Not long ago, Steve Clemons* attended a party with about sixty foreign policy heavy-hitters, and was struck by how glum the attendees were: struck that it was one thing to be unable oneself to imagine a good option for current U.S. policy, and quite another to be in a room full of foreign policy giants and discover that they couldn't, either. As you know by now, ten such heavy hitters -- five Republicans, five Democrats (some quite likely at that glum soiree, come to think) -- came together last March, at the instigation of Republican Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia, as the Iraq Study Group (ISG). Though bipartisan, the panel leans conservative -- as it must, to influence a hard-right Republican president -- and (to the dismay of folks like liberal Sen. Russ Feingold) includes nobody who publicly opposed the Iraq War. Yet that too is its strength, given it must explicitly criticize what is currently being done, and implicitly criticize much that has gone before.
Its procedure was simple: assemble the best understanding available of the current situation, and get the best options-assessments available, with an eye to rebuilding an American consensus on the issues involved in what has become a deeply unpopular war. Our final two posts on the subject analyze (this one) the current state of affairs; then (next time -- at last!) the ISG Report itself.**
I. America, late 2006.
America has been the most powerful country in the world since Britain and continental Europe lost their empires in World War II, and has been the sole remaining world superpower since the Soviet Union fell at the end of the 1980s. U.S. power, like all such power throughout history, is of three kinds, usually backed by a fourth: (1) financial, (2) persuasive, and (3) military, all depending to some extent on the consent of the governed: (4) national unity. In the years since the millennium U.S. power has been seriously damaged in all four of these areas.
(1) Financial. Loss of government revenues due to tax cuts and breathtaking levels of spending; enormous and partly hidden deficits (including trade deficits); massive borrowing from competitors, most especially the Chinese; and that's only the beginning. In short, U.S. financial power is being seriously undermined without Americans' notice -- like a family that seems very wealthy, until the credit card companies cut up the cards and call in the debts.
(2) Persuasive. At the turn of the millennium most of the U.S.'s power was persuasive. Geopolitical inertia, plus a perceived fairness, and genuine desirability of its goals -- and, crucially, the brilliant postwar (WW II) U.S. imperial strategy, most especially the creation of the UN -- made the U.S. the natural leader of the world. One can hardly overstate how the last six years have damaged U.S. persuasiveness worldwide. This leaves only the core power:
(3) Military. While air and sea assets -- and, like the Russians and Chinese, the nuclear deterrent -- remain, the U.S. infantry is in serious trouble, with predictable results. We have lost much of Central and South America's obedience (and very nearly Mexico's), and (entirely outside the nightmare developing in the Middle East (ME)) face ominous conventional threats, most especially from North Korea, where we could easily lose in an afternoon as many troops as we have in the entire Iraq War. Then there are unexpected threats (Vietnam, e.g., happened while all eyes were on Laos) -- and finally the question of what we, and others, would do if entire ME blew up, as seems increasingly likely. Infantries can be replenished by conscription ("the draft"), but that requires months of lead time, even were there no resistance to compulsory military service. Which gets us to:
(4) U.S. national unity. At an all-time low, in my half-century of life: the struggles of the 1960s over the Vietnam War pale by comparison, when you consider the draft hasn't been instituted as yet. The 1960s arguments centered on the wisdom of the continued course of, and necessity for, the war. There was no meaningful argument about general policy goals ("defeating communism"), or even about the draft itself as an institution, until comparatively late in the game (it had been in place without meaningful resistance for decades, through WW II and Korea and well into Vietnam). Today U.S. unity is so bitterly fragmented that, e.g., rank and file members of the political parties hate and fear one another, and yet -- one of the few things they agree on!, though military families are a notable and growing exception -- a draft is all but unthinkable.***
II. Iraq, late 2006.
The best source on this is the ISG Report itself, which I very much hope you'll read. That nation is clearly trembling on the brink (at least) of utter chaos; armed groups (widespread random criminality aside) include a few al Qaeda and foreign fighters, and large numbers of Sunnis (largely from Saddam's demobilized military), and various competing Shiite factions...many of the latter influenced, funded, and supplied by -- and some under direct control of -- Iran.
I cannot emphasize enough one thing the current administration has absolutely right: what we are seeing in Iraq is NOT an organic religion-based civil war, as so many Americans imagine. Iraq is an educated, secular, widely intermarried society, with virtually no inherent propensity for civil war on religious lines. The strategy of Iran, from the first -- and to a lesser extent al Qaeda -- has been to foment a religious war, by the simple expedient of staging massive random attacks against both Shia and Sunni religious sites...and, when that didn't work well enough, against Shia and Sunni civilians. This strategy -- which has taken many years to make effective, so unsuitable was Iraq as a ground for religious warfare -- will work in even the most secular of countries: if your own neighborhood were suddenly being slaughtered, and ethnically-"cleansed," by self-proclaimed members of a religion, pretty soon you'd begin to fight back, too. That's what's happening in Iraq, period.
This is why, btw, basing the "new Iraqi democracy" on religious parties was such a disastrous notion, as the State Department would have been happy to point out...and one big reason that partitioning Iraq into three separate countries is such an awful idea -- even were it not Iran's preferred, and indeed arranged, outcome.
Next time, our conclusion. Almost done. :D
93 93/93 -- AJ
** NB: this post assumes you've read the previous six in this series, most particularly parts III-V. Hope springs eternal! ;)
*** In hindsight, many argue that it should have been instituted in September 2001, "when the tears were still wet" (as the lawyers say) after 9/11. As it is, thanks to the abandonment of support for the Iraq War, and distrust of government in both parties, it's questionable whether even another and worse terror attack would rally Americans to support a draft. When Rome hit a similar spot she began enlisting foreign mercenaries; historians still argue about how that worked out. It's worth suggesting, though, that any civilian-run society which carries on massive, and punishing, military campaigns in which it refuses to invest its own kids, may be asking for trouble.