Thursday, August 23, 2007

Was Blind, But Now...?

Despite the deep sense of anguish and frustration felt as those that were warning of the obvious dangers and inevitable costs of invading Iraq were dismissed snidely while the country lurched toward war back in the winter of 2002/2003, it would be pointless and counterproductive to allow vindication to lure one into the self-satisfying embrace of sanctimony and spite.

Excommunicating pundits, politicians and journalists from the ranks of "the credible" due to an error in judgment belies the uncertain nature of analysis and the imperfections rampant in the human faculty for reason - especially at a time as emotionally charged as the first year following 9/11. If such a standard were imposed uniformly, there would be few if any left that we could point to for sage counsel.

That does not mean, however, that every war proponent deserves a clean slate, or that errors in judgment should be forgiven ad infinitum. There are limits, and it mostly depends on the recovery. The process of rehabilitation - and the restoration of credibility - should have more to do with how the particular war supporter handles the reckoning than the magnanimity of the public. If a war proponent shows no remorse, admits no error and continues to advocate for policies that are philosophically and strategically akin to the invasion of Iraq, then it is not only every citizen's obligation to ignore their advice, but we must actively work to counter such pernicious ideas.

When you hear the same cast of neocon warmongers (Kristol, Krauthammer, Podhoretz(s), Rubin, Ledeen, Bolton) urging on the next conflagration, using the same dubious evidence, fear-mongering and specious arguments at a time when our military is slowly unraveling under the strain of the biggest foreign policy blunder in this nation's history (that they helped bring about), there is no reason to consider the validity of the opinions of those that were spectacularly wrong - and proud of it. They remain defiantly intent on accelerating a host of military confrontations with multiple countries, just one of which has already severely weakened our nation. For them, though, things have just gotten started.

But not all proponents are such dedicated dead enders. In fact, many have long ago recognized their errors and made invaluable contributions to the effort to restore sanity and competence to America's foreign policy establishment and beyond. Given how close we are to actually starting another war (this time, with Iran), there is little room for a puritanical rejection of the wisdom of those that have sinned.

In this vein, I was perusing Andrew Sullivan's site yesterday (yes, Sullivan is fine by me), and came across an excerpt from another erstwhile war booster, George Packer. Packer is one of the infamous band of liberal hawks that lent a bi-partisan ideological cover to the Iraq invasion, but his gift for writing and penchant for valuing the humanitarian has kept my mind pried open. His book-long mea culpa, The Assassins' Gate, is a strong indication of the evolution of Packer's outlook. Much of his writings since have supported the contention that Packer's judgment is more sound than stuck.

This piece, however, raises serious questions and suggests that there may be intractable structural flaws in Packer's vision that render his contributions of limited value:

In the middle of a crisis even more dangerous than Vietnam, President George W. Bush sits isolated in the White House, surrounded by a dwindling band of advisers, and continues to talk about winning in Iraq. His supporters in Congress and the media seize every short-term success, in Washington or Iraq, to flog their opponents as defeatists and lay the groundwork for a stab-in-the-back narrative.

OK, so far, so good. Not much to argue with there - a pretty accurate appraisal of the state of play.

His critics in Congress and the media clamor for him to admit defeat and begin an immediate withdrawal.

Actually, there are few in Congress or the media that have called for an "immediate withdrawal" - certainly not a consensus of critics, or a plurality large enough to justify such a framing. Almost every major plan for withdrawal calls for a roughly two year timeline (not immediate), and many if not most allow for some degree of residual force (incorrectly, in my opinion, but that is another matter). Simply put, Packer is sparring with strawmen here.

Contrary to Packer's characterization of Bush's Congressional critics "clamoring" for action, even Bush's foes in Congress have been quite willing to continue writing blank checks that have allowed, and will allow, the war to continue - absent the imposition of even distant plans for eventual withdrawal. The notion that Congress has been overly aggressive in placing restrictions on Bush's war making prerogatives is just outlandish.

Over the course of 2007, the two sides haven’t begun to negotiate the possibility of a compromise; instead, they are driving each other to increasingly bitter resistance. The national tragedy in Iraq is taking place against a political culture personified by the departed Karl Rove: tactically brilliant, strategically blind, polarized into highly partisan bases and orthodoxies endlessly repeated through the mass media. You don't often hear it mentioned, but this might be one of the most important differences between Vietnam and Iraq. [emphasis added]

This passage is even worse. It's as if Packer hasn't been paying attention to the manner in which the Bush administration has implemented policy over the past 6+ years. Here's a clue George: the Bush administration has been barely willing to compromise with its Republican allies in Congress, let alone the Democratic opposition.

The Bush administration espouses the top-down, unitary executive model that demands loyalty, and is as dismissive of checks, balances and Constitutional separation of powers, as it is of critics (be they Republican or Democrat). Packer seems to acknowledge this reality by invoking the name of one of this strategy's architects (Karl Rove), but then acts as if those targeted by the hyper-polarizing, take-no-prisoners, Rove game-plan are to blame for the very tactics employed to bludgeon them.

What compromise position is the White House even pondering - let alone offering? What would a compromise position even look like? How does one split the baby in Iraq? And shouldn't Packer at least wait for the White House to suggest one, and the Democrats to reject it, before he blames Bush's intransigence on those that have been - when not meekly apathetic - entirely impotent when seeking to rein in Bush's war? Or is that the Democrats are supposed to concoct this elusive compromise themselves, and then woo George Bush to the table with persistent praise and fawning (criticisms make Bush bitterly resistant ya know)?

Here's the thing: Bush has always been bitterly resistant to the facts in Iraq, and to any suggestion that he should alter course to account for the failures. He was as stubborn when he had high approval ratings and a GOP Congress behind him, as he is now when his numbers are in the 30% range and the Democrats hold a razor thin majority. After voters roundly rejected his Iraq policy in 2006, he responded by sending in more troops. When the highly touted, bi-partisan, blue ribbon Baker-Hamilton Commission came forth with the all-important compromise position, the Bush administration savaged it - and its authors. Relentlessly. Packer would have us believe, though, that the reason the Bush administration rejected this proposed compromise was because some of Bush's critics have been too vocal.

That an observer with an ability for occasional insight such as Packer could look at the 4+ year record of Bush's consistent obstinacy and solipsism with respect to Iraq policy and conclude that his current refusal to accept reality is the result of excessive stridency on the part of a Democratic Party that has done absolutely nothing to end (let alone slowly unwind) this war does nothing to suggest that Packer's judgment on such matters has improved greatly.

Old habits die hard I guess. Keep that in mind if Packer decides to blame those that oppose war with Iran for boxing the Bush administration into a corner, making war the only option, because opponents have not put forth a suitable compromise (half a war?) for an administration that has absolutely no interest in accepting one or even entertaining the possibility.

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