Friday, January 12, 2007

Responding to Critics

This is something just posted at National Interest online.

Responding to Critics
by Nikolas K. Gvosdev



Ray Takeyh and I have a habit of writing provocative pieces that are usually vociferously denounced and attacked at the time they are published but often are (although not always) vindicated by developments over time. I feel (and I write in the single person here, as I have not coordinated this response with my co-author) that our latest endeavor which just appeared in the International Herald Tribune, “Mr. President, this war is over”, will also stand the test of time.

In an article written in spring 2003 (and published in the summer 2003 issue of Orbis), we laid out the case why spreading democracy in the Middle East would not advance U.S. strategic objectives, since even a casual perusal of opinion polling showed that any government in the region dependent on the ballot box for power would be under greater pressure to distance itself from the American agenda. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times on September 7, 2003, we warned: “In a country lacking a strong national identity, a country in which ethnic and regional loyalties are paramount, democracy could well result in another Lebanon—an unstable patchwork of local ethnic fiefdoms perilously perched at the brink of civil war.” We went on to say:

This sort of liberal autocracy should be America’s model for political reconstruction in Iraq. Instead of quixotic democratic schemes, Washington should create a strong central government in Baghdad, one that is responsive to its citizens but also capable of regulating local rivalries and is insulated from popular pressure.
America's goal should be to transfer power to an indigenous regime as soon as possible, not to use Iraq as some sort of social-science laboratory for nation-building. The United States should select an efficient new leadership capable of initiating market and other reforms while also managing popular discontent with American policies. There is a great deal of talent in the midlevel ranks of the military and civil service that can be tapped for such a purpose.
Empowering pragmatic local administrators (as opposed to exiled politicians) would ensure that the leadership is in touch with the needs of the Iraqi people, and that it would have a good chance of surviving even after the U.S. withdraws.
The continuing unrest in Iraq today demonstrates that its citizens crave services, not abstract notions of pluralism. If a new regime improves the quality of life for Iraqi citizens, it will gain popular support -- even if it was backed initially by the U.S.
The United States is at a crossroads. It can either face the very real risks of democratization or dispense with its Wilsonian pieties and craft a durable new order for the Middle East. It cannot do both.
Criticism of the latest piece takes a number of forms. Dispensing with the ad homimen attacks (America-haters, enemies of freedom, foreign agents and so on), there are three principal responses or comments that have been made.

The first has to do with stylistic concerns about tone. Why are we so pessimistic? Why are we undermining national morale by talking about defeat and loss?

I, for one, want to wake people up and break us out of our habit of always assuming that, when faced with a plethora of bad choices and imperfect outcomes, we wait for the deus ex machina to arrive and save the day. Too many here in Washington continue to assume that we can leisurely set the timetable for events. We can’t. We keep hearing that the only outcome we can have in Iraq is “victory”; we need to start thinking long and hard now about what we do and how we preserve our position and our interests if Iraqis don’t do the things we expect of them. This isn’t defeatism, by the way; it’s called common sense. You hope for the best, you prepare for the worst. We aren’t doing that.

And solutions that could have worked in 2003 or 2004 may not, and probably will not, work in 2007. You can’t suddenly decide that General Petraeus’ approach can just be re-started and will produce effective results years later.

The second response is to use what I think are inappropriate comparisons with the Civil War or World War II; what would have happened if Lincoln or FDR were forced by discontent about the sacrifices of war to make peace instead of achieving full victory? For one thing, both those conflicts were conventional wars with clear parameters for defining progress. If nothing else, compare a map of the lines in 1862 with 1864; or 1942 with 1944. In both there were clear and definitive signs of progress. And remember, Lincoln’s re-election was ensured when Sherman completed his “march to the sea”, which signaled the Confederacy’s impending doom as a viable entity.

Do we have a clear record of progress in Iraq? Michael O’Hanlon’s “Iraq Index” doesn’t support a convincing affirmative answer to that question. Certainly we see no Malaysia-style dynamics where, over time, effective counter-insurgency techniques combined with material progress have begun to reduce the fighting and contain it to limited corners.

I think those who think that “victory is around the corner” are now the ones who have to present the evidence that supports that conclusion.

