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 Iraq. He was explaining how tragic it would be to pull back now, now that we “finally” had a successful strategy going. What angered me so much was that some one who, as far as I could tell, had been so consistently wrong about Iraq from beginning to end—most notably in an interview with Terri Gross of NPR right after our invasion, in which he assured her that there would not be sectarian conflict because “Iraq has always been pretty secular”—still had the public status of some kind of authority. Computers and the net are wonderful tools, and I decided to investigate Kristol’s various pronouncements on the war in greater depth. The results surprised me in one way. Kristol has indeed been soconsistently wrong that one can safely discount his current euphoria on the principle that even a stopped clock is right twice a day. (As I have suggested myself just yesterday, things may be a little better in Iraq just now, but we certainly shouldn’t believe that because he says so.) But on the other hand, it turns out that anyone who wanted to understand Washington and Iraq during the last four years should have been reading Kristol. In detailing the arguments raging in Washington—arguments in which he has emerged as one of the victors—he was way ahead of me, and of just about anyone else that I can remember. The man may be an ideologue who has been repeatedly wrong, but he’s well-connected and very much in tune with President Bush, and during the last four years he has triumphed over his enemies in the bureaucracy and the older generation—leaving the American people, of course, stuck with the bill.
A search for “William Kristol” and “Iraq” on the Weekly Standard website turned up about 80 articles, of which I studied 17, from mid-2003 until last month, very closely. (I paid no attention to the run-up to the war—those fish were shot dead in the barrel long ago.) Quite a few of them have been co-authored by one of the Kagan brothers, Robert or Frederick, and in fact Frederick is listed first on several of the more recent ones. They made interesting reading.
Although as we shall see Kristol pretty consistently criticized the Administration for not doing enough in Iraq from 2003 through 2006, he has nonetheless been guilty of repeated howlers along the lines of his statement to Terri Gross from the beginning. Again and again he has wrongly identified the problem in Iraq and again and again he has claimed that we were on our way to victory. “The good news,” he wrote on July 28, 2003, “is that we may turning the corner in the debate on post-war Iraq. . . .More important, and despite the continued killings of American soldiers, the situation on the ground in Iraq may well be turning. Aggressive military tactics may be breaking the back of the several thousand Baath die-hards, and we're probably closing in on Saddam. . . . Yet as the administration beats back unjustified criticism about Iraq, it has foolishly given a sword to its critics by insisting on the redaction of 28 pages, in the congressional report on 9/11, on Saudi Arabia's links to the hijackers.” The problem then wasn’t Iraq, but the next target, the Saudi royal family. Two months later, on September, he and Robert Kagan showed a little more concern, but not without massively underestimating the problem. “And considering what might have gone wrong--and which so many critics predicted would go wrong--the results have been in many ways admirable. Iraq has not descended into inter-religious and inter-ethnic violence. There is food and water. Hospitals are up and running. The Arab and Muslim worlds have not erupted in chaos or anger, as so many of our European friends confidently predicted.” But they admitted, paradoxically, that “basic security, both for Iraqis and for coalition and other international workers in Iraq, is lacking. Continuing power shortages throughout much of the country have damaged the reputation of the United States as a responsible occupying power and have led many Iraqis to question American intentions. Ongoing assassinations and sabotage of public utilities by pro-Saddam forces and, possibly, by terrorists entering the country from neighboring Syria and Iran threaten to destabilize the tenuous peace that has held in Iraq since the end of the war.”
Kristol and Robert Kagan felt much better on March 27, 2004.
“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 Iraq have returned to prewar levels. The capture of Saddam Hussein has damaged the Baathist-led insurgency, although jihadists continue to launch horrific attacks on Iraqi civilians. But by most accounts those vicious attacks have spurred more Iraqis to get more involved in building a better Iraq. We may have turned a corner in terms of security.
“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 Europe, that a liberated Iraq would fracture into feuding clans and unleash a bloodbath. The perpetually sour American media focus on the tensions between Shiites and Kurds that delayed the signing by three whole days. But the difficult negotiations leading up to the signing, and the continuing debates over the terms of a final constitution, have in fact demonstrated something remarkable in Iraq: a willingness on the part of the diverse ethnic and religious groups to disagree--peacefully--and then to compromise.
