08 November 2006

Rumsfield Out and Ruminations On Iraq

A Politically Timed Resignation

Timing and the speed with which the administration has named a replacement (Robert Gates, a former CIA director with Iran-Contra ties) in the wake of Donald Rumsfield's resignation today, suggests that Rumsfield's departure has been planned for months. It was simply timed for after the election to avoid making the President look weak or seem to admit that Iraq has been a mistake.

It is a decision long overdue, made only after multiple prior attempts by Rumsfield himself to resign, a joint editorial from the military newspapers calling for his resignation (no doubt emboldened by inside information that it was going to happen anyway), and a growing consensus even among moderate Republicans, that Rumsfield's management of the Iraq war was dismal.

I suspect that it was also timed as soon as possible after the election, in order to secure a confirmation from the Senate in the lame duck session, and thereby avoid embarassing questions from Democratic Senate Armed Services Committee members. The resignation also defuses Congressional investigations in the new Congress into Rumsfield's failings. All such inquires can now be addressed by saying, "I fired him. What's the point of this hearing?"

The Man Is The Message

What messages is the Bush Administration sending with its latest nomination?

Gates certainly doesn't signal any change from a Bush Administration penchant for secrecy and disregard for the rule of law in the way it handles the "war on terror." Gates is the kind of man that Dick Cheney, the driving force in the administration behind its support for torture and opposition to the rule of law can love.

The Gates nomination may, however, signal a grudging recognition that the Bush Administration practice of ignoring its own intelligence agencies has been counterproductive and contributed to the malaise that has afflicted the Iraq situation.

The Gates nomination is also a nomination that recognizes that the Defense Department now needs professional expertise more than it does political experience. Gates probably even knows the difference between a Sunni Muslim and a Shiite. Political experience was a valuable credential when Rumsfield was appointed and job number one was a bureacratic shake up of the agency that Congress would support. But, politicall experience is no longer a priority now that two regional wars have taken center stage and potential hostilities in Iran and North Korea are foremost in the administration's mind. Joe Lieberman was no doubt considered for the post, but was deemed to be something other than what the Defense Department needed right now.

A Consensus Change In Course?

The jury is still out on whether the Gates nomination will be accompanied by any material change in U.S. military policy. Does the administration want a new course, or merely a new face?

There is a consensus in the community of informed observers of U.S. military policy that there does need to be a change in course. We don't know if Robert Gates subscribes to it.

First and foremost, the Defense Department needs to start acting like it is fighting a war, if that is what it is going to do. Business as usual in the Air Force, Navy, R&D and procurement arms of the Defense Department, while the Army and Marines are patrolling the streets and country roads of Iraq and Afghanistan is folly. So is an insistance that the U.S. military's post-Cold War peace dividend sized force is sufficient to fight two regional wars, both of which will last longer than World War II did. The Army is starved for equipment and personnel and not receiving the resources it needs to do the jobs it has been assigned to carry out.

Secondly, somebody needs to pay attention. Long term planning is a concept inconsistent with fighting a war. The newspapers have been decrying equipment shortages that reduced U.S. Army readiness for months. These pleas seem to have fallen on deaf ears. When problems are discovered, they need to be addressed promptly, not denied. It took years for the military to address shortages of armored humvees and body armor on Rumsfield's watch. Senior military and civilian officers knew for months about the problems at Guatanamo Bay and Abu Grahib, and did nothing but call for more investigation. Somebody needs to be placed in charge of whacking the moles that inevitably pop up in the course of such massive operations.

Third, the Defense Department needs to have a real strategy in Iraq, and it needs to be a strategy that, as a military force of a democratic nation, it can explain to the American people, as well as those charged with carrying it out. While tactics can be carried on in secret, a massive Republic like the United States must develop its strategies in the open.

Will Gates addresss any of these problems? We have no choice but to wait and see.

The Aimless War

The current name for the various conflicts the military faces in the Middle East and Central Asia, and in its "war on terrorism" is "The Long War," a description that aptly captures just how aimless the current strategy of the U.S. military is in responding to these threats. Only a fool enters into a war intending it to be a long one.

