On Gates

These are strange days. It was often said (and assumed) that we could not have a candid national discussion about Iraq the midterm elections closing-in on the horizon. The terms of debate would be impossibly partisan (read: dishonest). Now the midterms are behind us. And a bit of oxygen has been let into the room. But not much.
Rumsfeld is out. Gates is in. But what does this mean?

Jim Hoagland had a very smart column this weekend in The Washington Post. For many of us, our loathing of Rumsfeld may lead us to presume that his mere absence is more significant than any quibbling over the person who is slated to take his place. Such an attitude would be a mistake. “Only the incompetence and discord of the past three years could cause reasonable people to welcome back with applause policymakers who failed to anticipate and then opposed the breakup of the Soviet Union; who were not realistic enough to see, much less prevent, the Balkans from plunging into flames; and who ‘coddled dictators from Beijing to Baghdad,’ as the Democrats once accurately described the handiwork of Brent Scowcroft, Bob Gates and Jim Baker under Bush 41,” opines Hoagland.

We are told Gates is a realist. That, along with James Baker, this is the return of the “Wise Men.” And this may indeed signify a springtime for realism. But the term is highly misleading. Small-d has dedicated a good amount of pixels to lamenting and parsing how various ideological categories have been misused and abused in recent years. There is no greater example of this than the use of “neoconservatism.” It does not mean simply to be hawkish on Iraq. Rumsfeld is not, and never was or has been, a neoconservative. I think he would laugh at the suggestion that he has ever been anything but conservative. There is nothing “neo” about Don Rumsfeld. Which is to say, though Gates can reasonably be placed in the realist school of foreign policy this designation tell us little about his approach to Iraq.

Is it realistic to add more troops and finally secure Baghdad, a reasonable pre-requisite to any political deal being struck? Or is it more realistic to acknowledge that the situation has spiraled well beyond our control and therefore redeploy out of the streets of Iraq and let the Iraqis fight it out?

Because it seems to me that we are stuck in an awful gray area. It is the politics of indecision and it is unfair – verging on immoral – to our troops. If we are not serious about dismantling the militias and significantly raising the level of basic security in Baghdad than we should not be sending our troops out into the streets (unless they are getting at al Qaeda types). What purpose does such a policy serve? What end point does it bring us closer to? If we as a nation, and our political leadership more specifically, is unwilling to sink more resources into Iraq than we should not be there.

I suspect we are trapped in this politics of indecision because the choices are so damn hard. I do not even know where I stand on the issue. Is Iraq a lost cause? What responsibility do we have to prevent even worse bloodshed? And make no mistake. If we leave it will get worse. A lot worse.

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