Some weeks ago, during one of my rare forays into cable television news, I saw that eminent Baby Boomer, Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard, pontificating on
A search for “William Kristol” and “
Although as we shall see Kristol pretty consistently criticized the Administration for not doing enough in
Kristol and Robert Kagan felt much better on
“A year has passed since the invasion of Iraq, and while no sensible person would claim that Iraqis are safely and irrevocably on a course to liberal democracy, the honest and rather remarkable truth is that they have made enormous strides in that direction. The signing on March 8 of the Iraqi interim constitution--containing the strongest guarantees of individual, minority, and women's rights and liberties to be found anywhere in the Arab world--is the most obvious success. But there are other measures of progress, as well. Electricity and oil production in
“What's more, there are hopeful signs that Iraqis of differing religious, ethnic, and political persuasions can work together. This is a far cry from the predictions made before the war by many, both here and in
“This willingness is the product of what appears to be a broad Iraqi consensus favoring the idea of pluralism. The interim constitution itself represents a promising compromise between the legitimate desire of the majority Shiites to be fairly represented in the Iraqi government--for the first time in a century--and the equally legitimate desire of Kurds and Sunnis to be protected from a tyranny of the majority. These are never easy matters to resolve, as our own Founders knew well. Add to these problems the vexing question of the role of Islam in Iraqi politics and society, and the complexities multiply. Yet here, too, the Iraqis seem to have struck a hopeful balance. Islam is respected in the constitution as the national religion. But that does not impinge on the basic rights of Iraqis, both Muslim and non-Muslim. This does not seem to be a Muslim theocracy in the making. Indeed, the way in which the Iraqi constitution reconciles liberal democracy with the culture and religion of Islam really is an encouraging and feasible model for others in the Islamic world.”
These paragraphs are the Terri Gross interview squared, and they show what happens when ideologues, rather than men and women with any actual regional expertise, are allowed to let their fantasies about foreign lands run wild. (Walt Rostow had a similar series of fantasies about the rapid modernization of
April 2004 was the month in which things fell apart in
“The mere fact that violence has increased recently in
“Nor is the news from
A month later, on May 23, Kristol himself had to admit things had not been going so well, so he deployed one of his favorite analogies, the crisis in Union morale in the middle of 1864, overcome by
“If a provisional Iraqi sovereign government is to operate effectively from July until the elected government takes power in January, adequate security is necessary. This requires striking a decisive military blow against the armed insurgencies that seek to prevent the Iraqi government from coming into existence. As was the case in 1864, the immediate task is therefore the destruction of the armies and militias of the insurgency--not taking and holding territory, not winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis, not conciliating opponents and critics, not gaining the approval of other nations. All of these can follow after victory over the violent insurrection.
“So any armed insurgency opposed to a peaceful transition in
Of course, our forces in
American troops reconquered and largely destroyed Fallujah in November 2004—still our costliest month in terms of casualties—and by December 13, Kristol was preparing to declare victory not only in
“The sounds one hears emanating from the Arab Middle East are the sounds, faint but unmistakable, of the ice cracking. Though long suppressed and successfully repressed, demands for liberal reform and claims of the right to self-government seem to be on the verge of breaking through in that difficult region.
“The key to turning these random sounds of discontent into the beginnings of a symphony of self-government is, of course, success in
Robert Kagan and Kristol became absolutely rhapsodic after the first round of elections in
February 14: “Thankfully, President Bush never accepted the notion that Iraqis or other Arab or Muslim peoples are not "ready" for democracy. As a result millions of Iraqis (and Afghans) have now voted. How will this remarkable exercise of democracy affect the rest of the Arab and Muslim world? We remain confident that progress toward liberal democracy in
“Here in the
And here is Kristol on March 7:
“History is best viewed in the rear-view mirror. It's hard to grasp the significance of events as they happen. It's even harder to forecast their meaning when they're only scheduled to happen. And once they occur, it's usually the case that possible historical turning points, tipping points, inflection points, or just points of interest turn out in the cold glare of history to have been of merely passing importance.
“But sometimes not. Just four weeks after the Iraqi election of
During the rest of 2005, Kristol said much less about what was actually happening in Iraq, although by the fall he was becoming worried that various Republicans, including George Will and political strategist Grover Norquist, were either losing faith in the cause or worrying (presciently) about the war’s impact on the 2006 elections. But the next round of Iraqi elections in December allowed him to reach even greater heights of ecstasy—which in retrospect emerge as greater flights of fancy. December 26:
“The biggest story of this election, apart from its obvious milestone character, is the staggeringly high Sunni turnout. In October we were being assured, by the usual experts, that the passage of the constitutional referendum was a disaster, another of many final nails in the coffin of Iraqi democracy: The Sunnis would now never participate in the electoral process. It turns out that they did participate, and they did so with eager anticipation that through the new democratic process their voices could be heard and their interests protected.
