Pain, But Maybe Gain

In the Op-Ed section of yesterday’s New York Times was an optimistic essay on the situation in Iraq by Michael O’Hanlon (of the Brookings Institution) and the well-known Mideast expert Kenneth Pollack (no relation to any of the waka waka waka staff). The article is getting a lot of play today from the government for its relatively upbeat assessment of the effects of the latest security effort. It begins as follows:

VIEWED from Iraq, where we just spent eight days meeting with American and Iraqi military and civilian personnel, the political debate in Washington is surreal. The Bush administration has over four years lost essentially all credibility. Yet now the administration’s critics, in part as a result, seem unaware of the significant changes taking place.

Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily “victory” but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.

Read the story here.

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9 Comments

  1. There is a little more to the story than meets the eye:

    http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/?last_story=/opinion/greenwald/2007/07/31/ohanlon/

    Posted July 31, 2007 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    Thought you might weigh in.

    The point of the Salon article is to dispute the spin that seems to be making the rounds that tries to make it seem as if O’Hanlon and Pollack have up till now been harsh critics of the war. And indeed, it does seem that it’s being played that way by some, including the Administration.

    In the NYT article the authors represent themselves only as having been critics of “the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq”, which is a rather different matter. I too, along with Tom Friedman and many others, supported the invasion, but was appalled by how badly the occupation was bungled. I haven’t had time to go looking around for citations, but my recollection is that Ken Pollack (who is a very visible commentator, popping up all the time on the political shows and in print) has been fairly consistent: support for the invasion, stern criticism of the postwar management, support for the surge.

    Anyway, the Salon article doesn’t address the content of the article at all, but consists only of a critique of the administration’s “propaganda” efforts (which is fair enough), and a startlingly vitriolic ad hominem jab at the authors.

    While all of that is interesting in a political sense, the only thing I care about here is how things are actually going; the NYT piece offers some encouragement, and I thought readers might like to know about it. That’s all.

    Posted July 31, 2007 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  3. The authors are somewhat disingenuous in claiming they were critics of the administration’s handling of the war when they have supported the administration’s policies all along. There are no recorded instances in history of rats swimming towards a sinking ship. The authors are among the many who now regret their enthusiastic support of the war and are making the patently false claim that they were war critics, when in fact they supported both the war’s policies and its execution. See the Greenwald piece (and yesterday’s piece) for details.

    When pundits are consistently wrong about an issue, and then try to obscure their earlier lack of prescience, one wonders why anything else they write should have any credibility. Why anybody pays any attention to what Bill Kristol or the Wall Street Journal or Charles Krauthammer has to say about anything is a mystery to me.

    However, as to the content of the article: the authors’ time in Iraq was apparently spent mostly (or exclusively) with American troops on a tour organized by the Pentagon. There is a long tradition, dating back to VietNam, of gullible reporters being given a dog and pony show by the military to show the light at the end of the tunnel. This kind of reporting doesn’t pass the smell test.

    Moreover, in the penultimate paragraph, the authors undercut their own argument. The stated purpose of the surge is to enable the government to unify and succeed. However, the government is dividing and failing. Even if one grants that there is military progress – a highly arguable assumption – it doesn’t support the headline. It’s a war we win only if we achieve our stated aim of a stable and unified Iraqi government. The government’s supposition that if there is military progress, then there will be political progress, is merely suppository.

    (On a related topic: have you ever wondered what happened to Preparations A through G?)

    Posted July 31, 2007 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    A lot of assumptions there.

    How do you know that the authors now regret having supported the war? I, for example, don’t. What makes you think they do?

    As I said, I think Ken Pollack has indeed been publicly critical of the occupation’s management. Even the snippets quoted in the Salon piece make clear that the authors supported the “surge” not because they were mindless Bush cheerleaders(and let’s keep in mind that these are not ignoramuses we are talking about, but seasoned foreign-policy and Mideast experts), but because they had become convinced that it was the best option on the table.

