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June 20, 2005

Iraq: The Conversation We Need
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Suzanne and Juan Cole weigh in today on the "whither progressives/whither Iraq" debate that's been going on among progressives on the Hill, in the journals, and just about everywhere else for several months now.  The debate itself is important and will be even better the more we hear the voices of people who actually know something about Iraq, reconstruction, democratization, and pacification.  Suzanne rightly points out that there are some questions of fact (what the intelligence community calls "checkables") that should influence our decision-making. 

Meanwhile, though, this debate among progressives needs some ground rules.  We are getting near a fever pitch where we train our biggest guns on each other (see the comments sections for any of the posts referenced above) and not on the knaves/fools who got us into this mess.  At the end of the day, our "out now" wing is going to have to work with our "stay the course" wing to elect progressives and, ideally, to manage our foreign relations in the Middle East and elsewhere.

My first five ground rules:

1.  Don't impugn the military. I haven't seen this happen much yet, but blaming the military for what the policy-makers sent them to do is one aspect of Vietnam that we should not repeat.

2.  Don't use terminology that makes everybody look bad.  "Cut and run," for example, imputes cowardice to people who genuinely believe that getting out now is the smartest thing to do.  Besides, it helpfully reminds observers that progressives are "supposed" to be weaklings when it comes to the military -- thus harming progressives on both sides of the issue.

3.  Sometimes it's wise to criticize.  While progressives get our policy house in order, we shouldn't let the debate drown out our critique.  If I read the papers right, more foreign fighters are now flowing into Iraq, which suggests we don't control the borders; and commanders are playing a shell game with insurgents, "clearing" a town but then evacuating it only to see insurgents move back in.  Some big corrupt practices cases are underway, I believe, and meanwhile the Pentagon is getting ready to promote the military officials who oversaqw Abu Ghraib?  This is incompetence in strategy, incompetence in staffing, incompetence in managing our global public image -- incompetence that risks the lives of our servicepeople.  Polls say the public is starting to get it.  This is no time to let our critique get drowned out by our own arguing. 

4.  First principles.  I believe that we all agree that the US should not have permanent bases in Iraq, and should say so; that Iraqis, and no one else, should control Iraq's oil; that US activities in Iraq should promote the dignity of Iraqis, not debase them; and that large numbers of American troops should be in Iraq as long as the US has vital concerns there that cannot be protected through non-military means, and not one second longer.

5.  Unity, unity, unity.  At the end of the day, Americans are going to want a competent team who can get our soldiers home safely AND preserve our national pride and interests.  The country needs to see that progressive arguments come from a base of agreement (see no. 4) and that we are capable of working together as impressively as we slice each other's arguments up.

Are we?


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Holy Woodrow Wilson, Batman. Heather Hurlburt of the Center for American Progress foreign policy affiliate proposes first principles on Iraq: "I believe that we all agree that the US should not have permanent bases in Iraq, and should say so;... [Read More]


While agree with the general spirit of your proposed ground rules, I disagree with #1: Don't Impugn the Military. Certainly the troops on the ground deserve sympathy for being sent at the wrong time, in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons, to complete an ill-defined mission without the necessary resources. But the military should not be immune from criticism--especially when the Pentagon continues to conduct counter-productive missions (responding to small or perceived threats with overwhelming firepower, acting on poor intelligence, killing & wounding as many innocent civilians as insurgents) with poorly prepared troops (lacking translators, intelligence & liaison with local friendly tribal groups). To compound these operational problems, the Pentagon has adopted many of the same disinformation techniques that brought it so much discredit as the Vietnam conflict fell to pieces: it gives us body counts, says each new offensive is a brilliant success, overstates the combat readiness of native forces, understates the level of indigenous unrest, witholds or lies about what it feels is damaging information such as the number of civilian deaths, plumps up events such as the 'rescue' of Jessica Lynch into grand heroics.... The list of dumb and/or mendacious acts by the Pentagon could go on much longer. These certainly require criticism. Wearing a uniform doesn't give you a free pass.

That's not impugning the military, that's criticism of political and strategic choices made by, often, Pentagon civilians. One can criticize military strategy; I think the warning was against blaming or mistreating individual soldiers on the basis of higher-ups' bad actions.

