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The war and the recession: a connection?

ASK THIS | February 14, 2008

The economy has supplanted the war at the top of the national agenda – but only because of two mistaken perceptions, writes Gen. William Odom. Contrary to popular belief, the surge isn’t working; it’s just postponing the inevitable. And that looming recession? A trillion-plus dollars squandered in war spending may have something to do with it.

By William E. Odom

This time a year ago, the White House was betting on the troop surge in Iraq. The Democrats were betting on public sentiment to force the White House to end the war. Now the Democrats have dropped the war and are betting on a poor economy to propel them into office. And the White House is claiming that the surge is working.

Q. Is the surge really working?

General David Petraeus wisely warned that while his surge strategy could lower the violence in Iraq, it could not assure political consolidation. Yet political consolidation is the sine qua non for progress in the war. It has not happened. In many ways, it is more distant now than last year.

Several sectarian militias have remained on the sidelines, out of the fight, far from reconciled. Although scores of Sunni sheiks have signed up with U.S. forces to fight al Qaeda for large amounts of regular monetary payments, they are in no way supporting the Shiite-dominated government. They occasionally engage in fire fights with government police and army units. Our military has merely “rented” their services. It does not “own” them. Moreover, this development began before the surge. Yet it probably accounts for most of the drop in violence.

Many refugees are returning to Iraq, not because violence is down but because they can no longer pay their bills for living abroad. As critics of the surge warned, violence might not be receding so much as merely moving to other locations in Iraq. Now violence in the north around Mosul has increased, as well as in other places. Also, many local sheiks and local leaders have been holding their fire, husbanding and replenishing their resources, waiting for U.S. forces to withdraw, and getting ready for the real path to reconciliation -- a civil war that one or the other side wins. Moreover, while al Qaeda Iraq has suffered large losses – less from the surge than from increasingly effective U.S. special operations forces – they are by no means defeated, or likely to quit the battlefield. Finally, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia army has been standing aside and out of sight, apparently wholly unreconciled to the U.S. military presence. It could reenter the fight at any time.

Some journalists have pointed out these uncomfortable facts about the surge’s results. Still, they remain out of the mainstream media for the most part, entirely forgotten when the administration produces a few Iraqis who warn of the bloodbath that would follow a U.S. withdrawal. Polling data show that a clear majority of Iraqis do not believe a political consolidation can be achieved as long as U.S. forces remain in Iraq, but the media focus almost entirely on the downside of withdrawal.

Of course many Iraqis fear for their lives in the event of a U.S. withdrawal, but that won’t change even if U.S. forces remain for another decade. Their tragedy is the inexorable consequence of the U.S. invasion in the first place. It can only be temporarily postponed, not avoided. And most Iraqis know that but still plead for as much stay of execution as they can persuade President Bush to give them through more U.S. casualties. This connection is never made.

Finally, the most questionable aspect of the surge concerns the consolidation of power by sheiks and other local leaders. Most weak states in the world have strongly consolidated local leadership. That is why their central governments remain weak. Once such enclaves of power are created by local strongmen, they almost never yield, or even share it more than temporarily, with the central government.

Political consolidation is achieved almost without exception through civil wars. Is that not the American experience? And the English experiences with their Welsh, Scottish, and Irish clans? In Iraq, even Saddam never succeeded in breaking the clan structure, only in buying them off from time to time. The Ottomans never tried. Can U.S. forces achieve the centralization that has eluded all previous regimes there?

Perhaps the president ought to be asked to explain why his answer is yes.

Q. Why is the economy headed for a recession?

The costs of war in Iraq are certainly part of the answer. Yet the media, having largely pulled back from what used to be aggressive war coverage, have now let the economy replace the war as the number one issue in the presidential campaign without even considering that the two may be connected. Similarly, the Democratic congress has shed the war issue and wrapped itself in the economy issue. (If the Democrats don't press the war as an issue and the press doesn't either, it's only natural that it will recede in the political campaign.)

But the two issues are linked. Withdrawing from Iraq will not turn the economy around, but the billions of dollars that would be saved could certainly defray the cost of an economic stimulus package, lessening the likelihood of ensuing inflation.

Accurate assessments of the war’s cost are not available, but the figure is most likely between a trillion and one and a half trillion dollars. What if that money were available for dealing with health care demands, public infrastructure underfunding, and the like? To talk about recession without tying it to the war is to give the administration a pass.

More articles by William Odom

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