    You also assume that the entire account is based only on a “dog and pony show” — and to be fair, I have no way of knowing that it wasn’t. But you are apparently rejecting out of hand the idea that it might even possibly be true that anything is showing the least improvement. This seems rather prejudicial to me, especially considering what I know to be your visceral disapproval of the war in the first place. I won’t suggest that you would rather see bad news than good coming out of Iraq, but I do wonder sometimes. Certainly many of the war’s opponents have flatly declared that that’s the way they feel: they’d rather see failure in Iraq than any vindication of the decision to invade.

    The bottom line? It may be that there is some improvement in Iraq as a result of the new security push, and the assignment of command to General Petraeus. Might the whole thing still go in the toilet? Sure.

    As for the other matter, I have indeed wondered about those preparations. I’m itching to find out the answer.

    Posted July 31, 2007 at 1:53 pm | Permalink
  5. 1) How do I know that the authors regret supporting the war? I find it hard to believe that any sentient being would not be embarrassed at having supported any endeavor which was as spectacular a disaster as this one. Moreover, anyone who makes predictions as outrageously wrong as they did (“the battle of Baghdad will last a week or two,” etc.) ought to be equally embarrassed. The fact is that their previous writings have deprived them of any credibility for what they write now. I would imagine that this would cause them some regret.

    2) Whether the authors supported the surge as the best option is not relevant. The salient fact is that they consistently supported the initial invasion and the occupation, and they were all for the administration’s policies until they were shown to be ineffective and counter-productive. They now claim that they were “harsh administration critics.” Their earlier writings refute this. You can’t have it both ways.

    3) It is certainly conceivable that there are reasons to be optimistic about the military situation in Iraq. I have no way of knowing whether their claims are true or not. However, we’ve seen enough examples since the start of this sorry misadventure of pundits claiming imminent success, which is always just around the corner, but somehow never materializes. There is plenty of reason for skepticism, and when the authors misrepresent themselves as administration critics, there is even greater cause to doubt. Greenwald ran a similar piece recently quoting all of the times when Joe Lieberman incorrectly claimed there was progress in Iraq, only to be refuted by the facts on the ground. One would think that Joe might be chastened by his unbroken record of false predictions. But one would be wrong.

    4) Even the authors don’t make the claim that any of the supposed military progress is actually achieving the desired result of enabling the (vacationing) Iraqi government to succeed. Hence the claim suggested by the headline – a war we might win – is not supported by their argument.

    Posted July 31, 2007 at 2:24 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Well, Pete, I think it’s important to distinguish between regretting having been in favor of the invasion in prospect, based on what was known at the time, and deploring that it was handled so badly afterwards.

    In the essay I linked to in the last comment, Pollack did indeed harshly criticize the administration when they were screwing up the occupation. As I said: he expressed support for the invasion (a reasonable position for a sentient being, and one I shared), then harsh criticism of the bungling of the post-war occupation (likewise).

    You are quite right that there are still significant political problems, and I think it is absolutely contemptible that the Iraqi parliament is on vacation while US soldiers are dying in the streets. (I also think it is mind-bogglingly idiotic that we are considering selling advanced weapons to the Saudis, but that’s another post.)

    Finally, the title of the post is “a war we might win”. Certainly the kind of progress they report is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition, and heartening, if true.

    You have suggested holding a referendum in Iraq about whether we ought to stay or go, which I agree would be a good idea, as well as, one would think, a fairly obvious one. I haven’t seen much discussion of it, however. Have you?

    Posted July 31, 2007 at 4:46 pm | Permalink
  7. Haven’t heard a peep, although lately I’ve been preoccupied with more frivolous pursuits than following the news in Iraq, such as taking the family to see the Simpsons Movie.

    Posted July 31, 2007 at 5:36 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Which got a very nice review in the Times, by the way. It begins:

    I have long been of the opinion that the entire history of American popular culture — maybe even of Western civilization — amounts to little more than a long prelude to “The Simpsons.”

    Posted July 31, 2007 at 5:56 pm | Permalink
  9. It’s true. Homer’s Odyssey.

    Posted July 31, 2007 at 6:23 pm | Permalink