Monday, September 17, 2007

A Politicized Debate

America faces daunting challenges in Iraq. Commanders in the field concede there is no easy solution. They would not predict beyond six months from now. Admit it or not, it is not at all clear even to them that the current strategy will eventually succeed, or what success really means. The end state is yet to be defined. Meanwhile, the opposition party in congress can not offer a good solution either. One side says let’s stay the course and see what happens, the other side says let’s pull out half or more of the troops and see what happens.

One would think, that this being a healthy democracy, more options and proposals would be offered for discussion than the two wait-and-see approaches. But the Iraq project is so politicized that neither camp is seeking or even open to new ideas.

For one side this is increasingly a moral issue. The invasion was wrong because the reasons given for the invasion – weapons of mass destruction, connection to 9/11 – were refuted by facts. Building a democracy in Iraq to serve as a positive example for the region looks impossible. Both America and Iraq continue to lose lives in a war that can not be easily defined as good vs. evil, when there are so many sides involved and the nature of the conflict is clearly sectarian struggle for power.

When it is a moral issue discussions about strategy become irrelevant. If it is morally wrong to be there in the first place then the only acceptable answer is to get out. That course of action is mandated regardless of what happens later. Iraq is for Iraqis. Whatever happens is their choice for which they bear full responsibility. To raise a new strategy for the US to solve the problem contradicts the moral mandate. At the very least the UN and the international community must be involved so that the moral burden can be collectively shared.

For the other side it is about military honor. America must never surrender. To retreat from the battlefield when the going gets tough smacks of cowardice. To question the strategy of top commanders is dangerously close to treason. Everyone must think of himself as a soldier, whether or not he is in uniform. It is not a soldier’s place to question his superiors; his job is to faithfully carry out orders. Policy discussions are to be done by top leaders behind closed doors. Once they have agreed to a course of action, there is nothing left to debate.

Since loyalty to the chain of command is essential to the military ethos, outsiders who are alien to this culture do not stand a chance to be heard, even if they may have brilliant ideas. This military culture that emphasizes loyalty and conformity is highly skeptical of intellectuals to begin with. Thus the pedigree, affiliation, even personality and demeanor of the messenger are far more important than his message. One must get with the program, adopt the entire military culture, and become a full fledged member of the tight-knit community, in order to have a voice. All outsiders are considered treasonous or at least suspect.

This culture though traditional to the military is not exactly conducive to creative and original thinking. Yet it can only draw intellectual resources internally. In wars of the past in which such a tradition was born, which were typically between nation-states and easy to understand, the narrowly defined military aspect was all that needed consideration by generals. That tradition however provides little guidance for the current new type of war, let alone nation building. People are saying there is no military solution, political settlement and economic progress play an indispensable part, but these are still seen as entirely separate pieces of the puzzle, not knowing that in a culture like Iraq, there is no conceptual difference between a military solution and a political solution: the two are one and the same. The kind of knowledge that is needed to win this war is not available internally.

That is why commanders of this war can not distinguish between strategic vision and tactics. Progress is gauged purely by the visible level of violence. A lull in casualties is interpreted as success or moving in the right direction, when the underlying power dynamics has not changed at all. Conversely, a surge in killings is taken as a sign of a failed enterprise, when there are good solutions waiting to be discovered. Because there is no vision, it is all about tactics and month-to-month numbers/charts, and events are interpreted along political lines for political purposes.

By now most of the think tanks, editorial boards, the intellectual establishment in general, are also politicized. All major media outlets are under the intellectual sway of the two camps, making it unlikely for other voices to be heard. What is considered an “independent” voice is to have two voices representing the two sides presented side by side. A free country that can potentially have a million ideas now coalesce around two ideas, neither of which is particularly good.