Friday, December 09, 2005

In the Middle: Joe Conason's Iraq War Plan

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
Subject: Joe Conason's Iraq War Plan

Has Joe Conason, writer for and the New York Observer, come up with a legitimate and legitimately new idea to win the war in Iraq?

And now for a brief primer on conventional wisdom and the war in Iraq:

A brief primer on conventional wisdom and the war in Iraq

Chapter One
For nearly two years, it was thought to be somewhere near the neighborhood of traitor to even suggest that US troops should leave Iraq before there was some kind of generally agreed upon Total Victory.

Chapter Two
After President Bush was re-elected and reality slowly overtook the maelstrom of politics in the United States, public opinion shifted firmly against the war and the persistent reports of American casualties that came with it.

Chapter Three
In late 2005, there are three main camps:

* The Bushies: Led by Bush 43 himself, these are the hardcore stay-the-coursers. I'd include the neocons in this group, Phillip, but I know that would reopen an earlier debate!

* The 'Tweeners: This group includes hawkish Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and, interestingly, a rising number of Republicans who are trying to respond to public unease to the war. The general message here is: we need to make progress now and start bringing troops home… or we might just have to start bringing troops home.

* The End-It-Nowers: No longer the bastion of Howard Dean and other dovish liberals, this camp rakes in more "names" everyday, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and new "name" Rep. John Murtha (D – PA).

Interestingly, all three camps don't differ very much on how to make progress in Iraq: train the troops, decrease American casualties, defuse insurgent capabilities, and so on. The entire concept of bringing in a broader international presence or United Nations support seems to have breathed its last breath with the defeat of presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004.

It's pretty amazing to think that there haven't been any big new ideas in terms of how to deal with Iraq for a long long time. Perhaps most assumed (and I'll include myself in this meta-camp) that the die had been cast with the lead-up to invasion and its aftermath and there were no longer any new ideas to put in play.

Enter Joe Conason and this intriguing solitary paragraph at the end of a Salon piece entitled "No Way Out" (emphasis is mine):

There is a decent and honorable way out that has been addressed by the Iraqis themselves but that no American politician, not even the brave Murtha, is willing to mention: negotiations with the Sunni insurgents. The elected Iraqi government, representing a population eager for us to leave, should begin talks with rebels who are willing to discuss laying down their arms, in exchange for an orderly and scheduled American departure. That is the only way to transform the US occupation from a stick into a carrot — and to extract some kind of victory from what is becoming a strategic disaster.

Is this heresy or the Big Idea needed to bring the US war effort out of its current stasis?

My take: this might very well be the answer that frustrated US leaders come to after years of guerilla fighting and further casualties, so they should think long and hard about it pronto-like.

What say you from across the In the Middle divide, dear Phillip?

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

Interesting framing, but I think that the actual different views on Iraq are a little different than you've painted them to be. For example, Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman has recently reiterated his support for continuing in Iraq, reporting that real progress is being made and that Iraqis are far more optimistic about progress in Iraq than we are. I think that the average Iraqi would probably have a better idea about conditions in Iraq than most other people, don't you?

Don't forget also that people in America (the "general public"), along with members of the military and state and local government, believe that "efforts to establish a stable democracy" in Iraq "will succeed," according to a recent Pew poll.

So I don't think that the "conventional wisdom" as you've laid it out is accurate, which might make for difficulty in coming to a conclusion based on all of that!

Is a Big Idea needed? Would a Big Idea help? Or does progress come through a series of small ideas, constant refinements to a plan to deal with new circumstances? Sen. Lieberman and many others seem to think that many ideas now in play are working quite well.

In any case, Joe Conason's Big Idea can be summarized as this: negotiate with the insurgents. That idea doesn't bother me, but it isn't new. My surprise is that Joe Conason believes that we have anything to do with it.

The Bush Administration has stated repeatedly that Iraqis are in control of Iraq, and that United States troops are there at the request and with the support of the Iraqi government. If the Iraqi government asks us to leave, we will. If they are able to negotiate a cease-fire or treaty of some kind, then we will have effectively "stayed the course" and be ready to leave. The US is not in a position to negotiate with anybody, as that is the duty of the Iraqi government, not US commanders!

So we're sitting happily in the United States asking ourselves whether the Iraqi government should negotiate with those who are trying to kill them. I'd say that's up to them, and from what I've heard, they've already been doing so, off and on, for quite some time.

