Few editorials have generated as much heated debate as rapidly as the recent article from Brookings Institution scholars Mike O'Hanlon and Ken Pollock in the New York Times titled "A War We Just Might Win." The piece is the result of their extended visit to Iraq and discussions with military and political leaders there, which have led them to conclude that the Bush surge and some of the associated strategy changes are actually advancing our objectives in Iraq more than many expected or are aware of here in the US, especially in the media.
In coverage of the articles and reaction to it, many in the media and the blogosphere have referred to the authors as outspoken critics of the war, the administration, and its policies, a characterization which some have found even more offensive than the article itself. War opponents have advanced the claim that O'Hanlon and Pollock were never really anti-administration or anti-war, and that they are basically just Bush's stooges who the mainstream media is conspiratorially misrepresenting as doves who have turned into hawks to try to show that the fortunes of war have turned as dramatically as the two scholars have turned their coats. Some of them have even gone so far as to demand a pledge from Democratic Presidential candidates never to employ either of the former Clinton appointees in a future administration. One of the most outspoken of these critics is Glen Greenwald at Salon.com who has presented a case based on their writings to show that they have been pro-war all along.
The problem with Greenwald's analysis is that intelligent people are not as ideological and polarized as he himself is, and the situation in Iraq is complex and therefore people hold complex and sometimes changing positions on it. To make his argument that Pollock and O'Hanlon aren't even liberals and have been hawks all along, Greenwald selects quotes from their articles to demonstrate his point. There are two problems with his reasoning. The first is ideological myopia and the second is intellectual dishonesty.
Greenwald, coming from a strongly anti-war perspective, assumes that you're not genuinely critical of the war unless you're calling for war crimes trials and declaring that Bush is the new Hitler every few sentences. He misses the point that rational, moderate liberals can be critical of the war, unhappy with the administration's handling of it, and eager to propose alternative solutions, while still not wanting to lynch the people running the war or pull out so fast that the zigurrats start spinning. Although the two Brookings scholars fall into this more moderate camp, that doesn't mean that they have been supporters of the administration or the way the war has been fought – at least not by any rational definition. Admittedly, O'Hanlon started out supporting the initial invasion, but most Americans did and they even greeted it with some enthusiasm. Saddam was an evil bastard and the world and Iraq remain better off without him. However, once the effort in Iraq moved from invasion to reconstruction, like many sensible people O'Hanlon became dissatisfied with the progress which was being made and turned against the administration and that was his stance for years up until very recently.
Greenwald's other problem is that in his eagerness to prove his point, he has been highly selective in the evidence he chooses to present. He essentially just presents evidence which supports his position and ignores evidence which doesn't support his position. It's a classic example of cherrypicking. I'm sure that if we went over Greenwald's past writing we'd find nothing but a consistent, repetitive anti-Bush, anti-war rant. But everyone isn't a laser-guided ideologue. Most rational people have complex and mixed opinions on difficult issues like the Iraq war and may even have changed their opinion as the situation in Iraq evolved.
That's clearly the case with O'Hanlon and Pollock. They started out hoping that the Iraq war would go well, became disillusioned and began to look for alternatives as it went horribly off track, and then very recently they seem to have concluded that there might be some positive progress. Greenwald conveniently picks his evidence only from the early phases of the war and the last few months and completely ignores the period from 2004 through the middle of 2006 when their writings were much more negative, presenting this selective evidence as if it was a constant pattern of cheerleading for the war. This is a classic example of intellectual dishonesty.
I can just as easily go through O'Hanlon's writings on the Brookings website and pick out a selection of quotes which make him look like nothing more than a rational liberal who is concerned about the problems with the war, critical of the Bush administration and eager to pull troops out. Here are some examples:
From "After the Midterms, Good Cop and Bad Cop on Iraq" in the Washington Times, November 9, 2006:
It cannot be seriously contested that the Iraq operation is Mr. Bush's war. Although many Democrats supported his decision to confront Saddam, it was nonetheless his decision. More importantly, it was his administration that decided how to wage war — with minimal effort to work with allies, with trivial preparation for the post-Saddam period in Iraq, with huge mistakes particularly in 2003 about going into the country with too few forces and no real plan for stabilizing the place and for disbanding the Iraqi army and firing Ba'athists and keeping the international community out.
From "The State of Iraq: An Update" in the New York Times, December 14, 2005:
A sober reading of the data argues against a rapid withdrawal, which would concede the fight to the terrorists. But this does not mean we can't shift policy. We could announce a plan for substantial troop reductions (but not complete withdrawal) over the next 12 to 24 months, as most Iraqis say they desire.
From "Iraq: U.S. Machismo is Not the Answer" in the Financial Times, October 25, 2005:
While the US should not withdraw from Iraq, it should announce the goal now of troop reductions next year to make the military mission more sustainable politically—inside Iraq as much as within America—and salvage a badly overstretched US military…And it should unequivocally foreswear cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees, as proposed by Senator John McCain—rather than insist, as Mr. Bush in effect now does, that torture should remain an option.
From "Speaking Truth to Rumsfeld" in the Washington Post, May 3, 2005:
Because the United States was unprepared for the job of reestablishing order after Saddam Hussein's fall, chaos ensued, Iraqi goodwill toward the United States was largely squandered, and the insurgency established a momentum it might not otherwise have been able to gain. This happened despite ample warnings beforehand from members of Congress, retired military officers, State Department experts and numerous independent scholars.
From "Iraq: Time to Announce a Timetable" in the Washington Post, February 2, 2005:
A central fact about Iraq today is that no strategy is risk-free. Even if we can stomach the casualties and the costs, there is no guarantee that indefinite continuation of the current mission will produce victory. Rather than reinforce failure, we need to find a new approach.
