Sunday, May 27, 2007

Quiz time

A few days ago, a guy named Dale Franks had some "Questions for Our Liberal Friends" about Iraq addressed to "people like Oliver Willis." While some (such as Atrios) greeted the questions with "a contemptuous snort," Willis (who, I note, I stopped reading quite some time ago) tried to treat them respectfully. So I figured, why not get in on the fun and offer my own reactions. The questions and my answers follow; the questions have been edited slightly for space but their meaning is unchanged and none have been omitted.

- I have questions to which I'm curious to hear the answers. I'm not asking in a snarky way. I'm honestly interested.

No, you're not, you're posing what you imagine to be a bunch of "gotcha"s to advance an ideological position. At least be honest about it. Nonetheless, I'll take your gotchas on - primarily because showing there is no cha to be got will itself be useful.

- Let's dispense with silly arguments about whether we should've gone into Iraq in the first place. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. We are there. What do we do now?

Right off the top we can see where this is going. The roots of the war, the conduct of the war, all of that is off the table. Actual, existing right-wing screw-ups must not be mentioned, only hypothetical future left-wing screw-ups can be discussed. This is about serious consideration of Iraq? How do you propose to discuss where we should go from here without any consideration of how we got where we are? In fact, you don't; you hope rather to be like a prosecutor whose witnesses are never cross-examined. That may be useful on a partisan political level, but it's idiotic on a practical one, an example of a blatant refusal to learn from, even to admit the existence of, your mistakes. (Flashback to Shrub being stumped by the question about what mistakes he might have made.)

Still, I think we now understand the ground rules, so we'll plunge ahead.

- What do you think the result of an American withdrawal would be?

Since the rest of the questions are really expansions on this one, I'll leave it aside in favor of answering the rest except to note that it's unnecessary to ask the companion question of what the effect of continuing present policy would be since we've seen its results so far: chaos, civil war, hundreds of thousands dead and wounded - oops, wait, sorry, we're not allowed to talk about right-wing fiascos. Reality is out of bounds.

- Do you reject the "you broke it, you bought it" idea?

Yes. Period.

Okay, not period. Maybe semicolon. First, in the real world a better formulation would be "you broke it, you fix it." But "fixing" what you "broke" by definition can't involve breaking more stuff. Last December, in response to something I posted about the Iraq Study Group, I got this, very much along the same lines as your question:
When my kid messes up I don’t tell him “Oh, just give up and walk away.” I tell him “Go back and fix what you broke and let’s get it right.”
To which I replied:
I’m prepared to assume that “fixing it” does not involve first stomping on the broken pieces and smashing several more items into the same pile. But that is exactly what “fixing” Iraq with more troops and more combat means - except that in that case, the broken pieces are actually human lives which can and have been by the hundreds of thousands “broken” quite literally beyond repair.

And if we’re going to throw silly analogies around, I’d remind you of the old line about when you’re stuck in a hole you’ve dug, the first thing to do is to stop digging.
We have a moral responsibility to undertake a massive reconstruction and humanitarian relief effort in Iraq - but that can't be accomplished in the middle of a war. The best way to meet that responsibility is first to stop digging, that is, stop making things worse - that is, get out militarily. Then, be prepared to go back in, in civilian mode, as soon as the opportunity arises.

- I'm not opposed to punitive expeditions when they appear necessary, but punitive expeditions have never been a liberal "thing".

Suggesting that withdrawing from Iraq would turn the whole mess into a mere "punitive expedition" is absurd. Interestingly, though, the bombing Clinton inflicted on Iraq in 1998 much better fits the description of a "punitive expedition," which you say is not a "liberal 'thing.'" I'll remember that the next time some idiot right-winger wants to hang "even the liberal Clinton" around my neck for some asinine reason.

- Do you think the Iraqis will find a way to cobble their state together?

Actually, yes I do although I don't think it will be easy or pretty. I do know it will be much more likely once the Shias realize they can no longer count on US forces to prop up a Shia-dominated government and they'll have to make real compromises. I do, however, think it will be a federalist rather than a centralized system; any attempt to enforce a dominant central government would probably lead to Kurdish secession.

