Thursday, March 20, 2008

Getting the Iraq War Wrong

The 5th anniversary of the Iraq War has been an occasion for many half-baked apologies, for bad judgment in supporting Bush's ill-advised invasion and for continuing to support Bush's ill-advised and ineffectual occupation of Iraq, five years later.

The Small Wars Journal has done a convenient round-up of the day's op-eds. (SWJ Blog) Particularly prominent is a group of "liberal hawk" half-hearted, half-brained mea culpas at Slate.

Glenn Greenwald is pretty scathing on the lessons not learned.
Most of the pseudo-regretful war advocates oh-so-nobly blame others ("I didn't realize how incompetent the Bush administration could be" -- Jeffrey Goldberg; "I trusted Colin Powell and his circumstantial evidence - for a little while" -- Fred Kaplan; "I underestimated the self-centeredness and sectarianism of the ruling elite and the social impact of 30 years of extreme dictatorship" -- Kanan Makiya).

Some claim -- like the job interviewee who cites "excess diligence" when asked to name their worst fault -- that they were simply too starry-eyed in their Goodness and purity ("Maybe the fall of this horrifying regime would serve as an example to all the other despotisms in the neighborhood" - Josef Joffe). Only one of them candidly admitted that he was motivated by rage and a base desire for vengeance . . . .

But virtually every line of rationale is purely utilitarian in its reasoning. The most unadorned admissions of error amount to little more than a concession that they simply assessed the costs and benefits inaccurately. And even with that extremely narrow concession, none of them -- either in Slate or elsewhere -- even reference in passing the fact that the war they cheered on ended the lives of hundreds of thousands (at least) of innocent Iraqi citizens and caused the internal and external displacement of millions more. That just doesn't exist in the calculus.

More strikingly, not a single one of them appears to have learned the real lesson worth learning from the whole disaster: The U.S. should not -- and has no right to -- invade, bomb and occupy other nations that haven't attacked or even threatened to attack us. None of them say: "Wars that aren't directly in response to an actual or imminent attack shouldn't be commenced because doing so leads to the deaths of hundreds of thousands or millions of human beings for no justifiable reason." Not even the most regretful war advocate seems to have reached that conclusion.

Greenwald is a principled guy, who believes some of these people should get themselves some principles. Oh, and some practice reasoning from the same.

I don't know about the principles part, but I certainly agree that some practice reasoning would help.

Phil Carter of Intel Dump, whom I admire, rather weakly opines: "The invasion has had profound consequences for all involved, and I think it's safe to say at this point that the ultimate outcome remains in doubt." This is the kind of mindless acceptance of the conventions of narrative, which seem to grip so many in the discussion of Iraq. [Hint: this, here, today, is the outcome.] Phil goes on to quote his own Slate piece:

. . . Now, five years into the war, I remain torn between my initial support for the invasion, my frustrating experience as an Army officer on the ground, and my skepticism that we can build a viable Iraq. Security has improved, although it's not clear who or what deserves credit. The current reduction in violence has made the prospect of a stable Iraq seem possible, if not necessarily probable, because of the Iraqi government's continuing intransigence. But even if we had the patience and will to stay in Iraq for a generation (and I doubt we have either), I think the time has come to leave. The challenge will be to withdraw more responsibly than we went in.

All very pious and earnest, that Phil Carter, but it is a pose that seems determined to hold onto an innocence that is no longer defensible, and to prepare the ground for blaming others, for the greatest strategic military failure in American history. Maybe, I am reading too much into Phil Carter's rhetorical tact -- certainly I regard him as basically intelligent and honest -- but I don't trust him to not be promoting some stab-in-the-back crap five years from now. There's that sickening "even if we had the patience and will to stay in Iraq for a generation (and I doubt we have either)," which assigns to Bush's stupid and incompetent stubbornness national virtues, which are then denied to the country.

Sterling Newberry focuses on the reluctance to recognize the strategic incoherance that comes from the refusal to recognize that the war was a scam and remains a scam. Charles Gittings, :in a succinct blog comment summarizes the obvious, but frequently denied or overlooked:

"What we seen for fully five years now is that they are liars, incompetents, and war criminals, yet people are still wringing their hands over the delusional dilemma of how to get out of this festering mess, still offer no hint of a legitimate military objective, and still mostly ignore or downplay the obvious facts of the Bush administration's dishonesty, corruption, and crimes. It's really quite amazing."

Amazing, indeed. Scott Horton at Harpers notes that the Media refrains from responsible coverage of the Iraq War even now:

Now the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq would have been an excellent opportunity for a number of the papers and broadcasters to have looked back at their reporting from five years ago with a critical eye. It’s impossible to examine their performance and not conclude that they miserably failed their audience by converting themselves into a megaphone for the Bush Administration. There was a wholesale failure of critical analysis, and the results have been tragic. Even among those who supported and continue to support the war, there is a consensus view that the first two years of occupation suffered from a series of catastrophic management failures that should have been reported and discussed in the media, and were not.

I would in fact had even been satisfied if they skipped over the history lesson and went straight to the situation today. But alas, they can’t manage anything like competent reporting out of Iraq today either. What we see is all in terms of analysis of the success of the surge, which is positive news, but in the end not terribly significant. The bigger picture– the strategic aspects of Iraq policy, goes unexamined.

Aside from the short-term tactical successes, how are things going in terms of the longer-term strategic effort. What are the objectives, and how has the effort to attain them progressed over five years, or even just over the last year?

On that score we’d discover, of course, that the goal posts have changed dramatically over five years. Repeatedly the Bush Administration has abandoned its targets and set new ones, ever lower. The process of reassessment and lowering expectations continued even through this week.

Indeed, the narratives I see on cable news and in political news reporting and commentary are mostly sycophantic and brainless in the extreme, relaying press release talking points. Everyone is expected to acknowledge the "success" of the surge, but no one is supposed to notice the abject strategic failure or the serious injury done to the Army as an effective force, or huge diminishment of American prestige thoughout the world. Least of all is anyone supposed to notice that the Bush Administration has pursued goals with a high payoff to narrow interests at the expense of the national interest.

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