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Baghdad Clock, Washington Clock

By Austin Bay

It's a tale of two clocks, or perhaps three. The vague echo of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" has resonance, with Baghdad and Washington being the two 21st-century capitals, and Iraq's uncertain revolution the historical conflict.

Baghdad's and Washington's clocks tick at very different speeds. Though both are erratic, Washington's runs fast, Baghdad's agonizingly slow. Failure to synchronize will have dangerous consequences.

During a press phone conference last week, I asked Multi-National Force-Iraq's new chief spokesman, Brigadier-General Kevin Bergner, about Iraq's and Washington's variant timelines.

Senior U.S. military officers are loath to comment on questions that tread into politics, and U.S. constitutional restraints are the guiding reason. Civilians control the U.S. military. The executive branch commands it, and the legislative branch funds it.

But I cast the question in this manner: If a decade from now I were to write a history of the effort in Iraq, I'd argue the competing clocks played a central, strategic role. The "war cycle" in Iraq is not synchronized with the "political cycle" in the United States.

"Everybody accepts that there are two clocks," Bergner replied. "General (David) Petraeus has talked about it a number of times. It's just the reality, the strategic reality we are dealing with."

Bergner described coalition political and security efforts designed to create "simultaneous pressure" on Al Qaeda and create more secure conditions that would forward the Iraqi political process, to include Iraqi parliamentary steps. "I guess what I'm trying to tell you is we understand the difference between the clocks," Bergner said. Bergner argued that the Iraqis understand this strategic situation on both the political and military levels. "They want to make progress," he added. "They are not unmotivated, and they are not uninformed about the clock difference(s). Iraqi forces are concerned about it. ... People here get that (the clocks are different). Most importantly, here on the Iraqi side."

Democracy attempts to resolve conflicting political visions and the political aspirations of politicians with elections. It's a tough process in times of peace, but during wartime, accusatory grandstanding has deleterious military and diplomatic consequences.

The disjunction between Washington's political cycle and wartime challenges isn't a new strategic tension for the United States. In the election of 1864, "Copperhead" Democrats challenged Abraham Lincoln's aggressive defense of the Union and his emancipation of slaves. Did the Copperheads encourage the Confederacy to hang on just a little bit longer, with the hope that Union will might break?

One of the first conversations I had with a fellow staff officer after I reported for duty in Iraq in 2004 was with the Corps' chief of Civil Affairs, Colonel Sam Palmer. Col. Palmer thought the biggest strategic bind was America's political cycle.

"Here's one of the things a strategic policy guy like you, Austin, is going to see immediately. We're whipsawed by the U.S. political cycle. Somehow we've got to get a stable policy -- something that will help see us through the economic and political development phases of this war."

In a recent Internet audio interview (Blog Week In Review, found at, The New York Times' Pentagon and national security correspondent, Thom Shanker, told me that he thinks there are arguably three competing clocks. Shanker said that the U.S. political clock in Washington is moving forward and pointed to recent comments by Republican senators that they might support a coalition military withdrawal from Iraq. Shanker differentiated between the coalition military clock in Baghdad and the Iraqi government's political clock. He argued that the Iraqi government isn't making sufficient progress. In Shanker's estimate, the Iraqi government's clock has stalled.

It's fantasy to believe withdrawal stops "wartime." Sorry, not this kind of war. Al Qaeda's jihadists plotted a multigenerational war, one that would consolidate Muslim lands and then expand into a global caliphate. Winning a multigenerational war means the United States must fight a multi-administration war. The means the U.S. needs a "War on Terror" clock -- one that only stops when victory tolls.

Copyright 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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