Right now, U.S. strategy in Iraq seems to consist of patrolling the streets in an effort to maintain order, trying to root out individual insurgents and kill them, training an Iraqi military as soon as possible, and letting the Iraqis try to govern themselves. This is the course that we have been staying for a couple of years now. It hasn't reduced attacks on U.S. forces or civilians, it hasn't stabilized the Iraqi economy, and self-government in Iraq has been stumbling and less than competent.

No Easy Way Out

The problem, as far minded Democrats have acknowledged for a long time now, is that however misguided the Iraq War was, and however poorly it has been run, that we are there and that leaving in bad order could simply plunge Iraq into even greater anarchy and put a truly noxious regime in place.

Difficulties in establishing self-government are the norm in any newly emerging civilian government. This is particularly true in a country that has been a dicatorship for decades, now being run by members of multiple minorities that were shut out of the political process during that period, who thus has no political experience. There are problems with having a country run by a class of professional politicians, but trying to get monumental tasks completed in a country run by a class of amateur politicians is even harder.

Perhaps Gates is better equipped to recognize that any war, and particularly this one, is simply politics by other means, than Rumsfield. Neither the Iraq war, nor the war in Afghanistan, will end until they are resolved politically. Simply killing insurgents will not end these conflicts, unless you are willing to slaughter every able bodied man in each country and quite a few of the able bodied women and children. At this point, military involvement is treating the symptoms of a political crisis, not providing a cure. But, the patients in these cases have severely diminished abilities to recover on their own while the symptoms are held in check. Every day that ability to recover weakens.

Iraq was a relatively prosperous Middle Eastern nation, despite its relatively small per capita oil resources, because it had a real educated middle class, something neighbors like Saudi Arabia largely lack and import in the form of foreign guest workers instead. That educated middle class has voted with its feet and fled the country for now. Afghanistan lost its educated elites in the 1970s and is only now starting to recover them.

Modern nation states cannot function without managers and professionals, both in the private sector, and in government, to make them work. It takes both knowledge and administrative competency to rebuild infrastructure, run an economy that provides basic goods and services to millions of people who are not subsistance farmers, and to keep government funds from state owned enterprises, international aid and taxes from being squandered.

There aren't easy solutions. Sometimes the Army Corps of Civil Engineers will simply have to do the work itself. Restoring order is essential too. And, the massive U.S. embassy in Iraq is going to have hold the hands of the amateur politicians running Iraq now to point them towards practical solutions to Iraq's political crisis (one created when the U.S. led coalition created a political vacuum by deposing the existing government) without disrespecting the officials to whom we have turned over authority in a way that undermines their ability to govern.

In the Balkans, the U.S. indirectly sponsored training camps for political movement leaders, so that they could be more effective. Perhaps something along the same lines, or some sort of national political conference, could achieve similarly worthwhile ends.

More important than individual political skills, however, is a governmental system that mere mortals are capable of operating. The Swiss are capable of running a complex multi-ethnic political apparatus with hundreds of years of tradition and custom to help them out, and one of the most educated societies in the world. Asking the same thing of Iraq's emerging political class is unrealistic.

There are many more people capable of herding a homogeneous group of politicians, be they Kurdish or Shi'ite or Sunni, who are united by a common set of ideals or non-political leaders, than it is to look beyond narrow political power consideration to build elaborate multi-ethnic coalitions of people who can't agree on anything and have a history of violent conflict that is recent enough to be fresh in everyone's memory. The Baath party was the political symbol that held the idea of Iraq together. Without it, there is no common ground.

No one person is going to craft a solution alone. But, simply recognizing that the problem can't be solved by brute force, and throwing lots of smart people at this part of the problem, would be a good start.

Once there is a strategy in place to get a political solution, the tactics of U.S. forces will be more clear and the force in place can be better matched to missions that will actually support the development of a political solution, which would allow U.S. troops to leave without guaranteeing the immediate collapse of large populations centers into unimaginable bedlam.

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