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

29 January 2007

Why Hawks Should Cheer the Antiwar Left

On Sunday there was a huge antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C. I don’t support a quick withdrawal from Iraq, but I did and do support the demonstration. So should most thinking Americans. Here’s why.

Although hard to solve, the big problem in Iraq now is easy to state. Shiites and Sunnis are indiscriminately slaughtering each other in Baghdad, making reconciliation, reconstruction and political compromise impossible. Question number one is how to stop the slaughter.

We can’t do much with the Sunni extremists and Al-Qaeda because we have no leverage over them. The Sunni extremists hate us as much as they hate the Shiites. They think we stole their power and gave it to the Shiites. Al-Qaeda is our sworn enemy. It believes that the slaughter of civilians in Baghdad is a rational tactic in its long, openly declared war against Shiite “heretics” and us. There is no way, short of a convincing demonstration of overwhelming force, to get the Sunni or Al-Qaedi extremists in Iraq to stand down. The most we can do is kill or defeat them.

The Shiites are different. The owe us and they need us. We deposed Saddam, killed his two vile suns, and gave the Shiites Iraq’s governance on a democratic platter. We are in the process of arming and training them. Furthermore, that process is far from complete, and they know it.

Before we came on the scene, Shiites were better at praying for deliverance from oppression than fighting for it. Many, if not most, of them still are. They are just beginning to learn to defend their majority and their rights on the battlefield and in their legislature.

What most of us fail to understand is the fear that still remains. Sunni dominated Shiites in Iraq for most of the last millennium. The extreme depravity and brutality of Saddam’s rule are well known. His slaughter of the Marsh Arabs, with our acquiescence, is barely fifteen years old and still fresh in memory. During all that time, the Shiites were the praying sheep, and the Sunni the preying wolves. Sheep do not lose their fear of wolves overnight; it takes decades.

The best—if imperfect—analogue in our own history is Emancipation. There may be some African-Americans alive today who know what their ancestors felt upon emancipation. The fear did not go away with the Proclamation, with the end of the Civil War, or with Reconstruction. It lasted for generations and still has residues today. While it may be unfair to compare even Iraqi Shiites’ oppression with slavery, the basic fact remains: fear derived from generational oppression does not vanish overnight.

And so we have the Shiite response to Sunni and Al-Qaeda provocations. True, Shiites in Iraq outnumber Sunnis three to one. True, we are arming Shiites and not Sunnis. True, the Shiites are training to become soldiers and learning more every day. True, all the air power and heavy weapons (ours) are at the Shiites’ backs. True, any rational assessment of who would win an all-out civil war in Iraq would have to name the Shiites. And yet still the Shiites act, collectively, like a frightened boy.

Take Muqtada al-Sadr, for example. Saddam’s assassins killed his father, uncle and two brothers. Then he watched helplessly as Saddam slaughtered his compatriots, the Marsh Arabs, with our acquiescence after Gulf I. Can anyone blame him for wanting a personal militia?

The trouble with Sadr’s Mahdi Army is that it is not really a militia. It is a poorly trained, undisciplined and largely uncontrollable rabble. If it had been an effective fighting force, it might have tracked down and neutralized the Sunni death squads wreaking havoc in Sadr City. But the best it could do was retaliate in kind, killing Sunni civilians indiscriminately in an orgy of vengeance. Even Sadr himself appears willing to confess that some elements of his militia need to be controlled.

But before we dismiss both Shiites and Sunni as “uncivilized,” we should remember Dresden, Warsaw, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Next to the “civilized” world’s slaughter of innocent civilians, the Iraqi Arabs’ is small potatoes. Instead of deriding Iraq’s people as hopelessly uncivilized, we should figure out how to stop the slaughter, using what leverage we have.

And that’s where our antiwar protestors come in. Iraqi Shiites fear their Sunni oppressors and enemies far more than they fear anything else. They also fear their own weakness, which they are just beginning to overcome. So the only real leverage we have over them is the threat to withdraw our help. As that threat becomes more imminent it—like the hangman’s noose—focuses Shiites’ attention.

And that’s precisely the problem. Iraqis may not have the latest technology, but they are good judges of character. They know our president. They understand his emotional commitment to this war, and they know that his legacy depends upon it. They believe him when he says he would drive himself, his wife Laura and his dog Barney into the maelstrom even if no one else followed. So when the president’s minions gently warn that “our commitment in Iraq is not open-ended,” what leverage does that give them? Absolutely none.

