Thursday, February 24, 2005

Real Time Revisionism, Part I

Greg Djerejian is back from a work-induced hiatus that TIA can empathize with. Unfortunately, his first post out of the gate is a recapitulation of some overly triumphaslistic claims from Bush administration advisor Robert Blackwill. Below is one of the paragraphs Djerejian excerpts:

So, it was not at all surprising to me that you had this extraordinary turnout in a situation in which, of course, there was scattered violence. Wherever you were voting, especially in Baghdad and areas around Baghdad, you had to wonder whether you were going to be attacked by the terrorists. So, I think it was an extraordinary outcome. As you say, nearly 60 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. And when you take into account that the Sunni turnout was quite low, you really do get in many areas of Shiite Iraq an 80 percent turnout, and in some areas of Kurdish Iraq, you get a 90 percent turnout. So, it was really quite extraordinary. And it just shows, again, what the president has been emphasizing, which is that, if given the opportunity, people, whatever their ethnicity and from whatever part of the globe they come, will choose freedom of choice, including elections and going to the polls.
I don't really have too much to criticize in this paragraph other than to point out that Blackwill is cherry picking the regions with the highest turnout to present a slightly rosier picture than what reality would dictate. Some Shiite areas did hit 80% turnout, but the average was about 70%. For the Kurds, certain regions boasted an impressive 90% turnout, but the average was an equally commendable, but slightly lower, 85%. Still, Blackwill's main thesis is correct that turnout for Shiites and Kurds was truly remarkable (though Sunnis largely abstained).

His assertion that there was "scattered violence" on election day was certainly the prevailing message in the media's coverage of the election, but that might be an example of managed expectations. Because so many thought there would be widespread devastating attacks, this fact, recently acknowledged in
senate testimony by Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, seemed to go unreported:

Attacks on Iraq's election day last month reached 300, he said, double the previous one-day high of 150, even though transportation was virtually locked down.
Despite the unprecedented level of attacks (twice the previous one day high), the elections were still peaceful, at least relative to some of the dire warnings. But in the next paragraph, Blackwill begins to engage in a tactic that I have previously described as "revisionism in real time" with a hint of another TIA original: "pre-emptive revisionism."

So, it was an extraordinary outcome and one that didn't surprise me. And I must say also, just one last point, that this was also a shining endorsement of the president's strategy towards Iraq, where the critics have been pessimistic and wrong for well over a year with regard to the evolution of the Iraqi political process. And they've been wrong on every single important pivotal event. They were wrong on the elections. And they will probably go on being pessimistic and go on being wrong. [emphasis added]
Blackwill's claim that the critics of the Bush administration have "been wrong on every single important pivotal event" is disingenuous and poorly reasoned at best, and doesn't hold up to even the slightest bit of scrutiny. It's hard to know where to begin, and I'm sure that even after I examine the holes in this statement I will have left out several pertinent examples of its error.

Would it be wrong to start before the invasion? Perhaps, since Blackwill seems to limit his universe to "pivotal events" and the past year or so. Thus, I will table all the famously wrong predictions by Bush administration officials, from the expectation of flowers and candy, to prognostications of cost (well under $90 billion, and after a while self-financing out of oil proceeds), looting, the possibility of an insurgency, the necessary troop strength (50,000-100,000), the duration of US troop deployments (that we would be down to 30,000 troops by Autumn of 2003), etc.

But the toppling of the Hussein government is certainly within the purview of "pivotal events" in the political process. So, were the critics wrong when they claimed that administration darling Ahmad Chalabi didn't have a mandate to lead the Iraqi people in the aftermath of the Baath's fall? Because up until last week, Bush's supporters like
David Frum were still breathless in their praise for Chalabi, wistful in their musings on what could have been had Chalabi been implanted, and some were even confident in their predictions that Chalabi would emerge as the prime minister beating out Ibrahim Jaafari for the UIA's endorsement. In reality, Jaafari is going to be the prime minister. So, were Bush's critics wrong or right about Chalabi's ascent to the prime minister's office? I would have to say right.

