Credible Commitment problems with Iraq

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Apr 20, 2007

Part 17 of Why its so damn difficult to have any sort of meaningful debate about the future of US policy in Iraq, and part 34 of why the Bush Administration has a serious credibility problem when it comes to anything Iraq related.

First, Bush says we can’t leave:

President Bush warned Thursday that pulling out of Iraq too soon would trigger a bloodbath akin to that of the Cambodian killing fields of the 1970s….

“I want to remind you that after Vietnam, after we left, millions of people lost their life,” Bush said here when an audience member asked about comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq. “The Khmer Rouge, for example, in Cambodia. And my concern is there would be a parallel. . . . The same thing would happen. There would be the slaughter of a lot of innocent life. The difference, of course, is that this time around, the enemy wouldn’t just be content to stay in the Middle East; they’d follow us here.”

But then Secretary of Defense Gates, speaking to the Iraqis, says shape up or we’re shipping out:

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived in Baghdad on Thursday to convey a blunt message to Iraq’s leadership three months after the United States began an increase of more than 28,000 troops in the country. “The clock is ticking,” he said.

Gates said he will urge Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other leaders in meetings Friday to act more quickly and boldly to achieve reconciliation between the majority Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political factions — warning that U.S. troops will not remain in the country indefinitely.

“The Iraqis have to know that this isn’t an open-ended commitment,” Gates told reporters traveling with him Thursday, emphasizing that he does not intend to be subtle in meetings with Maliki and others.

So which is it?

The Administration’s tactic du-jour to rhetorically coerce the Democrats into passing his war funding bill and otherwise deligitimize any concerted opposition to the war is the “we can’t leave” bit–sure, we can stay and its trouble, but if we go it will be double.

But, the primary threat that Gates and other senior officials can level to get the various Iraqi factions to come together in some sort of functioning government is–hey, either show us that this can work or we’re out of here and you’re on you’re own.

What do we get from this?

Internationally, Bush has cut his own military / diplomatic team off at the knees. Gates might as well be spitting into the wind or tugging on Superman’s cape. His threats have no credibility because (thanks to American Hegemony, globalization, and Al Gore’s internet tubes) every world leader follows, to some degree, US politics. Everyone knows what Bush is saying to the Democrats on the Hill and knows full well that any move such as this would be tantamount to an admission of failure, which Bush just doesn’t do especially in the face of the 08 election.

And yet, when someone tries to offer an alternative policy or strengthen the hand of the diplomats, they are cut off at the knees by Bush’s harsh rhetoric. For example,

[Bush’s] comments came a day after [Senate Majority Leader] Reid raised the Vietnam War during a closed-door White House meeting. Reid expanded on that in a Senate floor speech and a news conference on Thursday. “I believe myself that . . . this war is lost and the surge is not accomplishing anything as indicated by the extreme violence in Iraq,” he said…

Reid said he reminded Bush during their Wednesday meeting that Johnson refused to acknowledge that the United States was losing in Vietnam and sent more forces into battle — at the cost of thousands of U.S. lives. The senator said he warned the president that Iraq will be his legacy, as Vietnam was for Johnson.

Now, is Reid all that far from Gates and the Generals? The Military wants to avoid just that scenario, hence the Gates ultimatum to the Iraqi government–we won’t stay here and prop up a dysfunctional government like we did in Vietnam.

But, again, the Administration undercuts its own efforts:

The senator’s remarks on Thursday triggered a torrent of Republican denunciations. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Reid’s conclusion that the war is lost conflicts with the assessment of U.S. generals on the ground. “If this is his true feeling, then it makes one wonder if he has the courage of his convictions and, therefore, will decide to defund the war,” she said.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R), who traveled with Bush to his home district here, was even sharper in his response to Reid. “He is telling our enemies they have won,” Boehner said.

If that’s what Reid is saying, that what would Boehner say about Gates?

No benchmarks or timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. But, we’re not staying for ever, we’ll leave if you don’t shape up.

So which is it? Are we staying, or are we going?

Is it any wonder why this is such a @$#Y^&@%#% ?

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.