“It also turns out that one of the major reasons Sunnis had not participated before was fear that they would be killed by terrorists and insurgents. This time, with 160,000 American troops and thousands of newly trained Iraqi soldiers and police, there was a sense of security. ‘Last time, if you voted, you died,’ Abdul Jabbar Mahdi, a Sunni, told the Times's Dexter Filkins. ‘God willing, this election will lead to peace.’ As Filkins notes, ‘Comments from Sunni voters, though anecdotal, suggested that a good number of them had stayed away from the polls in January not because they were disenchanted with the democratic process, but because they were afraid of being killed.’
“Not a turning point? The participation of the Sunnis in such high numbers by itself marks this election as a watershed. Either something dramatic has happened to Sunni attitudes, or true Sunni feelings were previously suppressed. Among the Sunnis he interviewed, the Times's John Burns found ‘a new willingness to distance themselves from the insurgency, an absence of hostility for Americans, a casual contempt for Saddam Hussein, a yearning for Sunnis to find a place for themselves in the post-Hussein Iraq.’ Zaydan Khalif, 33, wrapped himself in the Iraqi flag as he headed to the polls. ‘It's the national feeling,’ he explained. According to the Los Angeles Times, in Sunni-dominated Falluja voters chanted ‘May God protect
“They have a voice partly because of the apparent success of the recently adopted American/Iraqi counterinsurgency strategy of ‘clear and hold.’ There may now be a realization among Sunnis that the insurgency is not winning, and thus may not be the best way for them to recover their lost power--or even to strengthen their bargaining position. Sunni fence sitters seem to be tilting toward involvement in the political process. A more active counterinsurgency strategy--and the presence of 160,000 American troops--has not, as some predicted, reduced Sunni participation in the political process or engendered greater hostility and violence. On the contrary, the extra troops helped provide the security that made it safer for Sunnis and others to vote, and for democracy to take root. If American and Iraqi troops continue to provide basic security, and if Iraq's different sects and political groups now begin to engage in serious, peaceful bargaining, then we may just have witnessed the beginning of Iraq's future.”
Not the election in
“Within hours of the bombing of the al-Askariya shrine in
“What was striking, following the mosque bombing, was the evidence of
“In the wake of the bombing, it is true, militias took to the streets, and widespread sectarian violence occurred, killing and wounding many Iraqis. But not a single Iraqi political leader, including the volatile Moktada al-Sadr, endorsed an expansion of the violence. On the contrary, all joined to condemn it, to support government efforts to curtail it, and called on their followers to stop it. The Iraqi army and police were sent out to enforce curfews and stop traffic in many areas. Even in this crisis, they executed their orders, and shut down the great bulk of the violence within several days. Within a fortnight, Sunni leaders who had boycotted discussions aimed at forming a government reentered negotiations, and Iraqi politics--turbulent and nerve-wracking as it is--began again. This is not the performance of a society on the brink of civil war.
“The tenacity of the Iraqi army is particularly notable. Iraqi soldiers are granted leave every month to hand-carry their salaries back home, in the absence of a reliable banking system. Especially for Shiites deployed in the Sunni triangle, this is a dangerous undertaking. Yet every month almost every Iraqi soldier "re-ups" by returning to his unit. This fact speaks volumes about the commitment of those soldiers and their professionalism in the face of the current dangers. If the situation began to spiral into real civil war, these Shiite soldiers would simply start deserting in droves, some of them to join up with Shiite militias. They are not doing so.
“The continuing sectarian violence is, nevertheless, worrisome, as are the continuing tensions about the future nature and course of the Iraqi government. Together, these may ultimately undermine the foundations of stability. If the violence spreads, or other horrific terrorist attacks occur, the army and police may lose their effectiveness. The power of militias may grow beyond the point where the government and the Iraqi Security Forces can control them. Certainly, there is no basis for complacency.
During the remainder of 2006 Kristol (and Fred Kagan) began to focus on their push for a further escalation of the American presence, a drive that was crowned with success after the November election. One should note, however, that in the midst of his campaign, on November 26, 2006, the two of them, in the midst of yet another absurdly optimistic recap, actually presented a truer picture of the events of the spring of 2004 than Kristol had been willing to print at the time.
