Sunday, July 09, 2006

Framing the Issue - Leaving Iraq

I came across an interesting site - Frameshop - the other day, which does a good job of both identifying and offering frames for current political matters. It is eclectic and fascinating, and I recommend readers here check it out.

One of its framesets falls very close to my Days of Obligation post. If we can agree that "Stay the Course" is simply a fancy way of saying "Sit on the mess until we can dump it on the next president and hightail it for the hills," then the true issue is how should or can the Democrats handle disengagement with Iraq and the overall cleanup of Bush's War? Jeff Feldman presents three strong frames, each with strengths and weaknesses. I'm going to present the synopsis of each, with links to the specifics, and then talk about the frames themselves.

Frame #1: The "War Room" Frame
Major Proponent: Hillary Clinton
Key Points:
- Iraq is a war.
- The war is complicated.
- The goal of the war is a 'Democratic Iraq.'
- For America to win the war, Democrats must first win the 2008 Presidential election.
- Once a Democrat is President, the situation in Iraq will improve.

Frame #2: The "Global Alliance" Frame
Major Proponent: Russ Feingold
Key Points:
- Iraq is an occupation.
- Iraq has created U.S. national security problems that previously did not exist.
- The main problem is isolation from international allies in the global fight against terrorism.
- For America to achieve that goal, Democrats must redeploy troops and recruit allies.
- As long as we are in Iraq, U.S. national security is compromised.

Frame #3: The "Regional Stability" Frame
Major Proponent: Wesley Clark
Key Points:
- Iraq is a regional conflict.
- The U.S. occupation of Iraq has isolated Iraq from regional neighbors.
- Success in Iraq depends on U.S. catalyzing regional cooperation.
- For America to achieve that goal, Democrats must convince regional allies U.S. action is not a threat.
- As long as we refuse to engage in regional diplomacy, Iraq will not be stable.
Feldman offers some very good strength/weakness analysis, and I will be making use of it, so please do read the full frames - they are very short. I am not addressing every aspect of the frames, only the focus on "What should/will the Democrats do with regard to the American military presence in Iraq?"

#1 - War Room: He is harsh on Clinton's frame, far more than it deserves, but he does identify a key weakness where Dems would concede too much ground - it leaves in place the fiction that the Iraq situation is a part of the GWOT, and not simply a badly conceived imperialist adventure by the neocons. Any successful frame for the left must split off Iraq from al Qaeda, positioning Iraq as a distraction from the real threat while creating a breeding ground for more. It also shifts attention from the troops to the decision to send troops in.

What is fundamentally right about this frame is that Democrats are going to handle this situation better than Republicans. This is something that must be repeated over and over. What else is right, as per my earlier post, is that it presumes an American presence in Iraq for some time. While I agree that using the word "war" concedes too much to the right, the use of "win" terminology is, IMO, right on the money. Americans like to be winners and a big rhetorical club of the right is deploying the language of win and loss. There's no way to avoid it, so it's time to recapture it. If the term "war" is used, it must be coupled with "Bush" to emphasize that this is a war of choice, conducted on a whim and due entirely to Bush's petulant and childish desires. The "win" is extracting us from the situation, where we should never have been in the first place.

Militarist language appeals to a broad swath of Americans, and can't be abandoned if only because our military is there, and needs support to be able to survive their exploitation by Rumsfeld, et. al. The specific plan is to stabilize the situation, then draw down and redeploy to "safer" zones, with less exposure as targets. The biggest flaw here is a lack of what would count as stabilization, along with a contingency plan if the Iraqis simply can't get their own security together. It fails to discuss the moral dimension of what has been done, which may help contextualize the decisions.

#2 - Global Alliance: Feingold's frame is the one that appeals most strongly because of its simplicity, but is probably the most wrong-headed. For all the language of globalism, it is fundamentally a "US first" frame, chauvinistic in all the wrong ways. While the "Bring 'em home now" meme resonates strongly, there is no argument about what happens next. It fails to acknowledge the intuition of many Americans that something is owed when a wrong has been committed. It also has nothing to say about the use of the military or its sacrifices.

