Tuesday, March 25, 2008

It's still the war, stupid.

Two grim milestones over the last week - a five year anniversary and 4,000 American lives. I have been reading through a variety of posts, articles and essays marking the anniversary and analyzing how we got here. Since 70% of Americans supported the war, many of us have reason to reflect on our personal acquiescence in the decision to invade and occupy Iraq.

John Cole simply presents an unvarnished litany of what he got wrong saying "...you get the point. I was wrong about EVERY. GOD. DAMNED. THING. It is amazing I could tie my shoes in 2001-2004." Most notable in this theme is the Slate compilation of "liberal hawks" recalling their support and asking the question "Why did we get it wrong?" Andrew Sullivan participated and explained his high visibility support of the war. Blogenfreude calls the series a "wankfest" and at his Cynics Party cross-post a commenter called the series an exercise in "armpit sniffing". Hard to argue with either assessment. Glenn Greenwald notes "...not a single one of them appears to have learned the real lesson worth learning from the whole disaster", while also noting that not everyone got it wrong in 2003.

Alas, Five years ago I was among the 70% leading the cheers. This post is late and long, and I don't expect many to read it. In fact, I'd encourage you to skip it, as it is self-indulgent, intended primarily as a vehicle for me to understand how I got here from there, and serve as a reminder of how wrong I can be. Since I feel compelled to join the wankfest, I am going to make sure I get the most out of every stroke, and indulge in a detailed look at how my views on the war have evolved over the last five years.

There is no need for me to wonder or speculate about how I felt about the war five, four, three or two years ago. I left a digital trail. I was not blogging in 2002-3 (this blog will be two years old next month), but was an active participant on a political discussion board. One of the blessings (or curses) of being a blogger or a participant on such a board, is that you cannot deceive yourself about your views in the past. All you have to do is dig into the archives and read them. It is not always fun. For this retrospective, I will let my past selves speak for themselves, and follow my trail of digital breadcrumbs marking the path from then to now.

Before the War
This excerpt from a post on February 13, 2003 is a fair summary of my rationale:
"We were attacked. There are more people out there who will attack us again if they are given the chance. It is not acceptable to wait around for it to happen again and sacrifice more American lives just to prove what good guys we are. I have not reconciled whether my libertarian principles are eroding, or if I am simply insisting that our government get better at its primary job of defending our country, our people, and our way of life. In any case, I've made some new choices. I now choose to trust my government. If they say there is a real threat, then I believe them. Our leaders are not our enemies, and get the benefit of the doubt. In this matter, I will consider our elected leaders of both parties as honorable and intent on finding the right path for our country in this difficult time. George W Bush is my president, though I did not vote for him. I trust that our government will do the right thing."
One year later, I was still a Bush apologist, but my views were beginning to change. I was looking for other leadership to take us to the next step. From...

February 11, 2004:
"Now it is 2004. When GWB landed on the carrier and declared "mission accomplished" I took that statement at face value and accept it. It does not mean that the work is done, and it does not mean that soldiers will not continue to die. It does mean there is no longer a foreseeable need for large scale operations like Afghanistan or Iraq. As we move into this next phase, I now think we can be more effective with a president with different set of skills. One with a lighter and more sophisticated international approach, for example. Which is the first reason for my tilt to D. Again, I will not be unhappy if GWB wins, but I now have other preferences - depending on the opposition. I would vote for... Kerry over Bush."
The 2004 Election
By election eve I decided I would be very unhappy if Bush won. From...

November 1, 2004:
"President Bush did successfully command consensus at home in the war in Afghanistan. President Bush did successfully command consensus at home in the beginning of the prosecution of the occupation of Iraq. However, because the stated reasons that President gave for the Iraqi invasion proved to be inaccurate, because the projected outcome of regime change in Iraq has not matched what is actually happening in Iraq today, he has lost the ability to rally the kind of overwhelming support from the American people needed to effectively wage war. Bush has, as a result of the administration's prosecution of the Iraqi occupation, lost the trust and support of close to 50% of the American populace. NOTE: I am not arguing whether Bush "lied" or not, whether he was misled by bad intelligence or shaped it, whether we are winning or losing in Iraq. None of that can be absolutely determined as fact, but none of that is relevant to the core argument I am making or to this unassailable fact: Bush could not today command the same support of the American people as he did at the beginning of the Iraq war.

