Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Why, Oh Why, Is There Never An Option "C"?

Back in February of 2006, riding the crest on one of the recurrent waves of Iran war fever, Trent Telenko at Winds of Change confidently warned the reader that Iran would be testing a fully functional nuclear weapon in either Spring or Fall of 2006. One, or the other. There was no third option: that Iran would not yet have a testable device within that rather accelerated time-frame - or perhaps for years to come after the Fall 2006 cut-off.

Spring 2006 came and went with no such test, and the clock is ticking on the roughly 3 months left until Fall 2006 expires. Stay tuned.

Over at QandO, Dale Franks offers a similarly limited set of options while making an attempt to somehow cut short the notion that those that opposed the war in Iraq were in any way "prescient" or "right" (more below). First, some background. Here is Franks' argument as he summarized it:

Were [those that opposed the invasion] right?...But more importantly, even if they were "right", is it because they made knowledgeable predictions based on information that could be verified at the time? Or did they make ideologically-based predictions that were proven right by fortune, rather than any prescience on their part? Lucky guesses are not, after all, prescience.

First of all, any discussion of whether or not those that opposed the invasion of Iraq were "right" or "prescient" in their opposition is plagued by some pretty significant problems going in. Namely, the myriad, hodge-podge, conglomeration of groups and individuals that opposed the war had as many reasons and predictions as they did voices. So, much depends on which groups/individuals you look to in order to test out the "rightness" or "prescience" of the arguments put forth by the respective theoreticians. The temptation to cherry pick is formidable.

On this front, Franks takes on some fairly easy targets in the initial set of links he provides, which include a dubious Wikipedia entry and a column by Michael Medved that ostensibly refutes 10 anti-war arguments, but is so infused with strawmen and softballs as to make it less than compelling as a serious discussion (I know, you're probably as shocked as I was, because we are talking about Michael Medved after all). In addition, Franks highlights some quotes from Howard Dean without providing context and attempts to show a contradiction that is not fully supported by the text or his commentary.

To his credit, Franks does eventually take on some more legitimate critics like Jim Henley and Matt Welch, though as Henley points out, his arguments here are equally lacking in support.

At other times, Franks glides past legitimate concerns without fully addressing or rebutting them. For example, he had this to say about WMD:

To the extent that WMDs were addressed, the argument was not that Iraq didn't have WMDs, it was that we needed to give inspections time to work, in order to try and find out for sure, and that containment was working in any event, and that no threat from Iraq was imminent.

OK, why wasn't this position "right" or "prescient"? Having a healthy skepticism about the full extent of Saddam's WMD arsenal, even if one believed he had some, was in fact the "right" approach. Wanting the inspections to continue, and believing in the effectiveness of containment (very effective actually!), was both right and prescient. Ditto the belief that "no threat from Iraq was imminent."

Rather than congratulate those that correctly assessed the WMD situation, Franks just leaves the discussion dangling. He never argues the correctness or incorrectness, he just somehow dismisses these positions, as if to imply that if you believed Saddam had some WMD, any other preferred course of action vis-a-vis those WMD was meaningless or not worthy of taking seriously. To believe in the existence of some WMD was to support the invasion. Or is it that since those that believed in the existence of some WMD were wrong about that aspect, we should therefore disregard the fact that they advocated a smarter course with respect to such imperfect and uncertain knowledge?

Later on, Franks states:

To the extent that some arguments were prescient, such as the argument that an attack on Iraq would provide an incentive to larger number of people embracing terrorism in order to attack our forces, well, that's less a bit of prescience than it is a blinding glimpse of the obvious. Military actions always make recruiting efforts easier for your enemies. It is axiomatic.

While he's right that this outcome might have been blindingly obvious, I don't understand why people that pointed out the obvious should not get credit for it when they were doing so in order to oppose a policy that IGNORED the obvious! It is both prescient and right, even if a no-brainer. The harder part is explaining why such an obvious outcome was disregarded.

As an aside, many in the CIA and broader intelligence community (in formal reports) warned that invading Iraq would break the back of the counter-terrorism effort by diverting limited and precious resources to the Iraq theater and away from the hunt for al-Qaeda and its imitators. Also obvious. Also right. Also prescient. Also ignored.

In addition, many in the CIA, State Department's INR and other intelligence agencies warned of insurgencies and the potential for sectarian conflict. Obvious? Probably. So under Franks' rubric, we should just skip past those.

