Iraq: Heading for the exit; Update: Does Bush think Iraq = Vietnam?

I hope I’m wrong about this.

Col Austin Bay links to Strategypage’s Top Ten Myths About the Iraq War, and highlights #10:

10- The War in Iraq is Lost. By what measure? Saddam and his Baath party are out of power. There is a democratically elected government. Part of the Sunni Arab minority continues to support terror attacks, in an attempt to restore the Sunni Arab dictatorship. In response, extremist Shia Arabs formed vigilante death squads to expel all Sunni Arabs. Given the history of democracy in the Middle East, Iraq is working through its problems. Otherwise, one is to believe that the Arabs are incapable of democracy and only a tyrant like Saddam can make Iraqi “work.” If democracy were easy, the Arab states would all have it. There are problems, and solutions have to be found and implemented. That takes time, but Americans have, since the 18th century, grown weary of wars after three years. If the war goes on longer, the politicians have to scramble to survive the bad press and opinion polls. Opposition politicians take advantage of the situation, but this has nothing to do with Iraq, and everything to do with local politics in the United States.

I agree with that and all of the Strategypage myths. By any objective measure the Iraq war is not lost, at least not in the field, and not yet. It’s what Col Bay says next that I’ll take issue with.

In twenty years its common sense assessment will be the conventional wisdom.

This is where I reveal my abject, prophet Jeremiah-style pessimism on the war.

Given the right mission and the right tools, our troops will win any war. Even given a mission that morphed over time and having equipped them with too few of the tools they needed, they’re still winning in Iraq. But what’s going on in Iraq is only one part of the war in Iraq. Most of the war is actually going on here, it’s political and hinges on morale, and it’s here that we stand a very good chance of losing the war.

Posting from Kuwait and seeing what I took at the time to be the first troops involved in the surge getting ready to board a plane to Baghdad, here’s what I wrote that I expected to come:

Unless I miss my guess, he’ll announce a surge. I don’t know how big, but it’ll be big enough to satisfy McCain and Lieberman and the few hawks that remain inside the beltway. It’ll begin right away. No waiting around for this surge.

It also won’t be long-term. He has Rep. Pelosi and Sen. Reid suggesting that he bug out of Iraq no matter what condition it’s in, and he has Pelosi and Levin threatening to cut off funding for the war even over his objection. Rather than fight them and humiliate them for the weaklings that they are and would make the US if they are heeded, Bush will try to satisfy them. So he has them on one side and the pro-surge forces on the other, with the generals either noncommittal or even opposed to a surge. He’ll surge to satisfy the hawks and then, once some benchmark has been met (maybe some number of militia and Qaeda fighters killed, or Sadr taken out along with a couple of provinces handed over to Iraqi Army control), he’ll declare the war won and begin the withdrawal. Iraq still won’t be perfectly pacified, but that’ll take decades anyway. We may even be leaving it in the throes of a simmering civil war. But we will have met the surge objective (an objective the president will lay out on Wednesday) and we’ll have a rationale for getting out with some dignity before the Democrat Congress starts defunding the effort and thereby humiliating the US further.

I turned out to be right about the surge. It helps to see things with your own eyes once in a while, and I saw the surge two days before it was announced. I missed the prediction that the president would lay out benchmarks. But he’s being helped on that front by Sen. John McCain, who is promoting establishing a set of benchmarks for the surge even while most of the Senate is running away from the war entirely. Republicans are joining Democrats in what amounts to a no-confidence vote on the surge and the way the president is handling the war in general. McCain is splitting the difference, giving hawks the benchmarks to signal that he wants to win the war (and he really does–that’s not an act) while also siding with the Democrats and Republicans against the president’s handling of the war. There’s no political price for doing that to a president who’s at 30 or thereabouts in the polls. McCain’s running for president and will benefit from distancing himself from President Bush.

