June 23, 2005

Column 2005-6-23 Commentary

In today's column, Brooks says that we should not dismiss the Iraq war too soon: we must be sure we have sufficient information to determine whether or not the war is winnable before we pass judgement. On one level, he is, of course, correct, but on a deeper level this is a profoundly pointless statement. To some people, the complete lack of progress over the past two years strongly suggests that this war is a lost cause. To Brooks, "we don't have the evidence upon which to pass judgment on the overall trajectory of this war . . . ." Who's right? Well, it depends on how much evidence is enough. If we don't have enough evidence until the country has descended into a four-way civil war, with Kurds fighting Sunni Arabs fighting Shiite Arabs fighting Americans, then we might be in Iraq for quite a while (or, perhaps, just a few months). Alternatively, if the situation stays much the same for the next year or two or five or ten, with a Sunni Arab insurgency fighting American and to a lesser extent Iraqi troops, a government with no legitimacy among the Sunni Arabs negotiating with Sunni Arab political leaders to try to get them involved, and a steady trickle of American casualties, then in ten years Brooks and his ilk could concievably still be arguing that a breakthrough could be right around the corner and it's too soon to say whether we can win. If no standard is set, no line is drawn to say that if things get this bad, we're leaving, then it is always possible to argue that we don't yet know if we can win, right up to the point where we lose.

These philosophical considerations aside, I'd like to give you some quotes. From May 18, 2004: "No other nation would be adaptable enough to recover from its own innocence and muddle its way to success, as I suspect we are about to do." From April 27, 2004: "These are the crucial months in Iraq. The events in Najaf and Falluja will largely determine whether Iraq will move toward normalcy or slide into chaos." From July 3, 2004: "This administration can adapt, and stick to a winning strategy once it finds it. . . . that makes the long-term prospects for success brighter than they appeared a few months ago." (from a column entitled "Bush's Winning Strategy"). Any guesses as to who is being quoted? Unsurprisingly, back when victory appeared more likely, as Sadr was defeated and the transfer of sovereignty was presented as the solution to our problems, Brooks was making sunny predictions. Furthermore, an overview of Brooks's columns from before then makes it clear that he thought that the insurgency would not last long (one column from September 2003 states that "the violence may not abate in Iraq until early next year"). As long as things were going his way and popular opinion was still behind the war, Brooks was more than happy to pass judgement without worrying if it was premature. But now that things are going badly, there are few prospects for improvement, and polls show that the public has turned against the war, Brooks piously urges us not rush to judgement.

Of course, Brooks is not the only conservative who has been guilty of making unsubstantiated claims about the progress of the war. Only this week Dick Cheney asserted that the insurgency was in its "last throes". Shortly afterward, General John Abizaid, the top American commander for the Middle East, completely contradicted Cheney by saying that the insurgency had not diminished over the past six months. Undaunted, Cheney went back to CNN and repeated his claim. Perhaps Brooks's column should be aimed at Cheney rather than those who are turning against the war. And this leads directly to one of the reasons that polls show "rising disenchantment with the war": the constant drumbeat of administration propaganda to the effect that the insurgents are "desperate", that we're about to win, that the transfer of sovereignty/the elections/the capture of Fallujah/the capture of Najaf is the key turning point and things will only improve from here on out led people to constantly expect victory. And things were just as bad prior to the war. Richard Perle said "A year from now I'd be surprised if there's not some grand square in Baghdad that is named after President Bush." Rumsfeld said the war "could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months." Cheney asserted "I think it will go relatively quickly... (in) weeks rather than months.” Before the war, the public was told that it would be fast and easy. Once we were well into it, the public was constantly told that we were on the verge of winning. The administration conditioned the American people to evaluate the war on a short timescale, and that is exactly what is happening.

Of course, had the public been told that the war would likely involve an American presence in Iraq for ten years at least, it would have been much less likely to support the war. Which brings us to the reason for the drop in the war's support that Brooks doesn't mention: the stated reasons for the war have been exposed as frauds. No weapons of mass destruction were found. No ties to Al Qaeda were unearthed. And the Downing Street Memo has made it very clear that Bush lied about the magnitude of the threat Iraq posed and his willingness to deal with Iraq diplomatically. As people start to realize that this was a war that didn't have to be fought, they are much less likely to support it. Which brings us to the most unforgiveable sin of this column, Brooks's use of Franklin Roosevelt's words to urge the public to stay behind Bush. Brooks quotes Roosevelt as saying "Your government has unmistakable confidence in your ability to hear the worst, without flinching or losing heart. You must, in turn, have complete confidence that your government is keeping nothing from you except information that will help the enemy in his attempt to destroy us." This is great, except that in World War II we were fighting enemies who were a direct threat and who attacked us first, rather than diverting our attention from the real threat to go to war against an old enemy who was reinflated into a deeply dangerous monster for reasons which are still unclear. Furthermore, this quote reflects a bargain that has two sides: not only must the public trust in the government in a time of war, the government must deserve this trust. When the entrance to war is surrounded by a nimbus of lies, it's hard for the public to retain the kind of trust in government that Brooks wants. And that's really the fundamental problem here: the public is realizing that people are dead because Bush lied, and they really aren't very happy about that. Brooks can talk about the need to stay the course and how Washington had no polls in Valley Forge all he wants, but that won't change the basic facts. Plus, Washington was there with the troops at Valley Forge. Bush's Top Gun stunt doesn't quite compare.