The president last night walked into a very crowded room. There, slumped against walls, moping at tables, some miffed and defiantly crossarmed at the center of the floor, a lot of pundits, intellectuals, wonks, statesmen, critics, former enthusiasts, and fellow Americans mirrored the president's New Grimness. Not any longer fashionably late, the question for Bush is whether he is too late.
The answer is not determined by 21,500 Americans-at-arms. This number, far larger than what pessimists can tolerate and significantly smaller than what the hardest-thinking optimists have urged, will presumably do more good than harm from the perspective of American force capability. Of course you can do more with n + 21,500 soldiers than you can with n.
But, as Bush himself made clear, numbers, by now, are peripheral to the real problem: the basic inability of the Iraqi national government to maintain a monopoly on force. This is not any longer a question of "the insurgency." Imagine, if you can, an Iraq without death squads and without sectarian militias. Now imagine those squadrons stripped of their desire to drill, scorch, and maraud and invested with a decent amount of Iraqi patriotism. This is almost, but not quite, on the scale of wondering how the Nazis would have done had they instead enlisted in the German Army several of the millions they exterminated during the Holocaust. Iraq has not only lost manpower but had that manpower turned against "itself."
Yes, scare quotes. What Iraq is there to be patriotic about? Only civilians, the Kurdish leadership, and a handful of extremely brave Sunni and Shia leaders seem to know. The bitter truth is that this profound core is inadequate. The men who return to police recruitment lines despite knowing what tends to happen to police recruitment lines are walking into the mouth of madness, a mouth that belongs to legion. The Maliki government, once billed as tough enough to beat down the Sunni revolt, is now the focus of stymied and haggard warnings about what will happen to American support if the Maliki government remains too week to beat down the Shia revolt.
It seems clear to everyone now that this weakness has been at least partially voluntary. The putrid spectacle of the "official" execution of Saddam Hussein, carried out in the all-too-human style of Stephen King's oft-depicted post-apocalyptic "tribunals," appeared worldwide on video for reasons too abysmal to discuss out loud. The legitimacy of the Iraqi government itself dangles from a thread, above a trap door.
And it is the only government in town. Enabling it is not enough. It must be forced to do the things that proper governments do when they are enabled. I do not know if it can so be forced, and I do not think the president knows either. We have reached that crude impasse where the publicly declared reason for why the president's plan will work is "Because it has to." And the reason why we are here seems, time and time again, to circle back on the inability of the United States Armed Forces to maintain physical control over specific areas of Iraq and Baghdad. This is a failure not of "the military" but of numbers: ours and theirs. For that reason, a surge takes on the semblance, at least, of a direct answer to a specific question.
The most promising fact mentioned by Bush -- a fact I had heard nowhere before -- pegged 80% of attacks within 30 miles of Baghdad. That is a very small area in WWII-era terms. But pacifying Iraq, which should have been the goal all along, requires what is now absent: a clear separation between combatants and noncombatants, between friends, "partners," and enemies. The cruelest irony in Iraq is that the country is not polarized enough.
In a way, the new Twenty Thousand riding into the breach is the least significant part of the New New Way Forward. Their task is to do something that should have been done since Day 1 of the occupation. The force surge is something that would have helped matters in Baghdad regardless of what the rest of the situation in Iraq looked like. I suspect the national irritation level will not surge along with it. The locality of the surge, and the deprivation of the areas into which it's surging, suggest that the harried civilians desperate for any measure of order will take whatever they can get.
Nonetheless, the surge cannot do anything at all to address the major pathologies keeping Iraq at the brink of breakdown. Some of these are practical: the role of Iran and Syria. Bush's chosen reaction appears to be gunboat diplomacy. This is not adequate. People seem to insist that one must choose either negotiations or tough actions when dealing with adversarial regimes. Nonsense. If we took away one lesson from the Cold War -- from Ronald Reagan -- isn't it that? Beyond Iraq's intransigent brackets, other systemic problems exist. The economic and logistical side of the US occupation is a mess. Billions vanish. Private subcontractors continue to perform, without accountability, duties which the armed forces of the state should perform in any proper occupation. And the interface with the Iraqi government only seems to make matters worse. It is striking that the slow and painstaking training of the Iraqi Army is the best example of US-Iraqi cooperation on major nation-building projects.
All of which is to say that I cannot quite oppose the surge because I do not think the surge, in and of itself, is a strategic or tactical military error. But this Thing, whatever it is, in Iraq, has not been a simple military operation for a very long time. If our situation, in its entirety, continues to be managed as poorly and haltingly as it has been, the surge will be a surge into a deeper, wider, hungrier mouth of madness. The Gulf allies president Bush wants to wake up to the rotten prospects will not rouse themselves -- with their radicalized, often heavily Shia populations -- unless they can present Arab victories. With Palestine just as hideous as ever, and with Iran coiling its main foreign tentacle ever more tightly around Lebanon, those victories seem far off indeed. The dispatch of a lone carrier group, at this point, strikes me as similar to pounding a sheet of corrugated metal with a meat mallet and making ominous ghost noises. We cannot and must not ask one portion of the Navy to substitute for an entire suite of policies and statecraft.
Iraq will not be won on the streets of Baghdad. Unfortunately it nonetheless can be lost there. The real surge, the one that counts, is a surge not in military but in political competence. The buck, as he at last acknowledged, stops at Bush. It is a measure of the incredible power and good fortune of the US that this enterprise has not gone belly-up sooner. In spite of all this, we must remember that there are no "last chances" as far as Iraq is concerned. Things may take a horrible turn if we blow it. Scores of thousands may die. But the ability of human beings to carry on through chaos and restore some semblance of order transcends the planning talents of the US federal bureaucracy. Do not allow the powerful urge to see this enterprise succeed because of the stakes create the illusion that criticism or combat in pursuit of that enterprise is fatal to it. We have blundered enough to realize by now that the margin of error is not zero.
The US Armed Forces are the least ailing part of our effort in Iraq. That a surge in their department holds perhaps the least prospect for profound positive change is a token to how well they have done in the field. Under the circumstances there is very little room for performance improvement. A surge will permit them, to a degree, to keep more of what they have earned. But the blocks and towns over which a surge can impose control seem very tiny relative to the vast and less corporeal realms -- finance, bureaucracy, backroom dealing, mixed loyalty, adversarial statecraft, payola, great-power politics -- where our fate in Iraq is really cast. The military surge is, to be frank, hardly the issue upon which our Iraq policy turns. It matters not a jot without a major political surge into competence and initiative. Should that remain lacking, withdrawing troops looks less like a decision to fail than the final expression of an unwillingness to continue to do so.