Saturday, March 23, 2013

Missing from Iraq Retrospectives Ten Years After? Historians.

At History News Network, University of North Carolina history prof emeritus Michael H. Hunt points out that some very important viewpoints have gone missing in the collective examination of conscience and search for "lessons" ten years after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq: those of professional historians who actually know something about the Middle East.  (In the vein of shameless self-promotion, and to point out that at least some reporters and editors "get it," I offer this piece in the Saginaw News, for which I and another historian - from Saginaw Valley State University - were interviewed.  They even included our PR pix!)  Hunt's essay bears extensive quoting:

Talk about a gap between serious academic history and the policy community. The New York Times, which has made a big deal of the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, offers a stunning case in point. At least five different items in the paper for Wednesday, March 20, seek some perspective from “authorities” heavy tilted toward policy specialists and former Bush administration officials. There is nary a historian of any sort to be seen.


The paper’s editorial on the anniversary advances several startling propositions suggested by the U.S. experience in Iraq. These include getting our intelligence right, approaching decisions for war with an open mind. and understanding our regional influence is limited. Of course, nothing about how the press should guard against get rolled by the White House in the run up to war!


One of the David Petraeus acolytes, John Nagl, offers an op-ed that adds an additional deep insight: war holds surprises so military leaders need to be flexible. Unfortunately nothing more profound can be expected from a counter-insurgency camp whose use of history over the years has been at best tendentious.


David Sanger’s report on the lack of consensus on lessons learned features extensive quotes from ex-Bush officials offering predictable justifications. Sanger clearly has no historians in his Rolodex so what he reports comes from the echo chamber that is the policy world.


Five experts jump into a debate over whether removing Saddam Hussein was a good idea. No card-carrying historians of Iraq, the Middle East, or U.S. foreign policy in this mix.


Perhaps the most revealing piece is Peter Baker’s treatment of Washington’s relative silence on the anniversary. He notes that the capital, like the country more generally, “seems happy to wash its hands of Iraq.” The real lesson learned, his piece suggests, is to forget wars that don’t go well. Just celebrate the ones you win. Forgetting may already be a sturdy feature of the American way of war. Silence followed the aftermath of the conquest of the Philippines, the frustrating war in Korea, and the Vietnam War (at least for a decade).


Anyone in the lesson business who wants to ignore history does so at their own peril. As any historian worth their salt will tell you, assessing a war just ten years gone is very difficult. Not enough time has passed for dispassionate perspective; partisanship and wishful thinking are still strong (a point that Times inadvertently drives home). Moreover, the evidence on which any compelling judgment depends is thin; it will take years for the historical record to become full enough to tell us with confidence who did what to whom and why.


But along with these cautions historians would make an additional point. The past is always helpful in setting context, and it is indispensable in cases so close to the present and so poorly documented as Iraq is. How did U.S. involvement in the region help set the stage for the Iraq imbroglio? Were there long-term forces or preoccupations in play that may have helped drive U.S. policymakers toward their decisions? What other wars offer parallels with Iraq that might be revealing? What long-term developments internationally and at home might have facilitated or obstructed the march to war?


Historians pursuing these kinds of questions can shed badly needed light on important issues otherwise for the moment necessarily obscure. Perhaps here’s the issue the Times staff might have explored: how can history serve as a resource to help us understand Iraq and our role in the world more generally?

Hunt's essay also reminds me that, before the invasion, the US State Department actually assembled a sizeable team of scholars and experts for what it called the "Future of Iraq Project."  (The team included Prof. McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago, an eminent archaeologist/anthropologist who is one of the planet's premier experts on ancient Iraq and its antiquities; he's also an acquaintance of mine.)  They assembled a voluminous report, 13 volumes in fact, with many well-informed recommendations, only to see it shelved and ignored by the Bush administration.

