The political collapse of Rudolph Guiliani, and the resurgence of John McCain can be tied to a single factor: the fall in uniformed military fatalities in Iraq. This means that the political effects of US policy over the last 18 months in Republican Party politics is decisive. Interestingly while McCain collapsed as the favorite Republican of Republicans, he maintained his status as being the best Republican to win the general election. Reduction in fatalities can be seen then, as being important to Republicans as the metric of winning and losing in Iraq, but not to the general public. The general public is, in fact, even more against the war now than before the surge, and Iraq is within a statistical dead heat of a recession bound economy.
If people are losing their homes, and this worries them slightly more than Iraq, then Iraq is a very large issue indeed. It is a much larger issue than “illegal immigration” for example. And when combined with rankings given to terrorism, America’s relationship with the Islamic World is easily the most important issue on the voter’s minds.
This piece begins with this political survey of the United States because the war in Iraq is also America’s most important domestic policy. It is responsible for a vast injection of stimulus, and the excuse for the most pervasive attempt at social engineering in the post-War era. Even Johnson’s Great Society programs pale by comparison.
To give away the result of the analysis, “The Surrender” is working. For now.
The Facts on the Ground
In military terms, a surge is when more manpower and material is devoted to a particular operation in a manner which is not sustainable. Surges are often accomplished by logistical means, either not rotating out previous troops, or by delaying offensives allowing several waves to be devoted to a single big push, or by reducing forces elsewhere in an “economy of force” decision.
Thus there have been several surges in the American involvement in Iraq, the largest previous one being in the spring of 2004.
The “Fallujah Surge” was an unequivocal failure, it produced a spate of bloody months, and the areas in question were no more pacified than before the surge. The 2007 Surge is still ongoing. It is larger, longer and more far reaching in its effects.
While the unspoken frame is that lower fatalities mean that the American Marine rides high and is no longer challenged by pacified natives, this is a completely illusory image. No one has documented this, no one is even claiming this, even the most cheery of Pentagon Boosters. The public is being allowed to assume that order has been restored, but the facts on the ground do not warrant this. Civilian fatalities not involved with military actions remain chronically high. Areas that are pacified do not exhibit this tendency, since law enforcement does not differentiate between the different reasons that people resort to firearms and violence.
Jul-06 46 1.48
Aug-06 66 2.13
Sep-06 77 2.57
Oct-06 110 3.55
Nov-06 78 2.6
Dec-06 115 3.71
Jan-07 86 2.77
Feb-07 85 3.04
Mar-07 82 2.65
Apr-07 117 3.9
May-07 131 4.23
Jun-07 108 3.6
Jul-07 87 2.81
Aug-07 88 2.84
Sep-07 69 2.3
Oct-07 40 1.29
Nov-07 40 1.33
Dec-07 24 0.77
Jan-08 37 1.23
The current months do indeed show a bottoming of violence, but this is only by contrast. It is possible to find other “lulls” in fatalities, for most of late 2003 and early 2004 showed relatively low fatality counts other than November of 2003. Iraq then exploded into violence.
Thus this is not the first fatality lull. Nor is it stable; in fact, US fatalities have ticked up again. The measure of wounded also states the same thing: US involvement is slightly safer than in other lull periods. As a political statement, being in better shape than 2003 means very little. Perhaps less than nothing. However, clearly the death count was a political embarassment here, and lowering that death count has been political magic.
However, military realities don’t follow election results. Eisenhower may have vaulted to the Presidency on his promise to go to Korea, and Churchill returned to Number 10 Downing on criticism of the Attlee government’s handling of Iran, but in the end both men simply ended conflicts by making peace for which there was no victory.
The military reality is that US fatalities have been strongly connected with US attempts to impose a political solution favorable to the United States in Iraq. 2003 was relatively quiet, where as 2004 and 2005 were much bloodier, simply because in 2003 the US occupation government was not even attempting to be present in large areas of the country.