What gives us leverage over Iraqi Shiites is our domestic antiwar movement. The Iraqis can read our newspapers. They know that 70% of Americans don’t support the war. They know that Congress is getting perilously close to cutting off funds for further military action in Iraq, and possibly for the arms and equipment that the Shiites still desperately need. And every antiwar demonstration here at home drives the Shiites fear of a cutoff deeper. That’s real leverage.

And so we have the most hopeful signs in Iraqi politics in years. The politicians are working on dividing the oil wealth and federal power fairly. Efforts to induce Sunni sheikhs to join the effort for political reconciliation are growing. And—most important of all—al-Sadr appears to be standing down his militia in Baghdad, allowing the better-trained Coalition “surge” troops and Iraqi forces to root out Sunni and al-Qaeda killers.

Would all this have happened without an antiwar movement in the United States? Not a chance. The antiwar movement is the “bad cop” in negotiations with Iraq’s Shiite leaders—a role that no one in the Administration has the least credibility to play. If it were not for our own antiwar movement, our “surge” troops would be marching into Baghdad to meet Shiite death squads with Shiite sympathizers and al-Sadr’s militia at their backs.

That is one of many reasons why disparaging antiwar advocates is wrong and counterproductive. The great strength of this nation has always been debate and dissent. Honest debate perfects our policies, strategies and tactics far better than blind allegiance to any leader or any policy, no matter how well conceived. And God knows, no policy of ours in Iraq has yet been well conceived.

In the end, the antiwar protestors may be right. The Iraqi Shiite leaders may simply be incapable of meeting the military and political challenges needed to keep Iraq whole. Partitioning Iraq and coming home as quickly as possible may be the best thing our troops could do. But even if the protesters are wrong, their dissent has served a valuable purpose: bringing the frightened and confused Shiites to their senses.

If nothing else, this story corroborates a basic value of our nation. Honest dissent is useful and valuable. We should never confuse it with weakness or disloyalty. And we should cherish our antiwar movement, even as we support our “surge” troops, for keeping the pressure on al-Maliki and al-Sadr.

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25 January 2007

A Chance for Success in Baghdad?

In two recent posts on this Blog (1 and 2), this writer has argued that the president’s “surge” strategy has little chance of success in pacifying Baghdad. The primary reason for this conclusion was fear that our “surge” troops would be marching into a meat grinder, in which they could count on neither the effectiveness nor the loyalty of the Iraqi troops with whom they are to be embedded.

Recent developments, however, provide greater cause for optimism. A few press reports suggest that Shiite extremists, including the Mahdi Army, have decided on a strategy of “fade away and wait.” That is, they appear to have decided not to fight the American surge, but to reduce or cease death-squad activity, fade into the population, and wait to see what happens. There are reports that Mahdi Army units are leaving Baghdad or, in some cases, sequestering their weapons and readying themselves to hide in the population peacefully as ordinary civilians. Apparently there are also plans to offer up some of the more unruly Shiite death squad leaders for punishment, or at least to acquiesce in their arrest.

If true, these reports change the picture significantly and offer some hope that the president’s “surge” proposal may succeed, possibly even with an acceptable level of American casualties.

If the Shiite extremists in Baghdad “stand down” in expectation of the surge, then one of two things will happen. If the Sunni extremists do not stand down, then our “surge” troops will have to concentrate on fighting them. Although doing so may exacerbate political tensions with Sunni leaders, it will not produce the feared “meat grinder” effect because the largely Shiite Iraqi army’s loyalties will support the mission. If the fight against Sunni extremists in Baghdad is successful, and the Shiite extremists have stood down, violence in Baghdad may subside enough to make some progress on the political front. If the Sunni extremists themselves also stand down in Baghdad in anticipation of the surge, then the same outcome may occur—reduced violence—with fewer casualties on all sides.

It is unlikely that Sunni extremists will ever stand down in Anbar Province, which is a different problem altogether. But there the surge makes sense, because Coalition surge troops are unlikely to be shot in the back, while fighting Sunni extremists and al-Qaeda, by their Shiite and Kurdish comrades in the Iraqi Army.

Of course there is a risk that extremists on either or both sides will simply wait until the “surge” troops are withdrawn to resume their killing. Yet the longer any relatively peaceful interval lasts, the more Baghdadis may decide (or may be persuaded) that peace is not a bad thing. During any interval of reduced violence, Coalition troops and Iraqi authorities will have the opportunity to make a full-court press for intelligence and law enforcement. They can try to round up, incarcerate, kill or incapacitate the worst extremists on both sides while the relative peace lasts.

