Tuesday, September 28, 2004
Critical comments on my recent Iraq postings come in 2 flavors:
1. Wow, sounds terrible. What are we doing there? Why don't we just leave?
2. You are too pessimistic. Things are going much better than the media tells us. We are winning. Why aren't you pulling for the good guys?
To #1 people I have one answer: don't conflate the question of "should we have gone in" with "should we just get out." The answer to the first can be "no" while the answer to the second can be "no"as well. It's also possible, by the way, to believe that the answer to both questions is "yes" - this is, in fact, Mr. John Derbyshire's position, as I understand it.
We can debate, on Mondays and Wednesdays, whether it was a good idea to go into Iraq. On Tuesdays we can debate whether yes, we should have gone in, but nonetheless we should have done everything different from the way President Bush did it; this is, I believe, the official New Republic position on the matter. And on Thursdays and Fridays we can debate what we're going to do now. And we'll still have our weekends free.
To #2 people all I can say is: I've been sold that bridge one too many times. Anti-Bush bias, anti-Chalabi bias, anti-Israel bias, anti-Arab bias - I've been told too many times that some combination of the foregoing is the reason why we don't get the "real" story from the press, and that everything is going much better than we are led to believe. All such arguments, at this point, are getting filed in the tubular verticle-access cabinet as they say.
Will there be a positive news cycle from Iraq one of these weeks? I'm sure there will. But it's funny how it's often the same people who say it will take years to know whether the war was a success when things are going poorly also are quick to point to any good news as a sign that we're turning the corner. I'm trying to be at least reasonably consistent.
Yes, it is still possible that Iraq will be a sunnier version of Algeria - meaning, that the jihadis are going to alienate the population, we and Allawi are going to hang tough, and thereby we'll ultimately win this thing (in the sense that Iraq does not become a state of total chaos a la Somalia or an Afghan-style Taliban state, but stabilizes as a single sovereign state that is at least neutral towards the US). There is a good argument that the jihadis are losing globally (that's the thesis of Gilles Kepel's last book, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, an excellent work that was completed just before 9/11 (my comments from just after reading it are here), and appears to be the theme of his new book as well, The War for Muslim Minds. This argument applies to Iraq as well.
But our advantages relative to what the Algerian government had to work with - we've got much higher-quality and less corrupt forces; we have more money; we can make a plausible pitch to the hearts and minds - have to be weighed against our disadvantages. We're a bunch of dirty foreigners occupying their country, and operate under international scrutiny that was not applied to the Algerian generals. There are all these other cross-currents apart from the jihadi problem that contribute to Iraqi instability. The domestic police and security forces are ill-trained, green, at least somewhat corrupt, and contain too many pro-insurgent elements. And, key point, we're not fighting for our lives and status the way the Algerian military was, while the insurgents are fighting not only for their national honor but for $1 trillion in oil.
It is not enough to say that most Iraqis hate the insurgents. *Do they hate them enough to die fighting to keep them out of power?* We don't know the answer to that question, yet. Most South Vietnamese didn't want the Communists to win; 1 million boat people proved that pretty decisively. They lost anyhow. And even if we knew the answer to that question was "yes" that only answers the most pressing question about Iraq. All the other simmering difficulties remain. And remember: I'm not even talking about what it would take for Iraq to be a democracy. I'm talking about what it would take to get out and not leave chaos and civil war behind.
Look: this is not a partisan issue for me. I actually want to figure out what to do. It's readily apparent to me that Bush is winging it, and that the last thing he's going to do is talk straight to the country about how the war is going. It's also readily apparent to me that Kerry has no better clue about what to do. Kerry has taken every position it's possible to take on almost every aspect of the Iraq issue. In 1997 he said was pounding the tub loudly for war to stop Saddam from acquiring WMD and threatening America. In the primaries he said anyone who didn't think deposing Saddam made America safer was unfit to be President. He voted against the Gulf War and for the Iraq war, and then voted not to fund the latter war effort. He defended that vote by saying he really objected that the war effort was funded with debt rather than taxes . . . but then he also said we're (a) not spending nearly enough on the war and reconstruction effort; (b) spending way too much when there are such pressing needs at home. When asked what he'd do differently from Bush he says, "everything" and then lists things the Bush Administration is trying to do right now. He's hopeless. So: what follows?