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March 30, 2007

The inaccurate assumption of competence dodge

By Brian Beutler

From his op-ed in The Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer engages in what one might call "the inaccurate assumption of competence dodge":

Of all the arguments for pulling out of Iraq, the greater importance of Afghanistan is the least serious.

And not just because this argument assumes that the world's one superpower, which spends more on defense every year than the rest of the world combined, does not have the capacity to fight an insurgency in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan. But because it assumes that Afghanistan is strategically more important than Iraq.

Well, I would venture that the argument assumes "the world's one superpower...does not have the capacity to fight an insurgency in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan" because, quite simply, the world's one superpower does not have the capacity to fight an insurgency in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan. That, Dr. Krauthammer, has by now been borne out empirically. The same argument also assumes that Al Qaeda leadership is more likely to be found in Central Asia than in the Middle East. And, of course, it implies the small point that there was an actual moral case to be made (and there remains public support) for overthrowing the Taliban.

Being a doctor, though, Krauthammer presents a "thought experiment":

Bring in a completely neutral observer -- a Martian -- and point out to him that the United States is involved in two hot wars against radical Islamic insurgents. One is in Afghanistan, a geographically marginal backwater with no resources and no industrial or technological infrastructure. The other is in Iraq, one of the three principal Arab states, with untold oil wealth, an educated population, an advanced military and technological infrastructure that, though suffering decay in the later years of Saddam Hussein's rule, could easily be revived if it falls into the right (i.e., wrong) hands. Add to that the fact that its strategic location would give its rulers inordinate influence over the entire Persian Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf states. Then ask your Martian: Which is the more important battle? He would not even understand why you are asking the question.

I think if I were a martian, what I would actually suggest to Krauthammer is exactly what he imagines I (a martian) ought to suggest. Iraq is important. Stay in Iraq. Then, after doing my part to keep the world's one superpower gasping and bleeding and unable to protect its allies or fight its enemies, I'd return to Mars to organize an invasion of my own.

Cross Posted at Brian Beutler

March 30, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

It's interesting how Iraq hawks can belittle the notion that the war is about oil when it comes from opponents of the war, and then turn around and argue that we have to stay in Iraq because of oil.

From the neocon perspective, Krauthammer is basically right. Calling Afghanistan a backwater is a bit of an overstatement, but Iraq is strategically more important - which is why the neocons wanted to control it in the first place. Krauthammer basically admits in this paragraph that the alleged mission of spreading democracy to Iraq is just window dressing. He says:

"... its strategic location would give its rulers inordinate influence over the entire Persian Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf states."

Which seems like a pretty straightforward way of saying that the US has to control Iraq because it will give us inordinate influence over the entire region. Which was the point all along.

Posted by: Jason | Mar 30, 2007 9:53:55 AM

> because, quite simply, the world's one
> superpower does not have the capacity
> to fight an insurgency in Iraq as well
> as in Afghanistan.

Well, it _does_, but doing so would require national committement, tax increases, a draft, and termination of pure-pork DoD contracts in favor of beans and bullets. None of which Krauthammer or his fellow travellers are willing to discuss much less support.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Mar 30, 2007 10:06:37 AM

Of course the US has the capacity to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. We could fight in Iran, too if we wanted. Hell, we could fight right across from the Mediterranean to India if we wanted to. Just start up the draft, impose some real war taxes, turn the industrial base from cars and passenger planes to tanks and fighters, and get this country on a real war footing. And let's get ready for a few thousand dead soldiers a week, like in a real war. After all, this is WW IV, isn't it?

On the other hand, if we want to fight with a peacetime army and we don't want our soldiers to get killed - well, then, we're going to get our asses whipped, aren't we?

Posted by: bloix | Mar 30, 2007 10:10:48 AM

I don't what's weirder about the thought experiment.

That he imagines the war on terror as some sort of objectively and clearly defined conflict that a Martian could understand and advise strategy. Its meant to be vague.

That he imagines if the Martians clearly understood the concept of the war on terror, they would neccessarily see Iraq as a front of the war on terror.

That the Martian that so clearly understands the strategic importance of Iraq, would not, as Krauthammer does not, consider the relative cost and chance for meaningful success in Iraq vs Afghanistan. Understanding strategic importance yes, cost benefit analysis no.

Krauthammmer is committed to believing both that U.S. troop presence in Iraq contributes Iraq being the 'right' hands and leaving lets fall into the 'wrong hands'.
It seems likely to me that the same Shia coalition is going to be in charge either way. But the Martian Intelligence community might know things I don't.

