That was then, this is now

by John Quiggin on August 21, 2006

Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack start a lengthy Washington Post piece by observing

The debate is over: By any definition, Iraq is in a state of civil war.
and their assessment only gets gloomier from there on in, pointing to the disaster as a source of further regional conflict, a recruiting poster and training ground for terrorists, massive flows of refugees and so on. They have essentially nothing positive to suggest except for the observation (for which General Shinseki got fired before the war) that
Considering Iraq’s … population, it probably would require 450,000 troops to quash an all-out civil war there. Such an effort would require a commitment of enormous military and economic resources, far in excess of what the United States has already put forth.
Since the commitment of 450 000 troops is even less likely now than it was in 2003, the conclusion is, in effect, that the situation is hopeless.

We’re well past the point where admissions of error will do any good. Still, I’m stunned that Pollack could write

How Iraq got to this point is now an issue for historians (and perhaps for voters in 2008); what matters today is how to move forward
This was so brazen that I thought I must have got him confused with someone else. But no, it’s the same Kenneth Pollack who wrote The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.

{ 21 comments }

1

nick s 08.21.06 at 7:38 am

But no, it’s the same Kenneth Pollack who wrote The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.

Ah, you’re subtly wrong: it’s the same Kenneth Pollack who wrote The Persian Puzzle, about how to deal with Iran. After all, the past is a foreign country in the midst of US-induced civil war.

2

david 08.21.06 at 8:21 am

Less stunning that he wrote it — he’s got a career to think about — than that he was allowed to write it. No accountability for anybody involved.

3

joel turnipseed 08.21.06 at 8:54 am

Neither brazen nor stunning that Pollack said this: “How Iraq got to this point is now an issue for historians (and perhaps for voters in 2008); what matters today is how to move forward.”

First, because he’s open (in more ways than one) to a regime change at home over this very issue (that is, he isn’t counseling against blame–he’s just saying that the time for playing the blame game is election time, which is how blame games are held in America); second, because we have more than two years (barring an impeachment, which won’t happen) with the current administration, and if the administration is dictating things, it’s not clear what a further house-cleaning at DoD, State, and CIA would accomplish.

Pollack deserves a good razzing for his early support of the Iraq invasion (though he deserves some credit, too, for having said that regime change in Iraq should have followed peace in Israel & Afghanistan–something we didn’t even try to achieve first)–and unlike some of the other liberal hawks (and what do we call Hitchens–certainly not ‘liberal’), Pollack was pretty early in unleashing criticism of Franks, Rumsfeld, et.al., for their conduct of the war in Iraq (about summer of 2003, IIRC).

This was an amazingly stupid war to start, has been on a steady progression from bad to worse, and there’s not really a good solution (one of the reasons it was amazingly stupid & a reason, moreover, given back in the 90s by Zinni, Powell, et.al., against early support for Chalabi and INC). But… if you’re part of the national security establishment (which Pollack is), and you’re trying to get people’s heads straight with the least amount of damage to institutions and individuals who have the power and talent to make things go as well as they can, is it really your best strategy to roll heads? Or to say, as good managers do in immediate crises, “OK, leave the fuck-up to history (or your next review/fitness report) and let’s get this situation on the right track, now??”

4

Steve 08.21.06 at 9:33 am

Deleted comment from Steve, as previously advised. Please don’t feed trolls by responding to Steve.

5

a different chris 08.21.06 at 9:41 am

Joel, you almost dragged me in with that argument but evidence is that the “individuals who have the … talent to make things go as well as they can” were and have always been in the professional cadre of the DOD and State Department.

The management group above them is, I think, is Pollack and the “national security establishment”. Who may have the power but no talent whatsoever for the task at hand.

Well, in any organization if the management team is responsible for some disaster then those in the cube farms are quite correct in thinking that *anything* that comes out of their mouths is not worth the oxygen used. All they want to hear is that there will be new management or off everybody surfs to Monster.com.

Shorter different chris: the only useful thing Ken Pollack can do at the moment is graciously make his exit from public life.

6

Ray 08.21.06 at 9:44 am

So the author went to the highest murder rate in the last 20 years, in the US city that has the highest murder rates, and found that Baghdad’s murder rate is four times higher than this peak of a peak. But since it’s lower than the rate for two civil wars that had uniformed armies in the field firing artillery at each other (and the Luftwaffe getting in some bombing practice in the case of Spain) it mustn’t be a real civil war.
What a wanker.

