Iraq: have we reached a tipping point?

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November 21st, 2006

I don’t usually blog about politics, especially when the subject is Iraq. Unlike several hundred thousand U.S. soldiers (not to mention soldiers from Britain and several other countries), and several million of the country’s citizens, I’ve never been to Iraq. I don’t speak the language, I know relatively little about Iraq’s history or culture, and I’m reasonably confident that the political decision-makers have no interest in my opinion whatsoever.

So this isn’t intended as a statement of political opinion, or a pronouncement of great wisdom and insight; it’s merely an observation that, after three years of violence, hatred, and endless debate, Iraq may have reached what Malcom Gladwell calls a “tipping point” (“a sociological term that refers to that dramatic moment when something unique becomes common”) — a confluence of little things that begin the movement away from an existing state of equilibrium (if you’re an optimist) or paralysis (if you’re a pessimist). Perhaps historians will eventually tell us that the tipping point in the Iraq war was the February 22, 2006 bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra; or maybe it was the second battle of Fallujah in early November 2004; perhaps it was even the May 1, 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech that President Bush gave on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. But I think it’s more likely that we’ll point to November 19th, 2006, when Henry Kissinger stated in a British Broadcasting Corp. interview:

“If you mean by ‘military victory’ an Iraqi government that can be established and whose writ runs across the whole country, that gets the civil war under control and sectarian violence under control in a time period that the political processes of the democracies will support, I don’t believe that is possible.”

Whoa … admittedly, Kissinger is not the current Secretary of State, and has no official role in the Bush administration. But he’s got a perspective on wars and insurgencies that few of us can match, and as recently as December of 2005, he stated (in a long article that you should read completely, in order to understand the context of his statement) that “President Bush has put forward a plausible strategy. It acknowledges that mistakes have been made and affirms that policy has been leavened by experience.” And Kissinger’s gloomy assessment was not the only newsworthy — indeed, tipping-point-worthy — comment made in the past few days. Consider the following:

  1. On the November 19th Sunday morning television talk shows, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham argued that we should send more troops to Iraq, in order to avoid defeat; “that means expanding the Army and Marine Corps by as much as 100,000 people…,” McCain said during a visit to northern New Hampshire.
  2. But a few days earlier, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, testified before the Senate Armed Services committee that “We can put in 20,000 more Americans tomorrow and achieve a temporary effect … But when you look at the overall American force pool that’s available out there, the ability to sustain that commitment is simply not something that we have right now with the size of the Army and the Marine Corps.”
  3. Of course, we could increase the size of the U.S. military by a hundred thousand — or, if necessary, several hundred thousand — if we reinstated the draft. And the soon-to-be chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Charles Rangel, announced on November 19th that he was serious about submitting legislation to reinstate the draft (having introduced a similar bill before the Iraq war had even begun, on January 7, 2003; and again in October, 2004 and on February 14, 2006). But while the Selective Service System said (also on November 20th) that it was ready to was ready to revive the draft whenever instructed to do so, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on November 20th that she would not support such legislation. Numerous polls (of which this is one in 2004, and this is one in 2005) report that there is strong public opinion against a draft, and I think it’s highly unlikely that it will happen in the short-term future.
  4. On November 20th, news leaked out that the Pentagon is looking at three different options: “go big, go long, or go home.” “Go big” apparently summarizes a strategy of dramatically increasing the number of U.S. armed forces — e.g., possibly a couple hundred thousand troops. That seems highly unlikely, considering Abizaid’s testimony that we can’t even sustain a 20,000-person increase in troop size. The second strategy, “go long,” involves shrinking the force (perhaps after a short-term “surge” of 20,000 troops to overcome the current chaos in Baghdad), but staying for a longer period of time. And “go home,” of course, means withdrawing completely and bringing the troops back home.
  5. Meanwhile, Dr. Kissinger (and several others) argue that a political solution is needed instead of a military solution, and that it will require talking to Syria and Iran.
  6. Lo and behold, the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Moallem, visits Baghdad on November 19th, and on November 20th, the two countries announce that they will resume diplomatic relations after nearly 25 years.
  7. The Bush administration announces on November 20th that it’s “wary” of the role of Iran and Syria in Iraq … but at this point, one has to wonder whether anyone cares.
  8. In late October 2006, Senators John Warner, Carl Levin, Richard Lugar, and Joe Biden were asked on a Fox News Sunday interview “are we at a tipping point? Are we at a crossroads? Is it time to change policy?”, to which Senator Biden responded, “It was time to do it two years ago… the truth of the matter is there’s a need for radical change in policy.”
  9. And to provide yet another context for all of this discussion, an article entitled “Most Iraqis Favor Immediate U.S. Pullout, Polls Show” in the September 26, 2006 issue of the Washington Post indicated that three quarters of the Baghdad residents surveyed by the U.S. State Department said that they would feel safer if U.S. and other foreign forces left Iraq, with 65 percent of those asked favoring an immediate pullout.

And there’s lots more going on, both within the U.S. government, and various governments abroad. None of us know what the Iraq Study Group, informally known as the “Baker Commission,” is going to recommend; it’s been only a week since the group met with President Bush and his top advisors. No doubt the Russian, Chinese, British, German, and French governments are also busy studying the situation and sending their recommendations and advice through both formal and informal channels.

Maybe all of this will quiet down, and we’ll return to the same daily news of bombings, assassinations, and house-to-house searches on the military front, while political paralysis and stalemate returns on the political front in Baghdad and Washington. Maybe the U.S. will still be firmly entrenched in Iraq 50 years from now, just as we’ve been entrenched in Germany and South Korea for the past 50 years. But I have a strong feeling that events are escalating very quickly now, and that the Bush administration is no longer in full control of either the political events or the military events — if indeed it ever was.

I think the tipping point has arrived, and it’s anyone’s guess how things will develop over the next several months.

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