Posted by: ChrisB | Mar 30, 2007 10:23:58 AM

Add to that the fact that its strategic location would give its rulers inordinate influence over the entire Persian Gulf region...

Isn't that really the right's unfortunate blind spot? "Its rulers" are now us. That's the problem. We (or they, if you prefer, but I don't think the left can afford the luxury of such a petty distinction) can't live with the notion of Iraq having its own rulers, and we can't shoot them. So no, I don't know what Fantasy Martians that live in one's head might say about the necessity for being in Iraq. But it's nice knowing that even our weakened state, the Martians know better than to do to us what we're doing in Iraq. ;) They seem to know, better than us, that once in, you'll never find a reason to go.

Posted by: weboy | Mar 30, 2007 10:40:02 AM

"From the neocon perspective, Krauthammer is basically right. Calling Afghanistan a backwater is a bit of an overstatement, but Iraq is strategically more important - which is why the neocons wanted to control it in the first place."

Iraq is strategically more important than Afghanistan if you want to control the Mid-East region, in the manner that imperialist powers have long sought to control the Mid-East region (since, oh, the time of Alexander the Great). If you want to "own" the resources of the region Iraq and Iran are the plum targets waiting to be picked.

In a "war against terror" Iraq (a country that did not send terrorists to attack us) is and always has been less important to reign in than either Afghanistan (whose leaders condoned and actively assisted terrorist groups who actually sent terrorists to attack civilians in the US) or Saudi Arabia (whose people and in some cases leadership support radical groups who fund terrorist attacks against US civilians).

If this is a war for imperial hegemony, Iraq is the juicy target that makes sense to control. If this is a "war to stop terrorist attacks" against the US, attacking Iraq is and always has been a nonsensical move that would only be postulated by either an idiot or a liar.

I always assumed these folks were the latter. With the way everything has been cracking around them lately I'm starting to think that they don't have to be exclusively one or the other.

Posted by: NonyNony | Mar 30, 2007 11:02:54 AM

Some great arguments here, well above what the column deserves.

Mainly though: yes if you provide only select details to someone with zero contextual knowledge, you can get them to agree with anything.

Posted by: Tony V | Mar 30, 2007 11:16:51 AM

What I just love about all these columns, etc., about how we need to stay in Iraq because if we leave something bad will happen is the degree to which they ignore how we got into Iraq in the first place. They seem to take the attitude that Iraq somehow became this anarchic place loaded with terrorists and ignore the fact that it's such a place (exactly the kind of place that 9/11 should have taught us to try to avoid creating like we previously did arming Mujahedin in Afghanistan) precisely because we made it that way! Indeed, according to one argument used to justify the war, we went into Iraq so that it would be like flypaper and would serve as a place to trap a bunch of terrorists (and we then wondered why the Iraqis who were to serve as terrorist bait didn't welcome us as liberators?).

It would be one thing if Krauthammer, et al, were arguing "we broke it, we must fix it" -- but that would beg the question, "who is this 'we' to which you refer? why don't you fix it since you were the people who broke it?". So instead they are acting as if Iraq magically became a cess-pool of anarchy and terrorist-insurrectionists even though it was, from the beginning, if the rhetoric is to be believed, part of the plan that Iraq would be this way?

So why is this not being acknowledged: if you believe the flypaper strategy (and the terrorists in Iraq don't seem to want to follow us back home, as some paranoiacs have indicated -- they seem to be very much focused on "local" issues), what we have in Iraq is exactly what we wanted -- one can argue the admin was not being incompetent at all since it's gotten what it wanted to get. So why does the rhetoric now seem to act as if Iraq magically ended up a mess? Because nobody wants to admit to coming up with such a mean-spirited and horrific idea as the flypaper strategy?

Posted by: DAS | Mar 30, 2007 11:32:32 AM

Why wasn't Krauthammer's Op-Ed piece titled, "Mars, Bitches!"?

Posted by: Jim | Mar 30, 2007 11:34:22 AM

This column's argument runs close to the "of course we can do it, where's your American spirit!?" argument for staying in the Iraq War. Having sufficient zeal only counts if you can get the resources to act on it - the war was never adequately funded, so we've taken on more than we can handle. Nothing wrong with accepting the more modest but more realistic goal of winning Afghanistan.

