Shield of Falsehoods

Friday, April 18, 2008

Washington is an echo chamber. One pundit, one senator, one reporter proclaims a snazzy “truth” and almost immediately it reverberates as gospel. Conventional wisdom about Iraq is rarely questioned. A notion seems to find validity not on its logic or through empirical evidence, but simply by the degree to which it is repeated and felt to resonate.

Take the following often-repeated statements.


Well, obviously it is true in the sense that we are not going to see another Curtis LeMay flatten a Fallujah or a Ramadi with waves of bombers.

A military solution in Iraq would take a different form from that we associate with conventional strategies, but it would be no less vital to the country’s future in providing the calm for political reconstruction to follow. The miraculous political achievement of postwar Japan or Europe was clearly the dividend of a military solution: the destruction of wartime fascism and the prevention of its re-emergence by vigilant military policing. Likewise, there will be peace in a constitutional Iraq only when its citizens believe that they can safely participate in government, express themselves somewhat freely, prosper economically, and feel safe from internal and external threats and reprisals.

To do this requires an army and a national police force that can prevent thugs, militias, and terrorists from killing those with whom they disagree. In war-torn Iraq, such forces will emerge as confident and capable only when they know that the United States is stronger than their enemies and can offer them a window of security in which to train and get stronger.

So a political solution is possible only if there is security—and security is likely only if someone first kills, defeats, or routs the enemy. The promise of political equity and stability may draw Iraqis to participate in the requisite armed effort—but the armed effort comes first. So we watch as some very brave souls in the U.S. Marine Corps and Army wade into the swamp of the seventh century to stop killers from plying their craft against the weak and helpless.


This is another red herring. Regional players all had interests in Iraq. The problem was that they were never quite our own.

So, before talking, they first wanted to try their hand at mischief and advantage, and only later—when and if forced—would resort to diplomacy. Iran wanted to create a Shiite buffer state; the gulf monarchies and Jordan, to make sure that Sunni insurgents won and thereby to remind their own dissident Shiite minorities to respect the status quo; Turkey, to thwart an independent Kurdistan; and Syria, to do anything that caused the United States trouble and provided some recompense for the loss of Lebanon.

There will be peace in a constitutional Iraq only when citizens believe that they can safely participate in government, express themselves, prosper, and feel secure.

In 2003, and again in 2007, those regional powers wanted to talk with the United States because they had a hunch we were winning—and thus they sought an advantage from the local power broker (or were terrified of the power broker). But during 2004–06 we were perceived as mired in Iraq, weak, and not worth the words.

Then suddenly, as the volatile battlefield changed once more, we had renewed clout with the Saudis to cut off the money to Sunni extremists; with the Jordanians and Syrians to monitor their borders with Iraq; and with the Iranians to reduce their weapons shipments into Iraq. If there is a shred of truth in December’s National Intelligence Estimate, which alleges that Iran ceased its nuclear bomb program in 2003, it was not due to some miraculous “diplomacy” but only to the fear that the mullahs might end up like the recently deposed Saddam Hussein. Witness Colonel Gadhafi’s about-face on Libyan nuclear development in December 2003, a week after pictures of Saddam in his spider hole were seen around the world.

If Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon were to stabilize, and the Sunni world form an anti-Iranian bloc, then Iran would be more than eager for serious talks.

Whatever the Bush administration’s wishes, the United States is always engaged in some sort of regional diplomacy on the periphery of Iraq. Yet its success is based largely on constantly changing perceptions of our relative power—which since 2003 has hinged on the progress of the war. Going into Iraq was always a great gamble because success there would amplify our diplomatic options in the Middle East as much as defeat would diminish them.


We have always had some sort of back-channel dialogue with Iran. But these negotiations during the past thirty years have centered mostly on problems caused by Iranians. They take hostages—and want to discuss the price of their release. They send out terrorists—and want to discuss the price for calling them off. They cheat on international accords—and want to discuss the price for complying.

Iran is friendly with North Korea not just so it can buy missiles and nuclear technology but also because Tehran admires what it sees as a successful North Korean “cheat and get rewarded” strategy—energized by a nuclear deterrent.

The problem of structuring formal talks about substantive issues is largely with Iran, not us. President Clinton learned that well enough when his rapprochement with the theocracy was cut short by Iran. Such cozying up to the Great Satan apparently was perceived as fatal to Iran’s self-image as a revolutionary jihadist state.

If the surrounding Iraqi, Afghan, and Lebanese democracies were to stabilize, and the Sunni world coalesce into a general anti-Iranian bloc, then Iran would be more than eager for serious talks at any level. If we fail in Iraq, or Iran gets the bomb—as Tehran thought during 2004–06 would soon be likely—then Iran will show little interest in conversation. History suggests that democratic states are initially more eager for engagement than tyrannies, which talk only when their backs are against the wall or their appetites are for a time sated.


Two points need to be made about this canard. First, it is hard to think of democracies that did not emerge out of some sort of violence or the threat of such. Constitutional systems in Argentina, the Balkans, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan—and the United States—to name only a few, all came into being after an armed conflict or at least the specter of force.

War is not the only catalyst for a new democracy, but there is a common enough connection. Antidemocratic forces, both internal and external, usually prefer not to surrender power unless forced.

Second, for all the charges that America is wedded to pre-emption and unilateral cowboyism, after six years we are still talking about U.S. attacks on just two countries—Afghanistan and Iraq. Each had a bad history with the United States, whether as a safe haven for Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda or as an on-again, off-again adversary dating back to 1991.

We can’t issue a verdict yet on the American investment in the war. The aftermath and a tallying of the costs still lie in the future.

We haven’t invaded anyone else. We did not bomb or attack odious regimes such as Syria or Iran—and aren’t very likely to. The anomaly is not that we are force-feeding democracy down the throat of the Middle East but rather that lately we have quit promoting it to allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, even when we know that ultimately such liberalization is the only way to defuse tension on the “Arab street” and disrupt the symbiosis between terrorism and dictatorship.


Critics are not allowed to stop history at a convenient point—at Abu Ghraib, the pullback from Fallujah, or the bombing of the dome at Samarra—and then pass final judgment. If Lincoln had quit after Cold Harbor, Wilson after the German spring offensive of 1918, or Roosevelt after the fall of the Philippines, then their presidencies would have failed and the United States today would be a far weaker country—or perhaps nonexistent.

History instead will assess the Iraq chapter when it ends—either in defeat, through a precipitous U.S. withdrawal and a collapse of Iraq, or in victory, after a gradual redeployment of American troops as Iraqi forces step in to ensure the stability and security of a constitutional state.

We can’t issue a verdict yet on the American investment in the war because its aftermath and a tallying of its costs still lie in the future. But already we sense that the thing feared most by our enemies—Al-Qaeda, Iran, Libya, or Syria—was the goal we have pursued: the establishment of a constitutional government in place of Saddam’s Iraq, with the accompanying principle that the region’s autocratic governments can’t acquire dangerous arsenals to support terror and bully their neighbors.

It also bodes well, if both trends continue, that we haven’t had another September 11 and that bin Laden’s popularity has plummeted in the Islamic Middle East. It will take years to work out how much blood and treasure it was worth to thwart the Taliban and Saddam in a post-9/11 landscape. The assessment will have to weigh not just war and peace, but also the dangers of having left the Taliban and Saddam Hussein in power versus the costs and benefits of replacing them with something far better.

One assertion about Iraq does hold up. The conventional wisdom of pundits, reporters, and politicians springs from their own daily perceptions of whether we are winning or losing the war—and thus what they say is true today may well be untrue tomorrow.