On re-reading my comment above and the original post, I fear I may have commented in too much haste, or too much heat. Hurlburt's rule #3 can be read as softening, even contradicting, #1. Indeed, #3 contains within it a criticism of the military. Still, I would do away w/ #1. If it is clarified to restrict only the reflexive blame of any and all things military, from the brass to the enlisted men, it becomes less misguided but more superfluous, merely a warning against becoming the Right's caricature of a the Left. A caricature is, by definition, a gross distortion of reality; distancing one's self from it only gives it credence.

I agree strongly on #1 through #4, and even though I disagree for the moment (until we have a clear "winner" in this debate and/or a presumptive Democratic nominee in 2008) on #5, I agree that we should try to keep our debate constructive and civil.

The problem I have with #5 at this point is that progressives have some very deep disagreements on how purist we should be about our idealism, or whether it should maybe be tempered by at least a dose of "realism." You mentioned that it would be nice to have the debate informed by "people who actually know something about Iraq." Well, that's been exactly the problem -- the Truman Project folks have implicitly bought into the neoconservative post-9/11 idea that "the Middle East experts were wrong," and that we should just go in and forcefully promote our values, without trying to ascertain what the people we're trying to impose them on actually think of that. People who were genuinely knowledgable about Iraq had predicted quite accurately what was going to happen -- the Shi'ite fundamentalists winning the election, the latent civil war, etc. Instead, our government chose to believe "Iraqi democrats" like Ahmed Chalabi, who told us exactly what we, neoconservatives and progressives alike, wanted to hear -- Iraqis want "liberal democracy." Iraqis are a secularized people. Iraqis don't want close ties to the clerical regime in Iran. Now we have a fiasco on our hands, and after the smoke clears, it's pretty clear who the ultimate winner will be, in realpolitik terms --> Iran. And by allowing folks like Ayman al-Zawahiri and the rest of al-Qaeda to point to an actual American conquest and occupation of an Arab/Muslim country, we've helped drive a much larger part of Arab/Muslim public opinion toward such jihadist ideology. Again, plenty of knowledgable people were predicting this back in 2002. It was pretty obvious.

And as Richard Clarke pointed out in yesterday's New York Times magazine, having the bulk of America's ground combat power tied up trying to clean up the mess in Iraq (or getting ready to deploy for it) has constrained our ability to respond to genuine threats like that posed by North Korea.

The high level of American public support that the Iraq war initially enjoyed was predicated on the original mission -- to prevent the emergence of a nuclear threat. That sort of "hard" national security rationale enjoys "hard" public support. When it became clear that there wasn't a nuclear threat there, the public still supported the mission of trying to stabilize and build democracy in Iraq, but that is, by its nature, a much "softer" support. When it begins to sink in that the majority of Iraqis don't want us there, and that the secular democrats we'd vote for ourselves didn't win many of *their* votes, people start to question the mission. Is it really worth a "generational committment" to build "liberal democracy" there, as opposed to defining more realistic objectives? (I'm not, for the record, of the "out now" camp -- I'm for trying to stabilize it, but lowering our sights and setting realistic objectives, leaving open the option of withdrawal if it becomes clear that they can't be met.)

The reason this debate has to happen is that it goes to the core of our worldview and how this applies to defeating our #1 near-term problem, jihadist terrorism -- are we going to put blinders on and imagine the world as we would like it to be ("liberal democracy in the Arab world"), or are we going to deal with the situation which really exists? (I'd vote for Ayman Nour too, if I were an Egyptian, but if you really believe he has more support than the Muslim Brotherhood, I have a bridge on the Nile to sell you...)

Democrats don't need "Strong. Smart. Principled (but naive)." We need "Strong. Smart. Practical."

That's the crux of the debate here. Again, just to be clear (and as I've said on TPMCafe previously), I'm not opposed to democracy promotion as a policy tool -- we just need to quit projecting our own desires onto the people we ostensibly want to help, and start trying to make a genuine effort to understand how they view our efforts in this regard.

Ultimately, this debate will be refereed by the American public -- with elected officials reading the polls and trying to satisfy their constituents, with Democrats selecting a nominee in 2008, and with (fingers crossed, but hopeful!) a Democratic transition team hiring a good team of officials for the new administration in late 2008-early 2009.