One simple way to trace combat operations is by the level of noise casualties and fatalities. This wastage is the level of danger involved in simply being in the military environment. Helicopters crash, trucks on bad roads overturn, young men and women injure themselves in recreation activities, friendly fire on patrols. These form a picture of where activities are occurring. Military personnel do not get hurt where they aren’t going. Conversely military personnel do get injured even in the safest of areas.
Basra provides a microcosm of this: the British force there loses roughly one fatality a month regardless of what is happening. The casualties from just being in Basra represent a baseline. Where US casualties have fallen below baseline presence, it is a good indication that there is little to no US presence. Al-Anbar has seen a dramatic drop in casualties and fatalities, below the baseline presence costs seen in late 2003 and early 2004 during a previous lull. This is a good indication that US forces aren’t patrolling and enforcing peace in Al-Anbar, but instead, have turned over the control of the area to local autorities. I am not sure what military manual is current inside the Bush White House, but in most military manuals, withdrawing forces, paying money to new political authorities who, until recently were engaged in hostilities against a force, and conceding political control to them, is called “surrender” and the result is termed “a defeat”. Presently, the resistance holds the field in Al-Anbar. Perhaps it is not a victory that they would like to have, or can afford in the long term, but it is a victory.
A different, but similar, picture is true in the north: the United States has largely turned control over to the Kurdish Regional Authority, which while more closely aligned with the United States is not an American ally per se. It is a better outcome than Al-Anbar, and can be termed a victory for American interests, but it is hardly a resounding victory in the form of imposing a pro-US government on the area. Northern Iraq is not the German Democratic Republic, or even post-war Italy.
These noise fatalities have continued apace in Baghdad and in the FOB; they have dropped dramatically elsewhere. Moreover, there has been almost a complete halt to fatalities in road sections farther from the capital. One interpretation of this could be that Iraq is a safe place to take your family on vacation. Another is that, like Afghanistan, the United States simply isn’t attempting to impose its fiat on most of Iraq.
Another potential aspect is the reduction of foreign aid to Iraq resistence fighters. There has been a drop in IED attacks, and a drop in the fatalities and casualties associated with them. During the 2005 period, as many as half of all US casualties associated with enemy action could be traced to IEDs. Their reduction in the theatre of operations is a large fraction of the reduction in casualties.
Thus, there are two possible explanations for the drop in US casualties: one is that Iraq is pacified, the other is that the United States has conceded the territory of Iraq outside of a few Forward Operating Bases and Baghdad, and that there is a consequent end to fatalities, and a dramatic reduction in foreign aid to the resistance in Iraq.
The first version of events requires that Iraq not merely have returned to some subsistence state, but that Iraq be the site of a booming reconstruction. The second merely requires the Afghanization of Iraq: the United States holds the capital, engages in intensive patrolling within a few cities, and does not engage in political or military imposition of its will on most of the country.
Oil production is up in Iraq dramatically over the last two months: from 1.5mbpd to 2.3mpd. This surge in oil production is almost all through Basra, where the British are withdrawing. It is an indication that Iraq has bottomed and is moving towards normalization. This increase in production has had global effects, blunting the upward movement of oil prices. It is near pre-war levels of oil production.
The increase in oil production is a moderate sign of “the surge is working” because oil infrastructure is fragile. However, it could almost as well be a sign that oil production isn’t being hindered, because oil production is now in more local hands.
Follow the Money
However, other than oil production, almost all of the other metrics of normalization are flat. Electricity, water, condition of the road system, and all other forms of production are flat. If Iraq were “normalized”m then the 100+ billion dollar Iraq reconstruction program should be showing rapid progress. It is not.
This has two important effects.