This optimistic scenario involves a lot of big “ifs.” First, it must be true that the Shiite extremists, or most of them, intend to stand down. Second, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Shiite-dominated government must indeed be prepared to offer up the worst of the worst for arrest and not put them back on the street later. Third, there must be some way to prevent Sunni extremists in Anbar Province from continually infiltrating Baghdad and making the situation worse. Finally, there must be some realistic hope of defeating the Sunni extremists in Baghdad if they, unlike their Shiite counterparts, do not stand down.

If all these conditions are met, there is a chance that the surge could work. Instead of being an invitation for our troops to engage in a house-to-house struggle with potentially disloyal “comrades” at their backs, the “surge” might be the occasion for a weird sort of undeclared “truce” between the warring factions, motivated or enforced by fear of superior American firepower or an unwillingness to tolerate the urban destruction that use of that firepower would risk.

Even while writing this, I have the sinking feeling that this scenario may be hopelessly optimistic and naïve. Yet if serious intelligence suggests that the Shiite death squads do indeed intend to stand down during the surge, the surge may make sense as a combined military-political strategy for a “cooling down” period, which might allow the process of political reconciliation to proceed. Because that scenario appears to provide the last chance for a more peaceful and hopeful Iraq, the risk may be worth taking. It is not worth taking if the Shiite death squads do not stand down, and our surge troops have to fight them with Shiite-dominated Iraqi troops at their backs.

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22 January 2007

What Politicians Do When Reality Intervenes

Politicians work in two ways. Some find a solution to a real problem and use their charisma and political skill to sell their solution to the people. Some take a different tack. They figure out what they can sell, call it a “solution,” and implement it, whether it works or not.

The second approach is easier than the first. The people may be unaware or skeptical of a real problem. Or a real solution may require real sacrifice and pain, creating political resistance from one group or another. In that case it takes more brains, guts, charisma and political skill—i.e., leadership—to “sell” a real solution than to mediate a compromise, declare victory and follow the herd.

The classic example of the preferred approach is Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s leadership before and during World War II. For nearly six years before the war, he worked ceaselessly to rouse the Congress and the people from their isolationist slumber. He managed to help keep Britain afloat through his Lend-Lease program and other temporizing measures despite fierce opposition from a determined Congress and the popular notion that “that war in Europe” would never come to our shores. After 1939, he even managed to start wartime mobilization on the sly.

Yet despite Roosevelt’s legendary political skill, he did not really succeed in rousing Americans until after Pearl Harbor. Based on that fact, some believe he deliberately encouraged lax preparedness by our Navy, in the hope that a sneak attack (which he allegedly thought would be far less devastating than it actually was) would jar us awake.

We do not know how true that claim was. Roosevelt’s political enemies here at home, not his supporters, made it. But even if it were true, such a draconian political tactic may have been necessary. Pearl Harbor got our nation fully committed to the war as nothing else had—not Nazi or Japanese atrocities, the sinking of our ships at sea, or the fall of most of Europe and Asia. Toward the end of the war, the Nazis were about eighteen months away from having the atomic bomb. Had we entered the war two years later, the world might now be a far, far darker place, and we might have lost our Republic. When I was a youth hitchhiking in Europe, a German truck driver who picked me up described in detail his training as a paratrooper, during the war, to invade the United States.

Now contrast what our current president did in Iraq. If you take him at his word, he believes that “success” in Iraq is vital our national security, if not our national survival. He says he thought so before the invasion as well. So Bush apparently thought and thinks that the war in Iraq is as important to our national security as Franklin Roosevelt thought our entry into World War II was from 1936 to 1942.

But what solution did the two leaders “sell” to the American people? By the end of World War II the United States had 5 million troops under arms; in 1944 it produced more than 8,000 aircraft per month. I won’t even mention the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb or our rapid invention of synthetic rubber to compensate for the Japanese occupation of Malaysia’s rubber fields.

Today we have a population over twice as large as during World War II and a mighty military-industrial complex that only began in World War II. Yet our response to the so-called “existential threat” in Iraq has been pathetic. We have about a tenth as many troops under arms as we had 62 years ago and less than 150,000 in the theater of conflict. We can’t even armor a few thousand Humvees or provide body armor for all our troops. And we haven’t even begun to think about a buildup of unmanned, conventional air power that might help us realize legitimate foreign-policy goals in the region without so many casualties and so much destruction.

