Friday, November 10, 2006

Max Boot and Kevin Drum on Iraq

Max Boot has an interesting, if depressing, column on the Iraq situation in the Los Angeles Times. It opens with the statement:

FIRST, LET'S GET one thing straight. Contrary to the suggestions sometimes heard on conservative talk radio, the terrible headlines out of Iraq aren't an invention of liberal news media. They all too accurately reflect the grim reality.

I don't listen to talk radio, but I can think of a few pundits in print, on TV and on the Internet who should be required to write this on the blackboard (maybe a virtual blackboard) 500 times as penance. Only two months ago, I attended a Manhattan Institute lecture by James Q. Wilson (a print version is available here) on the war and the media, in which Wilson examined at length the causes of negative media coverage of the war in Iraq without ever pausing to ask whether the negativity was justified by the facts.

But I digress.

Boot then goes on to examine a variety of possible solutions and finds them all wanting. Kevin Drum takes him to task:

It sounds grim, but I hardly need to tell you how this ends, do I? Maybe we can't win, but that doesn't mean we should withdraw. That would be disastrous. So we should just stay forever with no prospect of success in sight. This is, apparently, called "being honest with ourselves."

Well, here's what Boot actually says:

Bad as the situation is today, it could get a lot worse if we simply pull out. The probable result might be labeled "civil war," but it would bear scant resemblance to our own Civil War. It wouldn't be two sides fighting one another; it would be a war of all against all. Iraq would probably degenerate into the kind of anarchy seen in Somalia and Afghanistan in the 1990s. As in those countries, the resulting backlash could produce an Islamist dictatorship that would threaten American interests. We would also be hurt by the perception that we are a "weak horse" (to quote Osama bin Laden) that can be driven out of a country by a few suicide bombers — a perception sure to embolden terrorists.

Not a pleasant scenario. But we need to be honest with ourselves about what is involved in an unseemly dash for the exits. By all means, try to apply a political Band-Aid to Iraq's gaping wounds. Just don't be under any illusion that it will hold.

Only the presence of American troops keeps the patient alive — just barely.

Clearly, what Boot is saying, and what I think everyone understands, is that there are no good choices in Iraq today, only lesser degrees of bad choices. I don't think we can "win the war" in the sense of U.S. forces dealing a crushing and final military defeat to the insurgency (something that, at this stage, would require mass reprisals against the population and other things that are off the table). But we can try to minimize the damage -- to the Iraqi population, to our military, to our national security -- and there still remains the question of how best to do that. Boot cites some good counterarguments against a rushed withdrawal, and I think those points are worth considering.


Ampersand said...

Welcome back to blogging. :-)

Boot's article doesn't seem to offer any acceptable alternatives to an indefinite US presence in Iraq. Maybe an occupation with no exit is the best of the available options; but if so, we need to be willing to say that honestly, and Boot seems unwilling to say so straight-out.

(Of course, maybe he has other ideas in mind. But if so, he didn't say so in this article.)

So it seems to me that Kevin is essentially correct in summing up the Boot column as "So we should just stay forever with no prospect of success in sight." Maybe that is the best option. But if so, we should start saying so.

Rainsborough said...

An entertaining parlor game: google up the historians' list of the ten worst presidential mistakes ever made. Then ask whether any of the foreign policy errors can top Bush's excursus into Iraq.

From the War of 1812, we emerged unscathed, and even gave General Jackson a ticket to the White House.

In Vietnam, take away the shame of those we abandoned to "reeducation" or worse, no more dominoes toppled and again we got out unscathed. Except for little things like a deeply cynical and corrupt man twice elected president, hundreds of billions of dollars, and all those names on the wall.

But Iraq--how are we going to get out without leaving behind maybe not only civil conflict but also international, maybe also an Islamist base in some governate or other? When this little pipsqueak of a president screws up, it's a beaut.

Still, a fact now so much in evidence even Max Boot concedes it: the whole time our troops have been present in Iraq, conditions have steadily worsened. Those who advocate keeping them there have an obligation to explain why this descent won't continue, why extrication from Iraq won't become yet more difficult even as it remains inevitable.

Baker-Hamilton, the top military brass, Gates are all looking for a the best way out. Bush has ensured that there is no good one.

See Richard Betts at

Oh--and I'm very glad to see a blogger who always strives so ably and diligently to get the facts straight is back in the sphere.

Cathy Young said...

Glad to be back, guys! :)

Jim said...

And glad to see you back.

I emember back in thr mid-70s when the situation in the north of Ireland was beginning to really heat up after having been quiescent for 50 years, a professor of mine who had grown up in the west of Ireland said that the best and cleanest solution for the British would be simply to pull pitch one day. The prospect of the inevitable sectarian bloodbath would so horrify Prot and Catholic alike that they would snap to their senses in the nanosecond before their habitual responses kicked in.

I don't know if that would work in Iraq, but I do think that alarmism about Iranian success in manipulating Iraqi Shi'ites is naive. Simple racism is bound to keep Iraq independent of Iran forever. And the other worst case is that the Shi'ite majority would annihilate the Sunni 1) won't happen or 2) would get stopped by the neighbors before it got started.

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