Bold Wankers

The Iraq war is a failure. The surge is a failure. General Petraeus? Impressive man, but a failure. If we pulled our forces out now, or as soon as possible, things in Iraq would improve. Meanwhile, that would free up resources to fight terrorists, who are in a lot of other places, but not Iraq.

That’s what we’re supposed to think unless we’re part of the dwindling-yet-vast right wing conspiracy. It is no longer a position. It is an orthodoxy.

So how bold was it for two liberal think-tankers, Michael O’Hanlon and Ken Pollack, to publish this op-ed in the New York Times today? And to title it “A War We Just Might Win.”

VIEWED from Iraq, where we just spent eight days meeting with American and Iraqi military and civilian personnel, the political debate in Washington is surreal. The Bush administration has over four years lost essentially all credibility. Yet now the administration’s critics, in part as a result, seem unaware of the significant changes taking place.

Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily “victory” but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.

After the furnace-like heat, the first thing you notice when you land in Baghdad is the morale of our troops. In previous trips to Iraq we often found American troops angry and frustrated — many sensed they had the wrong strategy, were using the wrong tactics and were risking their lives in pursuit of an approach that could not work.

Today, morale is high. The soldiers and marines told us they feel that they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus; they are confident in his strategy, they see real results, and they feel now they have the numbers needed to make a real difference.

Everywhere, Army and Marine units were focused on securing the Iraqi population, working with Iraqi security units, creating new political and economic arrangements at the local level and providing basic services — electricity, fuel, clean water and sanitation — to the people. Yet in each place, operations had been appropriately tailored to the specific needs of the community. As a result, civilian fatality rates are down roughly a third since the surge began — though they remain very high, underscoring how much more still needs to be done.

Of course, this kind of talk sets off the World Wide Wanker Watch. Here, here, here and here. The basic thrust of these and other critiques is: O’Hanlon and Pollock are not to be believed or trust because they represent “the far right wing of the Democratic party,” because they advocated the war at its outset, and because, well, they’re liars. The metrics they cite are products of deliberate deceit.

A few of their critics raise points I must concede — primarily Joe Klein, who happens to be another “wanker” according to the left bloggers. Klein says,

I agree with many, but not all, of the conclusions Ken Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon reach in this NY Times column, but you really can’t write a piece about the wae in Iraq and devote only two sentences to the political situation, which is disastrous and, as Petraeus has said, will determine the success or failure of the overall effort.

It could be argued that what the U.S. military is now accomplishing is clearing the field of foreigners–i.e. the Al Qaeda in Iraq foreign fighters–so that the indigenous Sunnis and Shi’ites can go at each other in a full-blown civil war, complete with Srebrenica style massacres. (Although a precursor to that civil war is the internecine Shi’ite battle between the Hakim and Sadr militias that is about to take place in Basrah. If Sadr wins that fight, he will control Baghdad and the southern oil fields–and will be the de facto leader of Shi’ite Iraq.) I see absolutely no evidence that the majority Shi’ites are willing to concede anything to the minority Sunnis, and there are significant signs that Baghdad is being ethnically cleansed.

But most of the angry posts against O’Hanlon and Pollack are efforts to a) discredit them  based on past statements and b) write them out of any future Democratic administration. Matthew Yglesias has gone so far as advocate “an O’Hanlon Primary — Democratic contenders can gain my support by providing assurances that Michael O’Hanlon won’t be serving in your administration.”

Ironically, two of the three leading Democratic contenders supported the war at the outset, so what Yglesias is really demanding is for presidents Edward or Clinton to shun experts who happened to reach the same conclusions they did — indeed, the same conclusions Yglesias himself reached.  It’s a huge logical fallacy to say you can discredit people owing to their past positions, but only if they have changed those positions. “Don’t trust them, they were wrong,” should apply to everyone who was wrong, no?

The furious response to Pollack and O’Hanlon is all about the “narrative,” once again. The Democratic Party, which used to be the more intellectually diverse of the two parties, now cannot tolerate anyone whose publicly-stated views undermine the talking points. My e-mail box is full of notes from Howard Dean, Tom McMahon, Al Gore and other Democratic leaders who all repeat the word “failure” as the one-word summation of the U.S. in Iraq.

All those e-mails, and countless other communications from the party leadership become inoperative if the predicted “failure” doesn’t come about. If the surge should succeed, the fall-back position is to call it a “failure,” and insist on that description based on the failure to meet some criterion. This won’t be hard, frankly; the Iraq war has been so bollixed up that anything that one might call success will come with many complicated shadows. The political key is to ensure that the public perception of the unmet goals and awful complications overwhelms awareness of success in any areas.

Two respected Democratic advisors predicting success and laying out reachable goals to define success cannot be tolerated. And so, today, comes the giant show of ostracism. Pollock and O’Hanlon need to be isolated, like a contagious virus, so their words can’t be used to support the current war effort.

The punishment will be swift and sure, so that no one else who might want to work in a future Democratic administration will realize there is nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, by challenging the orthodoxy. You will not get a fair hearing. You will not be “debated.” You will become, simply, radioactive. You will become a non-person.

To some, this might sound Orwellian. To me, it’s more reminiscent of high school, particularly as depicted in movies like “Heathers.” Those opinions…it’s fine if you want to wear them, but nobody will ever like you again.

(Edited 7/30/07.)

One thought on “Bold Wankers

  1. Without judging whether the two think-tankers are right or wrong at this juncture, let me suggest why it’s a DOA idea for them to serve in an Edwards or Clinton administration.

    Edwards and Clinton were both vastly credulous in their blank check approach to the Second Bush War on the Irqis, and with broadly fatal results to both Iraq and the to the U.S. Anyone paying attention or with 5 credits in Arab culture or history would never have fallen for the transparent falsehoods of WMD, Osama, Talibaptist involvement with Saddam H. Fatal credulity.

    Should this eliminate them from consideration? Well, it certainly is a big red star on their conduct report, though for me not fatal. But then why should O’Hanlon and Pollack not be accorded the same second chance?

    Because while fatally credulous candidates are less than desireable, fatally credulous candidates with fatally credulous advisors are almost guaranteed to come to credulous conclusions again. Give a fatally credulous candidate a skeptical or informed advisor and she might not drive us over the totally-avoidable cliff.

    And to make a side-point, but analogous one, advisors are important. Kerry’s 2004 campaign came irrevocably off the rails when he installed the team that had run the Dukakis presidential campaign (the 3rd most winnable Democrat presidential campaign of the 20th century) totally off the tracks.

    Forgiveness is golden, and we should practice it personally and professionally every day. But lining up fatally credulous candidates with fatally credulous advisors is a bad recipe.

    I don’t think I’ll be voting for Clinton or Edwards in the primary. But I know they can lock my decision if they enlist advisors who supported their easily avoidable delusion. But I would give slack to a candidate who opposed the fatal from the beginning recruiting dudes like them, because I would count on the candidate being aware of how fatally credulous said dudes were when it really counted.

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