Tag Archives: Iraq

Moral Obligations Towards Iraq

One trend that disturbs me in some recent Democratic positioning, most notably in some of Obama’s ads and his convention speech, is the idea that we should be somehow resentful of Iraqis.  His ads talk about how we’re spending $10 billion a month in Iraq while they sit on an oil surplus.  I wonder what credible charge this could express.  If we were taking $10 billion a month from the Iraqis, we’d be hearing cries of “no blood for oil,” and “imperialism” from any genuine liberal.  The damage that we’ve done to Iraq, the number of lives lost, seems to outweigh $10 billion a month.

On this limited issue, I think pro-war commentators are often closer to the truth than mainstream individuals who are (now) against the Iraq war.  When we chose to invade Iraq, we acquired a moral obligation to commit our resources to the benefit of Iraq, even if that invasion was immoral.  As Powell crudely put it “you break it, you buy it.”  The harsh truth is that the taxes American citizens pay are of lesser moral importance than the fate of Iraq.

The question now is not whether the war is too expensive, or in our narrow interest, but how our actions are likely to impact Iraq.  I think the questions bring us to the same answer, but it’s still a type of pandering to exploit resentment towards the Iraqi oil surplus.

Muslim Roots

Data ain’t the plural of anecdote and all that, but:

Mr. Sultan, however, like many Iraqis, feels instinctively close to the senator because he heard that he had Muslim roots.

“Every time I see Obama I say: ‘He’s close to us. Maybe he’ll see us in a different way,’ ” Mr. Sultan said. “I find Obama very close to my heart.”

That seems to bear on the question of whether Muslims all over the world would think that Obama was an apostate who needs killed.  The NYTimes article is a good discussion of how Obama’s plans for troop withdrawal play in Iraq.


As close as I can get to defending anyone involved in dealing with ‘Curveball‘, the Iraqi exile who told stories about mobile germ labs, is that he apparently had a lot of practice lying, did it with no remorse, and was very good at it.  But that didn’t stop his co-workers at Burger King from realizing that he was a liar.  (H/t: Neil Sinhababu, who already made the joke that was gonna be my title)

Hail Mary

There’s a bit of debate about why McCain is going on so much about Iraq.  I think both explanations have some truth towards them.  It’s the only issue that he seems to be really interested in, with pork being the notable exception, but also he probably seems temperamentally suited to butt his head up against a brick wall because he cares about this issue.  I can see him saying, “damn the stubbornness of the voters, if I just keep talking about Iraq, they’ll get the message.”

I can also see this strategy working.  An unpredictable aspect of the debate over Iraq is the circumstances on the ground, or how they’re perceived in the United States.  And right now, there’s a lot of potential for McCain, because on the surface, things are going well in Iraq right now.  American casualties are lower than they’ve been in years, and I think that Iraqi casualties have been reduced as well (I’m less clear on that).  This is obviously good news.

The argument then becomes one over whether those reductions in casualties can be sustained, or whether deeper problems are just being temporarily masked by a US policy focused on short-term security.  I still think it’s the latter, though I’m less sure than I was six months ago.  If the relative quiet persists until November, the question becomes which scenario voters believe, and whether they have any patience for staying in Iraq.

So by taking this strategy, I think McCain has a real chance, even an outside one, of winning on the Iraq issue.  It is probably his best chance, in fact.

Wingnuts Celebrate Memorial Day

By saying the United States and its overseas interests have been safe from terrorist attack since 2004. 4082 soldiers might beg to differ about the definition of ‘safe’. (Spotted at Instapundit –the same folks who bitterly complain about Google not having a Memorial Day logo).

A Different October Surprise

Iraqi provincial elections originally planned for October of this year appear to have been postponed.  Petraeus says he believes they will still happen sometime in the fall.  That’s from the Washington Independent’s coverage of the confirmation hearings before the Armed Services Committee.  Petraeus is slated to move to central command, while Odierno would take Petraeus’ position as Iraq commander. In what is probably bigger news, provinces that were to transfer to Iraqi control this year won’t.  I’m not really sure how real “Iraqi control” would have been, given our continuing involvement in the country, but that sounds like the Iraqi government is less prepared than was predicted.

However, it is Petraeus’s plan to announce more troop withdrawals in September or thereabouts.


Most pundits have justly mocked or written off McCain’s 2013 speech.  After all, it contains no explanation of how we’re going to get from here to his vision of 2013, so there’s not much substance.  However, I’m concerned about how it could frame the debate over Iraq.