“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 South Vietnam.)
April 2004 was the month in which things fell apart in Iraq, both in Fallujah and in Shi’ite areas to the South. This is how Kristol and Robert Kagan sized up the situation on the 28th of that month.
“The mere fact that violence has increased recently in Iraq is not by itself grounds for criticizing the administration's handling of the war. No sensible person believed that the effort to build a democratic Iraq would be without cost and dangers. No reasonable person expected administration officials and military commanders, either in Washington or in Baghdad, to be able to exercise unerring mastery over an inherently complex and always explosive situation.
“Nor is the news from Iraq all bad. Several weeks ago we argued optimistically (perhaps too optimistically) that things were looking better, and we still believe there is much in Iraq to be gratified by: continued peaceful cooperation among Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders, despite many disagreements; an economy that seems to be improving; the fact that a large majority of Iraqis, as documented in polls, say their future is promising, reject political violence, and support an ongoing American presence. And much of Iraq remains, at the moment, relatively peaceful. All this is important progress.”
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 Sherman’s capture of Atlanta. Interestingly enough, however, while identifying the problem, he proposed to solve it by about as un-Petraeus like a strategy as could be imagined.
“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 Iraq must be destroyed. Fallujah must be conquered and terrorists denied safe haven in Fallujah and other centers of insurrection. Moqtada Sadr's militia must be rendered powerless. This will have to be accomplished primarily by American and British military power--however useful various political efforts can be, however useful Iraqi and coalition forces can be. Then a sovereign Iraq, with continued U.S. military and other assistance, will be able to move ahead with the task of political and economic reconstruction.”
Of course, our forces in Iraq have never been remotely close to large enough to deny terrorists all safe haven, and Moqtada Al-Sadr has grown stronger and stronger over the last three years.
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 Iraq but throughout the Middle East.
“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 Iraq. Here, the last month's news--the mainstream media to the contrary notwithstanding--is promising. Bush's reelection victory; the successful offensive in Falluja and the failure of the ‘Sunni street’ to rise up in outrage; the inability of both the terrorists and antidemocratic political forces to deter the Iraqi and American governments from moving ahead with the January 30 elections; the president's willingness to increase U.S. troop levels, and his commitment to victory--all of this enables one to be cautiously optimistic about the prospects in Iraq.
“And if Iraq goes well, the allegedly ‘utopian’ and ‘Wilsonian’ dreams of fundamental change in the broader Middle East won't look so far-fetched. Failure in Iraq, it's widely recognized, would be an utter disaster. What's less widely recognized is that the rewards of victory could be considerable. The most obvious and tangible benefits would of course be for the Iraqi people, and secondarily for American geopolitical credibility. But the indirect effects in the Middle East should not be underestimated. . .”
Robert Kagan and Kristol became absolutely rhapsodic after the first round of elections in Iraq in January 2004—the elections which the Sunnis boycotted.
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 Iraq will increase the chances that governments in the Middle East will open up, and that the peoples of the Middle East will demand their rights. And the chances increase every time the president singles out nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, or Iran and Syria, for special mention, as he did in the State of the Union. Words do matter, especially against the backdrop of deeds in Iraq and Afghanistan. There will, for example, be elections in Lebanon this summer, where an opposition victory could spell the beginning of the end of Syria's imperial role in that country. As for Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, you don't have to take our word for it. Jordan's King Abdullah put it best: ‘People are waking up. [Arab] leaders understand that they have to push reform forward, and I don't think there is any looking back.’
“Here in the United States, the partisan reaction to the recent successes has been truly stunning. Never have so many been so miserable in the face of such good news. The Middle East experts who predicted disaster have not been able to bring themselves to acknowledge that it wasn't a disaster after all. Instead, they have simply shifted to predicting disaster in the future, or to falsely claiming that Iraqi Shia, who follow Ayatollah Sistani's lead, are tools of Iran. The democracy experts have been particularly egregious as well. Has their hatred of Bush made it impossible for them actually to applaud democratic elections when they occur?”
