War Stories

Reality Bites

Is the Bush administration capable of facing the world’s problems, much less solving them?

Donald Rumsfeld. Click image to expand.
Donald Rumsfeld 

The world seems to be falling apart, and the designated powers are fumbling at the controls, unsure which levers spin, which axes in what direction. The metaphor is a bit of a stretch; no country or alliance could command the planet, like an orchestra conductor or a god, regardless of how clever its leaders might be. Still, it’s horrifying to scan the full horizon of disasters—in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, East Asia, South Asia, all the simmering hot spots on the verge of boiling over—and to realize that no one in charge knows what to do.

It’s a perfect storm out there, each crisis feeding into the others yet at the same time laden with unique origins and features, demanding unique approaches and solutions. George Marshall himself would have a hard time keeping his grip.

The United States is hardly the only country at fault. Yet by its claims (“the sole superpower,” “the indispensable nation,” “we’re an empire now”) and by the objective facts (we are closer to being those things than any other country is), it does have the leverage—some would argue, the responsibility—to organize, mediate, and lead the way toward some solution.

Michael Hirsh has an excellent column in the latest Newsweek, an impassioned exhortation for President Bush to lead, dammit! The problem, though, is that neither Bush nor most of the top people around him have shown any inclination to do the things that leadership requires.

Two stories in today’s New York Times reveal pieces of the problem. One reports that Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander in Iraq, wants to move more American troops into Baghdad to prevent the capital’s deadly cycle of violence from worsening. (More than 140 people have been killed in sectarian violence over the past four days alone.)

It’s unclear what effect this would have. The same story quotes Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as saying that troop levels in Baghdad have already been increased—from 40,000 to 55,000—to deal with the surge of killings. Yet, as the Times reporters dryly observe, “[T]he increase has not noticeably restrained the sectarian bloodletting.”

At one point during this occupation, an extra 15,000 troops, deployed in the right place and given the right orders, might have quelled this sort of disruption. But the hatred between Sunnis and Shiites has so intensified, their militias have taken such hold, the Americans are so widely viewed as occupiers, and the fledgling government has amassed such scant legitimacy that it’s hard to see how force alone can bring order—unless we’re talking about 10 times as many extra troops, a real occupying army, but this is out of the question; we simply don’t have that many extra troops to send.

Gen. Casey is a military commander; troops are his basic tools. But what are we to make of Rumsfeld? On Wednesday, according to the Washington Post, he said that settling the violence is “as much a political task as anything.” True enough, but it’s not clear he knows what this means. On Thursday, at his news conference with Gen. Casey, Rumsfeld elaborated on the point. Iraqi officials, he declared, are “going to have to persuade as many people as possible that it’s in their interest to support the government and participate in the political process. And anyone who doesn’t want to, they’re going to have to go find and do something about.”


The other Times story that sheds light on our failures is an op-ed by Rory Stewart headlined, “Even in Iraq, All Politics Is Local.” Stewart is the 33-year-old, Farsi-speaking former British foreign service officer who walked across Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban were defeated and chronicled his adventure in a wonderful best seller, The Places in Between. Just after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Stewart took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad and soon found himself the appointed acting governor of a province in southern Iraq. (He writes about that tale in a new book, The Prince of the Marshes, out next month.)

Stewart’s key insight is that local leaders, in Afghanistan and Iraq, know a lot more than the U.S.-led coalition gives them credit for—and that the coalition would be more successful if it gave these leaders real power and authority.

When Stewart walked the breadth of Afghanistan, from Herat to Kabul, he was “struck by the strength and vibrancy of local politics.” Only a few months had passed since the Taliban had been ousted, yet “political councils had re-emerged to balance the demands of the community and the realities of local power”—and these councils were based on a different political system in almost every village. Similarly, when he helped to set up a new political system in southern Iraq’s Maysan province, just months after Saddam fell, 54 political parties emerged and 14 tribal groups demanded representation.

These local parties and tribes are where true power resides. The national leaders in both countries understand this—Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq—and the coalition should stop interfering in their efforts to strike deals, even if some of the deals involve unsavory characters. Troops and money alone can’t solve problems that are political and religious. Political change can’t happen without strong local support; Karzai and Maliki have “a far better understanding of the limits and possibilities of the local political scenes” (they’re also elected). So, Stewart urges Western politicians to drop their “utopian dreams” and to let the local leaders make their deals with militias, insurgents, warlords, or whatever it takes. Otherwise, success is impossible.

Obviously, some insurgents—for instance, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, when he was alive—aren’t worth talking with, under any circumstances. But many others are. One key task is to make the distinction. A big problem is that, until recently, the Bush administration hasn’t been willing to acknowledge the distinction, much less to do anything about it. Bush now seems more open to the idea, if only because more purely military approaches have failed. But the problem here is that so few diplomats on the scene are trained in the local culture or language. The situation isn’t as bad as when the Coalition Provisional Authority was in charge and was staffed, to a large extent, by naive nephews of big Republican donors. Still, the operation is less than expert.

Places like the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., are strenuously trying to fill the gap, but neither the diplomatic corps nor the military command structure is set up to exploit the resource. About a year ago, after I wrote a Slate column about the Pentagon’s pathetic effort to improve its language training, I received dozens of letters from military and foreign-service officers who had been schooled in Farsi or Arabic, scored well on their tests, yet been assigned to jobs or embassies that had nothing to do with their talents.

But this sort of neglect is but a side effect of the larger deficiencies at the top. Whatever else might be said of them, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld are not worldly men. They’re neither well-traveled nor curious about the world. They came into office believing that America had emerged from the Cold War as the only real power and, as such, they didn’t have to care about what other countries said. They didn’t understand that powerful countries—at least powerful democracies—have always acted through alliances, even if only by manipulating them. A powerful country doesn’t always need allies to get a job done—but it does need them to get a job done with legitimacy, to get it done and keep it done.

One senior Bush adviser famously told Ron Suskind, back in those halcyon days shortly after Saddam fell: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” What’s happening now is that reality is roaring back.