I continue to be astonished by the surreality of American public discourse about the Iraq war. In the immediate aftermath of the midterm elections, I had some hope that this would lessen at least a little bit, and to some degree it has. It is at least no longer completely taboo to label the war as the obvious disaster it is. However, with regard to the most important subject of debate, what we ought to do now, total unreality still reigns.
The upper eschelons of the Bush Administration, as well as prominent war supporters like John McCain, are seriously contemplating escalating the conflict by sending in some tens of thousands of new troops. The Iraq Study Group and its "moderate" supporters caution against hasty withdrawal, and suggest maintaining current troop levels until some poorly-specified and unquantifiable diplomatic work has been carried out and some kind of political solution to the Iraqi civil war achieved. These two positions seem to have become the ideological poles of "reasonable" debate in Washington. As many others have noted before me, the disconnect between this debate and the opinions of the American public could not be more radical. That escalation is even on the table is bizarre; polls show that only 10-12% of the population would support it. That is considerably less than the percentage of the population that believes that aliens have contacted the US government (which, I've given to understand, usually polls around 30%), or just about any other crazy thing you can imagine. In any genuinely democratic society, escalation would be off the table.
I am less distressed by the undemocratic nature of the debate, however, than by its totally thoroughgoing confusion. The reality of the political and military situation in Iraq right now is so dire and so complex that it is hard to fully appreciate; I am perfectly willing to accept this. Some kind of abstraction from the real-world problems of occupation may be necessary to have any public debate at all. But the Iraq debate has become so removed from these problems as to have lost nearly all meaning.
If total withdrawal is not considered to be an option, as it unfortunately probably cannot be while Bush still holds office, then the debate over escalation is ultimately a debate about tactics and strategy--a debate about how to "win", not a debate about how to disentangle ourselves. As such, the debaters have to agree, or at least explicitly argue over, what constitutes winning. But here, all is darkness. Given that nearly everyone now rejects the Bush administration's early pie-in-the-sky fantasies of establishing a secular, democratic, free-market utopia, what are we really talking about? As far as I can guess, the "moderates" view their goals in primarily negative terms: an end to civil war and chaos, the establishment of some government that is not wildly unstable, or in cahoots with Al Qaeda, or a puppet of Iran. But what would this actually look like? No-one seems to spend any time thinking about this. When I try to imagine this negatively-defined state, the only two pictures I can conjure are the old pie-in-the-sky and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
A certain unclarity of goals has always bedeviled the American occupation, however, so this might seem unsurprising. The current strategic debate, however, muddies the waters even further by failing to clarify either how the preferred strategic course could actually be followed or how it would actually achieve any good whatsoever.
The proponents of escalation are particularly egregious in this regard. As Nitpicker at Unclaimed Territory points out, no-one who supports escalation has even gone so far as to clarify how the escalation itself would be logistically possible. How are we supposed to send 20 to 40K extra troops to Iraq, exactly? Where are these troops? The Army is having terrible trouble keeping up its current troop levels, and it's hard to believe that even the most sustained and well-funded recruitment drive could convince many young people to throw themselves into the meat grinder. The draft is off the table. So what are we really even talking about when we argue about escalation?
Further, it is unclear what purpose these extra troops might serve, even in the minds of the clearly-psychotic proponents of escalation. It makes perfect sense to point out, as many have, that more troops would have made a (small) difference during the initial stages of the conflict, when they might have been able to prevent the looting that helped fund and arm the insurgency in its early days. But what does this have to do with the problems facing the occupation today? What specific military tasks need to be done that cannot be done with current troop levels but could be accomplished by escalation? The standard answer seems to be "pacifying Baghdad"; but how can any military force accomplish that, short of simply wiping the city off the face of the earth? Does anyone really believe that the chaos in Baghdad can be solved by a slightly increased military presence? If so, how, and can they explain it to us? Please?
I don't expect that my political leaders will share my own beliefs, or that they will be honest all or even most of the time, but I do expect that their statements will make at least some minimal sense: that it will at least be clear what they are talking about. But it seems that I am doomed to be disappointed.