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November 25, 2006

A Discordant Note

(Posted by John.)

A lot of people are linking approvingly to Hagel's piece in the WaPo this morning.  While I'm happy - overjoyed, really - to see any senior Republicans calling for withdrawal, I do have some major disagreements with Hagel's piece.  This is less about the politics, or even the policy, but more about what story America will tell itself after it leaves Iraq.  Here, I think Hagel's narrative has some serious flaws.

Of my two major problems with this piece, let's start with the one in the middle of the piece, where Hagel writes:

There will be a new center of gravity in the Middle East that will include Iraq. That process began over the past few days with the Syrians and Iraqis restoring diplomatic relations after 20 years of having no formal communication. The next installment would be this weekend's unprecedented meeting in Iran of the presidents of Iran, Syria and Iraq, if it takes place.

What does this tell us? It tells us that regional powers will fill regional vacuums, and they will move to work in their own self-interest -- without the United States. This is the most encouraging set of actions for the Middle East in years.

I'm sorry, but since when does Damascus and Tehran extending their control over a failed state in the heart of a vital strategic region constitute "good news"?  How badly has America's influence and power in the world fallen when a Republican Senator is hoping the US Army will be rescued by an alliance of Baathists and Mullahs?

Maybe Hagel is simply acknowledging that the Bush Administration has, in fact, been such a disaster that this is the case.  But I think this is actually part of something else, because Hagel starts his piece with this:

There will be no victory or defeat for the United States in Iraq. These terms do not reflect the reality of what is going to happen there....  We are once again learning a very hard lesson in foreign affairs: America cannot impose a democracy on any nation -- regardless of our noble purpose.

It is understandable that politicians are allergic to even implying that America has, in fact, been defeated in Iraq.  Nevertheless, it's difficult to ponder what else you call it when America fails to find WMDs, fails to eliminate a terrorist haven, in fact creates a terrorist haven, is unable to support it's chosen government, is forced to withdraw from Iraq, and leaves a vacuum which Hagel acknowledges America's rivals (if not enemies) will fill.

The common thread through Hagel's bizarrely optimistic view of the Assad-Maliki-Ahmedinejad conference and the words "there will be no victory or defeat" in Iraq is a desire to conceal the magnitude of America's defeat.  If any country expends billions of dollars and thousands of lives and fails to achieve any meaningful objective, and ends up in a weaker position than when it began, that's a defeat.  Hagel is unwilling or unable to state that plainly, and this is dangerous.

I'm not simply trying to be churlish, here.  It's important for American policymakers to acknowledge the facts of what has actually occurred if they're going to learn any meaningful lessons from this debacle.  Hagel, to his credit, already seems to realize what the lessons are.  But Hagel is speaking to a public audience, and as any addict knows, the first step is admitting you have a problem.  By couching his overall sound counsel in a way that fails to acknowledge the magnitude of America's failure, I worry that he's making it easy for opportunists in the future to say "we could have won, if only."

Hagel notes that America went in to Iraq "with an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam."  It's worth asking why America's arrogant self-delusion survived Vietnam in the first place.  The only reasonable explanation, I believe, is that both the civilian and military leaders in America refused to accept the fact of America's defeat.  The oft-repeated, and totally-irrelevant, belief that America "won every battle but lost the war" is a way of insulating a person from the reality of defeat.  "See, we deserved to win, but [insert excuse here.]"  This may not be arrogance, exactly, but it's a self-delusion designed solely to preserve one's ego, and not to face the facts.

Indeed, the lessons that America seemed to learn from Vietnam arguably paved the way for this disaster in Iraq.  During Gulf War I, the lesson of Vietnam was said to be that wars should be left up to the Generals, and the recent Bush Administration has turned this in to a talking point - Bush evades all responsibility because, he says, he listens to his Generals.

But of course, that isn't the lesson of Vietnam, or certainly not the only one - the Generals failed in Vietnam, too.  The military largely acknowledges that fact today.  It is not enough to learn "a lesson" from a failure, America needs to learn the right lessons from Iraq.  If we are going to be consistent, at least as much blame must fall on the shoulders of men named Franks, Abizaid, Myers and Pace as on men named Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush. 

Dana Carvey once did a fantastic impression of George H.W. Bush, in which he said "America learned our lesson in Vietnam.  Don't go to Vietnam."  By soft-pedalling the reality of America's defeat in Iraq, I worry that Hagel is laying the ground for a similarly disastrous view of Iraq.  And in 30 years, we'll all be here again, as the Jenna Bush Administration gets America bogged down in the occupation of Madagascar.

November 25, 2006 | Permalink

Comments

Much as I hate to defend the Iraq war or the Bush administration, there is a serious problem with your post (most of which I agree with). We DID accomplish one goal in Iraq: Saddam Hussein was overthrown, and the world is better off without him. Now I think a very good argument (one that I agree with) can be made that this one accomplishment doesn't come close to being worth the political damage and the loss of lives and treasure in Iraq, but by failing to even mention Saddam, you poison your whole argument in a way that every Bush-lover will immediately jump on as evidence of "liberal bias."

