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Friday, July 13, 2007

In Case You Missed It: Kurt Andersen on Iraq

In the wake of the administration's report on Iraq, I'd recommend Kurt Andersen's The Great Pseudo-Debate from the July 2 New York Magazine.  Andersen does a terrific breakdown not only of the lack of real debate about our Iraq options, but also about how we as a country handle complex and difficult issues.  Here are some highlights:

It was our weakness for childlike, black-and-white explanation that got us into the Iraq debacle. To the neocons and Bush, the task at hand was simple, like a fairy tale: Saddam was a monster, and destroying his government would be easy, after which the liberated Iraqis could build a friendly democracy. No real thought was given to all that might go wrong. What counted was the beautiful big idea.

The antiwar left’s conviction now that everything will be fine if we simply ship home all our troops is born of a similar impulse, a wishful naïveté so convinced of its own righteousness that it refuses to imagine vast unintended consequences, let alone to anguish over them. Little thought is given to what might happen after we leave. What if, instead of 100 murdered Iraqi civilians a day, the number is in the thousands? What happens if ethnic cleansing becomes state policy? And the Saudis intervene to protect their Sunni brothers from slaughter? And Turkey invades the Kurdish provinces? What counts is the beautiful, big idea.

. . .

Those of us who voted against Bush might like to think that Iraq is all “his” bungle, that we’re therefore free to walk away from the horror show. But we’re a nation, and we’re all responsible for all of our national liabilities. This is not Vietnam, where we hadn’t started the civil war, and where we really did have the power to end the killing by leaving. A more apt analogy, I worry, is the Soviet war in Afghanistan. After the 1979 invasion, the Soviets maintained a force of between 80,000 and 100,000 troops in a Muslim country of some 20 million people divided along ethnic, tribal, and sectarian lines. As General Petraeus said the other day, “I think historically, counterinsurgency operations have gone at least nine or ten years.” The Red Army left Afghanistan after nine years and 14,000 killed in a counterinsurgency war against a mix of indigenous fighters and the foreign jihadi who became the core of Al Qaeda. And six months later, the Soviet empire began to dissolve.

A very thoughtful piece on a difficult subject that is not getting the real analysis it deserves.

Posted by Matt Bodie on July 13, 2007 at 02:36 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Hi Matt: I agree with you that any proposal, military or diplomatic, that purports to promise a solution is likely to be based on unrealistic expectations and fraught with problems. A cease fire/negotiations strategy could well lead to a spike in violence before the cease fire takes effect, as factions seek to maximize their territorial grabs before the talks start. And given the number of factions it's forseeable some of them might keep fighting after a cease fire to gobble up more territory unopposed. Any negotiation-based strategy presumes that the Iraqi parties sufficiently powerful to enforce a peace agreement want to enter one. That may not be true, and as a fundamental matter the violence may be so diffuse and factionalized that it cannot be internally controlled by Iraqis.

You are right to note that there are a host of serious practical problems--which factions get invited to talks, who are the representatives, who convenes the talks. Unfortunately, there are many people who would need to be at the table to make a deal that would stick who could be killed if they accepted an invitation to US led negotiations. The reason that solutions are so unrealistic is that the problem we have created is so bad.

On the point of Iraqi capacity to control the violence, yesterday Prime Minister Maliki said the Iraqi government could enforce security and suggested we could leave whenever we want, and one of his prime aides accused our military of widespread human rights violations and allying with killers. Both suggest that Iraqi politicians perceive it to be in their interest to be pushing us out. Our presence in Iraq seems to be as unpopular there as it is here, which again suggests our presence is part of the problem rather than the solution.

In any event, while a cease fire/negotiation-based approach is perhaps unrealistic in the abstract, we cannot be certain that it would fail because it has not been thoroughly attempted. Military approaches--including an indefinite US presence--are provably unrealistic because they have been failing for four years.