McCain is selling us a vision of success in Iraq.  That is something that people want, almost as much as they want assurances that US troops will be out of Iraq soon.  The question is how Democrats attack this vision.  Naturally, they can say that McCain has given no specifics about how we’re getting that outcome.  This is a fair attack, and one that can probably be made to stick–I doubt many people have just now turned around and said “wow, we can win.  Iraq will be peaceful in 2013.”

But this kind of attack isn’t enough.  By talking about the situation in 2013, McCain is shifting the debate to the question of what Iraq looks like in the future, and the challenge for a Democrat becomes to say what their plan will do to Iraq.  There are two ways a Democrat can go, and neither one looks good.

First, a Democrat could say “I have a plan to get United States troops out, while stabilizing Iraq.”  If they do this, then the debate becomes one about managerial competence, much like the debate in 2004.  While antipathy towards Republicans might win this debate, it involves giving up the advantage of being the anti-war party.  Moreover, I think it is fundamentally dishonest–no one can promise this.

Second, there is the brutally honest approach.  In truth, I think the United States presence in Iraq won’t ever stabilize the region, at least not unless the timescale is measured in decades.  All we do is postpone the inevitable blowup, but we don’t make that blowup any less severe.  All that we do by staying is continue to suffer casualties without changing the long-term prognosis in Iraq.  So we might as well adopt a policy that gets us out as quickly as possible.  The downsides of this policy are tempered by the realization that it’s possible that staying in Iraq will make the eventual blowup even worse.  Looking backwards, many of the worst case scenarios (civil war, sectarian violence, ethnic cleansing) that were predicted after withdrawal have already come to pass.

This second approach is too pessimistic to be the platform of a major political party.  It’s also an overstatement: clearly, America’s actions in Iraq can improve or hurt the situation.  There will be better and worse withdrawal plans, and better or worse times to withdraw.  But I do think it’s right that we will not be able to make a huge difference in the outcome.  Moreover, it’s hard to imagine that we’ve got good knowledge of how various actions we take will pan out.

In any case, the approach that the Democrats will take must be somewhere between the first and the second options.  It’s not viable to give up the idea that we’re the anti-war party, nor is it viable to just admit that Iraq will be a disaster.  So the Democratic party has to find some way to steer between the two extremes.  Any coherent picture involves giving up something that people value, and dealing with nuance in a way that most political positions don’t require.

I don’t have a good feel for how the public will react to all of this.  It’s possible that in the next sixth months, the Democrats can win just by being the anti-war party.  It may be that McCain’s assurances sound so hollow that this becomes a non-issue.  However, my gut reaction is that there’s danger here.

Webb and Iraq

I’ll say right away that I’m pretty uninformed about Jim Webb. So far as I can tell, Webb is the hottest topic for an Obama Vice Presidential pick after Hillary Clinton, and more people are enthusiastic about Webb as VP.  For obvious reasons, Clinton is often mentioned just for the sake of unifying the party–she has positives, but she’s got a well defined public image, a record of criticizing Obama, and they come from opposite places within the party.

I found Matt Zeitlin arguing against Webb as a VP. His first point is that it would probably not do much to reach out to female Clinton voters.  I definitely can’t contest that point, so I’ll mention his worry that Webb will undermine Obama’s national security credibility:

Another argument against Webb is that instead of acting as “insurance” that Obama would be able to compete for working class white votes and not have McCain get away with questioning his patriotism, he would instead accentuate that Obama is perceived to be everything that Webb is not. If the purpose of putting Webb on the ticket is, as Massie and others say, to project strength on foreign policy, military issues, patriotism, being a badass, getting white working class support, then that very action implies that Obama is weak on all those fronts. And when a candidate essentially cops to weakness in certain areas, the media and the other party will just eat it up.

This is at least possible. However, I think the thing to fear, as far as undermining Obama, is to pick someone “tough” who disagrees with Obama. If they go for someone to project national security strength who is a hawk, they thereby send the message that hawkishness is the tough posture. But if they pick someone who mostly stands with Obama, it is neutral or even reinforces the message that national security credentials don’t exclusively belong to hawks.