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD, ARNP | Nov 25, 2006 1:51:48 PM

Is the world better off with Saddam if what we get is a destabilized region? Is the world better off in chaos to get rid of one dictator?

Isn't all this besides the point. The real problem is correctly identitified above- this is about the psychology of America. We got into this, at least emotionally, because Americans, and through our proxies, the neocons, wanted to feel like the city on the hill.

Posted by: akaison | Nov 25, 2006 2:03:13 PM

Rebecca: It remains to be seen whether the regime change will actually stick in a meaningful way. With open talk of an anti-Maliki coup and public prognosticators talking about "unleashing the Shia" (to finish of the Sunnis) I think it's not unreasonable to withhold our optimism on that count.

Saddam Hussein was bad, but (accepting the regime-change argument for a moment) he was war-worthy bad because he was a dictator running a country in a horrible and dangerous way.

If America leaves and all it's done is replace a mass-murdering Sunni dictatorship with a mass-murdering Shia dictatorship (which I think is likely, whether America wills it or not) I think it's fair to say regime change was not actually accomplished. Otherwise, you have to somehow say that Saddam was so intrinsically evil that he had to be killed, even if we simply replaced him with someone equally bad in practice.

Posted by: John | Nov 25, 2006 2:04:40 PM

Oh, and I would object to the phrase "liberal bias" only because I actually think of myself further to the left than most liberals. But America doesn't really have a snappy phrase for "social democrat Canadian bias."

Posted by: John | Nov 25, 2006 2:05:48 PM

A piece of the problem here has not only to do with our psycology but theres. We have successfully installed democracies in places where they did not exist before.

In germany we did it with the help of other occupying allied forces. Although in that case there was a small stint of democracy there before WWII so it may more accurately be termed going back to democracy.

In Japan we did it as well, and there was no prewar example for Japanese democracy. Beyond that we were the only occupying force there.

What was different? Herein is another mistake of the Bush administration, and one that is not ever mentioned. We went straight from crushing their military to handing them ballots in monthes.

In both of our successful examples we occupied solidly beaten peoples. We didnt ask their permission, we didnt seem their opinions. We installed constitutions, hired and fired as we pleased. IF we decided schools were to built then they were, and if not they were not.

Only after years of occupation and priming the political and economic pumps of these countries did we give them any semblance of their own independant governments.

We didnt beat the Iraqis in this war. We beat their military.. Every Iraqi, and many Iraqi leaders like Muqtada al Sadr were able to escape with the feeling that not only had they themselves not been beaten, but more power was handed to them. ..they were free to expand their powerbase without any feeling of responsibility towards us and our military.

There may be no going back at this point after all this talk of a sovereign Iraq. But perhaps if Malaki is overthrown by the Iraqis we should reoccupy Iraq, with more authority and less of a temporary stance.

If we want our interests to be paramount there, to install a government that we think is acceptable we need to do it. Not just remove their leader, start a civil war, then go home and hope for the best.

Posted by: david b | Nov 25, 2006 2:30:23 PM

I worry that he's making it easy for opportunists in the future to say "we could have won, if only."

This is unavoidable, no matter what those like Hagel say. It's obvious to everyone that the war was badly managed. That was the lesson many took from Vietnam as well.

Posted by: Sanpete | Nov 25, 2006 4:55:59 PM

Saddam Hussein was overthrown, and the world is better off without him.

Iraqi women seem clearly worse off now. See also here. I suspect even rape has increased since we invaded. The situation looks bad for gays as well. Sunnis could easily end up far worse off. (It should go without saying that the civilians we personally kill are not better off without Saddam, nor do I get the impression that they would have chosen to pay this price.) As for the world, if you honestly believe replacing Saddam with a second Shia state and fostering terrorism improved the world situation then you must start from some very different assumptions. I assume you meant something else by "political damage".

Certainly some of the people involved had good intentions. A charitable interpretation of President Ward Churchill Bush suggests that he literally thought his God would do all the work if W put himself at the head of the divine parade. Back in reality, W's impatience and self-importance seem to have hurt the cause of freedom in the Middle East badly.

Posted by: hf | Nov 25, 2006 6:48:02 PM

Sanpete: The problem is not, not, not that the war was "badly managed". The problem is that the war could not have been managed well, in the sense that in March of 2003 America could not have engaged in a war that achieved the stated objectives.

The lesson to draw is therefore not that "we could have won without Rumsfeld/Cheney/etc" but rather "we should not have invaded in the first place. The problem with Hagel's piece is that he seems to embrace the first, false lesson and ignore the second.

Posted by: John | Nov 25, 2006 7:21:55 PM

John, I agree that we shouldn't have invaded, for reasons that are obvious now, and were obvious to some before the invasion. Unfortunately, the bad management of the war has muddied that point considerably. That will remain true no matter what peculiar standards Hagel has for victory and defeat, which is something of a different subject. Many who supported the war will acknowledge that we lost (assuming things don't take a wonderful turn), but will still take as the lesson that we lost because the war was badly managed.

