On The Least Bad Possibility

How did the Iraqi withdrawal letter get sent out? Does it matter?

Three point five tweets from the AFP News Agency


[twitter.com/AFP/status/1214298729861267457]


The third tweet was deleted as it didn't include the detail that the letter that was sent out by mistake was a draft. I believe that it characterized the letter as "genuine", hence the insistent clarification. 

In the confusion that swirled around these events, there were various officials confirming and denying basically every permutation possible. The official story seems to have settled as: the letter sent to the Iraqi parliament was a draft that was not ready, and that the part that "implies withdrawal" was "poorly written".

As stories go... honestly, this is so close to being a decent one. I mean, when I saw the talk of a draft sent out by mistake, my first thought was: that's plausible. If they don't know for sure which way this thing is going to go and they want to cover all the bases, wouldn't they want to figure out the right wording for a withdrawal that would make the best attempt at saving face?

Just as newspapers write drafts of obituaries of famous people well in advance of their death and then update them periodically and just as Richard Nixon had a speech ready to go in the event that the Apollo 11 astronauts should be lost in space, the military-bureaucracy complex would surely want to have things ready to go in case the decision to withdraw were made precipitously. 

I suspect that version of the story might have itself been the first draft of walking back the letter, but it would never have been accepted by Donald or his closest enablers, who are saying that withdrawal is unthinkable. Until he changes his mind on that, at which point staying will be unthinkable.

The story they went with is a good deal harder to swallow, as there doesn't seem to be anything ambiguous about "We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure." coupled with a description of "movement out of Iraq". And as many pundits have observed in recent days, Donald Trump is a bit overdrawn at the credibility bank. So of course people are finding this story hard to swallow.

But for the moment, let us grant that it is true: it was created as a draft, and was not ready for release.

We still haven't answered the question of how and why it was sent out. 

As I see it, there are three major possibilities.

The first is that it was deliberately released “accidentally” as a trial balloon, which is an expression referring to the idea of releasing a balloon as a way to see which way the wind is blowing. (And/or, to extend the metaphor, to see if anyone's going to shoot it down.) If the "accidental release" had been met favorably, with more people praising Donald for getting troops out of Iraq than condemning him for knuckling under or acting peevishly, then, well... the accident doesn't have to be an an accident.

In favor of this possibility is the fact that in the immediate aftermath of the release, there was confusion about whether it was the real deal and it was confirmed before being denied. Obviously the people who made the decision to send it out, in this scenario, knew it was a draft and that the wording that confirmed withdrawal might not be in the final version, but as far as the people implementing the decision knew, it was a done deal. This was the decision. And people caught in the middle trying to untangle it might be left saying on the one hand that it was "genuine" and on the other hand it was "in error".

The second is that someone released it in draft form, again deliberately, to try to force things to tip one way or the other... either back the US into withdrawing by informing Iraq that we would be leaving, or try to poison the well by getting the US to disavow any plans of leaving. This scenario would basically be a reverse trial balloon, where you're basically counting on the stubbornness of the parties involved to prevent them from heeding the forecast. That I could see either direction being a decent motivation is a testament to how messy human psychology is... it all depends on what the actor thought other people were likely to do in the situation.

And the third? 

The third possibility is that for once, we're being told the truth: that this message was sent out in error.

Now, if that's the case, we have to realize that this probably isn't a case of "accidentally hit send on an email with the address already filled in even though it wasn't ready to send" because in that case the sender would have known it went out and that it was a mistake, and would have immediately sent a correction/retraction. Damage control would have started immediately, instead of after the withdrawal decision was being widely reported.

...unless, of course, it happened in an environment where there is very little real oversight or accountability and yet people who admit to a mistake are pilloried for having failed and shown weakness, in which case the person who accidentally hit the wrong button would have backed out of the room whistling nonchalantly and not told anyone they had just accidentally altered our foreign policy.

But barring that, "sent by mistake" would more likely indicate that someone mistakenly thought it was ready to send and sent it deliberately.

For that to be the case, we have to assume some or all of the following are true:

1. There is absolutely no clarity in the halls of power what our policy towards Iraq was in the wake of the Iraqi parliament’s resolution to expel our forces.

2. People with access to this stuff are not trained in clear communication or the hallmarks of a proper official message (e.g., the missing signature that Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Mark Milley pointed out when explaining it was premature.)

3. People with their fingers on various buttons are being left more or less to try to figure things out for themselves rather than being told what's going on. No one wants to give them actual orders or instructions or go on the record even with their own underlings, so that they can't be blamed for things later.

Point 3 is one that I find most interesting because it matches Trump's managerial style, such as it is, and it also dovetails with the idea that someone who sent it in error, even if they were to realize the mistake, would not do anything to call attention to their mistake, such as for instance trying to solve it.

In short, all of the possible explanations for the news of the day are bad ones. They all speak to duplicity and incompetence in varying combinations and proportions. When I started writing this, I thought that in the course of doing so I would gain some insight into which is the worst and which is the least bad, but I am stymied to even begin to rank them against each other.

When Roger Ebert reviewed The Human Centipede, he said,  

"I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don't shine."

(Source)

If there were a happy ending in sight, it would be a comedy of errors. If there were anything noble in this mess, it would be a tragedy. If it were funny, it would be a farce.

Instead, it is absurdity. It is what it is and it occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.

Neighbors, I am tired.

Thank you for reading.

I seriously could not keep going without your support.

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