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What a Man Can Do, And Can't Do

An earlier post from Grim's Hall, in which I decided to back Mattis for President.  I crosspost it below in case any of you were wondering where that came from. :)

If you haven't seen this opinion poll of Iraqis, take a look at it. It's interesting: a plurality of Iraqis think the nation is going in the right direction; more Iraqis as a percentage than Americans think so; and sixty percent of those polled give their own local security a favorable rating.

Obviously, this has a lot to do with the quality of information: Americans are depending on a media that won't set foot outside the hotel for the most part, plus hired stringers they're paying to produce "newsworthy" (i.e., bad) stories, plus some news organizations that are actually attempting to produce bad news (e.g., the Italian communist news). The Iraqis actually live there, and can see whether things seem to be getting better or worse directly.

A second factor may be the absence of a retreat option for the Iraqis. From an American perspective, the question "Is Iraq going the right or the wrong direction" will normally be read "Will we be able to leave a peaceful Iraq soon, or not?" Given that there are hostile factions with permanent interests in conflict, the odds of perfect peace in the region are small; Saddam enforced what he called "peace" by killing massive numbers of people, in effect waging a permanant war. America is trying to help build a form of government that will allow those interests to be negotiated, along with a military/police structure capable of encouraging negotiation by being a credible threat. This is taking a while, for several reasons, and Americans are really trying to decide, "Is this all worth it?" Americans are thus not really thinking about the question "Is it getting better?", but are silently inserting "Are we almost done?"

Iraqis, on the other hand, are not thinking about a "real" question when asked if things are getting better or not. If the question is "Are things getting better?", the answer is either yes or no; but whichever it is, the Iraqis aren't going anywhere.

From an American perspective, is it getting better -- which is to say, is this all worth it?

Here we see the problem of answering the one question as if it were the other. Of course it is worth it; and more than that, it's morally required of us. Afghanistan shows what happens when an Islamic state is left in civil war because Western powers lost interest in it. If we, in the 1990s, had stood up to helping Afghans recover from the war against the Soviets that we helped to worsen and continue, there might never have been a Taliban, a haven for al Qaeda, a 9/11. We didn't, because we felt we had no further interest. Iraq, now that we have destroyed Saddam's government, is a place to which we owe a similar debt. Like postwar Japan, if we rebuild it carefully and correctly, it will pay dividends long into the future; like Afghanistan, if we fail it, we shall someday rue that failure of spine and ethics.

Is it getting better, though? Well, there are good signs, and evil prognostications.

My own sense is that the odds of successful negotiation in Iraq are greatly increased by the strengthening of the Iraqi Army, who is now on display in Baghdad, where their example will not be missed; and the completion of the network of border forts discussed here recently, which can serve as an anvil to the IA's hammer if the Sunni insurgents insist on fighting instead of talking. A credible military option always makes diplomacy easier. Those forts and that army gives the central government the power to drive the tribes that refuse to negotiate, break them on the anvil, and then lock their remnants beyond the borders; having that power, they will likely find that the tribes are more willing to accept carrots than insist on the sticks.

My own preferred response to the question of Iraq is the one offered by General Mattis, surely the greatest general of our age.

"It is mostly a matter of wills," Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis said during an exclusive interview with the North County Times. "Whose will is going to break first? Ours or the enemy's?" ...

Mattis, who led the Marines in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and led the 1st Marine Division in the invasion of Iraq and march to Baghdad in early 2003, said he was once asked by an Iraqi when he would leave that country.

"I said I am never going to leave. I told him I had found a little piece of property down on the Euphrates River and I was going to have a retirement home built there.

"I did that because I wanted to disabuse him of any sense that he could wait me out."

Why shouldn't an American be able to build a retirement home on the Euphrates, just as he might build one on the Rhine if he wished? Our forces will someday leave, because they are no longer needed, but we hope to bring Iraq into a wider world. The hope should be that America never leaves -- our soldiers do, but our financiers, our businessmen, our diplomats, friends and companions, these Americans tie Iraq into a world larger than that created by thoughts ever turned to ethnic conflict.

Is that possible? My sense has always been that there is only one way to find out if you can do a thing, and that is to do it. If you succeed, you know for certain that it can be done. If you fail, you don't know for certain that it can't be done: most likely, you didn't do it right. Try again, if you can; or, if you cannot, having suffered some injury along the way that forbids a second chance, let others learn from the failure.

For that reason, I am disinclined to hear that anything "cannot be done," which I have heard from very smart people on the subject of Iraq since the beginning. I talked to a fellow from the CATO institute about Iraq a few months ago, and he was one of the type: his speech was flavored with words like "cannot," "impossible," and "never." Nonsense. Too many of these people, who not only are smart but make their livings by being smart, have said such things and are now committed to them. They must, to continue to be thought smart, be proven right: which means they are committed to failure.

I'll take my stand with General Mattis, gladly.

General, when you're done in Iraq, we need you in the White House. We've been looking for someone like you for a while.