If you’re looking to put your finger on the neo-con pulse, don’t miss Bernard Lewis’ piece, Fixing Iraq, which was originally published in the Wall Street Journal. Lewis makes one or two sensible points, but the piece is remarkable mainly for some astonishing howlers.
The praise for Lewis in the popular press, and especially on the neo-con right, is consistently rapturous, so I’m always a little surprised when I read him and find his arguments weak and his grasp of the facts poor. This is, after all, a hoity-toity professor at Princeton, and a man with real influence on the current admin.
What am I talking about? Here are a few examples:
Lewis begins with what he thinks is a surprising contrast between the American experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. You might think, he argues, that Iraq would go well and Afghanistan not, given their histories. In fact:
In Afghanistan, at first, things did indeed go badly, and there are still problems, both in the country and in the government, but they are manageable. Today with minimal help from the U.S., a central government is gradually extending its political and financial control to the rest of the country and dealing more and more effectively with the problem of the maintenance of order; in Iraq, after an easy and almost unresisted conquest, the situation seems to grow worse from day to day. While the Afghans are building a new infrastructure, Iraqis–or others acting in their name–are busy destroying theirs.
Minimal help indeed. What this proves is that even a professor emeritus looks stupid if he stops reading the paper. The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating rapidly, in large part precisely because of “minimal help from the U.S.” There is no central government, and efforts to rebuild the infrastructure are foundering on fresh attacks which occur daily. In fact, we’ve probably lost the best chance to rebuild Afghanistan (not that this means giving up) by squandering the very real momentum the U.S. enjoyed after the war.
Lewis goes on to argue that al Qaeda buys into the theory that the U.S. is a paper tiger. I think there’s a great deal to that, and bin Laden’s public statements give it some corroboration. However, Lewis goes on to argue that the vigorous U.S. response to Sept. 11th has undermined this notion:
The response to this attack, and notably the operations in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, brought a rude awakening, and that is surely why there have been no subsequent attacks on U.S. soil. But the perception has not entirely disappeared, and has been revived by a number of subsequent developments and utterances.
Lewis’ “not entirely” obscures just how much the notion has been rebuted by American action. It rests uncomfortably alongside the “surely” of the previous sentence, which is plainly idiotic: There have been no attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11 because they haven’t yet managed it and perhaps also because they really are on the run. But there is a difference between being on the run and being cowed. As for bin Laden’s own attitudes, Lewis – perhaps out of loyalty to the admin – overlooks bin Laden’s recent announcement crowing about his escape from Tora Bora, an escape which appears to have been made possible by U.S. military blunder and indecision. This is an astonishing omission on Lewis’ part because it is the singlemost important event for bin Laden since 9/11 and he emerged with his sense of U.S. (lack of) resolve confirmed. Let me just speculate that if a democratic president had been responsible for the getaway at Tora Bora we would be hearing a great deal more about it from Lewis, and from the press in general.
Lewis actually seems to me right about one source of anti-Americanism in the region, but he overrates it to the point of parody:
During the last few months the fear has often been expressed in Europe and America that democracy cannot succeed in Iraq. There is another, greater, and more urgent fear in the region–that it will succeed in Iraq, and this could become a mortal threat to the tyrants who rule most of the Middle East. An open and democratic regime in Iraq, inevitably with a Shiite majority, could arouse new hopes among the oppressed peoples of the region, and offer a corresponding threat to their oppressors. One of these regimes, that of Iran, purports to be Islamic, and was indeed so in its origins, though it has become yet another corrupt tyranny.
There is some good evidence for this attitude towards Iraqi democracy in a number of states in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia. But this source of anti-Americanism depends, paradoxically, on belief in America’s good intentions. Lewis fails to note that, alas, confidence in U.S. intentions is not running particularly high these days. So it is a bit of a stretch to call it a “greater, and more urgent fear”.
So what should the U.S. do in Iraq?
The best course surely is the one that is working in Afghanistan–to hand over, as soon as possible, to a genuine Iraqi government. In Iraq as in Afghanistan, a period of discreet support would be necessary, but the task would probably be easier in Iraq. Here again care must be taken. Premature democratization–holding elections and transferring power, in a country which has had no experience of such things for decades, can only lead to disaster, as in Algeria. Democracy is the best and therefore the most difficult of all forms of government. The Iraqis certainly have the capacity to develop democratic institutions, but they must do so in their own way, at their own pace. This can only be done by an Iraqi government.
Fortunately, the nucleus of such a government is already available, in the Iraqi National Congress, headed by Ahmad Chalabi. In the northern free zone during the ’90s they played a constructive role, and might at that time even have achieved the liberation of Iraq had we not failed at crucial moments to support them. Despite a continuing lack of support amounting at times to sabotage, they continue to acquit themselves well in Iraq, and there can be no reasonable doubt that of all the possible Iraqi candidates they are the best in terms alike of experience, reliability, and good will. It took years, not months, to create democracies in the former Axis countries, and this was achieved in the final analysis not by Americans but by people in those countries, with American encouragement, help and support. Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress deserve no less.
It is difficult to know how to respond to someone who thinks that the U.S. approach is working in Afghanistan, but let me try to pick through this mess. I do agree that holding elections very quickly could easily lead to disaster. For one thing, doing this always favours groups who are able to hit the ground running, and in Iraq that means, remnants of the regime, tribal leaders with dubious principles and religious leaders. Holding elections at a time of maximum instability also means that the stakes are that much higher in the elections, and groups tend to be more vicious when they see themselves competing for their lives as well as votes.
But after talking a good talk about gradual self-determination, Lewis ruins his argument – utterly – by throwing in his lot for Chalabi. This is wrongheaded in a number of ways. Here are two. First, Chalabi would be, and would be perceived as, a foreign imposition. There’s nothing discreet about imposing Chalabi on the Iraqis. The man appears to have almost no backing in Iraq. He and the INC appear to be more of a laughingstock. And notice that there is not a single mention of Iraqi public opinion about Chalabi. Lewis doesn’t see that there is a difference between legitimate caution in the transition to a democratic government and complete disregard in the meantime for Iraqi public opinion.
The second is that Chalabi is, apart from the lack of support he commands in Iraq, apparently quite unreliable. It’s not just the banking scandals, the missing CIA money from the 90s, the run of the mill pre-war exaggerations about his support in Iraq. It’s the fact that he was the source of so much of the phony intelligence that (mis)led the U.S. into Iraq in the first place. The yolk on the faces of so many of Lewis’ friends in the admin comes from eggs painstakingly collected by Chalabi over the last few years. You would think that some bitterness toward Chalabi would be in order.
Far from bitterness, Lewis refuses the opportunity to reevaluate some of his assumptions about Chalabi. The man is detested not only by Iraqis, but also by significant portions of the U.S. government. A thinly veiled call to install him at the next leader of Iraq does not simply demonstrate that Lewis is out of touch with events in Iraq. It also demonstrates that he’s out of touch with American politics. Many people in Washington resent the egg on their respective faces far more than Lewis does. Chalabi is finished as far as they’re concerned.
Speaking of the domestic scene, Lewis’ remark about “a continuing lack fo support amounting at times to sabotage” is both dishonest and stupid. But Josh Marshall has already done a great take down on this bit, and I’d just be repeating what he says.