Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 27, 2007

Baghdad First

It’s early days in the Battle of Baghdad. Fewer than 3,000 of a promised 18,000 or more reinforcements have arrived. It will take at least six to twelve months before we know whether the crackdown is working. But already various commentators are stepping forward to dismiss the Bush plan as the “wrong surge” and to propose alternative strategies.

Three of the foreign-policy analysts I respect most—Charles Krauthammer, Fareed Zakaria, and Lawrence Kaplan—argue that we should be consolidating our forces in Anbar province, not trying to retake Baghdad.

There is no doubt that this Sunni province needs to be pacified eventually, but an Anbar-centric approach would not accomplish the goals these writers set out. Krauthammer notes correctly that, “If we had zero American casualties a day, there would be as little need to withdraw from Iraq as there is to withdraw from the Balkans,” but he gives little suggestion of how his plan to “maintain a significant presence in Anbar province” could be squared with keeping down casualty numbers, considering that Anbar is one of the most dangerous areas for American troops—more dangerous, in fact, than Baghdad over the past four years.

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It’s early days in the Battle of Baghdad. Fewer than 3,000 of a promised 18,000 or more reinforcements have arrived. It will take at least six to twelve months before we know whether the crackdown is working. But already various commentators are stepping forward to dismiss the Bush plan as the “wrong surge” and to propose alternative strategies.

Three of the foreign-policy analysts I respect most—Charles Krauthammer, Fareed Zakaria, and Lawrence Kaplan—argue that we should be consolidating our forces in Anbar province, not trying to retake Baghdad.

There is no doubt that this Sunni province needs to be pacified eventually, but an Anbar-centric approach would not accomplish the goals these writers set out. Krauthammer notes correctly that, “If we had zero American casualties a day, there would be as little need to withdraw from Iraq as there is to withdraw from the Balkans,” but he gives little suggestion of how his plan to “maintain a significant presence in Anbar province” could be squared with keeping down casualty numbers, considering that Anbar is one of the most dangerous areas for American troops—more dangerous, in fact, than Baghdad over the past four years.

Zakaria frets that the Baghdad clampdown will be perceived as anti-Sunni since the most immediate target is Sunni militants (the Shia militants are lying low for the time being). He quotes an anonymous “senior U.S. military officer” who says, “If we continue down the path we’re on, the Sunnis in Iraq will throw their lot behind al Qaeda, and the Sunni majority in the Arab world will believe that we helped in the killing and cleansing of their brethren in Iraq. That’s not a good outcome for the security of the American people.” Yet Zakaria’s preferred solution—“drawing down our forces to around 60,000 troops and concentrating on al Qaeda in Anbar province,” while presumably leaving the Sunnis of Baghdad to the tender mercies of the Jaish al Mahdi—would, if anything, exacerbate the perception of American policy as anti-Sunni.

For his part, Kaplan postulates, without any proof, that the U.S. could have greater military success in Anbar than in Baghdad, even though conditions there have been worse than in the capital. He fears that “Washington’s decision to twin its fate to Baghdad’s means that, if the city careens away, the United States will walk away not only from the civil war it could not quell—but also from the insurgency [in Anbar] it could.” But what would be the point of winning Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, if we lose Baghdad, the capital of the country? Which city is more important to Iraq’s future—an isolated outpost in the western desert, or a metropolis with one-fourth of the country’s population and much of its news media, business, cultural, and political leadership?

Krauthammer, Zakaria, and Kaplan are right to worry that the Baghdad plan won’t work. The odds are definitely against us by this point. But no other strategy—certainly not an Anbar-first approach—offers greater hope of success. I am reminded of the reasoning of General Franz Halder, chief of the German general staff, about Case Yellow, the plan for the invasion of France and the Low Countries in 1940. He put the odds of its working at ten-to-one against but concluded that all the other alternatives were worse. Of course Case Yellow did work. And the odds of success in Baghdad are much better than ten-to-one against.

The enemy (both Sunni and Shiite) has chosen to fight in Baghdad. We have no choice but meet the challenge, or else concede defeat. Let’s at least wait to see what happens before moving on to Plan B.