- Do you think it will descend into a civil bloodbath?

A deceptive and misleading question. It is already a civil bloodbath. The insistence of the government, the media, and especially the war-loving wingnuts on turning a blind eye to that fact is appalling.

So the real question should be if I think Iraq will descend into a worse bloodbath. I fear that initially it would.

- Why don't we have any responsibility to try to prevent it?

Because we can't. All we could do would be to temporarily repress it and that only by establishing a reign of brutality and terror that would make Saddam's Iraq look like Sweden. The hatreds our invasion unleashed are long-standing ones which the decades of Saddam's rule obviously did not cool. Unless you are proposing turning all of Iraq into one huge US military base to be patrolled in perpetuity, the idea that we can "prevent" a civil war, especially "prevent" one that has already started, is nonsensical.

I have said this before: Our leaving will not stop the violence. But the violence will not stop until we leave.

- What if Iraq turns into a Taliban-like cesspool, and becomes a base for terrorist operation against the US?

"What if?" Is there a more tendentious way to start a question? It's a way of suggesting anything and everything without having to offer any rational foundation for it. What if your grandmother had wheels? Then she'd be a wagon.

But I'll try anyway. First, I'm not sure what a "Taliban-like cesspool" means; during the Taliban reign, Afghanistan had relative quiet and stability for the first time in some years. This is not to defend the Taliban (although the US found it quite defensible when it was a convenient tool for tying the USSR down in Afghanistan. Wait, sorry, bringing up factual history again. Sorry.) but it is to wonder exactly what is meant by "cesspool."

Assuming the question is actually supposed to be about the supposed risk of Iraq becoming a terrorist "base," the chances are actually quite slim and the comparison to Afghanistan is feeble at best. First, al-Qaeda had been in Afghanistan, fighting the Soviets alongside the mujahadeen, for some time. It was well established there and, more importantly, well-connected to the government that emerged when the Soviets withdrew. Neither is true in Iraq.

Further, al-Qaeda is Sunni. Iraq is majority Shi'ite. Strong links to the government are, to put it politely, unlikely.

Third, even according to the US military, the number of so-called "foreign fighters" in Iraq is a relatively small portion of the resistance. And there are clear indications that they are not popular among Iraqis, who tolerate them only because they are opponents of the US occupation. Rather than creating a "base" for terrorists, our withdrawal from Iraq is more likely to see the Iraqis, who have seen enough of outsiders, turn on those other outsiders and say "Thanks for the help, but it's time for you to go. Now."

Fourth, there is another important point here: the implied equation between "terrorist" and "Islamic fundamentalist terrorist," as if there is no other kind. Well, strictly for and limited to the purposes of this discussion, I will stipulate that that is what we both mean by the term. But we must never forget that Eric Rudolph was not an Islamic fundamentalist. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were not Islamic fundamentalists. William Krar was not an Islamic fundamentalist. The Alabama militiamen are not Islamic fundamentalists. This list goes on.

- Do you think that the Iraqis can build a stable, functioning democratic state? If not, why? Are they not suited for democracy? If so, what are their deficiencies?

There are a great many assumptions in this question revolving around what constitutes a "functioning democratic state." I strongly suspect you mean one that looks a lot like us. But what about, say, Iran? We tend to - like to - forget that Iran has a functioning parliament which includes members of opposition parties who were freely elected. (The problem the opposition has is having candidates well-known enough to have a good chance of winning who can obtain approval to run from a board - one dominated by the mullahs - that screens them.) If Iraq came out looking like that, would that be a "functioning democratic state?" Or what about Afghanistan, which has a constitution containing a provision that says that no law can contradict Sharia law? Is that a "functioning democratic state?"

