Quote of the Day

Personally, I think Ricks is thinking about the problem the wrong way. The “political breakthrough” he speaks of could never have occurred under Saddam. But in a larger sense I think Ricks is right to warn about failure in Iraq. OIF was meant to send a signal to the despots of the Middle East to mind their manners; to avoid supporting nonstate terror actors; to avoiding seeking weapons of mass destruction. But the dominant meme to emerge from the last six years has almost been the exact opposite. That it is hopeless, except in the sense of buying them off, to deflect Middle Eastern despots from their schemes; that it is equally impossible, and possibly even immoral to stand forcibly in the way of those who seek nuclear arms. Obama is not entirely, as Ricks argues, the hapless victim of the policies of the last six years, rather he is the expression of a point of view that believes they are a failure.

-Richard Fernandez, Iraq, Victory or defeat?

I think the past six years should be seen as a controlled experiment. When we attacked the terrorists and their patrons directly, made them personally accountable as we did the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, they and their allies and emulators backed off. But when we hesitated and temporized and appeased we lost ground. Israel had similar experiences. Its assassination campaign against Hamas leaders was highly effective in suppressing terror attacks, but its negotiation attempts, precipitate withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, and irresolute handling of the 2006 Lebanese campaign helped to energize its enemies. In this context, Obama’s attempt to gain the favor of the Iranian regime rather than undermine it seems like an effort to replicate some of our and Israel’s recent strategic errors.

24 thoughts on “Quote of the Day”

  1. The Hamas assassinations did not accomplish all that much: rocket had continued to be sent into Israel till Israel entered Gaza militarily and it withdrew ONLY because of US pressure under
    Bush. So too pressure put upon Israel in the Lebanon war (recent one) to end the fighting…again, under Bush.

  2. Yes, I think the despots of the world look at Obama’s election and the Democrats sweep of the house as an event identical the leftist sweep from ’73-’78. In the aftermath of Watergate and the abandonment of the people of Indochina to mass murder, anti-American despots surged to success all over the world, Between 1973-1980, 18 countries became communist client states of the Soviet Union. Open anti-Americanism became popular even in places like India. It was this collapse of American deterrence and support of democracy that helped drive Reagan to the White House.

    I wonder if leftists learned anything from the episode? Given the similarities between their actions then and the last 8 years, I kind of doubt it. On the other hand, Obama’s recent adoption of the vast majority of Bush’s anti-terrorism techniques suggest that they might have. Obama might be willing to let the Republican’s essentially run foreign policy if that leaves him a free hand to pursue socialization internally.

  3. Fred Lapidies,

    I find myself in rare agreement with you. The Bush’s administrations lack of support for Israel during the last two years of his administration is something they should be ashamed of. I think that administration fatigue caused them to abandon our Israel policy to the professional State Department personnel who are pretty much all appeaser and overly concerned with kowtowing to European leftist.

    It’s sad to say but so many people are obsessed with their own ability to solve problems by talking that they will side with despots against Israel’s liberal-democracy. Certainly, Israel will be on her own for at least the next 4 years. Clearly, if Israel is attacked, no matter how horrifically, the Obama administrations first response will be to blame Israel.

  4. “But when we hesitated and temporized and appeased we lost ground.”

    What are you referring to here? Which “we”? The USA?

    I cannot figure out what you are referring to.

  5. Yes, the USA. A.Q. Khan, Libya, the Orange Revolution, the Lebanese Spring, Iran’s temporary suspension of its nuke program, etc. happened shortly after we invaded Iraq. Then we lost momentum and focus and many of our enemies decided, probably correctly, that they were no longer in danger and gradually resumed their previous activities.

  6. “…we lost momentum and focus…”

    We weren’t losing momentum and focus. We were losing the war. The Iraqi resistance was winning.

    Totally different thing.

  7. They were mutually exclusive.

    It was not possible to continue to threaten other regimes when we were obviously over-committed in the wars we were in. Empty threats are not convincing and compel no action in response.

    Iran, for example, not only knew we lacked the means to attack them, but they had been given a powerful means of attacking us, in Iraq.

    “…energize its enemies…” What energized our enemies was our self-inflicted disaster in Iraq.

  8. I see no evidence that the “loss of will” was somehow detached from or not caused by the catastrophic failure of our Iraq occupation. In any case, why should the public have “will” to attack other countries when the leadership proved itself incompetent to execute the one they had already done?

