Tuesday, November 22, 2005

What Murtha meant; what Krugman says

So, did Rep. John Murtha call for a quick withdrawal from Iraq or not?

In Slate, Fred Kaplan makes a pretty good case that he did not:

Take a close look at Murtha's now-infamous statement of Nov. 17. You will not find the words "withdrawal," "pullout," or their myriad synonyms. Instead, he calls for a "redeployment" of U.S. troops—which may seem like a euphemism for withdrawal but in fact is very different. Toward the end of his statement, Murtha lays out the elements of what he calls his "plan":

To immediately redeploy U.S. troops consistent with the safety of U.S. forces.
To create a quick reaction force in the region.
To create an over-the-horizon presence of Marines.
To diplomatically pursue security and stability in Iraq.

He doesn't elaborate on any of these ideas, but it's clear they don't add up to "cut and run." True, his final line reads, "It is time to bring them home," but his plan suggests he wants to bring, at most, only some of them home. The others are to be "redeployed" in the quick-reaction forces hovering just offshore.

Murtha stressed this point Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, saying he wanted to "redeploy the troops to the periphery." He used that phrase—"to the periphery," meaning just offshore or across the border from Iraq, not all the way home—three times during the interview.

Kaplan also points out that, interestingly enough, Murtha's proposal looks like a Cliff's Notes version of a recent report, Strategic Redeployment: A Progressive Plan for Iraq and the Struggle Against Violent Extremists, published by the Center for American Progress and co-authored by Lawrence Korb, assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, and Brian Katulis.

The Truth Laid Bear disagrees (hat tip: Instapundit), stressing the words "immediately redeploy" and also pointing to the conclusion of Murtha's speech as posted on his website:

Our military has done everything that has been asked of them, the U.S. can not accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. IT IS TIME TO BRING THEM HOME.
(All caps in the original.)

So, which is it? "Cut and run" or phased redeployment?

It's pretty clear that Murtha's plan envisions a continuing role for the U.S. military in the region. Yet his concluding line seems to contradict that. Could it be that he let his rhetoric run away with him, and sacrificed a credible plan to a good slogan?

I don't think Murtha is a "cut and run" guy, though I do think that his proposal is in some ways naive. For instance, he says that ending the occupation "will send a signal to the Sunnis to join the political process for the good of a 'free' Iraq." From everything we know, I'd say that the Sunni Arabs in Iraq are at least as nervous and resentful about getting shafted by the Shiites and the Kurds as they are about the presence of the American troops. (Most of their violence is directed at the Shiites, not the Americans.) I'm also not sure why Murtha thinks it's so important that we announce our withdrawal before the election scheduled for mid-December. I would say that, on the contrary, it would be a good idea to wait and see if the election results in some stabilization before annoucing any drastic moves.

In sum, on Murtha, I agree with Andrew Sullivan: Murtha is wrong, but so are the attempts to smear and belittle him.

Meanwhile, in yesterday's New York Times, Paul Krugman heaps praise on Murtha -- "a much-decorated veteran who cares deeply about America's fighting men and women" -- in a column bluntly titled, "Time to Leave." Since Krugman is now trapped behind the solid walls of TimesSelect, some excerpts:

[D]efenders of our current policy have had to make a substantive argument: we can't leave Iraq now, because a civil war will break out after we're gone. One is tempted to say that they should have thought about that possibility back when they were cheerleading us into this war. But the real question is this: When, exactly, would be a good time to leave Iraq?

The fact is that we're not going to stay in Iraq until we achieve victory, whatever that means in this context. At most, we'll stay until the American military can take no more.

... And time is running out. With some military units on their third tour of duty in Iraq, the superb volunteer army that Mr. Bush inherited is in increasing danger of facing a collapse in quality and morale similar to the collapse of the officer corps in the early 1970's.

So the question isn't whether things will be ugly after American forces leave Iraq. They probably will. The question, instead, is whether it makes sense to keep the war going for another year or two, which is all the time we realistically have.

Pessimists think that Iraq will fall into chaos whenever we leave. If so, we're better off leaving sooner rather than later. As a Marine officer quoted by James Fallows in the current Atlantic Monthly puts it, "We can lose in Iraq and destroy our Army, or we can just lose."