The assumption is that one can effectively negotiate with those who consider exploding civilians a viable tactic, and I'm not sure that's a good assumption. It has been made clear many times that US troops will withdraw as soon as attacks on troops and civilians stop, but that broadly-telegraphed opening position hasn't resulted in any response other than more bombs. Will more detailed negotiations with the elected Iraqi government fare better? I hope so, but I wouldn't count on it.

After all, we're told over and over that we're not facing an organized response, but an upswell of grassroots insurgency. So how would negotiating with a small set of leaders of an organization achieve anything of value?

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

I agree that we're going to have trouble finding common ground on Iraq if we can't come to at least a broad consensus on what the general read on conventional wisdom is at present. Every poll I've looked at over the last few months has been grim-as-grim for the president and for the war effort in Iraq. The media outlets I regularly visit – both conservative and liberal and in between – seem to reflect "my side" of the story as well.

I just did a quick Google search and got the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll numbers:

As President Bush launched a new effort Wednesday to gain public support for the Iraq war, a new poll found most Americans do not believe he has a plan that will achieve victory.

But the CNN/USA TodayGallup poll released Wednesday night also found nearly six in 10 Americans said US troops should not be withdrawn from Iraq until certain goals are achieved.

Very interesting, however, is that the story goes on to site that only 35 percent of Americans want to set a specific time table for withdrawal. That said, what might be the most interesting number is that 55 percent think that President Bush doesn't have a plan to win the war. After 2-1/2 years of war, more than half of all Americans don't believe there's a plan to win the thing!

Perhaps Joe Conason drew on this perception of quagmire (i.e. things aren't going that well but we can't really do much about it any which way) in drawing up his assertion to talk to the Sunni insurgents.

And while some in the more peaceful areas of Iraq might be optimistic about the future, the Sunni triangle continues to be a mess. Headlines like "Sunni group to abstain from Iraq poll" can not be cheering to anyone interested in seeing representative democracy flourish in Iraq.

After a few months of writing this column with you, Phillip, I understand that you're one of the more optimistic observers of the Iraqi equation. But I'm surprised that you believe that the United States would refuse to negotiate with the insurgents if we thought it was in our national interest to do so. Look at the trouble-spots around with world: we get up in everyone's business all the time, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Ireland to North Korea and on and on! We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and no one invited us to do so. If the Iraqi government asked us to leave today, it would put us in an awkward position but that doesn't mean we'd be gone in six weeks or even six months.

Now, I can definitely get behind many of your counter-arguments against the feasibility of negotiating with violent and loosely slung together factions. That said, if we pacify a few key groups within the Sunni triangle by, for example, making a few political concessions (and we can argue about what "we" means but let's just assume "we" is the Iraqi government backed very closely by a "persuasive" United States) that could, in theory, tip the balance to the good in the region. At least on the short-term.

A rock solid plan? Certainly not. But with the optimism of Lieberman and Bush and some others aside, I personally believe the time is right for new ideas on Iraq, both big and small.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

This could quickly turn into a discussion about polls at this rate? Ask yourself this: How would Americans know what President Bush's plan for Iraq is? He can hardly broadcast the details to those who wage war against us, right? Though the details of the plan surely change in response to tactical shifts on the ground, it would be foolishness to immediately send out a press release announcing the way in which we're deploying troops to respond to the new strategy. So what we know about his plan is that he intends to not abandon the Iraqi people, as his father did, and that the Iraqi military is being pushed to take an increasingly active role in operations, which they are doing.

So consider that more than half of the general public believes that we will succeed in bringing a stable democracy to Iraq, while roughly the same percentage say that they don't think President Bush has a plan to do so. In my view, that apparent conflict means that we don't understand the questions or answers as well as we might think we do! In any case, with only 35 percent of those polled stating that we need to set a specific timetable, it sounds like far more people agree with President Bush's plan (whether they realize it or not) than with the alternatives being offered by various Democratic members of Congress.

That's poll data, though, and as interesting as it is, I hate to think that we're waging war with poll data as a primary factor in decision-making. It's a factor, sure, and should definitely push the Bush Administration in the direction of better communication, as we've agreed in the past, but that's about it.

