When You’re in a Hole…

From the people that brought you the war in Iraq come warnings to not give up on the war in Iraq.  Writing in the New York Times, so-called liberal hawks Kenneth Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon urge the Obama Administration to proceed with caution with its stated goal to withdraw US combat troops by August 2010 and the all remaining forces by December 2011.  “The Iraq war isn’t over,” they write.  Take heart, though.  The country, Pollack and O’Hanlon assert with the indefatigable spirit of those intellectually invested in a point of view, is making “tremendous strides.”

You may remember Pollack.  He wrote The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.  The book argued that "the only prudent and realistic course of action left to the United States is to mount a full-scale invasion of Iraq to smash the Iraqi armed forces, depose Saddam’s regime, and rid the country of weapons of mass destruction.”  The only prudent and realistic course of action might be to keep quiet after being so spectacularly wrong, but Pollack, a scholar at the center-left Brookings Institution, is no shrinking violet.  In 2007, he co-authored Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War.  Call him topical if nothing else. 

Pollack’s fellow Iraq cheerleader and think tank colleague, Michael O’Hanlon, presents himself as the voice of reason on national security issues, as if his miserable track record on such matters didn’t matter.  In February 2003, a month before the Iraq invasion, O’Hanlon was asked on national television if he had any doubt about going to war.  He replied, “Not much doubt.”  An example of poor judgement?  Hardly.  “I believe Ken Pollack and I have been generally proven right by events,” O’Hanlon said recently.  But give him his due.  He has some humility.  When evaluating his own track record on Iraq, O’Hanlon gave himself a modest seven out of ten, bringing to mind the Pentagon’s characterization of a 2003 test launch of a missile defense system as a success even though the interceptor missed its target because it did everything else as it was supposed to.

For a candid assessment about Iraq one must look elsewhere.  Few know more about the Iraq war than Thomas Ricks, Washington Post correspondent and author of two highly acclaimed books on the topic.  He paints a decidedly starker picture.  Reality has set in.  The US has reduced its goals, Ricks says, from a beacon of democracy to a “more or less stable Iraq that is…more or less [respectful] of its minorities, but not anything that we would recognzise as a country as Americans.”  A regrettable but small setback, perhaps, but there are others.  The country, according to Ricks, may not even be an ally of the US in the future.  And there’s more.

While the surge has been an unqualified military success, it has done nothing to alleviate the country’s factional strife.  In Ricks’ estimation, it failed overall because the requisite political change in Iraq—a law on dividing oil profits, resolving issues regarding Kurdish autonomy, etc.—has not occurred.  “All the basic questions facing Iraq before the surge are still there.”  Those unresolved existential issues, Ricks’ warns, might be sovled violently. 

If Ricks’ grim assessment is right, the US will confront a dilemma.  To leave Iraq by 2011 as stipulated in the Status of Forces Agreement signed by the Bush Administration might be to invite a huge conflagration, both in the country and perhaps regionally.  But to stay on might only delay the inevitable, and at further cost to the US in blood and treasure—we’ve already lost 4,200-plus soldiers and spent nearly $1 trillion.  Indeed, if Iraq can’t stand on its own by 2011 after nearly nine years of US occupation, then what’s to say our doubling down will work? 

Then there’s the political dimension.  An Iraq that collapses on Obama’s watch will be cast by Republicans as his fault, not the fault of a reckless and grandiose policy of regime change that invited disaster.  A “Who Lost China?” blame game will ensue.  Obama, the Replublicans will shamelessy claim, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  Doubtlessly, the glib minions will include Pollack and O’Hanlon.  Had we only listened to them, they’ll insist, we could’ve avoided this mess.  After all, they’re right seven out of ten times.   

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