Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Add These to the List of Questions For Obama

Abe Greewald has put together the list of questions that McCain ought to be asking Obama in a virtual debate about Iraq. Paraphrasing them:
  1. Since your called on Bush to admit his mistakes about the invasion and correct them, and he has done this with surge, doesn't it behoove you to similarly admit your mistakes in opposing the surge and altering your policy proposals accordingly?


  2. Given that the Iraqi government sees a benefit to a residual US presence in Iraq, and given that the US has peaceful garrisons of troops throughout the world--including other places in the Middle East, what makes Iraq different enough that you oppose retaining residual forces there?


  3. Given that al Qaeda is all but defeated in Iraq, polling throughout the Muslim world shows a marked decline in support for terrorist tactics for defending or advancing Islam, and that the United States has not been attacked since 9/11/2001, what is the basis for your claim that the war in Iraq has made Americans less safe?


  4. You have asserted that "victory" in Iraq is unachievable and even undefinable, and yet steady progress has been made in Iraq on security, political reconciliation, repatriation of refugees, oil production, and economic investment. Given this progress, don't you owe the American people a better attempt at what victory would look like and, if it doesn't look like this, what does it look like?
Seems like a pretty good place to start.

4 comments:

MannyJ said...

Well, it would be a good place to start if it weren't premised on falsehoods. As it is, there's a distinct flavor of "have you stopped beating your wife yet."

The first question presumes opposing the surge was a mistake. Not every wrong call shows bad judgment (unlike, say, the decision to invade without an occupation plan). Anyway, it's arguable whether increased manpower (the "surge") was worth the cost. Better COIN tactics did a lot of good for little cost, and Obama didn't oppose those, so no "mistake" there.
And why should he change policy due to a more peaceful Iraq? I assume you mean, stay in longer. Last year, we had to stay in longer because of the violence. This reminds me of how cutting taxes are always the answer.

The second question is based on a flat lie. Check out Obama's official position paper on his website:
Under the Obama plan, a residual force will remain in Iraq.
He hasn't been beating his wife, either.

The third question has three wrong premises. It implies:
1) Al Qaeda in Iraq was a threat to America. Well, no. It was a (minor) threat to Iraq, which we opened the door to.
2) our war caused the downtick in jihadist popularity. This may be true in a different sense than you appear to mean: we gave jihadism such a growth spurt that it sparked a countermovement. Do I need to connect the dots between "growth spurt" and "less safe" in the future?
3) our war in Iraq helped prevent attacks in America by people who were never in Iraq. Hard to see the mechanism there. Our cave to Al Qaeda's demands -- giving up our Saudi airbase and Caucasian pipeline access -- probably had more to do with it.

On the last question, if you want to declare victory before getting out, go ahead, but that in no way obliges Obama to define your terms for you. Personally, I'd rather skip the word games and concentrate on policy. Obama has set his minimum conditions for getting out of Iraq. You seem to want him to to raise the bar. Again, why should he?

There is an easy trap for a committed moderate to fall into, illustrated by the story of the dad who "compromised" between one kid who wanted to split a cake evenly and one who wanted the whole cake: so he split it 3:1. You keep "moderating" between the middle and the right. Obama's positions are already moderate, why do you never take a position between him and the left?

TheRadicalModerate said...

The first question presumes opposing the surge was a mistake. Not every wrong call shows bad judgment (unlike, say, the decision to invade without an occupation plan).

I think I made this point somewhere else. However, one of the major complaints about Bush was, once the "wrong call" was apparent, he not only failed to admit it but failed to correct it. Obama is doing exactly what Bush did. That's profoundly disturbing.

Anyway, it's arguable whether increased manpower (the "surge") was worth the cost. Better COIN tactics did a lot of good for little cost, and Obama didn't oppose those, so no "mistake" there.

Oh, nonsense. The backbone of any COIN strategy presupposes enough troops to patrol and do the military equivalent of neighborhood policing. Obama saying that he approves of COIN tactics without the necessary resources is the height of disingenuousness.

And why should he change policy due to a more peaceful Iraq? I assume you mean, stay in longer. Last year, we had to stay in longer because of the violence. This reminds me of how cutting taxes are always the answer.

Well, I sort of agree with you here. I think Obama's gotten incredibly lucky and he may weasel out of this whole mess just because 16 months happens to be the right timeframe to remove most troops. But what if there's a moderate setback? McCain has him dead to rights here: His mission isn't to win, it's to get out. And, irrespective of that, we spend a lot of time in political campaigns looking at history for hints on how somebody will perform. So far, this is the only area where Obama's performance is utterly unacceptable.

