What You Should Think About Progress

“The greatest thing in the world is not so much where we are, but in what direction we are moving.”

–Oliver Wendell Holmes

In dialogue about the war in Iraq, so many terms have been robbed of consensus meaning.  Never mind “mission accomplished.” “Victory,” “success,” “defeat,” and even “war” are officially applied in completely inappropriate contexts.  The pathological abuse of language even extends to the point where demilitarization plans are shaped by “time horizons” and a major diplomatic meeting cannot be labelled as a “negotiation.”

This Orwellian approach to misleading the public can never serve any worthwhile purpose . . . at least, not as well as clear honest communications would.  However, it can prove effective to the degree that confusing the general public is its intent.  “Progress” provides a platform from which to observe this phenomenon.  After years and years, slaughter upon slaughter, there has been a meaningful reduction in the level of violence inside Iraq.  No doubt in some sense this is progress.  Yet it is fair to ask if this is the progression of strategy adapting to achieve improved results or the progression of a fire that is running low on fuel.

Had powerful outsiders equipped with invincible military power occupied the United States of America, a radical and violent insurgency seems like one inevitable consequence.  To some degree there is an rational case to be made for freedom fighters.  The idea that many of us would not simply capitulate and take orders from an invading force may even be a legitimate source of pride.  Yet for how many years would we struggle against the occupying power before the highest levels of violent resistance could no longer be sustained?

Unlike religious fanaticism, the principle of self-government provides an ethical basis for resisting outside invaders.  With that in mind, is it likely that an insurgency containing elements of Al Qaeda would run out of proverbial steam even sooner?  The reduction in violence, like the reduction of polar ice, is a fact established by credible evidence put through extensive scrutiny.  Yet the case for a kinder gentler Iraq caused by the “troop surge” rests on hot air of the figurative variety, whereas a trend of atmospheric warming is subject to measurement and verification.

There is some underlying reality to consider.  For one, the actual escalation in troop numbers went a little beyond a token gesture.  From even before the invasion began, informed experts openly criticized Secretary Rumsfeld’s “lighter, faster, cheaper*” paradigm that saw U.S. forces putting roughly one third as many boots on the ground as would be required for effective control.  The surge of this year was an order of magnitude below what would be required to pursue pacification over such a large and diverse area.  However, something is better than nothing, and it was only one order of magnitude shy of a full-fledged military solution.

Then again, just what about this continued to be a military problem after Saddam Hussein was apprehended?  Even accepting the proposition that regime change in Iraq was a sensible goal to pursue at the time of the invasion, there is no excuse for a total failure to push for demilitarization of U.S.-Iraqi relations after the old Baghdad regime was effectively neutralized and a fledgling state established in its place.  Instead of preparing Iraq to stand on its own, the Coalition Provisional Authority fired everyone in the army and most security services.  If there were ever a case of criminal stupidity, surely adding legions of desperately poor young men with guns to an already unstable and violent mix would be that case.

To what degree this dip in Iraqi violence was inevitable and to what degree it was a result of American policy is not at all clear.  Thus it becomes clear when someone proclaims “the surge is working” that the vocal individual is eager to pass off opinions as facts.  It is hard to imagine the level of gullibility required to take those individuals seriously.  They laud the cleverness of the current Presidency based on this argument after countless evasions of responsibility for nearly everything that went wrong in foreign affairs, counterterrorism policy, and military operations since the first moments “shock and awe” was unleashed on Baghdad.

Even a broken clock is right twice per day.  Pundits who constantly predict economic boom times get it right when there is a boom.  Something parallel is true of more bearish prognosticators.  Official statements regarding the war have taken the concept of rose colored glasses to a much more extreme and much more disturbing place than ever before.  At any point in the years and years this bloodbath has been perpetuated, President Bush and his administration remained poised to take credit for any dip in violence.  As determined as insurgents and terrorists were to drive off the invaders, it appears that even their desire to kill was no match for that of our political right-wing.

Now as the debate about Iraq looks to the future, one candidate will argue that the other “wanted America to lose” and “was wrong about Iraq” regarding the effectiveness of the escalation and new tactics.  Yet this all goes back to the Orwellian trick.  Insofar as winning and losing are applicable concepts, a “win” was extremely unlikely based on the initial plan and not at all possible after Paul Bremmer demonstrated beyond any shadow of doubt that the 21st century is no place for viceroys.  Is it really a “win” to partially rebuild a nation devastated by an invasion and occupation that were predicated on abominable intelligence analysis and perpetuated by even worse executive leadership?

Manipulating language to confuse asymmetrical warfare with conventional warfare may rally support for violence, but only to the extent that violence is misguided.  A straightforward explanation of terrorism and the means of neutralizing terrorist threats can promote support for wise policies and create a kind of genuine strength propaganda never can.  Likewise, those who would trivialize and spin this incredibly complex situation in Iraq by phrasing things in terms of “winning” or “losing” promote a false strength that is really a weakness.  This national weakness has left our nation politically and intellectually hobbled for at least as long as this war has been underway.

Demilitarization of Iraq policy is a measure that is long overdue.  The blood and treasure squandered during years of unjustifiable delay is staggering.  Yet those losses only continue to grow until the time comes that real power is used to rally the kind of real strength that can only come from real progress toward concluding this obscenely long military occupation.

If we are to be constructive in all of this, perhaps the term “progress” can be reclaimed from those who insist American policy in Iraq is the cause of said phenomenon.  Whatever the true cause(s), less violence in Iraq is some form of progress.  More and more people conceiving of a day when that land is not subject to U.S. military occupation is progress as well.  If we as a nation can find common ground about realizing a vision like that, then we can continue to make progress.  Call them “time tables” or “time horizons,” but by all means keep such talk alive.

*Of all the ironies, the notion that a joint Pentagon-Haliburton venture would be part of a “cheaper” approach to war may be the most extreme.  Of all the tragedies, the earnest belief that privatization of the commisary did in fact generate savings for taxpayers is nowhere near the most extreme . . . but it is nonetheless a tragic failure of basic competence.
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