Thursday, September 6, 2007

In Iraq for the long haul

Throughout the conflict with Iraq, the Bush administration has tried to give the impression that the duration and objectives of our involvement would be limited. For instance, Secretary Rumsfeld said a month before the war, "It is unknowable how long that conflict will last. It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months." A few weeks later Vice President Cheney was asked by Tim Russert whether "the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties;" the Vice President responded "Well, I don’t think it’s likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators."

With respect to narrow objectives, the Vice President stated in that same interview "Our objective will be, if we go in, to defeat whatever forces oppose us, to take down the government of Saddam Hussein, and then to follow on with a series of actions such as eliminating all the weapons of mass destruction, finding where they are and destroying them, preserving the territorial integrity of Turkey. As I say, standing up a broadly representative government that’s preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq and standing up a broadly representative government of the Iraqi people. Those will be our objectives."

In keeping with the expected temporary nature of the conflict, it's costs were not incorporated in the regular budget for several years but were instead covered through a series of supplemental appropriations.

When it's initial rosy predictions proved disastrously wrong, the administration modified its rhetoric but continued to describe a circumscribed involvement, telling the American people that "as Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down." In March 2005 the President said, "that's the position of the United States. Our troops will come home when Iraq is capable of defending herself." Even this week, President Bush told troops during his surprise visit to a U.S. base in Iraq, "Every day you are successful here in Iraq draws nearer to the day when America can begin calling you and your fellow servicemen and women home."

Over and over the administration has said that our involvement would be limited, but many of its actions indicated otherwise.

One clear action was our construction of a new embassy complex, which will be far and away the largest in the world when it is completed this year. Iraq has a population of about 27 million people, which puts it around 45th in the world and a land area that ranks 57th in the world. Why would so much be invested in so large an embassy unless the U.S. intended to maintain a substantial presence?

And despite Secretary Rumsfeld's statement early in the war that "I have never, that I can recall, heard the subject of a permanent base in Iraq discussed in any meeting," the U.S. has also spent billions of dollars constructing numerous permanent military bases throughout the country.

Finally, when a change in the Congress and a report by the non-partisan Iraq Study Group provided a golden opportunity to scale back our commitment and begin drawing down redeploying troops, President Bush did exactly the opposite and ordered a surge. Regardless of its effect on the security situation, the surge cements our position in Iraq over the near term and effectively commits troops to Iraq beyond the Bush presidency. Even if we started evacuating troops tomorrow, it would take many months before we could safely get troops down to their 2006 levels and many more months to make reductions beyond that.

Some less-guarded statements by the President in his interviews with Robert Draper for the book Dead Certain reveal the administration's actual intentions. Consider the following quotes.

"Now we've got a presence in the region—but Iraq creates a different kind of opportunity for a presence."

"So now I'm an October–November man ... I'm playing for October–November to get us in a position where the presidential candidates will be comfortable about sustaining a presence ... to stay longer at the request of the Iraqi government. Which would have the following effect. One, it would serve as a reminder to the region that we're a force of stability. Two, it would remind certain actors that the United States is something to be reckoned with—Iran, for example, if they continue on the course they're doing."

By word and deed, the intention to commit us indefinitely to Iraq seems clear. The President is not open to reason, evidence, or argument. Regardless of what any intelligence estimate, government agency, or independent commission says, his policy is for the U.S. to "stay the course" in Iraq now and for many years to come.


Anonymous said...

Just for the sake of applying rationality, can you name a war that was conducted with a fixed date for its conclusion?

Doug Clark

Dave Ribar said...


The post did not call for a fixed date for withdrawal, although fixed dates are often announced in occupations (the British just gave and followed through on a fixed date for withdrawing from the center of Basra).

The problem here is exactly the opposite of what you have described. The President has effectively set fixed dates for the war's continuation--in his interview with Robert Draper he admitted to buying time through the surge to reach October-November (one fixed date) in the hopes being able to push our involvement in Iraq into the next administration (another fixed date).

Where the applied rationality comes in is in considering objectives and assessing whether we are making adequate progress toward them. At various turns, the administration has mistated, revised, or extended its objectives. So the target keeps moving. Also, since the summer of last year when the current Iraqi government was seated, there has been virtually no progress in any dimension--certainly not a level of progress commensurate with the cost in U.S. and British troops. A report today by an independent commission of retired generals indicated that we may be even farther away in the sense that the Iraqi army is at least 18-24 months away from operating independently AND that the police force needs to be disbanded and recreated.

Dave Ribar said...


As an aside, how many independent, expert commissions do we need to recommend withdrawing and redeploying forces and how many times does this administration have to turn out to be misinformed, ineffective, or wrong in its predictions, policies, and execution before we conclude that a smaller footprint in Iraq might be worth trying? You just wrote an on-line column about the futility of a "try, try again" approach, that pretty much describes the administration's actions since the first few months of this conflict.

Anonymous said...

Dave, I posed a question to you. I didn't describe a problem, offer a recommendation or defend Bush's decisions or errors. You say you didn't call for a fixed date for withdrawal, but you criticized Bush for not doing that (by committing to an "indefinite" occupation).

Certainly, the British, South Koreans or anyone else can set a fixed date for quitting a military endeavor, but if one is determined to achieve a certain outcome then it's obviously unwise to link that to a particular date. I'd suggest that no one has ever won a war by declaring that victory will be achieved on a predetermined date. I realize it's fair to say we're not ever going to win this one by present methods, but we even more surely won't achieve success simply by pretending that we can decide today that we will begin pulling out our troops on Nov. 30 or whatever other arbitrary date you want to name.


Dave Ribar said...


You're right that setting a fixed date won't win the war. But 6 more months of "surge" aren't going to win the war either. We shouldn't continue to sacrifice troops if they can't make a long-run difference.