February 16, 2005

Column 2-15-05 Commentary

Brooks opens this column by saying that it was going to be "exclusively about the trans-Atlantic security conference in Munich last week". But then, it appears, he ran into some marines on their way back home in Ireland, and so the first three paragraphs have to acknowledge this event. Plus, this lets him frame the whole column as if he were discussing the security conference with those marines, which he hopes will help prevent people from actually thinking that much about what he says. After all, we must support the troops! But this is just window dressing: it's great that Brooks interacted with some soldiers in an airport, but doesn't really have anything to do with anything. The point of Brooks's column is to bash the Europeans for not supporting the war in Iraq more. Before we go any further, it is necessary to point out here that there are perfectly good reasons for the Europeans to not support the Iraq war. First of all, Bush was wrong about all the reasons he proposed for going to war. Secondly, the war is wildly unpopular in Europe, even among those countries with troops there, and countries like France and Germany have democratically elected leaders who are responding, as they are supposed to, to the will of the people who elected them. Thirdly, Bush has consistently taken a "my way or the highway" position and refused to use diplomacy to lure the Europeans in: for instance, he has consistently refused to join European diplomatic iniatives, such as the European attempt to make a deal with Iran to get rid of the Iranian nuclear program. Furthermore, there are other issues, like capturing Osama bin Laden, that are more important to fighting terror. And finally, there is the situation in Iraq itself: despite the election, it's still a mess, with a Sunni insurgency that shows no signs of ending, steadily increasing Iranian influence, and the question of what will happen when the Shia figure out that, even though they voted, the Americans still have control of their country. None of these issues, of course, are discussed in Brooks's column: instead, he simply attacks the Europeans as obstructionists.

Consider first the misleading way he frames his attack. First, so you can tell that he's being fair, he praises the Democrats for giving "pretty specific, productive suggestions on winning the war against Islamist extremism". Then he attacks the Europeans for not "giving specific ideas on how to make Iraq a success". But wait a minute: those two things are not, despite what Brooks wants you to think, the same thing. Europeans are, in fact, very interested in winning the war against Islamic extremism. For one thing, they live a lot closer to it than we do, despite 9/11. This contributes to another reason why the Europeans would be interested in winning the war on Islamic extremism: they have a lot more Muslims in their countries than we do here. According to this report, Muslims make up about 2.4% of the American population. In Germany, that percentage is 3.7, and in France it's about 7. On the other hand, for a number of reasons discussed above, Europeans are reluctant to get involved with Iraq. In fact, involvement with Iraq probably hurt our chances of winning the war on Islamic extremism more than it helped them. So far, the two unqualifed successes of the war are producing an Islamic terrorist network in Iraq where there wasn't one before and installing a government friendly towards Iran, one of the major state sponsors of Islamic extremist terrorism. It's hard to say just how this contributes to our victory in the war against Islamic extremism, especially since the war has actually helped Al Qaeda with its recruting.

Having dealt with the general issues, let's consider some specifics. Brooks starts off the substantive part of his colum by bringing out the old assertion that we must "make the most of those 22 Marine deaths". While it is certainly true that we would not like for the Marines to have died for nothing, at a certain point we must accept that, thanks to Bush's incompetence, that's pretty much what happened. In Vietnam, too, people often said that if we left, all those soldiers would have died in vain, and that would be bad. Well, yes, but what would be worse would be to allow more soldiers to die in a vain effort to prove that there was a good reason why the first soldiers had died. That's the problem with the "those soldiers died for something" argument: eventually, it appears that soldiers are dying for no better reason than the fact that other soldiers have died.

Next, Brooks says that Democrats and Republicans alike both came out with "specific, productive suggestions" on how to win the war on Islamic extremism. What were those suggestions? Well, Lindsey Graham wants NATO troops to protect a larger UN presence in Iraq. Apparently Senator Graham missed the last few years, where we did our best to keep the UN from being anything more than a rubber stamp to our Iraq policy and also attacked its usefulness and effectiveness. Now we're coming to them to increase their presence in a very dangerous Iraq? And we're calling for more NATO troops, even as NATO allies like Poland and Hungary prepare to withdraw the troops they already have there? Specific, yes: productive, not so much. There is one scenario in which this might work: if the US hands all responsibility for rebuilding Iraq over to the UN, Bush might well obtain increased international involvement. Given that the chances of this are about on par with the chances of Brooks ever writing a good column, I'm not holding my breath. Speaking of the UN, it appears that Hillary Clinton is continuing her campaign for the presidency in 2008. Already having reached out to the anti-abortion forces, she now reaches out to those who hate the UN, "blasting its absurdities" and saying "'Sometimes we have to act with few or no allies.'" That's the way to get more people to cooperate, isn't it? And how does this contribute to winning the war on Islamic extremism again? The only specific, productive suggestion Brooks supplies is from Rep. Jane Harman, who was apparently pushing the Europeans to classify Hezbollah as a terrorist group, a step they should certainly take. Unless, of course, it would hurt their negotations with the Iranians, because it's much more important that the parent body of Hezbollah, Iran, not acquire nukes than that Hezbollah be declared a terrorist group.

