Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Four Not-So-Evidant "Unspeakable" Truths

Over at Slate, Jacob Weisberg covers what he calls "Four Unspeakable Truths" about Iraq. In essence, he contends, they are things that all (or, at least, most) of the political class knows but cannot say for either personal or political reasons. Like most of what you read on politics (this blog being no exception) he is both right and wrong.

Speaking of the unspeakable in order:

1. The War Was a Mistake
Well, yes and no. I think that had anyone known that the WMDs were (apparently) not there and that the war would have dragged on as it has, almost no one would have advocated it. That being said, even in those circumstances, the war is a less-than-ideal response to a less-than-ideal situation. Saddam and the West were tied in a knot. We could get out of it in only two ways: let Saddam up or kick Saddam out. If we do the former we risk that he wass return to form. Saddam jumped the gun by invading Kuwait when he did. The US was just coming off of the Cold War and had a surplus of military hardware that was either going to be scrapped or used. It got used. Had he waited a few years he would have faced a much reduced US military. Yes, it would have been a US military that was perfectly capable of kicking his ass, but not as easily or as cheaply in terms of American lives. He also would have been much more likely to posess a large stock of WMDs, possibly including nuclear weapons. He also would have faced a risk averse Administration (assuming Clinton still wins). Could Saddam have known all that? Obviously not, but that doesn't mean it isn't true. Having recognized his mistakes (evil and stupid aren't the same thing), a Saddam who has been let up off the mat is going to be a much more formidable opponent. Recognizing all of that and combining it with a reduced willingness post-9/11 to accept the existence of even potential threats, America decided to remove Saddam. That effort was spectacularly successful. The problems (as everyone knows) came from the aftermath. The war itself was not a mistake. The handling of the aftermath has been filled with mistakes. Saying that the war was a mistake is like telling your juvenile delinquent teenager that you wish he had never been born.

2. American killed and wounded (particularly those treated in the outpatient facilities at Walter Reed) are victims as well as heroes.

Weisberg uses this one as sort of a catch-all to suggest that people who go into the military usually do so because they don't have better civilian options. While there are (and he admits this) exceptions to this, this is a generally true statement. Most people who have the opportunity to get a job making 80k per year straight out of college don't decide to join the Army and be a grunt. Some do. They are amazing. Most don't. The reasons why people join the military are varied, but economic interest is one of them and it is often the primary reason. I don't know that the fact that someone is poor and chooses to join the military makes them a victim, however. For many people joining the military it isn't all that much of a risk or a sacrifice. Maybe that should be a a fifth unspoken truth. The simple fact is that most people who join the military, even in time of war, are not going to die. They are not going to be wounded. They are not even going to be placed in particular hazard. They are more likely to be pushing keys than to be toting a rifle. That doesn't minimize their service, it's just an acknowledgement of the teeth-to-tail ratio of a modern military force. Anyway, they have made a career choice based on their own perceived interests. They're not necessarily heroes or victims.

3. Lives lost in Iraq have been wasted.

As Weisberg acknowledges, this premise follows from the first two. If the war was a mistake and the troops are its victims then the lives lost have been wasted. Obviously, since I don't agree that the war was a mistake and I don't believe the troops are victims, I don't believe the lives of the dead have been wasted. Ultimately, if we are left with a situation that is, on balance, better than what we had before, the lives of our dead soldiers will not have been wasted. As things stand now, I think we are dramatically ahead of where we were in Iraq five years ago. There have been elections, there is a democratic government, there is peace in the vast majority of the country, Iraq is not a threat to US interests or to its neighbors. The Bush Administration's continuing inability to make this clear (even in the face of a hostile media) is the singular failing of this President.

4. America is losing or has already lost the Iraq war.

"Winning" and "losing" are relative terms. That sounds like I'm being evasive, but I'm not. You have to define victory and defeat before you can evaluate where you stand. One of the problems we face is (as I said above) the Bush Administration's failure to provide a realistic, achievable definition of victory. Iraq was never going to emerge from this war as Canada. Just not going to happen. The fundamental goals of the Iraq war were pretty straight-forward, they've just never been presented to the American people in a straight-forward manner. The goals were:

A. Removal of Saddam
B. Elimination of Iraq as a threat to American interest and to its neighbors
C. Providing the Iraqi people with an OPPORTUNITY to achieve a reasonably stable, reasonably open, reasonably free society.

By any reasonable definition, we have accomplished all of these. A and B are irreversible. C is also irreversible as it is written. Iraqis have been given the OPPORTUNITY to achieve the greatest degree of liberty to be found in any Arab state in the world. Whether they will succeed in this effort is ultimately their own affair. It is something over which the United States has a very limited degree of control. By failing to make this abundently clear, the Administration has set the stage for the entire mission in Iraq to be deemed a failure by those who were always pre-disposed to do so.

So much for your truths, sir

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