Petraeus As Goldilocks

[ Posted Tuesday, April 8th, 2008 – 15:18 UTC ]

I rarely dip into the realm of fairy tales to describe politics, but sometimes trying to figure out George Bush's logic on Iraq demands it. And so today we will try to explain the current military logic on troop levels using Goldilocks' terms: "too few," "too many," or "just right."

Some facts, first. American troop levels in Iraq a little over a year ago stood at about 130,000. President Bush decided the level of violence was unacceptable and suddenly decided there were "too few" soldiers in Iraq. His answer was the "surge," which was originally supposed to be 20,000 troops, but somehow (hey presto!) turned into 30,000 because of "additional support personnel." This raised the total to somewhere around 160,000 (which was supposed to be "just right"). The "surge" troops are now rotating out of Iraq, having spent a 15-month tour of duty there. They are scheduled to be gone in July, although somehow 10,000 support troops will stay, leaving America with 140,000 troops this summer (again, which is planned to be "just right" -- even though it was "too few" before the "surge").

Got all that? OK. Now, Petraeus, from his testimony today:

I recommended to my chain of command that we continue the drawdown of the surge combat forces and that, upon the withdrawal of the last surge brigade combat team in July, we undertake a 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation. At the end of that period, we will commence a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground and, over time, determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions. This process will be continuous, with recommendations for further reductions made as conditions permit. This approach does not allow establishment of a set withdrawal timetable; however, it does provide the flexibility those of us on the ground need to preserve the still fragile security gains our troopers have fought so hard and sacrificed so much to achieve.

What he's saying, in essence, is: we have to keep drawing down troops on a fixed schedule until July. At that point, we will have a "pause" and decide what to do next. But we certainly can't draw down troops at that point on any sort of fixed schedule. Because... um....

Well, I'm sorry, but that's where he loses me. Because what he is exhibiting here is a masterful display of Orwellian "doublethink." Scheduled troop withdrawals = good (until July). Scheduled troop withdrawals (after July) = not good. It's a striking contradiction, but one he was largely allowed to get away with.

Let's start with logic. I know, it hasn't exactly been Bush's strong point on Iraq, but one can still hope for a light to dawn. Bush's logic for the "surge" can be expressed as: Violence up -- send more troops in. The logic for ending the "surge" was (up until Basra exploded): Violence is now down -- "surge" troops can come home.

There's a glaring problem with this, though. The past few weeks have seen increased violence, and yet nobody has questioned whether a "pause" in withdrawing troops might not be a better idea right now (following Bush's logic), since violence seems to be creeping back up. But no, now Bush is backed into a logical corner: Violence up -- troops come home anyway. No wonder Petraeus' testimony seems so illogical.

There's a reason nobody wants to bring this up. Our Army is either (depending on who you believe) near, at, or beyond the breaking point. Soldiers are doing longer tours (15 months instead of 12), more of them (some are on their fourth duty tour in Iraq), and with less rest periods between fighting than they are supposed to. To continue the "surge" -- or even pause the withdrawal of the "surge" -- would mean extending the tours to 18 months, or sending troops back in with shorter and shorter rest periods. We just don't have the troops, in other words, under the current rules. Which is why nobody wants to bring up the prospect that we might need more troops (or at the very least, the same amount) if the violence spirals back out of control before July.

Even Petraeus admits the possibility of more violence in the near future. Again, from his testimony:

There has been significant but uneven security progress in Iraq. Since September, levels of violence and civilian deaths have been reduced substantially, al-Qaeda-Iraq and a number of other extremist elements have been dealt serious blows, the capabilities of Iraqi security force elements have grown, and there has been noteworthy involvement of local Iraqis in local security. Nonetheless, the situation in certain areas is still unsatisfactory and innumerable challenges remain. Moreover, as events in the past two weeks have reminded us and as I have repeatedly cautioned, the progress made since last spring is fragile and reversible.

Fragile and reversible. OK, what do you do if it does reverse? Sadly, this question remains unanswered (for now -- I must admit I haven't read the entire transcript of the testimony yet).

Because, according to Petraeus, in July he's going to take a "pause" of at least 45 days (or maybe even 3 months, or maybe until the next president is elected), assess the situation, and then make a recommendation to Bush as to what to do next. But there are really only three possibilities, so why not address them now?

Iraq could be more violent in July. Iraq could be about the same as it is now. Or Iraq could be less violent in July. Stripped of subtleties of the relative Iraqi political progress, those are pretty much the only three situations Iraq (and Petraeus, and Bush) will face in July.

Applying the logic of the "surge;" if there's more violence, we should reverse the drawdown of the "surge" and send in a "resurgence" (call it "surge II") of more troops to calm things down. If the violence is about the same, then we should wait, or very slowly draw down more troops. If the violence is down, then we can begin withdrawing the bulk of our forces at a rate to be determined.

Now, Petraeus is not a fool, so he knows whatever happens in July is going to have political ramifications for his boss. Petraeus is supposedly "above politics" but even he knows that if he recommended, in July, that the U.S. send in another "surge" of 20,000 troops that it would pretty much guarantee a Democratic president and possibly even a Democratic filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. This would be the equivalent of Goldilocks falling asleep and getting eaten alive by the three bears. So even if logic dictates that the answer should be "send more troops in," he's just not going to say this in all likelihood.

Which leaves three possibilities: keep the same level of troops for the near future, continue drawing down troops (but at a slower rate), or declare victory and begin a major withdrawal.

Bush would be overjoyed if he could do that last one, but it's looking less and less likely as time goes on. So we can probably discount that option, too -- even though it would pull the rug out from under the Democrats in a major way ("See, you should have trusted me, we're going to get the troops out even earlier than what a Democratic president could do next year! We have WON in Iraq!"). But chances are that the situation on the ground is just not going to make that scenario possible.

