Timothy Garton Ash in the LATimes, via Atrios:
"So Iraq is over. But Iraq has not yet begun. Not yet begun in terms of the consequences for Iraq itself, the Middle East, the United States' own foreign policy and its reputation in the world. The most probable consequence of rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in its present condition is a further bloodbath, with even larger refugee flows and the effective dismemberment of the country. Already, about 2 million Iraqis have fled across the borders, and more than 2 million are internally displaced. (...)
In an article for the Web magazine Open Democracy, Middle East specialist Fred Halliday spells out some regional consequences. Besides the effective destruction of the Iraqi state, these include the revitalizing of militant Islamism and enhancement of the international appeal of the Al Qaeda brand; the eruption, for the first time in modern history, of internecine war between Sunni and Shiite, "a trend that reverberates in other states of mixed confessional composition"; the alienation of most sectors of Turkish politics from the West and the stimulation of authoritarian nationalism there; the strengthening of a nuclear-hungry Iran; and a new regional rivalry pitting the Islamic Republic of Iran and its allies, including Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
For the United States, the world is now, as a result of the Iraq war, a more dangerous place. At the end of 2002, what is sometimes tagged "Al Qaeda Central" in Afghanistan had been virtually destroyed, and there was no Al Qaeda in Iraq. In 2007, there is an Al Qaeda in Iraq, parts of the old Al Qaeda are creeping back into Afghanistan and there are Al Qaeda emulators spawning elsewhere, notably in Europe.
Osama bin Laden's plan was to get the U.S. to overreact and overreach itself. With the invasion of Iraq, Bush fell slap-bang into that trap. The U.S. government's own latest National Intelligence Estimate, released this week, suggests that Al Qaeda in Iraq is now among the most significant threats to the security of the American homeland.
The U.S. has probably not yet fully woken up to the appalling fact that, after a long period in which the first motto of its military was "no more Vietnams," it faces another Vietnam. There are many important differences, but the basic result is similar: The mightiest military in the world fails to achieve its strategic goals and is, in the end, politically defeated by an economically and technologically inferior adversary.
Even if there are no scenes of helicopters evacuating Americans from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, there will surely be some totemic photographic image of national humiliation as the U.S. struggles to extract its troops.
Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have done terrible damage to the U.S. reputation for being humane; this defeat will convince more people around the world that it is not even that powerful. And Bin Laden, still alive, will claim another victory over the death-fearing weaklings of the West.
In history, the most important consequences are often the unintended ones. We do not yet know the longer-term unintended consequences of Iraq. Maybe there is a silver lining hidden somewhere in this cloud. But as far as the human eye can see, the likely consequences of Iraq range from the bad to the catastrophic.
Looking back over a quarter of a century of chronicling current affairs, I cannot recall a more comprehensive and avoidable man-made disaster."
Discussion below the fold.
I listened to some of the all-night debate about Iraq. For some reason, whenever I turned on CSPAN, Republicans were speaking, and they talked about a whole range of horrors that would happen if we withdraw. Some seem to me less likely: I think there's a good chance that al Qaeda in Iraq will not gain a permanent base of operations within Iraq, at least not one that will outlast the chaos there. But others are quite likely. There will be horrific violence. Families will be driven into internal or external exile. Al Qaeda will claim victory. And there could well be a regional war.
I think about this, and about the absolutely puerile debate that preceded our decision whether to go to war, and I ask myself: how did it happen that everyone who actually predicted these sorts of consequences was successfully portrayed as a defeatist, a person who just didn't care about the children who died at Halabja or their parents who vanished into Abu Ghraib and were never heard from again, a wimp who preferred staying on the good side of the French (quel horreur!) to facing down bin Laden, or a traitor who must have secretly welcomed 9/11, if indeed s/he had noticed it at all?
The consequences Timothy Garton Ash describes -- or at least, consequences broadly like them -- were predictable at the time. Of course a war against Iran's deadliest enemy in the region would strengthen Iran, especially if it kept American troops pinned down within handy reach of Iranian operatives. Of course a democracy would be hard to build in Iraq, not because "Arabs are not suited for democracy", but because the habits of mind that constitute respect for the rule of law and a willingness to work within an established political system do not spring into being overnight after being crushed for decades. Of course this would play into bin Laden's hands, both by diverting resources and attention away from Afghanistan and by making the story he had been telling about America and its designs on the Muslim world come true.
So why were the people who warned us about this -- James Webb, Brent Scowcroft, and others -- at best ignored, and at worst mocked by people without a fraction either of their experience or of their judgment? Why did so many people choose to listen instead to the likes of Michael Ledeen and Jonah Goldberg? I don't really know, but here are a few lessons I hope we learn.
