Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

17 January 2007

Senator Clinton's Plan

After four years of virtual silence, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has announced her plan for staunching the bleeding wound that is Iraq.

The development of her policy took four times as long as President Bush’s belated observation that something went wrong in 2006. It took twice as long as even Donald Rumsfeld required to acknowledge the insurgency for which his starry-eyed planning had failed to account.

But never mind. Senator Clinton is now on record with a plan, and we can evaluate it on its merits.

To her credit, Senator Clinton’s plan addresses the chief flaw in the Bush “surge” plan—the same chief blunder that the Bush Administration has made in Iraq from the outset. I have called it “our second false premise”—the notion that Iraqis desire democratic government and are ready to lay down their millennial hatred and rivalry to achieve it. That premise flatly contradicts our own history and is dangerously ludicrous as applied to Iraq.

That same false premise is the reason why the president’s half-hearted “surge” strategy is likely to fail. Like Senator Joe Biden and most Americans, I hope and pray that it works. But my head tells me that it won’t.

Iraq’s Sunnis had the upper hand for a millennium. For thirty years they exercised it with excruciating despotism and brutality. Now the Shiites have their chance to throw off a millennium of oppression and three decades of brutal dictatorship. Next to those historical facts, American exhortations to “play nice,” “reconcile,” and build democracy are whispers in a hurricane. The history of our own Civil War and Reconstruction demonstrate as much.

Senator Clinton’s plan appears to acknowledge this reality. In response, she proposes coercive measures to force Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government to seek political reconciliation with Sunnis. She would threaten to deny funding to train and equip Iraqi forces, to rebuild Iraq’s economy, and even to provide personal security for Iraq’s leaders.

To war-weary and impatient Americans, these measures have a superficial appeal. In particular, the threat of withdrawing skilled and well-equipped American bodyguards seems likely to get Iraqi leaders’ attention. But would these measures really work?

Whatever else they may be, Iraqis are not cowards. They take their lives in their hands every day when they go out the front door. The increasingly war-hardened Shiites will have no trouble replacing American bodyguards with their own, even if slightly less competent. And as for arms and financial support, they can get plenty from Iran. If Senator Clinton’s threats are carried out, they are likely to drive Iraq’s sectarian Shiite government further into Iran’s arms. If not, they are simply empty threats with little prospect for success. Like the Bush “surge” plan, the Clinton “coercion” plan has less than a five percent chance of fully securing Baghdad, let alone longer-term success.

The Clinton plan does have one attractive feature: by proposing capping our troop commitment, Senator Clinton’s plan implicitly repudiates the Bush “surge.” It is right to do so. We all hope that a half-hearted, last minute attempt to secure Baghdad might improve facts on the ground, but the Bush plan has a signal flaw: no clear chain of command.

Unless the chain of command and the rules of engagement with death squads are clearly and reliably established before the surge, we will be sending our surge troops into a meat grinder. If you think that snipers, car bombs are IEDs are bad enough, wait until our troops are embedded in Iraqi units, with “comrades” of uncertain loyalty fore and aft, not speaking the language and not understanding the culture. Asking even our superb soldiers and marines to approach a Shiite death squad—let alone one under Muqtada al-Sadr’s political protection—under those circumstances is a recipe for disaster. The likely result of the Bush plan is to produce a “surge” in American casualties so repugnant as to compel the precipitate withdrawal and subsequent bloodbath that virtually everyone but Rep. Dennis Kucinich seeks to avoid.

So the bottom line is clear. Clinton’s plan might save some of our troops from becoming cannon fodder in an Iraqi civil war, but it has little more chance for “success”—whatever that means—than the Bush plan.

The point of this essay is not that Senator Clinton cannot come up with a winning plan. Probably no one can. In war, as in investing, timing is everything. The Bush Administration’s bungling has simply missed the boat.

Colin Powell sent half a million troops to Iraq for Gulf I, when the plan was specifically not to invade Baghdad. The thought that we could occupy all of Iraq on the cheap was flawed from the beginning. Unless we are willing to devote greater resources to the mess we have now made than we committed in Gulf I, and to do it for a decade, we are simply not going to control the situation on the ground.