  9. Khomeinist religious dogma is quite dangerous, I think that we can all agree. But Khomeinism is not going to be addressed by bullets or bombs but by religious debate reasserting traditional Shia values. The most powerful center of traditional quietist Shia thought is in Iraq. Sistani is revered as an individual but he’s a faction head and the faction will endure his passing and will continue to make the argument that Khomeinism is heresy. No matter what else, we have liberated the Iraqis to deal with the Khomeinist theological threat that produces an Ahmadinejad.

    That is progress and all by itself rescues Iraq from the ‘strategic disaster’ category. But it is not the only success we have had in Iraq. Kurdish Iraq is a measurably better place and, if they don’t screw it up, will force Turkey, Iran, and Syria to treat their own kurdish minorities better over the long haul. Adding what looks like a stalwart people to the roster of freedom is also a victory.

    The Shia seem to be starting to grow up. If they manage a few government changes in peace post combat troop withdrawal, we’re likely to see a stable and free Iraqi republic serve as a model. This would be a huge victory as we might actually see the light at the end of the tunnel where we no longer have to pay billions yearly to get Egypt not to invade Israel (a functionally governed Egypt no longer needing the jewish scapegoat for regime stability).

    I simply can’t see why the “Iraq is a disaster” storyline survives other than as political agitprop for Democrats. The facts do not bear it out.

  10. Why can’t both of you be right, Jonathan and Lexington Green? I mean, we (as in the US) push back, they (as in, Iran) push back, and so it goes.

    I find it hard to believe that during the early days of the Iraq War, some people weren’t scared for their very survival, I mean, the despotic regimes like Iran. It must have made them nervous or they wouldn’t have tried to interfere.

    That ‘pushing back and forth’ dynamic just doesn’t exist today, it seems, except for Afghanistan and Pakistan, I suppose. Even if the Iraq occupation was a disaster, and it was, did it not cause our enemies to use their energies in ways that maybe they didn’t want to?

    I dunno, I really don’t, anymore. If there is success in Afghanistan, it will be because President Obama, and his admin, can see what didn’t work in Iraq, and the leaders that were generated in that environment, and what they learned, can be applied elsewhere.

    Politically, he’s one lucky son of a gun.

  11. Also, and this is why I could never study political science or anything like that, it seems like nailing jello to a wall, we don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t invaded Iraq. So, like, it all seems kind of like guesswork to me, but I know that’s not the case. The smarty smarts have their metrics and ways of measuring them….we will see in ten years time what Iraq will be. I don’t trust either ‘side’ to get it right. I just don’t trust the swings in judgement.

  12. Onparkstreet, there can be no final right answer to these questions. However, how you formulate the answer points you toward what you think should happen next. If the Iraq war was a costly fiasco (roughly my view — though I mistakenly supported it, vehemently, at the outset) you think one thing. If you think invading Iraq was right, was costly, but was worth doing (I hope I am not being unfair in summarizing Jonathan’s view) then you see something else going forward. This is really about Iran. If the lesson of Iraq is that invading led to a very expensive and bloody and protracted effort that yeilded little of value to the USA, then getting into a shooting war with Iran looks like a terrible idea — more or less my position. If you think the real problem is that our leadership blinked when they should have been resolute, and that we should have continued to aggressively confront and if needed attack our enemies in the region, including Syria, but especially Iran, then it looks like it is long past time to use military force against Iran to stop their nuclear program — again, what I take to be Jonathan’s view. We each hold our positions for what we believe to be sufficient reasons.

  13. Lexington Green – It’s not just about Iran, but also about Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the muslim world. Why has the KSA held its first elections in decades? Is there any other explanation out there than as a reaction to Iraqi elections? Syrian Baathism cannot feel very secure looking across the border at the fate of its estranged brother organization in Iraq. Even Egypt has given Iraq the cold shoulder. I believe it is out of fear that its own excuses for holding to emergency rule cannot sustain comparison to Iraqis voting in the face of suicide bombers. Do you have a better explanation?

  14. Elections in these countries may or may not be good for the USA. I tend to think they will not be good, that parties and factions that are hostile to the USA are more likely to come to power, where authoritarian regimes tend to favor the status quo. It was not worth a trillion dollars and thousands of American deaths to have some vaguely discernible trend in some Arab countries toward greater liberalization. The fact that the Iraqis have elected Maliki does not do any good for the USA. What do we get out him being president? Nothing significant. I don’t care about those countries or the people who live there, when it comes to US government policy or the lives of American soldiers. As a Christian, I wish them well. As a US citizen, I expect our government and military to respect its own limitations and to stay out of places that do not present a very substantial and unambiguous threat. I have zero interest in nation building, or spreading democracy, if it is going to cost American lives to do it. Most Americans don’t. These countries have oil, or we would pay no attention to them at all. If some dicatator keeps the lid on and pumps the oil, good. If he is a humanitarian disaster for his population, that is sad, but not our problem. If the shoe were on the other foot, people of the USA were suffering, the rest of the world would be glad to see it, far from lifting a hand to mitigate it. They danced in the streets in the Middle East on 9/11. That was a spontaneous, popular response. Democracy there would reflect that spirit. We owe none of these countries anything. As to Israel, it is a foreign country which I wish well, but it has nuclear weapons and it can take care of itself.

