Monday, May 03, 2004
Follow-up: I just read Robert Kagan's eloquent complaint about, on the one hand, those on the Right who are beginning to throw up their hands about Iraq and, on the other, the Bush Administration's obvious flailing about which is promoting said throwing. Kagan asks the key question of all those who favor "lowering our sights" - namely, what's the alternative plan? How do we create a stable Iraq without pursuing democratic legitimacy? And how do we exit Iraq without doing irreparable damage to our national interest without first establishing said stable, legitimate regime?
Good questions. If we start evaluating alternatives solely on the basis of "what gets us out quicker" then we're headed for a world of hurt, hurt brought on by self-delusion no less acute than that which dazzled us pre-war with visions of flower garlands tossed at American liberators. Perhaps the best way of talking about Iraq is not in terms of democracy or stability but legitimacy: how can we constitute authority that will be legitimate in Iraqi eyes and congruent with American interests? Elections, even if they lead to a questionably liberal result, would certainly do more to assure legitimacy than other methods of choosing a government, as Mickey Kaus points out.
But his questions beg another question: alernative to what plan? What, precisely, is the plan that gets us to stable, democratic legitimacy in Iraq? Is there one? Does Kagan have a suggestion beyond keeping on keeping on? Would he have reduced Fallujah to rubble, damn the consequences, to teach the jihadis a lesson? Does he think we're giving al-Sadr too much rope - or just enough to hang himself with? Shouldn't he have to lay this out in the same kind of detail that he demands of the cut-and-run set, or do idealists get a pass here? If he knows better than Paul Bremmer how to do his job, oughtn't he to enlighten us?
Many of Kagan's questions are more answerable in retrospect than in prospect. I have been skeptical from the beginning of the prospects for stable Iraqi democracy precisely because of the fragility of Iraqi national identity. But granting that, we now know some things. We know that Sistani is the most credible leader among the Shiites - and he's religious leader who resolutely refuses to hold political power to boot; how about that?. Guys like that don't come by the dozen. We also know - and knew beforehand - that Jordan had a potentially pivotal role to play in postwar Iraq. The old Iraqi royal family was the same Hashemite clan that reigns in Jordan, and ethnic ties between the Jordanians and the Sunni Arab Iraqis are strong. Jordan is also among the most liberal Arab societies and about as solidly pro-American as Arabs come these days. It would be hard to think of an Arab country in a better position to be helpful in Iraq than Jordan, and harder to think of a more potentially helpful Arab family than the Hashemites. (According to the Belmont Club, the Jordanians have been involved in training the new Fallujah Brigade, by the way.)
So in retrospect, if we cared about having a stable Iraq, maybe we should have gotten the Hashemites more closely involved pre-war. Maybe we should have consulted more closely with Sistani in the immediate post-war period. Maybe there are things other than more troops - do we not have enough troops to reduce Fallujah? I rather think we do, but we still haven't reduced it - that we could have done to make this business go better. Maybe we could have backed a stronger horse when there was still time to do so.
Oh, and what do the Jordanians and Sistani have in common? Well, one thing that comes to mind is that they hate Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi was convicted in absentia of defrauding a Jordanian bank; even those who question the political motivation of the charges can't deny that this suggests he is not loved in Amman. Is this because Chalabi is a Shiite democrat? Hardly; Sistani has been a forceful advocate for the Shiites and against clerical rule, and Sistani will not deal with his fellow Shiite, Chalabi. And in this, the Jordanians and Sistani are in tune with the Iraqi people, who also can't stand Chalabi, according to all poll results.
Chalabi was the man we placed our bets on pre-war, and we continued to bet on him post-war (and we're still betting on him, at least a little bit). And we've lost our shirt on those bets. We were cool pre-war to the idea of bringing the Hashemites into the equation, in part because Chalabi objected. (Indeed, he claimed that bringing them in would be a betrayal of Iraqi democracy, and would justify resistance to the Americans. This kind of statement still didn't get us to drop the guy.) We kept Sistani at arms length for months, in part because Chalabi was cool to him. Chalabi has extensive connections in Tehran, a dubious personal history, and no support in the country, and we've been having as bad a time as we have in Iraq in part because of him.
So here's my message to Robert Kagan - and to every other war supporter whom I still consider credible, and look to for sane advice on how to deal with the mess we're in. I have a new credibility test for you: whether you are willing to say bad things about Ahmad Chalabi. They don't have to be terrible things; you don't have to say he's the goat-buggering spawn of Barry Minkow and Imelda Marcos. Just that he's been a complete flop and everything he's told us has been a self-serving fiction. Just that he has no popular support and that people we really need to rely on don't trust him. Just that he was a mistake that we - all of us who supported the war - made, and that it behooves us to vet our past statements and positions and identify those conclusion that depend on "Chalabist" premises, and expunge them, and then look at the problem before us anew.
I'm not listening to lectures from people who are still backing such a weak and deceptive horse.