Disagreeing, Respectfully, with Spencer

I’ve known Spencer Ackerman for a long time, and he’s been a good friend to me over the years. Though I don’t see him very often, I will always think well of him, not least because we come from the same neighborhood and we are both huge Marvel fans. I know that Spencer cares deeply about the issues he covers, and that he is a dedicated reporter. But I don’t always agree with him, particularly when it comes to US involvement in Iraq and the nature of Iraq’s internal politics.

First, I’ll note briefly that Spencer is completely correct about Iron Man. I’ve now seen it twice, and I think it stands head and shoulders above the Spider-Man trilogy. The first two X-Men films, but the performances in Iron Man make it a notch better, Ian McKellen notwithstanding. Robert Downey Jr. was superb, as was Jeff Bridges. Gwyneth Paltrow was at her most charming. And the action sequences were stunning to watch. (Unsurprisingly, I very much enjoyed Stark’s unilateral assault on a gang of terrorist thugs who were terrorizing an Afghan village.) After seeing it on Thursday, I fled before the credits ended, as did most of the audience. This is a mistake. Stay to the end, as the names of countless personal assistants and drivers and song titles pass by: you won’t regret it. My only hope is that an Avengers film, which is to say an Ultimates film, has the kind of budget that would permit an all-star cast. Here’s hoping Watchmen) sets a strong precedent.

But when he argues that the Sons of Iraq

take our money and use it to become neighborhood warlords and gather weapons to eventually overthrow the Shiite-controlled government that we also support

Or it could be that there are transitional steps, as ex-insurgents (a) turn away from cooperating with Al Qaeda in Iraq in their anti-occupation struggle, (b) embrace cooperation with US forces as a means of strengthening their power relative to AQI and the Shia, © accept that not all Iraqi Shia are in fact agents of “the Persians,” but rather Iraqi nationalists who accept the need for minority rights, and (d) fully integrate into a broadly representative Iraqi state. It makes perfect sense that steps © and (d) would take a long time, particularly since the Iraqi Shia leadership has given Sunni Iraqis good reason to be wary. Bangladesh, for example, had a very strong moral claim in its fight for independence. And yet a sovereign Bangladesh has treated its Urdu-speaking Bengali population very poorly, as this was a Mohajir minority aligned with Urdu-speaking Pakistan. Kanan Makiya has made the point that Iraq’s failures have been rooted in a lack of Shia magnanimity. Without belaboring the point, I think there’s a coherent and persuasive case that we are seeing political maturation in Iraq.

Actually, to the neighborhood warlord point, this could be true in the sense that all states function like gangsters’ protection rackets. If Somalia is at one end of a spectrum of political order and Belgium is at the other, Iraq is in between, and quite a bit closer to Somalia, sad to say. There’s no doubt that Spencer knows what he’s talking about, and that he makes a decent point. The question for me is — which way is the arrow pointing?

Then there is the matter of Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. Spencer has very forcefully pushed back against claims that Saddam’s Baathist government had ties of any significance to Al Qaeda. Of course, a great deal depends on what one considers “significant.” It seems clear to me that Saddam had nothing to do with the planning and execution of the 9/11 attacks, and that Al Qaeda is a non-state entity that has independent sources of funding and the wherewithal to function autonomously. To suggest otherwise, at this late date, is simply daft, and Spencer is right to say so. But there’s still a great deal we don’t know. For example, the evidence from the archives of Baathist Iraq suggests that, as Eli Lake noted in March,

Beginning in 1999, Iraq’s intelligence service began providing “financial and moral support” for a small radical Islamist Kurdish sect the report does not name. A Kurdish Islamist group called Ansar al Islam in 2002 would try to assassinate the regional prime minister in the eastern Kurdish region, Barham Salih.

Ansar al-Islam is widely believed to be affiliated with Al Qaeda. Against, this isn’t evidence of a grand alliance. It is just more evidence for a straightforward proposition: that Saddam was willing to cooperate with groups of widely ranging ideological proclivities in pursuit of his broad objectives, among them hunting Americans and reducing the ambit of American power. This helps explain some of what we know, e.g., that Saddam’s intelligence service sought to build relationships with Egyptian Islamic Jihad and other Islamist groups. The Bush Administration’s rhetorical efforts to associate Saddam with Al Qaeda were clumsy and based on category error upon category error. We don’t need to defend these clumsy efforts, however, to see that Saddam was willing to employ brutal, unconventional tactics even towards the tail end of his regime.