Also, as the Kerry case makes clear, the undermining problem arises mostly when the candidate is really vulnerable on the issue. While I hate the style of politics that says “KERRY IS FRENCH, HATEZ,” Kerry was quite vulnerable to that attack. I’m not sure how vulnerable Obama really is on the national security front. First, the Democrats are in a great position overall this year. Second, Obama has shown every indication that he’s prepared to not back down, but instead respond forcefully to any suggestion that the hawks own the national security issue. This is in fact one of the issues that has really enthused me about him.

Anyway, I need to learn more about Webb, but so far as the last ten minutes tell me, it seems like he was elected on opposition to the Iraq War.

(†) Ain’t blogging fun?

McCain Visits Potemkin Village, Convinces The Rest of World We’re Fucking Nuts

I can rewrite headlines. I should also say that the article itself is a bit weird:

“This visit confirms that the Republicans believe that the Iraqi war is very important in the fight against terrorism in the Middle East,” said Wael Abdul Latif, an independent Shiite member of the Iraqi Parliament. “It’s a message to Iran that the United States will never leave, even after Bush is gone.”

That’s nice, but most Iraqis aren’t like Latif, and among the things that scare them is the idea that we’ll never leave.

In the spirit of evenhandedness, here’s some genuinely good news from Iraq.

The War Issue

This is perhaps the biggest ground for supporting Obama over Hillary. In 2002, Hillary voted to authorize the President to go to war in Iraq. Obama did not–while not in the Senate, he spoke against the war. This is not merely a matter of looking at old votes to see who was vindicated in hindsight. It is an important issue of how we confront the war machine. Imagine two debates:

Obama: “I have been against this war from the beginning.”
McCain: [war-mongering insanity]


Clinton: “We need to end this war.”
McCain: “You voted for this war, now you’re flip-flopping? We need to finish what you started!”
[Enter John-Kerry, stage left]

Aside from showing that I can’t write good dialogue, this is a huge problem for Clinton. Sometimes liberals worry about looking weak on national security. We’d do better to spend more time worrying about just looking weak and confused. We’re better off with a candidate who can speak confidently and with convictions the public can discern.

At a real level, Hillary’s actions don’t make sense. Sometimes people have tried to explain voting for the war by citing political necessities. But the fact is those political necessities were only there if you thought that the war would go well. If your belief was that war would go poorly, the political necessity is to vote against it–you might take heat in the short term, but you’ll be vindicated. In any case, if Hillary gets the nomination, look forward to a lot of tortuous explanations during the general election.

We don’t need to fear a direct confrontation–McCain’s ideas are dangerous and unpopular. What we need to worry about is whether we’ll be able to make that case or whether the message will be drowned out.

Wasted Money

Barack Obama is proposing budget cuts, which has offended many ordinary tax and spending liberals…oh, that’s an advertisement on conservative websites? I forgot that it doesn’t count as spending if it’s on the military, and that it’s just peachy to run up enormous deficits meddling in other countries.

There’s actually an ok criticism noted at Redstate, which notes that fissile material would include peaceful production of fuel for nuclear reactors. It’s definitely a blunder, but obviously not representative of his policy–the nuclear proliferation section of his website mentions nothing about stopping the production of fuel, and includes plans for disposing of spent fuel from nuclear power-plants, which suggests they might still be running. I suspect the video will continue to make the rounds, but the fuel issue is the perfect combination of wonky and stupid that will appeal to no one.

Update: Shawn sent me a piece on the staggering costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It includes a few comparisons of what that money could be spent on. I think this is a continuation of an analysis that has been out there, but it’s a good reality check.

Time Is Not on Our Side

“Time is not on our side”

That was John McCain, speaking about Iraq in August of 2003. I smell a campaign ad. (Ht: Matthew Yglesias)

One Hundred Years

One of John McCain’s biggest weaknesses is that he doesn’t have much to talk about, except general militarism, insane Iraq-based militarism, and a vague sense that he’s an honest guy.

The problem is that this leaves McCain spending a lot of time talking about the subject where the Democrats have a big advantage. It’s true that the quasi-success of the surge has gotten Iraq off of people’s minds. It’s not as often in the news, it’s not what people are talking about. That’s good for the republicans, because it’s a bad topic for them. But with John McCain as the nominee, it’s unsustainable. They’ll have to go out and make a case for the impossible.

It turns out that I’ve never shared one of McCain’s best moments on the subject of Iraq. So here it is:

Look at the guy in front and to the left of McCain. Feel his incredulity as it changes to horror, as his mouth gapes open. Note that this man is attending a Republican town hall meeting. McCain has the sense to talk about how we should stay in Iraq for a hundred years while US Troops aren’t getting killed. That’s better than a hundred-year war, but it’s not as good as US troops not getting killed and a pony! Cut away the hypotheticals that will never come to pass, and McCain’s vision has us just staying in Iraq.