The first is that if the US does not slip into recession, it is largely on the back of the additional oil coming out of Iraq. Currently there is only a 1.2mpbd surplus of oil production over oil demand. The increased supply from Iraq represents, .7 mpbd of this gap, or nearly half. Without the increase in oil from Iraq, prices would have have risen even further. Iraq’s oil production increase is keeping oil around 90USD/barrel and down from the 100USD/barrel level breached earlier. The monetary policy room that the US Federal Reserve is using to help buffer the global economy and banking system is being drawn out of this increase. However, this good news is also bad news, getting Iraq from the starvation level of 1.6mbpd to 2.3 mbpd is a great deal easier than raising it above its pre-war levels.
The second is that Iraq’s free cash flow from oil production is more than double what it was during much of US presence in Iraq. Instead of 1.6mbpd at $55 USD/barrel which was last year’s average, this year is seeing 2.3mpbd at $90USD, with relatively small increases in costs, since the fixed costs are the bulk of the costs of running the oil fields. This large increase in income creates a virtuous cycle: less violence and instability leads to higher revenues, and higher revenues mean more money to create incentives for those attached to the oil system. 120 million USD per day of additional revenue, almost all of it free cash flow, is more than the rest of Iraq’s GDP combined.
But what this does not answer is the question as to whether Iraq has been pacified, or merely abandoned. It also points to something important in the past, the really staggering cost of Iraq, which has largely come out of developed world worker’s wages, and particularly US worker’s wages. Had Iraq been producing at pre-war levels for this entire time, or at pre-war levels beginning in 2005, the present economic expansion might not be in any danger at all, and the massive doses of stimulus that war spending have delivered, would not be required. While there is a nominal stimulus bill being debated in Congress now, the reality is that the “emergency” appropriations for Iraq and Afghanistan have represented semi-annual stimulus bills, and the totals for most years have been roughly the size of the larger Senate bill.
This decade is a lost decade economically, because of Iraq.
It is following this money that provides another indication that the better explanation for Iraq is that the United States has withdrawn from most of Iraq, and not pacified it.
The complete absence of an “emergency appropriation”, even with troops at higher levels, is a good indication that the United States is not doing anything in Iraq – that, for the time being, there are no “major combat operations” occuring, and instead the United States is withdrawing from, or has withdrawn from, most of Iraq, and instead is concentrating on holding Baghdad and the oil infrastructure.
In short, other than the increase in oil production, the indicators are that the United States has abandoned much of Iraq, and that the very high price of oil and the flow of corruption into Iraq are sufficient for the time being to reduce violence in most of the country. The US is still engaged in the pacification of Baghdad, and with a much heavier footprint in a smaller area, the United States is seeing security gains in Baghdad and in the oil fields.
What this means is that the present strategy in Iraq can be called “the surrender” and that the surrender is working.
Looking Forward and Looking Backwards
Looking backwards it is possible to begin to evaluate the different wars that might have been fought in some abstract world where George W. Bush was not President. We need to remember that Saddam Hussein was an unstable dictator, and there is no assurance that the United States and its allies would not have been drawn into some kind of escalation from the low -level warfare of the 1990’s. We also need to remember that one of the major raison d’etre’s for the war itself was that oil revenues would be flowing into Saddam’s hands, and that he would have continued to use it to shape that part of Iraq that was under his control. The fear among policy makers on both sides of the aisle in Washington in 2001 was that he would get the money and use it on WMD, even if he didn’t have any then.
The outcome of this war has been dismal. The rest of the world is growing, but at the cost of dramatic reductions in US standard of living and developed world control of the shape of the future. This was always a possibility: slash US standards of living and let others grow. The War has not changed this scenario, but instead merely bought, at massive cost, a buffer for a relatively small sliver of US elites.
The choice then was: slow growth for the rest of the world at high US standards of living, or faster growth for the rest of the world at lower US standards of living. The United States has decisively chosen the second, and it is possible to compare the various US austerity scenarios. The one we have chosen is high consumption now in return for much lower autonomy later. This is not a particularly hard observation to make, and it is currently being examined in the popular press.
