Saturday, September 06, 2008

Palin's fitness test, Part 1

More depressing evidence that Sarah Palin is far from ready to handle the big job. In a speech in Wisconsin, she said that Barack Obama was "profoundly wrong" about the surge in Iraq.

A wiser head would know that this was an issue about which it was not possible to be profoundly wrong. Opposing the war was, in my book, a clear and straightforward choice. Arguments against the war were, and remain, compelling.

But once we were in the war, and once the early bungles of the occupation became abundantly clear, knowing how to proceed was far from straightforward. I'm no military expert, but from what I read at the time, the consensus of military experts was that not enough troops were available for long enough to be assured a surge would be effective.

Were they wrong? No, of course not, or at least not in any obvious way. Their job is to assess risk. Taking on a military mission with fewer than the optimal number of soldiers doesn't guarantee that the mission will fail; it means simply that risks are higher. Uncertainty is inevitable in every military calculation, and sometimes you can draw to an inside straight.

In addition, far more than simply military factors were in play. We successfully bribed some combatants; certain factions split our way; ethnic cleansing played itself out; we were able in some areas to erect physical barriers that helped defuse tensions. Gen. David Petraeus adopted improved counterinsurgency tactics. Perhaps most importantly, Iraqis got a taste of what it's like to live with Al Qaida in Iraq, and they didn't like it.

Indeed, as Gen. Petraeus himself has said, those changes alone might have been enough to reverse the situation without additional troops. Even within the military, the wisdom of adding more troops was hotly debated. In fact, that debate has not ended, since it has obvious implications for how the military should respond to similar situations in the future.

Congress, meanwhile, was being asked in the face of growing public opposition to in effect write an open-ended blank check for a war that had no end in sight. The war was consuming resources that were needed elsewhere in the war on terror. And, without question, a point was looming when continued U.S. presence in Iraq could cause more resistance than it could possibly contain.

Even considering all of that, I favored the surge at the time. For one thing, I strongly endorsed the "if you break it, you own it" argument. I thought we had an obligation to straighten out Iraq even if it was no longer in our own best interests. I also thought that the surge was risky, and unlikely to succeed, but still worth a roll of the dice. But I would never question the judgment or patriotism of anyone who disagreed with me.

Even today, it remains unclear that the gains are permanent. Some dissenting voices within the military fear, for complex reasons, that the temporary successes may actually make the long-term situation worse. Gen. Petraeus himself is optimistic but cautious. For a nuanced view, read this long but very worthy portrait.

In short, where the commander on the ground sees complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty (as does Obama), the politician in Alaska, drawing on her vast experience as commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard, sees sunshine and clear sailing, with contempt for those who see anything else. Military history is filled with the stories of such commanders, and it is a dismal history.


John Young said...

Simpletons like Palin ignore the political component of "the surge," in that we cut a deal with Sunni tribes, who were growing tired of Arab foreigners blowing up their mosques and markets. The U.S. is now paying Sunni combatants who two years ago were killing our troops. And the term "al-Qaida in Iraq" was just a term the neocons coined to sell the war. They are Wahhabis -- primarily from our friends the Saudis -- but they were never under the command of bin Laden. I'd suggest the following Web site for further reading:

Anonymous said...

Yes but, sarah lives right next door to Putin. So she knows! Can the Repubbies get any more bizarre? My answer? Yup, yup!