Sunday, August 22, 2004

Who Wants to Abandon Iraq?

I always wondered what kind of person -- what kind of thinking person, I mean -- would belong to the "get out of Iraq now" crowd. I can understand it in reflexive pacifists, tin-hat conspiracy theorists, tunnel-vision America-haters in their fantasy world, Apocalypse-hungry Born-Agains, and hard-core Islamists. I can even understand it in political anarchists, since anarchy would be the result.

But what about a person who supposedly thinks hard about these things, is not mentally unhinged, and is not an anarchist or a sadist?

I found one. The hoary newspaper columnist Richard Reeves, whose Web site logo looks like some Mount Rushmore caricature featuring Nixon, Kennedy, Reagan -- and Richard Reeves. Of course, my newspaper runs him regularly. He must work cheap.

The dateline on the column is Sag Harbor, a yachting-club town in The Hamptons. Our intrepid columnist, hunkered down in this conning tower in the War on Terror, reports that his wife has been pestering him about "why I am not writing that we should get out of Iraq. Now!"

He then launches into passages from Nebraska Congressman Doug Bereuter's recent letter about "inadequate intelligence and faulty conclusions," and Bereuter's rueful decision that, "all things considered it was a mistake to launch that military action, especially without a broad and engaged international coalition."

But Bereuter doesn't say, "bring them home now." In fact, as Reeves notes, Bereuter "says he believes that the Middle East and the world are safer places with Saddam Hussein in jail and Americans in Baghdad." [Note the suggestion of deception in "says he believes." When Bereuter says something Reeves agrees with, this tone is absent from the column.]

So the retiring Congressman doesn't say, "we should get out of Iraq. Now!" That leaves Reeves' wife, whose political credentials are unknown. All we know is she vacations in the Hamptons, and Richard Reeves has to put up with her "family arguments." Apparently, that's good enough for Richard Reeves.

I don’t agree that we are all safer because we invaded Iraq. And I can’t argue anymore, certainly not at home, that honor or duty requires us to stay and clean up the mess. We may be making the mess worse, day by day, hour by hour. I find it hard to rebut family arguments that it made no good difference to stay in Vietnam when we almost certainly could have made the same exit deal in 1969 that we settled for in 1973.

Except that that argument is based entirely on hindsight.

We made a mistake going into Iraq. Even if we believed everything Bush and company told us before launching shock and awe, devastation and doubt, the administration was negligent and stupid to ignore the warnings everywhere about what it would take to make and keep a peace.

Except that in 2002-03 the air was thick with dire warnings of world disaster if the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq. The Iranians would sweep across the border. Saddam would rain nukes on Tel Aviv and poison gas on coalition troops; the oil wells would go up in one vast conflagration. The United States would "almost surely" need "at least 100,000 to 200,000" ground forces to conquer the country, and, "Historical precedents from Panama to Somalia to the Arab-Israeli wars suggest that ... the United States could lose thousands of troops in the process." [Brookings Institution]

AID agencies, meanwhile, promised a "vast humanitarian crisis," including mass starvation of as many as 10 million Iraqis, the displacement of 900,000 refugees ["UN Warning of 'Devastating War' In Iraq," Times of London, Dec. 23, 2002], and Saddam Hussein "passing off chemical and biological weapons to terrorists, a generation of new Al Qaeda recruits, as well as loose nukes in Pakistan" [Cato Institute].

Reeves then quotes the hawkish Edward Luttwak's Aug. 18 NYT op-ed piece, “Time to Quit Iraq (Sort Of).” He seems to suggest that Luttwak, like Bereuter, recently had the scales fall from his eyes on the matter of Iraq. But Luttwak has been urging U.S. and U.K. forces to "withdraw to remote desert garrisons and let Iraqis try to govern themselves" since at least October, and calling for a quick exit since at least last August.

