March 08, 2005

Column 2005-3-8: Commentary

In this column, Brooks discusses the great contributions Paul Wolfowitz has made to the spread of freedom in the Muslim world. Or rather, he rails at those who have not acknowledged these contributions and predicts that these naysayers will be consigned to the dustbin of history. He spends a lot of time heaping praise on Wolfowitz and calumny on his detractors, yet hardly talks about his record at all, except in terms of the utmost generality. In fact, Brooks vilifies those who have attacked Wolfowitz recently to a degree unusual in his columns. This is the first sign that his case is not quite as strong as he would like you to think. The kind of smears that Brooks uses on Wolfowitz's opponents -- calling the left "infantile", the conservatives who opposed the war (generally known as realists) such as Brent Scowcroft, "condescending", and throwing a general accusation of anti-Semitism at all those who opposed Wolfowitz's policies -- are fairly unusual for Brooks, who generally tries to appear as a reasonable guy. Their presence here is meant to signal that Brooks is deeply disturbed by the fact that Paul Wolfowitz is not getting the praise he supposedly deserves, and to obscure the fact that Brooks doesn't actually present much evidence in support of his position. It's worth noting that Brooks has played the anti-Semitism card before when discussing opposition to neocon policies, though it's even more ridiculous this time, as I doubt that even the lunatics who propose "Zionist conspiracy theories" would put Wolfowitz at the center of them: after all, he's hardly the player that Cheney or Rumsfeld is. Brooks will undoubtedly claim, as before, that he did not intend to say that all Wolfowitz's critics were anti-Semites, just those who believe that he is part of a Zionist conspiracy, but any such claim is mere dissembling. Brooks obviously implies that criticism of Wolfowitz and anti-Semitism are closely linked, and posits "a hundred zillion" conspiracy theories in which Wolfowitz is the "clever-Jew-behind-the-scenes", obviously suggesting that this is a mainstream view (and perhaps it is in Iran, but if Brooks just meant Iran, he should have said so). And this really discredits his whole column. If Brooks had a substantive refutation of Wolfowitz's detractors, he would only address substantive criticisms of Wolfowitz (Zionist conspiracy theories do not qualify), and would refrain from deeply insulting everyone who has ever disapproved of Wolfowitz's actions -- especially the role he played as one of the chief architects of Bush's current foreign policy -- including the vast majority of American Jews, who voted against Bush in 2004.

After this attack on Wolfowitz's critics, Brooks neatly sidesteps the question of Wolfowitz's responsibility for the mess we are in Iraq. "Historians will figure out who was responsible for what, and Wolfowitz will probably come in for his share of the blame." Probably is a decided understatement. Wolfowitz will definitely come in for a sizable portion of the blame. It's possible that his motives were better than those of, say, Cheney. It's possible that he really believed what he said in his testimony to Congress (though that would cast serious doubts on his competency). But you can judge for yourself: the following excerpts from Wolfowitz's testimony to Congress on Feb. 27, 2003 were all taken from Informed Comment, the website of University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole:
"First, it's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine . . ."
"And the horrors of Iraq are very different from the horrific ethnic cleansing of Kosovars by Serbs that took place in Kosovo and left scars that continue to require peacekeeping forces today in Kosovo."
"The slaughter in Iraq -- and it's been substantial -- has unfortunately been the slaughter of people of all ethnic and religious groups by the regime. It is equal opportunity terror."
(For more on the ethnic conflicts that Wolfowitz is ignoring, see here. Wolfowitz also seems to have forgotten that when we talked about Saddam using chemical weapons against his own people, it was against the Kurds, not Sunnis or Shiites. And for more on the oppression of Kurds in Iraq since it was founded, see here.)
"And I would expect that even countries like France will have a strong interest in assisting Iraq's reconstruction."
"Moreover, the Iraqis themselves can provide a good deal of whatever manpower is necessary. We are already training free Iraqi forces to perform functions of that kind, including command of Iraqis units once those units have been purged of their Baathist leadership."
"On the other side, we can't be sure that the Iraqi people will welcome us as liberators, although based on what Iraqi-Americans told me in Detroit a week ago, many of them -- most of them with families in Iraq -- I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep requirements down."
Wolfowitz was wrong -- seriously wrong -- about every single point quoted here, and these none of these issues are trifling ones where a misstep might be acceptable. Either he was lying, or he was blinded by his own prejudices, and neither of those possibilities casts him in a particularly favorable light.

