Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Optimum Solutions

Barone makes a good point, which flies in the face of all the Demospratic whining. Optimum solutions don't always exist. And historically, they rarely have.
We Americans, despite our current grumblings, are fundamentally an optimistic people. Our optimism has helped us achieve great things. But it can also be a problem. There is an assumption in public life that every problem has an optimum solution, all gain and no pain. Much of our political debate takes the form of yelling that everything would be just fine if the other side weren't so stupid that it failed to see the perfectly obvious policy.

The debate over Iraq has often been based on this assumption. The Bush administration has been blasted for dissolving the Iraqi army (actually, allowing it to disperse), which left it harder to maintain order. But maintaining Baathist officers in place would have produced much oppression and left weapons in the hands of many determined enemies. There was no optimum solution here -- there were serious downsides to either policy.

A superficial view of our history buttresses the assumption that there's always an optimum policy. In times of crisis, we seem always to have found great leaders -- Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt. In war, we have always surged through to victory.
We forget now, but there was opposition to Roosevelt's decision to go after Hitler first (hadn't we been attacked by the Japanese, not the Germans?) and to support Stalin (an indubitably evil leader). And there were many times -- not just moments, but agonizingly long months -- when it seemed that victory was impossible. Our military strategy and tactics were far from perfect. And the Soviets did gobble up Eastern Europe and North Korea, as well. But the less-than-optimum choices Roosevelt and Churchill made, in retrospect and on balance, look preferable to any alternatives.

George W. Bush now faces an array of less-than-optimum choices on Iraq. On the campaign trail and on Sunday interview shows, many Democrats and a few Republicans for months blithely talked of withdrawal. But as they have faced the probable consequences, spelled out by among others the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, the downside risks seem ominous.
I've been trying to recall any serious conflict where there was an optimum solution. Most have nothing but very bad choices. The friction point with the present problem is the difference between the choices that Bush is making versus the desired choice that the Dems are pushing. And with Biden's choice of running away, we can all be assured that failure will have a dangerous result.
Bush has stressed that he has followed the advice of his military leaders. But he needs to do more. He needs to engage now with his new secretary of defense and his military leaders, in the aggressive and detailed way that Churchill and Roosevelt did, probing and critiquing their proposals, eliciting from them plans that can reduce the sectarian violence in Baghdad and the Baathist and Al-Qaida attacks there and in Anbar province to tolerable levels. Even over Christmas, as Churchill and Roosevelt did.
Bush also needs to talk to the people. He doesn't have to specify the military decisions that are made, but he should specify the other activity that is being enacted or changed. I think being vague on exactly what the military will be doing is the right method, for to tell the public too much detail is to give the enemy a substantial understanding of the new tactics, and that will mean more unnecessary military deaths.

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