Try this thought experiment. It is one year from now. The CIA has unearthed actionable but somewhat ambiguous intelligence about Iran or North Korea that requires a military action like that which was mounted against Iraq. Bush comes to the American people to say we must move now. It is clear to me that the distrust is so deep after Iraq, the level of evidence required so high, that Bush would not be able to take the needed action. On the other hand, if Kerry were to come to the American people with the same claim as President one year from now, it is likely that sufficient Republicans will rally round, and sufficient Democrats will be willing to invest their trust in Kerry that we could, as a nation, take the necessary action. I am not saying that Bush is good or bad, better or worse than Kerry. I am simply saying that as a direct result of how the Iraq war was justified and prosecuted, Bush has been emasculated as a wartime leader. We are at greater risk with him in the White House, because 50% of our fellow citizens will not follow him to war. If you truly care about the security of our country, this is reason enough to vote for Kerry."
My concerns over GWB's impotence with Iran in that post proved to be prophetic, and I followed up with another pessimistic look into the future after the election results on...

"I went along with this unification sentiment in 2000 when Bush said almost the identical thing about unifying America. I lined up behind our president after the attack on our country. I supported the military action going into Afghanistan and Iraq. As a reward I find our country run by an administration that cannot acknowledge their mistakes, recognize their complete incompetence in executing the Iraq occupation, that consistently chooses superstition over science in policy, and is wildly, incomprehensibly, flagrantly fiscally irresponsible.

A few predictions for what "coming together", "working together" and "unification" behind this president will bring us (and I pray that I am wrong): By 2008, we'll still have well over 100,000 troops in Iraq. The American death count in Iraq will approach 10,000. The deficit will be significantly larger than it is today. Inflation will be running well north of 7.5%. Fixed-rate mortgages will be at 10% and rising. The dollar will be worth even less against the yen and euro. Instead of the 53% today who feel the US is "going in the wrong direction" (some of whom nevertheless voted for Bush), it will be closer to 70% that think Bush is doing a bad job."
Unfortunately I got more than a few of those predictions right. While I did not spend much time on the board in 2005, as I was frustrated by politics and the war, my views on had crystallized. Before taking a hiatus from the board, I made those views clear on...

March 20, 2005:
"As we approach the two year anniversary of our occupation of Iraq... Why anyone believes that Americans will be any more willing to tolerate a long drawn out guerrilla war in Iraq than we were in Vietnam is beyond me. Perhaps you just had to be alive then to see the similarity to what we are embroiled in now. GWB will be to Iraq what LBJ was to Vietnam. No matter what else he does, he'll be remembered for his failed war policy and thousands of squandered American lives. Just a few more information signposts as GWB drives the USA bus careening down the Highway to Hell. "
The Blog and 2006 Election
In April 2006 I started this blog. While not the raison d’être for this blog, the war in Iraq has, of course, become a major blogging topic. One notable early post was this wishful thinking on July 5. 2006 -"Iraq Independence... Two Years and Out:
"So we are no longer arguing about the black and white issue of War or Peace. The debate is now about these shades of gray:

  • Are we out in 18 months Or 24?
  • Do we have a residual force of 1 Division or 4?
  • Will we have permanent bases in Iraq?
  • How many rapid-reaction troops will be deployed "over the horizon" in Kuwait and elsewhere?
This is the Iraq debate now. We are debating "when" and "how", but no longer "if". We will be out of Iraq in two years."
Apparently new political perspectives and a having a blogging platform for my pontifications did not mollify my ability to be completely flat out wrong about Iraq. I did get a few things right. In other posts I pegged Rumsfeld's future, tried to understand the comparison invoked by Bush between Iraq and Vietnam, explored Colin Powell's complicity, and predicted the Iraq end-game will include Moqtada al-Sadr. Recent events have made that post relevant again.