For more on Wolfowitz's prejudices, we need merely examine his record on Al Qaeda. Consider these quotes (again, all from Informed Comment): "Well, I just don't understand why we are beginning by talking about this one man bin Laden." "You give bin Laden too much credit. He could not do all these things like the 1993 attack on New York, not without a state sponsor. Just because FBI and CIA have failed to find the linkages does not mean they don't exist." "Well, there are others that [pose an immediate and serious threat to the United States] as well, as least as much. Iraqi terrorism, for example." These quotes are admittedly from a pre-9/11 meeting, but they don't reflect too well on his judgement. And this wasn't an isolated example, either: Richard Clarke wrote in his book about how Wolfowitz leaned on the State Department to recall Robert Gelbard, the American ambassador to Indonesia, in early 2001 because he was making the Indonesians, including Wolfowitz's old friends from his time in Indonesia, uncomfortable by talking about Al Qaeda infiltration too much. And in October 2002, over two hundred people were killed in a terrorist attack on a Bali nightclub. When the Indonesians finally cracked down on Jemmah Islamiyah, many of the people Gelbard had warned about were found to be connected to the movement. Wolfowitz was more than a little short-sighted when it came to the terrorist threat, and his unwillingness to believe that Al Qaeda is a significant threat capable of operating on its own was clearly a major contributor in the administration's decision to invade Iraq.

Brooks follows this sidestep by claiming that "political earthquakes" are shaking the Arab world. And he's probably right, only not in the way he thinks. After all, earthquakes have a tendency to be very destructive, and what is more, indiscriminately so. Presumably, Brooks is referring to the usual suspects here: Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Iraq I'm not even going to discuss, except to mention that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently admitted that the insurgency could last at least a decade. Given the massive -- 500,000 people (which could be as much as 20% of the country's population) -- pro-Syrian protest that filled the streets of Beirut on March 8 -- considerably more massive than the largest anti-Syrian protest of the previous few days, which totalled around 70,000 people -- it seems that not all Lebanese define freedom as a lack of Syria. And guess what: the Hizbollah protesters were all hoising the country's flag as well. Perhaps the flag isn't the unifying symbol that Brooks thinks it is when he describes Lebanon as "a country that was once a symbol of tribal factionalism". There are good reasons for this, many of them having to do with Western interference to preserve the power of the Christian minority, and for Brooks to think that a few demonstrations will suffice to cover up the wounds of years of sectarian civil war is rather naive. It should be noted that the Shiites may well be taking this opportunity to demand more representation: they may now be as much as 40% of the population, far more than the the Christians, the most anti-Syrian group, who make up only about 25% of the population, yet due to Lebanon's method of distributing seats among confessional groups, left over from another era when Christians were a majority, the Shiites only have 27 out of 128 seats in the National Assembly and the Christians 63. While this is certainly a move that will have to be made before Lebanon becomes truly democratic, it should be remembered that the last time Muslims attempted to gain more representation, Christian resistance led to a 15-year civil war. But the tendency of the Bush administration to ignore sectarian tensions in countries is hardly surprising. Palestine is also often cited as a place where freedom has recently made strides, and while there are certainly encouraging tendencies, I've already covered the questionableness of Palestine's most recent elections and the persistent popularity of Hamas. As for Egypt and Saudia Arabia, the latter's elections were purely cosmetic and the former's will probably be as well. For one thing, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egpyt's most popular political party, will likely not be allowed to field a candidate (in case the link expires, the relevant quote is: "Opposition officials pointed out that Mubarak's proposals applied only to candidates of authorized political parties, meaning that representatives of banned groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood would not be permitted to run.") Do these developments add up to a political earthquake? They may well, but recall that the last time a popular revolution overthrew a Middle Eastern despot and replaced him with a more democratic system was in 1979, in Iran. In all the Middle Eastern countries where freedom is supposedly on the march, any free and fair elections would almost certainly return a government dominated by Islamic fundamentalists. Would this be a victory for freedom?

