Iraq in a Nutshell: The Certainty of Uncertainty

Tuesday, September 11, 2007 at 06:37 PM

Yesterday's congressional testimony by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker went pretty much the way almost everyone knew it was going to go. And the recommendation by those two gentlemen that we pretty much stick with current policy is based largely on the uncertainty of Iraq's outcome.

In the words of Ambassador Crocker, "I cannot guarantee success in Iraq. I do believe, as I have described, that it is attainable."

And therein lies the dilemma: when can one ever say with real certainty that an adventure like this is guaranteed either success or failure? When we pulled out of Vietnam, failure was not "guaranteed." Nor, certainly, was success. The same can be said for France's withdrawal from Vietnam. And for British withdrawal from both Palestine and India. And Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Certainty simply doesn't hang around ventures like the occupation of one country by another.

We can always find some evidence on which to hang hope for success, and other evidence on which to hang fear of failure. It necessarily comes down to judgment, to an analysis of the evidence for each result and a subjective calculation of the likelihoods, which must then be compared to the costs that you are willing to endure given a particular degree of likelihood.

So adding additional ground troops has had an impact. Good. But barring a military draft, we are unlikely to be able to keep the number of troops at an elevated level. Bad. Sunnis are starting to oppose the actions of al Qaeda in Iraq. Good. But the same Sunnis show little to no inclination to trust the official government of Iraq. Bad. Violence is down in several areas of Iraq. Good. But violence is up in some other areas, and overall levels of violence are still high. Bad. More and more Iraqi soldiers and police officers have been trained and equipped. Good. But it strongly appears that many of those trained still pledge their allegiance to one of the competing sects, not to the official government, and we may actually be training and equipping the opposing sides of a civil war. Bad. Our presence in Iraq may be staving off a bloody civil war. Good. But our presence in Iraq may be merely delaying that bloody civil war while at the same time fueling recruitment of terrorists throughout the Middle East. Bad.

This mix of good and bad has already existed for years and will, in all probability, continue indefinitely.

If we continue our policy for another 41/2 years, there's an excellent chance that we will then face exactly this same dilemma, based on "some progress" and some "lack of progress" to use our current euphemisms for increases and decreases in destruction, mayhem and mutilation. What will likely differ 41/2 years from now is the additional destruction of Iraqi cities and citizens, the loss of life and limb by American troops, the amount of money poured into the effort, and the international reputation of the United States. And the political debate in the U.S. will still consist of some group insisting that signs of progress justify further involvement, and another group insisting that the signs of lack of progress justify withdrawal.

It is unlikely that there will ever be a time when it is absolutely, undeniably clear that we have won or lost, a situation exacerbated by the fact that we keep redefining what "win" and "lose" mean in Iraq. The decision date on our involvement is always somewhere in the future: one month, six months, this spring, next summer....

At this point, it seems to me that the only potential justification for continuing our military involvement in Iraq is that we unleashed the nightmare that now envelops that country. The key question still, though, comes down to your own subjective reading of the tea leaves. If we cannot say with some minimal degree of probability, that we can alleviate the nightmare, then staying because we unleashed it is nonsensical.

As the British were debating whether and how to exit India, Gandhi declared "You must face the bloodbath and accept it." A horrible decision, one which should not be reached lightly, but one which must remain "on the table," simply because no matter horrible it is, it may still be the best choice available given the circumstances that you unwittingly set in motion long ago.


I got cheated. I watched it. I kept waiting to hear "the light at the end of the tunnel" said. Wait. Was that Westmoreland? My bad, wrong fiasco, sorry.