(1) It seems to me that our country went slightly crazy after 9/11, and one of the manifestations of that craziness was a tendency to say, about anyone who suggested stopping to think about much of anything, that that person just hadn't absorbed the lessons of 9/11, hadn't been there, hadn't fully grasped how horrific it was. Anyone who has even the slightest iota of this tendency should, I think, engrave on his or her forehead: When something truly awful happens, and you find yourself in the presence of real danger, it is more important than ever to stop and think clearly about what you are about to do. The temptations to do something stupid are much greater than usual, and the risks are much higher. Going with the flow and doing what comes naturally might be winning strategies at a party; they are profoundly dangerous when considering going to war. Since the people who do stop and think are likely to be rarer than usual, in moments of national crisis they should be cherished, not abused or slandered.
(2) Never substitute impugning someone's character for impugning his or her argument. This was, if memory serves, a pretty standard move back in 2002: the fact of someone's opposition to the war was taken to be conclusive evidence that that person was not serious about the war on terror, and their supposed lack of seriousness meant that their arguments did not have to be taken seriously. There were, in addition, less obviously circular versions: I recall in particular the right-wing dismissal of Richard Clarke on the grounds that he was obviously a closet liberal after book royalties. The closet liberal made me laugh -- the guy seemed to me to have "Republican: subcategory, national security hawk" written all over him. And the book royalties part was just dumb: it amounts to the idea that no one who ever writes a book can ever be taken seriously again, since whatever they say, it could be that they are saying it to jack up their royalties. The possibility that people sometimes both write books and speak out publicly because they have something they think it's important to communicate, apparently, doesn't need to be taken seriously.
(3) One of the greatest strengths of our country is the fact that we allow debate and dissent. This means that if we choose to do so, we can debate policies before we adopt them, rather than first adopting them and only then, when it is too late, discovering the problems that a real debate might have made apparent. Before we went to war, there were people who were trying to shut debate down by marginalizing or slandering or, in some cases, threatening those who disagreed with them. (Dixie Chicks, anyone?) This is, of course, a hateful thing to do to those people. But it should now be obvious that it is also a profound disservice to our country. We would have been a lot better off if we had stayed true to our ideals of open debate and free speech.
(4) When the rest of the world thinks you're crazy, it's worth entertaining the possibility that they might be right. We should not defer to their judgment mindlessly, but we should have what Jefferson called "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind."
(5) Beware of movements built on contempt. Many of the people who pushed for war had spent decades expressing their contempt for what you might call standard foreign policy -- the kind in which diplomacy is taken to be a useful instrument, not a snare for the weak-minded, and force is a last resort, not an all-purpose tool. Their own views had never been seriously tested (and no, Reagan doesn't count), and many of their spokesmen lacked any serious experience conducting foreign policy. Sometimes, groups of people who spend years muttering about how different things would be if they were in charge are right. Often, however, they are not. Absent a real track record on which to evaluate them, they should be approached with caution.
(6) Think very hard about the lessons of history. For every case like Munich, in which failing to confront a dictator more forcefully led to disaster, there is a Cuban Missile Crisis, in which a leader's unwillingness to make the most hawkish response to a dictator's provocation averted disaster. Trotting out Munich at every possible opportunity only ensures that the next time you find yourself in a Cuban Missile Crisis, your country will be turned to radioactive glass.
(7) Be very wary of extrapolating from the last few wars. The Gulf War, for instance, looked effortless. But that appearance had to be deceiving, like the way a ballerina seems to fly effortlessly several feet into the air, when in fact she is performing an extraordinarily strenuous feat of athleticism. Our success in the Gulf War took tremendous amounts of training, discipline, and technology; but it also took a real appreciation for the limits of military power. Kicking an invading army out of a country in which it is not wanted is something that a good army can do. But there are things that no army, however superbly trained and equipped, can possibly do. One of them is creating a democracy. As Matt Yglesias once wrote:
"There are actual limits to what our troops can accomplish. They're soldiers, not magicians. They can't conjure up a sense of national identity or widespread social support for liberalism."
If the people who argued for war have any forehead left after point (1) above, they should engrave "They're soldiers, not magicians" on it as well.
(8) Never underestimate the value of an exit strategy. By an exit strategy I do not mean the military plans for how, exactly, we might extricate our troops from Iraq, but a way of disengaging without seeming to have been beaten. (In this case, without allowing bin Laden and the Iraqi insurgents to claim victory.) There are times when it's worth going to war without any clear idea of how to explain disengagement as anything other than defeat. (World War II leaps to mind.) There are also cases in which we can get away with assuming that we will not need one. (Grenada.) But in many cases, like Iraq, the possibilities of failure are real enough that we should consider how to deal with them, and the interests at stake are small enough that they are not worth gambling with our reputation for sticking it out until we win. Anyone who watched the last years of the war in Vietnam unfold -- years during which it seemed plain that we were not going to win, and that our leaders knew that, but in which we lost tens of thousands of our soldiers' lives, and God alone knows how many Vietnamese lives in an unsuccessful attempt to figure out how to leave without sacrificing our credibility -- will find the present rhetoric about not handing our opponents a victory familiar.