  15. Lex, have you joined the Neo-Isolationist party, so popular with the 2Blowhards crowd? I stay away from that blog for about a year, so don’t know latest developments; could it be they have recruited you?

  16. I rarely read Blowhards these days, and they have no influence on my political views.

    I am no kind of isolationist. I am a free-trader, pro-globalization on economics. I am a hawk who believes in a very strong military with a full suite of capabilities, from nuclear weapons down to counterinsurgency and constabulary work. I am a libertarian — small-l — who believes the US government should be about the military and law enforcement and little else. I believe in the aggressive use of American military power to defend the United States, its people, and its interests.

    General Petraeus said “an army of liberation quickly becomes an army of occupation”. Right. David Kilcullen shows in his new book — which is the best book on current military affairs I have read — that a heavy-handed occupation by the US military plays into the enemy’s hands. That is what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    I cheered when Mr. Bush said “no nation building” in his debate against Mr. Gore. I trusted the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq War, I believed that he and his civilian and military advisers knew what they were doing. I was very badly mistaken. The record is now clear that they did not. Mr. Bush changed his approach, that he ran on, unwisely and unsuccessfully. The planning and execution of the Iraq war were inexcusably badly handled, based on bad and incoherent thinking. That is the unambiguous historical record at this point, and the more we learn the worse it gets. It does not matter what their intentions were. As we say in the law “good heart, empty head” does not excuse liability.

    We need to bring Iraq and Afghanistan to some kind of tolerable level of stability, and reduce our engagement with those places. The model for future employment of American power should be nothing like the way we handled Iraq and Afghanistan, at least initially.

  17. OK, can I ask you this, then: do you agree that America has interests outside of our borders and if yes, do you allow for these interests to be defended by military force, if necessary? If no – I’ll write you off to the Ron Paul’s camp; if yes, then please clarify – your objection to Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns is that they were handled incompetently or that these countries do not constitute areas of American interests and the military should not have been deployed there? Do you consider Israel one such strategical area of American interests?

  18. Yes.

    “… please clarify – your objection to Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns is that they were handled incompetently …”

    No. It would take too long. There is an enormous amount of material on these points. Read the Kilcullen book. It is called the Accidental Guerilla. You will get a lot more of value from that and it is already written, and it is a lot better than anything I could write.

    “… these countries do not constitute areas of American interests and the military should not have been deployed there.”

    The 9/11 hijackers were based in Afghanistan. We invaded it, as we were right to do. We handled the occupation badly, largely because assets were diverted to Iraq.

    We should never have invaded Iraq.

    We are now in both countries and must make the best of it.

    Israel is an area of American strategic interest. Israel is much more powerful than any potential threat it faces. Israel’s main danger is that so many of its own people seem to be unrealistic or even self-destructive. I have zero worries about Israel’s ability to fend off external threats, or deter them.

  19. Lexington Green – Elections the way that KSA is doing them are to the good because they are incremental and aimed at creating a grown up political class that is not royal. The problem with allies that are royal autocracies is that they are fragile and there is no set of grown ups that have had to have the responsibility of actually running stuff. Going through cycles of taking power and giving it up, habituating the factions we don’t like into that process, is all to the good. The islamists in Pakistan were given power a round prior and now have been largely tossed out of power because their promise of honest, effective government has proven simply not true.

    Our enemies, by and large, are ineffective frauds who talk a great game. If they can be exposed as they take power in this village or that city, a threat to us removes itself. If they prove effective, they tend to moderate, again to the good. If they get habituated to leave power and then peacefully return in the normal electoral cycle, that’s just perfect. We can do business with a country where even the most rabidly anti-american don’t try to end the democratic process.

