Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Platform

All right, it’s time for me to throw my hat into the ring. The presidency of the United States is up for grabs, and the chances of any of the major candidates meeting my expectations are, as usual, slim. For me, voting is always about damage control. So I guess there’s nothing left but to run myself.

On second thought, I don’t really feel like incurring massive debts, sacrificing all hope of privacy forever, compromising what integrity I may have left and, most of all, risking actual election to what is arguably the world’s most important job. So maybe I’ll take a pass. But instead of waiting to see what Moe, Larry and Curly will come up with by way of policy proposals, I’ve decided to stake out my own positions and challenge the candidates either to endorse them or say why they won’t. (I’m sure they’ll be up late tonight in the Obama, Clinton and McCain headquarters, poring over these proposals.) So in the interests of good government without regard to partisan prejudices, here’s my Platform for the Presidency, 2008:

Part One: The War

This is the major issue this year, for any number of reasons. Now, it should be noted that the war in Iraq is nowhere near having the impact on U.S. economy and society that the Second World War or even Vietnam had—not yet. But it still tops the list, because people are dying. Wars have a way of undermining prosperity, confidence, good government, and, not least, good cheer. So we’ve got to figure out where we’re going in Iraq.

It would be nice to have a simple position on Iraq, like “We should pull all the troops out immediately” or “We should keep a large military force in Iraq as long as necessary to achieve victory,” but, unfortunately, complex situations don’t always admit simple solutions. It’s one thing to say that invading Iraq was an appalling strategic mistake and that our failure to keep order in the wake of the invasion was a shameful abdication of responsibility, and quite another to say that the solution is immediate withdrawal. Once you have broken the water main, it’s a little irresponsible to slink away hoping nobody will notice as the neighborhood floods.

Our destabilization of Iraq has metastasized into a region-wide crisis involving, among other things, a resurgence of long-neglected and disenfranchised Shiite populations. There is no longer any such thing as an Iraq policy divorced from the dynamics of the region as a whole. And our capacity to influence events in Iraq and the wider Mideast, militarily or otherwise, is limited. Step one in forming an intelligent Iraq policy is to abandon hubris and realize that our ability to shape the destiny of an alien, diverse and fractious polity is severely constrained. We need realistic goals.

Turning the Middle East into collection of model democratic states is not a realistic goal. Even determining the long-term shape of the Iraqi polity may not be a realistic goal. Preventing any Iranian intervention in Iraqi affairs is not a realistic goal. All of these are things that are simply not in our control, at least not militarily. We can’t afford the degree of military involvement that would be necessary to achieve the long-term outcomes we think are desirable. Militarily, our goals must be short-term. So let’s look at what can be done.

I think goal number one has to be the re-establishment of internal security for Iraqis. This is a moral obligation devolving on us by reason of our invasion of Iraq. By destroying the old Iraqi order, we assumed responsibility for the most basic function of the state, the assurance of basic life security. As long as ordinary Iraqis can’t go to the market without having a decent chance of making it home, we have an unfinished mission in Iraq. And that means first concentrating on achievable gains on the ground, the nuts and bolts of counter-insurgency. I don’t think that goal is unattainable. Our military action in Iraq has been, intermittently, effective. And we’re getting smarter. Soldiers are good at learning from their mistakes because they have to be. Violence in Iraq has declined as our tactics, not least those of co-opting former insurgents, have improved. The bar must not be set too high—perfect social peace in Iraq is beyond us. But an end to the worst excesses of jihadist cells and sectarian militias is not. And it would be disgraceful to abandon the effort at this point, when the responsibility for the anarchy lies with us. Even more disgraceful would be an abandonment of those Iraqis who have collaborated with us. They should be offered whatever aid and protection they need to establish themselves in safety, in the U.S. or elsewhere.

Goal number two must be to set up and leave in place an Iraqi security establishment capable of keeping internal order. This is largely a technical problem. It means providing training and material assets, and we’re pretty good at that. Here again perfection cannot be the goal, because if it is we’ll be in Iraq beyond John McCain’s hundred years. Ultimate responsibility for integrating the private militias into the military, resolving sectional disputes and assuring national unity lies with the Iraqi government. We cannot make Iraq proof against civil war. But we can provide the elected Iraqi government with sufficient trained battalions to raise the costs of insurgency to deterrent levels. The recent commitment of Iraqi government troops against Shiite militias is an encouraging sign, however indecisive the results.

When we have achieved these two goals, which should be plainly and loudly announced to all parties, it will be time to plan our withdrawal from Iraq. Until then, we’re committed. That’s my platform.

Next time: Tax simplification

Sam Reaves

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