The second question is based on a flat lie. Check out Obama's official position paper on his website:
Under the Obama plan, a residual force will remain in Iraq.
He hasn't been beating his wife, either.


I believe that the rest of that statement talks about maintaining the force for counter-terrorism purposes and embassy defense. That's frivolous. Americans aren't going to do counter-terrorism in Iraq without maintaining a COIN mission. If things continue to improve, that might take less than 5 combat brigades. If Obama's actually willing to garrison that kind of force in Iraq until it's as stable as, say, South Korea, I'd feel a lot better.

The third question has three wrong premises. It implies:
1) Al Qaeda in Iraq was a threat to America. Well, no. It was a (minor) threat to Iraq, which we opened the door to.


Let's suppose you're right and al Qaeda wasn't a threat in 2003. Was it in late 2006, when the surge was ordered? Please don't tell me that your answer to this question is "no."

2) our war caused the downtick in jihadist popularity. This may be true in a different sense than you appear to mean: we gave jihadism such a growth spurt that it sparked a countermovement. Do I need to connect the dots between "growth spurt" and "less safe" in the future?

Again, I'll sorta stipulate to that. However, in late 2006, that downtick could only be capitalized upon by improving COIN in Iraq. Otherwise, the Awakening goes stillborn when its leadership is decapitated by bad guys.

3) our war in Iraq helped prevent attacks in America by people who were never in Iraq. Hard to see the mechanism there. Our cave to Al Qaeda's demands -- giving up our Saudi airbase and Caucasian pipeline access -- probably had more to do with it.

Again, I'll stipulate that the initial invasion did us no good. (Truth in advertising: I supported the initial invasion and was subsequently horrified by the conduct of the first 3 years of the war. I now think we could have waited a bit longer to invade, but we were going to have to do it some time in the next ten years.)

But it is almost undeniable that al Qaeda pumped resources into Iraq in an attempt to defeat the US, and the meeting engagement that was generated by their move resulted in the ability for the US to defeat them in detail, which has certainly occurred in Iraq. Yes, yes, there's plenty more of 'em in Pakistan--do you propose invading the NWFP?

Meanwhile, the bulk of the resources that al Qaeda was able to mobilize and transport went to Iraq, where they were destroyed. How does destroying your enemy's ability to develop a logistical tail against you not improve your security?

On the last question, if you want to declare victory before getting out, go ahead, but that in no way obliges Obama to define your terms for you. Personally, I'd rather skip the word games and concentrate on policy. Obama has set his minimum conditions for getting out of Iraq. You seem to want him to to raise the bar. Again, why should he?

Say what? He's said, repeatedly--and refuses to recant--that his mission is to evacuate all but a token force from Iraq. If he happens to get lucky and that evacuation coincides with the facts on the ground, terrific. But, willy-nilly, he intends to get out, facts on the ground or not.

Yes, he's added some weasel words about "conditions permitting" and that he'll "listen to professional advice," but this is directly contradictory to the mission he's put forth.

There is an easy trap for a committed moderate to fall into, illustrated by the story of the dad who "compromised" between one kid who wanted to split a cake evenly and one who wanted the whole cake: so he split it 3:1. You keep "moderating" between the middle and the right. Obama's positions are already moderate, why do you never take a position between him and the left?

I'm not very moderate on this point. I'm a national security hawk. I believe in using all the tools of modern statecraft, including the not-inconsiderable military ones, to further US interests. I have no problem wielding as much soft power as necessary (although this direct head of state negotiations without preconditions is utter naivete and reflects the lack of the most rudimentary acquaintance with how diplomacy actually gets done). But Obama wants to severely reduce or even remove our hard power capabilities in the Persian Gulf, which just happens to be the only area of the world absolutely indispensable for the operation of a modern industrial or post-industrial society. To compensate for that, he proposes to escalate in Afghanistan, which is a) not where the bad guys are (they're in the NWFP in Pakistan) and b) is a pile of rocks, utterly devoid of strategic value. That's pretty lame.

The really sad thing is that Obama could get himself out of this simply by acknowledging that the surge turned out to be a pretty good idea after all. He'd completely pull McCain's teeth and would win the election in a walkover. As I said before, that he won't do this is... disturbing.

MannyJ said...

