June 23, 2006

Policy by Underpants Gnome

On Thursday, the Senate defeated two pieces of legislation aimed at getting American troops out of Iraq.

The first was an amendment offered by Senator John Kerry to put into law a plan to start withdrawing combat forces immediately and complete the process by next July. It failed on a vote of 86-13. The second was a nonbinding resolution widely supported by Democrats that urged President Bush to begin withdrawing troops this year, but that did not set a deadline for completion. It too, failed - albeit more narrowly - 60-39.

As usual, both the Republicans and the Democrats railed at each other, with the former accusing the latter of wanting to “cut and run” (the new GOP catchphrase heading into the midterm elections), and the latter villifying the former for blindly following the president while ignoring the will of the people. The Democrats have at least got the fundamental issue right: there is an unquestionable need for a concrete plan to end the occupation of Iraq, but they would have an even stronger case if they didn't appear to be leaping straight for withdrawal without defining interim milestones to which the public can subscribe.

Although 53% of Americans responding to a recent CNN poll believe a timetable for getting out of Iraq needs to be set, advocating a withdrawal date without a plan for achieving it is clearly unsupportable either from a military standpoint or a public policy one. The question of exactly how to go about bringing our troops home remains unanswered - at least in the public forum - and most people recognize both the need for a plan and the debt we have incurred to the nation of Iraq by effectively tearing it down.

The public needs to understand exactly what advocating withdrawal means. Are we really willing to throw up our hands and simply leave, no matter what is happening in Iraq at the time and no matter the longer-term consequences? Or are we going to lay out some interim conditions that must be met, and stay longer than our originally-stated withdrawal date if things are not as we believe they have to be?

As incomplete as these calls for withdrawal from Iraq are, the Democrats are at least asking the right questions. The GOP’s position that we need to “stay the course” is patently ridiculous. Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results,” and clearly that maxim holds here. Despite some small victories like the recent killing of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, three years after the U.S. rolled into Baghdad, Iraq’s infrastructure remains in shambles, sectarian violence is on the rise, bombings and executions are daily events, and American troops continue to be killed and injured.

Staying the course isn’t so much a plan as an episode of South Park; specifically the episode entitled “Underpants Gnomes,” in which one of the characters is terrorized by nighttime visits from gnomes who steal his underwear. When one of the creatures is captured and asked why he is purloining skivvies, the gnome responds that it is all part of a grand plan, the constituent elements of which are:

Phase 1 – Collect underpants
Phase 2 - ?
Phase 3 – Profit

When it is pointed out to the gnome that Phase 2 is missing, he is momentarily at a loss, but then enthusiastically repeats the mantra “Phase 1: Collect underpants. Phase 3: Profit!” Substitute “Stay the course” and “Achieve victory!” respectively, and the parallels to the stupidity of current policy are evident. Phase 2 is “Plan strategic withdrawal based on defined goals,” and as with the Underpants Gnomes, it’s clearly absent.

Why aren’t we talking about what, specifically, needs to happen for our armed forces to leave Iraq? “We’ll stand down as they stand up” – yet another GOP talking point – is nothing more than an empty slogan. What does it mean for Iraqis to “stand up”?

In other words, how many fully trained and equipped brigades of functioning Iraqi military do there need to be before the country's armed forces are deemed self-sufficient? How far does the daily rate of suicide bombing and sectarian murder have to fall before we believe Iraqis can handle the situation? How many barrels of oil does Iraq need to be pumping each day so that the U.S. can stop pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the country? During what percentage of the day will there be available electricity to the citizens of Iraq before we call the infrastructure sound?

Why is no one talking about success criteria or at least criteria for moving to a new phase of the American occupation? What are the specific steps toward getting our troops home? If this information exists, why isn’t it part of the public discourse?

Given the negligence shown by the Bush Administration in prosecuting the Iraq War, the Democrats have a solid and obvious case for redeploying our troops out of Iraq. To be taken seriously however, they need to start filling in the details and fleshing out the concept of withdrawal to create a substantive policy. Doing so would not only get the U.S. out of its current role as occupying force, it would nullify the Republican's "cut and run" rhetoric, and further expose the Bush Administration for its clueless worship of ideology over fact.

No comments: