Monday, December 19, 2005

A Shiny New Edsel

Apropos of my most recent post, which attempted to pause the partisan tug-of-war over Iraq, if but for a moment, Steve Clemons has a timely admonition:

In my view, opponents of the Iraq War need to be careful not to co-opt every bad development in Iraq to justify assessments that are worse than reality. But the President is doing the opposite -- as are other leading neoconservative voices who are ignoring important factors that should be legitimately considered in their takes on what is unfolding in Iraq.
Steve (shamelessly in TIA's humble opinion), provides a link to an op-ed he wrote on the subject. All joking aside, Steve's laments are music to my ears. He complains of the fact that the latent agendas of the respective warring camps (war supporters and war opponents), and the desire to use developments on the ground in pursuit of these agendas, has led to a dearth of, dare I say, fair and balanced reporting. I don't claim to be free of any fault in this regard - though I do take pains to filter out bias where I recognize it. Still, getting a read on the situation, and informing policy going forward, is made more difficult by the "don't give an inch" style of analysis on display in Washington both before and after the invasion.

In fact, it was the desire to garner and maintain support for the invasion in the first place that led the Bush administration to downplay, bury and distort any evidence of ambiguity regarding WMD, as well as to dismiss, out of hand, any suggestion that the invasion of Iraq, toppling of the Baath regime and establishment of a peaceful, unitary and stable Iraq would cost anything more than $50 billion, last any longer than six months, require anything more than around 100,000 troops, necessitate the involvement of multilateral organizations, generate an actual insurgency, etc.

The problem for Americans, and more likely Iraqis, is that the Bush administration seems to have let this rhetorical discipline infect the policy making apparatus. They were either monumentally naive, convinced by their own spin or were so engrossed with maintaining the facade that they banished any form of realism from the decision making progress. Either way, the results have been near catastrophic, and the irony is that their quick and dirty pursuit of support from the American people may doom their long term plans in Iraq. When you sell a product as a low cost, maximum benefit, one-size-fits-all, panacea and it turns out to be an exorbitantly expensive, malfunctioning Edsel, you're going to have a lot of disillusioned consumers on your hands asking for their money back.

Unfortunately, the current overzealousness of the salesmen, now in the used car business, carries similar risks. I do believe that the latest round of elections in Iraq could potentially lead to some of the more important, and ultimately necessary, political breakthroughs in terms of power sharing, economic cooperation and common cause across ethnic/sectarian lines. Appreciating the likelihood of this occurring would be made less complicated with more objective analysis. But worse than that, I know that if the war's proponents continue to promise the moon at each "tipping point" they will lose the patience and support of the American people. Honesty is actually the best policy - even if that means admitting the long and arduous road ahead and refraining from some of the more vainglorious purple finger hagiography.
Iraq may indeed end up surprising all those who doubt that democracy is an export commodity. And Kristol, Kagan and Kaplan - as well as Bush - may prove to be correct. Still, their respective interpretations seem more sentimental than logical - not to mention self-serving.

At the same time, critics of the invasion and occupation of Iraq are predisposed to discount the positive possibilities that may arise from the election and instead conjure historical metaphors like South Vietnam's acclaimed high-turnout 1967 elections that did nothing to forestall the fall of Saigon. These critics argue that Iraq's state building project is cosmetic and while electoral turnout, even among the Sunni population, may be high, as soon as US pressure disappears, Iraq will cease worrying about its image and will dismantle the government in favour of three independent states. If this division is not massaged in an orderly manner, the most mentioned scenario is anarchy and civil war.

What is missing in the general interpretation of events in Iraq is a dispassionate depiction of what is going on and analysis of what it means. In a recent New Yorker profile of general Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first Bush president, George H. W. Bush complimented his adviser and indicted his son's administration by stating that Scowcroft "was very good about making sure that we did not simply consider the 'best case', but instead considered what it would mean if things went our way, and also if they did not".
To his credit, Clemons does his part to point out the very real flaws in the latest elections, absent hyperbole and grand proclamations - do go read. Such an appraisal should help us to keep this electoral event in perspective and take steps in the months ahead to correct the flaws and maximize the beneficial potential. But correcting flaws, and righting the course, first requires an honest, objective cataloguing of those flaws and detours. This is not the Bush administration's strong suit. But it's the presidency we have, if not the one we want.

[UPDATE: They don't call him Swopa-damus for nuthin'. Swopa's been right about this stuff more than almost anyone else I've read. And I think he was right again. Here's his look at the prelimenary results from the Iraq elections - which looks a lot like his prediction for the prelimenary results from the Iraq elections. Shorter version, of an already succinct post: the UIA did well, again, and the secular American favorite, Ahmad Chalabi Iyad Allawi didn't meet the lofty expectations in the American commentariat. I would say that part of the unvarnished truth telling (as per above) should include a section on how the Iraqi voting population is not as enamored with CIA-linked former Baathists as we would like and that Iranian and Islamist influence will be a force to reckon with in Iraq for years to come. This isn't necessarily a deal breaker in terms of Democracy and the future of Iraq, but the sooner we understand this, the better. It should at least tame some of the messianic rhetoric writ large. From Swopa:

Meanwhile, speaking of secular candidates with meager vote totals, there's this heartwarming tidbit from the Financial Times:

The Iraqi National Congress of controversial Shia politician Ahmed Chalabi, tipped as a possible prime ministerial candidate, did much worse than many had expected, taking only 0.36 per cent of the vote in Baghdad and 0.34 per cent in Basra.
Ahmad Chalabi: still not ready to take over Iraq and normalize relations with Israel. That shouldn't really be news.]

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