So given that the term is open to interpretation and variation, can they "build a stable, functioning democratic state" of some form or another? Yes. Will they? I have no clue. A lot of your questions seem to demand guarantees of things unknowable, a demand which you are not willing to apply to yourself. I do know that for most nations throughout history, achieving a "stable, functioning democratic state" has been the result of a struggle over time, a struggle that rarely if ever proceeds smoothly or in a straight line. And I know it is almost never successfully imposed from the outside. Yes, there have been examples - think Japan after World War II - but they are better regarded as the exceptions that prove the rule. And in the case of Japan, there was a pre-existing government which after its military defeat cooperated in maintaining order and in the creation of a new government, conditions which do not apply to Iraq.

As for the Iraqi deficiencies in this area? Just one: inexperience.

- Will it embolden terrorists?

A few individuals, I expect it will. Overall, no. Why should it? Seriously. That's the question that never gets asked. "Embolden," a word that almost owes its existence to current right-wing paranoia, is always assumed; it's always, as a friend of mine used to say, "proved by blatant assertion." Any terrorist group or leader or organizer or whatever, looking at a US withdrawal from Iraq, would reasonably conclude "Okay, in the short run this can look like a good thing. In the longer run, it's bad." For a couple of reasons why, see the following answers.

- Will our withdrawal make it more or less likely that terrorists will marshal forces for another 9/11 style attack? Why?

It'll make no difference one way or the other. Again, why should it? What is it with this nutso notion that having 150,000 troops in Iraq somehow makes it physically impossible for any terrorist group to make any plans to do anything anywhere else? How can you even get a grip on such a completely moronic concept?

- Will a withdrawal from Iraq help or hinder the Global War on Terror?

To the extent that the phrase War on Terror(c)(reg.)(pat.pend.) has a discernible meaning, withdrawal will help. Our invasion of Iraq was a positive boon to every terrorist group in the entire region and perhaps beyond. It has been terrorism's recruiting poster. And now it emerges that it has turned into a cash cow for a resurgent al-Qaeda. Our military presence in Iraq is actively harming efforts to combat actual terrorism.

- Do we need to make an effort at all, other than some Special Ops stuff here and there, and intelligence, prevention, and law enforcement operations?

You make it sound like "some Special Ops stuff ... intelligence, prevention, and law enforcement operations" are not really trying. But contrary to the Jack Bauer fantasies of the right, the patient, steady work of intelligence and investigation has done and will do more to prevent and limit actual terrorism than all your bombing sorties combined. Ultimately, terrorism is a law enforcement issue. (Especially true if we go to a rational definition of "terrorist" rather than the artificially limited one used here.) And the traditional methods of law enforcement - that is, minus the secret prisons, the "enhanced interrogation techniques" (my new favorite euphemism), the expanded Traitor Act powers to invade privacy, the invasive, intrusive, rapidly-expanding databases, and so on - are the best weapons we have.

- What would be the US's military role after a withdrawal from Iraq?

In Iraq? None, except potentially for logistical support for future reconstruction and relief. Here? Pretty much what it was (or rather should have been) before the invasion: defense.

- Does the US military have much of a role beyond repelling an invasion?

Not really, no. Historically, it's role has been more to push US power outward and to protect US economic interests abroad than to "defend freedom." Remember General Smedley Butler's statement that
[w]ar is a racket. It always has been.

It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.
He also said
I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. ... And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. ...

Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
Yes, there have been arguable exceptions to that rule. (You did notice I used the modifier more rather than solely in describing the military's role over our history, yes?) But not many. And now that you've brought it up, why don't we start thinking about alternative defense?

- Are we doomed to fail at achieving anything worthwhile in Iraq?


- Why? Is it something organic to Iraq, or simply a problem with the current president? Would another administration be able to achieve some reasonable level of peace and stability?

Because it's too late and has been all along. Because - you know, the hell with this "shoulda, woulda, coulda" being off the table crap and especially the hell with the bilge that it's a "silly" argument - because we blew it as soon as we invaded, an invasion I'm willing to bet you endorsed, which is why you want to avoid talking about it. Because we "broke it" beyond our ability to fix. Because we are invaders and occupiers and seen as such and will continue to be seen as such. Because our presence there has not contained civil violence, it has unleashed it. Because our presence there does not prevent conflict, it provokes it. Because our presence there does not reduce terrorism, it generates it - and, if terrorism can be defined as inflicting violence on innocent civilians in the pursuit of a political agenda, our presence there often enough is terrorism.