You mention headlines that identify a "Sunni group," and I've previously mentioned National Public Radio stories which described how several other Sunni groups are deciding that they will participate in elections for the first time. No, the headline isn't cheering, but the question is whether that's because there's no cheering news at all, or because people aren't reporting it well (remember the Pew poll!), or because you and I just notice things that tend to support our outlook, and there's plenty of news both good and bad coming out of Iraq.

My point isn't that the United States would or should refuse to negotiate with insurgents in Iraq, but that such negotiation isn't something we can reasonably do. You mention our involvement in North Korea, which is an interesting example. North Korea demanded to negotiate with the United States, and President Bush refused. While accused of "unilateral" action in Iraq, he was criticized for not negotiating "unilaterally" with North Korea, but he insisted (correctly, it now seems) that only six-party talks would be effective in the long-term. Similarly, President Bush has insisted — and I believe that he will continue to insist — that Iraqis should determine the future of Iraq. It is the elected Iraqi government that should be making decisions about with whom they will negotiate, and I for one think that they will continue to do so and have already been doing so.

I'm sure we'd be happy to broker talks, as we've done between Israel and Palestine. Note that the Palestinian Authority now controls a border crossing without any Israeli or US troops involved, and that the negotiation took place between Israel and Palestine. That's a good model for future negotiations in Iraq as well.

In any case, I don't think that this idea is "new," since negotiations have been ongoing for quite a while, nor do I think the effort in Iraq lacks new ideas, big or small. More ideas are always welcome, of course, but I would hope that many would come from people more well-informed than the average NPR listener.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

I don't think anyone is asking the president to reveal strategic military plans, Phillip, and certainly I'm not. But when you hear very little more than "stay the course" after 2-1/2 years of bloodshed, it's very understandable that the American people are unhappy. Inevitably, inexorably, we have to circle back to the lead-up to war and the history of the war up to the present. Public polls now consistently reveal that most people think the Bush Administration misled the nation into war. So I think the trust issue is now paramount. If a trusted leader tells us to hang on, that's one thing. But we have a situation in which we were virtually guaranteed all kinds of things: that we would be greeted as liberators (which we were in some ways but not others), that the war would be very short (true… if you believed "Mission Accomplished"; otherwise not so much), and that Iraqi oil would pay for the operation (definitely not true).

So I think many people now say, "Why should we believe you now?" And I really can't fault anyone for asking that question.

Let me finish up on polls before moving on: Where's the link to the Pew poll you've mentioned a few times? I'd like to see the numbers you mention before I concede any In the Middle ground.

I agree that it's very easy to latch onto news reports that support or support in part a preconceived notion or set of values. This is inevitably complicated by a situation in which we have 24/7 media coverage but very little factual on-the-ground reporting from the Iraqi streets and talking heads spinning spin from political parties that are inherently self-interested.

That said, I think we're finally seeing the president and Congress acting (if slowly and unsurely) because they rightly sense that the public is unhappy with the war effort as it stands. The truth is that the end is not in sight. And while you may be okay with having American soldiers in Iraq for decades, that's a political scenario that no politician on the left or right is willing to go near.

There are those who even believe that the longer we stay in Iraq, the more destructive it will be for US national security. What's interesting, and perhaps even unsettling, is that some of these voices come from conservatives. For example, Lt. Gen. William Odom (Ret.), former National Security Agency Director under President Reagan, believes the only feasible course of action is to withdraw all American forces immediately. Far from taking a dovish point of view, he believes that all of our machinations in Iraq have made the world a safer place for al Qaeda.

I agree that the Democrats do not yet have a coherent strategy for what to do next, and neither does the White House. Joe Conason's thoughts on the potential for talking to insurgents, in my view, is a novel angle on what has become, for the most part, a stagnant debate in terms of strategy.

Finally, I'm not sure what you mean by "negotiations have been ongoing." Are you implying that we're already talking to the insurgents? If that's so, that counters your view that we should leave this sort of thing to the Iraqis. I'm also not sure what you mean in your reference to "average NPR listeners." Do you mean that Joe Conason is an average NPR listener? Or that I am?

I do listen to NPR, though I couldn't tell in what way I am or am not average.

But I'll leave the last word to you, sir.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

I linked to the Pew Research poll last week, complete with an inline graphic! Here it is again.

With "average NPR listener," I was referring to myself, since I've heard on NPR several times now that Iraqi officials have been in negotiations with Al Qaeda in Iraq and other groups. There was heated debate even among Iraqi government officials about whether negotiating with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was something that ought to be done, but the reports were that it was proceeding. That was several weeks ago, and it's why I've been so surprised to hear you describe Conason's proposal as "novel."

