Blather about Iraq

by Stanley Meisler

September 26, 2007

Recent weeks have brought us so much blather about the war in Iraq that it is difficult to hold on to realities. But let’s try.

— The President gave us his latest speech on Iraq in September. I often wonder who listens to him any more, who believes him any more. Yet I can’t help finding a certain fascination with his oratory. I am always astonished at what he will come up with next.

He has a new though clunky slogan: Return on Success. Since the success is imperceptible, his pullback of troops is insignificant. But he does not say that, of course. Instead he insists that “the troop surge is working” and that this “measure of success” allows him to reduce his force enough for him and his critics “for the first time in years....to come together.” In short, he is telling us, the Great Decider has become the Great Compromiser. That is hard to swallow.

The most significant phrase in the speech came when he told us that Iraqi leaders “understand that their success will require US political, economic and security engagements that extend beyond my presidency.” Bush intends to soldier on and leave the mess for his successor. But that is not news. It has been long obvious that he cannot change course in Iraq. To do so would be to acknowledge what every one else knows: that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a mindless blunder.

— General David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, when they testified to the House and Senate, did not declare a glass half-full in Iraq when it was really half-empty. Their optimism bounded far more than that. They took a glass with only a few drops and insisted it was on the way to filling up. They tried to make a big deal out of very, very little. Their conclusions defied the evidence.

Their rhetoric dwelled heavily on the potential for success in a distant future. “I...believe,” said the general, “that it is possible to achieve our objectives in Iraq over time, though doing so will be neither quick nor easy.” “In my judgment,” said the ambassador, “the cumulative trajectory of political, economic and diplomatic developments in Iraq is upwards, although the slope of that line is not steep.”

Their optimism is not surprising. The creator or manager of a project cannot evaluate it objectively. The strategy of the surge, after all, is General Petraeus’s baby. President Bush did not like the pessimism of his commanders in Iraq so he brought in a new team with new ideas. Petraeus received a green light to carry out his pet strategy of launching neighborhood sweeps in Bagdad and headquartering our soldiers in neighborhood outposts. Ambassador Crocker was dispatched to Iraq to help him.

You cannot expect Petraeus and Crocker to stand before Congress and belittle their pet project and themselves. Evaluators are supposed to be outsiders. That is why teachers fill out report cards, not parents.

— We should be wary of conventional wisdom. The general view in Washington these days is that any significant American withdrawal in the coming year or two will precipitate more civil war, more chaos, and, as Ambassador Crocker put it, “massive human suffering.” In fact, that is the trump card of those who insist on staying the course. “Our current course is hard,” said the ambassador. “The alternatives are far worse.”

But conventional wisdom is not infallible wisdom, especially in Washington. More than four years ago, the prevailing view in Washington, whipped up by a President Bush pandering to patriotism, insisted Iraq was threatening us with weapons of mass destruction and promised a cakewalk if we invaded to disarm Saddam. The views of those who got it wrong before do not have to be accepted whole now.

The truth is that we cannot be certain what will happen as our soldiers leave. The US is a destabilizing force in Iraq as well as a stabilizing one. Perhaps our departure will ease tensions. Moreover, the opponents of the war, for the most part, are not demanding a precipitous withdrawal. The Democratic proposals call for a change of strategy — a timely pullout of combat soldiers while other troops remain to train Iraqis and hunt down terrorists.

Even if the administration is right that withdrawal will precipitate chaos, it does not follow that we must stay the course. The war is so unpopular and the chances for success, whatever that means, so limited that we should be planning how to minimize any chaos when the combat troops leave. As George Packer pointed out in his recent New Yorker article, no one is doing that now.

— A lot of people, worried about their place in history, are trying to rejiggle and confuse the past. That is not surprising. Debacles have a way of making people redefine themselves. After World War II it was hard to find anyone in Germany boasting that they adored Adolph Hitler. What, me Nazi?

So it is with some of those who urged us on to war in Iraq. Richard Butler, the Australian who was the chief UN inspector of Iraq from 1997 to 1999, did all he could to warn us before the war that “Saddam is back in the business of developing nuclear weapons.” His book, “The Greatest Threat: Iraq, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the Crisis of Global Security,” published in 2000, is a fiery and exaggerated account of what he regarded as Iraq’s repeated attempts to hide and lie about its weapons of mass destruction.

Yet, in an article in the New York Times in June, he boasted blandly, without any reference to his past bristling accusations, that “those of us involved with United Nations inspections...knew that virtually all of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction had been removed.” The boast was obviously designed to turn his place in history on its head. But Butler was not known well enough in the US for his turnabout to attract much notice.

A more notorious case was that of Kenneth M. Pollack. He and an associate at the Brookings Institution wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times in July supporting the surge. In the article titled “A War We Just Might Win,” the duo identified themselves as “two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq.” That was obviously designed to give them disinterested credibility for their view that, in terms of the military, “we are finally getting somewhere in Iraq.”

Now I don’t doubt that Pollack has found fault with the way the war has been carried out. Almost everyone outside the White House and the Pentagon agrees about that. But that is far from the best way to identify Pollack.

Pollack was one of the most fervent of the cheerleaders who urged us into the war in the first place. In 2002, he wrote the book, “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.” Since he had served in the Clinton White House as a National Security Council official, his warnings about the nefarious weapons of Saddam were influential in persuading many Democrats that the Bush bellicosity was justified. Even two months after the invasion, when many Americans began to realize they had been hoodwinked about the weapons, Pollack wrote an Op-Ed piece for the Times titled, “Saddam’s Bombs? We’ll Find Them.” He thought “they could still be hidden in places we never would have thought to look.”

It takes a lot of chutzpah for Pollack to keep trying to influence us about the war in Iraq. How often does a pundit have to make a mistake before recusing himself from an issue? I have to wonder about the Times running an Op-Ed piece from him about Iraq. I wouldn’t want to deprive Pollack of his job or his right to express his opinion. But perhaps in the future the Times ought to brand a label on an Op-Ed pundit like Pollack to make it clear who he really is and why we needn’t heed him. Sort of a Scarlet Letter.

— The news and political classes now accept the foolish notion that George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address was a heartfelt expression of his belief in the need to bring democracy to every nook and cranny of the world. That democracy-laden inaugural address, however, actually was little more than an ex post facto rationalization of the war in Iraq. The old rationales for the war — that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, was linked to Al Qaeda, and posed a threat to the US — had disintegrated by then, and Bush needed to push a new one.

Yet, almost everyone now talks about the president as a promoter of democracy. Even Bush does. He relishes the role. In his address to the General Assembly on September 25, he called on the United Nations to join him in “a mission of liberation” to free people from “tyranny and violence” in the seven “brutal regimes” of Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Zimbabwe. In an interview for the book “Dead Certain,” Bush told author Robert Draper that he planned, after leaving the White House, to run a “fantastic Freedom Institute” promoting democracy worldwide.

Bush obviously would rather be known in history as “the democracy president” than “the Iraq debacle president.” That’s understandable but not likely.

September 26, 2007
Washington DC

Stanley Meisler is the author of Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War and United Nations: The First Fifty Years.

see also:

Letting Go of Iraq
April 11, 2007

Removing Tyrants
October 4, 2004

The Chaos of Iraq
June 7, 2004

Democracy: One Man, One Vote, Once
November 14, 2003

Depressing Thoughts on Our Victory
April 29, 2003

Badgering the United Nations
March 2, 2003

A Frightening Performance on Iraq
October 16, 2002

Impasse in Iraq
December 11, 1998

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