2008 Election
In January 20o7 I determined to sort through the massing Presidential candidates by scrutinizing their stated positions on the war, before the war. That survey was presented in the post and video "It's the war stupid." :
"President Bush set the stage with the pending "strategic surge" of 20,000 - 30,000 troops into Iraq. The surge in troops means a surge in American and Iraqi casualties. The surge in troops means that we will be refereeing an Iraqi civil war well into 2008. Stay the course in a quagmire, and you stay in the quagmire. The Iraq war will determine the selection of our next President. For the 2008 election, we'll be looking for candidates who inspire confidence in their war making decisions. Which begs the question: Why wouldn't we elect a President in 2008, who was right about Iraq in 2003?"
Even if posting on a blog as widely unread as this one, one creates a record that is not unlike the record of published pundits or more relevant, those who would be President. But unlike pundits or bloggers, the question of exactly what those who aspire to be President were saying in 2002/3 is directly relevant in assessing how they will make decisions going forward.

To that end, I tried to document exactly what all major and potential candidates were saying about the war before the war. My rationale was similar to Glen Greenwald's recent post about the importance of remembering how we got here.

This look back was not about the vote for the "Joint Resolution" in October, 2002. There were many good reasons to vote for that resolution, including a reasonable hope for a negotiated settlement and/or additional action out of the UN. What is important, is what the candidates said or did not say to the American people in the six months before the war started. It was an enlightening exercise, and led me to support Chuck Hagel, then later Ron Paul. Those options are no longer available as we are now down to three choices. So let us close the loop and finish this post where we began, five years ago, and reprise again what our current three candidates were saying about the Iraq war then - when it really mattered.

Hillary Clinton was wrong:
Senate Floor - October 2002
"The only way to change this is for Saddam Hussein to disarm, and I don't think he will. We are in a very difficult position right now... It’s with conviction I support this resolution as being in the best interests of our nation. It’s a vote that says clearly to Saddam, ‘This is your last chance. Disarm or be disarmed."
John McCain was really really wrong:
"The Right War for the Right Reasons" 12-March-03
"Many critics suggest that disarming Iraq through regime change would not result in an improved peace. There are risks in this endeavor, to be sure. But no one can plausibly argue that ridding the world of Saddam Hussein will not significantly improve the stability of the region and the security of American interests and values... Isn't it more likely that antipathy toward the United States in the Islamic world might diminish amid the demonstrations of jubilant Iraqis celebrating the end of a regime that has few equals in its ruthlessness? Wouldn't people subjected to brutal governments be encouraged to see the human rights of Muslims valiantly secured by Americans -- rights that are assigned rather cheap value by the critics' definition of justice?"
Barack Obama was right.
Remarks 26-October-2002
"I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne... That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics. Now let me be clear: I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power…. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him. But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors…and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history."

Standing on the shoulders of what happened in the past, we can now look forward and assess our real choices in the general election and in Iraq. Both Obama and Clinton have given major policy speeches on Iraq in the last week. We'll dig into those in a future post.

I am coming to the conclusion that there is a lot less than meets the eye as far as any practical differences in the Iraq policy of the three major candidates remaining. We know we have to significantly reduce our military presence in Iraq. We just can't afford it. The military is stretched to the breaking point. A large majority of Americans think it was a mistake to go in and want us out. Regardless of who wins the election, within two years of a new president taking office our military presence in Iraq is going to be down 65% from where it is now - plus or minus 15%. And that plus or minus - that is the sum total of the practical difference between the three caniddates. But... and it is a big "but" ... McCain is "leaning in", and both Obama and Clinton are "leaning out."

All I wanted out of this election was an anti-war fiscal conservative in the finals, preferably a Republican or Independent in order to maintain divided government into 2009. I was pushing Chuck Hagel until he flaked out, which left me with Ron Paul by default, but I really hoped Bloomberg would drag Hagel back in. When Bloomberg went back to counting his money (I understand he is also involved in a local government on the East coast somewhere) that hope died.

So I find myself impaled on the horns of a dilemma.

The choice now:
  • RED PILL - Divided Government (good) but Permanent War (bad)
- or -
  • BLUE PILL - Single Party Democratic government (bad) with expanded majorities, possibly a filibuster proof Senate (really bad) and either Clinton or Obama at the controls of a Cheney designed unitary presidency (really really bad).
Pick your poison.

Yeah yeah - I know the liberal Democratic intentions are good, but as always, the unintended consequences are going to be brutal.

I need a drink.

Divided and Balanced.™ Now that is fair.

1 comment:

Harlan Wallach said...

April 2006: Are we out in 18 months Or 24?

if only