And there's a good case to be made that our departure will actually improve matters. As Mr. Murtha pointed out in his speech, the insurgency derives much of its support from the perception that it's resisting a foreign occupier. Once we're gone, the odds are that Iraqis, who don't have a tradition of religious extremism, will turn on fanatical foreigners like Zarqawi.

The only way to justify staying in Iraq is to make the case that stretching the U.S. army to its breaking point will buy time for something good to happen. I don't think you can make that case convincingly. So Mr. Murtha is right: it's time to leave.

Note that Krugman may be endorsing a more radical plan than Murtha is proposing. And note how Krugman simultaneously marshals two contradictory arguments to bolster his case: things in Iraq are likely "turn ugly" after our departure in any case, so we'd better leave soon; our departure is likely to make things better.

Is the state of the military as grim as Krugman suggests? There is no doubt that the engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan are a major strain on our armed forces. But the reports on recruitment and reenlistment are somewhat contradictory. Furthermore, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, military officers (admittedly a fairly small sample) are considerably more likely than members of the news media, academics, and foreign affairs experts to believe that the effort to establish a stable democracy in Iraq will succeed.

And there is something else. Krugman quotes the marine from James Fallows's article in The Atlantic Monthly; but he does not say that Fallows' long essay (available to subscribers only) takes the opposite of a "cut and run" approach. An excerpt:

Let me suggest a standard for judging endgame strategies in Iraq, given the commitment the United States has already made. It begins with the recognition that even if it were possible to rebuild and fully democratize Iraq, as a matter of political reality the United States will not stay to see it through. ... But perhaps we could stay long enough to meet a more modest standard.

What is needed for an honorable departure is, at a minimum, a country that will not go to war with itself, and citizens who will not turn to large-scale murder. This requires Iraqi security forces that are working on a couple of levels: a national army strong enough to deter militias from any region and loyal enough to the new Iraq to resist becoming the tool of any faction; policemen who are sufficiently competent, brave, and honest to keep civilians safe. If the United States leaves Iraq knowing that non-American forces are sufficient to keep order, it can leave with a clear conscience—no matter what might happen a year or two later.

In the end the United States may not be able to leave honorably. The pressure to get out could become too great. But if we were serious about reconstituting an Iraqi military as quickly as possible, what would we do? Based on these interviews, I have come to this sobering conclusion: the United States can best train Iraqis, and therefore best help itself leave Iraq, only by making certain very long-term commitments to stay.

Fallows, it should be noted, is highly critical of the way the U.S. has handled the training of the Iraqi military so far, and he makes a number of specific suggestions for what we should do. "Leave now" is definitely not one of them. Is it, perhaps, a tad disingenuous for Krugman to enlist Fallows to his side without disclosing that Fallows's position differs so dramatically from his own?

Krugman, I think, is the kind of war critic who truly gives war critics a bad name, and who gives weight to the notion that opposition to the war is driven mainly by hatred for Bush. Remember, Krugman is the guy who once managed to blame Bush for the rise of virulent anti-Semitism in the Muslim world.

We need a debate about an exit strategy in Iraq, and about the best way to ensure that the sacrifices made so far are not in vain without sacrificing thousands more lives. As I have argued here over the past few days, rhetoric demonizing war dissent is not helpful in this debate. But when it comes to Krugman -- not to echo the White House, but the word 'irresponsible" does come to mind.


reader_iam said...

I think tempers ran a bit too high over the Murtha situation--on all sides. You (and Sullivan) have got it right, I think.

In reading your post, I suddenly, and with pleasure, realized that I hadn't even THOUGHT of Krugman in some weeks. IMHO, that's a silver lining to the whole TimesSelect endeavour. Pardon my snark.

And despite everything, I still WOULD be subscribing to the dead-tree NYT if home delivery were available in my neck of the woods (which it's not, unless something's radically changed very recently--note to self, should check again), even though I can get the news stuff free over the 'net.

Anonymous said...

Based solely on what you've excerpted from Krugman, I think you're being slightly unfair to him.

You don't quote him as "enlisting" Fallows to his side - he just cites Fallows' article as the source of the quote he recites. He's enlisting the marine, not Fallows. If he really wanted to disingenuously enlist Fallows, he could easily have thrown in a "as Fallows demonstrates" or "as Fallows argues." But he didn't. Remember, it's not a blog, it's a column - his space is limited, and he can't give endless qualifiers. And he's not quoting the marine unfairly, is he - he's not taking the quote out of context to suggest that the marine means something other than what Fallows suggests he means, does he? (I don't know, but I assume not.)