Would that the New York Times and other newspapers "of note" had contacted and consulted some of the team members for their retrospective ten years after.  Would that Boy George and his entourage had bothered to consult them ten years ago.  Instead, neocon worthies like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and PW's former Dept of Defense  deputy  Douglas Feith continue to get interviews.  In Perle's case, on NPR, where in response to a question about whether the invasion - which he cheerleaded - has been the right thing to do, he replied, in effect, "Don't even ask" (as in, "stupid question!").   Douglas Feith - to whom General Tommy Franks, who led the invasion, once referred as the "dumbest fucking guy on the planet") , went on to a faculty position at Georgetown, evidently because his expertise was deemed invaluable to foreign-service servants of the future.  (Shame on Georgetown for that one.)

So, it's left to us historians to try to pick up and reassemble the pieces for our students - some of whom are Iraq war vets, some of whom were hardly out of diapers when Bush had his "Mission Accomplished" moment and, if asked what Abu Ghraib was, might be as likely to answer "a Disney pixar-flick character"?

Meanwhile, as Peter Baker's recent NYT piece noted, Mr Obama had virtually no comment on the Iraq invasion 10 years after.

And the beat goes on.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

More Thomas Friedman Post-Iraq Happy Talk

Amidst the veritable cornucopia of ten-years-after Iraq invasion retrospectives, Thomas Friedman of course has to weigh in.  In contrast to the "suck on this" tough-guyism that characterized his pre-war cheerleading, he's become more sweetness and light, especially as he warbles about the Iraqi university students who, in his take (based on his reading of a Financial Times piece by the much more sensible Roula Khalaf), care not about Sunni vs Shi'a.  Indeed, that's a sign that we may indeed hope for a brighter future for Iraqis.

But when TF writes of America's having contributed to that bright future by helping the Iraqis write a democratic constitution . . . well, that's a stretch.  I can't begin to count the number of observers who have made the point: that constitution, the writing of which was guided so much by US hands, essentially cemented in place a sectarian quota-bound parliamentary system - and division - that has kept Iraqis from building the "Iraqiness" that they so need if the country is to prosper, even survive as a unitary state.

I suspect that until the day he dies, Thomas Friedman will try to find ways to look back on his vile cheerleading of 2002 and 2003 and feel able to say, "there, there, I wasn't so bad.  It all worked out - and I helped make it happen."

Good luck with that, TF.  Don't hold your breath.

Roman Empire's vs US's Decline

People have been debating for years the possible parallels between the decline of the Roman empire and the signs of US "imperial" decline.  Huffington Post publishes Barton Kunstler's musings on this theme.  One of the six parallels he highlights especially caught my attention:

4. Spread of escapist cults. Christianity was only the most successful example of the "exotic" cults that offered Romans solace when their own society, and thus its prevailing religion, began to fail them. Today, the U.S. is held hostage by those for whom carrying any weapon, anywhere, is a sanctified religious belief. We have members of Congress who don't believe in evolution, who are as literalist and intolerant about their religion as any ignorant 10th century rural priest. The entire globe suffers from the ravages of extreme, often violent, fundamentalism. Fundamentalist thought relies on pre-processed sound-bites that obstruct any considered address of real-world problems. It makes negotiation impossible. Part of the paralysis of our national government lies in the fanatical religiosity that many of our representatives bring to the political process.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Can't We Impeach Lindsey Graham?

. . . or, at least, can't we zipper his mouth?  Or at the very least, issue a restraining order that proscribes any contact whatsoever between him and Jennifer Rubin, or similar Israel propagandists?

Matt Duss's piece today makes it plain that this guy won't be satisfied until the US bombs the bejeezus out of Iran.   Duss makes another excellent point:  Congress may soon be collectively foaming at the mouth over an extremely poorly conceived resolution that the US support Israel even if Israel launches a pre-emptive strike against Iran.  If they're thinking that acting deranged will impel Iran's leaders into submission, they may be sorely mistaken.


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