Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Dissecting anti-war talking points

Normally, I don't go back and attack a columnist after rebutting an article. If it's three people who always write together, I think I can do three. This trio appeared in the "holiday edition" Ditchblog, about 3/4ths of the way down. Before they trotted out a really weak talking point about "strategic drift". Now they're trotting out multiple talking points that, while wrong, are much more serious and deserving of response.

Even a cursory examination of American history reveals the complexity of concluding a war that has taken on such a stark partisan tint. The shadow of Vietnam looms, as it has become standard Republican narrative that back then it was the Democrats in Congress who stabbed America in the back by cutting off funding for a winning cause. The fact that the war was lost in Southeast Asia, as opposed to the halls of Congress, is no matter. The Republican machine will press this same theme should it lose the White House in November. A Democratic administration would be accused of surrendering to evildoers, as once more the dovish successors of George McGovern are wrongly said to have pulled defeat out of the jaws of victory.

So they start with 'nam, and to an extent they have a point. If a Democrat is elected, pulls out of Iraq, and things go south there, the GOP will bring up various talking points in regards to why they think Democrats are to blame for what happened in Vietnam. Here is the article that does the best job of delivering said talking points I've seen. There are a lot of ways to combat said points, and the three authors decide to wave it away with "fact that the war was lost in Southeast Asia, as opposed to the halls of Congress, is no matter". You can't brush aside Laird's piece so lazily, and Laird is just giving an expanded version of the usual right-wing Vietnam litany.

Moving on, the trio returns to an anti-war beef I can sympathize with.

Republicans will claim that after four years of disastrous mistakes, the Bush administration finally got it right with its troop "surge." Yet even despite the loss of nearly 1,000 American lives and the expenditure of $150 billion, the surge has failed in its stated purpose: providing the Iraqi government with the breathing space to pass the 18 legislative benchmarks the Bush administration called vital to political reconciliation. To date it has passed only four.

Dubya, ever the not-so-great-communicator, did not do a very good job of providing a timeframe for the 'political reconciliation' end of things. To the extent that he did, the impression was that it would follow right on the heels of a decline in violence. The surge started up a year ago, reached its manpower peak in June, and by September we had the first round of hearings as to its efficacy. At that point I don't know if any of the 18 benchmarks had been met. What I do know is that more movement has happened on the benchmarks in the last month than in the previous year, and also the strength of the security gains wasn't clear until at least October if not November. Considering the pace at which America's vaunted democracy passes important legislation, just how fast does Iraq need to move on the most important laws imaginable before the entire thing is a failure? Again, this is something that the president should be addressing to the public, rather than me on a blog in response to a newspaper column.

Moreover, as part of the surge, the administration has further undermined Iraq's government by providing arms and money to Sunni insurgent groups even though they have not pledged loyalty to Baghdad.

In the short run, nominal insurgent groups were used to help root out al Qaeda cells. In the medium run, the real Sunni power brokers (tribes) are participating exponentially more in governance and Sunnis are joining Iraq's police and military forces by the thousands. The Iraq-based Sunni uprising against Iraq's central government is over as far as being a threat to the nation's integrity, and nearly all Sunni leaders now understand that in order to effect events in Baghdad they have to participate in the political process. Local insurgent groups in Anbar have no more desire to blow up Shiite markets and certainly aren't going to try to overthrow the green zone with the type of arms we gave them. Sunnis are unhappy with the current Iraqi federal government, but are now willing to settle things with words and ballots rather than bullets. The political process is what matters, not loyalty to sitting politicians. It's a tricky but important distinction.

Beyond the impracticalities of the surge, it is important to realistically measure the costs and consequences of a categorical U.S. withdrawal. The prevailing doomsday scenario suggests that an American departure would lead to genocide and mayhem. But is that true? Iraq today belongs to Iraqis; it is an ancient civilization with its own norms and tendencies. It is entirely possible that in the absence of a cumbersome and clumsy American occupation, Iraqis will make their own bargains and compacts, heading off the genocide that many seem to anticipate. Opponents of the war seem to have far more confidence in Iraqis' abilities to manage their affairs than do war advocates. Moreover, a U.S. withdrawal would finally compel the region to claim Iraq, forcing the Saudis, Iranians, Jordanians and others to decide whether a civil war is in their interests. Faced with that stark reality, they may seek to mediate rather than inflame Iraq's squabbles.

