My apologies: I have been occupied with other stuff & had no time to respond to Richard Nadler's NRO piece yesterday, as I ought to have, and as several readers urged me to.
Richard's starting point was my column of last week titled "You Don't Know Jack," about (a) the difficulty of understanding another country, and (b) how surprisingly little that understanding is aided by actually being there. Richard wrote about an upbeat report on Iraq delivered last week by a group of Iraq War vets at the National Press Club. With a friendly nod to my piece, he noted that the vets, in making their case, did not rely solely on their own impressions, but drew on "metrics that are impersonal" to show that our current Iraq policy is working--by which he means, defeating the insurgents and improving the lives of Iraqis.
My main problem with Richard's piece is that it didn't leave me feeling any wiser. I am glad that there are vets who are confident of our success in Iraq; however, I have no doubt you could assemble an equal number with the contrary view. Here is a British vet recently out of Iraq, after a brilliant career in one of the most strenuous and dangerous units in H.M. armed forces, with a distinctly opposite view.
And some of those "metrics" have a way of going fuzzy when you look hard at them. "The increase in electrical supply, and the doubling of oil revenues in the post-Saddam era," for instance. Here is a resident of Baghdad, reported in Time magazine : "We have state-supplied electricity six or seven hours a day. … Before the war, we had 20 hours of electricity a day in Baghdad." The "doubling of oil revenues" looks like spin: if indeed oil revenues have doubled, this is solely a fact of per-barrel price increases: Iraqi oil production in quantity has not yet recovered to Saddam-era levels. As for casualty counts, here is a tally for the war so far. The last month reported is Feb. 2006, with 56 U.S. dead. In Feb. 2005 the number was 62; in Feb. 2004, 19. Uh-huh.
Look: We are getting observations and "metrics" thrown at us from both sides. The intelligent citizen has to try to figure out what is going on over there, and it isn't easy, even if you're actually there. I am not much impressed by people who tell me that all the negative stuff is put out by lefties determined to bring down the Bush administration, or at least to soil its reputation. I'm sure that some is; but now & then I read a thoughtful, well-researched piece—James Fallows' Atlantic article "Why Iraq Has No Army" comes to mind--that leaves me thinking: Yeah, that sounds right. By which I mean that it (a) does not contradict any of the few facts I'm pretty sure I know, and (b) sounds like human nature in action, and (c) agrees with background stuff I've read by folk like David Pryce-Jones and S.D. Goitein about how things go in the Arab world.
Further, as a "To Hell With Them Hawk" (I think I can claim to be a founder member), the stuff about improving Iraqi lives bounces right off me. What business is it of mine, to improve Iraqi lives? Would Iraqis improve my life, if they could? "The enormous increase in cell phones, cars, and satellite TVs…" Leaving aside the fact that these improvements would have occurred anyway with the end of the Saddam embargo and the collapse of the command economy, was it really necessary to spend tens of billions of dollars and sacrifice two thousand American lives so that Iraqis could have more cell phones? If the good people of Chad, or Libya, or North Korea, suffer from an insufficiency of cell phones, shall we invade their countries?
I have more to say on this, and am in fact working up a column in response to Rich Lowry's cover piece on the To Hell With Them hawks in the current NRODT. The main thing I wanted to say is that Richard's piece left me no wiser about the situation over there, nor any more inclined to think that our current Iraq policy has any real relevance to our national interests.
Robert Kaplan wrote in 1994 about The Coming Anarchy. He has a piece in the April issue of The Atlantic called The Coming Normalcy which is primarily about Mosul, Iraq. In an interview accompanying his essay, he says,
You know, if there's one sentence in my piece that sums up the current situation in Iraq, it's this one: "From a landscape of chaos in 2004, the U.S. military created a house of cards in 2005.? That house of cards is a significant achievement. But it's got to be fortified by wood and cement?meaning massive jobs creation programs and a whole bunch of other things. Otherwise, the house of cards is going to be swept away. That almost happened a couple of weeks ago and might still happen.
In this story, I'm giving the U.S. military in one city tremendous credit for really moving things forward. But that still doesn't mean that we have stability. We still have a long way to go.It looks to me like our troops, in spite of the poor quality of the political leadership, are slowly but surely snatching victory from the jaws of defeat because most Iraqis, at least 74% of them, think their lives will improve that way.
It could have been rather different. It could have been worse if "bringing the troops home" had become a political football sooner, and it can easily get worse if nobody in Washington is willing and able to carry the ball. Of course, it could have been a hell of a lot better, but that didn't happen, either. So, we're stuck with things the way they are.
If we walk away from that, will it reflect poorly on us? Will it affect our national interest? Well, only if the Iranian model wins out over the Iraqi one and imposes its theocratic version of forced stability, or if 'al Qaeda in Iraq' win themselves a place in Iraqi daily life by getting a civil war going, or if anything in between happens. Actually, the only scenario that wouldn't damage our national interest is the one our troops are fighting for now. Which is why they're there in the first place.
Bars--candy and soap--are good things to have. So, too, cells and TVs, and the technology and electricity to run them. People can't help being grateful to get them. Even more so is the deliverance from oppression. Yet, and yet, the vacuum after the tanks roll through to liberate the next stretch of territory. El Derb is right (as he so often is): We simply don't know beyond the short term, if we know even that, the full consequences of what our policies are producing in Iraq. We may be able to justify ourselves to ourselves in our own language--and I believe we are justified in this phase of the Long War (thank you, W, for finally using the term!)--but we are fools if we think our language translates well. Time to consider how long we have been sending our messages and to what effect.