I’ve just begun to read Geoffrey Perret’s new book Commander in Chief: How Truman, Johnson, and Bush Turned a Presidential Power into a Threat to America’s Future. I’ve not gotten far enough into it to endorse the whole book, but I must say I loved the introduction. After encountering the genius who said â€œThe Islamo Fascists have failed to bring on the quagmireâ€ in Iraq yesterday, I feel compelled to quote a chunk of it (emphasis added).
Three wars â€” Korea, Vietnam, Iraq â€” all launched at moments of national crisis, all of them unwinnable.
They were unwinnable for many reasons, but the place to begin is this: in North Korea, North Vietnam, and Iraq, the enemy always held the strategic initiative. The most powerful country in the world found itself dancing to its enemyâ€™s tune, not its own. At times it was possible to seize the tactical initiative â€” crossing the 38th parallel, launching an aerial blitz against North Vietnam, flattening Fallujah. But the loss of the strategic initiative rules out the path to victory implicit in the military paradigm; namely, that one country imposes its will on another. Instead, the country that has chosen to wage the war finds itself wrestling with an insoluble challenge: a political victory requires a military victory first, because there can be no effective government without security and stability. But a military victory requires a political victory first, in the form of a government strong enough to establish a state monopoly on violence.
That’s precisely where we are in Iraq, and that’s precisely what a quagmire looks like.
As commanders in chief seek military success, only to fail, then lurch off in search of political gains and fail again, time is used up. And time is not neutral. It strengthens the enemy. Knowing that, the enemy is never in a hurry. The longer the struggle lasts, the better their prospects. â€¦
â€¦ These modern wars are managed rather than won. It is possible to lose them, yet impossible to achieve victory. â€¦
â€¦ in Iraq, the United States is facing an insurgency that has widespread popular support. More than 250,000 young Iraqi males turn eighteen each year, and beyond Iraq, there is an aggrieved Sunni community of more than a billion people. The Iraq insurgency will never run short of manpower, money, or munitions; nor will terrorist groups across the Middle East.
There is a limit to the number of people that the United States can kill, capture, or incapacitate. In Iraq, it can kill tens of thousands, possibly more than a hundred thousand, but not millions, not in the name of liberation, not in the presence of television and camcorders. There are limits to what even a superpower can do without turning the entire civilized world against it. [Geoffrey Perret, Commander in Chief: How Truman, Johnson, and Bush Turned a Presidential Power into a Threat to Americaâ€™s Future (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), pp. 5-7]
I go on a rant from time to time — most recently here and here — about how our invasion of Iraq fulfilled Osama bin Laden’s fondest hopes, and how the longer we stay there the better for al Qaeda. I like the way Perret puts it — Time is not neutral. Time is on the enemy’s side. The more time they get, the stronger they will be.
The ever oblivious Max Boot argues that we must give “give Gen. Petraeus and his troops more time–at least another year–to try to change the dynamics on the ground.”
The reality is that Iraq has been experiencing a fairly low-grade civil war until now–one that has been contained by the presence of U.S. troops. While the troop surge in Baghdad hasn’t yet decreased the overall level of violence–suicide bombings, which are notoriously difficult to stop, remain undiminished–the presence of more Iraqi and American troops on the streets has managed to reduce sectarian murders by two-thirds since January. Sunni fanatics are still able to set off their car bombs, but Shiite fanatics are not able to respond in kind by torturing to death 100 Sunnis a night. In other words, the surge is containing the results of the suicide bombings, slowing the cycle of violence that last year was leading Iraq to the brink of the abyss.
The real reality is that Shiites are playing us, according to Peter Harling and Joost Hiltermann, writing for Le Monde diplomatique:
Baghdadâ€™s relative calm is mostly the result of the ability of violent players to preempt the plan and neutralise much of its sting. This is true of both Sunni insurgent groups and Shia militias tied to the government. Followers of Shia militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr have gone to ground, waiting for the storm to pass and allowing US forces to go after Sunni insurgents.
Sunni insurgents responded in two ways, depending on their affiliation. Key commanders of patriotic groups (as they call themselves) withdrew from Baghdad with their heavy weaponry in anticipation of large-scale cordon-and-search operations. They left nominal forces in place to avoid giving the impression of retreat and defeat. Residents in some Sunni districts report that insurgents still roam at will, untouched (indeed, unnoticed) by US military operations, issuing permits and claiming protection money. They melt away when their districtâ€™s turn comes.
Even as the Bush administration unveiled its plan, jihadists linked to al-Qaida in Iraq opted to intensify their trademark suicide attacks, announcing a martyr campaign to create a bloodbath in Baghdad. True to its word, the group took credit in February for the largest number of car bombs ever, and the pace has hardly slackened since. Part of al-Qaidaâ€™s plan, besides foiling any US sense of progress, is to draw the Sadrist Mahdi Army out into the open and expose it to US attack. Both sides would like US forces to do their dirty work for them.
(Joost Hiltermann is deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa with the International Crisis Group in Amman; Peter Harling is the organizationâ€™s senior analyst based in Damascus.)
They’re playing us, people. The Shia are playing us to kill Sunnis for them, and al Qaeda is playing us to kill Shia for them, and the Sunni are probably playing us too. And here is the great unvarnished idiot Max Boot explaining to us that what’s going on in Iraq is “just a low-grade civil war,” and if we keep slogging away we’ll win eventually.
But time is not neutral. Time is on the enemy’s side. The more time we give them, the stronger they are and the weaker we are. And yes, this is a quagmire. In fact, it’s going beyond quagmire stage and turning into a sinkhole.