Colin Powell sent half a million troops to Iraq in Gulf I, when taking Baghdad was not on the agenda and only Kuwait was at stake. Bush’s generals told him that succeeding in the current war would require at least twice the number of troops we have ever had on the ground there. Did Bush follow their advice? No. He knew that fielding those troops would require reinstating the draft or busting the budget with new incentives for a volunteer army. Training additional troops also would take time. So he “shopped” his generals, bought Donald Rumsfeld’s pipe dream, and sent an inadequate force to perform an ill-defined mission. He based his “solution” to this putatively vital real problem on what he thought he could deliver politically.

Future historians will forever scratch their heads as they contemplate the vast gulf between the “threat” that Bush says he sees and the response of our great nation to it. Only a solution based on domestic politics, not the alleged reality of the threat, can explain the difference. The only other explanation is a president who doesn’t really believe the threat himself and is using it cynically to manipulate the nation for domestic political benefit. Even the president’s worst enemies have trouble believing that scenario, as least as concerns the war in Iraq. Much more likely, the president is just a lazy politician who tries to solve problems that he sees as real the second way.

The president’s current call for a “surge” is much the same. Does anyone really think that increasing our troop level by fifteen percent is going to make a difference when it’s been low by a factor of two (100%) since the very beginning? Yet the “surge” will make a big difference to the troops going in to “secure” Baghdad. If current trends are any indication, they will be marching to meet death squads without adequate political cover, without a clear chain of command, and without clear and effective rules of engagement. They will be surrounded by Iraqi troops whose training and loyalty are questionable at best. In other words, they will be going into a meat grinder, with only a small chance of success. If our soldiers and marines feared “fragging” by their own comrades in Vietnam, you can imagine how their successors will feel today, entering Baghdad surrounded by ill-trained Iraqis who might themselves be members of death squads or their sympathizers.

No one in his right mind could think this approach has a reasonable, let alone good, chance for success. So why is the president doing it? Because it is what the nation’s generally low level of force preparedness, its current political mood, and the state of our exhausted and overstretched armed forces allow. The president is prescribing what he thinks opposing forces in government and the military will grudgingly accept, calling it a “solution,” and sending our “surge” troops into the maelstrom. He is letting domestic politics and a bit of Iraqi politics prescribe the “solution” for his own losing war.

Tragically, our defeat in Vietnam had a similar origin. Lyndon Johnson was a skilled American politician, well versed in persuading, cajoling and (if necessary) blackmailing his colleagues in Congress to do what he thought was right. Several times in the depths of the war, he wondered out loud why he couldn’t deal with Ho Chi Minh like an American pol. But Ho Chi Minh was not an American pol. He was a skilled and resourceful foreign leader totally determined to realize a decades-old dream of freeing all of Vietnam from foreign domination. He was willing to sacrifice millions of his people to do so. Johnson’s “solution” to the war—continual escalation as a source of political pressure—was ineffective, and we lost. Ho Chi Minh was not about to compromise like an American pol.

Otto von Bismarck once remarked that “politics is the art of the possible.” He meant that, when people disagree, you can only compromise so far. To the extent stakeholders have differing interests, a political “solution” lies on the middle ground. In current parlance, reaching that kind of solution requires “triangulation.”

That may be true when compromising abstract human interests. But a solution has to be more exacting when external reality intervenes. When events external to the relevant political “universe”—in this case domestic politics—make demands that cannot be ignored, a political compromise will seldom be enough.

Katrina was another example. After decades of Bismarckian political compromises over short funding, New Orleans’ levees were ready to withstand hurricanes of Category 3. There were several Category 4s and 5s that season, and Katrina was a Category 4. The political compromise did not provide a real solution to the real-world problem of increasingly severe storms, and New Orleans died.

The Department of Homeland security likewise was a creature of political compromise, in both its existence and organization. That political compromise hollowed out the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and gave it Michael Brown as a leader, who was clueless in disaster response. We all know the result: an embarrassing debacle that shamed us before the world.

But the story is still not over. Not only is the debacle of homeless refugees still ongoing; the future also looks grim. The levees failed and killed New Orleans because they were not strong enough. So what did the Administration do? It built them back up to the same level that killed New Orleans in the first place (able to withstand only hurricanes up to Category 3). It did so although hurricanes of Categories 4 and 5 are known to have become increasingly numerous and, due to global warming, may increase in number still further in the future. Once again, political compromise, not a real-world solution, determined the levees’ strength.

If a Category 4 or 5 wipes New Orleans off the map again—this time no doubt permanently—it will do so because nature—a force external to our political system—doesn’t always respect the art of the possible among humankind. Neither do implacable enemies like al-Qaeda.