I agree with the premise of those who argue that we have a moral responsibility to do what we can to secure and pacify Iraq, but I disagree that this necessarily means we must commit to continuing to try to do this by the use of military force. Everything about our strategy from the very beginning--shock and awe, mass aerial bombardment, killing of tens of thousands of civilians, indiscriminate detention and random torture of innocents, public executions, razing Fallujah--sends the message to everyone in Iraq that their future will be dictated to them by brute force and by whoever it is who uses force the most ruthlessly and effectively.

They've seen plenty of that before we got there. It's not morally defensible that factions in Iraq have decided to try to rule by violence, but given the history and the present it is an understandable strategic reaction to our brutalitarianism. A lot of people there probably think that whoever fights meanest longest wins, and I suspect that view is shared by our administration. The overwhelming majority of Iraqis want a nonviolent resolution, but we have to think of a way to stop the violence for this public sentiment to be realized. For this to happen, someone has to stop shooting first.

A cease fire/negotiation strategy is a huge risk, but it does have the potential of breaking the spiral of violence by allowing for a solution that is negotiated rather than fought for. The parties in Iraq would have to believe that a negotiated solution is possible and want one for it to work.

I say we try it and come home.


Posted by: Charlie Martel | Jul 15, 2007 11:42:47 AM


Sounds good to me.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jul 14, 2007 10:13:23 PM

Sure. Maybe it's more accurate to say "the mainstream left," "the Democrats," or even the "mainstream media." I hadn't heard about the oil union issue outside the AFL-CIO blog -- I think it needs broader coverage, and it needs to be part of an anti-administration strategy.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Jul 14, 2007 1:24:54 PM

Charlie Martel: Great post, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Matt: Your last post cites the AFL-CIO blog. I don't know if the AFL-counts as "the left" in the world-historical sense, but organized labor is the single largest liberal to sometimes even social-democratic bloc in the U.S. So doesn't that count as "the left" -- by U.S. standards, at least -- making specific criticisms?

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jul 14, 2007 11:04:26 AM

Just as an example, I think the left should be more critical of specifics of administration Iraq policy. See, for example, this:


Posted by: Matt Bodie | Jul 14, 2007 10:31:19 AM

Thanks for these thoughtful comments. Maybe it's the anti-war majority, rather than the "left", that is to blame for the simplicity of the debate. People seem tired of the war, despondent over the chances of success, and sick at seeing people die. And they have the right to be. But I still wish the debate was more than simply "Stay the course" vs. "Bring the troops home." Perhaps positions are more nuanced than this, but that's the focus. That's what the Congressional resolutions are about -- "Withdraw by X date."

Maybe the media is to blame (and we, as media consumers, derivatively to blame) for the oversimplification. I appreciate that there are alternative proposals out there. But there is a tendency, I think, to base these proposals on unrealistic expectations. For example, the proposal that: "we declare a cease fire for a set period, withdraw to safe areas and call for peace talks among the conflicting factions." Perhaps I've been misled, but a cease fire is an impossibility, no? And who would be called to sit for the peace talks? And that wouldn't be bringing the troops home, would it? How long would they stay? How is this different than what we're doing?

I didn't read Andersen's piece as a pro-war piece. I read it as: "Let's have a real debate, not a shadow debate based on unrealistic expectations." He believes that bringing the troops home will lead to even more chaos, more lives lost, more resentment from other countries who think we shirked our responsibilities. Because of this, Andersen seems to think that the next President, Democrat or Republican, will end up keeping troops there longer than expected. But perhaps withdrawal, even with its disastrous consequences, is still better than the alternative -- many more years of fruitless counterinsurgency efforts. And I don't think Andersen would disagree with that. After all, Andersen compares our situation to the Soviets spending nine years in Afghanistan. The Soviets shouldn't have gone in in the first place, but they should have withdrawn in four years, not nine.