In that respect Senator John McCain is right on substance. But there is virtually no political support at home for his solution. Americans simply do not believe that Iraq is as important as the president says it is. We heard that the sky was falling like dominoes in Vietnam, and the domino theory now lies in the dustbin of history. We are not about to buy alarmism a second time, at least not without far more detailed and cogent factual justification than the president has ever been able to provide.

Thus the point of this essay is not to criticize Senator Clinton for failing to solve a problem that no one else can solve. The point is to analyze what her “solution” says about her leadership.

Having taken four years to speak out definitively on the issue, Senator Clinton is often described as “thoughtful” by her supporters and “calculating” by her detractors. But what direction did her protracted thinking take? It is all political, as in domestic politics.

Substantively, her “solution” is little better than the president’s and has minuscule chance of success. But politically it is right on the money. By refusing to endorse a quick withdrawal or establish any timetables, she picks up support from those who believe we are in Iraq for an important purpose and should stay until we achieve some ill-defined “success.” By repudiating Bush’s “surge,” she picks up support from those who care most about our ill-used troops, don’t like the war, and haven’t thought much about the consequences of a quick withdrawal. By attacking the centerpiece of the president’s plan, she gains emotional support from those of us (approaching two-thirds by now) who believe that anything the president says must be wrong, misleading or incomplete. Senator Clinton has thus deftly positioned herself as the center of the political debate and the chief beneficiary of widespread distrust and dislike of the president.

So Senator Clinton’s plan gets an A for politics and a D+ for substance.

And that is precisely the problem. For the four years of Bush’s first term we lived in an alternative political universe. The burning issues of our time were homosexual wedlock, alleged “oppression” of religion (in the country with the freest exercise on Earth!), the number of abortions, and the “rights” of blastocysts not to be cut off in their primes. After 9/11, the Bush administration brilliantly and demagogically exploited the attacks, just as Nixon did the Red scares of the fifties and sixties, to evoke support for a personal political agenda. We surrendered parts of our constitutional democracy to the first North American junta—Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld—which proceeded to invade Iraq against all external advice, vastly expand the powers of an imperial presidency, and curtail civil liberties and the rule of law at home and abroad.

Where was Congress, including Senator Clinton, when all this was happening? Hunkering down and waiting so see which way the political winds would blow, that’s where. Our second branch was raising money, bickering, worrying about the next election, consorting with lobbyists, bickering more, and happily writing earmarks while Rome burned. Among all the serious presidential hopefuls from Congress, only John McCain showed the thoughtful, independent judgment that Americans have the right to expect from their elected representatives. That's why so many lost their jobs in the last election.

As Americans look to 2008, they are sick of government by politics (especially dirty politics) over substance. They may not understand all the details and nuances, but they sense that living in an alternative reality of smear politics and demagoguery is not the best approach to a secure and prosperous future. They yearn to be led, not pandered to or manipulated, by someone who can see farther and more clearly than they.

Is Senator Clinton that person? From her overly complex health-care proposal of 1993 to her plan for Iraq, she has showed herself to be a politician first and foremost, not a problem solver. She is part of the “old guard” and part of the problem, not the solution. With the people’s current well-justified distrust of politics as usual, she is highly unlikely ever to be president, unless perhaps something unfortunate happens to the Republican nominee in the course of the general campaign.

In the end, these facts explain Senator Barack Obama’s meteoric rise. Sure, he’s brilliant. Sure, he’s charismatic. Sure, he has a marvelously inspiring life history. This writer has sung his praises enough to make those points. But the primary reason he has so captured the public imagination is precisely his inexperience. He is not associated with the failed Bush administration, the abysmally dysfunctional Congress that failed to restrain it, or the demagoguery that elevated embryos’ “personalities” and the “threat” of gays enjoying conjugal bliss above very real problems like global warming, Islamic extremism, education, international competition, energy dependence and the coarsening of American public life and public discourse.

Obama is a phenomenon because he is bright, thoughtful, young and new and carries no political baggage. The people hope that he will be able to resist the corruption of American politics long enough to solve a few problems and advance the people’s agenda, for a change. He has yet to be tested, but he is the only Democrat who now appears to have a chance of winning against an independent voice and moral leader like John McCain. Senator Clinton has none, and rightly so. Her plan for Iraq is just more politics as usual.

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