Thanks, interesting points. Not surprisingly, I don't entirely agree, but, like McCain & Obama, we may be converging :)

On the surge:
1. To comment intelligently, I'd have to know a lot more detail than I do about how much we needed the extra troop strength. So I'll throw in some second-hand vague rumor: my impression is that we used an intelligent combo of bribery, building walls, working with local militia, pulling back and focusing our efforts on smaller areas, and the "keep and hold" tactics McCain emphasizes in his speeches. You need a certain number of boots on the ground for the last one, and it is an absolutely essential component of counterinsurgency. But, we already had a lot of people there whom we had been using stupidly. Did we need the extra numbers, once we were finally using the right playbook? Petraeus wanted them, but every general in history screamed that he needeed more troops to do his job (look at Washington's dispatches to the Continental Congress). That's really not good evidence.

You say 16 months "happens" to be good. Maybe luck, maybe good judgment: either we can solve the problem in about that time frame, or it's going to continue to erupt indefinitely.

McCain has him dead to rights here: His mission isn't to win, it's to get out.

That's the main point. I agree, that's what he wants. I also think it's a good idea. Everything else flows from that basic difference. Still not sure what "win" means here. Topple Saddam, done, eliminate WMD threat, n/a, make a stable & democratic ally/satrap -- probably impossible, almost certainly not worth the cost: every single faction there including the government we installed wants us the hell out. I think we're throwing good $$ after bad.

2. On the residual force: that goes back to the same question, are we trying to get out, or "win"? What is the mission for our residual force, long-term? Threat to deter invasion as in South Korea (very unlikely to happen, so pointless)? Rapid-response force to stave off a civil war (likely need, but very expensive and breeds resentment)? Preemptive beachhead to reconquer in the event of a full-scale civil war (even more expensive)? All of these require different force mixes and amounts. Obama is basically saying we have only two interests that are worth committing troops for: embassy protection and what sounds like antiterrorism raids to take out residual or renascent AQI pockets. You apparently disagree. Questioning him on this is not going to change the answer, and an honest question would be a lot more complex than you framed it.

3. AQI is not AQ, so, no, I don't think AQI was ever a threat to us, in 2003 or in 2006 either. AQ was and is a threat to our oil, and it was and is willing to attack on our soil to serve its goals, when that's a good strategy. It is not and never has been an existential threat, we're too big.

Attacking AQI didn't help us combat the threat global AQ poses to our interests: I don't know of good reason to think global AQ pumped a lot of resources into AQI: AQ had no serious hope of or interest in taking over Iraq. AQ and AQI used each other for propaganda purposes.

Anyway, 9-11 didn't take much resources, it took brains, discipline, and commitment. I'm sure AQ has some bombs not currently in use, so what in Iraq or our laughable port security stopped them from sneaking a big bomb by ship into NYC? I suggest it just didn't suit their immediate goals.

I agree w/ you that we seized an opportunity created by AQI's nihilism in Iraq. Good for us, but that doesn't address the point, which was, why does the current slump in jihadist popularity mean the war in Iraq makes us safer in America?

I also wish we had seized that same opportunity elsewhere in the world at the same time, if only we had the resources, attention, and global strategic mindset, and hadn't worked quite so hard at making all Muslims everywhere feel that we despise them. Getting out of Iraq, and electing a President who has noticed that threats of force are not always the best and first method to get cooperation against terrorists, will help with these.

I now think we could have waited a bit longer to invade, but we were going to have to do it some time in the next ten years.

I used to think that, now I think that if we had waited, and been willing to look at the evidence that there was no WMD program, we could have turned Saddam Hussein into an ally again, getting every single advantage we could possibly have hoped for from an invasion at virtually no cost, except a democracy, which a) ain't likely, and b) is not particularly helpful to us. Let's face it, S.H. liked working for us until we pulled the rug out from under him in Kuwait (after first greenlighting the invasion). He was scum, but he always had been and we didn't care before. If we can work w/ Musharraf, we could have worked w/ Hussein again. But Bush hated him personally and wanted his own buddy Chalabi instead, so here we all are.

But Obama wants to severely reduce or even remove our hard power capabilities in the Persian Gulf, which just happens to be the only area of the world absolutely indispensable for the operation of a modern industrial or post-industrial society. To compensate for that, he proposes to escalate in Afghanistan, which is a) not where the bad guys are (they're in the NWFP in Pakistan) and b) is a pile of rocks, utterly devoid of strategic value. That's pretty lame.