So we’ll get a benchmarks bill of some kind. It won’t be binding, but the White House is likely to seize on it if it’s anywhere near palatable. If not, the administration will probably set its own benchmarks–killing off X number of insurgents, seizing X number of weapon caches, turning over X number of Iraqi provinces to Iraqi Army control (which would be a good benchmark, provided the IA units given control are actually ready for it) or something like that. Americans are all about metrics these days, and setting benchmarks will play to that. The troops will probably meet the benchmarks, whatever they are, by summer’s end. Then the withdrawal will begin. We’re out for the most part by the end of this year or spring ’08 at the latest, because at this point the politicians have all calculated that they don’t want this issue around for another election cycle. Hillary! said as much yesterday. And these crazy people actually have influence with the Democrats, who now control Capitol Hill. Speaker Pelosi says “run, don’t walk” out of Iraq.

The good people who are helping us in Iraq now will probably end up dead, and the dark forces swirling around that country now will probably take over. Thirty-five years of Saddam followed by four years of insurgency and sectarian strife followed by who knows how many years of God knows what–that’s the Iraq we’ll leave behind when we pull out too early, as I now expect. The Iranians and Saudis will probably end up settling their Shia/Sunni differences over a million Iraqi corpses. But we’ll be out of there, and that’s all most politicians and indeed most Americans now care about. We’re all tired of a war that most of us haven’t actually directly sacrificed for, meaning we’re tired of reading negative headlines and we’re tired of arguing with our neighbors about it all. We’re tired of not seeing flag raisings and we’re tired of the grind of counterinsurgency and we’re tired of what looks like a war fought on politically correct rules of engagement, so we’ll quit. Over 3,000 good Americans will have died in vain. Even though we won the war in 2003–it’s the post-war that has been such a mess.

(The troops aren’t tired of it, by the way. In what may be the strangest aspect of this strange war, visiting the troops is a good way for civilians to get themselves cheered up about the war. In past wars, it was the troops who needed cheering up so the USO sent Bob Hope and other entertainers to the front lines to do it.)

This current desire for hassle free war is our Achilles heel as a nation. Our impatience with post modern war means we’re more and more likely to lose wars that last longer than a few weeks. War in this age will mostly be grinds against insurgencies, connecting the gaps to the core as Thom Barnett might call it. Our enemies will use our impatience against us, as they are in Iraq. Some of the violence we’re seeing now is probably the result of insurgents and their backers seeing our headlines, reading our polls, and concluding that ratcheting up the violence against schoolgirls and the like is a swell way to get us to leave. If that’s their aim, it stands a good chance of working.

The Democrats may even flex their Congressional muscle and defund the war. As in 1974, since they have the majority on their side in the polls now they won’t pay a political price if they do it. But whether it’s by benchmarks or defunding, unless there is some drastic change in the country’s mood on the war in the short term, the logic of the moment is at work now and we’ll start withdrawing from Iraq soon.

Conventional wisdom will not interpret any of this as a victory. If I’m right conventional wisdom in 20 years will dub Iraq a stupid war based on lies and George Bush’s debacle. The history of Saddam’s perfidy and crimes throughout the 1990s won’t figure in much. In fact, it’s already ancient history to most Americans. Iraq will be seen as a victory for the insurgents and terrorists over the US, and a victory of the Democrats over President Bush, but not a battlefield victory for the US military. As a Democrat moment dawns, the American moment ends.

We’re all tired of Vietnam Syndrome. Get ready for Iraq Syndrome. And get ready to lose some wars in the coming century.

Update (AP): An excellent post from Ace, even by his high standards. Is Bush defining victory down?

One of the most provocative statements Tony Snow made [at this weekend’s conservative summit] was that President Bush, looking at the bustling capitalism and emulation of America in Saigon (I won’t call it by its other name), stated: “We didn’t lose in Vietnam. We won.”…

I was struck by this, because it seemed to me — and I hope I’m not playing the role of clumsy Kremlinologist here — to suggest that the Bush administration has reduced its definition of “victory” in Iraq to an almost comically-low level. (It would be comical, but for the tragedy.) And that perhaps the Administration now believes that a helicopters-leaving-from-the-embassy-rooftop defeat is all but inevitable, and that their hopes are now pinned on the long view of history — sure, just like in Vietnam, we’ll have “lost,” but in the fullness of time, we’ll actually win…

It goes without saying, incidentally, that this argument is self-defeating as spin. If it is true that we cannot really shape the evolution of a country’s politics, and that such growth will be largely organic and resist outside efforts at cultivation, then we could have saved 2600 American lives and departed from Iraq a few months after the invasion.