If there was some way to withdraw and still prevent chaos, I'd sign up immediately. An international peace-keeping force; peace talks; a true democratic coalition government in Iraq supported by its own army. But none of these seem realistic. I know the country is against the war. And the war was an incredibly bad idea. But what happens next? I agree that Andersen's characterizations of the anti-war left were too broad and facile. But hopefully his article will get people talking more about the specifics.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Jul 14, 2007 10:07:56 AM

Well, for starters, let's be factually accurate. There is not an "anti-war left", there is an anti-war majority. So it is not black or white, or colorable, or true, to paint opposition to the war as ideologically limited. What is true is that right now, the American government is fighting a war against the will of the majority of the American people. So the war is literally anti-democratic. I do not mean democratic party, I mean fundamentally antithetical to principals of democracy because its continuation violates the notion that the people's wishes should be honored on matters of grave importance. That the public's wishes on the war have been defied should be troubling not just to those on the left, but to those on the right--conservatives who believe that the moral primacy of individual freedom requires limited government intrusion on people's lives. There is no more intrusive government decision on life than to end it by ordering people off to kill and be killed. This ought never to be done against the will of the people in a functioning democracy, nor should it be done on provably false pretences by any nation. This week's events seem to give hope that there is bipartisan recognition in Congress that the public's opposition to the war is at least entitled to the courtesy of formal acknowlegement by our federal government.

Other posters have correctly observed that it is specious to claim that those on the left (and by implication the tens of millions of war opponents in the center and on the right) think that withdrawal will make everything fine. It is not sensible to think such a thing, because the war has been such a horrific mistake that it appears that nothing will make everything fine. And that is a tragedy beyond remedy for all nations involved and all people who have, and who will be, killed or harmed. It is not right to charge war opponents with being cavalier about this. However, it is an appropriate moral inquiry to ask whether a government that claims to be fighting a war to benefit civilians, but does not count how many of those civilians are being killed in the war, really cares about the humanitarian consequences of the war. For many of us who opposed the war from the beginning, the possibility of mass civilian casualties was a black and white issue right from the start.

As it is now. I am no military expert so I cannot say whether a US withdrawal will intensify the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Iraq.
But it does seem possible that our departure could stem the violence. The warring factions know that as long as we are there, none of them can achieve a total victory and that our force superiority means that we can cap the level of violence even if we cannot stop it. They also know that sooner or later we will leave. So it makes perverse sense for them to maximize their territorial gains through what force they can use while we are there, knowing they will survive the fighting because we are there as a buffer. Plus, many of them simply want to fight us and stand to gain politically if they are seen doing so. If we leave all that changes. The factions will have to choose between making deals or fighting a brutal war of attrition against each other in which they may be destroyed, because we won't be there to be the ref that stops the fight or the sheriff that stops the brawl. Maybe the factions will prefer a deal because the potential cost of fighting will be much higher. The exception would be Al Qaeda, who, I suspect, all factions would fight, but that serves our interests. While I think more violence is sadly more likely if we leave, the possibility that there will be less hardly seems so ridiculous that it should be dismissed without discussion as Anderson would have it.

There is something else ignored by war proponents who argue about the cost of US withdrawal--the cost of the US continuing to fight. In all the arguments I have read about a looming genocide, or Al Qaeda victory, I have not once seen any assessment of the cost to the US. How many more US troops will die if we stay? How much more of our military, financial and political resources will it cost to stay, and what other things that we need to do to protect our nation's interest will we not do if we stay? How long do we have to stay? No pro war argument that does not address these questions should be taken seriously. Costs need to be balanced as best we can.

And on the costs of war, while Anderson takes so called anti-war leftists to task for blinkered self righteousness, he is pretty morally blithe about who the "we" is that will pay the cost of taking responsibility for stopping all the nightmare scenarios he envisions.
We hear this argument all the time--"we have to take responsibility
for what is happening in Iraq so we have to continue to fight". How long? Presumably, if we are responsible, we have to fight, to borrow Anderson's slur against war opponents, until "everything is fine."