It's both funny and sad that I hear you say things and I wonder how on earth you could have missed major events X, Y, and Z, while I'm sure you hear me say things and wonder the same thing about A, B, and C. For example, I distinctly remember President Bush addressing the nation in 2001 and stating that the "war on terror" would be long and hard, and I definitely got a "many years" vibe from that. Secretary of State Rice has also stated several times that we're in this for the long haul. And yet you say that "no politician on the left or right" is willing to state such things! Or another example, I'm pretty sure I've linked to that Pew Poll at least twice, and yet you apparently never read it, or even my summary of it (with a chart!). Of course, I'm sure that the reverse is true as well. I've clearly not seen (or remembered) the polls you have that reveal how dreadfully the American people view the war effort, or how badly things are going in Iraq. I wonder how much of the Great Divide in American politics is due primarily to information filtering?

Nevertheless, is a rare place in which left and right come together and hear each other out — hopefully listening rather than waiting for a chance to argue!

Let me see if I can restate some of the views that have come up today: I think that we agree that the Bush Administration has not done a very good job of communicating about the war in Iraq to date, though they are showing some small signs of progress very recently. From early mistakes like the "Mission Accomplished" banner — which may have been technically true, but now seems fairly ridiculous in light of more than 2000 dead soldiers — and apparently inflated estimates of Iraqi troop strength, people don't trust what they hear from the White House, and I don't blame them. I think that mistrust is reflected in the apparently conflicting polls, in which people don't think Bush has a good plan, but think it's all going to work out anyway. It isn't really the plan they don't trust, it's Bush himself!

I think one point of disagreement between us actually could turn to agreement if we made a distinction between long-term over-arching plans and more immediate tactical or strategic shifts. There really can't be very many long-term over-arching plans at this point. Either we leave before things are stable, or we remain until things are stable. The rest is primarily details and definitions. We haven't heard a new long-term over-arching plan in a long time, because many people believe that the current plan (stay until things are stable) is working. Tactics and strategic choices on the ground is a different matter entirely, and where I think most of the problem lies.

The current strategy on the ground is "Clear, Hold, and Build," and all of the reports I've seen so far on this approach have been positive. Even within that, there are many different lower-level tactical decisions to be made based on the resistance encountered, and I'm confident that military commanders on the ground are learning as they go. Could things be better? Of course. War is hell, and no amount of technology is ever going to change that. But people like Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who claims that this war is unwinnable, are in a distinct minority.

We should be open to new ideas and new strategies, and what I know of the military tells me that we're probably not quite as open to suggestions as we could be. We could probably also be applying a little more pressure to the Iraqi government to accelerate their timetable, though neither you nor I are likely to ever know what sort of things are happening behind the scenes in terms of diplomatic pressure.

The biggest question of all is whether we will win this war. Some experts believe it is unwinnable, while others believe we are well on the way to winning it. A very select few are calling for immediate withdrawal, while others run the gamut of opinion from a phased but scheduled withdrawal to troop increases. When the people who've dedicated their lives to understanding situations like this can't agree, I don't expect armchair generals like you and I to land exactly on the same page, either.

As time goes on and the war continues, we will need to begin demonstrating more serious progress, or the will of the American people will fail and we will abandon Iraqis to the jihadists who wish them to fail in building a stable democracy.

One last thing, since I have the last word this week! In trying to wrap my brain around difficult subjects, I often find it useful to reverse the questions. So I ask, how is this war going from the perspective of those who fight against us? Do the insurgents have the support of the Iraqi people? It appears to me that their support is dwindling as quickly or more quickly than our own. Have they ever succeeded in disrupting elections? No, they haven't. Their enemies (the Iraqi security forces) are growing in number and effectiveness while they themselves are killed by advancing coalition troops, so the ratio is contantly changing against them. Iraqi people stand in lines for hours to join Iraqi police forces, despite those lines being a frequent target for boms. Jordan is holding rallies calling for the death of Zarqawi, and Al Jazeera is sometimes running material that does not portray the "resistance" in a positive light. Recent bombings have taken place in Arab countries, presumably because it is much easier to carry out bombings there, and each time those bombings have resulted in a turning tide of opinion in that area against the bombers. Things are really not going well for those who are fighting against us in Iraq, and it seems that the only hope from their perspective is that we withdraw!