But according to Brooks, Wolfowitz should not simply be defined by his involvement in the current administration's Middle Eastern policy. He has also been "an ardent champion of freedom" in Eastern Europe, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It would take a lot to overcome his recent miserable record, but the United States never invaded any of those places (at least, not within the last 30 years or so), which is a good start. So, in what ways has Wolfowitz championed freedom? Well, Brooks doesn't actually say. Instead, he launches into an enconium to Wolfowitz's "personal commitment". He actually learned the languages of the places he cared about, says Brooks! And he patiently listened to the leaders he cared about, even though they bored him to tears! Well, not that last part, but the use of patiently in this context is a little strange. More importantly, though, these would seem to be basic tasks that a diplomat should undertake. It's great that Wolfowitz cares enough about his job to try to do it right, but that doesn't mean anything. If I am to praise Wolfowitz, I need some actual instances of Wolfowitz championing freedom in a way that produced concrete results, and Brooks is curiously reluctant to provide any. Instead, he claims that praising Wolfowitz is not triumphalism. My first reaction was "well, you could have fooled me," but then I realized that Brooks is actually right about this. After all, there are no triumphs to point to, so clearly Brooks cannot be indulging in triumphalism. Though, in that case, why praise Wolfowitz? Because "he, in the core belief that has energized his work, may turn out to be right." Note that even Brooks cannot bring himself to say that Wolfowitz IS right. Frankly, if Brooks is going to write a column about how great Wolfowitz is, he might as well go the whole hog and say that he's right, facts or no facts.

But perhaps Brooks is going to offer some evidence from Wolfowitz's past to suggest that there's a good chance that he's right. Once again, though, our hopes are dashed. Instead, Brooks recounts a conversation he had with Wolfowitz after the Iraq election, in which, to be fair to Wolfowitz, he comes off as a lot more reasonable than Brooks (not that that is setting the barrier particularly high). Interestingly, according to Brooks, Wolfowitz suggests that military interventions to promote democracy are and will continue to be the exception. It is true, of course, that most American military interventions are intended to overthrow democratically elected governments, or replace an anti-American dictator with a pro-American one. Nonetheless, and despite the fact that any proclamations by members of this administration should be taken as lies until it is proved that they mean them, it is heartening to hear this. And on the heels of this declaration comes some actual things that Wolfowitz did. First, raising the profile of the Philippine dissident Benigno Aquino by meeting with him, though it's unfortunate that Brooks uses this an example of the U.S. preventing dictators from killing dissidents by giving the dissidents exposure, as Aquino was, in fact, killed upon his return to the Philippines. Brooks also cites a speech Wolfowitz gave in Indonesia calling for more openness, something which Indonesians might not have felt as scared of talking about under Suharto as freedom or democracy, which sparked "a great national discussion". But Wolfowitz was ambassador to Indonesia under Reagan, and Suharto remained in power until 1998 (and his overthrow was probably mostly due to the Asian currency crisis causing Indonesia's economy to crash). While these actions are praiseworthy, they are also mostly cosmetic. This is not necessarily Wolfowitz's fault, of course, as threatening to cut military aid, or some similar indication that the U.S. was serious about democracy in Indonesia, would have required more power than the ambassador could command. Nonetheless, it is hard to see why we should shower praise on him for this.