Its great strength is refocusing the debate onto stopping terrorism, which does require international cooperation and policing, and is probably both an easier and cheaper way to keep alliances going. It provides an opening for bringing up lack of security against real terrorism at home. However, this frame works better an an extension of the other two than on its own, as it is more abstract and policy oriented. It has a large gap in between the one practical and very powerful demand to stop the occupation and the intelligent, long-term but not very tangible need to develop effective anti-terrorism alliances. American concern is with individual soldiers more than anything, and they want the troops out of harm's way, but they also want assurance that the mess in Iraq will not breed more terrorists.

Finally, I think calling the situation an "occupation" is simply stupid. Occupation is what bad guys do. Americans liberate. Americans set free. Americans intervene. While literally true, it is psychologically unacceptable. It also lacks a picture of what success in Iraq would look like, aside from getting US butts out of the way.

#3 - Regional Stability: This frame, as Feldman points out, has the great virtue of being pragmatic, but it also has the virtue of being long-term. It places both the Iraq situation and the fight against terrorism in a larger picture of over-all stability in the middle east. It also, perhaps most importantly, presents a rhetorical hook that avoids the pitfalls of either "war" or "occupation" - "conflict." It ratchets down the emotional quotient without denying the significance of the situation.

Like the Global Alliance frame, there's a good deal of hand-waving at what happens between the short-term and the long-term, though it has the advantage of not presenting a false sense of completion as the War Room frame does. Better than the other two, it talks about the long term interests and obligations of the US in the region, which provides a way of discussing our obligations to other nations in terms of protecting and defending human rights and civil society, but also grounds all of this in an unblinking realistic perspective on the ways states behave.

The War Room frame stresses US self-sufficiency and the Global Alliance emphasizes international cooperation. These both posit the middle east as the problem, something to be defended against. Regional Stability proposes that the middle east is not the problem - the intransigence of the regimes is at issue, and the only way to solve that long-term is diplomacy. It recognizes the autonomy and the responsibility of the regional populations in the way a defensive frame cannot.

In terms of troop withdrawal, it is slightly closer to the GA than the WR stance, emphasizing redeployment in the region over complete departure. It does say unequivocally that we can't have permanent bases in Iraq, something the WR frame implicitly presumes we will have. I disagree that it is any less detailed than either of the other two frames, though I sadly have to say I'm not sure that the US can engage in diplomacy at this date, given the slash and burn behavior of the Cheneyites in the region. On this count, while pragmatic, it may be unrealistic.

Summary: None of these frames is sufficient, though any one of them is miles ahead of the do-nothing, wait-for-the-bottom-to-drop-out stance of the Republicans. What they all share is a commitment to trying to find a real and humane way out of the Iraq conflict that does not immediately create worse problems for the US. RS is the only one of the three that adequately addresses the moral obligations that the US has incurred through Bush's War to the Iraqis.

The US must leave. There is no escaping this fact. The only question is how it will be done. There is no "good" way to do so, but there are better and worse alternatives. The GA alternative is the worst, I think, because it cannot answer the "What next?" question about Iraq. In the end, this will be the de facto resolution simply because the US will have no alternative but to bail in a hurry. The WR solution has merit for wanting to establish conditions rather than timetables, but fails for lack of a contingency plan and for refusing to relinquish the dream of permanent bases. The RS frame is short on details for withdrawing, but has a practical goal to work towards, one which might actually be of interest to the players in the middle east. After all, when the US goes, they get to fight each other.

In the end, the Democrats will need to create a dominant frame that encompasses all three stances - clear conditions for withdrawal and redeployment, a contingency plan (or two) in case of complete Iraqi implosion, and a clear commitment to remaining as a power broker and negotiator in the region.


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