We'll see how it turns out, but my prediction, given where public opinion is headed right now, is that the "Truman National Security Project" isn't something you'll want to emphasize when you send them your resume....

Very well said Heather.

It seems that calling for Rumsfeld's replacement would be one thing we can all agree on, even with many leading Republicans.

It does not impugn the military but instead places blame where it is deserved. Rumsfeld was perhaps the last man in America to recognize that an insurgency was taking place and that security in Iraq is an issue.

Sen. Hagel recently said that "The White House is completely disconnected from reality" on Iraq. This is largely due to Rumsfeld.

Sen. McCain said long ago that he has lost confidence in Rumsfeld, and much of the nation is disgusted by the prisoner abuse and Rumsfeld's lack of effort to stop it or replace it with effective interrogation procedures.

---"I believe that we all agree that the... American troops should be in Iraq as long as the US has vital concerns there that cannot be protected through non-military means"---

I was with you up until this. What does this mean? We will always have vital concerns in Iraq as long as they have oil, but if the country is headed towards anarchy -- as Sy Hersh and others have argued -- and our military is unable to prevent this, does this mean that our military should stay in the crossfire? I hope you'll clarify this point, Heather. I liked the rest of the post.

BTW, did you see Kevin Drum's post "Double Down or Fold in Iraq?" He argues that it's clear we don't have enough troops there now, and we can't increase our troops strength for the next couple years:

--"If this is true — and it seems to be — the logic of the situation is inescapable: since we're in an unwinnable situation with the troops we have, and raising more troops is impossible, we're asking soldiers to die for nothing. The obvious answer is to pull out of Iraq..."--

I'd be interested to hear your response to this.

Here's the problem:

Most every statement from CENTCOM is a lie. So unless you read between the lines, there is no way to understand that the US is in serious trouble in Iraq.

I think "stay the course" is morally dishonest. You don't see Peter Beinart getting a commission as an infantry officer, do you? They have to admit that there is no way to stay the course and the collapse of the US Army is at risk.

The people who want to "stay the course" want other people to do that for them. They have to admit that if they won't go, other people won't go either and make that clear. The volunteer Army is not getting enlistments. We cannot continue on this course. We need to find a way out.

If they know a way to get more people into the military when they won't join, the Army would love the information.

We need to have a deeply honest conversation here, and the first thing to say is that no one wants to go to Iraq to save this policy.

More equipment shortages:

The elephant in the room is named Rumsfeld:

*"This is incompetence in strategy, incompetence in staffing, incompetence in managing our global public image -- incompetence that risks the lives of our servicepeople" -Heather

*"...The list of dumb and/or mendacious acts by the Pentagon could go on much longer..." -ambivalentmaybe

*"That's not impugning the military, that's criticism of political and strategic choices made by, often, Pentagon civilians" -Judah

"The people who want to "stay the course" want other people to do that for them" -Steve Gillaird

I was commissioned an infantry officer, and still am.
" The volunteer Army is not getting enlistments" is, of course, simply not true, and exagerating for effect does little good. "The Army has not gotten enough enlistments in the last six months to meet its quotas for a increased (by 30K) force, although this shortfall is slightly less onerous based on its above quota retention numbers" is true. And the other services, including the Marine Corps, are meeting both recruiting and retention quotas. And retention in the Army (don't know about the other services) among Iraq veterans is higher than non-Iraq veterans.
Unless you were in the Army from '72-'82, I doubt you are familiar with what a collapsed Army really looks like--such as a 42 man infantry platoon with 16 bodies, three of which were awaiting travel to Ft Leavenworth after being convicted of selling heroin. Compared to that, the Clinton 40% cut had significant impact, but did not collapse anything. Nor, IMHO, will Iraq. And I see too few references to the impact of economic conditions on recruiting; one of the big factors in getting the Volunteer Army up to strength was the recession induced by the second oil shock in 79-80 which reduced civilian employment opportunities.
I apologize for being long, but I think thevalue and utility of this blog is great, and don't want to see it go down a path leading to untenable positions (the Army is collapsing/We can't militarily respond to the North Koreans).

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