November 27, 2006
Did Somebody Say "Cakewalk", Or "Naive"?
Via Glenn Reynolds, I see that Michael Rubin is resorting to "dowdification" of late, which is to say, Rubin takes a truncated quote from my father out of broad context and tries to play pretend that my father thought the Iraq conflict would be, a la Ken Adleman, a "cakewalk." By way of brief background, my father, a 33 year veteran of the Foreign Service, served as the United States Ambassador to both Syria and Israel, as well as Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East and South Asia. He is (or was, as the case may be) on good terms with political figures in the Middle East ranging from Arik Sharon, Bibi Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin to Hafez al-Asad, King Hussein (Abdullah’s father), Abu Mazen and Hosni Mubarak. (Incidentally, Rubin’s caricature of him as archetypal Arabist is wholly unpersuasive—as any of those Israeli leaders, past or present, would likely attest). Regardless and with apologies for being so plain about it, what a class of 1994 biology major from New Haven might think of him likely leaves him rather uninterested, I’m afraid. Still, with Glenn Reynolds entering the fray and calling my father's predictions “naïve” (quite a charge coming from that famed Middle East specialist Instapundit(!)—seemingly always at the ‘aw shucks, sounds good’ ready to link whatever neo-con swill du jour), it appears I have to wade into this recriminatory morass, if for no other reason than to defend a family member I respect.
The item Rubin linked to (over at the giddy spectacle that is The Corner) is this April 22nd '03 Bernard Gwertzman interview of my father. Rubin cherry-picked this portion of the interview:
What we’ve stated in our report is that we should have no illusions; that it’s going to take at least two to three months of a very strong military presence in Iraq to re-establish law and order, get humanitarian assistance going, get the water going, the electricity going, in other words establish the secure premise upon which reconstruction can take place both physically in the country and in terms of political evolution.
Note that the very next sentence (which Rubin conveniently omits) reads “(b)ut there should be a performance-based phase-out of the U.S. military presence,” which clearly indicates that my father more than held out the possibility that we wouldn’t necessarily be in and out of Iraq within 3 months. Elsewhere in the interview, my father states:
In 1991, I was assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs and met with the Iraqi opposition, including people like [Jalal] Talabani [of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] and [Massoud] Barzani [of the Kurdistan Democratic Party], the Kurdish leaders. They told me very directly that while a Kurdish homeland was always in their hearts, they knew that it would be a very risky thing to try to establish a homeland because the Turks would see their national security interests threatened, as would the Syrians and the Iranians, who all share borders with Kurdish populations. So they said, if we had a state and a government in Baghdad, in which we really had effective power-sharing, politically, economically, and culturally, we would opt for that. This is the challenge. Whether we can do that or not, or whether it will be done or not, is a major question.
Hardly “cakewalk” talk, no?
Further, and much more important, Gwertzman was interviewing my father, in the main, because he had recently co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations/Baker Institute report entitled “Guiding Principles for U.S. Post-Conflict Policy in Iraq” (link to (PDF) report here) with Frank Wisner. In this report, which came out before the war, my father and Wisner, among other things, recommended: A) establishing an effective coordinating structure for US government decision making--not just handing that job over to DOD (meaning, for example, the Office of Special Plans Rubin worked in, which proved to perform, shall we say, rather underwhelmingly); B) assuring that forces on the ground were sufficient to assure law and order without which our strategy for post-Saddam Iraq could not be achieved (including importantly making mention that part of this approach meant not disbanding the Iraqi Army, as it would be needed to help serve as guarantor of peace and stability post-conflict); and C) proceeding with caution with regard to not expecting a bonanza from the Iraqi oil sector to pay the costs of reconstruction.
Such specifics aside (of which more below) the very first paragraph of the report, as it turns out, doesn't sound like a "cake-walk" prognostication to me:
Today’s Iraq debate is understandably focused on the run-up to possible military action. However, the question of how the United States and the international community should manage post-conflict Iraq is even more consequential, as it will determine the long-term condition of Iraq and the entire Middle East. If Washington does not clearly define its goals for Iraq and build support for them domestically and with its allies and partners, future difficulties are bound to quickly overshadow any initial military success. Put simply, the United States may lose the peace, even if it wins the war.
