Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Turning the Corner with Michael Yon

Michael Yon prefaced his extended pledge break with a lengthy version of the now-familiar screed about how the good news in Iraq just isn't being reported:

The situation in Iraq has drastically changed, but the inertia of bad news leaves many convinced that the mission has failed beyond recovery, that all Iraqis are engaged in sectarian violence, or are waiting for us to leave so they can crush their neighbors. This view allows our soldiers two possible roles: either "victim caught in the crossfire" or "referee between warring parties." Neither, rightly, is tolerable to the American or British public....

Several upcoming dispatches will focus on how the situation in Southern Iraq has dramatically improved over past months. Ironically, the character of this improvement is distinguished by the lack of violence, as well as the increasing order and normality as Iraqi Security Forces step up to greater responsibility for security in the region. Though the local leadership picture in downtown Basra is fuzzier now that British forces have pulled further back to begin performing their long-planned overwatch phase, it is clear that this natural progression in turning Basra over to Iraqi control has not catapulted the city into chaos.
Well, maybe, or maybe not. Or maybe not. Or maybe not.

Michael Yon strikes me as a relatively honest guy who identifies a little too much with the troops, and has bought into a whole lot of wishful thinking. That said, it may well be true that attacks (on the troops, or in general) are down somewhat. The military may be accomplishing this by backing Sunnis against Shiites and using questionable tactics that provoke an escalating backlash, but what the hell--let's say for the sake of argument that maybe overall violence is down.

The problem is that a reduction in violence isn't enough. The damage is cumulative; less violence doesn't mean Iraq is getting better--only that it's getting worse a little more slowly.

The things Yon doesn't mention, doesn't appear to give a thought to: political reconciliation among the various factions; a stable political arrangement that more or less everyone buys into; reducing corruption (on, yes, both the Iraqi and the US sides); rebuilding the shattered infrastructure. These would constitute improvement--and none of them are happening. Without them, 'improvement' is a chimera. Quickly or slowly, Iraq keeps getting worse.

And by the way, these are the big-picture problems raised by the 12 captains--who are clearly the targets of Yon's gibe that "[n]o thinking person would look at last year’s weather reports to judge whether it will rain today". The military situation may have changed, but the big problems remain.

Yon has made the tourist's mistake of seeing a narrow aspect of a country and thinking he understands the whole, of thinking his traveling companions' anecdotes tell the whole story. He may know a lot about what some ground-level troops experience and what they think about things, but that's no substitute for understanding the whole.