February 8, 2007
Op-ed columns published over the past week reveal that some pundits who supported the invasion of Iraq finally see that it's time to propose a pullback of some sort, although not with eyes quite fully open. However, let's start with a writer who apparently has learned nothing.
Rich Lowry, in a column entitled "It's Howard Dean's Party," commented on the Winter Meeting of the DNC: "all the Democratic presidential candidates appearing here borrow from Dean and try to appease the party's yowling, antiwar base."1 I wish that there had been more yowling by those "pacifist and isolationist" folk; Congress and the people have been slow to take a stand against this misbegotten adventure. Lowry predicts that the Democrats will lose Iraq as they lost Vietnam, by cutting off funds. He thinks that Democrats are in "Vietnam flashback," but he remains entrapped in a fantasy about Vietnam which he projects onto Iraq.
By contrast, one of the neoliberal fans of the war has, more or less, realized that Iraq already is "lost." Thomas Friedman criticized the conduct of the occupation from the start, but continued to believe that the cause was just. However, by 2005, things were going so badly that he was casting about for a villain. He concluded that we were "faltering" in Iraq because of the administration's incompetence, "but also because of the moral vacuum in the Sunni Arab world, where the worst are engaged in murderous ethnic cleansing - and trying to stifle any prospect of democracy here - and the rest are too afraid, too weak, too lost or too anti-Shiite to do anything about it."2
After all, the failure couldn't be due to the flaws in a theory of freeing people by bombing them, bestowing democracy on them through imperialist action and creating stability by destroying their government. It must be the Sunnis.
During 2006, Mr. Friedman declared that it was a "season of decision;" he spoke of deadlines. None of that produced peace and an open society, so this week he gave up on his dream and opted for withdrawal, combined with a proposal that we "impose a tax that creates a floor price of $3.50 a gallon for gasoline - forever."3 (The latter is going to make us independent of Middle Eastern oil.) As to the former, "Negotiating in the Middle East without leverage is futile. . . . So how do we get leverage? The first way to do that is by setting a firm date to leave - Dec. 1. All U.S. military forces are either going to be home for Christmas 2007 or redeployed along the borders of Iraq, away from the civil war. . . ."
He held out the hope that the threat of withdrawal would force the Iraqis to shape up: ". . . if setting a date to leave miraculously brings them to their senses, our aspirations for the Iraqis will have been achieved, and we'll be stronger. And if it doesn't, but we have set an exit date and a gas price, we'll be out of Iraq and more energy-secure - and we'll also be stronger." We'd be stronger still if we hadn't started the war, but never mind.
David Ignatius has followed a similar course. In November, 2006 he decided that the culture of the Middle East was too great an impediment to the grand plan. He referred to a "disease . . . eating away at the Middle East. . . . It is the idea that the only political determinant in the Arab world is raw force -- the power of physical intimidation."4 His focus was assassination, specifically of Pierre Gemayel, a Lebanese cabinet minister, but he obviously had Iraq, and the notion that we could transform its society, in mind as well:
. . . So many things are going right in the modern world - until we reach the boundaries of the Middle East, where the gunmen hide in wait....On Wednesday, he told us that he has concluded that "this story isn't going to have a happy ending." (He's a little slow. By 2006, Richard Cohen, another early supporter, had concluded that the administration "thinks that this or that adaptation to new conditions will somehow change the outcome. It will not. The end was set at the beginning. It is better that it come sooner rather than later.")5
The Middle East needs the rule of law -- not an order preached by outsiders but one demanded by Arabs who will not tolerate more of this killing....
The idea that America is going to save the Arab world from itself is seductive, but it's wrong.... We aren't tough enough for it or smart enough - and in the end it isn't our problem. The hard work of building a new Middle East will be done by the Arabs, or it won't happen...."
Mr. Ignatius offered a five-point plan: contain the sectarian violence, protect the oil, shield the Iraqi population, negotiate with Syria and Iran, and push for Arab-Israeli peace. The details are vague, but a military pullback is implied. As to the first goal, he concluded that "The United States can't stop the Iraqi civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, but it can try to keep this conflict within Iraq's borders," and as to the third, "America hasn't been able to stop the civil war, but U.S. troops can reduce the slaughter and help provide humanitarian relief for what's likely to be a growing tide of refugees fleeing the battle zones."