Here are more of the relevant recommendations, direct from the report (remember, it came out several months before the Iraq War):
Establishment of Law and Order. U.S./coalition military units will need to pivot quickly from combat to peacekeeping operations in order to prevent post-conflict Iraq from descending into anarchy. Strong U.S.-backing for an emergency government will be needed to fill the vacuum left by Saddam. Without an initial and broad-based commitment to law and order, the logic of score-settling and revenge-taking will reduce Iraq to chaos. The optimal strategy is for the United States to play a superintending role, one that maintains low visibility but is clearly committed to protecting law and order and creating a breathing space for a nascent Iraqi government to take shape. The U.S. role will be best played in the background guiding progress and making sure that any peacekeeping force is effective and robust enough to do its job.
"(P)eacekeeping"? A “commitment to law and order”? C’mon friends, let's not be silly. That was only for Schwarzeneggerian sissies and girlie-men over at civilian DoD, circa '02, didn't you know? “Stuff happens”, after all, and “freedom is messy”, right?
Here’s another recommendation from the report:
Do Not Dismantle the Iraqi Army. Initial efforts must also focus on eliminating the Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard, intelligence services, and other key institutions of Saddam's regime, while preserving the Iraqi Army (minus the uppermost leadership and any others guilty of serious crimes). The army remains one of the country's more respected institutions. How it is treated during the military campaign and after, including the removal of its top leadership, is one of the key pieces of a U.S. strategy. The army could serve as a guarantor of peace and stability if it is retrained in part for constabulary duty and internal security missions. Iraqi leaders whose crimes are so egregious that they can be tried as crimes against humanity must be detained and prosecuted
Next, on Iraqi oil revenue:
There has been a great deal of wishful thinking about Iraqi oil, including a widespread belief that oil revenues will help defray war costs and the expense of rebuilding the Iraqi state and economy. Notwithstanding the value of Iraq's vast oil reserves, there are severe limits on them both as a source of funding for post-conflict reconstruction efforts and as the key driver of future economic development. Put simply, we do not anticipate a bonanza.
Speaking of "prophetic" words, to quote Glenn again (incidentally, I wonder if Austin Bay agrees with the substantive merits of this Reynoldsian juxtaposition, he seems too fair-minded to, at least I'd think?), these cautionary words on oil reserves paying for the reconstruction appear rather far-sighted, no?
I could go on. And on. But notice what the report says. It says oil revenue won’t be able to pay for the Mesopotamian adventure, contra what some at the Pentagon had proclaimed. It says post-conflict management of Iraq must be run via an effective inter-agency process, not just a blundering, hubris-ridden DoD. It says de-Baathification should occur only at the very highest levels, and/or for those directly guilty of crimes, but not whole-sale through middle and lower-ranking swaths of Baathist officialdom. It says we cannot rely on Iraqi exiles, such as the unreliable Chalabi. It says, critically, don’t disband the Iraqi Army.
In other words, it provides sober, intelligent advice, advice mostly not taken, alas, with tragic consequences. Now, just for fun, let’s compare the above with what Michael Rubin was saying back in the day, shall we? To kick off things, here’s Rubin suggesting that the Hashemite Monarchy might be enlisted to help lead Iraq (an idea that would have gone just swimmingly with Sistani, Hakim and Sadr, eh?):
As one drives through the hills near Sarsang in northern Iraq, locals point with pride to the former Hashemite palace (now a hospital) perched on the hillside, while they treat with disdain the ruins of Saddam's ostentatious palaces. Iraqis are not alone in looking back fondly on bygone royalty.Hey look, if "bygone royalty" means fire-brand descendants of distinguished clerics, Michael just might have a point! But seriously, this Hashemite nonsense is really quite rich, no? Time to get serious, and put down the imaginary Gertrude Bell novellas!
Here’s Michael again, sounding overly Panglossian notes I’m afraid, busily poo-pooing those crazy ideas that Iraq might be a bit on the difficult side or such:
If there's an emerging conventional wisdom uniting many of the pundits, military analysts, and former government officials who have taken to the airwaves and op-ed pages in recent weeks, it's that the United States can overthrow Saddam, but it will be messy and painful. In particular, commentators worry that a U.S. assault will bog down in urban warfare. "It's going to involve Iraqis hiding behind civilian populations, ambushing us from the basements and roofs of various buildings, trying to use shoulder-launched weaponry against our helicopters, and making life difficult. We will win, but we could lose a thousand or more people if things go badly," Brookings Institution scholar Michael O'Hanlon told CNN on August 9. One week later in the Wall Street Journal, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft opined that liberating Iraq "would be very expensive . . . and could as well be bloody." And this week a front-page, above-the-fold New York Times headline warned, "iraq said to plan tangling the u.s. in street fighting." But there's reason to believe that these predictions--like many of those that preceded America's military successes in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and the first Gulf war--are too pessimistic.
