Wednesday, September 27, 2006

All or Nothing

Kevin's right about this recent William Arkin offering. It really is far beneath Arkin's considerable talents. In it, he mostly makes a series of spurious arguments, taking down a caricatured version of Democratic thinking on Iraq and the larger war on terror - with some mundane criticisms of the Bush administration's approach sprinkled in for effect. While Arkin predominately takes aim at the easy targets presented by the obscure and uninformed fringe, while using their shortcomings to tar all Democrats, this paragraph really takes the straw-stuffing grand prize:

The simplistic story line that the Democrats are pushing is all about and solely about Iraq: withdraw U.S. forces, defeat the Republicans, tidy up foreign policy by giving human rights to prisoners and being nicer in the world, and voila, terror subsides.

Um, the Democrats are pushing this? Which Democrats are these exactly? Arkin never does say. I wonder why. Sounds more like a disingenuous redaction of the more nuanced position held by actual Democrats - the type of hatchet work usually practiced by the partisans found roaming the halls of the AEI, or venting in the colums of the Weekly Standard.

What this is at its root, though, is a clever reversal of the overly categorical analysis that I have been lamenting as of late (see Kevin's own relevant complaint). Arkin implies, through his exaggeration, that because getting Iraq 'right' now - or better yet never invading in the first place - would not solve all of our problems related to terrorism, then the counsel of those that point to the fact that Iraq has hurt the overall mission is somehow suspect and simplistic. Arkin argues that to mention Iraq's harmful effects, and the costs of abandoning democratic principles at a time when spreading democracy is supposed to be our foreign policy center piece, must, somehow, equal the position that these are the only policy areas needed to address in order to end terrorism for good. It's all or nothing I guess.

Arkin points out that, according to the just released key findings of the recently leaked National Intelligence Estimate, Iraq was only one of four major factors contributing to the overall terrorist threat:

We are not facing an age of terrorism spawned by the Iraq war, nor are we fighting thousands, if not millions, of jihadists because of misunderstandings about the goodness of America. [...]

Even without the Iraq war, the "grievances" would still exist....Furthermore, the "anger" and "humiliation" rampant in the Muslim and jihadist world do not find their origins in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

This is true, of course. The extremist violence in the name of Islam as practiced by al-Qaeda and its imitators did not begin, nor will it end, with the invasion of Iraq - nor are its roots and sole lifeline found in our recent abandonment of a more principled stand on human rights. Bravo Mr. Arkin. But, er, who exactly are you rebutting with that obvious observation? Nowhere in serious Democratic circles have I seen these basic truths contested, or even ignored - and such an ignorant position is certainly not ubiquitous enough to justify labeling it the Democrats' "story line."

The actual position of Democrats is much more realistic - fully recognizing that disentangling ourselves from Iraq, refraining from employing the tactics of despots, and preserving our enviable freedoms are only a part of the broader prescription for a more successful counterterrorism strategy. More profound success in this endeavor will ultimately require, as praktike and Matt Yglesias pointed out, a fundamental rethinking of many of the tenets that have guided our foreign policy decisions in that region for over a century. These tectonic shifts will be difficult to set in motion, slow developing once undertaken, and hardly aided by a noted lack of political will in many respects. These are the hard steps.

But there are easier ones too. For one, by focusing on the real costs of Iraq, and placing Iraq in its appropriately important context as one hindrance among a handful currently undermining our efforts in the war on terror, we can seek to avoid making a similarly counterproductive blunder in Syria, Iran or wherever else it is that the neoconservative wander/bloodlust would take us. Not invading yet another Muslim country in the span of a few years would be, you know, a positive first step even if that simple abstention wouldn't solve all our problems overnight.

Further, rehabilitating our image and fortifying our influence by aspiring to back-up Bush's soaring rhetoric with actual corresponding policies (ie, respecting habeas corpus, banning torture, etc.) - while not creating a solution "voila!" - will redound to our benefit in other areas crucial to our success. We would, among other things, decrease support for extremists, increase the likelihood of recruiting and maintaining valuable human intelligence assets, and help to secure the vital cooperation of a wide array of foreign governments and their respective intelligence agencies, on which we rely.

The use of human and signal intelligence, surgical military operations, marginalizing extremist organizations through the application of soft power in its myriad manifestations and fostering a more robust relationship with potentially helpful foreign national interests would all be attainable steps that would serve us well while we go about the larger, paradigm shifting overhaul cited above. There is more, both in specifics and in meta-analysis, if Arkin or any other critic bothered to actually plum the archives of liberal websites, think tanks and other Party resources. But with consistency, the war in Iraq serves as an obstacle to these paths, not a facilitator.

Nevertheless, as I said, ultimately Arkin is right to point out that Iraq is not the one and only source of our woes. It's just that this didn't really need mentioning. And trying to pin that drivel on the Democrats is the product of lazy thinking and sloppy analysis.

Consider this though: while Iraq certainly did not lead to the genesis of al-Qaeda, nor is Iraq extremism's only source of succor at this time, we're still talking about an invasion with a final price tag in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars. It has already demanded the sacrifice of over 2,700 US soldiers' lives, with over 10,000 more maimed and mentally scarred (and counting on each front). Many tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Iraqis have already died - and Iraqi morgues are filling to over-capacity as the civil war we helped unleash picks up steam. The region is teetering on a precipice, destabilized by the roiling violence released, and the competing ethnic and sectarian movements that are burgeoning. Our military is lowering standards, diluting the quality of our soldiers and nearing meltdown in manpower and equipment due to the strain. Iran, and other of our adversaries, have been empowered at the same time that our ability to act, and influence, have diminished considerably.

So even if Iraq is only one of the four primary sources of extremist terrorism, one would be justified in asking, was that worth it? Is it good policy? Is it helping or hurting? Or would the invasion of Iraq only have been an utterly tragic, enormously costly and counterproductive misadventure if the NIE had said that our invasion of Iraq gave birth to al-Qaeda and its offshoots, and our current involvement in Iraq is the only reason for terrorism's continued existence and other such nonsense?

In closing, Arkin offers this homage to fatalism and defeatism, that in reality is meant to serve as a blanket justification for any and all actions we undertake - even those that are fundamentally wrong-headed and accutely counterproductive:

If the Democrats had their way, and the "war" against terrorism were just accelerated in Afghanistan and Pakistan, my guess is that "it" would become the new "cause celebre."
Yes. No matter what we do, the jihadists will find a new source of outrage and motivation. There was no difference in the reaction in the Muslim world between our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Further, none of our actions have any impact on the underlying support these jihadists receive, or the size of their ranks. Why, we might as well nuke Mecca because it wouldn't matter anyway. There would still be jihadists either way, right?

Bill, why is it imperative to be so categorical?

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