Andrew and the Neocon Right

The truth is that I agree with Pete Wehner on Iraq far more often than I agree with Andrew Sullivan, but I think Wehner gets something important wrong in his critique of Andrew’s recent post on Georgia.

Wehner highlights the following graf.

My only fear at this point is that by pointing this out, we may goad the Bushies and neocons into finding some kind of military escalation that would bring in the US. The US has no rational basis to be as committed to Georgia as Russia is; and has very little moral standing to protest an invasion of a sovereign country. [emphasis added]

And proceeds to write:

This highlighted statement is an astonishing one. The clear implication is that what America did in going to war with Iraq is the moral equivalent of what Russia has done to Georgia. If this is Sullivan’s point—and I’m not sure what other point he could be making—then it is, I think, an indefensible one.

In the situation in Georgia, a lawful, self-governing nation which respects human rights (and happens to be an ally of the United States) is under attack. In Iraq, we deposed on of the most wicked and cruel regimes of modern times.

My guess is that Andrew was referring to the US intervention in Kosovo, and our decision to accept Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, among other things. South Ossetia is a state ruled by thugs. But of course the KLA wasn’t the most morally appealing bunch either. Note the language the Russians are using — this is from the WSJ.

“The Russian army is trying to enforce peace, and to do that, we have to attack the Georgian military,” which is shelling South Ossetian villages and towns from outside the region’s nominal border, Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s deputy prime minister, said on CNN. “We have to stop the genocide.” He also indicated that Mr. Kouchner’s cease-fire proposal falls short. Moscow is demanding that Georgia first sign agreements with leaders of the pro-Russian breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Both Mr. Ivanov and Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian Duma, justified the Russian action with a comparison to NATO actions in Kosovo in 1999, when NATO aircraft bombed targets in Serbia proper, as far from the Kosovo battlefield as Belgrade.

This is — I forget who said this first, but I found it very astute and I’m really peeved to have lost the reference — is Russia using military force to effect a grotesque parody of the NATO intervention. It seems pretty damn clear to me that Russia is in the wrong here. But Andrew is making a valid point. (James makes this point well. I’m a lot more inclined to stick up for Georgia than he is, but he makes a number of worthwhile points about limits.)

At the same time, I find Andrew very frustrating to read on the subject of Iraq. Consider this post on the surge.

But the neocon right needs to talk as if the extra troops made all the difference.

My sense is that the neocon right was responding to the bizarre claim that the extra troops made no difference, e.g., Obama arguing that his preferred strategy of withdrawal and intense negotiations might have yielded a similar decline in violence. Had we reduced our presence, we would have been less useful to the Iraqi government, to put it bluntly, yet we would have remained a political liability. That’s straightforward. Speculatively, it would have been natural for the Shia’s to lean more heavily on Iranian support, to more aggressively pursue an ethnic cleansing strategy.* Moreover, the shift to a counterinsurgency strategy was about more than the surge of troops — which is why it “began” before the actual surge, along with increased casualties early on — but follow-through depended on increasing troop strength. This isn’t that outlandish.

The truth is: they were shrewdly deployed to help galvanize a multiplicity of already-existing trends among Iraqis. But if you begin to describe Iraq as a sovereign country, able to make its own decisions and able to restore some level of non-chaos to its own communities, with the US merely nudging, the case for staying there for ever diminishes.

Yes, and my sense is that many in the neocon right agree. But it matters whether we adhere to a rigid timetable, or if we try to build on shared success.

The neocons aren’t stupid. They always advance the arguments that help sustain the case for more American control everywhere, indefinitely.

I can’t agree with this. What people misunderstand about neoconservatives is that they’re not reflexive unilateralists, like Rumsfeld or Bolton; rather, they believe the United States has the power to provide global public goods. The idea of a “League of Democracies,” unwise though it may be, is about constraining the unilateral exercise of force, and building consensus among liberal market democracies. For all the deep-seated opposition to the reckless use of American power, there is a silent (one might uncharitably say free-riding) consensus that the United States should clean up its own messes and, of course, other messes that happen to occur along the way. I think that neoconservatives — and I think of myself as internal to this community — ought to think more creatively and pragmatically about non-state threats. But are neoconservatives hellbent on imposing American control everywhere? I tend to think they want American power constrained by the need to maintain and ideally extend the “security oxygen” the affluent world has enjoyed for so long.

*Briefly, you should check out the Biddle-O’Hanlon-Pollack analysis in the latest Foreign Affairs. O’Hanlon and Pollack have become hate figures on the center-left, but Biddle wrote the most astute critique of US counterinsurgency strategy pre-surge, “Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon,” and I think he deserves to be taken seriously.

It is worth noting that separation resulting from sectarian cleansing was not the chief cause of the reduction in violence, as some have claimed. Much of Iraq remains intermingled but increasingly peaceful. And whereas a cleansing argument implies that casualties should have gone down in Baghdad, for example, as mixed neighborhoods were cleansed, casualties actually went up consistently during the sectarian warfare of 2006. Cleansing may have reduced the violence somewhat in some places, but it was not the main cause.

This is worth keeping in mind.