Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Framing The Debate
A reader took me to task in the Comments for suggesting that there's some doubt as to whether or not civilian and military casualties have decreased in Iraq. Which made me confront the fact that I'd read the recent casualty reports (which like this AP dispatch have consistently documented fewer deaths) with skepticism, and confront the possibility that I've begun to filter information on the war through a failure-tinted lens.
Now as Anthony Cordesman points out in the AP story, judging the war's progress by casualty figures is reductionist. Internal and external displacement, civil cohesiveness, infrastructure, the rule of law, Sunni-Shiite power-sharing, the 'Kurdish exception' -- all of these problems need to be solved before the experiment in statehood that we call the Iraq War can be judged a success. Add to that the multitiude of semi-autonomous militias, not to mention the enormous number of detainees (somewhere near 50,000, based on this and this), that will eventually have to be successfully reintegrated into Iraqi civil society and it's clear that there's still quite a ways to go before Iraq resembles anything close to a truly functioning state. And after we've covered all that ground, we'll still only be at the beginning of finding out if the whole gamble was worth it, because only then will we know just what role this new Iraq will play on the strategic chessboard of the Middle East.
Still, I think it's a healthy exercise for opponents of the war to ask ourselves whether, as the right has claimed, we've become attached to the idea of failure. Whether we've become fixated on the bad news of the past four years to the point that we can't see any positive developments. And whether we run the risk of getting seriously outflanked by the Republican 'roid ragers in 2008 should the war succeed.
The answer, I think, is fairly obvious from the above list of problems yet to be solved in Iraq. We're a long ways from being out of the woods. But the value of such an exercise is that it illustrates to what extent we've been guilty of political and analytic laziness. In focusing so much on the war's many operational failures, we've given the right an opening to define success operationally. Reducing violence is a pre-requisite to success, not a result of it. If the casualty figures hold, we will still only find ourselves where the Bush administration expected -- even claimed -- to be back in June of 2003: Confronting the challenges of a stabilized post-Saddam Iraq, which remain many and complex.
And what if, five years from now, Iraq is a stable state with an intricate fabric of partnerships, alliances and influences, none of which are openly hostile to American interests? Will it have been worth it? I think the war's opponents (and the Democratic Presidential candidates) had better come up with an answer to that question, because it will be asked come 2008. And as unlikely as the prospect has seemed for the past four years, the operational data now emerging just might support wishful thinking.
My answer is a categorical no. The status quo in March 2003 did not justify the loss of life, resources, influence, goodwill, and strategic standing that we've suffered as a result of the invasion and its aftermath. It's time to start re-framing the debate based on those larger issues. Because those are the ones that we'll still face long after the last flag-draped coffin is lowered into the ground.