Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Historians on the War

[posted by Callimachus]

A good, rollicking discussion here between Max Boot and Geoffrey Wheatcroft.

Needless to say, I'm mostly in the Boot camp, and find many of Wheatcroft's comments factually odd ("...deposing Saddam was specifically not the reason we were told we were going to war"), airily condescending ("Could I possibly have touched a raw nerve?"), and contradictory (After having quoted Lear's ""The worst is not, So long as we can say, 'This is the worst' " he then reacts to the title of Christopher Hitchens' column "How to Avoid a Bloodbath in Iraq" with "Hello? To avoid? To avoid what?").

As for Boot, here are some of his highlights:

The dreadful outcome in Iraq has seemingly validated the naysayers, of whom there were many before the hostilities started (though not nearly as many as you would think; a lot of prewar hawks have magically become birds of a different feather). It's all too easy to say, Why didn't the administration listen to those who warned that an invasion of Iraq would turn out to be a disaster? Perhaps because many of these critics were Chicken Littles who had been making dire predictions before every American military intervention of the past several decades. It is all too easy too forget how many seemingly respected voices warned of disaster before the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. While congenital optimists have been discredited by the recent turn of events in Iraq, congenital pessimists were discredited by the course of earlier wars. This helps to explain why the Bush administration didn't give greater credence to voices critical of the decision to invade Iraq. Explain, but not necessarily excuse.

Senior administration policymakers should have been able to listen to critics who had good ideas about implementation even if they disagreed with the fundamental decision to go to war. I am thinking in particular of people like retired General Tony Zinni, a onetime Central Command chief, who had prepared earlier plans for military action in Iraq and was happy to share his expertise with the administration. But he wasn't seriously consulted because he was seen as an enemy of the Bushies. There is a tendency in every administration to separate the world into "us" and "them," but it proved particularly costly in this case because the president and his senior aides failed to consider the full range of scenarios and to prepare for worst-case outcomes.

And this:

Since you want a clash, I'll oblige by taking exception to Geoffrey's casual slur: to wit, that this war was "dreamt up" by "zealots." I know this has become part of the accepted mythology, but is this really a helpful way to characterize such disparate and distinguished supporters of the invasion as Fouad Ajami, Peter Beinart, Paul Berman, David Brooks, Eliot Cohen, Ivo Daalder, Les Gelb, Vaclav Havel, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff, Martin Indyk, Robert Kagan, Zalmay Khalilzad, Bernard Lewis, Michael O'Hanlon, Ken Pollack, Dennis Ross, Natan Sharansky, Tom Friedman, George Will, Fareed Zakaria, and the editors of the Washington Post, Daily Telegraph, and Wall Street Journal? To say nothing of politicians like Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid, Dianne Feinstein, Chuck Schumer, John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Jose Maria Aznar, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Michael Howard, William Hague, and John Howard. Are they all "zealots"? What about the overwhelming majority of Americans who supported the war when it began? More zealots? Or were the zealots only those people within the U.S. government who supported the war: the likes of Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, George Tenet, Steve Hadley, and Tommy Franks?

I can't speak for my fellow "zealots" but as someone who supported the invasion—and who, unlike some others, is still willing to admit it—I have always assumed that "genuine democratic elections" in Iraq or anywhere else might well produce outcomes that were "highly unpalatable to Washington." After all, I'm far from happy with many of the actions taken by freely elected governments in Paris, Berlin, Ankara—and, for that matter, Washington D.C. Why should Baghdad be any different? The point that Geoffrey elides is: Was the pre-2003 status quo in the Middle East a palatable one? Obviously not, since it was this status quo that produced the 9/11 hijackers and numerous other terrorists and tyrants. And despite the terrible time we've had in Iraq in the past four years, I am still convinced that in the long run greater liberalization and democratization will change the region for the better. And I'm not the only one. Let me quote an article from the current issue of Newsweek:

"For all his intellectual shortcomings, Bush recognized that the roots of Islamic terror lie in the dysfunctions of the Arab world. Over the last 40 years, as the rest of the globe progressed economically and politically, the Arabs moved backward. Decades of tyranny and stagnation—mostly under the auspices of secular, Westernized regimes like those in Egypt and Syria—have produced an opposition that is extreme, religiously oriented and, in some cases, violent. Its ideology is now global, and it has small bands of recruits from London to Jakarta. But at its heart it is an Arab phenomenon, born in the failures of that region. And it is likely only to be cured by a more open and liberal Arab culture that has made its peace with modernity. Look for example at two non-Arab countries, Malaysia and Turkey, whose people are conservative and religious Muslims. Both places are also reasonably successful economies, open societies and functioning democracies. As a result, they don't produce swarms of suicide bombers. Iraq after Saddam presented a unique opportunity to steer history on a new course."

Which wild-eyed "neocon" penned the preceding paragraph? Doug Feith? Paul Wolfowitz? Bill Kristol? Actually it was none other than Fareed Zakaria, a famous "realist" who wrote a book ("The Future of Freedom") about the dangers of illiberal democracy. But even Fareed realizes that in a region as dysfunctional as the Middle East, a greater dose of freedom is needed.

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