Is it a problem with this president? Not solely: We must not forget Madeline Albright's infamous comment that the deaths of an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children as the result of sanctions was "worth it" to oppose Saddam. But this administration, with its ignorance, its monomaniacal obsession with Saddam Hussein, its power lust, its stubbornness, deceit, and hubris, its stupidity, has increased and continues to increase the problems geometrically.

Would a new president be able to change that? Only by getting out. It's not Bush that's at fault, it's the policies. Any administration pursuing those same policies would have wound up at the same place. Of course, it's hard to imagine any other administration doing so.

- One final question: What if you're wrong? Keep in mind that you are essentially betting the future of left-liberalism's credibility on national security on the outcome of that policy.

You sound like a lawyer for Microsoft trying to instill FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). Don't actually say there will be some dire consequence of a given course of action, of straying from the "stay the course," just suggest the possibility and let the other side's imagination do the rest.

Of course, like I've already said, there are no absolute guarantees on the future - something your side learned with its slam-dunk cakewalk. Or, rather, would have learned if you weren't so determined to avoid doing so. ("Silly argument" and "shoulda, woulda, coulda" indeed.) But your "bet" is one I'm quite willing to make with but one stipulation: By even laying it out you are admitting that by your own argument, right-conservatism's credibility on national security is already busted, because it has been wrong, wrong, and wrong again, with tragic consequences for thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of Iraqis, as well as squandering and continuing to squander hundreds of billions of dollars, actually advancing the interests of international terrorism, undermining our moral authority around the world, and creating a moral debt for reconstruction in Iraq that will take decades to repay.

- So, other than sunny optimism, what assurances can you give that the consequences of quick pullout from Iraq will be relatively painless?

You are in no position to accuse anyone of "sunny optimism" and the reference just shows how little those of your ilk actually listen to what's being said to them by their political opposites. Who the hell said anything about "relatively painless?" Because of practices and policies pursued by your side of the argument, there are, as has been widely said from this side, no good choices for Iraq. There are only less bad choices. The least bad choice is to get out as quickly as possible, aware of the pain that will follow, aware of our own role in creating that pain, and standing ready to do what we can to heal the wounds as soon as such healing is actually possible.

Those are all the questions asked, those are my answers. Now to wrap up, some questions for my conservative friends.

- What do you think the consequences of staying in Iraq will be? How many do you think will die in the next month, the next year, the next five years?

- Considering that one classic definition of insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting a different result, how can you argue that "staying the course" - and for all the talk about "new directions" and "surges" and all the rest, they're just minor variations on the same theme - is a rational plan?

- In fact, given the spectacular record of failure marked up by the right wing and the neocons since before the war began, how can you expect any argument, any prediction, any claim, any rant about "they're a threat to your children" to be taken seriously?

- Since you get to ask "what if" questions, so do I. What if Iraqis don't want to have a "stable, functioning democratic state" of a form of which you'd approve? Then what? I know it's a nice, safe, notion, one that makes us feel comfortably superior, to imagine everyone in the world wants to be at least more or less just like us - but what if that's not true? What if their notion of "freedom" does not encompass "democracy" as we would understand the term? What should we do then?

- Finally, other than sunny optimism, what assurances can you give that not pulling out of Iraq quickly will not result simply and solely in more pain, more suffering, more destruction, more loss of life and resources and moral standing and money and security, both here and there?

The bottom line is that despite your understandable desire to avoid "shoulda, woulda, coulda" discussions, there is an established record here, one more than clear enough, more than long enough, to shift the burden of proof: It is not up to us to justify pulling out of Iraq. It is up to you to justify staying, a justification that cannot rely on tales of the coming of the boogeyman, tales which did not have any rational relation to the invasion of Iraq and do not have any rational relation to continuing the carnage going on there now. That is a burden of proof you have not, and I am confident that before an impartial jury you could not, meet.


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