We currently have an unpopular President (Bush's approval ratings are hovering around 42%), fighting an unpopular war (only 38% of Americans think that the war in Iraq is a good idea). The Iraq war will certainly not be anywhere close to over in 2006, and I would be surprised if we had extricated ourself from that increasingly thankless obligation by the time the 2008 Presidential election rolls around.
The biggest problem that the administration faces with the War in Iraq is explaining to the nation what we have to gain from it. The "Pottery Barn Rule" (you broke it, you fix it) may still justify a continued presence in Iraq with the average American, but one after another the justifications for the war are falling short.
There were no weapons of mass destruction, as advertised. There were no connections between Saddam Hussein and the 9-11 terrorists or al-Queda. Most Americans, correctly, believe that the Iraq War has increased their vulnerablity to terrrorist attacks; it has not made us safer. Rather than replacing an Islamists regime with a more moderate one, as we did in Afghanistan, the political process in Iraq is on the way to replacing a secular regime with an avowedly Islamist one. The leading political party in Iraq is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Sound familiar?
It is growing increasingly hard to say that the U.S. invasion has even made life better for ordinary Iraqis. Totalitarianism under Saddam had kept a lid on sectarian violence, but now, sectarian murders are commonplace. Rampant violent crime and the insurgency together make Baghdad one of the most dangerous cities in the world. The power supply isn't reliable. The cell phone networks are routinely shut down, sometimes for security reasons and sometimes for technical difficulties. Road trips are dangerous. Water and sewer systems are still unreliable. Simmering property disputes in Kirkuk as displaced Kurds seek to return to their homes, remain unresolved. The Mayor of Baghdad was removed from office by force and no one seems to care. The credibility wounds of torture at U.S. hands that rivaled or exceeded that under Saddam are still raw. You no longer hear U.S. officials talk about how more Iraqis died under Saddam than under the post-invasion regime. The numbers aren't so clear anymore.
The Iraq War has also coincided with record high oil prices, rather than lower ones, as expected. And, Iraq's oil wealth has not been used to pay for this war as originally planned.
The "Coalition of the Willing" which was always mostly the United States and Britain, has all but collapsed, with most of our allies packing up and bringing their troops home while leaving us holding the bag.
The only things keeping most Americans from urging the immediate withdrawal of all American troops now are a fear of the utter anarchy that might break out if we leave, and the fact that this war has had a relatively modest effect on average Americans. The current administration has avoided a key political mistake at home that made the Vietnam War political poison. It has not instituted a draft, and I think, realizes that it lacks the political capital to do so.
Even the size of the active duty military is only slightly larger than it was at the low point of the peace dividend during the Clinton Administration. There has been a heavy national guard and reserve mobiliziation, but the number of soldiers who can be mobilized going forward without a major change in the law is small, and will be much smaller in the second half of Bush's term without major Congressional action which seems unlikely. Coalition troops levels in Iraq in the second half of Bush's second term will fall significantly, like or or not, because he simply doesn't have enough troops from the U.S. or its allies to maintain the current force levels there.
The Navy and Air Force have played relatively small supporting roles in this conflict and are not overtaxed, but are also not easily shifted to this conflict. Both played major roles in the major combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, but that is long over now. The Air Force is now mostly running transport planes and shipping out the wounded and dead, while the Navy's main contribution is to supply a small number of fighters to linger over hot spots and drop an occassion bomb at the suggestion of the grunts. Neither service has suffered many more casulties than in peacetime. The Air Force and Air National Guard together have lost nineteen soldiers and one civilian defense department employee in two and a half years. The Navy, Navy Reserve and Coast Guard combined have lost thirty six sailors. A significant share of those casulties are not from hostile fire. Together, all of these components of the military account for about 3% of U.S. military fatal casulties in this war, despite making up half of the military employees of the United States. They may get new planes, ships and submarines a bit later than they would have otherwise, but that is their main sacrifice in this conflict.
As is usually the case in war, the Army and Marines (and their associated reserve and national guard units) are doing most of the work, and most of the dying, in both the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan. They are sorely overtaxed with no relief in sight. It is hard to see the job they are doing get easier as they continue to have to take on an insurgency that is not getting weaker with fewer troops. But, while reserve and national guard units are having a recruiting crisis, as those enlistees know that they will immediately end up with active duty while being treated like part-timers, the active duty Army and Marines are only modestly under recruiting targets. A war fought primarily by the usual number of volunteer soldiers doesn't make as many waves on the home front as one that requires major mobilization, even though a far higher than usual share of those soldiers come back in body bags.
In sum, while we may be a nation at war, and while that may cost a lot in dollars (financed with deficits at a time when taxes are low and have been cut, and social spending has not been corospondingly cut), we are not a nation on a war footing. We are letting the Chinese and Carribean Banking Centers finance this war, not the average American. Thus, we are fighting a war with few visible benefits, but also few sacrifices felt by the public at large, however deep the sacrifices are for the soliders deployed and their families. It is a war with little light at the end of the tunnel. Insurgencies last decades, not months. The democratic process we have tried to impose upon Iraq is floundering. It has not yet achieved the thing it needs more than anything else, widely acknowledged legitmacy. The Administration seems to have a hard time even acknowledging that there is a problem.
It is hardly surprising that the Administration lacks an exit strategy. It isn't clear that there is any good way out of the mess that President Bush, admittedly with the acquiessence of Congress, has gotten us into.
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