Sunday, 15 June 2014

“Let us turn, now, to Captain Wrong…”

In the midst of the recent developments in Iraq, of increasing violence and the advances of the ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) faction, the New York Times did a peculiar thing. Peculiar intellectually, but by no means unusual.

In their article “U.S. Said to Rebuff Iraqi Request to Strike Militants” (June 11, 2014), Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt turned to one Kenneth M. Pollack for analysis and input on the situation. Pollack is a former C.I.A. analyst and National Security Council official, and currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Here’s what Pollack had to say:

“U.S. military support for Iraq could have a positive effect but only if it is conditioned on Maliki changing his behavior within Iraq’s political system,” Mr. Pollack said. “He has to bring the Sunni community back in, agree to limits on his executive authority and agree to reform Iraqi security forces to make them more professional and competent.”

This all sounds rather reasonable, of course. What’s peculiar, as pointed out by Rachel Maddow this past week, is why they would turn to Pollack for analysis. He was, after all, the “Captain of Team Wrong in 2002” (Maddow). The US media has a pretty extensive history of calling on people who have been so wrong in the past. (See, for example, William Kristol and George Will, to name but two.)

PollackKM-ThreateningStormThe above epithet is based on some of the content of Pollack’s book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Here are three snippets:

“a full-scale invasion of Iraq to remove the Iraqi regime, scour the country for WMD, and rebuild a stable, prosperous Iraq”

At least the “scour … for WMD” suggests that the WMD may not exist (if you read that quotation through a rather even-handed, generous lens).

“… in purely economic terms, it is unimaginable that the United States would have to contribute hundreds of billions of dollars and highly unlikely that we would have to contribute even tens of billions of dollars…”

Oops. Estimates for the overall cost of the US misadventure in Iraq are around the one trillion dollars. Well done, sir.

“Those who argue that the United States would inevitably become the target of unhappy Iraqis generally also assume that the Iraqi population would be hostile to U.S. forces from the outset. However, the best evidence we have suggests that the Iraqi people would be pleased to be liberated…”

Also wrong, as it happens. But not entirely so. To play devil’s advocate, he was partially correct. U.S. forces were not targets of a generally hostile Iraqi population. They were, however, generally the targets of those Iraqis who were hostile.

What made Pollack’s statement ultimately wrong is that, actually, invading and occupying forces do inevitably become the targets of insurgencies and disaffected and revolutionary forces among the occupied. History has a great many examples of this. To assume the US forces would be anything but occupiers suggests a rather gullible and uncritical reading of the American plans to begin with. How could the US have been anything but an occupier? They committed to protecting Iraq, under the “Pottery Barn Rule”, so famously expressed by then-General Colin Powell. How else could they do this but by establishing, effectively, an occupying presence? Therefore, it was inevitable that hostile Iraqi forces would target the US forces in the country.

This was especially the case after a government was set up – although, to be fair, there was no real way to predict that it would be so exclusionary in practice. [And, I’m fully aware, that this piece has benefited from hindsight, but I still think the point is a valid one.]

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Here’s the Maddow clip, from the episode referenced above and which inspired this post:

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