Wednesday, February 13, 2008
For Whom the Brooks Trolls
Both Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have seductively hinted that they would withdraw almost all U.S. troops within 12 to 16 months. But if either of them actually did that...[t]here would be private but powerful opposition from Arab leaders, who would fear a return to 2006 chaos. There would be irate opposition from important sections of the military, who would feel that the U.S. was squandering the gains of the previous year. A Democratic president with few military credentials would confront outraged and highly photogenic colonels screaming betrayal.
There would be important criticism from nonpartisan military experts. In his latest report, the much-cited Anthony Cordesman describes an improving Iraqi security situation that still requires “strategic patience” and another five years to become self-sustaining.
There would be furious opposition from Republicans and many independents.
Let's take a look at each of these claims one by one. First, the angry Arab leaders. Would those be the same leaders in places like Saudi Arabia and Syria that have been contributing to the violence and chaos in Iraq by backing their preferred proxies? Actually, beginning the process of withdrawal would likely incur their ire, but it would also force them to begin reckoning with the aftermath and thus shift their focus from passive neglect/spoilerism to constructive cooperation. Ditto Iran. And since we ignored their advice and anger at our decision to invade in the first place, it would be a curious time to start offering such deference.
Next, the concern over the incensed military. In actuality, key leaders in the Joint Chiefs and elsewhere in the hierarchy are trying to scale back the mission due to strains on the readiness of the military. The active and reserve forces have been stretched dangerously thin by multiple prolonged deployments such that retaining experienced officers (a must) has been jeopardized, and overall standards for new recruits have been lowered so many times that there are legitimate concerns for unit quality and ability.
Certainly, some military figures would bristle at a withdrawal, but others would welcome the opportunity to reconstruct and rehabilitate both the equipment and manpower depleted by the extended mission in Iraq. Withdrawal might also enable us to better prosecute the war in Afghanistan which could, in turn, bolster pride and morale. Regardless, civilian leaders control the military, not the other way around. And for good reason. Military leaders should want to succeed, and believe in their ability, even against the odds. But civilian leaders should apply a more objective and critical standard. Refusing to cut short a disastrous policy because some in the military would be angered is not leadership.
On to the criticism from non-partisan military experts. Again, such critiques would emerge, but there would also be praise from some highly regarded members of the same pool of experts. Take Anthony Cordesman, whom Brooks mentions. Brooks doesn't actually give Cordesman's position a fair hearing. For one, the fuller title of the report cited by Brooks is, "A Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq." In other words, Cordesman himself acknowledges that the case for strategic patience is tenuous. In that report, Cordesman states up front that his views differ from the pollyannish accounts proffered by Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack. A taste of Cordesman's highly caveated and qualified recommendations:
From my perspective, the US now has only uncertain, high risk options in Iraq. It cannot dictate Iraq’s future, only influence it, and this presents serious problems at a time when the Iraqi political process has failed to move forward in reaching either a new consensus or some form of peaceful coexistence.It is Iraqis that will shape Iraq's ability or inability to rise above its current sectarian and ethnic conflicts, to redefine Iraq's politics and methods of governance, establish some level of stability and security, and move towards a path of economic recovery and development. So far, Iraq’s national government has failed to act at the rate necessary to move the country forward or give American military action political meaning.
The attached trip report does, however, show there is still a tenuous case for strategic patience in Iraq, and for timing reductions in US forces and aid to Iraqi progress rather than arbitrary dates and uncertain benchmarks. It recognizes that strategic patience is a high risk strategy, but it also describes positive trends in the fighting, and hints of future political progress.
When your cited expert repeats, throughout his report, that the case is tenuous, high risk and that the ability to shape events is largely out of our hands, would you expect that expert to sharply criticize a leader who decided such an enormously costly endeavor that only had a slight chance for success was not worthy of pursuing further? After what will be 6 or 7 years of multi-trillion dollar failure. I don't.
Finally, Brooks warns us of the wrath of Republicans and independents. One wonders whether Brooks has been paying attention to the polling data on Iraq. Here's a hint David: the American people, en masse, oppose the war, favor a withdrawal and have done so for quite some time. A majority of independents take this position. Even many Republicans. The ones that would be alienated are the hardcore partisans that were never going to be happy with a Democratic administration regardless.
The last bit of advice Brooks doles out to the Dems regards fiscal policy:
Ah yes, those silly Democrats. They would try that wouldn't they. Unlike the Republicans, who sagely concluded that a series of unprecedented multi-trillion dollar tax cuts primarily serving the wealthiest Americans at a time of not one, but two wars is called making tough choices in the pursuit of fiscal discipline. There are, of course, a couple of pretty good way to get the deficit under control while freeing up money for domestic spending. Let portions of Bush's trillion dollar tax cuts expire, and withdraw troops from Iraq. But David Brooks would warn you, in earnest, that such a course would be disaster. So magnanimous is he.
Both campaigns now promise fiscal discipline, as well as ambitious new programs. These kinds of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too vows were merely laughable last year when the federal deficit was running at a manageable $163 billion a year....the Democrats have conducted their race amid unconstrained “Yes We Can!” unreality.