The Confidence Problem

10 Sep

From the National Security Network (via Ezra Klein) a video about the progress of the “surge” and the crisis of confidence surrounding the administration:

Democracy Arsenal (whose authors are part of the National Security Network), also has a fact check of some of the claims made in General Petraeus’s speech.

The bottom line is that with credibility surrounding Iraq War management hovering around nonexistent, no one should be surprised that “give us another few months to assess progress” is rejected almost out-of-hand. To begin with, it isn’t clear what long-term goal the surge will accomplish, even it does prove effective at quelling violence. Yes, lives will be saved in the near term, which is always good, but if everyone is admitting that the real success comes from gains on the political front, then what good are military victories if there isn’t cooperation within the Iraqi government? Who are we making the country safe for if there’s no state to run it?

Furthermore, Bush’s past foreign policy decisions (like four years of a mismanaged war run by Don Rumsfeld) suggests that the President is content to stick with his own Iraq policy until the end of his term. The reports on progress with a “wait and see” approach are procedural niceties to keep public minimally informed and kick the can down the road so that attempts can be made to salvage something from Iraq.

Which is also why I dissent from Matt Yglesias’s assessment of the new Pollack/Pascual paper,“Salvaging the Possible”. Yglesias sees it this way:

At the present day, the set of options that might plausibly occur between today and January 2009 are:

  1. Bush gets his way.
  2. Enough Republicans get freaked out that congress is able to force Bush to start withdrawing troops.

Under the circumstances, the political impact of things like this Pollack/Pascual report seem to me to be mostly pernicious. It mostly serves to obscure the real issues and choices in play. It lets people continue with the delusion that they’re floating off on some worthy path between Bush and Bush’s opponents.

If Bush is going to continue doing what he wants in Iraq, then musing over policy options about salvaging Iraq aren’t pernicious, they’re most likely ineffectual or ignored. The only people reading these recommendations are either part of the policy commentariat, and thus don’t have any direct influence on political decision making, or are Democrats in Congress, who still have to contend with the immovable policy object that is the Execuitve branch.

What the report does do is help combat a narrative that says “liberals don’t care about what happens in Iraq, they just want to pull out tomorrow.” Reports like these are good for the same reason that Robert Haass thought a brief surge would be nominally useful: it would take away the argument that if only when had done more, the war could have been won. In the same way, publishing a report that no one in the Bush administration will read and that Democrats couldn’t really enact (unless they controlled the White House) means that you can use it to bolster your political position by showing that the Democrats are trying to come up with something to save what’s left of Iraq instead of holding Sunnis and Shia apart and wishing for a magical Iraqi government that with unite the country, disperse oil revenue equitably, and give everyone a pony.

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