The Virtues of Squeamishness

In the comments on my earlier post, Will phrased a common sentiment–that the professional volunteer military might favor militarism because it insulates the population at large from the costs of war.  Since it’s not the children of (most) voters or the elites of the country who die, they come to regard the military as a tool to be used as they see fit.

If I can generalize from one case, Iraq doesn’t fit that picture.  We have an all volunteer army, and yet we’re ready to cut and run after 3,000 some casualties.  To my mind, that shows that our willingness to fight a war has more to do with the nature of the war than than ‘warrior spirit,’ to use Kaplan’s silly terms, or even the question of who makes up the military, which is Will’s more reasonable interest.  It’s also true that since the beginning of the past century, our faith in war has decreased, but as late as Vietnam, we were willing to accept hundreds of thousands of casualties.  Vietnam was a stupid war, but communism still looked like an existential threat in a way that Iraq or even Al-Qaeda never did.

Good News From Iraq

It seems that violence in Iraq as well as US casualties are well down since June, and that the drop in the previous few months was not just a matter of summer’s typical downturn in violence (hard to kill people in 130° weather). If the trend continues, that would be extremely good news on both counts, and might even point towards some sort of success in Iraq.

The downside: that’s if the trend continues. At the moment, violence levels are still where they were in 2005, at which point almost everyone thought that we needed rapid improvement or Iraq would be a disaster. Second, the drop in US casualties may be largely the result of changes in strategy: using air power instead of on the ground counter-insurgency. But we started using ground troops more actively because air strikes exacerbated civilian casualties and caused Iraqis to hate us more–the Kaplan article notes that civilian casualties from airstrikes this year are greater than the past two years combined.

Finally, the ultimate test of success in Iraq is political: will the various factions ever decide they don’t want to kill us and kill each other? None of these developments seem to speak to that issue. Much of our recent strategy has involved arming Sunni militias in return for their pretending to be the good guys, but nothing suggests that those militias won’t go back to their old habits if we ever cease arming them.

Bill Rocks

Bill Clinton On MoveOn

I cannot for the life of me remember any of the reasons I was unhappy with Clinton while he was president. Via BitchPhd.

Links from Yglesias

  1. The contractors who were just kicked out of Iraq had spent the last several years running around Iraq with automatic weapons, not subject to military justice, Iraqi justice or US civilian courts for any crimes they committed in Iraq.
  2. Most of the top sellers on Islam in America are just works of Muslim-bashing. The best of them has to be “The Day of Islam: The Annihilation of America and the Western World.”

We Are Hated

I can’t believe I forgot this, but I’ve been busy. So, it turns out that 60% of Iraqis believe it is justifiable to attack US soldiers. What the heck are we doing in a country where people think that?

Now That’s How You Write a Lead!

In his speech last night, President Bush made a case for progress in Iraq by citing facts and statistics that at times contradicted recent government reports or his own words.

Just short of the eminently reasonable: “Impeachment of Bush Only Moral Option.” Weird to see something like this in the Washington Post, though.

Possible Troop Drawdown

The pregame speculation about Petraeus’s reports has the surprise that he may back a troop drawdown. Specifically, he would propose bringing 30,000 troops home within the next 9 months, while waiting until after next July for any further withdrawal.

This is obviously the worst of all possible plans.

That may come as a surprise–surely bringing any troops home is a good thing? Not really. First of all, this plan would leave 130,000 troops in Iraq, roughly the same as prior to the surge. So it indicates no real plan to leave. Second, with fewer troops, the US military would be less able to create any kind of security in Iraq. The troops who got to go home would be sitting pretty, but those left in Iraq would be in greater danger. They could take a less active stance, but that’s not going to improve the situation.

As anyone who reads me regularly knows, this isn’t a push for us staying in Iraq. Rather, I think we need to be realistic about whether or not we can succeed in Iraq. On any remotely realistic assessment of the situation, half-measures like the above won’t work. I’d hope that even the delusional people who think we can succeed in Iraq can recognize that.

The political danger is that Democrats will be swayed by Petraeus’s testimony, implicitly accepting the argument that we’re making progress and accepting the cheap victory of bringing home a few troops.