Tag Archives: Iraq War

Bill Keller wants to repeat history, which would make him wrong twice.

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 10.20.43 AMScreen Shot 2013-05-06 at 10.21.40 AM


Last night, New York Times columnist (and former executive editor) Bill Keller’s column, “Syria Is Not Iraq,” appeared online. (It’s seen in the above screenshot at right, juxtaposed against equally intellectually-challenged fellow columnist Thomas Friedman’s piece from last year.) As usual, it was a doozy:

As a rule, I admire President Obama’s cool calculation in foreign policy; it is certainly an improvement over the activist hubris of his predecessor. And frankly I’ve shared his hesitation about Syria, in part because, during an earlier column-writing interlude at the outset of the Iraq invasion, I found myself a reluctant hawk. That turned out to be a humbling error of judgment, and it left me gun-shy.

Of course, there are important lessons to be drawn from our sad experience in Iraq: Be clear about America’s national interest. Be skeptical of the intelligence. Be careful whom you trust. Consider the limits of military power. Never go into a crisis, especially one in the Middle East, expecting a cakewalk.

But in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.

Keller concludes:

Whatever we decide, getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.

No, Keller, it doesn’t. Getting Syria right starts with acknowledging how Iraq happened. But doing that would require directly confronting the central role of Keller’s paper in propagating a flimsy and ultimately disastrous case for war in Iraq. Getting over Iraq, to use Keller’s convenient word choice, is a euphemism for allowing the same source that got everything so wrong in Iraq to make the same case for war in another country — again, with no exit strategy or, even, any strategy at all.

Keller argues that our failure to arm the rebels for fear of assisting al-Qaeda is in fact resulting in the same outcome, by ceding ground to the Saudis and Qataris, who are all too willing to assist radicals on the ground in Syria. But what Keller fails to mention is the fact that, after two years of civil war, an American decision to intervene now would raise more questions than it answers and may very well cause a public opinion backlash in the Arab world. Instead of being lauded as saviors, there is at least an equivalent likelihood of rebels asking, “How many lives could you have saved if you’d been here earlier?”

That alone is not a reason to stay away. But the audacity of the clamor for intervention — led by people like John McCain and, yes, now Bill Keller, the same people who so badly misjudged the prospects for success in Iraq — is that it makes the same characterizations about Syria that it did about Iraq. You’d think once would be enough.

Keller writes:

What you hear from the Obama team is that we know way too little about the internal dynamics of Syria, so we can’t predict how an intervention will play out, except that there is no happy ending; that while the deaths of 70,000 Syrians are tragic, that’s what happens in a civil war; that no one in the opposition can be trusted; and, most important, that we have no vital national interest there. Obama conceded that the use of poison gas would raise the stakes, because we cannot let the world think we tolerate spraying civilians with nerve gas. But even there, the president says he would feel obliged to respond to “systematic” use of chemical weapons, as if something less — incremental use? sporadic use? — would be O.K. This sounds like a president looking for excuses to stand pat.

This is a sickening, absurdist paragraph. “Looking for excuses to stand pat?” In Keller’s conceptualization, then, war is the default option, and Obama is doing somersaults in an attempt to evade his natural obligations. But this is simply not the case. Obama is perfectly right to observe that no vital national interest necessitates an American intervention in Syria (although he is seemingly less confident on this score than previously thought).

Keller’s not done:

In contemplating Syria, it is useful to consider the ways it is not Iraq.

First, we have a genuine, imperiled national interest, not just a fabricated one. A failed Syria creates another haven for terrorists, a danger to neighbors who are all American allies, and the threat of metastasizing Sunni-Shiite sectarian war across a volatile and vital region. “We cannot tolerate a Somalia next door to Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey,” said Vali Nasr, who since leaving the Obama foreign-policy team in 2011 has become one of its most incisive critics. Nor, he adds, can we afford to let the Iranians, the North Koreans and the Chinese conclude from our attitude that we are turning inward, becoming, as the title of Nasr’s new book puts it, “The Dispensable Nation.”

Again, Keller’s historical — and personal — amnesia, combined with his implicit but entirely unsubtle smearing of prudent foreign policy analysts as appeasers, is appalling. There is no “genuine, imperiled national interest.” The primary reason everyone’s suddenly started talking about Syria is that Israel started bombing it. As always, Israel’s security interests take precedence over our own: where two years of civilian death and suffering elicited little more than yawns and sighs of boredom in living rooms throughout America, a few targeted airstrikes by Israel are amazingly effective at focusing the hive mind.

Keller writes:

But, as Joseph Holliday, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, points out, what gets lost in these calculations is the potentially dire cost of doing nothing. That includes the danger that if we stay away now, we will get drawn in later (and bigger), when, for example, a desperate Assad drops Sarin on a Damascus suburb, or when Jordan collapses under the weight of Syrian refugees.

Yes, let’s go to war now, risking very real American lives, to prevent a hypothetical outcome that may or may not cause mass fatalities in another country’s civil war.

Here is perhaps my favorite line:

Fourth, in Iraq we had to cajole and bamboozle the world into joining our cause. This time we have allies waiting for us to step up and lead. Israel, out of its own interest, seems to have given up waiting.

Israel?! That’s his example? Israel, he may recall, was perfectly onboard with the American invasion of Iraq as well. And why shouldn’t it be? Any half-conscious human being can see the natural advantage of allowing a foreign country to wage war on another’s behalf — including paying the costs in lives and massive budget deficits. Israel can stand pat and let Americans take the heat again, as we’ve been doing for years.