From "Iraq Without a Plan" in Policy Review, January 2005:
The post-invasion phase of the Iraq mission has been the least well-planned American military mission since Somalia in 1993, if not Lebanon in 1983, and its consequences for the nation have been far worse than any set of military mistakes since Vietnam. The U.S. armed forces simply were not prepared for the core task that the United States needed to perform when it destroyed Iraq's existing government—to provide security, always the first responsibility of any sovereign government or occupier.
The standard explanation for this lack of preparedness among most defense and foreign policy specialists, and the U.S. military as well, is that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and much of the rest of the Bush administration insisted on fighting the war with too few troops and too Pollyannaish a view of what would happen inside Iraq once Saddam was overthrown. This explanation is largely right.
From an interview on The Diane Rehm Show, September 28, 2004:
President Bush's assessment of the situation in Iraq is too optimistic. Things are not going well. The insurgency, in combination with an increasing rate of crime is making it hard for regular Iraqis to feel secure in their daily lives.
From these quotes and others I didn't include in the interest of space, three things are quite clear about O'Hanlon.
• He's no friend of the administration. He has opposed or criticized them on almost every major policy issue, not just on the Iraq war or the war on terror.
• He clearly blames the administration for the situation in Iraq and the incompetence of the post-invasion period, laying blame for the lack of any planning firmly at the feet of Rumsfeld in multiple articles.
• Far earlier than most experts in the field, he was strongly advocating a change of strategy to a troop reduction. His oft repeated plan, starting in 2004, has been to rapidly reduce the size of US forces in Iraq to a training and special ops force of 30-50,000 men, transfer command to NATO or the UN and thereby reduce the negative impact of a large US presence and reduce hostility to the US.
If you read his articles these three facts are indisputable, and it is clear he has had issues with the war and how it is being conducted for at least two and probably three years. This does not make him as rabidly anti-war as many who are less informed and less experienced. He's not accusing Bush of war crimes or calling for instant withdrawal. But what it does make O'Hanlon is exactly what he has been portrayed as, a prominent critic of administration policy both in Iraq and in the war on terror. His arguments may be rational rather than radical, but he's still not toeing the administration line. The evidence supports no other interpretation.
Lest it appear that I'm ignoring him, which would inevitably lead to someone saying that he's the neocon and O'Hanlon is just along for the ride, let's look at some of Pollack's articles from the Brookings Institution, where he's the Director of Research. If anything, he's harder on the administration and more critical of the status of the war than O'Hanlon is, but he's also coming from a moderate position and offering possible solutions along with his criticism. Here are quotes from a couple of articles:
From "Iraq Runneth Over: What Next?" in the Washington Post, August 20, 2006:
The debate is over: By any definition, Iraq is in a state of civil war. Indeed, the only thing standing between Iraq and a descent into total Bosnia-like devastation is 135,000 U.S. troops — and even they are merely slowing the fall. The internecine conflict could easily spiral into one that threatens not only Iraq but also its neighbors throughout the oil-rich Persian Gulf region with instability, turmoil and war.
From "Mourning After: How They Screwed It Up" in the New Republic, June 28, 2004:
The primary cause of our current problems in Iraq is the reckless, and often foolish, manner in which this administration has waged the war and the reconstruction.
Pollack is not as prolific as O'Hanlon, but these two examples are typical of his writing. He was a Clinton appointee to the National Security Council. He's a credentialed, left-leaning policy wonk from MIT with no particular affection for the current administration. He wants a total reinvention of our policy in Iraq and blames the administration completely for the current situation.
I could go on and on. O'Hanlon has written hundreds of articles since the war started on a variety of topics, mostly critical of the administration or proposing alternative strategies to conclude the war more quickly and with a more positive outcome. Pollack's record is just as clear. They've also both testified on Capitol Hill about strategy failures in Iraq. And they're not just liberal on the Iraq issue. O'Hanlon writes on everything from autism to taxes and his articles are generally critical of administration policy regardless of the topic.
It's perfectly fine for Greenwald and others to disagree with Pollack and O'Hanlon as far as their opinions on the war in the past and today. However, it is not acceptable to deliberately misrepresent their record and past work, or to characterize them incorrectly as 'war hawks' just because their approach to dealing with the situation in Iraq is halfway responsible and doesn't involve wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt and burning Bush in effigy. They are clearly still liberals with impressive academic and political credentials who have put a hell of a lot more thought into what's going on in Iraq and how to deal with it than most people on the left or the right. They may not be perfect, they may have made some bad calls in the past, but they are clearly holding the administration accountable for its failures and trying to find a way out of the situation. They are at least looking for positive solutions, which is more than Greenwald can claim.
The heart of the anger directed at them appears to be that their opposition to the administration's policies and the situation in Iraq is based on pragmatic considerations rather than ideological pacifism. Greenwald and his cohort want them to hate all war. Anything less makes them one with the enemy. But the truth is that they are being called 'critics' of the war, not anti-war activists, and that description is accurate. They want the direction taken in Iraq to change and don't like the way Bush has done things there. That makes them critics, even if they agreed with the initial invasion and think that we may have to keep some forces in Iraq to establish peace there.
It is an outrage that Greenwald's fairycake of cherrypicked data masquerading as an expose is being picked up all over the left-wing jungle telegraph of the blogosphere, but it goes to show how uncritical and irrational extremists can be and how willing they are to turn on two of their own when they deviate from the path of ideological conformity. As in 1984, in contemporary politics ignorance remains strength, especially when coupled with the mindless zealotry of the left's culture of perpetual outrage.