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November 20, 2005

The Real Iraq Problem

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

One big reason Bush won the last election, and why he can maintain any support for the Iraq War, is his ability to misdescribe the war as an us-versus-some-enemy-we-shouldn't-embolden problem.  This is the frame that allows him to present withdrawal as cowardly and foolish, while continued occupation is the only sensible and courageous move.  The criticism of cutting and running (can someone tell me what the 'cutting' refers to in that expression?) and the "We fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here" nonsense depend on this kind of framing.  The criticism of war critics as enemies of America is probably its most sinister expression. 

As far as the future of Iraq is concerned, what we actually have is a how-do-we-get-everybody-to-play-nice problem.  We need to get a bunch of interspersed ethnoreligious groups to put aside their longstanding grievances and see one another as fellow citizens in a democracy.  Given the extent to which the populations are swirled together and the  bloodiness of poorly supervised partitions (several million were killed when Pakistan split from India, and the countries are still often at each others' throats) dividing the country three ways isn't a great answer.  So we've got to find a way for them to live together. 

There's a bunch of reasons why Bush won't openly present plans to deal with the real issue anytime soon.  One of them is that it would require him to take a big loss on a huge rhetorical investment.  As soon as he starts talking with the American public about the various ethnic groups and his plan for getting them to live peacefully together, it becomes clear that the boldness and firmness that he's cultivated a reputation for is not the quality most essential to success.  What you actually need is somebody who can negotiate a complicated deal that will take everybody's interests into account and give them what they want, so they won't cause trouble.  Bush has never presented himself as the guy to do something like this, at least not since 9/11. 

Once you see the Iraq war as a how-do-we-get-everybody-to-play-nice problem, the emotionally charged reasons that Bush offers for staying in Iraq start to melt away.  Running from a dangerous enemy that you should fight is cowardice, but if silly people are damaging their futures by engaging in irrational and vengeful behavior, it's no great vice to wash your hands of them and leave.  Sure, you try to help them work things out, and you protect innocents from mass slaughter.  But when you see that your efforts are becoming unproductive, you're free to go home and let them fend for themselves. 

There's a path here to a Democratic position that resists being spun as defeatism.  The first step is to make Americans aware of the ethnoreligious situation, and make them see that as what it is -- the real Iraq problem.  I doubt that Americans generally see the war this way at present, but it's more pleasant than seeing it as a war that we're losing, so wishful thinking may dispose them to accept our characterization, even if good reasoning doesn't.  Then we can explain to them how a phased withdrawal plan can be used to
reward Sunnis for peaceful participation in the political process,
and prevent Shiites from thinking we'll be their Sunni-beating-stick
for perpetuity. We'll have a good plan for Iraq, while the very terms of the debate will prevent the Republicans from successfully using the unfair tricks often employed against parties who have to argue that we should pull out of a losing war. 

(I'm getting a weird Lakoff feeling as I write this post.  We have to reframe the war in nurturant mommy terms, so the nurturant mommy party can win.  So let's present the Iraqis as kids in the big Arab sandbox who won't share their toys!  And then the stern father types will support withdrawal, because taking care of kids is women's work!)

November 20, 2005 in Iraq | Permalink

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Comments

"So we've got to find a way for them to live together."

"We need to get a bunch of interspersed ethnoreligious groups to put aside their longstanding grievances and see one another as fellow citizens in a democracy."

"What do you mean 'WE' white man? I go to join my people." Good punchline to Tonto vs Lone Ranger joke, pathetic followup to MidEast debacle. Neil they don't need "we". It is not at all clear that the Iraqi people can find some middle way, America may have totally thrashed the Iraqi Pottery Barn, but the last thing the Iraqis need to the US rushing around with superglue trying to put the pieces together.

There is a naked assumption among the 'stay the course' and 'Pottery Barn' folk alike that an American military presense is a net good.But your evidence is exactly what? Because your analysis to date has proven kind of sucky. "We can't leave now! Because bad things will happen!!". Well define "bad", compare to current conditions, and offset current American costs in lives and dollars. And don't forget to show your work.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Nov 20, 2005 11:15:45 PM

Bruce, the best way may for us to help may be -- and probably is -- some withdrawal proposal. That's part of the point.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Nov 20, 2005 11:30:10 PM

I always figured the "cut" in "cut and run" is "cut your losses".

Posted by: DonBoy | Nov 20, 2005 11:31:11 PM

Cut -- use a knife or similar device to separate the anchor from your boat.

Run -- actually the metaphorical part of the phrase, to "run" is to sail off very quickly

Posted by: loon | Nov 21, 2005 1:02:15 AM

Lord Byron is the first real literary user of "cut and run" noted in the Oxford English Dictionary.

It's worth noting that the use of "cut and run" was popularized by play directors criticizing actors/actresses who, during stage rehearsal, would respond to forgetting a cue by panicking and bolting from the stage (this would more fully explain the unsavory connotation). Charles Dickens used the phrase a billion times, too, which couldn't have hurt its popularization.

Posted by: loon | Nov 21, 2005 1:08:04 AM

Loon is correct. I just bought "Red Herrings & White Elephants" and re: it, Cut and Run is old naval lingo referring to cutting your anchor rope to get out of port quickly (as hauling up the anchor takes a lot of time).

