Bipolar Iraq

Here are the two opposite story lines:

(1) It’s working.

(2) It’s a quagmire.

Let’s fill them out a little more:

(1) Iraqis are back in the markets and on the street; schools are opening, businesses getting going again, institutions returning to life. By virtually every happiness-quotient measure, the state of being among the vast majority of Iraqis is more positive now than it was during the reign of Saddam Hussein—and it will be even more positive in the near future. As social experiments go—revivifying a materially and psychologically broken nation—there is every reason to be optimistic (and even proud) about this one.

(2) We’ve gotten ourselves into an ever-expanding war with a fanatical and well-armed resistance. What’s more, growing numbers of ideological defenders are traveling to this battlefield, which threatens to turn Iraq, along with Israel and the Palestinian territories, into a permanent Muslim versus non-Muslim front and international tripwire. We’re stuck in a situation with consequences and financial burdens that we cannot estimate. This is the definition of quagmire. And by the logic of quagmire, the situation only ever becomes more intractable and the consequences more fearful and destabilizing.

As you read those quick précis, your inclination is, invariably, to pick one. They can’t, after all, really exist together. Or, if perchance they do exist together now, one will inevitably come to overshadow the other. Obviously, if you’re a Bush person, you choose the former, and if you’re an anti-Bush person, you choose the latter. In some sense, in fact, these are not even alternative views of the reality in Iraq as much as opposite worldviews applicable to almost any situation.

(1) There is, quite simply, the patent superiority of the American way. When people are exposed to it, it spreads like a virus. We have not only righteousness on our side but modernity and economic reality. Eighty-seven billion dollars changes any equation. Everything seems messy, inchoate, ugly, fraught, without organization; but at some point in the organizational process, rationality and benefit will begin to become clear. Upside will outweigh downside. Ambivalence and self-doubt are the real killers here. Long-term investment and staying the course are the solutions and the way to get a big return.

(2) An incredible arrogance chronically pervades the American mind-set. Our lack of self-doubt makes us stupid. We’re blinded to the intractable problems set against us: not just to a deep cultural antipathy but to a million details on the ground that the guys at the Pentagon or at Centcom HQ in Florida don’t have the patience or the language skills or the in-country intelligence to think through. What’s more, because we pride ourselves on “can-do” and turn up our noses at intellectual and abstract analysis, we never really or accurately appreciate cause and effect. We’re always the victims of the law of unintended consequences. Because we’re too big and too quick, we necessarily upset the ecology in ways that will certainly come back to haunt and terrorize us.

(1) Essentially good news.

(2) Inevitably bad news.

Which brings us to the Chinook helicopter—and before that the attack on the Al Rashid Hotel, and before that the U.N. attack.

The fervent bad-news-ites seem to believe that the Bushies understand the kind of mess they’re (we’re) in and are doing everything they can to disguise (spin) it and to blame someone else for it. But the more interesting and complex and difficult possibility is that they don’t see it as a mess at all.

For them, these bad-news incidents represent an illusion created by the small resistance, the leftover Baathists. These thugs and irregulars. What we have here are isolated acts meant to sow widespread fear—it’s just, well, terrorism. The odd thing, of course, is that such terrorism is exactly why we went to war—so it’s rather disorienting to have it dismissed now as somehow inconsequential in relation to the bigger picture.

It’s not bad news, the Bushies seem to be saying, as much as bad PR—or the other side’s good PR. The bad guys have effectively influenced the media coverage without, the Bushies seem genuinely convinced, affecting the reality. Life in Iraq gets better and better—except for the fact that these scumballs know how to generate bad press for the Americans who are making life in Iraq better and better.

Hence the Bushies have countered with a campaign to generate good news. There is even the sense—again, a reality inversion—that the best way to deal with terrorism is in the court of public opinion rather than on the battlefield.

So the good-news offensive. The mainstream media—because it is overly liberal and crassly superficial—is emphasizing the (minimal) bloodshed and ignoring the story of a liberated nation. And there has been the careful parsing of the story: carving the Sunni triangle from the rest of a (largely) pacified country; rushing in American pollsters (and then parsing those results); separating good imams from bad imams.