“[General] Abizaid has been in command of this war for three years. General George Casey, commander of
“Since then, they have seen improvements. Falluja was cleared in late 2004 and has been held. Tal Afar, cleared unsuccessfully twice before, was finally cleared and effective government established in 2005.
Since the surge began, Kristol and Frederick Kagan (Robert has not joined Kristol in quite a while) have been increasingly rhapsodic. On July 25th they returned to their weakest terrain—the analysis of how and what Iraqis are thinking—in terms Terri Gross would find familiar.
“Last week, a group of tribal leaders in Salah-ad-Din, the mostly Sunni province due north of
“The Salah-ad-Din announcement that Iraqis were turning against al Qaeda was just one of many such announcements over recent weeks and months. Some media reports have tried to debunk this development, reporting, for example, that the Sunni coalition against al Qaeda in Anbar province is fragmenting. But even the fragments are saying that they will continue to cooperate with us and fight al Qaeda. Sunni movements similar to the one in Anbar have developed and grown in Babil province south of
“It has long been clear that most Iraqis want nothing to do with al Qaeda's religious and political views. They do not find the intolerant and occasionally ludicrous al Qaeda program appealing: Being required to segregate vegetables in a market by sex, as al Qaeda fighters have apparently demanded, appalls Iraqis just as it would Americans. Yet whenever al Qaeda makes itself comfortable in an Iraqi neighborhood, it begins to enforce its absurd and intolerant version of Islam. Locals resist, and al Qaeda begins to "punish" them with an increasing scale of atrocities. Just that sort of escalation led to al Qaeda's loss of control in Anbar and to the growth of the various anti-al Qaeda movements in
Now during the last two days, as I intermittently put this piece together (although not without allowing it to interfere with more important matters such as the baseball playoffs), I have occasionally asked myself whether William Kristol, who like George W. Bush owes his position of eminence largely to his father and who has demonstrated nothing so much over the last five years as a complete lack of shame over being wrong again and again, was really worth it. But as I made my way through these pieces I realized that the answer is yes, not because of any wisdom he has displayed (he hasn’t), but because he has been a key player in the real struggle taking place in Washington during these five years, and, as it turns out, one of the big winners at the policy level. No one can read these columns without bemusedly reaching that conclusion.
We liberal Democrats have been kidding ourselves for seven years if we really think we have anything to do with the debate over our foreign policy. We are nothing but whipping boys and girls, trotted out as defeatists eager to stab our troops in the back to rally the public behind a policy that has so far delivered nothing but failure. The real battle has been a family fight (literally) among Republicans, pitting the surviving GIs and Silents (Scowcroft, Baker, Colin Powell and the first President Bush), against the Boomers, including Cheney (temperamentally a Boomer although technically a Silent), Wolfowitz, Perle, Kristol, and George W. Bush. A secondary player has been the entire bureaucracy, including most of the military and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which always had doubts about the war in
Kristol has understood all this from the beginning and has anticipated where the debate would go. He has been calling for more American troops in
What really impressed me, I must admit, was Kristol’s realization, which did not dawn on me until I read Bob Woodward’s new book early this year, that Donald Rumsfeld was on the other side of the fight. As early as November 2003, Kristol was criticizing Rumsfeld for pressing the Iraqis to take over responsibility for their own security. He later expressed contempt for the theory that the Iraqis had to know we were leaving in order to get serious about their own responsibilities, calling this foreign policy as welfare reform. And while he apparently had the sense not to crow about it, Rumsfeld’s resignation after last November’s election was a key event, as I have already written here, because it allowed the surge to go forward.
But of course, Kristol, like his hero the President, has not been willing to face up to the implications of his policy. Success in
Meanwhile, Kristol’s columns have never—literally never—seriously addressed the human costs of this war. He has never referred to the two million refugees that have left
Those are the only two discussions of American casualties that I found in everything Kristol has said about the war—one arguing that they would not increase, one arguing that they were not that bad. (Kristol has quoted Australian David Kilcullen claiming—misleadingly, I believe—that casualties as a percentage of American troops had fallen during the first few months of this year, while rising absolutely). Neoconservatism, like Richard Nixon’s foreign policies, involves a real contempt for human life, which must freely be sacrificed to defend
p.s. Mentions of this post by my brother Charles at radaronline and Eric Alterman at mediamatters.org have led to an avalanche of hits. I hope new visitors will check out more recent posts as well, and perhaps take advantage of the feedblitz link to subscribe. I especially recommend the penultimate post on the death of my dear friend Bill Strauss just two weeks ago, and on how he changed the way I see the world. Thanks.