Harold Meyerson’s column in today’s Washington Post, “For Neocons, the Irony of Iraq,” provides an excellent example of the kind of thinking that leads critics of the war in Iraq down a blind alley. He chastises neocons for two key failures. First, they betrayed their own “law and order” tradition.
Irving Kristol initiated neoconservatism at least partly in revulsion at the disorder of John Lindsay’s New York. Now his son William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and the single leading proponent (going back to the mid-1990s) of invading Iraq, has helped convert neoconservatism into a source of a disorder infinitely more violent than anything that once disquieted his dad.
Just to be clear: is this supposed to be a “progressive” critique of the neocons? The effect, so far as I can tell, is to feed a notion that US failures in Iraq are, in part, a failure to really kick butt in Iraq. More war, please. Hence the re-hash of the old Shinseki critique.
The sharpest irony was their stunning indifference to the need for civic order. When the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, said that the occupation would require many hundreds of thousands of troops to establish and maintain the peace, he was publicly rebuked by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the administration’s foremost neocon, and quickly put out to pasture.
There is a real danger here. The “Left” calls for more troops…Hmmm. Careful what you ask for. Just a hunch, but if the US had put 500,000 troops on the ground at the start of the war and still faced an insurgency, much of the “Left” would have been just as happy to suggest (rightly so) that US brutality–fed by an obsessive concern for law and order at the expense of popular demands for freedom–was to blame for that insurgency. You can’t win friends at the point of a gun, we would say.
Meyerson’s second charge is that neocons–let’s call them Right Zionists–failed to understand the basic contours of Iraqi society.
[Kristol] and his fellow war proponents ignored all credible information on the actual Iraq and promised an Eden more improbable than anything that ’60s liberals ever imagined. “There’s been a certain amount of pop sociology in America,” he told National Public Radio listeners in the war’s opening weeks, “that the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There’s been almost no evidence of that at all,” he continued. “Iraq’s always been very secular.”
This point is crucial. There is no denying that Kristol was floating this line. And there is no way to know whether or not he believed his own rhetoric. However, as I suggested in my ZNet article, “Beyond Incompetence: Washington’s War in Iraq,” not all neo-conservatives were ignorant of Shiite/Sunni relations. Indeed, many neo-cons/Right Zionists were quite keen to exploit the domestic rivalry between Shiite and Sunni forces in Iraq as a key basis for changing the balance of power in the region.
William Kristol and Lawrence F. Kaplan, two prominent neo-conservatives, insist that their book, The War Over Iraq: Saddam’s Tyranny and America’s Mission, “wears its heart on its sleeve” (p.ix). They present a relentless critique of “a narrow realpolitik that defined America’s vital interests in terms of oil wells, strategic chokepoints and regional stability” (p.viii). Even as they celebrate “creating democracy in a land that for decades has known only dictatorship” (p.ix), they make no mention of — and seem utterly oblivious to — the prospect of Iraqi democracy emboldening Shiites in Iraq, Iran, or Saudi Arabia.
Kristol and Kaplan may be “Boy Scouts”…or maybe they simply find it convenient to appear good-hearted and bumbling, as Chomsky warned. Either way, not all neo-conservatives wear their merit badges or their heart on their sleeve. The neo-conservative movement is hardly monolithic; there have been many fissures and splits along the way. The crucial point, however, is that some key neo-conservatives are as committed to cold-hearted Machiavellian Realpolitik as any so-called “realist.” The battle dividing the Bush administration in Iraq is between two factions of Realpolitik strategists.
Indeed, as Achcar has recently noted, “in some neo-con circles” there is actually support for the same scenario feared most by Chomsky’s realists: “some kind of Shia state controlling the bulk of Iraq’s oil” that would align itself with Iranian Shiites and “unleash” Shiite power in the whole area, “including the Saudi Kingdom where the main oil producing area is inhabited by a Shia majority.” To assume that evidence of neo-conservative support for de-Baathification in Iraq represents a simple blunder by naïve and incompetent Wilsonian idealists is, at best, a misunderstanding — at worst, a serious underestimation — of neo-conservative visions for US foreign policy.
To suppose that Right Zionists didn’t understand the Sunni/Shiite politics of Iraq is foolishness and is not supported by the record.
Consider, for example, David Wurmser’s book, Tyranny’s Ally: America’s Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein (hereafter, TA). Wurmser published Tyranny’s Ally while serving as a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a think tank long identified with neo-conservative foreign policy analysis. After his time at AEI, Wurmser moved on to service within the Bush administration, most recently serving as Middle East expert in the office of Vice President Richard Cheney. Published in 1999, the book is a Machiavellian tour de force — and a blueprint for US policy in the Middle East. There are striking parallels between the policies endorsed in Wurmser’s book and those enacted by the Bush administration at the start of the US war in Iraq.
Wurmser directly confronts so-called “realist” fears regarding Shiite power in Iraq.
