by tristero

[UPDATE: In comments, r4d20 believes that I have misunderstood Biddle and believe him to be "pro-surge." In re-reading my post, perhaps I should have clearly stated that I do not think Biddle is for or against "the surge" nor is his position one way or the other the point I wish to address here.

Rather I think Biddle fails to engage with any real seriousness the arguments he discusses that are "pro-surge" and by failing to do so, concludes from them that "the surge" is in his word, "defensible." That simply isn't so, if these are the only arguments in support of "the surge" - and they are. In fact, these arguments are quite preposterous. It is Biddle's failure to engage responsibly these incredibly bad arguments, and therby enhancing their status, that I strongly object to. That, and only that, is the point of this post: he has mistaken an utterly indefensible - indeed, ridiculous - argument for a reasonable one.]

Yglesias draws our attention to Stephen Biddle's prepared remarks before the House Armed Services entitled, "Evaluating Options for Partial Withdrawals of US Forces from Iraq". It's a short paper and worth a read, but not because his analysis is worthy of the enormous respect Matt feels, as apparently do others, for Biddle. Instead, it will provide you a sense of how truly inadequate the thinking of the foreign policy establishment is when dealing with contemporary realities, even in the twilight of the neo-cons. It gives one pause to realize that a genuine mediocrity like Biddle is, given the current state of the establishment, not by any means the most muddle-headed thinker accorded "enormous respect" and prestigious appointments.

Biddle commits a wince-inducing, undergraduate level mistake in reasoning. He fails, either due to intellectual limitations, political calculation or both, to responsibly and plainly evaluate the likely (and unlikely) consequences of American foreign policy and military initiatives. One would think that to evaluate such likelihoods are part of the job description for a respected foreign policy intellectual. But, just like Bush and the liberal hawks did during 2002/03, Biddle places wildly inappropriate emphasis on what he mistakenly deems real probabilities, chances that maybe, just maybe - hey, y'never know!- things will work out for the best:
Of course, continued pursuit of stability via negotiation in Iraq is inherently a long shot at this point – certainly the odds are well below the 25 percent success rate for such attempts historically. But to jump from this historical observation to a claim that the chances are zero is very hard to sustain analytically. A more reasonable prognosis is a small – but non-zero – chance of success.
And sure enough, Biddle continues down the well-intentioned path to probabilistic Hell:
A long shot gamble is never an attractive option, but it can make sense if the costs of failure are high. And failure in Iraq could pose grave risks to American interests.
This is specious reasoning of the most basic kind and the reason why so many of us are in despair over the future of our country.

For Biddle has completely neglected the crucial step of quantifying, in some reasonable way, what that "non-zero" chance of success of "stability via negotiation" might be. Less than 25%, definitely, how much less? Could he mean 5%? One would think that is probably too low to make the chance worth discussing but that's exactly the percentage of "success" that convinced George Packer to get all gung-ho for Bush/Iraq when Packer's pal, Makiya was talking up an invasion. (A "triumph of hope over experience." Yep, Makiya said that, the sonofabitch.)

But hold on. To some Bushies, as we know, a 1% chance is plenty good odds. Are those the odds Biddle's talking about here? I can't see any reason why Biddle couldn't be thought actually to be entertaining such a low probability of "success." He is after all predicting 100,000 troops for 20 years in Iraq. A one percent chance might just be what he thinks it has.

In fact, I would argue that given the present level of negotiating skills in the governments of Iraq and in the US - which can charitably be described as "laughable" - the real odds of "stability via negotiation" are well below 1%. I'd say it is far more likely that there really was a spaceship behind Hale-Bopp.

Now most of us when contemplating 1% odds or less would say, "Ok, that really means it's unlikely to happen before the universe experiences heat-death. That's what we're talking about here" and not waste any more time. But that's not the impression Biddle creates. Remember: even odds of less than 1% are still "non-zero!" And by describing such hopeless odds in a vague manner - the odds of success are small, a long shot, but non-zero - Biddle provides the opening for a scoundrel like Dick Cheney to create plenty of nasty mischief. Hey! Y'never know! It just might work. And that's how they sold Bush/Iraq to people dumb enough to fall for such sloppy thinking.

"Non-zero" is authoritative-sounding claptrap. And Biddle's remarks are full of it. Sure, there are times you have to take enormous risks, but not with my child's life you don't when they are barely above 0%. And if he has kids, I'll bet not with Biddle's either. But that's not the worst of his nonsense about the chances of desired outcomes :
Civil wars such as Iraq’s often take a decade or more to burn themselves out. With some luck, Iraq’s war could do this without spreading (and astute US policy could increase the chance of this, albeit only at the margin).
With some luck?!!??? Did Biddle actually write, "With some luck?" Let's get this boy a Mojo Hand, as the old Muddy Waters song goes, maybe that'll help the margin (note: he sang about it, but in interviews, it became quite clear that Muddy was far too sophisticated to believe that the Mojo Hand, let alone a belief in luck, could be of much help when wrestling with the blues. And that's why Mr. Morganfield was never employed by the Council on Foreign Relations. True story.).

But wait! Biddle's only just begun:
The result could be a regionwide version of the Iran-Iraq War some time in the next decade, but with some of the combatants (especially Iran) having probable access to weapons of mass destruction by that time. Of course nothing about Iraq is a certainty, and the probability of regionalization is not 1.0.
What, "not even 1" wasn't pompous enough? But hey! Y'never know! Sensing an opportunity, the Kurds just might decide that the stability of the world depends upon their not declaring their independence, thereby precipitating a war with Turkey. It really could happen, maybe, if we all close our eyes and wish for hope to triumph over experience!

And then, Biddle goes over the rainbow:
None of these prospects are certainties. But during the Cold War we worried enough about a very small risk of nuclear aggression by the Soviet Union to spend untold billions to reduce that small risk to an even smaller one. By comparison, the danger that we could catalyze an eventual regional war in the Mideast by failure in Iraq seems much more realistic.
You read that right. Biddle is arguing that because we wasted an obscene amount of money during the Cold War, we should do likewise today. Oh, and dig that "catylyze!" He's gotta be a smart guy with that kind of vocab.

Furthermore, Biddle's analysis, especially of the surge, is so embedded within the Bush administration's simplistic framework as to be worthless. For example:
If one defines failure as the total withdrawal of American forces from an unstable Iraq...
This is Bush-style definition, which equates withdrawal - under realistic scenarios: after all, into the long forseeable future, Iraq will be dangerously unstable - with failure. But, dear old Occam's Razor needn't be terribly sharp to realize that it's quite clear withdrawal is not by any means a necessary component of failure. And surely "failure in Iraq" is better defined as the creation of a self-perpetuating Hobbesian State of Nature with no conceivable hope of amelioration for a generation, no matter what actions the US takes. That accurately defines the dreadful status quo in Iraq. And so, stay or withdraw, Bush has failed. Miserably.

And so on. Yes, Biddle makes a fairly convincing case against "partial withdrawals" from Iraq but, as Matt discusses, Biddle fails to realize that based upon his own analysis the case for the surge is fatally weak. That he would fail to do so is in keeping with his rather limited skills as an analyst.

However, while I have a serious problem with Biddle's analysis of proposals for dealing with Iraq, his clear-headed, bluntly declarative description of the mind-boggling catastrophe that Iraq is presently suffering leads the reader to an inescable first step required to have a chance of moving forward. Quite inadvertently, Biddle advances an exceedingly compelling case for the immediate impeachment and removal from office of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, among others.*

The Iraq fiasco, let us not forget, was caused entirely by the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq with no casus belli and exacerbated by the inevitable consequences of governance by the kind of mentally misbegotten leaders who would take proposals for such an invasion seriously. By doing so, perpetrating what they themselves admitted was a "war of choice" - ie, an avoidable war - Bush and Cheney have immeasurably increased the already immense number of grave dangers the United States will have to face in the 21st century. By providing a brief, damning precis of the current, truly awful reality on the ground in Iraq, Biddle's brief remarks - for all their serious problems - make the sheer depth of Bush et al's culpability infuriatingly clear. Equally clear is that the United States cannot hope to construct a workable Iraq policy as long as such criminally incompetent people are in power.


*Whether impeachment is politically feasible is an entirely different issue.