DU

Posted by: The Mechanical Eye | Mar 30, 2007 11:41:10 AM

As in the other four or five threads on Iraq from the last few days, people focus on what suits them, just like Krauthammer does. It isn't just a matter of what will happen to our defense capacity or whatever if we stay. It's also a matter of what will happen to Iraq if we leave, something liberals seem very content to not talk about, and which the Democratic leadership just makes stuff up about with no complaints from the Left.

Why we went into Iraq is just a distraction at this point. We have to decide based on the current situation.

Do you believe with the Democratic leadership that if we leave, the Iraqis will "stand up" and find their pony? Or are you certain beyond any evidence, and in direct contradiction to what the Democratic leadership and presidential candidates are selling the public, that Iraq will collapse into unrestrained mass slaughter no matter what we do? Then you have your reason to favor withdrawal.

If you find both those positions too evidence-free, then things aren't so simple. Not simple seems very unpopular on the Left right now.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 30, 2007 12:03:59 PM

All of which brings to mind the question, "krauthammer, lying or stupid?" I won't offer "both" as a possible response just to preserve the appearance of not piling on the asshat.

Oh, and speaking of asshats, sanpete, your tripe about liberals not caring about what happens in Iraq is grossly misplaced. In fact, I would opine that liberals were the only people who cared about Iraq in the first place, those same liberals being the ones who favored not invading their country, bombing the shit out of them with "shock and awe" and it was liberals who did not want to occupy Iraq for an extended period of time. It was liberals who did not want to see the Iraqi army disbanded and the chaos that would lead to. No sanpy, that was all loyal bushies.

So my friend, while I agree, if we leave we don't know what will happen at some point, we have to take care of ourselves instead of forever chasing peznit poinies dream for a "free" Iraq (or was it a saddam free Iraq, or was it a WMD free Iraq? or was it something else?).

Since you feel the reasons why we went to Iraq are a "distraction" at this point, I'll ask you then, if we don't know why we went to Iraq, what exactly is the mission you imply we need to stay there and finish? Hard to judge whether to stay or go without knowing why you're there, isn't it?

Posted by: ice weasel | Mar 30, 2007 12:25:22 PM

Weasel, you don't respond to much that I actually said, but you practically argue against yourself. You say liberals do care about what happens to the Iraqis, but we have to take care of ourselves. That's touching, the care of it. But as it happens, I didn't say anything about liberals not caring what happens in Iraq. You run when no one pursues.

You still want to focus on whether Bush/Cheney were idiots to invade. Of course they were, as were the liberals who supported them, one of whom you may well vote for next year. That history is settled. Time to move on to the present.

As I've already explained in some of the other threads currently proliferating here on Iraq, our chief goal now has to be to prevent the mass slaughter and regional instability that will be the near-certain result of our leaving. The Democratic leadership and major Democratic presidential candidates are in lockstep denial about this, pretending that if we leave, the (presently irresponsible) Iraqis will finally stand up for themselves and the fighting will stop. That matches any pony Bush/Cheney ever talked about in its unreality.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 30, 2007 2:01:11 PM

Bring in a completely neutral observer -- a Martian -- and point out to him that the United States is involved in two hot wars against radical Islamic insurgents.

"How my Johnson managed to get stuck in the vacuum cleaner is irrelevant..."

Or, you know, perhaps it is relevant. One major difference between Afghanistan and Iraq is that the rest of the world sees Afghanistan as, to a greater or lesser extent, justified. You could roll over that place and with enough commitment remake it into someplace moderately less crappy.

You have no legitimacy in Iraq. The Iraqis know that, which is why they won't stop fighting and won't accept any government perceived as a puppet. The rest of the Middle East knows that. Your alliies know that. And a large part of the American population is starting to get it.

And you don't have commitment needed in Afghanistan as a result of Iraq, either.

Oh well - perhaps attacking Iran will make everything better.

Posted by: Phoenician in a time of Romans | Mar 30, 2007 2:07:57 PM

our chief goal now has to be to prevent the mass slaughter and regional instability that will be the near-certain result of our leaving.

You're making a huge assumption sanpete. You are assuming that our presense can stop this from happening. Empirically it has been proven that it can not. The slaughter and the regional instability are happening now with us there and will continue while we are there. When we leave things will get better or worse, but the important thing is that they will be able to develop without our involvement. This has two advantages for us.
1) It lets the Iraqis and the regional neighbors find a political equilibirium that doesn't depend on us.
2) It stops the erosion of our military capability that we will need in the furtur.
3) It gives us back the strategic initiative, right now we have lost it and the jihadists; they have us pinned right where they want us.