“The ensuing chaos of any policy that generates upheaval in Iraq would offer the oppressed, majority Shi’ites of that country an opportunity to enhance their power and prestige. Fear that this would in turn enable Iran to extend its influence through its coreligionists has led Britain and the United States, along with our Middle Eastern allies, to regard a continued Sunni control of Iraq as the cornerstone for stability in the Levant. Saudi Arabia in particular fears that any Shi’ite autonomy or control in Iraq will undermine its own precarious stability, because an emboldened Shi’ite populace in Iraq could spread its fervor into Saudi Arabia’s predominantly Shi’ite northeastern provinces. The Saudi government also fears that this upheaval could spread to predominantly Shi’ite Bahrain, or to other gulf states with large Shi’ite minorities.” (TA, p.73)
It is simply not plausible that Meyerson could know about Wurmser and still think of Bill Kristol as the best measure of Right Zionist “preparedness” to play a very high-stakes game with Iraqi domestic politics.
You write, “not all neo-conservatives were ignorant of Shiite/Sunni relations. Indeed, many neo-cons/Right Zionists were quite keen to exploit the domestic rivalry between Shiite and Sunni forces in Iraq as a key basis for changing the balance of power in the region.” And you go on, “To suppose that Right Zionists didn’t understand the Sunni/Shiite politics of Iraq is foolishness and is not supported by the record.” You seem to be missing the distinction between having some things to say about Sunni-Shia relations and having some (possibly quite unrealistic hopes) about outcomes on one hand, and having realistic knowledge upon which to base policy on the other. Just because neocons had things they wrote in grammatically correct sentences does not mean they were not ignorant and had precious little real knowledge about Sunni-Shia relations. Kristol’s comment is not the only ignorant thing they said. Juan Cole pointed out how Wolfowitz didn’t seem to realize there were important holy sites in Iraq. Rashid Khalidi pointed out how ignorant one of Perle’s arguments was (Reconstructing Empire, 2005, pp. 51-2). In “The Iraqi Shiites” Cole again points to mistaken contentions about the Shia held by neocons. The neocons did have things they said about Sunni-Shia relations and they had “visions”; and these were stated in coherent sentences. That, however, does not mean that they were not ignorant ideologues pushing essentially screwball policies probably, in many cases, because they are so emotionally committed to “The Cause” of Israel.
My primary point is that you can’t understand this war if you don’t know that some key Right Zionists were extremely interested in Sunni/Shiite politics–at least at the level of “strategy.” Folks like Meyerson think Right Zionists DIDN’T KNOW because they DIDN’T CARE. I think this is foolishness. Saying that they cared is not the same as saying that the were correct. I do not know enough about Sunnis or Shiites to access the “truth” of Right Zionist conceptions. I never tried to adjudicate the truth of Wurmser’s descriptions of Najaf Shiism.
Still, you would not be wrong if you thought I was wondering how much their “mistaken contentions” have hurt THEIR aims. This needs careful consideration. Did they miss Sadr? You bet. Has it mattered? If so, how? This is not a rhetorical question. I think it has mattered and continues to matter. I would caution, however, that the great resistance thus far has come from the Sunni side, not the Shiite side. My challenge to those who think I may be overestimating the “power” of the Right Strategy is to specify how the key ally they envisioned–Sistani–has let them down. Not a bravado challenge. A real call for illustrations, examples, etc. Sistani has helped contain Sadr and has been an ally in lots of ways. (I understand that he is no friend of queer sex… but I don’t think Right Zionists care much about his views on queerness. A pity. I care.). I simply don’t see how the Rigth Zionists are disappointed in Sistani. On the contrary, they are quite upset about a lot of things that have transpired… very little of it revolving around Sistani and his role in post-Saddam Iraq.
When Jim says ” Cole again points to mistaken contentions about the Shia held by neocons” and Prof C responds “I do not know enough about Sunnis or Shiites to access the “truth” of Right Zionist conceptions”, both are engaging in what I call naive positivism, i.e., the notion that there ‘exists’ a set of ‘facts’. The neocon, Straussian, etc., view is that ‘facts’ are entirely in the eye of the beholder, and to the extent that there now ‘exists’ a coordinated mass media empire committed to imposing neocon fantasies as ‘facts’ in the minds of the masses throughtout the so-called ‘West’ (I include Australia here as home of the Murdoch empire) they are operationally correct. In the famous quote, “We’re an empire now and we create our own reality.”
