Klein on the Surge

If you want to see an intelligent critique of U.S. strategy in Iraq, check out Patrick Cockburn in the London Review of Books. I disagree with Cockburn, but I’m convinced that he gets a lot of things right, particularly the nature of ethnic and sectarian politics in and around Mosul as well as the political balance in Maliki’s government. With that, I’ll turn to a critique I find far less persuasive.

I imagine Joe Klein is in a bind. He was one of the most truculent liberal hawks, when he rightly attracted the ire and condemnation of smart young liberals. He later accepted their criticisms — wisely — but instead of taking on a more humble and thoughtful pose, he has reinvented himself as a liberal firebrand, actively participating in internal debates on the left, paying close heed to the shifting moods and tendencies of the center-left blogosphere. And a good thing too: there’s a lot of wisdom to be mined there, as most readers of The American Scene know firsthand. Yet my sense is that Klein’s community-mindedness is leading him astray.

But as new leadership has taken the reins in Iraq, on the ground and in Washington, the situation has materially changed. Recent successes are, let’s not kid ourselves, a kind of salvage operation — an attempt to produce a decent outcome out of a large-scale strategic error, namely the invasion of Iraq. In hindsight, was it wise to invade Iraq wen we did and how we did? The answer is pretty obvious: given the opportunity cost, even in foregone options in the Gulf, it was definitely not the right thing to do. Now, a somewhat better question is, in what sense was the invasion a strategic error? Some will object: well, it doesn’t really matter now, does it? We need to right the ship. And though I’m very inclined to agree with this view, I’ll accept that questions concerning the wisdom of invading Iraq are still relevant — certainly politically relevant. Judgment counts.

That said, I find Klein’s reaction to positive developments in Iraq depressing.

The most important factor in the surge wasn’t the additional troops so much as the change in tactics, which pulled the troops out of huge forward operating bases (FOBs) on the periphery of Baghdad and transformed them into community police officers who lived in the neighborhoods where they worked.

This is specious. The additional troops were essential to the change in tactics. Klein follows military affairs closely enough — certainly better than I do, thanks to his considerable experience — to understand that a Baghdad security plan based on increasing force density involved a lot of moving pieces, and the risk of exposing other regions.

But Petraeus was also incredibly lucky—although he knew how to take advantage of the breaks he got—and these were the factors I hadn’t counted upon. The biggest break was the decision of the Sunni tribes to switch sides and oppose the taqfiri terrorists. This started to happen before the surge began, but Petraeus jumped on it—he was amazed, he told me last June, how quickly the transformation was taking place. This led directly to the defeat, or near-defeat, of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Given the nature of this conflict, Klein seems surprised that it take considerable time to build trust between U.S. forces — infidels and occupiers — and Sunni tribes that Saddam “controlled” through accommodation, bribery, and a not-so-firm grip on large-scale smuggling. To say that Petraeus was lucky in this regard is obviously true in a trivial sense. It also reflects a failure to understand the fact that Al Qaeda is fundamentally repellent to most Muslims, and that prolonged exposure to Al Qaeda’s style of governance is enough to cure virtually anyone of radical Islamist sentiments.

Another bit of “luck” was the ethnic cleansing that took place in Baghdad in 2005-2006 that lessened the potential for internecine violence in many of the neighborhoods. That plus the constant troop presence in the neighborhoods gave residents the confidence to tell the troops where the bad guys—as often as not criminal gangs who were taking advantage of the anarchy—were hiding.

This is an aspect of the withdrawalist critique that I find particularly frustrating. “Aha! But you didn’t turn Baghdad into a harmonious multifaith enclave of cosmopolitan prosperity! Yet!” Right. The history of partitions in divided societies is long and ugly. That said, we don’t exactly think of Greece or Turkey, or even India or Pakistan, as failed states. We consider them troubled states that are fragile in many respects. The question is, is the ethnic cleansing reversible? Even now, over a decade after Dayton, Bosnia remains a divided society. Some refugees have returned home, but many more have not — many more have built new lives in new parts of the country or overseas. But maintaining a single state allows the possibility of long-term reconciliation. Refugees are returning to Iraq, perhaps prematurely. This will be an enduring challenge. Yet it is a challenge that can be managed successfully, provided we don’t abandon the Iraqi state at its most vulnerable point.

And that’s exactly the course of action Klein advises us to take!

This next part is particularly frustrating.

What happens when we go? I would guess there are two possibilities, neither of which involves a very robust democracy. The first is a return to sectarian chaos, with our Sunni Awakening pals turning on the government, the Shi’ites fighting amongst themselves and the Kurds bidding the Arab Iraqis adieu. The second is the gradual transformation of Nouri al-Maliki, or some other Shi’ite, into a fairly classic middle eastern strongman. Maliki’s popularity has skyrocketed because he has been able to use the Iraqi Security Forces intelligently in recent months. We’ve seen this movie before.

And how did the movie end, exactly? I recall a Globe Ideas piece which posited, rather oddly, that the end of U.S. aid couldn’t possibly have made much of a difference to South Vietnam. This is despite the fact that the South was trained to fight by the U.S., and to emphasize superior maneuver and firepower. This was the oil crisis. They ran out of gasoline and bullets. You do the math.

So Maliki: a fairly classic Middle Eastern strongman. You know, one of those classic Middle Eastern strongmen accountable to a broadly representative National Assembly elected under a system of proportional representation. That kind of Middle Eastern strongman. Fascinating. Cockburn, rather more astutely, calls Maliki a potential Iraqi Putin. Klein thinks an elected leader is essentially identical to … Hosni Mubarak? Tunisia’s Ben Ali? Is there even such a thing as a “fairly classic Middle Eastern strongman”? I’m reminded of those who turn to caudillismo to understand Lula, as though the Hispanophone and Lusophone worlds were identical, as though some time immemorial aspect of ethnic character permanently defines a state’s politics. It is tiresome when it comes from right-wingers, it is tiresome when it comes from left-wingers.

But go we must, in an orderly fashion, the sooner the better—this war is simply too expensive and too exhausting for our military. And it is currently drawing crucial resources from the more important war in Afghanistan.

On the first point, one wonders what Klein has in mind — he predicts chaos in our absence, and then insists that we leave. Because it is too expensive and exhausting. Though certainly expensive and exhausting, others, in the military and outside of it, believe otherwise. Klein gives us no reason to accept his interpretation, and the interpretation (I assume) of his well-informed military sources, over theirs.

One wonders what kind of surge Klein has in mind in Afghanistan — interesting that the multilateral approach championed by Klein among others has had decidedly mixed success in Afghanistan, but that’s a topic for another time.

Then Joe Klein talks about “divided loyalties,” risibly. I suppose that must make me an agent of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Nice work if you can get it.