The Krauthammer is wrong. From an ideological perspective, the war of ideas (islamism vesus modernity), Afghanistan -Pakistan is more important. The Al-Queda leaders are in the Pakistan border areas, not in Iraq. We should be concentrating there. Secondly, the Jihadi's in Iraq have plenty of ennemies in Iraq and in the region who will go after them once we are gone (as they are going after them now). The new Taliban has no one who is willing to take them on in Pakistan. It's up to us. Krauthammer is plain wrong here.

Finally the oil argument is bogus. Oil is useless to those who don't sell it. Iraq's production has been out of circulation for years now, further disruption has been priced in by the market, and new non-Opec sources are coming on line as we speak.

You should google General Odom and read his material.

So the Dems are pretty much smart about this and the Republicans are stuck in the dream palace of the neo-cons. The American public has started to catch on which is why Dems have closed the "security gap" approval ratign in the Pew survey. Common sense.

Posted by: Sceptic | Mar 30, 2007 3:19:59 PM

As I've already explained in some of the other threads currently proliferating here on Iraq, our chief goal now has to be to prevent the mass slaughter and regional instability that will be the near-certain result of our leaving.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Slaughter and instability is nearly certain to follow our leaving, true. But then again, it is also almost certain to follow our staying, our escalating, or refocusing on a different set of enemies inside Iraq, or our doing nothing at all. It has so far.

The Democratic leadership and major Democratic presidential candidates are in lockstep denial about this, pretending that if we leave, the (presently irresponsible) Iraqis will finally stand up for themselves and the fighting will stop.

What exactly are you saying here? If by this you merely mean that people pushing for withdrawal aren't devoting 50 percent or more of their speaking time to the downside of it, well, shame on those politicians for being political. When Ezra writes about national health care I don't expect every post to begin with a lament to the upheaval he would foist on the hard-working folks in the insurance industry, and when a politician pushes a controversial course of action I don't expect him to go into careful detail on all the hazards and drawbacks. That's not denial, it's salesmanship. Maybe I'm just projecting my own opinions onto the general public, but it seems to me like people know that Iraq will stay a mess after we leave, we/I just think it's beyond our power to do anything about.

But if you mean anyone has said that there isn't a downside, that would indeed be dumb or dishonest. Do you have a link?

Posted by: Cyrus | Mar 30, 2007 3:52:01 PM

You are assuming that our presense can stop this from happening.

No, Sceptic, my premise is that there's a realistic chance, even if small, that we can help prevent the worst. You say it's been proven that it can't be done, but you aren't living up to your name at all in that conclusion. A good skeptic would see the reasons to doubt both your conclusion and it's opposite. First, the war and the effort to reconcile the parties in Iraq have been terribly mismanaged for several years. You can't conclude from this that doing it right can't succeed. You also appear to unskeptically assume that there has been plenty of time for the problems there to be settled, which is far from obvious.

When we leave things will get better or worse, but the important thing is that they will be able to develop without our involvement.

It's hard for me to believe that you really believe that's the important thing. I'd say it's far more important whether they end up in an unrestrained mutual slaughter. I agree there would be great advantages for us and them if we just left and everything was hunky-dory, but there's no realistic chance of that. We provide the bulk of the security in Iraq, not only by patrols and such but by threats against certain leaders relating to their militias. Take that away and the result is pretty obvious.

I'm not here to defend Krauthammer, but I disagree with you about which region is more important. But I don't think it matters that much. We fucked up Iraq, and we have an obligation to do our best to prevent it from getting far worse. I think you mistake the reasons the oil is important, but that too is a secondary concern.

So the Dems are pretty much smart about this

I wasn't entirely sure until now that anyone was unskeptical enough to actually believe the Democratic line on this. It's not reality-based at all. It's either delusional or dishonest or some of each. This is too important to be misled about again.

Cyrus, you overlook the obvious. If we leave, things won't stay the way they are now. With just a small fraction of the security left they'll get far worse than they are now. That's the point.

I've already pointed out what's obviously wrong about the line being sold by the Democratic leadership and major candidates. The idea that if we leave, the Iraqis will then "stand up" and be civil and provide security, as though they're just waiting for the chance, and the idea that the fighting will stop, as Pelosi says, or even lessen instead of explode. Both claims are total fabrications, whether from inexcusable ignorance or dishonesty.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 30, 2007 4:59:13 PM

One additional point - 'we broke it, we fix it?'. If somebody raped a girl, and told her father that the rapist was a psychologist, and would provide therapy for the girl, I'd really hope that the father would kill that rapist. I'd acquit him, and even return the gun.