I think this is your real point, and what you really want to challenge Obama about. And it is a real point, that I take very seriously. Two thoughts:

a) I don't see the win in the Gulf -- we've already got some bases in the region (and sea power, and ICBMs, and a proven willingness and ability to invade in overwhelming force, for further threat), we've got some friendship with the Saudis, we've got a sweetheart deal for "our" multinational oil companies in Iraq. Not sure what more we can really get by keeping a larger force there longer. Also, in terms of $$ spent for energy, I'd rather spend $100B a year paving over the unpopulated American Southwest with solar collectors: we get to keep the solar collectors, and it doesn't create jihadists.

b) There is a real value to national security in not looking weak or treacherous. Iraq is too expensive & risky for that candle, but I think we can help the Kabul government crush the Taliban for a lot less $$. We were almost there before we stupidly took our eye off the ball. We've given them years to regroup, so it will be a lot harder now, but still do-able.

TheRadicalModerate said...

mannyj--

On the surge: I suppose it's possible that we could have made do with the troops we already had in Iraq but remember that, in early 2007, as Bush was escalating for the surge, Obama was already publicly recommending a drawdown of 1-2 brigades a month. We certainly couldn't have produced the level of stability we have now with fewer troops. As for Petraeaus sandbagging his requirements, I think you give the guy who literally wrote the COIN book what he asks for.

On defining "victory" in Iraq, and difference between the "win" and "leave" missions: Something along the lines of the Bushco 2005 definition for victory seems to be pretty good to me: If we leave a stable, democratic country, at peace with its neighbors but also able to resist subversion by them, able to defend itself, and able to deny its territory to terrorists, we have a win. We actually have a big win, given that the world thought we were a paper tiger in early 2006 and we can now demonstrate that the US doesn't fold easily in the face of adversity (one of the key talking points of AQ and its ilk).

Of these goals, the one with which the Iraqis are going to need US help is the ability to resist subversion by its neighbors. That requires resisting the infiltration of Iraqi territory by Iranian proxies and the quelling of the inevitable breakouts of violence as those proxies attempt to discredit the government. Without this key component, Iraq will eventually look like Lebanon, which in turn will discredit US efforts. This is why the "win" mission is so essential.

I don't think that this will require more than 5 brigades but it will certainly require more than consular protection and and anti-terrorist troops, which is what Obama is calling for. So, while the strategies associated with "win" and "leave" have a lot in common, they eventually part company.

On AQ vs. AQI (or AQM) as a threat to US security: We know that AQ is a virtual organization, held together by a common ideology, funded using a common methodology, and operating under a more-or-less cohesive military doctrine. It isn't based in any one country. Under this definition, it's pretty easy to assert that AQI was part of AQ in 2005. (I agree that it was not part of AQ in early 2003, but that ship has sailed.)

You seem to be willing to acknowledge that suppression of AQ is an important goal for US foreign policy. Once you've drunk that particular pitcher of Kool-Aid, and given the virtual nature of the AQ organization, you've pretty much got to agree to suppress them wherever they crop up. Iraq is (or was, as of late 2006) one of those places, and the surge was instrumental in that suppression.

Furthermore, I think you misunderstand how the US becomes "safe" from AQ. AQ is a well-trained military organization, albeit with very limited resources. Think of them as about a 3-brigade army and its logistical tail and you'll be about right. That logistical tail, with the expertise to plan operations, build bombs, acquire documents, and train operatives, is very limited and at the same time essential to the execution of AQ operations. When you press AQ in all of its safe havens (of which Iraq was one in late 2006), you deny AQ the ability to project power through terrorist operations in the US and Europe. This is why Bushco was correct when it asserted that Iraq was a key front in the GWOT.

On projecting power in the Gulf: Above and beyond making Iraq a success, for all of the reasons cited above, I think you agree that a key goal of US foreign policy is to keep the oil flowing out of the Gulf. You argue that the US already has adequate naval, air, and ground resources to accomplish this mission without bases in Iraq.

The problem with this is that any determined enemy (Iran, let's say) can make our naval power problematic by contesting access to the Straits of Hormuz and, once the Navy is limited in its operations, air power is severely reduced. And, while troops in Kuwait could probably cover the oil fields in southern Iraq and Saudi Arabia, they can't cover the northern fields near Kirkuk. To do that, you need garrisoned troops that can interdict any attempt to invade from the north.

Again, this is not a huge force. Long term, somewhere between 3 and 5 brigades will do the job.

On co-opting Saddam: I think you might be right with this and I admit that I hadn't really thought about that.

The biggest problem with that scenario has to do with our fundamental misunderstanding of the situation in Iraq in early 2003. When the US invaded, it expected to find a functioning state with somewhat degraded capabilities. Instead, it found a state that was already in the process of collapsing from the sanctions. When that collapse had actually happened, Saddam would have been useless as an ally. Indeed, we'd have then succeeded in producing a very dangerous failed state. That would have probably required the use of US military forces anyway, although we would have been in a much better position to get international help in this situation.