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 January 30, 2005, it seems increasingly likely that that date will turn out to have been a genuine turning point. The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, ended an era. September 11, 2001, ended an interregnum. In the new era in which we now live, 1/30/05 could be a key moment--perhaps the key moment so far--in vindicating the Bush Doctrine as the right response to 9/11. And now there is the prospect of further and accelerating progress.”
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:
“In Iraq, just about everyone is celebrating. ‘Happy days!’ cheered Salim Saleh to a New York Times reporter. ‘Before, we had a dictator, and now we have this freedom, this democracy,’ Emad Abdul Jabbar, a 38-year-old Sunni, told the Times. ‘This time, we have a real election, not just the sham elections we had under Saddam, and we Sunnis want to participate in the political process.’ ‘We are so happy,’ Sahera Hashim told the Financial Times. ‘We hope for security, good life. We have suffered too much in the past.’ The mayor of Ramadi, an insurgent and Sunni stronghold, compared the elections to a wedding: ‘Right now, the city is experiencing a democratic celebration.’ Another Sunni man told a Post reporter, ‘All my neighborhood is voting. God willing, after the elections things will be good.’
“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 Iraq and Iraqis.’ The majority of Sunnis appear to have decided to cast votes rather than plant bombs. One Sunni man told a reporter, ‘We do not want violence and for others to say Sunnis are spearheading the violence in Iraq.’ Amer Fadhel Hassani, a Sunni resident of Baghdad, said, ‘If we get more seats, it will be quieter. The ones who were absent in January will now have a voice.’
“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 Iraq, but President Bush’s narrow victory in the election in the U.S., had deprived not only Kristol but the mainstream American media of their powers of critical judgment. I don’t spend much time on this blog saying “I told you so,” but this time I can’t resist. My own analysis of those elections appeared on December 11, 2005, and I argued that they showed that Iraq was disintegrating into sectarian conflict—like Czechoslovakia in the 1930s—because the voting had been entirely along sectarian lines. Just two months later, in February, came the bombing of the Al-Askiriya shrine and the escalation of Sunni-Shi’ite conflict into civil war—but Kristol and Frederick Kagan found plenty of silver lining in these clouds on April 20.
“Within hours of the bombing of the al-Askariya shrine in Samarra on February 22, the media were filled with warnings that Iraq is sinking into civil war. Of course, almost any insurgency is, in a sense, a civil war, and sectarian violence has marked this insurgency from the very beginning. But the fact is that we are not facing a civil war in Iraq, with large scale military formations fighting one another along ethnic and sectarian lines. Moreover, we can very likely prevent this outcome, and, even better, make real progress toward victory.
“What was striking, following the mosque bombing, was the evidence of Iraq's underlying stability in the face of attempts to undermine it. The country's vital institutions seem to have grown strong enough to withstand even the provocation of the bombing of the golden mosque.
“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. Iraq can still fail, with all the consequences that would follow.”
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 U.S. forces in Iraq and Abizaid's direct subordinate, has had his command since mid-2004. Both men remember the war in Iraq at its lowest point--when the Sunni Arab insurgency raged unchecked, insurgents controlled Falluja, Shiite troops under Moktada al-Sadr seized Najaf, and Shiites in Sadr City rose. They watched Iraqi troops flee battlefields and refuse to fight. They watched as U.S. Marines engaged in clearing Falluja were forced to desist because of political pressure from a weak Iraqi government. All of that happened in 2004.
“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. Mosul soon followed. The Iraqi military that failed in 2004 was disbanded and replaced by Iraqi units that have subsequently fought well in Tal Afar, Ramadi, Baghdad, and elsewhere. No major Iraqi cities are under the control of insurgents as Falluja and Tal Afar once were. The Iraqi government has supported a number of clear-and-hold efforts around the country, including in many neighborhoods in Baghdad. All these developments are important and even heartening judged against the calamitous situation we faced in 2004.”
