Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Politics of Failure

"The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people and it is unacceptable to me. Our troops in Iraq have fought bravely. They have done everything we have asked them to do. Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me."

Thus began President Bush's address to the nation last night. Anticipation of the address arose from two well-circulated and well-confirmed rumors: that Bush would admit the failure of existing Iraq policy and that he would propose a significant troop increase in Baghdad and other insurgent strongholds.

Strategically, it seems, the Bush camp hoped to allow the latter by offering the former. By admitting to failure, admitting to mistakes, for once seeming unsure and humble before the camera, Bush seemed to be offering a political gift to his opponents: vindication, and smug vindication at that. But the strategic magnanimity was not limited to the Congressional elite, to politicians and public figures. The rhetorical pivot was really meant for the nation.

It was well-orchestrated artifice - a convincing simulacrum of remorse and human frailty juxtaposed against a noble belief in the eventual perseverance of American values and an unwavering support and love for American troops toiling in this far off war. Or so it read anyway, as the quote above so artfully demonstrates.

Look at how wonderfully Bush expresses his frustration, framing it within the constellation of American ideals. He is frustrated because America is not all she can be - despite trying so hard, America is failing in its construction of equal democracies abroad. But wait, he says, we as Americans must not feel badly, must not bear the burdens of this failure, this inability to be perfect. He, our President, our Commander-in-Chief will bear it - he will strap himself to the crucifix and suffer for all of us, as long as we promise to, upon resurrection, support this final endeavor. And thus, we are inducted into the cult of Bush, or such was the plan anyway.

Not surprisingly however, his resurrection was transparently hurried, unconvincing in the speed of its arrival. His toes had barely touched the fire before the delusional monomania resurfaced (it had never truly absconded had it?). And boy, did it resurface with undue vengeance.

Admittedly, there seems to be no workable solution to problems of Iraq. To summarize grossly and with little nuance: we can leave, or we can stay. Both options are fueled by the knowledge that, whether leaving or staying, we can't stay as we are now. So, staying hinges upon something more – additions, multiplications, exponents.

Leaving is fraught with problems, both logistically and ethically. In terms of the former, leaving is always a dangerous military proposition. Its when our troops are increasingly likely to be killed and, more avariciously, though perhaps justly so, its when we lose a fuck-ton of money, leaving it to depreciate in the acrid heat and sectarian violence of a once-promised (though never all that promising) democratic state.

Ethically it's about guilt and human connection (a Freudian romance, it seems). Do we feel comfortable leaving behind a situation that will undoubtedly devolve into a murderous, structure-less abyss or, worse, a murderous, over-structured Shiite autocracy whose only motivation seems to be vicious recompense against their historical oppressors? We once cared enough about the Iraqi people to free them from tyranny and build them a fancy-new Democratic state. Has that all evaporated? Doesn't seem quite right to me. (Though perhaps it wouldn't look all that bad sitting on top of the historical pile I call " America's Geo-Political Misadventures" just above Vietnam, CIA Activity in South America, Neo-Liberal Trade Policies and the like.)

And so we return to the something more, the offering of yester-evening. 21,500 more troops to be deployed to Iraq's most bitterly conflictual areas. Most to Baghdad itself where even America's Green Zone is looking perilously contested. 96,000 more troops added to the military over the next 5 years. Billions of dollars invested in Iraq's economy. Increased diplomacy with Mid-East neighbors, especially Iran and Syria.

In some ways, it actually sits quite well, but then gastronomically this Adminstration has never sat that well and perhaps our expectations have just been lowered. Either way, last night's change of course wasn't gruel.

With Rumsfeld gone, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense actually had a joint-press conference, significant in its actuality but also in, well, its signification. No longer it seems is Iraq strictly a military problem to be approached with strictly military solutions. The complex, syncretic nature of the problem is reflected in this new plan: diplomatic, economic, political and military efforts will work simultaneously towards the same end. Monomania gives way to mature nuance, though mind you, this is still as teleological as ever. It's all channeled through the same religious visions of triumph as before; we're just now getting to heaven a different way.

I don't mean for my distaste to be so pointedly brusque here. I think these are all positive developments, some of them significantly so. But before I get too congratulatory, let's list everything that's wrong:

- How is a "troop surge" not escalation? The stated objective is to root terrorists out of violent neighborhoods, and then occupy those neighborhoods to ensure terrorists won't return. This means American troops will only leave once terrorists disappear, completely. Afghanistan is the most valuable example of this: after claiming to have defeated the Taliban, increased opium crops this year led to their resurgence and significantly increased violence in the once nearly restful state.

- We aren't wanted in Iraq. Maliki and his Shiite political elite want us out. Though this hasn't been voiced publicly, NYT has top Maliki aides on record expressing his discontent with increased American involvement in Baghdad. This means, like our attempts to make Baghdad safe this summer, that Iraqi promises will probably fall through and the needed level of troops, if we can suppose for a second that such a level exists, won't be provided.

- Iraq is too sectarian. Maliki is a Shiite who garners the majority of his political support via the religious and military muscle of al-Sadr, the radical cleric behind the most violent Shiite militias in the country. Saddam was not allowed to be executed on a religious holiday according to new Iraqi law. Guess which holiday he was executed on? That's right, a Sunni one. The new government in Iraq is too willfully sectarian and all past Iraqi police/military surges have been infiltrated by various militia organizations: in sum, it is impossible for the United States to occupy a position in Iraq that doesn't exacerbate religious and tribal tensions.

So, where does this leave us? Nowhere I suppose, but where we already were. Answerless, on the precipice of a more violent, protracted, and altogether dangerous epoch in the war. It seems that all there’s left to do is play politics.

Bush is hoping to solidify (or rescue, at this point) his political legacy. Democrats are secretly hoping this is a failure so as to more ably condemn John McCain’s foreign policy record in the 2008 election cycle. Moderate Republican’s are diverging from the Bush camp to avoid a Chafee-esque defeat in the future.

Sadly enough (and somewhat disappointing too, after reading this long), I don’t have a better solution. The politicking all seems a bit disingenuous if no material gain is possible, but perhaps in some divine dialectical fashion a solution will emerge from the political squabbling in Washington.

But what does emerge, and returns us to the title of the post, is the possibility of a new political discourse in American politics. While Bush’s admission of guilt, failure, etc… smacked of disingenuous artifice and Machiavellian strategy-making, I do believe it is an epistemologically interesting gesture. The ability to start-over, to rethink is something that rarely exists, but perhaps should in Washington.

There is the odd perception in our democratic, pluralistic society that our political culture must be absolute, that it must be steadfast and resolute, must be inscribed indelibly in the history of our nation, with all the metaphysical, originary pomp of the Constitution.

But failure allows change. It gives us the opportunity to reformulate language, to invent new discursive fields, to revolutionize the way politics are discussed, and hopefully, to ultimately shift the way politics are done. The moment of failure is the moment of revolution. Without such moments we remain in bed with our sordid past, unwilling to call it the letch it is.

Particularly in this moment of “warring cultures” where the absolutism of religion confronts the contingency of democracy, or so it is said, we need to abandon our old diplomatic, political, rhetorical, economic, historical tools. They need to go. Wholesale.

If the world truly is a different place, it needs to be re-described as such, instead of defined according to its deviation from a moment in the past. Rooting out terrorists and waiting for them to disappear from the face of the earth in this case is just waiting around for the world to go back in time to when there weren’t terrorists. American cannot be involved in such a Beckettian farce.

I still don’t know what the answer is, but I know its not going to come from politics as usual.

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