    For the most part, it is not going to cost substantial amounts of american lives to spread democracy. The Middle East is exceptional in its set of interlocking pathologies, only rivaled by Africa, and arguably worse than Africa because non-muslim Africa has no overarching religious narrative locking them into the 11th century (as the sunni closing of the gates of ijtihad does for the muslim world). Iraq was a one off, not because of a lack of will on the part of the US or the West but because of a lack of need. Digesting the gains of Iraq (if we don’t screw it up going forward) will likely take generations just as digesting the gains of a pacified Japan and Germany have taken generations.

    You are correct that the fact that Iraq elected Maliki is not, in isolation, something good for the US. What is good is that Saddam Hussein is no longer tearing the guts out of the international system by buying up influence using oil for food and by legitimizing the post-mortem hiring of suicide bombers, among other things. Iraq was openly experimenting with assymetric warfare and the US would have been very vulnerable if his innovations caught on. Right now what is good is that Iraq has already had 3 local heads of government and all signs point to Maliki stepping down peacefully if he loses his next run. This provides leverage to all our diplomatic relations with arab despots throughout the ME. That leverage is a good thing and will only get more powerful the longer that Iraq remains free and becomes peaceful and stable.

    I believe that the wickedness of dancing in the streets upon hearing about 9/11 is a product of a distorted political process in the arab world, a process that is distorted so that these autocratic allies can have an external bogeyman. We pay for our own vilification. That’s got to get unwound over a reasonable amount of time or we’re going to suffer for it due to the ongoing crash in the cost of doing mayhem to the US and to US interests. I don’t have a better tool to do that unwinding than the creation of an indigenous, adult, stable, political class that has no more need of scapegoats. Do you?

    Nobody understands how to do this sort of thing. Everybody is bad at it. It is unreasonable to think that we would not make mistakes. We currently seem to be making few enough that our opponents are making more and losing because of it.

    I see that you believe in more troops for Afghanistan. I do not know how a conventional occupation force structure (say 120k troops) could be logistically supplied in that country given our abilities and the relevant geography. I’m not even sure that we could manage 80k. What is the source of your confidence that we could do it or could have done it in 2002?

  20. “I see that you believe in more troops for Afghanistan.”

    I believe that the current command team — Petraeus, Mullen, McChrystal — are as good as we can hope for, and that they say they need the troops. If they can get the place pacified, good. I don’t see any basis to second guess the current military leadership.

    As to 2002, the current wisdom is that you initially occupy with a large force to provide security, you do not let the place trickle down your leg after the initial invasion. If we were not going to do a “butcher and bolt” punitive raid on Afghanistan, we should have committed more resources, military and civilian, to get reconstruction going, to get training going, and to be able to realistically announce some goals that would mark our exit. No serious thought seems to have been given to what in blazes we were going to do with and, do to, Afghanistan.

    I don’t dispute that democracy is generally a good way to run a political system. I don’t think most places can handle it. Our political and legal and constitutional history shows a slow progression over millenia, and universal suffrage is the cherry on top of the sundae. It came last. Can other places leapfrog to democracy, and have it work? The initial era of decolonization was an era of hopeful founding of “new democracies”. It did not work. India is the great outlier, and a heroic tale it is, in establishing an actual working democracy despite such dire odds. Did you read Amy Chua’s book World on Fire? Our own James McCormick review it here on CB. Chua notes that in poor countries there are usually “market dominant minorities” who represent the dynamic sector of the economy. Newly installed democracies usually loot, purge or drive into exile the very people who can make the place succeed economically. There are lots of other problems with trying to install democracies in places that have shown no aptitude for it.

    “For the most part, it is not going to cost substantial amounts of american lives to spread democracy.”

    To the extent we can influence others to conduct their affairs in an open, rule-of-law fashion, including democratic selection of political leadership, that may be all to the good. Democracy should not be the first priority however as far as US pressure. People in a foreign country should run their own affairs without our nose in their business, unless there is some dire need, or they have asked for help. Most importantly, we should not be invading places for those purposes.

    If people in foreign countries hate us, that may not be a problem with a solution, it may be a condition to be mitigated or just lived with. Being a rich, powerful, generally successful country is going to make most other people envy you, resent you and hate you. That is a normal and comprehensible response. On top of that, the USA is a global hegemon, and no matter how benign we believe ourselves to be, and how much better than the alternatives we may actually be, we are hardball players, and the rest of the world perceives us aggressively serving our interests, if necessary at other peoples’ expense. There is enough truth to this that it cannot be discounted, and is a cost of doing business.

    As to all the benefits we are supposedly getting from having invaded Iraq, I hope you are right. We sure paid a lot for it. If there are more and better benefits to it all, which you see and I do not, I would very much prefer that you be right and I be wrong.

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