A recent article about British troops leaving Basra (the second largest city in Iraq) suggests that the Iraq debate is about to experience a seismic change--a shift in the way every American talks and thinks about the most pressing issue of our time.
The change can be summed up in 4 simple words:
troops leave, violence drops
As the deafening hubbub of propaganda drowns out every attempt to talk real policy change on Iraq, this simple descriptive formula--troops leave, violence drops--cuts through it all.
And here's why it is so powerful...
A Simple Logic: Up And Down, In And Out
Often, the most far reaching changes in political debates are not caused by governments, per se, but by the emergence of new way of seeing an issue, and a new way of talking about that.
Cindy Sheehan's one-woman protest against President Bush was one of those moments. By shifting the debate on the war to the her own feelings as a grieving mom, Shehan instantly change the way every American saw and talked about the issue. Suddenly, Iraq was about the pain of America's families, and popular support for the policy dissipated.
Similarly, when President Bush launched his surge, the way Americans saw and talked about Iraq again shifted again. In an instant, Americans--including our elected officials--once again accepted the logic of waiting for success.
The British pullout from Basra, and the subsequent logic of violence dropping as a result of that pullout, will change the debate again by reimposing a simple logic of up and down, in and out. To see that logic at work, take a look at this description of the British pullout that appeared recently in the International Harald Tribune:
Attacks against British and Iraqi forces have plunged by 90 percent in southern Iraq since London withdrew its troops from the main city of Basra, the commander of British forces there said Thursday.
The presence of British forces in downtown Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, was the single largest instigator of violence, Maj. Gen. Graham Binns told reporters Thursday on a visit to Baghdad's Green Zone.
"We thought, 'If 90 percent of the violence is directed at us, what would happen if we stepped back?'" Binns said.
Britain's 5,000 troops moved out of a former Saddam Hussein palace at Basra's heart in early September, setting up a garrison at an airport on the city's edge. Since that pullback, there's been a "remarkable and dramatic drop in attacks," Binns said.
(full article here)
The up-and-down-in-and-out logic of this description is more powerful than any protest argument about the war to date, and has an almost unlimited potential to sweep through both the broadcast media and face-to-face conversations that make up American political debate.
Displacing Bush's Phony Physics
The power of this new logic--our troops leave, violence drops--comes through the fundamental way it shifts the ground of the debate.
Since the surge began, the Bush administration has been able to block the idea of troop withdrawal by keeping the debate on this basic, albeit phony foreign policy physics:
Bush's Phony Physics: violence fills a vacuum
In other words, American troops needed to be present in large numbers in Iraq because the absence of U.S. forces would lead to a rapid explosion of violence. In fact, there was never any evidence for this logic, but that did not matter. The power of Bush's logic of violence did not come through its truth, but through its repetition in the media.
The ability of the Basra story to displace Bush's foreign policy physics comes in large part from the simple way this new story can be told in numbers:
5,000 soldiers leave
90% drop in violence
On a much more profound and far-reaching level, however, it is the way the British pullout imposes a new logic pragmatism on the entire Iraq discussion that allows these statistics to connect strongly with Americans' sense of right and wrong, good and bad.
Rather than pulling troops out for ideological purposes (e.g., because it was, by itself, right or wrong), the British military left Basra because based on what they were seeing on the ground--that the majority of violence was directed at the occupying troops--it seemed the best way to bring about a drop in hostilities.
Democrats Clinging To False Pragmatism
Despite the passion of the anti-occupation movement, and the majority of Americans who support U.S. troops leaving Iraq, the shift in policy has stalled.
The problem, however, has been that Democrats in Congress and the Senate have been clinging to what they claimed to be a pragmatic argument: that U.S. troops leaving Iraq would lead to more violence, therefore it was not practical.
The Basra story now shows that pragmatic argument pushed by so many Democrats on the hill to be false.
In a very short period of time, the non-ideological pragmatism of the Basra story--our troops leave, violence drops--will become the dominant logic through which Americans view Iraq. As the ground of the debate shifts, Democrats who continue to cling to the prior, false pragmatism (e.g., violence rises when troops leave) will find themselves making arguments tantamount to a political suicide.
The same will be true for Democratic presidential candidates--who will likely feel the effects of this debate earthquake in the next 24 to 72 hours.
In particular, top-tier Democratic candidates for President have each been advancing a pragmatism on Iraq that the Basra story now reveals as false. As a result, the ground will shift under their campaigns.
From this point forward, more and more Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike, will compare the pragmatism of the Basra story and the pragmatism of the Obama, Clinton and Edwards campaings--and find them wanting.
The Republicans, by contrast, each of which continues to advance the logic of continued occupation for ideological reasons, will be seen by an increasing number of Americans, Democrats and Republicans, as anti-pragmatic.
The Return of Progressive Pragmatism
Ultimately, in other words, the Basra story heralds the return of progressive pragmatism to an Iraq debate that has been, thus far, saturated by Republican ideology on the one hand and Democratic electoral calculus on the other.
A majority of Americans have known for a long while, now, that ideology and electoral calculus have both led to bad decisions on Iraq. Now, 4 simple words from Basra have the potential to finally change that.
The result could be an earthquake in the U.S. Iraq policy caused and the rapid return of a truly American, progressive pragmatism.
(cross posted from Frameshop)