This is wonderful. *Americans* are the cause of conflict, and *other governments* will provide solutions! It's so clear! It's so simple! It's so utterly and obviously wrong!

The rest of the region had their chance in 2005 and 2006. The "cumbersome and clumsy" Americans largely retreated to their bases, an Iraqi federal government was formed, and if the region wanted to promote stability they could have done a diplomatic surge. Instead they aided and condoned the influx of arms and fighters who escalated the sectarian conflict to a boiling point. Saudi Arabia and Syria could have put a lid on al Qaeda; Iran could have put a lid on Sadr. They chose not to. When it looked like Iraq was racked by the exact violence that Korb, Podesta and Takeyh mention above, those governments did exactly the wrong thing if they truly desired stability.

The root cause of violence in Iraq isn't Americans, it's other governments trying to put their favored group on top. Iraq's Sunnis were used as a proxy against the unthinkable prospect of Arab Shiites holding power. Iraq's Shiites, once provoked enough, were used as a proxy to try and liquidate the Sunni population of many neighborhoods and cities. It took a surge of American troops to break huge segments of the Sunni and Shia populations free of that pernicious influence, and if America leaves Iraq en masse it will open the door for those regional actors to resume their proxy war and put a stopper in what political progress there has been. Again I point to the utter lack of political progress in the years of rising violence, compared to the compromises reached in Baghdad just a few months after it was secured.

While I'm going after that paragraph, I'm just stunned that the authors would characterize America's presence in Iraq that way at this point. "Cumbersome and clumsy" is a great way to describe things in 2003. "Cumbersome", not so much after the Iraqi government was in power. "Clumsy" is absolutely the wrong word to describe things under the leadership of Patraeus. What US troops do on the ground right now is nothing short of amazing, and it certainly isn't getting in the way of Iraqi politicians working together. On the contrary: the US has done an incredible amount to foster and facilitate reconciliation between Sunnis and the central government.

They keep layering it on:

The strategic necessities of ending the war have never been more compelling. In today's Middle East, America is neither liked nor respected.
America's occupation of Iraq is estranging an entire generation of Arab youths, creating a reservoir of antagonism that will take decades to overcome. A Democratic president who may enjoy a modest honeymoon in the Middle East simply by virtue of not being George W. Bush can take a giant step toward reclaiming America's practical interests and moral standing by leaving Iraq.

Respect for America in the long run is best served by whatever policies best promote stability and democracy in Iraq. Leave the door open for another round of bloodletting, and America will be the worst of all worlds: a hegemon who can't get the job done. America's presence for years was marked by violence without progress; that isn't the case today. If we stay long enough to leave behind a stable, democratic Iraq, that will do far more for US/Muslim relations than heading to the exit a year or two faster.

What's more, the "reservoir of antagonism" is much more complex than Iraq. To the extent that young Arabs are going to take up arms against the infidel, they were already willing to do so for reasons from support of Israel to raunchy pop culture to the invasion of Afghanistan. Moving troops from Mosul to the Pakistani border might play well in blue states and Europe, but it won't make a dent in jihadi sentiment.

Finally, the events of the last two years in Iraq have provided a powerful narrative that is changing the way Muslims look at the war on terror. While al Qaeda has time and again shown its willingness to deliberately slaughter innocents, America has worked hand-in-hand with local groups to bring about security and begin the work of rebuilding. The news on al Jazeera is hardly rose-colored, but it's no longer possible to do the "Americans bad, insurgents good" reporting that used to be the norm. Opinion polls in many countries have demonstrated a decline in support of wholesale terrorist violence in general and al Qaeda specifically. The horror of Muslim-on-Muslim terrorism has been made clear, and that momentum is best maintained by assisting Iraq in wiping out the last terrorist cells and making sure they don't come back.

It would be one thing for them to publish that column a year or two ago, but today I find it very much lacking.

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