Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Doc Rice & the contractors

Sometimes the fallacy in an argument, a policy, a world-view is revealed in the smallest, slightest way. Walls of rationale and well-thought-out positions fall apart with a single word, one word that points to how weak the whole structure is.

Dr. Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, was testifying on Capitol Hill today, offering senators a blueprint for the foreseeable future of Iraq, flush with the apparent success of the Oct. 15 referendum on a draft constitution, despite vote certification irregularities that at this writing are yet to be fully identified -- is this the Middle Eastern equivalent of the hanging chad controversy?

In the course of her appearance -- customarily categorical, abrasive and dismissive, sometimes in the same sentence -- Doc Rice responded to a question from Massachusetts senator John Kerry. Madame Secretary spoke of the future of Iraq and how Iraqis' assumption of their own affairs, in the embrace of a Western-style democracy, would constitute "victory in this war."

Victory. The word summons every outmoded, antediluvian image you can think of. There's a 17th- or 18th- or 19th-century feel to its usage in this context, a subscribing to a polar, binary, us-vs.-them view of the world that properly ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Doc Rice's use of the word, maybe more than any other, illustrates the anachronistic thinking behind much of the planning and execution of the war in Iraq.

The present conflict is fundamentally at odds with traditional conceptions of warfare, the comfortable framing devices of past conflicts that defined success in terms of geography, loot, empire in the most martially atavistic terms. Doc Rice's embrace of the word as a level of achievement suggests she's overlooked the ways that ideology, religion and faith have become the new yardsticks of success and failure. The war in Iraq is not a turf battle; this is hearts and minds writ large, and the danger is in this country's failure to see that indelible message, and to see how we ignored or overlooked that message before.

Doc Rice's simplification is one that the architects of the current conflict continue to embrace. On PBS' "News Hour With Jim Lehrer," one of the prevailing thinkers on the right gave a glimpse into the way the conservatives have distilled the contours of this conflict into something innocuous, and not a little elitist.

Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, defended Doc Rice against the barrage of questions on the timetable of the war, and explained, or tried to, the futility of coming up with a timetable for getting out. "Fighting a war is a little like having a contractor come in and redo your kitchen," Mead said. "You want to know the deadline and you want to know the cost and you want everything to be done on time, and if things go over budget, you're very irate."

In Mead's "contractor mentality" cosmology, war is a willfully improvisational exercise in which armies are "testing their srength and trying strategies and looking for weak points in the opposition." (Much like you look for weak spots when you're trying to shore up your home's foundation.)

Mead's is a perfectly plausible, articulately expressed, readily accessible argument. It is also complete and unmitigated bullshit.

The basic wrong-headedness of his position stems from making an assumption based on his apparent past experiences with unscrupulous contractors. Despite what Mead believes, there's not a contractor worth his Better Business Bureau recommendation that doesn't really know what it takes to complete a job. It's not that the contractor doesn't know what the job will cost or how long it'll take -- it's just that he won't share that knowledge with you.

This begins to explain the dancing Doc Rice got into when asked, point-blank by Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes, for something resembling a timetable for extraction from the land of George's miseries. Will we start to be out in five years? In ten?

"We are moving on a course in which Iraqi security forces are rather rapidly able to take care of their own security concerns," she said. "...And as they are able to do certain tasks, as they are able to hold their own territory, they will not need us to do that."

The sharp reader will of course notice Doc Rice's use of the word -- that single undermining word again -- rapidly. That word, by its very nature, implies an action in some chronological framework, one in apposition to another, longer chronological framework. You don't think of things happening rapidly in a theoretical vacuum. It's always "rapidly" in relation to "slowly." The adverb preceding "rapidly," "rather," makes the sense of a prospective timetable even more obvious.

But clearly, this is a timetable that head contractor Doc Rice would prefer to keep to herself. It takes as long as it takes; it costs what it costs.

For Mead, the idea of a defined timetable for exit from Iraq isn't possible because of the precarious, unpredictable nature of warfare. "It's not one of those simple controllable processes," he said on "News Hour." Mead overlooks just how controllable a situation can be when you create it in the first place. His insistence that a timetable for gradual withdrawal is neither prudent nor possible runs up against the way the United States got into the war: by slow degrees, through incremental deceptions that happened so slowly but methodically it was hard to discern them as a building wave, until the wave was upon us.

Over more than a year the United States accrued the intelligence, materiel and popular support for beginning a war, then slowly developed plans for attack and invasion, then slowly executed those plans. The documentable metrics for starting military action were arrived at over a period of time; how can developing a documentable plan for ending that military action be unsound or difficult?

Like we said, it's not that the contractor doesn't know what the job will cost or how long it'll take -- it's just that he won't share that knowledge with you.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser under President Carter, understands what's at stake. On the same "News Hour" segment, Brzezinski made the case for full disclosure. "We have to take a critical look at the overall costs of the war, for America's legitimacy in the world, for our moral standing and, indeed, even for our resources, both military and economic."

Doc Rice and the contractors have the high ground right now, and they can charge whatever they want. But for the American people, the bill comes due too frequently. It shows up somewhere in America every day, a bill that doesn't come in the mail, a bill that shows up on the front porch, in uniform and somber expressions that say, without a word being said, that we regret to inform you ...

It's a bill the nation won't be willing to pay forever.


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