Unfortunately, Bush has probably not only made a disastrous decision in invading but has also obscured that fact by doing such a bad job of it.

Posted by: Sanpete | Nov 25, 2006 7:42:33 PM

John: it's a self-delusion designed solely to preserve one's ego, and not to face the facts.

The myth of American rightness and invincibility can't be brought to light, folks. Facts and reality be damned, especially among so-called conservatives - who lost their reality sensor on the bus, subway, or limo.

John: The lesson to draw is therefore not that "we could have won without Rumsfeld/Cheney/etc" but rather "we should not have invaded in the first place. The problem with Hagel's piece is that he seems to embrace the first, false lesson and ignore the second. EXACTLY.

Turmoil and lack of democracy in the mideast Islamic countries well preceded our stupid intervention, and the Shia/Sunni conflict goes back nearly to the beginning of Islam. The cards were there to be read.

Even within Iraq, we (Bush I) knew in 1991 that the Sunnis were repressing the Shia (and "Iraq" (read Sunnis) had previously been at war with Shia Iran for a very long time), and that Iraq was a historical figment of British foreign policy at the start of the 20th century.

There is no Iraq, there never was an Iraq, and it is quite likely there never will be an Iraq.

We just don't know how to acknowlege and act upon the reality that the clay pot is already broken (long ago) into at least three pieces - quite likely more like 5 or 6, so we can't accept the idea that Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Saudi-Arabia (and the other Gulf States) are further pieces of the pot that are cracked but not yet falled out of the vessel.

Nationalism and religious conflict/division are much stronger forces than Islam viewed as a unifying element in the mideast.

When people (like Bush and the neo-cons) ignore and deny history and culture (and brag about it their ignorance), the formula for disaster was perfected.

And, Germany and Japan were both culturally, ethnically and religiously unified societies BEFORE we started post-WWII reconstruction of their governments. There are no examples in those cases at all pertinent to the mideast.


Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Nov 25, 2006 8:43:28 PM

see you in 30, rinse, recycle, repeat, right Fred?

Posted by: akaison | Nov 25, 2006 9:02:50 PM

John -

I think you're reading Hagel entirely backwards. He's making your point, and making it with a more convincing rhetoric. here's the key sentences again, which you picked out:

There will be no victory or defeat for the United States in Iraq. These terms do not reflect the reality of what is going to happen there.... We are once again learning a very hard lesson in foreign affairs: America cannot impose a democracy on any nation -- regardless of our noble purpose.

In other words, America could not win. He says it in a declarative sentence. "America cannot impose a democracy on any nation." He agrees with you.

What Hagel is saying when he says, "there will be no victory or defeat" is exactly what you want him to say. The term "defeat" implies another way, it implies the possibility of victory, if only. That's why the terms victory and defeat don't apply - because to say that the US was defeated is itself what implies that the next time, we'll impose post-invasion democracy the right way.

Posted by: DivGuy | Nov 26, 2006 7:57:50 AM

To clarify: I agree with your post for the most part, and particularly with the peculiar post-Vietnam psychology on display. I simply meant that you need to mention the overthrow of Saddam in your argument, and then make it clear that this wasn't worth the cost. Otherwise, you look like you are distorting the argument to make Bush look bad, by failing to even mention the one accomplishment that the war has produced.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD, ARNP | Nov 26, 2006 4:00:44 PM

David said:
A piece of the problem here has not only to do with our psycology but theres. We have successfully installed democracies in places where they did not exist before.

In germany we did it with the help of other occupying allied forces. Although in that case there was a small stint of democracy there before WWII so it may more accurately be termed going back to democracy.

In Japan we did it as well, and there was no prewar example for Japanese democracy. Beyond that we were the only occupying force there.

... And, later, partially correcting that:
And, Germany and Japan were both culturally, ethnically and religiously unified societies BEFORE we started post-WWII reconstruction of their governments. There are no examples in those cases at all pertinent to the mideast.

Jim's correct as far as he goes, but there's more to it: not only were they unified, but they were democracies. The Weimar Republic and the Taisho Period. Even Italy had a democracy before the wars, albeit very briefly. What david said was just incorrect. This wasn't the case during World War II, obviously, but both Germany and Japan had the institutions of democracy tailored to their own culture and history, and their people and leaders had the experience of resolving problems by democratic means, and they didn't have the sense that an alien way of life was being imposed on them.

I've posted several times in various places in response to that same false historical claim. Partly out of pedantry, sure, but also because I really think people should realize that what America tried/is trying in Iraq has really never been successfully done before in history. Why did Bush think we could? Why did people believe him in the first place? ... But I guess that's what John's original post was about, isn't it.

And about this:
If we want our interests to be paramount there, to install a government that we think is acceptable we need to do it. Not just remove their leader, start a civil war, then go home and hope for the best.

It's hard to know what to say to that, other than, "Imperialism is bad, mmmkay?"

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