Secondly, yes, on the surface there's a bit of contradiction in the "things will inevitably get worse/things may improve if we leave" style of argument. But Krugman appears to be arguing in terms of two probabilities which aren't mutually contradictory: things are likely to get increasingly chaotic whether or not we leave, but there's a chance that our leaving will make things marginally better than they'd be if we stayed (by reducing admiration for the terrorists and inducing the other parties to cooperate).

I'm not sure that that's a correct argument, nor do I know whether Krugman really makes that argument in his full column - or whether he'd make the argument given unlimited space. But I think it's a plausible argument, and if you read Krugman charitably, I think he earns the benefit of the doubt. To say "there's a good case to be made that our departure will actually improve matters" is not necessarily to say that things won't be fairly ugly - things without the U.S. could be unpleasant and yet still be substantially less unpleasant than they'd be if we had stayed.

Anonymous said...

What the navigator said. Krugman is indeed a rabid Bush-hater, but I have never, ever found him to be deceptive or inaccurate in his factual statements. His arguments are tightly argued and logically consistent, and his bias - that *everything* is Bush's fault - is right out in the open.

Sometimes his Bush-hatred gets so extreme that it becomes comical - like the infamous column (linked here by Ms. Young) in which he managed to blame Bush for anti-Semitism among the Malaysian political elite. But even that column contained no factual errors or deceptions.

He's not careless, inaccurate, or deceitful. He's just relentlessly one-sided.

Revenant said...

Murtha's speech advocates both (a) staying and fighting and (b) immediately recalling our troops. I don't think we need to pick one as the one he really meant. The simplest explanation of the contradictions in his speech is that he was trying to have it both ways -- to appeal to both the "we need to finish the job" and "run away! run away!" halves of the Democratic Party. Kerry tried the same stunt in the 2004 elections.

Cathy Young said...

I'm not so sure about Krugman's accuracy, navigator; see, for instance, this account of Krugman's recent corrections saga regarding the 2000 recount results. The same article discusses another Krugman column which, while not technically inaccurate, is certainly wildly misleading (Krugman asserts that the reason the U.S. does not have adequate programs to help the poor is racism, never mentioning the fact that the majority of the poor in America are white.) See here for another example of Krugman making an assertion without presenting the whole story.

(It's only fair to disclose that I myself once had an embarrassing correction adventure when I used a faulty translation of a quote from European Commission chief Romano Prodi and then, due a typo, repeated the mistake in my correction.)

Anonymous said...

Murtha's proposal for an over the horizon (presumably), but still in the region quick reaction force deserves a more critical review than you've given it. Murtha, of all people, should understand that the present strategy adopted by the US military in Iraq, called by some the "ink-blot" strategy, has been effective and is helping to stabilize ever greater areas of the country. Following Murtha's proposal would amount to abandoning what has been working, leaving the now secure areas of Iraq unsecure. It is a cut and run strategy. We've seen this movie before, and we know how it ends -- invariably, with thousands of civilian deaths and a country in the control of the totalitarians. Murtha's background entitles him to respect, but it also makes a higher standard applicable and thereby entitles him to very harsh criticism for a plan that is a barely disguised cut and run plan.

Steven said...

Screw the Iraqis; we have to stay for us.

If we leave now, Al Qaeda wins. Yes, we won the war against Saddam Hussein, but we stayed after we caught him. That started Phase II, a war against the Al Qaeda presence in Iraq, and if we leave now, we'll be adding "Iraq" to the litany of "Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia". With the result there would be an increase in prestige for Bin Laden, more money for Bin Laden, and more trouble from Bin Laden.

We need to stay until we can plausibly say we left because we beat Al Qaeda. Which we can't right now. A withdrawal from Iraq now will kill Americans on American soil.

Revenant said...

Remember how the Republican party achieved its majority status

By being religious, pushing for lower taxes, and being tough on defense.

The idea that the Republicans gained majority status by appealing to racism is ludicrous. The importance of race issues in the South has declined as Republican influence has increased -- the exact opposite of what we would expect if your claim were true.

*Nixon* got elected by appealing to racism. The Republican Party has been suffering fallout from that ever since. The issue has been a net loser for Republicans -- it cost them the black vote they'd enjoyed since Lincoln, and gained them votes they'd have won anyway with their defense-and-religion platform.

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