7

a different chris 08.21.06 at 9:46 am

>I’d say the question of whether its a ‘civil war’ is, well, debatable.

Yeah, you just have that debate with all the other little voices in your head.

Out here in Reality-World…

Well, I can’t resist: Here’s something for the little guys to chew on.

If you think it isn’t a Civil War, then you are taking the position that it is simply an enormous surge of criminal activity.

Yet you and yours are also the type that cannot accept that 9/11 was simply a crime. Hell, no, you had to elevate it to a Clash Of Civilizations.

Your criteria is pretty obviously “whatever I want it to be is what it is”.

And you wonder why we don’t take you seriously.

8

Martin James 08.21.06 at 9:54 am

The question I’d like to see addressed is not whether its a civil war, but what the conflict, civil war or not,is over.

So, much of the handwringing over civil war seems to be that there is no “correct” response to an ethnic civil war.

Political sympathies run against ethnic wars. Political sympathies run against solutions imposed by authoritarian regimes or outsiders.

The solution is Europe seems to have been more small states. Is that the answer in Iraq? Break it up? Or is the answer to let the civil war run its course? Or is the answer to muddle through?

All this “hopeless” talk just seems like a lack of imagination and historical perspective. Hopeless or not, things do go on.

9

Martin James 08.21.06 at 10:03 am

A different Chris,

But its precisely because 9/11 was a crime that makes it a clash of civilizations. How does one fight crime that originates in another country if that country/civilization is politcally opposed to you?

10

Steve LaBonne 08.21.06 at 10:05 am

Hasn’t it always been obvious that the existence of “Iraq” as a unitary state was a fiction that could be maintained only by force? I was taken in for a while by the WMD bullspit but I never believed for one second that overthrowing the Baathist dictatorship could possibly lead to an Iraq that was both democratic and unitary. Perhaps a very loose federation, with half-decent governance in each semi-autonomous province, might have been a possibility if the US hadn’t crapped the bed so badly but even that looks out of reach now. It’s going to get even uglier when the Kurds finally decide they’ve had enough of “Iraq”- and the Turks (and, it appears from recent events, the Iranians too) then intervene against them.

11

RT 08.21.06 at 10:57 am

Time to take the Pollack/Byman lemon and make lemonade.

1) Pollack is one of them ‘serious’ thinkers about Iraq. (As far as the punditocracy is concerned, OK? I’m not talking about people with brains.)

2) The punditocracy also considers Lieberman to be ‘serious’ about Iraq.

3) Pollack’s view of Iraq as it is now is that it’s pretty damned bad, and getting worse fast, hence we should have a major change of course.

4) Lieberman’s view of Iraq is that we’re making progress (he said so when debating Lamont) and should stay the course.

5) (3) and (4) are wildly contradictory. At most one of these ‘serious’ thinkers is looking at reality; at least one is completely making it up.

6) Let’s ask the pundits which one it is, and see what they say.

12

Simp 08.21.06 at 10:58 am

We’re well past the point where admissions of error will do any good.

BS.

One of the big hurdles in coming up with a bi-partisn solution is for the elimination of partisanship. It sounds stupid and obvious, but unfortunately must be said as this cannot and will not happen until the architects of this disaster (I don’t think the problem is that “too many mistakes have been made… people had to try and make it this bad) get serious and accept the facts on the ground (real facts.. not interpreted facts) and take some responsibility.

How on earth can we come up with a plan when people are *still* vilified as traitors and conspirators for plans that don’t fall in line the administrations rhetoric?

These people have zero credibility left. Until the people in power try to restore some credibility then nothing is going to change. period.

13

James 08.21.06 at 10:59 am

The Irish Civil War had, what, 4000 casualties in a year? Smaller population than Iraq, but I’m pretty certain that still works out lower-by-proportion.

J.

14

Martin Bento 08.21.06 at 2:47 pm

We need copious blame thrown. We need the flinging of wet feces. That said, there is still the problem of what to do now.

A while back, I advocated that the Democrats push for a UN takeover of the situation. First problem: Bush would never eat that much crow. Politically, that is good. It is not certain that a UN takeover would work, but if Bush refuses it, it will remain the solution that could’ve worked. Now, Democrats are stuck advocating simple withdrawal or staying the course, both of which constitute disaster.

In substance, the UN can bring legitimacy because of the involvement of Islamic nations, and nations who volunteer troops can get a preferential shot at the oil. I’m not going to make this case at length here. Here is a link to what I wrote before. I suppose I’ll update it soon.

