Monday, May 03, 2004

The Sunshine Club

It is probably time to explicitly address the issue of whether the Belmont Club is "optimistic" about the outcome of the current Iraq campaign. Enough commentators have remarked on it for Belmont Club to stand guilty as charged, at least atmospherically. Yet why should this be so? From the very beginning this blog began with the most pessimistic, or perhaps the most realistic of assumptions -- that the Marines were not going to flatten Fallujah because it would cause too many civilian casualties. Whether or not observing that constraint would lead to a perception of weakness by the Arab world; whether or not the refusal to smash this nightmare town would convey a message of indecision; whether ruling out an urban battle in Fallujah would ultimately lose the war is another issue altogether. But once large scale civilian casualties were deemed impermissible, everything that followed, from the encirclement, to the Marine incursions, from the ceasefires, to the formation of the Fallujah Brigade would have come as no surprise. Whatever predictive power this blog may have had over the past few weeks came simply from taking that assumption and trying to figure out what the Marines would do to win this campaign within those limitations. Of course, nothing guarantees that the Marines will win or whether victory was even possible in the first place. Perhaps much of the atmosphere of optimism conveyed by the Belmont Club came simply from my subconcious admiration at the skill and bravery with which the Corps attempted this extremely difficult task.

From the technical point of view I have tried, as much as possible, to avoid predicting outcomes unless they were obvious. Instead, I tried to identify elements, pin down places, sketch out maps, construct timelines and infer tactics from correspondent's reports. Doubtless those who have access to classified information will be laughing their heads off at this crude construction, but it was the best I could do. In that spirit that I vehemently recoiled at the press reports that the USMC had been driven from the field and "replaced" by an Iraqi unit headed by a Saddamite general, not out of optimism or pessimism, but simply because I could not, in good conscience, take the Marine units off the map and replace them with a ghost force. I pointed out, rightly as it now seems, that the Iraqi unit didn't even exist as functioning formation. It didn't even have a definite commander. Of the five Marine battalions in Fallujah area, only one left its position in what was long a rear area and even the enemy feared they were being redeployed to a more threatening position. That these elementary and almost self-evident observations have heartened readers is testimony not so much to the optimism of the Belmont Club but to the gloom that has descended on the campaign, or at least its treatment in the media.

What are the facts? It is fairly certain that the USMC has penned up the enemy die hards in the northern part of the city without precipitating a wholesale massacre. That is a huge achievement in itself. It is now apparent that the USMC has been trying to constitute an Iraqi force -- a force that will be needed if a massive urban battle is ruled out.

What are the probables? That both the Fallujah Brigade, its command elements and perhaps militias like the Thulfiquar Army leave a lot to be desired and probably contain a lot of bad eggs. That there are serious disagreements among and between the Coalition Provisional Authority, the Iraqi Governing Council, the various Shi'ite factions, and perhaps the Kurds, who would like their own state and that these will complicate matters.

That is the state of play. And within that web of doubt America must grapple with a single burning certainty: that unless it can bring a functioning democracy to the Middle East and militarily defeat the terrorist threat it will find its very national existence threatened. Optimism is a word for nothing left to lose.