The final response is some variant of “leaving Iraq means the terrorists have won” or that Ahmed from Anbar province will be in Des Moines the weekend after the Marines leave to wreak havoc at the shopping mall. The attempt here is to say that we are jeopardizing U.S. national security. Well, I have news for you. While we’re bogged down in Iraq, North Korea crossed the nuclear finish line and Iran’s progress toward its own nuclear device and regional hegemony continues. Other major powers are taking advantage of our distraction in Iraq to strengthen their own positions, and, by the way, Al-Qaeda seems to be reconstituting itself just fine outside of Iraq.

Good strategists know that you have to pick and choose battles. FDR came under tremendous pressure to alter his strategy during World War II of concentrating on defeating Nazi Germany instead of focusing most of America’s attention on Imperial Japan—even though Japan had struck Pearl Harbor and even successfully occupied a few pieces of U.S. territory in North America. Dwight D. Eisenhower accepted a cease-fire that left North Korea intact and did not use the revolts against Soviet power in East Germany and Hungary as opportunities to launch a war against the USSR. If Iraq was the only problem on the U.S. agenda, then making it the central front in the war on terror might be justifiable. But it is not.

Senator Chuck Hagel had it right when he said, in reaction to the president’s speech:

“This is a dangerously wrong-headed strategy that will drive America deeper into an unwinnable swamp at a great cost. We cannot escape the reality that there will be no military solution in Iraq.”

Ending a campaign to save the republic is no defeat.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest

I think it will be a good idea to try to map out US strategy and policy in the Near East in 2009 and beyond in the light of US defeat in Iraq and her bombing campaigns in Iran and Syria.
Nothing useful can be accomplished until this President has left office.
Outstanding commentary and the most "realistic" assessment of the Iraq misadventure published in years.
What territory did Japan occupy? Was is one of the Alaskan islands?

Also - why wasn't Condi able to asnwer Kerry's question about a backup plan? Was that because the policy is to err, so as to provoke Tehran?
Japanese occupied some of the Aleutian islands, Alaska yes. Plus other Pacific islands, and their subs shelled some locations on the west coast. And people were really worried about invasion of the west coast until after battle of midway, so the hindsight of the war being won didn't apply in 1942--and that's why FDR was under such pressure to relocate Japanese-Americans.
Isn't that closing quote ripped off from star trek deep space nine, the episode when the klingons attack the station?
Let's focus on winning. If you expect defeat you will be defeated.
anonymous 1:32

You are missing the point - US is already defeated.
There are now, never will be, and never could be any winners in Iraq.

The entire fetid ghoulish bloody costly Bush government horrorshow in Iraq is a grievous CRIME against Iraqi's and America, and there is, never was, and never will be any possibility of anything like victory or success in Iraq.

Defeatists and apologist fanaticas partisan parrots of the Bush government want to frame this horrorshow in terms of staying the course as some kind of unknown unknown victory or success in some unknown unknown future, FAILING by the way to define or desribe what, or when that nebulous shapeshifting conjuring of victory or success might might be, and FALSELY framing any other alternative approach or alternative as defeat, and giving in to the "evildoer's.

This pathetic and childish rhetoric belies the factbasedrealities.

Do apologists and fanaticus Bush government partisan expect the rest of the civilized world and those of us in America who are capable of reading, - that Iraqi's are going to storm American beaches, or suicide bomb the local Home Depot if America redeploys out of Iraq.

If so, then America is already defeated, since our half a trillion dollar a year defense industry and $44bn a year intelligence apparatus can or would allow by these defeatist scenarios enemies with no air or sea power, with no major weapons infrastructure, to infiltrate America shore's and attack American cities without being discovered, captured, or killed.

I've go ten guy's in Brooklyn that would protect Kings Highway to death, before submitting or succumbing to this kind of nonesense.

The Bush government disinformations warriors, sloganeers, and war profiteers intentionally DECIEVE and TERRORIZE Americans with PATENTLY FALSE assertions and conjurings that have no basis in reality.

The complicit parrots in the socalled MSM dutifully and obediantly regurgitate these ridiculous partisan fictions and myths in lockstep unison, and NEVER bother to ask the most BASIC QUESTIONS, or EXAMINE the most BASIC FACTS.

Are terrorists so easily capable of attacking America if our soldiers redeploy out of Iraq. If so then how in godz name is that possible? How are evildoers (excuse me while I laugh my ass off) or socalled terrorists capable of so easily infiltrating and attacking America (no matter what happens in Iraq)
without our government, or intelligence apparatus being alerted to, or aware of these operatives, and operations?

