Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Perfect vs. the Good

My mother is fond of saying, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." It's another way of expressing the point of Dick Feller's classic song "Makin' the Best of a Bad Situation." Or to put it in the terms of the Rolling Stones, "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need." I'm sure there's probably some big music-video interlude in High School Musical around the truth that you don't always get your first choice; sometimes you have to work pretty hard just to get your second or third choice. Tonight, as I was watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, and having recently seen No End in sight, I was thinking about the application of those maxims to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

In Iraq, to paraphrase Mom's proverb, I would say:

The pursuit of phantom military victory is the enemy of maximizing what little silver lining can still be salvaged.
The Republicans jump up and down about how the Democrats supposedly have no plan for dealing with the consequences of withdrawing, or even just reducing, our military forces from Iraq. In fact, the Republicans have neither a plan to deal with the consequences of withdrawing nor a plan to deal with the consequences of staying.

I've been having an interesting exchange with a couple of Bush's hardcore Koolaid-drinkers, over on the New York Times web site. I suggested that Bush and the neocons were to be faulted for trying to link Saddam and al Qaeda, or Iraq and 9/11, and that Bush has made the world less safe — hardly a great secret. They lapsed into knee-jerk indignation, but I think I made the case pretty well with this comeback (pending moderator approval on
Margot Nixon, have you actually watched the ad at the center of this discussion? The amputee soldier looks into the camera and says
Congress was right to vote to fight terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. I re-enlisted after 9/11 because I don't want my sons to see what I saw. I want them to be free and safe. I know what I lost. I also know that if we pull out now, everything I've given and sacrificed will mean nothing. They attacked us. And they will again. They won't stop in Iraq. We are winning on the ground and making real progress. It's no time to quit; it's no time for politics.
How, exactly, is that anything other than saying that Iraq attacked us? And don't go disavowing any connection with the administration, either; the person behind these ads is Bush's former press secretary, so saying that he's off the reservation just won't fly.

Various people have asked where the concrete evidence is that we are less safe. It's called the National Intelligence Estimate. Al Qaeda has used Iraq as a recruiting and training tool; we already know that. But now we know that al Qaeda is stronger than at any time since 9/12, which means it is stronger than it was on 3/20/03. It also means that al Qaeda is stronger today than it would be if we had not invaded Iraq. If your enemy who is sworn to your complete destruction is stronger, then you are less safe; it's not exactly rocket science, and it's the farthest thing from "emotion-driven conjecture." Furthermore, we have alienated our friends and allies, in countless ways, from "Bring 'em on" to Abu Ghraib, and that also makes us less safe, because we need friends who will go to the mat to help us stop the terrorists. In Iraq, we've been making far more enemies than friends.

By the way, the statement that "no attacks on American embassies in the world, no attacks inside of this nation, and no attacks on our military installations outside of Iraq" as a justification that we are somehow safer because we've had George W. Bush at the helm, ignores the crucial fact that there have been serious attacks on our allies outside of Iraq. Madrid and London come right to mind, and there have been others. Al Qaeda hasn't attacked us on American soil because we are doing more damage to our own security than they ever could hope to achieve. Sure, they're going to try to attack us on U.S. soil when we leave Iraq, but that's true whether it's a week from now or a decade from now.

Are we less safe because Saddam is dead? No, of course not. But you can't ask that question in isolation: we are OBVIOUSLY less safe because we took him out. In other words, the danger we placed our nation in by taking out Saddam was greater than the danger we faced by leaving him there. Dick Cheney himself made that point in 1994, in the video that's been making all the rounds the last few days. In fact, the danger was greater for both the U.S. people and the Iraqi people.

In justifying things like curtailing habeas corpus and allowing warrantless surveillance of American citizens within the United States with little if any court oversight, neoconservatives are fond of saying things like, "The Constitution isn't a suicide pact!" Why should you care about government snoops, unless you have something to hide? Are you a terrorist, or just an unpatriotic criminal? In other words, we have to sacrifice some of the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution in order to survive this existential threat to our very nationhood. It's less of a bumper-sticker slogan, but in practice it is the same statement.

On the other hand, neocons say that, never mind the thousands upon thousands of Iraqis who have died, and the millions of Iraqis who have been driven into exile, and the millions whose homes have been destroyed or whose livelihoods are gone, the Iraqi people are better off because they are free from the terrible dictator Saddam Hussein. It just ain't that simple. The life of the average Iraqi citizen is much more dangerous now than it was in 2002. Even of the ones who have stayed, millions have lost much or all of their access to electricity, potable water, and sewers. Can you really believe that the Iraqi people are better off with Saddam replaced by sectarian bloodletting? Saddam didn't torture or kill people nearly as fast as the civil war that replaced him.

Other commenters have gotten all in a huff because I stated the truth that the administration and its allies have consistently worked to foster the belief that Iraq was involved in 9/11. Given the overwhelming proof, just in the person of Dick Cheney, the denials would be hilarious if the delusion weren't so dangerous. I've also demolished the fatuous claim that the world is somehow better off because the United States invaded and occupied Iraq.

The accusation that I am somehow engaging in a strawman argument is an effort to deflect attention from the strawman arguments at the heart of the neocon case. The opponents of Bush's policies have never advocated a precipitous withdrawal, but Bush and his friends insist on trying to put those words in their mouths. Nor has anyone argued that Saddam Hussein was a good guy who deserved to stay in power; few would even argue that he deserved to live. Nor has anyone ever said that we should sit back and wait to be attacked. Nor has anyone ever said that everything will be rainbows and candy when we pull out of Iraq — although I do recall someone predicting that we would be greeted as liberators, and that we would be there only for a matter of weeks, probably much less than six months.

If you have any faith whatsoever in the competence of the Bush team ever to take a successful approach to Iraq, then you clearly haven't seen the new film No End in Sight. The Bush team ignored the expertise of the diplomats and military experts who knew Iraq best. L. Paul Bremer, under orders from the White House, disbanded the Iraqi military and police, thereby creating an insurgency, with men, a command structure, and plenty of ordnance. Jay Garner knew better, and the military experts were in agreement that it was a bad idea, but Bremer insisted that his orders left him no flexibility. Was it a good strategy to turn loose hundreds of thousands of men with military and/or police training, weapons up the wazoo, a pink slip, and $50 severance pay? Who could ever have predicted that those people — especially the ones who had no great love of Saddam, but who did what they had to do to provide for their families — would be angry about being left with no paycheck? How about "anyone who gave it a moment's thought"? That goes for the Iraqi military, the police, and to a lesser extent the bureaucrats.

On top of that, was it a good strategy to disband the military and the police, when we had already demonstrated that we wouldn't lift a finger to stop rampant looting and worse? We just stood by, shrugged our shoulders, and said, "Stuff happens." Did that decision endear us to the average Iraqi citizen? The lesson of Vietnam is that we can't win the war if the people whose country we're supposedly fighting for, aren't wholeheartedly on our side. We can't win their civil war.
I'm not saying that we should have happily left Saddam in power, but I am saying that the way we took him out was a "cure" even worse than the "disease," and the "treatments" since then have mostly been as effective as arsenic and cyanide.

Programming note: I'm very excited by Thursday night's Daily Show and Colbert Report, and eagerly anticipating Friday's Inside Iraq on Al Jazeera English (an unbiased view of the progress of the surge and the status of Nouri al-Maliki's government) and Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO. More on those after a night's sleep....

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