Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Through Rose-colored glasses

On some evenings, Charlie Rose’s late-night interviews on PBS are as good as television* gets—not counting the indispensable Daily Show and Colbert Report, of course. Rose’s regular in-depth interviews with John F. Burns of the New York Times, for example, offer some of the best mainstream TV reporting on Iraq. (Although, on occasion, Burns seems to overcompensate for his relentlessly grim evaluations of the conflict.)

On the other hand, the program sometimes fails to meet minimal standards for balance and intellectual honesty. Monday’s (January 8th) opening interview with Jack Keane, retired Army Vice Chief of Staff, and Michael Gordon of the New York Times is an unfortunate example.

As one would hope, Keane showed a detailed grasp of the military situation in Iraq and, especially, Baghdad. He was highly critical of the gross incompetence of the administration to date, placing him in a growing (and very safe) chorus of conservative critics. But his assessment of prospects for the coming escalation, and the hope for “victory,” was downright pollyannish (or maybe that’s “pollyannaish”).

How can the new strategy be distinguished from the old? Keane argued that the influx of 20,000+ U.S. troops would, at last, permit units to evict the militias from neighborhoods and hold them, providing long-term security to residents. This strategy, combined with increased financial assistance to combat massive unemployment, could bring about the proverbial “turnaround” in Baghdad within the next year or so. After that, Keane suggested, the U.S. and its Iraqi allies will turn their attention to applying the same fix to Anbar province and other rebellious areas.

Gordon was less sanguine about the prospects for this allegedly “new” strategy. He challenged the very dubious assumption that the Iraqi army and police will suddenly develop both the will and the capability—heretofore totally lacking—to join the Americans in implementing the “surge” strategy. Still, he conceded, without offering any evidence, that the planned escalation offers the last, best chance (sound familiar?) for the U.S. to exit Iraq with some semblance of honor, if not victory.

Shades of Vietnam in 1967—a comparison I can’t resist. For years we’ve supposedly been at some sort of tipping point in Iraq, with the final result to be determined in the next three to six months. The recent collapse of the offensive in Baghdad, thanks in part to the Iraqi failure to deliver most of the promised combat brigades, was barely mentioned.

Rose failed to follow up with some obvious questions. For one thing, neither he nor his guests mentioned that the “surge” model is nothing more than the “clear and hold” strategy that has already been tried, with notable lack of success. No one pressed the point that “clear and hold” will require a much greater infusion of U.S. troops than is planned. There was brief mention of Kosovo and the need to maintain a certain ratio of troops per 1,000 population to ensure security. By one formula, as Rose suggested, the U.S. would need to commit 500,000 troops to Iraq in order to achieve an acceptable ratio for any "pacification" program. Keane lamely suggested that the Iraqis themselves would make up the difference, an utterly preposterous notion that is absolutely without empirical support.

No one mentioned that security in Iraq, such as it is, has long been the de facto responsibility of militias like the Mahdi Army in Sadr City. The Iraqi army, and especially the police, are so infiltrated, compromised and corrupt that they can’t possibly respond to anything but sectarian needs.

Rose had the good sense to ask whether escalation will produce more U.S. casualties. Keane answered "yes," but then hesitated. He suggested that, just maybe, the insurgents won't dare to mount attacks in neighborhoods that have been secured by U.S. forces. But if American troops, in ever larger numbers, are left to occupy and patrol urban neighborhoods, how could there not be an increase in casualties? As much as I'd like to be wrong on this point, Keane's thinking seems to border on delusional.

Every month brings a new (and allegedly superior) approach to an intractable situation. Lately we’ve seen “clear and hold,” the plan to secure Baghdad, the Iraq Study Group’s proposals (now consigned to the remainder bin at Powell's) and now the “surge.” Each new plan, thanks to the credulity of the media and the Congress, allows Bush to run down the clock so that his successor will have to take the blame for ultimate failure. (Gerald Ford being a case in point.)

All in all, Monday’s Charlie Rose was another weary exercise founded on the questionable idea that decisions in Washington remain germaine to the final outcome in Iraq. Sadly, the “reality community” was not well represented in last night’s interviews.


*Which is not nearly as flattering as may first appear.

GRAPHIC: GI's on patrol in Baghdad.

[Note: I'm actually contemplating a post that's unrelated to the Iraq war, or any other war, or even U.S. politics, but I'll probably get over it. Stay tuned anyway.]

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