Brooks concludes with another shot at Wolfowitz's critics -- there's one in just about every paragraph, as if Brooks is laying down a smokescreen to provide cover for the column -- and some approving comments about Wolfowitz's faith in people. But for a column supposedly about Wolfowitz, we really haven't learned much about the Deputy Secretary of Defense. So let us examine a biography: specifically, this one (which is admittedly biased, so see also this one, which is probably biased in the opposite direction). Wolfowitz's views become apparent fairly quickly, as we learn that he opposed detente and arms control during the cold war. On the other hand, he did oppose having the United States work with dictators and pushed for democracy in the Philippines and Indonesia, with more success in the former than the latter. Wolfowitz also has the distinction of being one of the only key players in the Reagan administration to not have been tainted by Iran-Contra. As Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in the George H.W. Bush administration, Wolfowitz was instrumental in persuading Bush to use force to evict Saddam from Kuwait, and it took Powell's persuasion to prevent Bush from going on to Baghdad and overthrowing Saddam. Incidentally, the more I learn about Bush I's administration, the more it seems like Bush II was the exact same thing, only with a few of the outcomes changed around. Following the election of Clinton, Wolfowitz retreated into academia and became one of the founders of the Project for a New American Century, one of the main aims of which was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the creation of a democratic Iraq by force. In case anybody still doubts that the Bush administration was simply looking for an excuse to invade Iraq, and was planning such an invasion ever since Bush was elected, consider that other signers of PNAC's Statement of Principles included Rumsfeld, Cheney, Jeb Bush, and Lewis Libby. Other statements of Wolfowitz's on Iraq, taken from a report he prepared shortly before leaving the Pentagon in 1992, include “the United States represented a powerful force for good and had a duty to play an activist role in the world [even if unilaterally]”, calling for “the United States to perpetuate its military supremacy and prevent the emergence of any rival superpower,” and “approach regional conflicts with an eye toward encouraging the spread of democracy and capitalism.” And upon the election of Bush, Wolfowitz returned to government, determined that Iraq was the most important foreign policy issue facing the administration, certainly more important than "this one man, Bin Laden." So what can we learn from this brief examination of Wolfowitz's record? Well, he did some good things, though of somewhat limited efficacy, under Reagan, doesn't appear to be actually personally corrupt, and does believe in democracy, as Brooks said, and so is better than Cheney or Rumsfeld. On the other hand, he clearly believes implicitly in the principle that the U.S. military is always a force for good -- a proposition that it is clearly laughable to anybody who has actually studied U.S. history -- and is philosophically opposed to most international treaties. In sum, it appears that Wolfowitz is a wild-eyed idealist, with a dream of an international order of democracy and free markets benignly enforced by the matchless might of the U.S. military. Under Reagan, he was in the State Department and thus had no control over the military, forcing him to use diplomatic methods to promote democracy in ways that many liberals would probably have been happy about, while still lacking sufficient power to do something like undermine the ABM treaty. But when he moved to the Pentagon and gained more power in Bush I and Bush II, the military aspects of his philosophy came to the fore, with disastrous results. The fact is, despite Brooks's hype, Wolfowitz's work in the Reagan administration is really a footnote to history. What will be remembered is Wolfowitz's work in promoting the Iraq war, both as one of the chief layers of its philosophical foundations in the 1990's and as a member of the administration that initiated it. So far, we know that he will be remembered for fixating on Iraq to the exclusion of all else, including Al Qaeda. And he will be remembered for badly misjuding Iraq prior to the war (or else baldly lying about it). In fact, badly misjudging may be too lenient a term: he will be remembered for being completely wrong about Iraq, and whether he was wrong from good motives or not will not matter much. Most of all, he will be judged on the outcome of the Iraq war, and frankly, from here it's not looking too good. Most likely, history will see Wolfowitz as one of the men who sent hundreds (we hope not thousands) of American troops to their deaths in Iraq and killed thousands of Iraqis in the unrealistic hope that American military might could establish a secular democracy, only to undermine his own cause by completely misjuding the response of the Iraqis and the world to the invasion, leading to a long, bloody, and profitless occupation that was eventually ended by an American withdrawal, leaving Iraq a mess. I doubt that this is the way Wolfowitz hopes to be remembered.

I have to admit that my opinion of Wolfowitz was raised while doing the research for this piece. He does not appear to be quite as evil as Cheney or Rumsfeld (that may be the most left-handed complement ever). If Cheney and Rumsfeld are a ten on the evil scale (no, it does not go to eleven), Wolfowitz probably only rates an 8.5 or 9. And my opinion of Brooks did not go down, because there was nowhere for it to go. Allow me to summarize this column:
Paul Wolfowitz is great because he really likes democracy. And he may be right that the best way to spread democracy in the Middle East is to invade Iraq, killing thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of American soldiers. Plus, he did some good things a long time ago. And all his critics are poopyheads. Oh, and Jew-haters.
Do the Times people even read his columns? And if they do, how do they justify allowing them to continue to appear on the editorial page?