The war we have fought is also dismal from its outcome. Compare the outcomes of several other periods of optional conflict. The World War II comparison is poor. The better comparisons are British Colonial actions, post-colonial wars in the period after World War II, American involvement in Vietnam and the Spanish Civil War: marginal wars on the important peripheries.
Rising colonial actions, even when expensive, have often turned out well. The British putting down of the Sepoy Rebellion is a case in point: the British did indeed remain with a large imperial presence after the rebellion, and in fact declared India part of the Empire, Queen Victoria became Empress of India. British involvement in Iraq, while expensive and unpleasant, did in fact leave behind a state which was to cause Britain little further trouble.
American trauma over Vietnam obscures a basic point: Indo-China went communist, and had horrific results in the Cambodian genocide, but as a large scale strategic battle with the USSR, it was the last major attempt at expansion of the Soviet sphere of influence beyond their own near-abroad. Vietnam broke the liberal coalition, it also halted Soviet expansion. The pessimal parts of the Vietnam involvement did not occur in Vietnam, but in the miring of the United States in a peripheral conflict, when the real central conflict was elsewhere in the Middle East.
Ranked against other post-colonial conflicts, American involvement in Iraq looks a great deal like the Franco-Algerian War of the 1960’s, both in casualties and in cost. France was left stripped of much of its global prestige and influence, and in the end Charles de Gaulle left, even after nominally defeating the insurgency. This is not as uncommon in post-colonial conflicts. The British were not militarily trounced in the War of 1812, but the peace treaty largely admitted that there was nothing they felt worth having. This pattern of “Declare Defeat and Go Home” is repeated in a number of circumstances historically.
Victorious imperial wars, such as the American annexation of Hawaii, the colonial war in the Philippines, or various Indian wars, or the British Boer Wars, produce much better outcomes for the imperial power, but sometimes turn out to be irrelevant in the long term. One such case is the English conquest of Canada, where it has often been remarked that perhaps it would have been better to bargain it back to France in return for more lucrative possessions elsewhere.
Against this scale, American involvement in Iraq is in the lower third of outcomes. It was not as bad as mass mobilization wars in terms of deaths, though its casualty rate is quite high, but in terms of cost, it has turned out to be much higher: America’s preÃ«minence in the world has been shattered and squandered.
This means that even if it is granted that there has been a small- scale strategic victory, the “world outcome” has been as nearly as bad as Vietnam – the major difference being that the stakes are lower, there is no superpower waiting in the wings to take our place, and therefore the slippage is less immediately problematic.
From an economic point of view however, the contraction in the US economy is much more difficult to deal with. America emerged from Vietnam with a young population and a healthy balance sheet. It emerges from Iraq with an aging population and oceans of debt.
But just because the war we fought was dismal, does not mean that not fighting any war would have been best, or even possible. Conversely, just because not dealing with Hilter early was a truly dismal choice, it is not an argument now that not fighting a war against Saddam would have been equally bad. Historians will be debating the different outcomes for decades. However, in broad outline we can divide the alternate histories into forced involvement, continued cold peace, or a different war of choice.
The forced involvement scenarios are all not particularly troubling, in that they would have occurred later, after Afghanistan had been stablized – largely in the way we’ve stabilized Iraq now, hold a few cities and ignore the rest – and it would have created a much broader consensus, both here and abroad, for a massive intervention to end the long term instability in Iraq. Waiting until there is no choice is often better than preÃ«mptive wars or preventative wars.
When there is a clear and present danger, the coalition is easier to build and easier to demand decisive results. This would have been less costly than our present war, shorter, and while it probably would have involved higher initial fatalities, it would have stablized far more quickly.
The continued cold peace scenarios, including various pacifism options of doing business with Saddam over the longer term, are intertwined with forced involvement. Many look the same in their early stages, since some of the differences are dependent on whether Saddam would have accepted this line of policy. They would have given America an economic period to restructure, had this been possible, and had it not they would have become forced involvement.
