse there, we are making ourselves feel better here. War as consumption: if it feels good, it is good.

The generation that has come after the Baby Boom can be called the Post Generation, it is an amalgam of two generations: the Baby Bust and the Millennials, who are two generations joined by a division. The Gen X busters are cynical about anything involving large groups of stupid people, even when they are involved in it. Since the generation before them was all about if people feel the same way at the same moment, it will happen, they have lots of material for cynical asides. The Millennials believe in concerted action, being children of the baby boom generation, but see the paralysis, stasis, wrinkles, and hypocrisy of their parents in different terms. They started out being heavily rewarded for joining the boomer system, and now are beginning to realize that the barriers are very high. It is they that come out owing more from college than people paid for the median house in 1990, and have no jobs to pay for those loans.

The baby boom still is still chasing how they look to history, by which they mean how they feel about themselves. Petreus' strategy works, he looks like a general doing general things, and he lets the frogs of war croak that we won, because we didn't catastrophically lose.

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