And then why, and how is it possible that our half a trillion dollars a year being poured into the socalled defense industry, and the forty-four billion allotted to blackworld budgets are committed or wasted by our government and your fascist leadership Anonymous 1:32 who are by your constructs incapable of defending America Iraqi's with no air or sea power, and little than AK-47's, RPG's, IED's.

I challenge your math, your strategies, your grasp of reality, and your ethics?

Please defend your defense of the fascist warmongers and profiteering staying, and/or escalating the course in Iraq?

I triple dare you!!!!!
Nick, Nick, Nick ... it is not about truth or being right--although to be fair I've read most of what you've written over time and you've also been wrong on some occasions too ...

But here's your real problem. Look at Eric Alterman's latest column where he bemoans how people who were cheerleaders for the war continue to be treated as media stars. We have a media culture today that looks for spokesmen, not for analysis, and everyone needs to have a patron.

Nick, your problem and your magazine's problem as I see it is that you say that white is white and black is black for everyone. I think that some of those who left your magazine left because they had no problem when you held a mirror up to the unrealism of the Clinton team but didn't like that same mirror held up to the Bushies. So it's getting sort of lonely for those who want to dispassionately analyze foreign policy. What people want is for you to "attack" the other team and praise your team to high heaven.
Dr. Gvosdev,

The problem, of course, is the nature of the strategic consequences you describe. Some of them are subtle and lack flagrant symbolic threat. With others, such as Iran, limitations on U.S. power are not clearly understood, so it is possible to pretend that no choice exists between "Victory in Iraq" and successful confrontation of Iran.

A useful article would be a detailed analysis of exactly what limitations the U.S. presence in Iraq inputs upon the confrontation of Iran's nuclear program - for example. Assuming, of course, that you wish to use Iran as the most useful item to leverage a U.S. exit from Iraq. Personally I think that this represents a good example of how the media universe unwittingly leads us to try to fix the last mistake by starting the next one. I cannot deny Iran's symbolic value.

Still others, such as Al-Queda, have plenty of symbolic value, but again, Iraq's negative consequences on pursuing them do not themselves have a clear symbolic standard-bearer. In fact, a situation has arisen where prosecution of the U.S. war in Iraq effectively hides its own consequences from an anti-terrorism perspective.
Only another successful attack on the US during the Iraq War could genuinely advance the idea, executed from outside of Iraq, that we pursue one at the expense of the other. Or, perhaps there is some other way to visually and concisely provide physical evidence of this perceived truth. If you think of it, you should do it.

I'm not sure a retrospective documentary would be enough.
Jordan W.

What do you mean by "symbolic value"? How and why is that concept related to power and exercise hereof in he context, of - say Iraq. I confess that I cannot follow you.

I am not sure that OBL is interested in attacking US - hasn't he already avenged the "Towers of Beirut"? Would not he now be concentrating elsewhere?
anonymous 8:18:

When I refer to "symbolic value", I am following a chain of thought that begins with

"Good strategists know that you have to pick and choose battles." - quoting from Nick's response.

In the prior paragraph to that, Nick rebuts the idea that a withdrawal from Iraq represents harm to U.S. Security by describing some other areas of the world where our level of conflict in Iraq alledgedly impedes a vigorous response. He specifies Iran and North Korea's nuclearization, Al-Queda's continued persistence, and strategic gains made by "other major powers".

My response to him concerned the difficulty of galvanizing the American public to threats beyond the counterinsurgency in Iraq. When I speak of "symbolic value", I refer to the greater or lesser extent to which US relative loss of competitiveness and/or security in non-Iraq policy areas can be put on a television screen and used to whip U.S. politicians towards bringing the counterinsurgency in Iraq to a close.

Iran has a high symbolic value for motivating US policy, as does Al-Queida.
As for "avenging the towers of Beirut" I see no evidence to suggest that Al-Quieda has abandoned its messianic goals of causing spectacular damage to the United States in order to rally Muslim support for a regional sharia superstate. He might indeed be concentrating efforts in other states - then again, he might not. I can't speak with certainty, but I think it would immensely reckless to rule out further strikes on the U.S. Osama Bin Laden has a lot of things to avenge since Beirut.

There's only one organization with any recent pattern of multiple attacks against US citizens. In my opinion, Al-Queida stands by itself on the first tier of US security concerns.
Jordan W.

Thank you for your clarifications, much obliged.
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