And, indeed, there has been a sudden rush of not unconvincing good-news accounts. Life was terrible. Life is better. Nothing worked. Now many things are working. Average Iraqis may not be embracing the American occupation, but they are sure grateful not to have Saddam around (cue the torture tapes that the Pentagon released to Fox News). Life, as seen by in-country reporters, is returning to normal.

But there are the bodies.

The Bush people, as they argue their story line, have to distract people’s attention from the dead. The president doesn’t mention the bodies; doesn’t attend funerals. Body-bag shots are on the media proscribed list. You can sense their frustration in this regard—that the bodies are always, annoyingly, the story. This is partly a military-civilian disconnect. Our job, you can hear Rumsfeld saying, is to minimize casualties, not to eliminate them. In sheer military terms—troops deployed versus casualties sustained—it’s not even that bad. Arguably (although it’s an argument you lose by making it), the kill ratio indicates a big success. I mean, you can’t really fight a war if everybody is precious—if nobody is expendable.

And yet, the great nonmilitary sensibility of the country, and of the media, sees each body as a story, and multiple bodies as a bigger story, and the aggregate of bodies as a really damning piece of evidence.

There is a socio-military calculation on the part of reporters and politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) and, one would assume, military people as well, as to how much is too much. What’s sustainable and what’s a big problem?

When the number of soldiers killed in the aftermath exceeded the number of people killed in the actual war, that was seen as a problematic milestone.

When the total number of people killed in Iraq II surpassed the total number killed in Iraq I, that got serious.

Oh yes, and significant multi-casualty incidents are major bad news. Mogadishu levels would be very dicey. Beirut levels in the Reagan era might well put the whole proposition over the top.

Now, what the Bush administration is arguing is, in effect, that our enemies know these numbers. That they cannot damage us enough to truly harm us or even to actually hamper our mission, but they can inflict enough damage to frighten us (or frighten you—or frighten the media)—precisely because our tolerance for damage has been set artificially low.

Not least of all by Democrats and by the biased media!

And so we move from a military war to a political one.

This is the exact opposite of the wars of the last generation—of the Clinton approach or even of the first Bush administration—that constant and obsessive cost-reward analysis.

Of not being caught out there without a way back. Retreating from Mogadishu. Not following Saddam into Baghdad. Of always making the calculation about when the consensus might divide. Of not making people choose sides. Of not letting there be two stories told at once.

The Bush people don’t believe there are two sides. Not two right sides, anyway. This mission is sacrosanct. The WMD canard and the sexing of intelligence reports happened, not least of all, to protect the mission. Nobody is going to go for broke in an elective war—it had to be a necessary war.

There’s no debate. There’s polling (of course) but no interest in consensus. Stubbornness (Rumsfeldness) is both virtue and strategy. If you refuse to engage in any back-and-forth but just say what you believe relentlessly, repetition eventually changes perceptions.

Righteousness went out of favor in the post–Cold War world (incrementalism, globalism, complex systems analysis came in). But righteousness is surely back. The righteous don’t compromise, don’t negotiate, don’t wimp out. The righteous (even if they had planned not to have to) take casualties (unlike that thoroughly nonrighteous Clinton, who hated to take casualties).

There’s no longer even a pretense that this is about conventional success measures (indeed, failure suddenly seems part—even a necessary part—of the great ultimate success). The we’re-not-quitters stance of the Bushies (and that the Democrats are, ipso facto, quitters) is explicitly disconnected from any talk about how we’re actually going to win.

The arguable merit of the Bush position—life is certainly better in Iraq—is subsumed by its larger, relentless, messianic, and fatalistic ambitions.

We’re at the bear-any-burden stage. That is, in most political terms, a wildly unpopular place to be. We are, after all, selfish, self-obsessed Americans.

So the only way they’re going to sell this is to turn it from a problem-solving issue into an ideological one. “We are fighting that enemy in Iraq, in Afghanistan today so that we do not meet him again on our own streets, in our own cities,” said the president.

It’s a setup. We’re going to have to choose position (1) or position (2).

The Democrats and Howard Dean play into that hand (Bush-bashing is probably good for the Bushies.)

It’s them or us.

Winners or losers.

Lefties or real Americans.

We’ve been here before, and we know how badly it turns out.

Bipolar Iraq