In fact, Luttwak hails from the "pragmatic" wing of the U.S. foreign policy camp, who advocated a military overthrow of Saddam, but did not believe the U.S. should be in the business of nation-building, or of bringing democracy to any place in the Middle East. His article that seemed to influence Reeves so much was nothing new in his line of thinking. It was consistent with what he and many others have been saying all along. He'd like us to be out of the cross-hairs but remain a strategic force in the region, tipping the balance between the vultures bickering over the corpse of the Iraqi nation.

Like others of his school, he thinks democracy can only work for a few Western peoples; certainly not for Arabs/Muslims:

Democracy seems to interest few Iraqis, given the widespread Shiite proclivity to follow unelected clerics, the Sunni rejection of the principle of majority rule, and the preference of many Kurds for tribe and clan over elected governments. Reconstruction was supposed to advance rapidly with surging oil export revenues, but is hardly gaining on the continuing destruction inflicted by sabotage and thievery. And in any case, it is unlikely that the new Iraqi interim government will be able to oversee meaningful elections in a country where its authority is more widely denied than recognized.

Luttwak's also a bit of a pessimist, by the way. On the eve of Desert Storm in 1991, he cautioned, "All those precision weapons and gadgets and gizmos and stealth fighters ... are not going to make it possible to re-conquer Kuwait without many thousands of casualties." He was off by, well, "many thousands." This time around, he was more accurate, predicting an easy victory, but he also predicted the people of Baghdad would rise up against their oppressors and liberate themselves from the Baathists once the coalition reached the edge of the city. Oh, well.

Luttwak's got a realpolitik view worthy of Kissinger or Metternich. My heart, schooled in liberal sympathies, can't simply abandon the thousands of Iraqis who have committed their lives, fortunes and sacred honors to the process of bringing an open, political process to their country. And the millions more who wait quietly and hope that life will get better for them all. I'm not content to see the place fall into Hell just for the sake of American convenience. But this is, arguably, a view that a cold-hearted realist could take.

Yet Reeves' clumsy dragooning of Luttwak's most recent NYT op-ed piece shows either Reeves didn't read Luttwak or didn't understand him. Luttwak is advocating "a well-devised policy of disengagement," not an actually abandonment. He's talking about a diplomatic strategy, though a deadly earnest one, as a tactic in the conflict between America and its various enemies in and around Iraq. He calls it "risk-taking statecraft of a high order":

The threat of an American withdrawal would have to be made credible by physical preparations for a military evacuation, just as real nuclear weapons were needed for deterrence during the cold war. More fundamentally, it would have to be meant in earnest: the United States is only likely to obtain important concessions if it is truly willing to withdraw if they are denied. If Iraq's neighbors are too short-sighted or blinded by hatred to start cooperating in their own best interests, America would indeed have to withdraw.

The obvious fact is that those Cold War nukes never were used. Just so the goal of this strategy is not withdrawal at all. Luttwak rounds off his article with three quick, half-hearted paragraphs of mumbled afterthought about how withdrawal wouldn't be much worse than what we've got anyway. And most of Reeves' citations are from this coda of the op-ed piece.

Reeves writes:

Finally, writes Luttwak: “The situation in Iraq is not improving, the United States will assuredly leave one day in any case, and it is usually wise to abandon failed ventures sooner rather than later.”

And, sooner rather than later, I shall go to the beach and tell my wife she was right all along.

But that's not what Luttwak says "finally." Here's what he says finally:

So long as the United States is tied down in Iraq by over-ambitious policies of the past, it can only persist in wasteful futile aid projects and tragically futile combat. A strategy of disengagement would require risk-taking statecraft of a high order, and much competence at the negotiating table. But it would be based on the most fundamental of realities: for geographic reasons, many other countries have more to lose from an American debacle in Iraq than does the United States itself. The time has come to take advantage of that difference.

So I found my thinking man who believes the U.S. should simply get out of Iraq now. He hides behind two other thinking men, but they don't say what he says at all. Once you pull away his smoke screen, he's just a hen-pecked husband.