15

Tracy W 08.21.06 at 6:24 pm

John Quiggin – are you intentionally doing your best to discourage people from admitting something went wrong with the invasion of Iraq?

And if, so, is this really what you want to do?

I see all these posts on Crooked Timber jumping on people for not repudiating their past views on Iraq sufficiently – and very few straightforwardly admiring them for having the courage to change their mind due to evidence.

Of course it shouldn’t be so difficult for people to admit they were wrong, and people should do a bit more self-flagellation in some cases, but it seems to be a common problem across humanity admitting you are wrong (I know I suffer from it myself). Praising people for moving somewhat towards your own position strikes me as more effective than grumbling about their past views whenever they show signs of movement.

16

nick s 08.21.06 at 6:48 pm

Praising people for moving somewhat towards your own position strikes me as more effective than grumbling about their past views whenever they show signs of movement.

Pollack literally ‘wrote the book’ or Iraq. Have a look at how many librul-hawk types citing him in late 2002 or early 2003 to say, ‘well, we have to do something about Iraq.’

I would hope that Pollack had enough conscience-ridden sleepless nights over the past three years to give his advance for that book to the Red Cross or MSF. Ideally, I’d like him to say ‘It’s a fuckup. I wish I’d never written that book, and will now write about knitting instead.’ But some kind of acknowledgement that he did indeed write that damn book would suffice.

17

Jim Harrison 08.21.06 at 7:26 pm

Since a fair number of the visitors to this site are social scientists, it’s a bit odd that so many people in these parts don’t want to see those who promoted the Iraq War punished or even criticized. Have you guys given up on the Law of Effect? Surely allowing so much bad behavior to be forgiven guarantees that the same pundits, politicos, and war hawks will be back with another hair-brained and hair-raising scheme.

Yes there should be an accounting. Several members of the administration should die in prison, and many members of the media should be hounded into retirement. We didn’t get Jefferson Davis; we didn’t get Nixon; we didn’t get the Iran Contra boys; and we know how that worked out.

(I’m not as naive as I sound. I know that the guilty will escape again. Which is why I expect that things will trend in a bad direction until something truly catastrophic occurs because of the failure of political responsbility in this country.)

18

snuh 08.21.06 at 8:02 pm

I see all these posts on Crooked Timber jumping on people for not repudiating their past views on Iraq sufficiently – and very few straightforwardly admiring them for having the courage to change their mind due to evidence.

what “courage” is there in admitting the obvious? maybe it would’ve been courageous for pollack to write such a pessimistic piece two years ago, but surely not now.

i mean seriously, a political commentator notices the pundit collective wisdom on iraq has changed, and shifts his own views accordingly (but without acknowledging his own earlier errors). surprising? no. courageous? please.

19

Tracy W 08.21.06 at 10:18 pm

what “courage” is there in admitting the obvious?

There shouldn’t be. But there is.

Have you guys given up on the Law of Effect?

It works both ways. Heap the criticism for the approval of the war, lavish praise for changing one’s position now.

But some kind of acknowledgement that he did indeed write that damn book would suffice.

So why not heap the criticism on that independently of the guy going on about how bad things are now?

Put a note in your google calendar, and in a week’s time write a post about all the people who supported the war in Iraq and haven’t publicly recanted, including Pollack. And in another week’s time after that. And in another week’s time after that. And repeat either until you’ve achieved your goal (public full recantation, guilty parties brought to justice, or whatever your goal is), or you die of old age.

It’s the pairing of the two that seems to be counter-effective (assuming that the person in question happens to read Crooked Timber). It makes sense to reward people who are moving towards your position for that movement.

20

John Quiggin 08.22.06 at 1:11 am

Tracy, I wouldn’t have complained, even without an acknowledgement of error, if he had simply changed his view and said nothing about it. But “How Iraq got to this point is now an issue for historians (and perhaps for voters in 2008); what matters today is how to move forward” is too much for me.

If it’s OK for voters to judge elected officials, shouldn’t pundits who get things badly wrong face some kind of accountability also. At least, they should try and work out what part of their way of thinking about things was wrong.

More seriously, if there is any decent way forward (not obvious) then we’re unlikely to find it without an understanding of how we got here.

21

abb1 08.22.06 at 5:35 am

I don’t see any civil war either. There’s mass resistance to occupation, attacking collaborationists is a part of that.

Incidents of sectarian violence is a small part of total violence, but they get a lot of publicity.

A mosque attacked somewhere once a months – a big deal, lots of publicity; 100+ attacks on occupation and government troops every day – little or no publicity.

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