Which might tell us something.

Phillip Winn is a registered Republican, but considers himself independent. He lives in Dallas, Texas, and didn't vote for President Bush in 2000, but did in 2004. He is a co-owner, designer, and technical administrator for

Eric Berlin is a registered Democrat who currently lives in Pasadena, California. Pretty predictable voting record: Gore '00, Kerry '04. He is a co-owner and Executive Producer of

In The Middle is an attempt to focus more on what unites us than what divides us. Can two reasonable people from opposite ends of the political spectrum put aside partisanship and meet in the middle? We think so. A topic is picked, e-mails are exchanged, and the results are published here.

In The Middle is a Blogcritics experiment. We're trying to talk about things civilly, and we strongly request that all commenters do the same. We seek polite comments and questions, not ideological rhetoric or personal attacks.

Be passionate, think before you write, respect others, and have fun!

Previous articles from the In The Middle crew have addressed Bill Bennett, Harriet Miers, Iraq as a "Media War," the CIA Leak Case, Samuel Alito, Jr, Vice President Cheney, and, most recently, John Murtha.


Joan Hunt said...

I applaud you and Phillip for conducting such reasonable discussions on politics. Really. I'm impressed.

One thing that I'd like to point out is that with ANY poll that's cited (be it one that favors the left or the right), one must remember that those stats are reflective only of the people polled. And, we all know that you can't guarantee WHO was polled.

The truth is, we cannot simply walk away from a country that is just beginning to see the rewards of democracy. Like an infant, the country of Iraq needs nurturing and guidance. If we were to pull out, it would be akin to leaving that same baby on the doorstep of a crack house.

Iraqis are asking that we allow them more latitude in running counter-insurgency missions. We provided the training for them to do this and they're showing that they are more and more capable of taking the lead in these missions. With much success in most cases, too! The stronger they become, the less they need U.S. or other coalition troop support. As they reach those levels, we will begin to see more and more of our troops coming home.

I'd love to have all our men and woman back home. They want to come home. But they also don't want to leave before the job is done. They know, better than we do, that if they leave too soon, the Iraqis and the U.S. will be in a far worse position to counter an oppressive regime in the future.

The Iraqis are becoming more comfortable with freedom and democracy. As they progress from the infancy of their new country, they're almost at the walking stage. Once they can stand on their own, they'll start running - and like children, when they get to that stage, there's little parents can do but stand back and applaud their success.

Lucas Brachish said...

Brilliant post, Eric. There's enough material here to fill up a chapter of a book, but it's well done, with both sides of the argument being handled intelligently.

Is it just me, or is Joseph Lieberman secretly a Republican? Other than saying he's a Democrat, being Jewish and running against Bush, he could easily be mistaken as being the next big thing in in the grand ol' party. Practically everything he says sounds kinda center-right to me.... He's worse than Tipper Gore. Kinda startling that he's one of the most prominent voices of the Dems.

And with Hillary & Co. swaying right as well, it makes Nader's old statements (about the two parties being one and the same) look more astute than ever. Of course, one look at Bush & the Gang and Hillary and Lieberman look like left-wing peaceniks, I suppose... but nobody has the strong lefty fire I'd like to see ....

I'm hoping Colin Powell and Warren Beatty team up and run as the Democrat Prez and Vice Prez candidates in 2008. They'll clear up this Middle East war for us....


(no, seriously...)

Eric Berlin said...

Damn, haven't had much in the way of comments over here in the way of comments and now two from the esteemed Ms. Hunt and Mr. Brachish respectively? Very honored indeed!

Joan, I agree on polls but think you can certainly look at trends from groupings of polls over time and match it to events, etc. to get a sense of what's going on.

Lucas, there's lots of rumbling that Lieberman is going to replace Rumsfeld at DoD... wouldn't that be a trip!

Was very struck by Meet the Press this morning in that it's a group of conservative-mainstream Repubs (as opposed to the hardcore right) who are speaking most eloquently at present. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and David Brooks of The New York Times presented very coherent views on the war and political power, I thought. John McCain is certainly with them, with only John Murtha, the conservative Democrat from Pennsylvania, as the only real person in the center to center-left who is highly credible and has a strong and consistent view to share on Iraq.

Eric Berlin said...

And to both of you:

Thanks very much!