Michael Massing in Iraq

Michael Massing has a long and storied career as an investigative journalist, and I have no doubt that he can be an insightful and impressive writer. But I’ve seen no evidence of that in his writing on Iraq. Interestingly, Massing is best known as a celebrated chronicler of inner-city life and the drug war during an earlier phase in his career, experience that you’d think would serve him well in surveying the War on Terror. But if anyone lends truth to the notion that “travel narrows the mind,” it is Massing. In his most recent essays on Iraq for The New York Review of Books, on the volunteer army and now on his brief experience as an embed, he displays a lack of self-knowledge is very hard to believe. The NYRB has a very distinguished stable of writers, some of whom — Christopher de Bellaigue, Max Rodenbeck, Peter Galbraith, and Ian Buruma come to mind — combine sharp criticism of the failures and arrogance of American power with a keen understanding of the intellectual and political scene in the region. Patrick Cockburn, who writes regularly for the LRB, has a fine-grained understanding of the military and political balance, and he also stands squarely against U.S. policies. My gripe about Massing, I am keen to emphasize, has little to do with his opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq — his anger is justified much of the time. What bothers me about Massing is that he doesn’t seem to approach his work in a spirit of open and honest inquiry. Granted, that’s not true of many excellent and compelling writers. But Massing poses as a truth-teller, the kind of person who exposes propagandists and the intellectually lazy. Yet he seems to only believe the things he wants to believe.

It is actually too unpleasant for me to go through “Embedded in Iraq” in its entirety, so I’ll just hit on a few quick points.

Before coming to Iraq, I had been skeptical of the many statements US officials had put out about Iran’s involvement there. They sounded too canned, too overstated, too reminiscent of the exaggerated claims made about Saddam in the run-up to the Iraq war. My visit to Baghdad cured me of that.

To be skeptical of statements made by US officials is one thing. To be skeptical of the many news reports from left-leaning news reporters inclined to think the worst of US officials, often for very good reasons, is another. Massing then proceeds to make a familiar argument — that the invasion of Iraq has radically strengthened Iran in the region. I can’t imagine that Massing has never encountered this argument before. It would actually be impressive if he hadn’t encountered this argument before, as though he had been sequestered during the O.J. Simpson trial some years ago and had never been released from his television-less hotel room.

Of all the unintended consequences of the US invasion of Iraq, surely the most paradoxical is the way it has boosted Iran’s position in the region. In toppling Saddam, the United States removed from power Iran’s mortal enemy, the leader of a regime with which it had fought a devastating eight-year war that had cost it a half-million lives.

This hardly seems “paradoxical.” And it hardly seems like a good reason to disengage.

The electoral system the Bush administration devised helped bring to power a Shiite majority with long-standing cultural, religious, and economic ties to Iran.

Is there an electoral system that would not have helped bring a Shiite majority to power that would also have been democratic? Also, it is worth noting that the electoral system Massing has in mind was “devised” in the first half of the 19th century and is used in most democracies in some form.

The SIIC, the main government party, was founded in Iran and remains so close to Tehran that many Iraqis shun it for having a “Persian taint.”

This suggests that Iraqis are turning against Iranian power for their own reasons, does it not?

Iran is erecting mosques and power plants in the Shiite south and investing heavily in construction and communications in the Kurdish north. “The only one winning here is Iran,” an Iraqi journalist observed. “And they’re losing zero people.”

Surely this isn’t a bad thing, unless our goals in Iraq are crudely mercantilist. Provided Iraq is truly sovereign, cross-border investment isn’t a problem. The question is, how can Iraq become truly sovereign — and will US withdrawal help that process along? A lot of smart people believe it will. But it is a serious question worth asking.

Hezbollah operatives, he said, were training JAM members in guerrilla warfare, while a senior member of al-Qaeda was being sheltered in Iran.

Yes. And JAM has been severely degraded.

Even the Kurds were in deep with the Iranians, he said. Under Saddam, for instance, Jalal Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan who is now president of Iraq, ran weapons and communications lines through Iran.

Talabani has also confronted the Iranians. One would assume that anti-Saddam elements would align themselves with Saddam’s bitterest foes. Massing has weaved this paragraph in a strangely non-sequitur-ish way.

Finally, there was Ahmad Chalabi, the influential former exile who had urged the Americans to invade and then fallen out with them, allegedly over his ties to Tehran. “All the time, he was working for Iran!” Ware told me.

This is likely true — and it just might explain why Chalabi is on the outs with the Maliki government. Massing doesn’t seem very interested in the changing nature of Iraqi-Iranian relations, and how Iranian influence has been challenged of late by Iraqi nationalists. It is actually really weird. The Iran section of Massing’s essay could have been written a year ago, when it would have made some sense.

This last section, by the way, is the best part of the essay. The rest is quasi-comic — only soldiers who tell Massing what he wants to hear are telling him the truth; everything else is propaganda, etc. I’d go through it in detail, but it needs to be read to believed. Massing is surprised to learn that US servicemembers read popular non-fiction. In describing the Iraqi political scene, he displays knowledge that is vintage 2006. One wishes he had spoken to — or spoken to and understood — critics of US policies like Vali Nasr, who wrote an informative opinion piece on the day Massing filed his picaresque adventure.

Iran still has considerable influence in Iraq. It may reconstitute the Mahdi Army and pick up the fight against America, using special groups of the type suspected in the Baghdad car bombing Tuesday. It may also try to use nationalist opposition to the U.S.-Iraq “status of forces” agreement to its advantage. But Tehran will find it difficult to regain lost turf in Baghdad or Basra, or to go back to happily supporting Shiites both at the center and in the militias. It will have to choose whether it is with the state or the sub-state actors.

Nasr goes on to argue that the US needs to negotiate with Iran, a point Massing makes as well, albeit very differently. First, Nasr.

It is a frequent refrain in Washington that the United States needs leverage before it can talk to Iran. In Iraq, Washington is getting leverage. America has the advantage while Iran is on its heels. Engaging Iran now could even influence who wins the Iraq debate in Tehran.

That leverage has been achieved through a concerted military and political strategy. Massing, in contrast, offers a mish-mash that ends with the hope that Barack Obama’s “aggressive diplomacy” will end in a happy outcome for all. Of course, Obama understands, unlike Massing, that the US needs to preserve some leverage.

This is instructive — everyone is for diplomacy, so calling for “aggressive diplomacy,” as in Massing’s case, is close to useless. What makes the most sense to me is continued cooperation with Iraq’s elected government. This approach has already led to a sharp deterioration in Iran’s relative influence, and it is moving them in a more conciliatory direction. Withdrawing now, in a state of ill-informed panic, is a sure way to reverse these gains.