A Level Gaze

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Sunday, April 18, 2004
Fish, Barrel, Howitzer

Jesus, David, make up your goddamn mind already.

The first thing to say is that I never thought [the situation in Iraq] would be this bad. I knew it would be bad. On the third day of the U.S. invasion, I wrote an essay for The Atlantic called "Building Democracy Out of What?" I pointed out that we should expect that the Iraqis would have been traumatized by a generation of totalitarianism. That society would have been brutally atomized. And that many would have developed a taste for sadism and an addiction to violence. On April 11, 2003, I predicted on "The NewsHour" on PBS that we and the Iraqis would be forced to climb a "wall of quagmires."

Nonetheless, I didn't expect that a year after liberation, hostile militias would be taking over cities or that it would be unsafe to walk around Baghdad. Most of all, I misunderstood how normal Iraqis would react to our occupation. I knew they'd resent us. But I thought they would see that our interests and their interests are aligned. We both want to establish democracy and get the U.S. out.
You didn't think that the practical upshot of running roughshod over a country full of people with "a taste for sadism and an addiction to violence" might be organized, armed resistance?

Second, let me describe my attitude toward the Bush administration. Despite all that's happened, I was still stirred by yesterday's Bush/Blair statements about democracy in the Middle East. Nonetheless, over the past two years many conservatives have grown increasingly exasperated with the administration's inability to execute its policies semicompetently.

When I worked at The Weekly Standard, we argued ad nauseam that the U.S. should pour men and mat?riel into Iraq ? that such an occupation could not be accomplished by a light, lean, "transformed" military. The administration was impervious to the growing evidence about that. The failure to establish order was the prime mistake, from which all other problems flow.
Yes, David, we all want democracy in the Middle East. But just saying so doesn't accomplish anything but threaten the dictators who run the place. You argued "ad nauseum" that we had to use overwhelming force to successfully occupy Iraq, and we didn't do it. Had the situation we're now facing there occurred to you as a possible result of understaffing the occupation? If not, what did you think was going to be the result? What is force good for, anyway? Keeping order and deterring and countering armed resistance leap effortlessly to mind. Didn't they occur to you?

On July 21, 2002, my colleague Robert Kagan wrote the first of several essays lamenting the administration's alarming lack of preparation for post-Saddam Iraq. Yet the administration seemed content to try nation-building on the cheap.
But a week ago, you said everything was going to be fine.

Many of us also assumed, wrongly, that the administration would launch a fresh postwar initiative to globalize the reconstruction effort. My friends at the Project for the New American Century urged the U.S. to go to the U.N. for a reconstruction resolution, to build a broad coalition to aid rebuilding and to establish a NATO-led security force. That never happened.
Um, Dave? The PNAC'ers in the Bush administration were the ones who kept the UN and NATO out of reconstruction. They blocked the awarding of contracts to countries that might have been helpful. They told the world that the UN was irrelevant. Are you high?

Despite all this -- and maybe it's pure defensiveness -- I still believe that in 20 years, no one will doubt that Bush did the right thing. To his enormous credit, the president has been ruthlessly flexible over the past months and absolutely committed to seeing this through. He is acknowledging the need for more troops. He is absolutely right to embrace Lakhdar Brahimi's plan to dissolve the Governing Council and set up an interim government. This might take attention away from the U.S, and change the atmosphere in the country.
I don't mean to be presumptious, David, but do you think you could do me a favor and RULE OUT "pure defensiveness?" If it is "pure defensiveness," then it's just self-serving bullshit, and Bush didn't do the "right thing." Could you give us something more to go on than "maybe?" You're writing an op-ed column in one of the nation's two Newspapers of Record. Could you at least pretend to be objective? You used the word "I" 18 times in this 744-word column. See, even though it's an opinion column, it's not supposed to be about you.

Bringing democracy to Iraq is a great idea, but doing it badly and making things worse in the process isn't. What is the "right thing" Bush did that will require 20 years to figure out? Is it all the wrong things you so helpfully warned us about before the war, and that he did anyway?

Also, what, exactly, does "ruthlessly flexible" mean? Will you be applying that approving turn of phrase to Kerry anytime soon, or will you call him a flip-flopping waffler?

We hawks were wrong about many things. But in opening up the possibility for a slow trudge toward democracy, we were still right about the big thing.
I wonder if anyone would have thought invading Iraq was a good idea if Bush had said our objective was to "[open] up the possibility for a slow trudge toward democracy."