Let's be clear. Unless Anderson or someone he loves is fighting this war, he is not taking moral responsibility for anything if he wants the US to keep fighting this war. He is forcing someone else to take life-threatening and life-taking responsibility, and possibly to die. Again, it goes back to ignoring the horrible cost of war. Let's face it, when you walk around Walter Reed (and I have), the amputees and combat psych trauma victims are not, with few exceptions, New York Magazine journalists, law professors, congressmen, or administration officials. Or their kids. That matters.

Kant wrote that one advantage of a democracy over a tyranny is that, in a democracy, war would be less likely because it could not be fought over the objection of those who would suffer in it. By contrast, the ruling class in a tyranny would be more likely to start wars, because wars could enhance the the rulers' personal glory without exacting any cost, assuming the rulers themselves did not fight. Lincoln made the same point in 1848. Something worth thinking about, perhaps with nostalgia.

To close with some pragmatic considerations. The argument that we ought do what we can to stop a genocide is a morally serious one but again one has to consider logistical feasibility. We can stop a genocide that is being perpetrated by a unitary military force against civilians when we have, as we almost always do, massive military superiority, particularly in air power. It's what we did in Kosovo and threatened with great effect in Bosnia. It's what our military does best--take on another military in conventional battle. It's something we can do quickly and with relatively few casualties.

That is not what we are talking about in Iraq. The killing there is and would be the result of multi-factional sectarian war with some international participation. We won't be fighting one identifiable conventional army, we'll be holding off a multitude of hard to identify militias, paramilitary forces and terrorists, probably fighting many if not all of them in the process. Air superiority won't end the fight.
It will a indefinitely long fight that will result in high casualties, as we have already seen. It's morally excruciating but necessary to ask, even if this awful situation is partly our fault, whether we can stop it by staying. Some instructive standards to use to determine whether a humanitarian intervention makes sense were put forward in the "Responsibility to Protect" guidelines issued a few years back. The guidelines included consideration of whether the intervention would succeed and what the costs would be.

As to whether war opponents have alternatives, Washington Post journalist Jim Hoagland, hardly a lefty or a peacenik, made the useful proposal several months ago that we declare a cease fire for a set period, withdraw to safe areas and call for peace talks among the conflicting factions. Easier said than done, to be sure, and perhaps low key, low visibility negotiations are a better idea than a public conference ripe for grandstanding and assassination. But something along these lines, with the carrot of US aid and stabilization if peace is reached and the stick of a US pullout if not, might succeed.

War opponent Joe Biden, from somewhere around near the left, proposed partition and cease fire. Again, easier said than done, there is a lot of mixing, movement and line drawing that would have to be done, and a partition itself could precipitate fighting over contested areas. But again a serious alternative to continuing to fight it out.

Another thoughtful alternative, this time clearly from the left, was offered by George McGovern and William Polk in Chapter 5 of their book "Out of Iraq". The proposal struck me as a bit optimistic in its financial estimates and assumptions about international support, but the premise that financial incentives coupled with power sharing stabilization might work seems at least worth discussion.

What disturbs me about Anderson's article is that it is a pro war argument dressed in a tuxedo of faux nuetrality and centrism. "OK, we all agree that only irresponsible, self righteous left wingers who don't care about genocide want to withdraw, so let the debate among reasonable people center around how long we will stay. Petraeus says nine years, so let's start with that as a reasonable assumption." War opponents are marginalized and characterized inaccurately to eliminate serious discussion of the real possibility that withdrawal soon is in fact the best thing to do for Americans and Iraqis. It's just not true to say that war opponents do not care deeply about the humanitarian consequences of withdrawal, nor is it true to say that war opponents have not made serious proposals as to how we could withdraw in a manner that stabilizes and pacifies Iraq.

Basically, the pro war argument is that the war is so big a mistake that we can't afford to stop making it. Perhaps it makes sense to stop listening to the people making this argument, many of whom have been wrong all along, and try a different approach.