What a curiously self-refuting defense of a policy preference to point out that its critics were forced rely on "obvious" and "axiomatic" criticisms. Ouch?

Next up, Franks offers the reader the false, binary choice that I alluded to at the beginning of this post:

...if Iraq is turning into a debacle, then its important to ask why? Is it because the Iraqis have some intellectual, cultural, or moral failing of which we should've been aware? Or is it because the Bush Administration has handled the occupation badly? If the latter, then that is an argument about the incompetence of the Bush Administration, not an argument in support of some "prescience" by the anti-war crowd. If it's the former, then the argument is basically that the bloody wogs are too primitive for such civilized behavior, which strikes me as a bit distasteful.

Clever in some respects: Are you saying war supporters were right (though Bush incompetent) or are you saying war supporters were right, but the Iraqis morally or intellectually inferior (implying such a view may be racist)? There are a few other choices, no? Couldn't it be that, though the Iraqi people have no fatal moral or intellectual failing, the mission was doomed at the outset because of the implausibility of its grandiose goals and the means chosen to achieve those goals?

There is, in fact, a high probability that even had the Bush administration conducted the occupation with unparalleled skill, attention and deftness, the ultimate mission would have failed regardless. The reasons, though rather complex in the details, can be expressed somewhat simply: Attempting to impose liberal democracy through armed invasion, ex nihilo, is extremely difficult, approaching impossible. The historical track record for success is dismal - if not wholly devoid of positive results (the few, shining supposed counter-examples occurred in societies that had pre-existing democratic/liberal institutions and vastly different pretexts of military engagement).

Back in August of 2005, I penned a two-part series examining some of the most popularly cited "mistakes" attributed to the Bush administration's post-invasion policies. In the course of that discussion, I attempted to contemplate what would have happened if the Bush team had taken the alternative ("correct") route when confronted with each issue. The results were less than encouraging. Each different choice raised its own unique problems, and its own ingredients added to the recipe for failure. There were no good options, only two bad ones to choose from, each time.

The main purpose of Franks' analysis is to counsel against giving those that opposed the invasion any deference as to their proposed course of action going forward - in Iraq and in any other foreign policy theater. Instead, as Franks would have it, we should continue to listen to the war supporters who, though often blind to the blindingly obvious, apparently now can see. As an example of the new found (or always present?) prescience, Franks himself weighs in on the current state of affairs and preferred policies going forward:

It is not, after all, as if there had been no progress at all made in Iraq over the last three years. Iraq now has a democratically elected government. Iraqi security forces are taking on an ever larger responsibility for the country's security.[...]

Moreover, I am of the view that, when Iraqi forces become the poster boys for Iraqi security, rather than American troops, there remains a good chance that they will, with their local knowledge, be able to do an increasingly effective job of handling the sectarian violence.

I'm not sure if I'm pointing out the obvious here, but, Franks vastly overstates the importance of a democratically elected government, as well as the progress represented by the Iraqi forces that "are taking on an ever larger responsibility for the country's security." First, democratically elected governments do not forestall civil wars or totalitarian drift. Underlying fissures in a society, and institutional strength, are more determinant of the eventual outcome. While commendable, elections represent the first step taken by a runner in a marathon - in a minefield.

As for part two, Iraqi forces have performed rather abysmally, and show a continued reluctance to engage the enemy. To the extent that Iraqi forces have shown commitment and effectiveness on these fronts, it has mostly been on the part of the units comprised of (or heavily infiltrated by) ethnic/sectarian militias like SCIRI's Badr and the Kurdish peshmerga. But this fact belies Franks' sizable leap of faith, that as these militias increase their activity, they will "do an increasingly effective job of handling the sectarian violence."

It is already the case that ordinary Iraqis are frightened by the site of any Iraqis in uniform - uncertain of which militia or communal group they are attached and dubious of their commitment to the rule of law. Iraqis are emigrating en masse, and holing up in neighborhood enclaves, afraid to travel through "official" checkpoints run by Iraqi security forces. Yet somehow in all of that confusion and sputter of splintered allegiances and ineffective performance, Franks sees the promise of a solution. It's only the pesky "told ya so" naysayers that deny the likelihood this outcome.

I guess if you tilt the lens just enough so that those that warned about the very real outcomes of the invasion were neither "right" nor "prescient," Franks' plan may look blindingly brilliant.

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