Posted by: Sandaks | Nov 21, 2005 3:03:19 AM

Cool... thanks, loon.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Nov 21, 2005 3:09:03 AM

Neil I was overly harsh. But whafting over the now contrite, former war-hawk Left is a certain smell of "White Man's Burden". But maybe what Iraq needs is not an American bull with a double load of super-glue but the ass end of the bull leaving the Pottery Barn.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Nov 21, 2005 4:04:25 AM

So, which trained military leaders in Iraq agree with Congressional Representative Murtha? It's an important question that the left has conveniently glossed over.

Murtha may be a decorated war veteran, but he is not on the ground in Iraq, and he is not prosecuting this war. So, again, which military leaders believe his approach is a sound one? What are their names?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 21, 2005 9:12:15 AM

Re: Cut and Run. I like the term "cut bait." Its what we use at my company when we've run into a customer that has become too difficult to deal with. We'll simply refund and take the hit, because its not worth the trouble. Of course, its rather difficult to imagine how we'd "refund" Iraq right now.

Decent post Neil. I have to say, I find the descriptions put forth from the anti timetable crowd rather ridiculous. Name a significant person in power that is actually advocating picking up tomorrow and leaving? That is, a person in power to actually vote/do something regarding that. Most withdrawal folks simply want a plan, not an open ended commitment to having troops die.

Regarding "playing nice," there comes a point when you have to step back, look at the situation and ask ourselves whether getting relgious factions to play nice is not just within our capabilties, but actually part of the military's job. I'd argue that we came to that point a long time ago.

Posted by: Adrock | Nov 21, 2005 10:25:40 AM

Re: Cut and Run. I like the term "cut bait." Its what we use at my company when we've run into a customer that has become too difficult to deal with. We'll simply refund and take the hit, because its not worth the trouble. Of course, its rather difficult to imagine how we'd "refund" Iraq right now.

Decent post Neil. I have to say, I find the descriptions put forth from the anti timetable crowd rather ridiculous. Name a significant person in power that is actually advocating picking up tomorrow and leaving? That is, a person in power to actually vote/do something regarding that. Most withdrawal folks simply want a plan, not an open ended commitment to having troops die.

Regarding "playing nice," there comes a point when you have to step back, look at the situation and ask ourselves whether getting relgious factions to play nice is not just within our capabilties, but actually part of the military's job. I'd argue that we came to that point a long time ago.

Posted by: Adrock | Nov 21, 2005 10:27:58 AM

As a political tactic, I think the former warhawk left ought to propose renewing the war effort. They would not even have to endorse their renewal proposal to make the political point.

A "renewing the effort" would make the important points, which seem to be lost in a debate between "stay the course" and "withdraw deliberately but soon".

Democrats are not doing an especially good job making the point that Bush has failed in Iraq, not just because he chose to have a war, but because he conducted the war and reconstruction with incompetence and corruption. A "renew the war" proposal would open up the debate to do that. A "renew the war" proposal would make the point that the U.S. has to have a lot more troops in Iraq, which would require either a draft or a monumentally expensive effort to hire Egyptian policemen (or something similar bringing in foreign muslims as peacekeepers). A "renew the war" proposal would mean allocating another $18 billion gift to replace the first, now completely wasted effort to get the Iraqis a functioning electric power grid and potable water. A "renew the war" proposal could identify some trustworthy Korean contractors to replace Halliburton and Bechtel.

Too many advocates of withdrawal also think that they can convince others that the war was simply a bad idea from the outset, that an attempt to transform Iraq was an exercise in futility, not idealism. The argument for futility misses the point that Bush's alleged "idealism" was just a PR cover; the truth is, he never told us what his objective was -- maybe it was just to stay forever. Really accomplishing what the warhawk Left and the idealistic NeoCon Right wanted to do would require a lot more competence than Bush has, and a lot more resources than Bush has applied. Put a "renew the war" proposal into the national debate and explore that.

Ultimately, I do not think the country is willing to do what it would take to do right by Iraq, and that is a shame. The wise course is withdrawal, but the "shame" part is a potent political problem. The Republicans, who rightfully bear the shame of incompetence, lies and corruption -- the Republicans, who lost Iraq -- will not willingly bear the shame. They will project it onto Democrats, blaming the Democrats for withdrawing and "losing Iraq." Their thesis, at the moment, is that the U.S. can "win" if we just stay indefinitely -- thirty or forty years, I guess.

Conveniently, "stay the course" avoids acknowledging the failed reconstruction or the inadequate troop levels. And, too many on the Left, clinging to the thesis that the war was a mistake from the outset, fail to point out how Republicans took a bad idea and made it infinitely worse.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Nov 21, 2005 12:16:27 PM

We should pull out of Germany as well. We've occupied that nation long enough, or at least a "renew the war in Germany" discussion. Hey, let's get out of South Korea as well. We don't belong there. Let that nation solve its own problems. Who needs that steenkin' US sticking their big noses in internal affairs?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 22, 2005 7:34:25 AM

Here is a withdrawal plan that makes sense. Its in no way a cut and run.

Posted by: Adrock | Nov 22, 2005 9:49:28 AM

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