You say, “My primary point is that you can’t understand this war if you don’t know that some key Right Zionists were extremely interested in Sunni/Shiite politics–at least at the level of “strategy.”, and “Saying that they cared is not the same as saying that the were correct.” I agree that in “Beyond Incompetence” you made an excellent contribution by revealing the Right Zionist thinking and strategy about the Middle East. And I agree that you did not say their thinking was “correct”. What you did say was, “The crucial point, however, is that some key neo-conservatives are as committed to cold-hearted Machiavellian Realpolitik as any so-called ‘realist.’ ” Here is where I think you are wrong. I believe comments like Kristol’s are now obviously “wrong” and that enough of these screwball statements have been uncovered that we have to wonder why so much of their thinking and strategy was erroneous. I think there are at least two reasons: 1) neocons are such arrogant true believers that they apparently think they only have to mouth their “talking points” to push others to endorse their policies (they’ve had such notable success taking over our national debate since Reagan that they suffer from arrogance and hubris), and 2) Mearsheimer and Walt were correct that “Within the United States the main driving force behind the Iraq war was a small band of neoconservatives, many with close ties to Israel’s Likud Party”, i.e., the commitment of the Wurmsers, Feiths, Wolfowitzs and Perles to Israel pushed them to advocate policy and strategy on very half-baked grounds. (However, you are correct that Cheney and Rumsfeld are a special case needing further explanation. But remember who appointed Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle and Wurmser to big jobs in the Bush II administration.)
IMO, this post shows how little you understand about the military, and leftist, critiques of the conduct of war in OIF. For example you say:
This seems to assume that more troops would A) all be doing the same thing and B) that same thing would be “kicking butt,” both of which are completely wrong. In the plans for invading and occupying Iraq created by CENTCOM under Gen. Zinni the plan was for several hundred thousand more personnel, who would “freeze the situation”: maintaining law and order, ensuring that essential services weren’t disrupted, providing a team to help transition the army and police to work under new leadership, ensure that reprisals were prevented, etc. They also called for a civilian force with the same amount of personnel as the CPA for each of Iraq’s provinces, as well as a central CPA with the same or greater personnel.
I highly suggest that you read one of Tony Zinni’s books- Battle Ready or The Battle for Peace- which detail the intensely difficult missions that the military have faced since the end of the Cold War, none of which have to do with kicking more ass. If you want to critique the Zinni/Shinseki/any other thinking General POV of warfare, I suggest you read up a little more on it. Nation building is the bastard son that the military has inherited, and they know it. The ones who apparently didn’t were the idiotic NeoCons.
And this is the critique that I, an unabashed leftist, had and still have of this war (it’s why I’ve tried to Draft Zinni! to come over to the Democratic Party and run for office), despite the silly box you try to pin me, and my fellow leftists, in.
Here’s a slogan for you, Alex : “Vote Zinni For Hearts And Minds”.
While many on the left have articulated strong critiques of specifically how the war on terror has been waged, one can’t help but notice that the left is often just as invested in the idea of a war on terror, with its concomitant militarism and notions of patriotic sacrifice, as its more hawkish right-wing counterparts. In its rush to (rightly) criticize the Bush Administration for undertaking a costly endeavor with an uncertain outcome in Iraq, the left has rarely challenged the terms on which Bush’s war on terror was originally grounded – in fact, most have amplified the arguments of Bush’s neocon critics who attack the president from the right for his failure to tack closely enough to his own post-9/11 proclamation that all Americans would be called upon as the nation responded to the threat of terrorism. One must wonder about the far-reaching consequences of having an opposition party in Washington that has continually chided Bush for enlisting too few warriors in Iraq and too few citizens on the home front. What is “left” about a movement striving to be the standard-bearer of universal sacrifice and self-denial?
Rowan: you write
Be careful about the words you choose and the context in which you use them. I am not convinced that the mass media is actually “imposing neocon” fantasies. I would suggest, actually, that the mass media actually reflects less neocon, and more realist tendencies, if only in order to appear less radical and more “fair and balanced”…
Ben – I think that’s a strong point, but I also think that there is something to be said for critique at all, at this point. At a time when it is unpatriotic to ask for private phone calls, free travel to other countries, or resistance to domestic spying, I think that it is actually amazing that there is some opposition, as meager as it may be. I totally understand where you are coming from with your critique of the terms that the opposition discourse has (seemingly obliviously) adopted. But I would ask, is it really all that revolutionary to change the way we speak of the war if we are not heard? What about the structural reasons for why the left is simply unable to penetrate the media matrix when it begins to speak in terms simply outside the terms deemed acceptable by the media. In other words, if leftist critique is to exist as a formative political tool, it must not be assimilated by the autopoetic system of the mass-media. Events, such as leftist critique, that potentially ‘irritate’ the media system are subsumed by it. Thus, the left must identify ways to resist the negative associations that the mass media impose. Mustn’t we use the oppressors tools in order to overthrow him? If so, we either need to work WITHIN the system, or simply stop talking and violently overthrow the entire thing. No more leftist BS where we go out in the street singing kumbaya and ask for change. That doesn’t work anymore. So while I understand and sympathize with your point, I find it a highly unrealistic option. I think the left needs to stop dreaming about ideal situations and think long and hard about scenarios that hold up to the harsh realities of the world (a.k.a – the overwhelming power of the mass media)…
Sorry to be so dire – but I don’t understand how dreamy leftist discourse about how we might talk about things differently helps real people effect real change.