Brooks than goes on to praise John McCain for talking "bluntly to the tyrants". Sounds good, doesn't it? Well, let's see: McCain starts off by attacking the Egyptians for arresting opposition leaders. "The Egyptian foreign minister held his brow, as if in grief," Brooks says. Well, perhaps he was grieved. He's probably not suffering pangs of conscience for arresting opposition leaders, though: it seems more likely he's wondering if this is the way that Egypt is being repaid for being a key mediator in the recent Israel-Palestine peace deal and promising to return its ambassador to Israel and train the Palestinian security forces. Even Haaretz says that Egypt has a "growing role as a peace and security broker in the Middle East." (see previous link). While Hosni Mubarak is not a nice guy, and it would certainly be better if Egypt was a democracy, just about everybody seems to think that solving the Israel-Palestine question is an important first step to winning the war on Islamic extremism, and a democratic Egypt would almost certainly be ruled by an Islamist party that would be unlikely to support the kind of moves Mubarak has been making recently. Also, it should be noted that Egypt inviting the Israelis to a peace summit and even flying their flag is probably not very popular among most Egyptians. So, in summary, McCain just insulted a key ally in the Middle East, one who has been taking politically unpopular steps to help the Americans out. Call me a realist, but I don't think that this is a diplomatically shrewd move. As for McCain condemning the Iranians for supporting terror, I think they've heard that before. Maybe the Iranian representative was "hunched over like someone in a hailstorm", but I don't think he's likely to return home and call for Iran to mend its ways: if McCain's statements have any effect, it will be as encouragement for Iran to speed up its nuclear program before the U.S. invades. Finally, McCain criticized Russia for embracing electoral fraud in the Ukraine (apparently, the Russian representative just sat stolidly through it, for there is no blow-by-blow description of what he did from Brooks). The fact is, though, that while straight talk is sometimes good in diplomatic circles, and Brooks certainly loves it, it can also be counterproductive, because we're going to have to work with all three of those countries to achieve goals that may be more important to our security than their democratization. That's where the word "diplomatic" comes from. Egypt may be a repressive dictatorship, but we need it to promote peace between Israel and Palestine. Iran may be a repressive theocracy, but it's more important that it not obtain nuclear weapons than that it democratize (and don't say the latter will cause the former: most Iranians are in favor of their country acquiring nukes). And while Russia may be becoming more autocratic, and certainly hoped to install a non-democratically elected leader in the Ukraine, making sure that no Russian nuclear material gets into the hands of terrorists is more important than further encouraging Russian paranoia by attacking it whenever it meddles in the affairs of neighboring countries (which, of course, the United States would never dream of doing).

Having established that the Americans had a good showing at this conference, Brooks turns to the Europeans. First, he says that he is no Europhobe. Well, I'm glad to hear that he's not afraid of Europe, but I don't think too many people out there are. I think what he means to say is that he's no Europe-hater. Taking him at his word on this, despite the fact that Brooks almost invariably mentions Europe in a negative light in his columns, we move on to find out that, horror of horrors, the Europeans are not offering specific ideas for making Iraq a success. Most likely this is because they've learned from experience. After all, they did offer ideas at one point, such as turning things over to the UN, and the Americans rejected these suggestions out of hand. The Europeans are "
evading this current pivot point in history", Brooks laments, though one might argue that the invasion of Iraq was actually an American evasion of this pivot point, turning away from the real danger of Islamic extremism to overthrow a Middle Eastern despot who just happened to be sitting on a lot of oil. As a side note, it is interesting that Brooks quotes only Germans in this column, though presumably other Europeans attended. Laughably, Brooks claims that by not contributing to Iraq now, Europe is failing some sort of "credibility test". Perhaps the Europeans simply think that there are more important things they could be doing to fight Islamic extremism than supporting the failing U.S. venture in Iraq. Brooks's insistence that Europe drop everything and join the US in Iraq, under the US banner, is exactly the kind of undiplomatic diplomacy that so alienated the Europeans in the first place. Suggesting that the Europeans are not credible allies against Islamic terror unless they help the U.S. in Iraq is not going to encourage them to give more support. The diplomatic way to do it would be to, say, offer to join in the European negotations with Iran in return for European help in Iraq. That would also be good diplomacy in that it would reward Tony Blair, a very important ally, for being such a good friend, and suggest that we actually appreciate countries that help us and stick by us rather than turning them down flat when they request that we join them in a foreign policy iniative. But diplomacy is, apparently, not Brooks's, or Bush's, strong suit.

Brooks closes by saying that the fact that American politicians are constantly meeting combat veterans and making calls to bereaved families (with the exception, of course, of Donald Rumsfeld) and that this "concentrates the mind". What it concentrates the mind on is unclear. It appears that it certainly doesn't concentrate the mind on trying to avoid having to send more men off to Iraq so that they don't have to make more calls to bereaved families. One might well argue that it is concentrating the Europeans' minds on not sending their soldiers off to die in a pointless fight. To suggest that the Europeans are willfully ignoring the threat of Islamic terrorism is absurd. After all, it happened in Spain. England has been cracking down on extremist clerics, and France has experienced Islamic terrorism before. In fact, NATO troops have been in Afghanistan almost since the beginning. But for Brooks, Iraq is apparently the be-all and end-all of fighting terror.

Frankly, Brooks's column shows exactly why the Europeans don't want to send troops to Iraq: the American casualties, the American attitude that Iraq is a central front in the war against Islamic extremism, despite all evidence to the contrary, and the complete lack of anything approaching diplomacy on the American side all contribute to the Europeans preferring to stay out. We can only hope that this column also shows the Times that it is time to ditch Brooks in favor of a writer who is actually competent.