20 April 2007

Supporting The Troops

Another hot topic on the PPMB these past few days has been how best to "support the troops," i.e., whether to back the current war policy despite its obvious failures as long as American troops are in the field, or to remove them from any further danger by bringing them home immediately.

Unsurprisingly, majority sentiment favored the "bring them home now" option. Most of my friends opposed the war from the start, and some of those who favored it have now changed their minds. I myself never had a firm view for or against, and while I think that the current state of affairs is an almost unmitigated disaster, I still don't have much to offer in the way of a solution.

Neither, it seems, do most of the war's opponents (nor, to be fair, its few remaining proponents). Well, they'll claim they do, but it seldom goes beyond "Get our troops out of there and let the Iraqis settle it themselves." Some of the more extreme self-loathers think we should complement our withdrawal by offering apologies and reparations to our enemies, but that wouldn't be likely to alter the outcome: an emboldened Al Qaeda, a new and more perilous nexus for terrorist attacks, and a power imbalance in the Middle East that almost inevitably will lead to a larger future conflict that will be difficult or impossible for us to avoid.

In retrospect, we should have stayed out of this war altogether, not necessarily because it was wrong (though it might have been), but because we had neither the leadership nor the resources to win it. Wars should never be engaged in unless a country is prepared to do whatever is necessary to win them, and if a country is serious about a war, it doesn't start by slashing taxes to fuel an orgy of consumer spending and run up record deficits. Nor does it try to scrape by with a minimal army, patched together with overworked and overstressed reserve and National Guard units. I'd like to dignify the Bush-Rumsfeld plan by calling it hubris, but that would be putting too fine a gloss on what now appears to be little more than an evil admixture of arrogance and stupidity.

But all rhetoric aside, we're still stuck with the question of how to extricate ourselves from this mess without making it infinitely worse. Writing in 2004, Niall Ferguson warned that America was likely to get itself into this situation if it couldn't overcome its ambivalence about its role as the world's sole remaining imperial power. Like it or not, Ferguson argued, America is an empire, and so it had better get good at it. Despite the near-universal opprobrium attached to the concept of "imperialism," Ferguson believe the alternative to be worse: a global version of the failed states and collapsing societies that have disfigured Africa since the end of the European empires.

Whether he's right or wrong, I can't say; I do see parallels with Roman unwillingness or inability to deal with disorder on its frontiers in the latter years of that Empire, but dragging Rome into the equation is very nearly the historical equivalent of playing the Hitler card in political debates. And as with global warming, there's not a lot I can do about it.

Not, it seems, does the author of this mess have much latitude when it comes to cleaning it up. George Bush is on the verge of becoming the lamest duck since Woodrow Wilson, deserted even by much of his own party, and short of a national disaster or major terrorist attack that would once again unify the country behind him, it's hard to imagine how he could come up with a mandate for anything beyond dragging out the present debacle for another year or two.

I have no military experience and not a lot of knowledge, but in my view, Iraq could be successfully occupied and stabilized with about 500,000 troops, provided that we're prepared to keep a large portion of them there for several years while political, fiscal, and social institutions are rebuilt. Obviously that's not going to happen; there's almost no support for expanding operations in the Middle East, let alone for bringing back the draft, which would probably be necessary to bring our army up to the necessary strength.

So we bumble along toward ever greater disaster, people keep dying, the country slowly goes bankrupt trying to pay for it, and President Bush seems to be hunkering down in the White House hoping all this unpleasantness will somehow just go away. I never thought he was anywhere near as dumb as his political enemies made him out to be (if only because he's consistently outfoxed them), and I never disliked him the way most of my liberal and radical friends did (if only because he had a knack for pissing off all the right people), but unless he can pull a rather large rabbit out of his hat, and soon, I'm afraid he's going to go down in history as one of our biggest presidential disasters ever. I'd take some consolation from the fact that elections are only a year and a half away, except that so far none of the candidates seems to show much potential for improvement.

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