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Iraq: the game is already over


There is something perversely fascinating and certainly also painful and sad about watching American "thought leaders" haltingly reconcile themselves to our failure in Iraq, their progress retarded by the continuing need to shield themselves from recognition of what has already happened. Make no mistake about it. Barring the totally unforeseeable, the issue has been decided. When the first bomb blew up the first pipeline, the game was already over.

Take, for example, the column by Eliot A. Cohen in Wednesday's Washington Post. Dr. Cohen is professor of strategic studies at SAIS, Washington's elite school for tomorrow's defense intellectuals. A Harvard PhD and a celebrated author in the first rank of today's strategic thinkers, Cohen recently produced the well-received Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime. A former Pentagon official, he oversaw the compilation of the multi-volume Gulf War Air Power Survey, a systematic and detailed review of the performance of the U.S. Air Force and its coalition partners against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1991.

All that being the case, Cohen's op-ed, entitled "If We Cut and Run," charitably should be understood as the product of a mind in some considerable distress. Suppose, he asks, that

...President Bush -- or for that matter a Democratic successor -- were to decide that the project of reconstructing Iraq was impossible or too costly. What would cut-and-run look like, and what consequences would it have?
Now here is the key point. Nearly nobody is advocating cut-and-run. Yet Cohen and others like him find themselves constantly clamoring against it, as if to exorcise a ghost. And Cohen's description of what cut-and-run would look like explains why: it's an eerily precise description of the situation as it stands.
Of course, an administration would do something that would look more like "cut and shuffle" than skedaddle. Somalia after the "Blackhawk Down" incident would provide the model -- a pulling back from engagement in heavily populated areas, a hunkering down of American forces in their compounds, a declaration that the main mission (overthrowing Saddam Hussein or neutering Iraq as a menace to its neighbors) had been accomplished, and a disengagement over a year or two. During that period, authorized but anonymous senior officials would complain about the impossibility of getting Iraqis to take charge of their own destiny, while U.S. troops on the ground would do what they could to obtain a decent interval of stability before the whole mess disintegrated into obvious failure.
Cohen's deft description ought to leave us without illusions: we are in the process of bugging out of Iraq. It is all the more remarkable, then, that he fails to recognize it as a description of the present situation. In the crowning irony, he adds,
The cardinal fact is that no one would be fooled. Everyone -- in Iraq, here and abroad -- would understand what was going on, as was the case in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia.
Izzat so?

Not unlike the man who won't see a doctor because he might turn out to be sick, our great strategic thinkers and opinionmakers don't wish to acknowledge that they are fighting a rearguard battle against reality. Present force levels in Iraq are unsustainable without taking radical measures, and public support scarcely exists for anything of the sort. As soon as elements of Iraq's Sunni Arab community decided that their interests were best served by fighting the occupying forces, the writing was on the wall. It was as simple as that. America was never in a position to remain in Iraq under such circumstances, and it is too late to do anything now but try to put a patch on the situation and depart in the best order possible -- "to obtain a decent interval of stability before the whole mess disintegrate[s] into obvious failure."

So why the averted gaze? Why the trembling hand at the keyboard? If public support doesn't exist, surely that's because the public has made the rational calculation that success in Iraq, however defined, is not commensurate with the price. This is a verdict that America's leaders have no choice but to accept. The answer, my friend, is blowing in the national opinion surveys, plus or minus 4 percent. But the Eliot Cohens of this world do not accept it, so it is left to them to try, however feebly, to persuade themselves that the struggle is worth the candle, that horrible consequences would ensue, that "internecine mayhem" would rule in Iraq, inviting neighbors in to interfere. All of which is entirely possible. But worst of all, it seems, is that America's image of power would be broken.

The United States would bury its dead and get back to business. But the lessons for its political leaders, and indeed for everyone else in the world, would be simple: The United States cannot and will not, under any conditions, conduct a counterinsurgency. When it tries, drips and spurts of casualties will cause it to lose its nerve. For all potential opponents of the United States, the ultimate deterrent is not a nuclear weapon but a few dozen suicide bombers and trucks to carry them, augmented by a couple of hundred grenade-launcher-toting irregulars. Not much, all things considered. Hussein made clear in 1990 that he had learned (he thought) the lesson of Beirut 1983 -- Americans cannot take casualties. In this war he seems to have learned the "Blackhawk Down" lesson -- Americans may be able to fight a three-week conventional war, but not a multiyear guerrilla struggle. If the United States leaves Iraq under these conditions, he will be proven right. And if he pops up in person to affirm such after we leave, the evidence will be irrefutable.
It seems we did not learn the lesson well enough in Vietnam, so here it is again. It's past time we dropped these pretenses and asked ourselves just how many human lives and how many tax dollars really are worth saving face, credibility, and other meaningless abstractions. If we get the answer right, it stands to lessen the ache of what is to come.


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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000114.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 2 comments

It's now or never for the US. They have to go all the way. Its in their nature, they do more than just kiss on the first date. A word to the wise, Iraq is not Grenada or Panama. Where playing "Welcome to the jungle" did it for the invading troops. History has proven that they have never won a sustained guerilla war. The real all American male has spread the terminology of the "quikie". If he takes that type of poor bedroom performance unto the battle field it stands to reason why they are suffering such high caualities.

Posted by John Paul @ 11/25/2003 11:24 PM CST

They are not suffering "high casulties". The casulty rate is very low in comparison to any other known combat situation.

Ask how many lives are worth the trouble of preserving? Many more lives are being saved than lost, so this is a good thing, not a bad thing. would it be better to have left Saddam to his same old killing ways and done nothing? I think not. Are the lives of those who would be killed in a civil war worth saving by the USA staying and finnishing the job? I say yes.

You may argue "no", but all that shows is how much you value human life and freedom.

Posted by Nathan @ 11/30/2003 03:27 PM CST

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