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 Baghdad, agreed to work with the Iraqi government and U.S. forces against al Qaeda. Then al Qaeda destroyed the two remaining minarets of the al-Askariya mosque in Samarra, a city in the province. Coincidence? Perhaps. But al Qaeda is clearly taking a page from the Viet Cong's book. The terrorists have been mounting a slow-motion Tet offensive of spectacular attacks on markets, bridges, and mosques, knowing that the media report each such attack as an American defeat. The fact is that al Qaeda is steadily losing its grip in Iraq, and these attacks are alienating its erstwhile Iraqi supporters. But the terrorists are counting on sapping our will as the VC did, and persuading America to choose to lose a war it could win.
“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 Baghdad and even in strife-torn and mixed Diyala province to the northeast. Most remarkable, local Sunnis in Baghdad recently rose up against al Qaeda, and even hard core Baathist insurgent groups have reached out to U.S. forces to cooperate in the fight against the terrorists. Far from being evidence of our desperation and danger, as some have claimed, this turn of events demonstrates the degree to which al Qaeda is repelling Iraqis.
“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 Iraq's Sunni community.”
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 Iraq and has wanted to wind it up as quickly as possible for at least three years.
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 Iraq since 2004, again and again. He repeatedly criticized our military leadership for wanting to wind the war down. And in practice, though not, as we have seen, in theory, he never had any confidence in the Iraqis to protect our interests. On only one occasion did he seriously criticize President Bush. He attacked the slogan, “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” because he thought it showed false confidence in their ability to take over the job. He proposed an alternative: “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand with them.” For all his disgraceful rhetoric about how liberals threw away victory in South Vietnam, one suspects that he really understands that to have held South Vietnam, American forces would have had to stay there forever—exactly what he now must hope for in Iraq. He also complained that the size of our forces was being held down by the need to rotate them regularly.
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 Iraq would indeed (if it were possible at all) require more troops—far more troops, probably three times as many. That would probably require doubling the size of our ground forces—and that would obviously require a draft. Kristol did advocate expanding the army early—but not that much. And he has never, so far as I know, advocated a return to conscription. Perhaps that will come when, and if, a Democrat takes over the White House. Kristol has won this dispute because the President is obviously on his side. (I am less sure, ironically, about the Vice President—but that is another story.) But I do not think that will be anything to be proud of ten or twenty years down the road.
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 Iraq or the roughly equal number that have been internally displaced. He has not discussed the tactics of Shi’ite and Sunni militias very much, or even alluded to the basic fact—surely an indicator of something?—that no American has been able to go anywhere in Iraq without armed escort for years. And he has never said much about the Americans who are actually fighting the war. On September 23, 2003, in one of his first calls for more forces, Kristol made an interesting remark. “And contrary to what some say,” he and Robert Kagan wrote, “more troops don't mean more casualties. More troops mean fewer casualties--both American and Iraqi.” As my readers know, that did not initially turn out to be the case—American casualties rose sharply during the first six months of the surge, although they have declined during the last two months. On June 14, 2004, in the wake of the uprisings in Fallujah and southern Iraq, he wrote, “But there are grounds for hope. We are actually winning the war in Iraq, and the war on terror. We're not winning either as thoroughly or as comprehensively as we should be. Still, it is a fact that one year after the invasion of Iraq, Saddam and his regime are gone; a decent interim Iraqi government is taking over; we and the Iraqis have not suffered a devastating level of casualties; the security situation, though inexcusably bad, looks as if it may finally be improving; Moktada al-Sadr seems to have been marginalized, and the Shia center is holding; there is nothing approaching civil war.”
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 America (usually, for some inexplicable reason, on the continent of Asia), and “spread democracy.” And of course, if things go wrong, one can always blame the reality-based community in the bureaucracy, the military, and the press. Kristol and I are both, in our own ways, trying to affect the course of American policy. I can’t claim to have had the influence he has, but I’m proud to say that I’ve done it on my own time, and for nothing. That’s the beauty of the net.
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.