Messrs. Friedman and Ignatius have gone their own way on Iraq, supporting the invasion but for different reasons than those of the administration or, to be more accurate, those that the administration has given from time to time. Charles Krauthammer has been more in the Bush camp; he managed somehow to think that our "objectives in Iraq were twofold and always simple: Depose Saddam Hussein and replace his murderous regime with a self-sustaining, democratic government." However, even for a true believer, the trend of events is difficult to ignore.
Like Friedman and Ignatius, Krauthammer decided that the fault must lie elsewhere. "We have given the Iraqis a republic, and they do not appear able to keep it." He acknowledged that the administration has made mistakes - one of his complaints is that we did not shoot looters - but criticizing ourselves would be to surrender to the blame- America syndrome; "the root problem lies with Iraqis and their political culture."6
In January Krauthammer reiterated his disdain for the Iraqi government and, intentionally or not, recited in advance the predictable excuse for the failure of the surge plan: "I am confident that Petraeus knows what he's doing and that U.S. troops will acquit themselves admirably. I'm afraid the effort will fail, however, because the Maliki government will undermine it." Like the others, he had a redeployment plan. Maliki won't believe a threat to "abandon Iraq," but would believe a threat of "an intermediate redeployment within Iraq," so his plan "would be not so much a drawdown of troops as a drawdown of risk to our troops."
He doesn't say so, but the thought obviously is that public pressure here would evaporate if casualties did. "If we had zero American casualties a day, there would be as little need to withdraw from Iraq as there is to withdraw from the Balkans." Here's the plan:
We say to Maliki: Let us down, and we dismantle the Green Zone, leave Baghdad and let you fend for yourself; we keep the airport and certain strategic bases in the area; we redeploy most of our forces to Kurdistan; we maintain a significant presence in Anbar province, where we are having success in our one-front war against al-Qaeda and the Baathists. Then we watch. You can have your Baghdad civil war without us. We will be around to pick up the pieces as best we can.7Continuing operations in Anbar isn't likely to reduce casualties to zero, nor will any redeployment within Iraq, but they might be low enough to accomplish his goal of making people forget about Iraq.
All of the plans assume that Iraqi sovereignty is a sham, but this one seems more blatant than the others in that respect.
Last week Dr. Krauthammer returned to the question of whom to blame and reiterated that it's the Iraqis: "America comes and liberates them from the tyrant who kept everyone living in fear, and the ancient animosities and more recent resentments begin to play themselves out to deadly effect." Fareed Zakaria had criticized his line about giving the Iraqis a republic. Krauthammer responded:
Iraqis were given their freedom, and yet many have chosen civil war. Among all these religious prejudices, ancient wounds, social resentments and tribal antagonisms, who gets the blame for the rivers of blood? You can always count on some to find the blame in America. "We did not give them a republic," insists Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria. "We gave them a civil war."I suppose that it is too much to expect that advocates of the war would realize and admit that they were wrong, that invasion was a very bad idea. It is so much more comforting to look for other reasons, to dump the blame on someone else: Iraqis, Sunnis, Syrians, Iranians, Muslims, Maliki, Democrats. In today's Doonesbury, we reached the ultimate fallback position. The president is asked "Who do we blame if we lose in Iraq?" After deciding that past praise eliminates Rumsfeld, Franks, Tenet, Bremer and Casey, he admits that that leaves only God.
Of all the accounts of the current situation, this is by far the most stupid. . . .
. . . It willfully overlooks the plainest of facts: Iraq is their country. We midwifed their freedom. They chose civil war.8
We may attack Iran. If that's another disaster, at least we'll know Whom to blame.
1. The Seattle Times 2/6/07
2. The New York Times 9/28/05
3. The New York Times 2/7/07
4. The Washington Post 9/24/06
5. The Washington Post 8/8/06
6. The Washington Post 11/17/06
7. The Washington Post 1/19/07
8. The Washington Post 2/2/07