“Why wait for the next atrocity?” Keller asks. Indeed, why? For neoconservative warmongers like Bill Keller, waiting is for appeasers. The case for intervention in Syria, like that in Iraq, recalls the title of the famous post-financial crisis book, This Time Is Different. Each time, excuses and half-justifications are lazily proffered so as to distinguish one hawkish prophecy from its disastrous predecessors. This time, let’s approach the problem differently, instead of feebly attempting to differentiate this potential foreign policy quagmire from another, very real one from the past.


Enhanced by Zemanta

Iraq War anniversary apologies

Courtesy of PolicyMic.com.
Courtesy of PolicyMic.com.

There’s an interesting discussion taking place on Corey Robin’s blog regarding Ezra Klein’s apology for supporting the Iraq War:

Like many people who supported the Iraq War, Ezra Klein has written his apologia.

But he fails to identify—indeed, repeats—his biggest mistake in supporting the war: When thinking of the US government, he  thinks “we.”

Iraq, [Kenneth Pollack] said, shouldn’t be America’s top priority. We should first focus on destroying al-Qaeda. We should then work on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Only then should we turn to Hussein. Moreover, when and if we did invade Iraq, we should do so only as part of a coordinated, multilateral operation…

After all, what other chance would we get to topple Hussein?

It wasn’t worth doing precisely because the odds were high that we couldn’t do it “right.”

Klein doesn’t think a state invaded another state; he thinks “we” went to war. He identifies with the state. Whether he’s supporting or dissenting from a policy, he sees himself as part of it. He sees himself on the jeeps with the troops. That’s why his calls for skepticism, for not taking things on authority, ring so hollow. In the end, he’s on the team. Or the jeep.

I’ve learned a lot from reading the comments. (Now there’s a sentence you rarely see on the Internet these days.) One commenter, Justin, replied:

Maybe I’m too naive, but isn’t the problem that more people DON’T identify with the government? If we identify with the government, then its failings are our failings and there’s more motivation to change things because they’re being done in our names. If we don’t identify with it, then it’s just this abstract entity that we can have nothing to do with, which leads to the government abusing its power because none of us feel responsible for it.

I guess I don’t think it’s a problem that Klein is “on the team” – it’s that most of us aren’t on it and thus don’t have any say on what’s happening.

Another commenter, Ned Ludd, raised a different point:

Because he supported the stablishment position on Iraq, Ezra Klein was able to rise into the ranks of the establishment. Back in January 2007, Jebediah Reed of the now-defunct Radar Magazine took a look at some of the career trajectories of pundits who supported the war (Tom Friedman, Peter Beinart, Fareed Zakaria, Jeffrey Goldberg) and the subsequent careers of vocal opponents of the invasion (Robert Scheer, William. S. Lind, Jonathan Schell, Scott Ritter). If Klein had been against the war, he never would have been promoted from obscurity to the pages of the Washington Post.

All of these points raise the question of how such a calamity as Iraq can be avoided in the future. As The Atlantic‘s Elspeth Reeve has ably demonstrated, the 10-year anniversary edition of self-flagellation for supporting the Iraq War has blossomed so ubiquitously as to necessitate a taxonomy of apology bullet points: “I was but a lowly worm,” “I was fooled by bad intelligence,” and so on.

However, what many such Iraq War apologists and (much later) apologizers seem to have in common is an inability to grasp their deeper failing for directing much of their vitriol at the anti-war crowd and castigating those people (who turned out to be very right in the end) as a bunch of hippies. Freddie deBoer remembers this specifically:

You know, I’m reading all of the Iraq mea culpas, some good, some bad. But they are all systematically ignoring one of the most obvious and salient aspects of the run up to the war: the incredible power of personal resentment against antiwar people, or what antiwar people were perceived to be. As someone who was involved in day-to-day antiwar activism at the time, the visceral hatred of those opposing the war, and particularly the activists, was impossible to miss. It wasn’t opposition. It wasn’t disagreement. It was pure, irrational hatred, frequently devolving into accusations of antiwar activists being effectively part of the enemy. Yet for as visible and important as this distaste was for the debate, it’s missing from the postmortems.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has similar memories:

I am not a radical. But more than anything the Iraq War taught me the folly of mocking radicalism. It seemed, back then, that every “sensible” and “serious” person you knew — left or right — was for the war. And they were all wrong. Never forget that they were all wrong. And never forget that the radicals with their drum circles and their wild hair were right.

And Conor Friedersdorf compiles a roundup of mockery aimed at anti-war protesters before and during the war.

It’s enough to make one wonder if we ever learn anything, at all, from history.

Enhanced by Zemanta

“But the war was politics.”

President George W. Bush addresses sailors dur...
President George W. Bush addresses sailors during the “Mission Accomplished” speech, May 1, 2003. (Photo credit: Wikipedia.)

Howard Fineman takes a look back at the beginning of the Iraq War, whose “shock and awe” campaign began ten years ago on Wednesday:

There were some reasons to expect success, or at least not to accept the dire warnings against invading Iraq. Bush’s critics had predicted disaster in Afghanistan, but in the first year or two after Operation Enduring Freedom, it seemed as though the “war lords” of the Bush administration were tough customers who knew what they were doing.

On the other hand, American ignorance of the Arab and Muslim worlds 10 years ago was alarmingly vast. More than ignorance, there was fear, prejudice and propaganda…

As for me, I could say that I was covering politics, not war, and that it wasn’t my job to try to pierce the veil of lies and “precog” justifications of the Bush-Cheney-neocon axis.

But the war was politics. It was a new battle for the president to be seen fighting as he headed toward a reelection run. I should have known more, studied more, asked more questions and been more skeptical.

I hope I am wiser now. I hope we all are.

Enhanced by Zemanta