Wednesday, January 17, 2007

William Arkin: Congress Goes Along in Iraq; Gates Says Not So Fast

Congress Goes Along in Iraq, Gates Says Not So Fast

Has the President made a huge mistake in appointing Robert M. Gates as Secretary of Defense?

The President unveils a new Iraq strategy - put aside for a moment whether it is really new - and he has a new leadership team to carry it out.

Soldiers are seemingly flowing over to Iraq to accelerate the U.S. effort.

The Iraqi government is supposedly turning over a new leaf, pressured by American decisiveness and the new plan.

But what if every proposition about Iraq is fundamentally wrong? What if the new strategy is just a hope? What if the Secretary is a cookie-cutter bureaucratic player who lacks the President's fire in the belly and thus has no survival instinct? What if the new team is just for show? And what if the Iraqis are as duplicitous and as fumbling as they were before the White House saw the light?

We now have the strange reality of the President and Vice President making a case for time, continuing sacrifice and eventual victory in what they claim is the central battlefield and fundamental challenge of our time, and the Secretary of Defense says, oh well maybe we won't need all the troops and they could come home early anyhow and we'll wait and see how the Iraqis do, and even more, it's not really a surge, because we are walking and not running to get to the battlefield.

Everyone is ever so happy to pin all of the problems of the past on former Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the big bad man who wouldn't allow more troops, who wouldn't let the military fight, who starved the military, that no one is really watching what Gates is conveying, most important, to the Iraqis and the bad guys.

And if Rumsfeld was the epitome of a confident man with strong views and one who was willing to stand up to the uniformed military and decide for himself what was needed, Gates is a management marshmallow of a man, sweet and soft and reassuring, ultimately the perfect centrist to preside over the end but exactly the wrong person to represent the White House's crusade.

In various radio call-in shows I did last week, I heard people left and right hoping for change, hoping that more would make a difference, hoping that the new team and new strategy would indeed turn the corner.

"What would you like to see the 20,000 additional American troops do," one host asked callers. The question was tinged with promise, almost as if Marines would be storming the beach or paratroopers would be filling the sky.

But the surge, I'm afraid, isn't anywhere near so impressive. Not only won't there be one single and immediate deployment, but many of the supposed 20,000 are soldiers who are merely being extended in Iraq: it is like a corporate RIF where the numbers are attained through retirements and attrition. Others, moreover, are merely a surge on paper; the number of actual immediate fighters in Baghdad is only about half what the President suggests.

If there is any hope for a turn around in Iraq, of course we all know it depends completely on what the Iraqis themselves do. The President's new plan acknowledges the al-Maliki government's own sectarian biases and articulates a shared commitment to change. In other words, it is pure-Gatesian, saying all of the right things and assuming that everyone will be reasonable when ideology is expunged. But Iraq is all about ideology, about allegiances and power struggles. Every move is a back-stabbing Mafia-like protection of the family, and though there are hundreds of thousands of reasonable Mohammed Gates', they are as feckless at breaking the ideologues and the enemy, and will continue to operate in the same manner.

Six months from now, with Congressional acquiescence - expect no less - people will again ask 'what ever happened to the effect of the surge?' The answer then is already obvious now: It is just too little, too late.

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