Or perhaps, too optimistic, as it were.
There’s much more: Rubin again, still ostensibly in la-la Hashemite Restoration and/or Chalabi booster-land, averring that Moktada al-Sadr doesn’t enjoy real grass-roots support!
Most Iraqis recognize that Muqtada al-Sadr is not a true grassroots figure [ed. note: but Ahmad Chalabi is, right?]. He receives money through Ayatollah Kazim al-Husayni al-Haeri, an Iraqi cleric based in Iran who himself is a close confidant of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Is that right? Pray tell more on this point Michael, with special attention paid to events ongoing these past few months in ye olde Baghdad town, OK? Not a "true grassroots figure" eh? Well, in a faith-based alternate universe, perhaps. But for those of us who dwell in reality things look, well, different. As Robin Wright and Tom Ricks report today:
Sadr is so powerful that if provincial elections were held now, he would sweep most of the south and also take Baghdad, said the intelligence officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his position.
Around the same time, Rubin also wrote: “As violence provoked by Muqtada al-Sadr's fringe Jaysh al-Mahdi militia enters its third day, Washington remains in a frenzy of misplaced panic.”
Ah, if only we all had such sang-froid. I feel a frisson of macho thrill just imagining how the stewardship of the ship of state would benefit so! But coolness under pressure aside, Mr. Rubin might want to get out of the predictions business, as in the same article (from April '04) he had written: "In many ways, al-Sadr's revolt appears to be a last gasp from a firebrand radical who has seen his domestic support hemorrhage." And what a "last gasp" its proven!
Later still, Rubin pours on with still more terrible advice, arguing for wholesale, massive de-Baathification, which of course, helped stoke the insurgency and still has it thriving today. What tugged his heartstrings so, so as to become a whole-sale proponent of shock de-Baathification (aside from its “ethnic chauvinism,” of course, favorite shorthand description of Baathism that those of Rubin’s stripe employ so as to facilitate trotting out all those racy Munich '38 analogies)? Well, here was the moment of epiphany, and it was a glorious one to behold indeed:
I became convinced of the need for de-Baathification when I accompanied an Iraqi friend into a repository of Baathist-party documents hidden under the shrine of Michel Aflaq [ed. note: A Christian Arab, fyi, for those who insist on hysterically gibbering on about "Islamo-Fascism" and the Gates of Vienna being crashed anew etc etc.], the man who, inspired by European fascism and national socialism, founded the Baath party in 1944. Amid musty books and scattered documents, an Iraqi scholar showed me a ledger containing the names of every secondary-school child, notes about his ethnic and sectarian background, and political details regarding their extended family. Marks next to names indicated that that child would be blacklisted upon graduation. Baathist schoolteachers, at least those in the upper-four levels of the hierarchical party, were not benign opportunists as Brahimi alleges, but rather the enforcers of one of the world's most evil regimes.
Oh those horrid, horrid schoolteachers (well, only the "upper-four levels" of them)! To the re-education boot-camps with all of them, post-haste!
And then, just for the comedic factor, there is this recent speech where Rubin uses the “N” word (no, not that one, rather the one I thought had been de facto banned by the hyperbolic herds that constantly harp on about the dearth of will at Foggy Bottom and Langley and other enemy encampments, or tut-tut on about their Manichean world-views to impressionable types so as to reduce complex regions to grossly dumbed-down 'good vs evil' narratives, that is, when not busily issuing that jingo-rallying call that excites them all so--real men go all the way to Teheran and Damascus!):
With violence and insurgency continuing in Iraq, television footage often presents the situation there as grim. Television cameras do not lie, but they also do not show the full perspective. Stability and security are lacking, but the situation in Iraq is more nuanced than it at first appears. Problems are complex. Some may be the unavoidable part of the transition from dictatorship to democracy, but many other setbacks are the results of Coalition mistakes which are correctible.
