The main problem with Iraq isn’t just the problems in and around Iraq – it is the problems in and around the United States and the Western powers that joined the United States in the war there.
Now many of the antiwar writers – feeling kinda triumphant – have tried to put a stake into this argument. Eric Martin at American Footprints makes the argument that
It appears, however, that I underestimated the desperation of those suffering from Iraq war-related cognitive dissonace. Things have gotten so bad that instead of merely blaming liberals, the accountability-averse are taking to holding a much more inclusive category responsible for the war’s tragic descent.
in support of this, he cites Josh Marshall, who – if you actually click through – actually says
Stanley Kurtz’s excuse: “The underlying problem with this war is that, from the outset, it has been waged under severe domestic political constraints. From the start, the administration has made an assessment of how large a military the public would support, and how much time the public would allow us to build democracy and then get out of Iraq. We then shaped our military and “nation building” plans around those political constraints, crafting a “light footprint” military strategy linked to rapid elections and a quick handover of power. Unfortunately, the constraints of domestic American public opinion do not match up to what is actually needed to bring stability and democracy to a country like Iraq.”
It may be a form of literary grade or concept inflation to call it irony. But the irony of this ludicrous statement is that from the outset it has been the American political opposition (the Democrats) and the internal bureaucratic opposition (sane people in the US government and military, not appointed by George W. Bush) who’ve pushed for a much larger military footprint in Iraq and much more real nation-building. These weren’t ‘domesic political constraints’. These were ideological constraints the adminstration placed on itself.
And I’ve got to say that I agree with Marshall here – at least in large part. The constraints were put on by the Bush Administration. They chose to push back on nation-building, and to emphasize a light, lethal war.
Kurtz seems to suggest that the political constraints drove Bush’s decision on the kind of war to fight. Marshall replies that it was the institutional forces at State and DoD (not to mention the Democratic defense analysts) who supported a bigger footprint and nation-building, and that the Administration rejected them for ideological reasons. I’ll suggest something diferent than either; that the envelope of political support for the war was deliberately kept too small, both by the GOP and the Democrats. And that at the end of the day, the President’s job is to make that envelope big enough to contain the sustained effort needed to win.
He didn’t do so.
Was it for ideological reasons? Maybe, partly. But it was also for reasons that are easier to understand and harder to forgive. Because to achieve and maintain the political coalition necessary to support a larger footprint, and to have acknowledged a longer war would have meant that the pet domestic political goals of the GOP might have had to have been compromised. If guaranteeing a ‘permanent GOP majority’ was more important than setting the stage for winning in Iraq – and in retrospect, that certainly appears to have been the case – there is no one to blame but the White House.
The Democrats don’t get off scot-free; a small coterie of Democrats shared Bush’s concern that the threat posed by the Islamist movement is real and existential. Jane Harman and Joe Lieberman, to name two. The Party seems most interested in punishing them for their shocking! willingness to cooperate with the Administration. After all, winning a war isn’t as important as embarrassing and constraining the Administration.
I find some but not much of what the Administration has actually done horribly objectionable. Abu Ghreib was a tempest in a teapot, brewed by a failed commander and stirred by a reporter looking to relive the glory of his My Lai scoop. There are real, and complex issues about how to treat guerillas and terrorists captured in the course of conflict. They aren’t POW’s in any sense, nor are they criminals – the criminal justice system isn’t well-equipped to deal with the ambiguities created in wartime. It’s hard enough to sort the facts out in certain neighborhoods in Los Angeles – gathering the resources to do so in far corners of the world to a standard that would approximate modern judicial standards is a crackpipe dream. The overall level of brutalization and mistreatment of prisoners is probably lower – and the level of scrutiny higher – than at almost any time in history. Our erstwhile allies – the Europeans – were in fact the coalition of the bought and bribed. By the other side.
What I do find horrible, and hard to forgive, is the inability of the Administration to make the public case for what it was doing, and to open the doors enough to let the public see the surface of what was being done and to support it with arguments that told us why.
This isn’t a new complaint to me. I’ve been saying the same thing since 2002. I’m frustrated and angry that I didn’t make the point more strongly, and that I didn’t follow the line of reasoning to the logical conclusion – that the political support for the Administration and for the war effort would collapse, and that we’d be paralyzed in the face of any new challenges as the political consensus necessary to actually do anything evaporated.
That’s pretty much where we sit today. Some folks may view that as good news, and as many who opposed the war have said with no little satisfaction, the end of the era of American hegemony may be here.
I’m far less convinced that that’s a good thing. I’ll make a case for American and Western hegemony next, but for now want to point out that we’re about to be backed into a situation where – unless the expansionist trajectory the Islamists have been taking suddenly subsides – we’ll be faced with new challenges and very few tools to use to meet them.
There’s always the Duncan Black model of diplomacy:
…it’s you fuck with us a little bit and YOU NO LONGER LIVE BITCHES!
Which is, from the first thing I’ve written on the subject, exactly the situation I want to see us avoid.
I don’t want to be put in a position where genocide is either a reasonable option, or where my fellow citizens are so enraged that they are willing to commit it, and my opposition will be washed away in a tide of rage.
If we don’t find a way to build a national coalition focused more on dealing with the very real problem outside us, we spend it instead struggling with each other for temporary advantage. To quote myself again:
I’m genuinely afraid that the ruling cohort, and those who enable it by participating in the political process, have so much lost touch with the realities that we face that they are incapable of looking at an issue like Iraq, or 9/11, or the economic straits we have spent and borrowed ourselves into as a nation except as a foothold in climbing over the person in front of them. I imagine a small table of gentlemen and -women, playing whist on a train as it heads out over a broken bridge. The game, of course maters more than anything, and the external events – they’re just an effort to distract they players from their hands.
Until we do look outside – at the broken bridge we’re on in Iraq – Iraq will be well and truly f**ked. It’s never too late – but the cost of backing up and fixing things goes up by the day.