Charlie Martel

Posted by: Charlie Martel | Jul 14, 2007 1:11:28 AM

Not everyone on the "antiwar left" meets together to chat, so I can't speak categorically. But all the folks I've heard who favor withdrawing troops understand that this probably wouldn't result in a happy ending. They just think it's better than the alternative.

And re-reading the part of Anderson's piece Matt quotes, I'm also surprised at the claim that in Vietnam, we could "just end the killing" by leaving. Is that what happened in Vietnam? In Cambodia?

Indeed, it seems to me a better point to say that some parts of the antiwar left in Vietnam were naive, in believing that the VC were in some ways the "good guys" and that all would be fine if we left. In contrast, today, nobody I know on the "antiwar left" in the U.S. now is rooting for a particular faction in Iraq, thinking that their victory will bring about a government that left-liberals will like.

Finally, I put "antiwar left" in quotes because, contrary to the impression that phrase is intended to leave, something like 2/3 of the country is "anti" the Iraq war at this point. Nowhere near that percentage of Americans are on the left. And I would hate to think Anderson's point was that of all the opposition to the war, "left" opposition is uniquely naive.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jul 13, 2007 11:50:08 PM

Yeah, I'm sympathetic to what I understand to be Anderson's basic point; I'm as mad as anybody about the starting and the management of the Iraq war, but because it was such an outrageous F-up, in both concept and execution, I think that leaving promptly would turn Iraq into a big 1980s-90s Lebanon. I don't think there are any Dem presidential candidates who've been consistently anti-war but also reluctant to pull out....

Posted by: Scott Moss | Jul 13, 2007 8:01:33 PM

It may be that the press has done a poor job of managing the nuances of this debate; I'd be interested, for one, in hearing more about Kucinich's international peacekeeping force. But I doubt we would find many takers. Isn't the Daily Show always making fun of the Grand Coalition? And is Kucinich saying we should take everyone home and then find a substitute force, or would he leave the troops there until a substitute force is found?

More broadly, I think the Democrats have been too reactionary on this issue. Threatening not to fund the troops doesn't seem to make sense. Again, perhaps the nuances of the debate are just not getting through. But I haven't gotten a sense of what the Democrats think we should be doing now, other than bringing the troops home.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Jul 13, 2007 7:10:22 PM

I think what Andersen is responding to is the notion that we need to "bring the troops home" right now, all at once. It may be that such a bright-line position is necessary to create a dialectic with the Bush administration's bright-line position that results in a more nuanced synthesis. But I agree with Andersen that I haven't seen enough of a discussion about what would happen to Iraq if we just brought all of the troops home tomorrow. No doubt, we should not have invaded; but now the question is how to manage our involvement in a country that we plunged into chaos.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Jul 13, 2007 7:02:04 PM

One more thing: in light of Joe's observation, it's ironic that Anderson criticizes "our" -- meaning everyone other than Anderson -- "weakness for childlike, black-and-white explanation." Sure seems like his fairytale straw man leftist is quite a "childlike, black-and-white" figure....

Posted by: Scott Moss | Jul 13, 2007 7:01:43 PM

On a lark, Joe, I checked Dennis Kucinich's position on Iraq (he of the proposal to create a "Department of Peace" cabinet department), and even HE isn't saying "everything will be fine if we simply ship home all our troops"; among several other substantive measures accompanying a withdrawal from Iraq, he proposed an "international security and peacekeeping force to move in," which "the US will necessarily have to fund."

I'm not sure Dennis gets my vote just yet, but even the guy I'd seen as the wackiest of the anti-war lefties isn't quite Kurt Anderson's straw man.

Posted by: Scott Moss | Jul 13, 2007 6:59:44 PM

OK, I'll bite. Who on the "antiwar left" has ever said anything like, "everything will be fine if we simply ship home all our troops"?

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jul 13, 2007 5:33:53 PM

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