However all of them require a continued rehabilitation of Iraq, simply because the American consensus for continued austerity had ended. America wanted growth, growth means oil, oil means money for Saddam, and money means that the low ebb of his fortunes from very low oil prices was going to end soon. If cold peace, then forced involvement, not different war of choice, is required in the case of Saddam not deciding to play along.
The different war of choice scenarios are the easiest. It was very clear that Saddam was ripe for being toppled and that a build up and prepared invasion would have made him flee from power, and allowed a restructuring of Iraq. In fact, this is what many, here and abroad, supported, and thought Bush would do. Had someone other than an illegitimate reactionary bent on social engineering been in charge, it might have been done. Liberal Hawks who were pulled into the folly of trusting Bush cannot claim these might have been scenarios, simply because Bush was as much a fact on the ground as Saddam. Correctly ascertaining that Saddam was ripe for toppling does not offset incorrectly believing that Bush would do the right thing. However, it was doable.
What this means is that while all three options were viable, because the forced involvement/cold peace choice is really predicated on the willingness to accept cold peace if no casus belli occurred, and the willingness to go to war if peace did not work, the option we chose was the worst of the wars of choice.
Looking forward is important as well. The United States chose the worst possible war, and has saddled itself with an untenable fiscal and monetary situation. There will be extreme costs for this, and these costs will be with us for a generation. The present generation in power is hated, and will be increasingly hated, because they stuffed their pockets with loot and then left the disaster to others.
The option Americans have selected is to elect one more Nixionan President. While the press corp may love Ronald Reagan, and Barak Obama may praise him as transformative, the era of big government reactionaries began not with Reagan, but with Nixon. Johnson acquiesced to elements of it, but the core of the coalition: conservative Democrats plus reactionary Republicans willing to spend freely in an attempt to militarize American society, begins with Nixon and continues through all three of the Republican administrative eras: Nixon-Ford, Reagan-Bush, and Bush, potentially McCain, have pursued it, and the Democratic interegnums have largely been cleaning up the most obvious problems and setting up a return to Republican big spending.
Americans trust reactionary big spenders, but not, presently, liberal big spenders. This is dramatically changing in the abstract, Americans don’t want a continuation of these policies as policies, but they have failed to elect candidates who share that view.
This means that the American involvement in Iraq may well have destabilized the reactionary mind share of politics, but not the reactionary hold on power. However, eras often enter backwards. Nixon was a reactionary willing to work with the liberal system, and only by accident did the Republican Party reformulate into big government reactionaries. It was a matter of giving up budget balancing and austerity as a Republican virtue. It is not clear what a progressive willing to work within the reactionary system would have to give up to go forward, and there is no clear understanding within the political process how to signal this, even if any of the current contenders wished to do it.
The theory presented by the military and the Republican Party is that the “surge” pacified Iraq. The numbers from casualty patterns, expenditures and operations indicate rather that the United States has abandoned Iraq, focused on a few core interests and has bought peace by surrender. This policy of surrender has already bought America crucial breathing room in oil supplies, and a reduction in fatalities. It has also lead to a shift of financing of instability by the “global guerillas” to Pakistan and other locations. Iraq is in a lull, but without a forward direction. The high price of oil, and the rise in oil exports from Iraq means that while the general populace of Iraq is not seeing improvements, those forces that were recently jostling for a limited supply of oil free cash flow and American construction dollars, now have every incentive to keep the oil flowing. Again, surrender is working.
The conclusions we can draw from this are the pessimal nature of the conduct of this war of choice, the viability of complete, or almost complete, withdrawal of US forces, and the viability of other strategies to deal with Iraq in the first place. We can look forward and see that the world outcome has been to select both austerity for the American public in the form of an almost certain reduction in living standards, and the buffering of the very wealthy. Americans must love the rich so much to give up so many years and young men for them.