Many critics, including TIA, warned of Sunni recalcitrance and an eventual widespread boycott on January 30th, in the weeks and months before the election. TIA even put forward a series of options that could be implemented to make up for the fact that the Sunnis would be underrepresented in the new Iraqi government, and even more importantly, in the constitution drafting committee. Bush supporters, including Greg Djerejian, downplayed these warnings, going on the record several times with predictions that the Sunnis would turn out in large numbers despite the "pessimism" of Bush's critics. This, they claimed, would solve the problems of Sunni exclusion in the nascent legislature. Djerejian even made the
bold prediction that turnout would be in the neighborhood of "30% for Sunnis." Actual Sunni turnout was negligible, hovering in the low single digits - if that. Thus Bush's critics were right and the problems of Sunni exclusion loom very large, and could prove an obstacle for a peaceful Iraq going forward.

Bush's critics warned that the handover of limited sovereignty to the Interim Governing Council would not take the steam out of the insurgency, that it would continue on its then present course. Predictably, they were called pessimists. They were in fact optimists. Not only has the insurgency continued, but the rate of attacks and casualties has increased. Again returning to Vice Adm. Jacoby:

...the Iraq insurgency has grown "in size and complexity over the past year" and is now mounting an average of 60 attacks per day, up from 25 last year.
If the critics were wrong about this pivotal event, it was only to the extent that they thought the insurgency would continue apace and not increase.

The same can be said about the pivotal event represented by the capture of Saddam Hussein. Another event that didn't really pivot anything. Many Bush supporters claimed that the insurgency would lose heart once they realized that Saddam was imprisoned and would not be returned to power. Critics warned that the insurgency was more resilient than this. The past year has seen an escalation of attacks and an increase in casualties, which undermines the Bush supporters' erstwhile sanguinity. The critics were right, the Bush supporters were wrong.

And were critics wrong that the Bush administration would not be able to implement their version of the political process? Yes and no. Remember, for better or for worse, the Bush team wanted to postpone elections for many months, if not years, beyond January 2005. Sistani resisted this postponement, and so January was agreed upon as a concession (although Sistani wanted a date even earlier than January, and he had to compromise as well). Then, the plan was to first hold elections through regional caucuses, but Sistani objected and Sistani imposed his will again. Sistani also prevailed on his opposition to the Bush team's plan to use of the interim constitution as the permanent one. So, were Bush's critics wrong to suggest that Sistani would be directing the process through the potency of his influential role as religious leader of the Shiite population? It seems that they were right for the most part.

In the weeks leading up to the election, there were several articles and op-ed pieces circulating which predicted that Iyad Allawi's party would have a strong showing, based on the fact that there was a silent majority of secular Shiites, and religious Shiites disenchanted with clerical influence, who were going to insure a big turnout for Allawi. Bush's critics suggested that this was wrong, and that the Sistani blessed ticket, the UIA, would win a majority of seats. The religious-minded UIA dominated on the national level, winning 140 out of 275 seats in the parliament, and on the local level religious parties like Dawa were even more successful. Religious Shiite parties took 13 out of 18 districts in local elections. Once again, the critics were right, and the Bush team and its supporters were wrong.

Thus we see can see the folly of Blackwill's spurious attempt to revise history in real time, while events are still fresh in the collective memory. But he takes it one step further, aiming at some "pre-emptive revisionism." He said, "And [Bush's critics] will probably go on being pessimistic and go on being wrong."

Maybe, maybe not, but judging by their respective track records, Bush's critics deserve the benefit of the doubt, or at the very least a fair hearing. Many issues and obstacles remain in the mission to help Iraq transition to a stable, peaceful, democracy, and it is not clear to what extent they will proceed according to either side's script. Let's see to what extent the new Iraqi government relies on the interim constitution, and to what extent they bring religious influence into the process. I don't foresee the adoption of an Iranian-style government, but I think it is clear that there will be more of a religious influence than the Bush team had hoped for or predicted. Further, I think it is becoming increasingly unlikely that the new Shiite dominated government will adopt an Israel-friendly posture, barring some breakthrough in the peace process. As for the plan to remake Iraq into the
free-market Mecca that was planned on, I think that Ibrahim Jaafari has a slightly different vision for post-war Iraq. I remain hopeful that the new constitution will reflect an enlightened approach to individual rights, but the influence of Shiite doctrine could seriously curtail the rights of women, even to a degree not existing under Saddam's Iraq. In addition, issues relating to Kurdish autonomy, the disposition of Kirkuk, and other ethnic bugaboos such as Sunni inclusion are largely unresolved.

In other words, the jury is still out, but I think it would be foolish to claim that the critics of the Bush administration's handling of the invasion of Iraq are hopelessly pessimistic, always wrong, and will be so in the future. In many ways, I hope they are, but they have a nasty little habit of being right.

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