There are still other examples. Rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, bad-mouthing China and India, and making token gestures at increasing automobile economy and encouraging alternative fuels does not solve the problem of global warming. But those tactics do make it easier to achieve “consensus” among auto manufacturers, energy producers, and a public that (having been fed the Administration’s own propaganda for six years) is largely selfish and clueless on this issue.

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. During the past six years, we’ve gotten the kind of problem-solving we deserve. We elected a back-slapper and marketer of grand, utopian visions as our president, not once but twice. On every important issue from Iraq to social security, the president has demonstrated his inability to conceive or sell real solutions and a willingness to accept whatever half-baked “solution” he can sell.

We now have two years to reconsider our approach to electing leaders.

A well-known prayer may show us the way. It asks God to “help me change what I can, accept what I can’t change, and give me the wisdom to distinguish between the two.” Our nation’s political prayer should be similar: “Help us find leaders with the skill to solve political problems by compromising conflicting interests, the brains to find real solutions to real-world problems, and the wisdom to distinguish between the two.”

We’ll all need to say that prayer, for finding leaders with those qualities will not be easy. The present front-runners for president in 2008 are all from Congress. They all have shown the ability to compromise, for that is what Congress does. But few have demonstrated the ability to find a difficult solution to a real-world problem and sell it to a recalcitrant Congress and an uncomprehending public.

Much the same is true of the governors who are running. Unlike members of Congress, governors are executives. But they don’t make foreign policy, and they don’t fight wars. Most of what they do from day to day involves compromising competing interests for scarce resources: money, land, and the environment. Occasionally, an accident or natural disaster requires them to solve a real-world problem. But no one from Louisiana or Mississippi is running, nor would anyone from those states have a chance of winning on the present record.

Rudy Giuliani, although only a mayor, is the only candidate who can claim to have passed this test. His response to September 11 showed good leadership of a shocked, united and unanimous public in a short time of crisis. He was heroic and effective. But his leadership did not show the ability to sell an uncomprehending public a difficult and controversial solution to a longstanding problem. Good leadership of New York City united in crisis is not in the same league as Roosevelt’s six-year effort to sell an unpopular but vitally necessary war. Like the rest of the field, Mr. Giuliani still has to show us he has that kind of skill.

So how should we vote, when none of our presidential contenders has a track record of solving real-world problems by selling effective but painful solutions?

We might be tempted to look for the best compromiser, i.e., the one who stays away from ideological extremes and seeks the middle. Avoiding stubborn ideology and extremes is a good quality for any national leader to have. Blind adherence to ideology—whatever its nature—seldom solves real problems. The Bush Administration has been an object lesson on that point.

But avoiding extremes and blind ideology is not enough. Seeking the middle is just another form of compromise. It doesn’t demonstrate the ability to solve real-world problems and sell effective solutions, especially those that may require sacrifice or delayed gratification. Senator Hillary Clinton's "triangulation" of a "solution" for Iraq demonstrates that point. Solving real problems and making the hard sell is another skill entirely, one which has been absent from the Oval Office for far too long.

Since few in recent memory have demonstrated that skill decisively, we will have to look for hints. Has the candidate sought solutions that work, rather than those that are easy to sell and/or meet ideological predilections? Has the candidate been flexible ideologically and willing to work with political rivals and the opposing party, while insisting on practical and workable solutions to real problems? Has the candidate publicly rejected approaches that won’t work—even when they have strong ideological support? Has he/she done so on pragmatic, not ideological, ground? Has the candidate been willing to give others credit for solutions that work? Has the candidate rejected solutions that won’t work, even if he/she might have enjoyed credit or public acclaim for sponsoring or participating in an unworkable but superficially attractive solution?

A case in point is building a 700-mile fence along our 2,500 mile border with Mexico to stop illegal immigration. That “solution” insults the intelligence of the American people, not to mention the pride of Mexicans and their government. It is the worst sort of demagoguery, and any politician who supported it should automatically be stricken from the rolls of possible presidential contenders.

These tests are stringent. They are especially hard for members of the last Congress, one of the most self-centered, most ideological and least thoughtful in our nation’s history. If we are honest with ourselves, we will find that few can pass them.

Yet if we keep the foregoing questions in mind as we vet the candidates, our prayer may be answered. We may yet have a leader who knows how to solve real problems as well as how to compromise.

Neither an ideologue like our current president nor a hapless, amiable compromiser will suffice at this critical time in our history. We need a problem solver who has the brains to see real solutions and the charisma and political skill to sell them to those who see less clearly and whom the solutions may cause pain. We haven't had such a leader in a long time.

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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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