The people making that argument are the breakers, who are just trying to break more.

Posted by: Barry | Mar 30, 2007 5:08:59 PM

All the talk about what will happen following a U.S. withdrawal is more or less pointless. Every claim is either obvious and uncontroversial or purely speculative.

But what is almost always missing from the discussion of what would be best for Iraq is the opinion of the Iraqis themselves. My and your opinion about what would be best is not just less informed; it's not, or shouldn't be, our decision to make.

We owe the Iraqis for destroying their country, and if they want a continued American military occupation, then we should stay, and if they don't, we should leave, according to their timeline.

Posted by: Jason | Mar 30, 2007 5:11:22 PM

The idea that if we leave, the Iraqis will then "stand up" and be civil and provide security, as though they're just waiting for the chance, and the idea that the fighting will stop, as Pelosi says, or even lessen instead of explode. Both claims are total fabrications, whether from inexcusable ignorance or dishonesty.

Is this really an accurate characterization of what Pelosi is saying about Iraq? I can't find any instances of her saying anything like that really. All I've heard her say is that the consequences of staying will be even worse than the consequences of withdrawing. That may or may not be true, but it's not the same as saying that all the violence will stop as soon as American troops withdraw.

I'm not accusing you of making it up; I'm genuinely curious to know what comments you are talking about. If she's genuinely saying that the fighting will stop when we leave, that is obviously a case of unwarranted optimism, or just dishonesty. So much so that I just find it hard to believe that she's actually saying that.

Posted by: Jason | Mar 30, 2007 5:26:24 PM

Barry, that's a cute analogy, but the more accurate analogy would be to someone who tries to help someone without his consent, beaks his legs, and then abandons him. Analogies aside, if you know someone else who's willing to take our place in Iraq and provide the security, I'd be glad to join you in getting them in there instead of us.

Jason, you make a good point, but it isn't as simple as it might seem. There are sizable groups of Iraqis who would glad to see us leave so they can take over all or part of Iraq by force and kill/drive out their enemies. We can't accept a majority wanting us to leave at face value. There are also the government and other leaders there who have something to say about whether we should stay. And, in the end, we must also consult our own best judgment along with that of Iraqis.

As it happens, since the beginning of the war till now, I don't think there has ever been a majority wanting us to leave right away. They've always wanted us to leave soon, but soon hasn't come yet.

I found it as hard to believe that Pelosi was saying what she did as you do, but she doesn't argue merely that drawing down troops will stop the fighting but that it will do it quickly. From her own website, in her speech made in support of the first nonbinding resolution, which called for phased drawdowns and complete withdrawal by next year (the quote is near the end of the speech):

The passage of this legislation will signal a change in direction in Iraq that will end the fighting and bring our troops home safely and soon.

Others have used the same logic she does to argue that drawing down troops will actually improve the situation for the Iraqis so that we'll be able to leave entirely or almost entirely by next year. Not real at all.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 30, 2007 5:52:09 PM

Is there a specific term for how Sanpete argues - that whole (faux?)-naif, hyperlogical, detached from pragmatic (and actual) reality, so proper and pure they clearly shit doves and piss rosewater deal?

Hm. I haven't characterized that quite right. But the regulars here presumably know what I mean. There should be a word, anyway . . .

Posted by: Dan S. | Mar 30, 2007 5:57:15 PM

- though, to be fair, Sanpete does present principled arguments with a fair bit of thought behind them, in marked contrast to the resident trolls.

Posted by: Dan S. | Mar 30, 2007 6:11:33 PM

Maybe "rational" is the word you're looking for, Dan, though I'd quibble with your view that it's detached from pragmatic reality. In fact, being detached from pragmatic reality is what I'm arguing against in this very thread.

Speaking of arguments, and avoiding reality, I think I distilled some of your problem at the end of this thread: insufficient trust in truth.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 30, 2007 6:29:37 PM

The passage of this legislation will signal a change in direction in Iraq that will end the fighting and bring our troops home safely and soon.

Hmm ... that's pretty ambiguous, which is probably the point. A charitable interpretation could be made: e.g., she's saying that withdrawal will eventually lead to an end in fighting - that it will "signal a change" that itself will lead to peace, with a lot of fighting in between.

But it's equally capable of being interpreted exactly the way you did: that withdrawal = peace, which I think even opponents of the occupation have to go ahead and acknowledge might not end up being the case. Nobody really knows what will happen and it's dishonest to suggest otherwise.

Posted by: Jason | Mar 30, 2007 7:01:15 PM

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