Which leaves the "do nothing" approach as Goldilocks' "just right!" We will have around 130,000 to 140,000 troops in Iraq on election day in November. We will have this number (or very close to it) there no matter what the situation on the ground is -- worse, the same, or better. Nothing will interrupt the timetable of withdrawing the "surge" (even though timetables are supposed to be -- take your pick -- evil, surrender, and/or impossible) which will be completed in July.

And Bush will have succeeded in his real goal for the "surge" -- to kick the can of Iraq down the road for the next president to clean up (at his or her peril, as far as he's concerned).

Somebody wake me in November....


-- Chris Weigant


5 Comments on “Petraeus As Goldilocks”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    This is what happens when executive power is allowed free reign. This is what happens when checks and balances and the constitution is ignored.

    The US has lost control (if it ever really had it) in Iraq and can no longer act only react. There are no good options here - there is no "just right" course of action.

    The consequences of the administration's policies will be with us for many years to come.


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    If you ignore the political games and "one-upmanship" and view things strictly from a Military perspective, everything Patraeus said makes perfect sense.

    At least to those who have BTDT....


  3. [3] 
    Michael Gass wrote:

    A political hack is someone who will spout whatever he/she must in order to push a political agenda regardless of the facts. Gen. Petraeus, during his testimony to Congress, has now proven to the nation that he is no longer a Commander who looks to take care of his troops but is, in fact, a GOP political hack. The General cited the 2007 Mental Health Advisory Team (MHAT) Report as evidence to Congress that troop morale is high. In fact, Gen. Petreaus states that unit morale was twice as high in 2007 than in 2006! Happy days are here for our troops!

    Except, when a literate person with an IQ at least room temperature actually reads the report cited by Gen. Petreaus, what you learn is that in 2006 the percentage of a unit that rated morale as "very high" was 7.4% compared to 13.1% in 2007 (pg 24, Fig. 2 of the MHAT). We also learn that compared to 2006, soldiers in 2007 "reported more difficulty accessing behavioral health services, but lower stigma associate with seeking care. Behavorial health personnel reported a shortage of behavioral health assets and higher burnout." (pg 4, 1.2.2 C) "Soldiers on their third or fourth deployment were at significantly higher risk than soldiers on their first or second deployment for mental health problems and work-related problems." (pg 4, 1.2.2 F) "Suicide rates continue to be elevated relative to historic Army rates. Most suicides involve failed relationshiops with spouses or intimate partners." (pg 5, 1.2.2 I) The MHAT recommends, among other items; Ensure adequate dwell-time between deployments.

    It is also worth noting that even the figures cited in the MHAT have been "corrected" due to (1) gender, (2) rank and (3) months in theater. As the MHAT notes, "ratings of unit morale are influenced by gender (males report higher unit morale than females); rank (NCOs rate unit morale lower than the E1-E4 group, and Officers rate unit morale higher than the E1-E-4 group) and months in theater (a detailed analysis is provided in section 6.3.1). Each of these variables, however, differs from 2006 to 2007 (see Table 2). Therefore, to determine whether BCT Soldiers report changes in unit morale it is necessary to normalize the data on these key variables." (pg 25, 5.1.1)

    In layman's terms, this means that women have lower morale than men (because it's the females who are being raped and/or sexually harrassed); NCOs rate unit morale lower (because they usually have deployed more often then the E1-E4 group and been stop-lossed), Officers rate unit morale higher (because it would be political/career suicide to speak the truth), and the E1-E4 group are simply glad to have the chance to go, as Sen. Graham put it, "kick some ass." And yet, unit morale for 2007 was still only 13.1% in the "very high" category?

    In section 5.1.3, the MHAT states, "Using this breakdown, both individual and unit morale significantly increase from 2006 to 2007." (pg 25) Yet, the very next sentence states that for males in the E1-E4 group who spent 9 months deployed, the adjusted percentage of these surveyed who rated unit morale between "medium" and "very high" increased from 51.2% in 2006 to 55.4% in 2007. Significant increase indeed! In fact, on page 32 in Table 4, we are shown that 48.4% of the males in the E1-E4 group curse or insult NON-combatants in their presence (remember, these are innocent civilians), 19.1% reported destroying or damaging private property when it was not necessary, and 10.2% reported physically hitting/kicking NON-combatants when it was not necessary. Winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi's because of high morale indeed!

    In September 2007, Senate Republicans effectively stopped a vote in Congress on a bill that would have mandated dwell-time for our troops and President Bush declared he would veto any such bill if it passed Congress (one of the above key recommendations in the MHAT). In fact, even Sec. of Defense Gates recommended that the bill be voted by President Bush. Our own "esteemed" Senator Graham voted NAY on that bill in September 2007 (S.Amdt. 2909 to S.Amdt. 2011 to H.R. 1585 (National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008). Such support for the troops from the GOP! The dwell-time bill was championed by Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat and veteran himself.

    When MoveOn.Org published an add with the words "Gen. Betray-Us" in it, every Republican, every GOP shill, moved to immediately condemn them, going so far as to actually push a vote in Congress. Yet, Gen. Petreaus' citation of the MHAT as evidence that troop morale in Iraq is now significantly higher in 2007 than in 2006 when the statistics themselves do not support such a statement is proof positive that Gen. Petreaus has moved from being a Commander to a GOP political hack.

  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    That is some excellent tap dancing there...

    Can you write an equal dissertation on the meaning of the word "is"??? :^/

    Your statements are so replete with bias and prejudice, it's hard to take anything you say seriously..


  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Yes, Michale...

    ...from a strictly military perspective, Petraeus may make perfect sense. The only trouble is that Iraq is a political problem in desperate need of a political solution.

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