Far better, when vital national interests are not at stake, just not to get into wars that do not have a clear and achievable outcome. The Gulf War did; we achieved it, and our credibility was enhanced. This war does not, and, as Republicans are fond of reminding us, when we withdraw, al Qaeda and any number of other Islamists will take it as a victory, and will conclude that we can be outlasted. But that outcome is inevitable, unless we are willing to stay in Iraq forever, watching the men and women in our military die, along with more and more Iraqis.
This administration should have avoided it when it was avoidable, either by not invading in the first place or by moving heaven and earth to make our invasion successful. Bush was not sufficiently worried about this prospect when he could have prevented it. He did not seem to notice that we had no plan for the occupation, or that we didn't even have enough troops to guard the WMD sites that the war was supposedly all about, let alone to provide basic security for the Iraqis. He didn't bother to ask whether we were finding the very best people we had to staff the CPA, rather than raiding the Heritage intern pool. That can only mean that he never bothered to ask the most basic questions a President has to ask when success matters so much, both to us and to the Iraqis. Not having bothered to take the most elementary steps to secure success when he might have had it, I find his present insistence on the horrific consequences of defeat galling; and I think that everyone who hears them should think: Mr. President, this is your failure.
(9) In wars, there are very few do-overs, and in occupations there are almost none. Occupations, in particular, are not like, say, Photoshop, where the handy "Undo" feature covers a multitude of sins. They are more like relationships. When I used to work at the battered women's shelter, I heard a lot of stories about husbands who apparently believed that it was possible to undo the past: that having (for instance) cracked a woman's skull against a concrete wall, it was possible to "just start over." (Similarly, many believed that it was possible to cancel out such episodes with a sufficiently large quantity of gifts, romantic dinners, diamonds, and so forth, as though a relationship was like a sum, and breaking your partner's bones was just a very large negative number that required a lot of positive numbers to make up for it.) I always found this attitude puzzling: there are some things that just cannot be erased, though they might be built over, the way a new city can be built on the ruined foundations of an old one.
Similarly, the success or failure of an occupation has a lot to do with the attitudes of the people you are occupying, and there are ways of damaging those attitudes that are very hard to undo. The looting of Baghdad, for instance, probably destroyed for good the idea that America was powerful enough to provide security to the Iraqi people. That idea might have been true had it not been so visibly falsified: after all, if enough people believe that it's not a good idea to break the law while you're watching, lawlessness is much easier to contain. But once it was gone, it was gone. Likewise, a lot of the tactics that we seem to have used early on probably alienated a lot of Iraqis who might have believed in our good faith, and destroyed it permanently. And the damage done by Abu Ghraib was incalculable.
So when I read, say, Victor Davis Hanson, who writes: "While few would believe there is any good news from Iraq, in fact, there is. Finally, we are mastering counter-insurgency", I think: it's great that we are mastering counterinsurgency. It's wonderful that we will henceforth proceed in a way that will not unnecessarily increase the amount of support for insurgents. But to suppose that this will turn things around not just here and there, but in the country as a whole, is to make the mistake of thinking that we can have a do-over. We can't. In war, I think, you don't normally have the luxury of doing and redoing things until you get them right, unless your adversary is either willing to sit still while you experiment or somehow devoid of options. Neither is true here.
We need to get it right the first time. Eventually isn't good enough. If we don't have confidence that a President can do this, we shouldn't go to war.
(10) Just because we're going to war doesn't mean we don't need diplomacy. In the specific case of Iraq, negotiations with Iran and Syria could have been very useful, if only because, had we been smart about it, we could have made clear to those countries that we had no plans to invade them, thereby depriving them of any reason to keep us bogged down in Iraq. (Obviously, we would first have had to get rid of any such plans. If we were going to invade Iraq, we should have: giving neighbors a reason to keep us bogged down is not a good thing.) We could probably have done a lot more, for instance to get their cooperation in securing their borders; but just removing their obvious interest in our having to stay in Iraq indefinitely would have helped immensely.
There are always reasons to engage other countries when one is thinking of going to war. There are neighbors with borders, countries who supply the country one is thinking of going to war with, and all sorts of people who can either help or harm us in innumerable ways. For this reason, we should be doubly skeptical about any war that would be waged by a President whose administration takes the attitude that they just don't do diplomacy.
Offhand, these are the lessons I can think of -- the ones we might use if, God forbid, we ever find ourselves in a similar situation. Do you have others? Any thoughts?