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

24 September 2007

The Dems’ Fatal Mistake?


Do politicians live in the same world that you and I do? I don’t think so, and I don’t think party matters. Both parties live in a never-never land of polls, pals, and posturing that has little to do with the real world.

The Bushies fell into never-never land first. As they left the real world behind, they invented a new logical fallacy. If you like the fancy Latin names that college courses use for fallacies, you could call theirs the “debet esse, ergo est” fallacy. “It ought to be, therefore it is.”

Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld set the pace. They figured that Saddam was a bad guy, so the Iraqis would greet us with flowers and song if we deposed him. They ought to be grateful to us, right? We all know how that turned out.

Then Rumsfeld went one better. We are so smart and so strong. Our equipment and our troops are so good. Anyway, we don’t have nearly as many troops as our best generals say we need. So we ought to be able to make do with one-third that many, right? It’s just got to work.

Bush’s social-security plan was on the same plane. None of my buddies, he thought, would ever invest in the type of safe, boring, low-return investments that social security seeks. Our workers would do fine if they took more risk for more return, just like my buddies. We’ll get them to invest their own money—which the government makes them pay—in the private market. They ought to love that idea, and they ought to do just fine.

But the workers didn’t love it. The recent collapse of the mortgage-backed hedge funds showed why. There’s a reason why greater risk brings greater return: you can lose everything. In the real world, people who don’t have a lot to lose don’t take big risks.

After six years of this nonsense, the public began to get restive. The last straw was the year 2006, when Iraq disintegrated in a sectarian bloodbath that no one foresaw or prepared for. Then the public began to sour on the GOP.

You would think the Dems might have learned from their rivals’ mistakes. You would think they might have opened their Washington curtains once in a while just to see what’s going on in the world. No such luck. Like the GOP, the Dems just listen to each other.

Now the Dems are doing the same dance. The GOP really screwed things up in Iraq, they think. We’ve got them on the run. The Bushies ought to fail in Iraq because they are so damned incompetent. Their abject failure there ought to give us a big break. It ought to put us in the majority for the next several election cycles.

But when all you care about is Washington politics, you can miss some pretty big changes in the real world, where the rest of us live. Debet esse, ergo est.

Three things in Iraq have changed dramatically over the last year. First and foremost, we have a new team. Compared to That Idiot Rumsfeld and his band of sycophants, SecDef Gates, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are the New York Yankees. They took some time to clean house and get organized, but they’re starting to pull together.

You can see the difference from the other side of the TV screen: these are smart, serious men who know what they’re doing. For the first time in five years, official news conferences on the war are actually starting to make sense.

The second big change is our first lucky break. On their own accord, the Sunnis decided that they hate us less than the Qaeda troops who are killing their families, blowing up their communities, taking their women, and forcing them to give up their secular vices. The Sunnis are a decisive people; that’s part of why they’ve had the upper hand in the region for over a millennium. Their change of heart is a big break for us and for Iraq.

The third possibly big change in Iraq is a combination of two smaller changes. The Shiites are starting to fight among themselves. The smart ones among them know that’s precisely why they’ve served as the Sunnis’ footstools for over a millennium. There is a chance that maybe, just maybe, they’ll wise up and rediscover an ancient truism: in unity there is strength.

At the same time, Iraq’s neighbors are getting worried. They are beginning to understand that starting World War III in their own backyard might not be such a bright idea. With the exception of Iran, they are beginning to plot how to tamp down the fire, not inflame it.

Every sports fan knows you don’t throw a game when you’ve just brought in your best lineup and have gotten your first lucky break. So what do the Dems in Congress do? They stick with their original game plan: declare failure and push to leave as quickly as possible. Devil take the hindmost, and hope the hindmost are Iraqis, not us.

The GOP screwed up so badly, they think. They were so stupid, so stubborn. We’ve got to win because they did so badly on Iraq. We’ve got to win because the people want us out of this losing war, and we Dems want to end it. Debet esse, ergo est.

That “General Betray Us” ad was just the icing on the cake. Whoever wrote it apparently yearns for a Guiliani or Romney presidency.

Only two things in life are sure: change happens, and flexibility wins. Sometimes change is even for the better. The more resilient you are, the better you do in war, politics, or sports.

Bush’s popularity ratings are around 30% because everyone sees how inflexible he has been. In a recent poll, Congress is down near 11% because it has been just as inflexible and far more ineffectual. Its members do nothing but squabble, in wholly predictable ways, accomplishing nothing. And the Dems wonder why their margin of loss in the Senate—so close and yet so far—is growing larger.

Iraq is not Vietnam. Only someone with George W. Bush’s knowledge and intelligence could think it is.

There are at least a dozen reasons why the analogy is false, but I’ll mention only three. First, anticolonial sentiment does exist in Iraq, but it’s a pale shadow of the driving force behind our loss in Vietnam: a decades-long struggle to free that nation from Western domination, beginning with the French. Second, Vietnam had a single people, united by language, culture and history. Only Western colonization interrupted their unity. Iraq is exactly the opposite: it’s a country only because colonial powers, in their own self-interest, stitched together three distinct peoples. Finally, there is no jungle canopy in Iraq; air power works.

This doesn’t mean that we can stabilize Iraq. What it does mean is that Vietnam is irrelevant. There are only two applicable lessons from Vietnam. The first is to be cautious about foreign military entanglements. George W. Bush ignored that lesson. Now we have to figure out how best to extract our limbs from the tar baby that his blunders have made Iraq. The second lesson is how to fight insurgencies. General Petraeus seems to have learned that one well; he wrote a book about it.

So the proper stance on Iraq now is wait and see where the three changes lead. Only one benchmark really matters to us: our own casualty rate. On the Iraqi side, it’s local elections—whether they happen at all and, if they do, their results. We all should watch and wait.

It’s not good strategy to bet against your country and an ostensible ally (Iraq) that you’ve sweated blood and tears to help. The American people are inveterate optimists. If there is any sign of a turnaround in Iraq as the elections draw near, the Dems who are running for the exits now are going to lose big.

It’ll be interesting to see which Dems first see the light. As usual, my bets are on Obama.


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