Ah yes, “nuance”. And thanks for letting on that "problems are complex". Indeed, they are. But spare us too much corrective, remedial action Mr. Rubin, no matter how complex the problems might appear, as I fear your policy recommendations will only make matters worse. Anyway, I could go on (really, there's a seemingly endless amount of bogus fare masquerading as high-brow policy recommendations to pick from), but I think we've all had enough, no?
Now, a word or two of clarification here. The point is not to comb through Rubin’s prolific ouevre to be mean, nor to embarrass him publicly. God knows, anyone searching through my archives will doubtless find much blush-inducing fare. But I’ve at least acknowledged my mistakes, including in hindsight gross errors of judgement, and at least I feel remorse (which isn't to say I expect Rubin to submit to an auto de fe and prostrate himself on a town-square overlooking the Potomac begging for forgiveness, but a smidgen of a mea culpa would not be unwelcome, and it would even show some character, dare I say). Further, at least I understand that our foreign policy is in need of critical course corrections (and not of the hitting the gas-pedal variety so as to create even more severe blunders). So I would never, ever be so arrogant as to mount a full-scale broad-side against a bipartisan task force trying to salvage something coherent from the Iraq wreckage—especially if some of the policies I feverishly advocated helped lead to it.
But no. For the neo-cons, like Trotskyites of yore, they are always right if only we had pursued their course without any deviationist cowardice (airstrikes on Iran, Damascus!, no to Bremer’s (so horrid!) “re-Baathification”, all A-OK if only we had handed the keys straight-away to Chalabi! and so on). At the end of the day, Glenn Greenwald sums it up much more succinctly than me:
Seeking input from the neocons on how to solve the Iraq disaster would be like consulting the serial arsonist who started a deadly, raging fire on how to extinguish it. That actually might make sense if the arsonist were repentant and wanted to help reverse what he unleashed. But if the arsonist were proud of the fire he started and actually wanted to see it rage...even more strongly -- and, worse, if he were intent on starting whole new fires just like the one destroying everything and everyone in its path-- it would be the height of irrationality for those wanting to extinguish the fire to listen to what he has to say.
A final word, to anyone who has stuck with me through this lengthy screed. Look, we're in an awful situation in Iraq right now, and I think this country needs to try to come together some and focus on constructive policy recommendations given how grave the situation is. Therefore I am in favor (and of course I am biased, as my father is involved) of at least giving the Baker-Hamilton Commission a fair chance at producing their report (without cheap pot-shots) and seeing if the broad centers of both parties can perhaps broach their differences and unite via the ISG on a plausible way forward.
Predictably, the Baker-Hamilton Commission is getting hit from both the Left (who view it as a fig-leaf for a 'peace with honor' type withdrawal that will delay the immediate troop withdrawals they favor) and the Right (where fevered total victory types like Rubin see the Commission as a defeatist, appeasement-loving stab in the back that will cheer jihadists from Jakarta to Alhambra). In an era that seems a long, long time ago--politics were supposed to stop at the water's edge. That bipartisan tradition appears to be mostly (if not wholly) dead, of course, but now we find ourselves in the worst jam since Vietnam overseas and we really need to start pulling together in serious manner in the face of major strategic challenges. This is not to say we cannot air our differences, debate is the life-blood of our democracy, and it is imperative. But let's at least try to be constructive (which isn't to say I've not been guilty of broad-sides not infrequently, but I do try to balance them with contributions to the policy debate, and I've seen precious little of Rubin attempting to suggest credible policy alternatives of late, rather than carp rather unpersuasively from the sidelines).
This, in a nutshell, was the main reason I was so disgusted by Rubin's drive-by preemptive strike on the Baker-Hamilton Commission--not only because of the gross display of arrogance in criticizing those trying to put out a fire that many of his ideological fellow-travellers played a key part in setting alight (to use Greenwald's analogy)--but also because he spent so much time busily poisoning the well (see his aspersions of various ISG study group members in the linked piece) rather than being at all constructive. In a word, it was low, but these days, par with the course, I guess.
Note: Emphasis added throughout.Posted by Gregory at November 27, 2006 07:16 PM
About Belgravia Dispatch
Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.
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