Doing the Impossible

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Brian Beutler:

For instance, right now we are trying to both extend the reach of the Maliki government as far as possible across the country and also to support Sunnis in their sectarian skirmishes against both Shiites and other Sunnis wherever an alliance is possible. Not surprisingly, these two objectives are almost definitionally at odds with each other. We're foolish to even try to promote both a factionalist and a federalist effort at the same time, but we're especially foolish when that means trying to bring a Shiite-dominated government into power over a land peppered with U.S.-supported Sunni tribal regions. My impression is that even as individual efforts these would both sink anyhow. But it's amazing that, with all of the resources the administration has handed over to the war effort, we're still approaching problems in such a way that even incremental plans are more likely to fail than they ought to be.

It's important to understand that this is the context in which the training fantasies of the "withdrawal lite" school of thought are unfolding. The training is a fallback position, a useful psychological crutch that people have also convinced themselves is a useful political crutch, but it has nothing to do with what's happening on the ground. If there are two sides fighting and you want one of them to win then, sure, you can train your side. But we're just training everyone who'll agree to be trained; equipping multiple sides in a civil conflict and creating a situation where the weapons and expertise we're providing is just as likely to be deployed against our interests as in favor of them two or four years down the road.

DOD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Summer M. Anderson, U.S. Navy.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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