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War on Wikipedia

Any college student can tell you that the Encyclopedia Britannica has been replaced by Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia whose entries are written and endlessly tweaked by the public. Wikipedia is so new that my spellchecker does not recognize the word. But the site already contains over 1,600,000 entries and is now the preferred point of departure for college research papers. Unfortunately, all too many of these papers fail to depart, which is why Middlebury College has now banned Wikipedia as a legitimate source of information for an academic paper.

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Any college student can tell you that the Encyclopedia Britannica has been replaced by Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia whose entries are written and endlessly tweaked by the public. Wikipedia is so new that my spellchecker does not recognize the word. But the site already contains over 1,600,000 entries and is now the preferred point of departure for college research papers. Unfortunately, all too many of these papers fail to depart, which is why Middlebury College has now banned Wikipedia as a legitimate source of information for an academic paper.


Wikipedia does have its problems. But it’s generally quite accurate, factually. Through a process of relentless refinement and correction, a Wikipedia entry usually comes to embody the collective state of knowledge of a field, approaching a kind of consensus. Any error, misinformation, or invective that creeps in tends to be spotted in short order and corrected. (Of course, certain subjects lend themselves to sabotage and have been placed beyond the bounds of public editing; as one might expect, readers are no longer invited to tinker with the entries for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

And some students have, with reason, decried the ban as an act of censorship. But one can sympathize with the professors at Middlebury. The larger problem, which I think Middlebury’s ban might address, is that the college student of today tends not to read as much as his counterpart of a generation ago, academically and recreationally. The writing of a college paper today is increasingly less an affair of research (i.e., the gathering and evaluating of data to test a hypothesis) than it is one of information retrieval, in which downloaded material is wrestled into essay form. (The blankest look a professor can get today is in response to the question “Can you tell me about the data that contradict your hypothesis?”) It will be interesting to see if other schools follow up on Middlebury’s quixotic campaign against what is, after all, merely a symptom and not the disease.

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Hillary’s Critics

Someone had to do it—and we can all thank David Geffen for being the first. The Hollywood mogul, formerly a major Clinton donor, expounded at length to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd about his support for Barack Obama. Here’s Geffen on the Clintons: “Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease it’s troubling.” And on Hillary’s chances: “I don’t think that another incredibly polarizing figure, no matter how smart she is and no matter how ambitious she is—and God knows, is there anybody more ambitious than Hillary Clinton?—can bring the country together.”

Hillary’s reaction to Geffen’s words opened the floodgates. By the weekend, a host of critics on the Left had moved into place. (As Daniel Casse noted yesterday, the Democrats have an institutional tendency to pile on early front-runners.)

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Someone had to do it—and we can all thank David Geffen for being the first. The Hollywood mogul, formerly a major Clinton donor, expounded at length to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd about his support for Barack Obama. Here’s Geffen on the Clintons: “Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease it’s troubling.” And on Hillary’s chances: “I don’t think that another incredibly polarizing figure, no matter how smart she is and no matter how ambitious she is—and God knows, is there anybody more ambitious than Hillary Clinton?—can bring the country together.”

Hillary’s reaction to Geffen’s words opened the floodgates. By the weekend, a host of critics on the Left had moved into place. (As Daniel Casse noted yesterday, the Democrats have an institutional tendency to pile on early front-runners.)


The always sharp, center-Left Slate blogger Mickey Kaus points out that Hillary’s response—”this is the politics of personal destruction”—just confirms her critics’ fear that she is a dictator-in-waiting. “Does Hillary realize that this taboo-enforcing strategy plays into the worst aspect of her public image—the dogmatic PC enforcer?” He continues: “Note to Hillary: your husband cheated on you and was fined $90,000 for lying to a federal judge about it. Everyone thinks he’s still cheating. . . . That isn’t ‘the politics of personal destruction.’ It’s due diligence.”

Washington Post writer Anne Kornblut makes the interesting argument that “Last week’s Hillary response was an effort to establish silence about her husband’s impeachment.” Kornblut then quotes a Democratic operative who asks why having the opposition mention Bill’s foibles should be out of bounds, given that Hillary is happy to use him to enhance her support. Why indeed?

New Republic editor Martin Peretz claims to be closer to Geffen than to either Clinton, having experienced “Clinton fatigue” early. Peretz, who is sensitive to class issues, reminds us to follow the money. The Clintons, he notes, have only very rich friends—perhaps because of the high cost of such friendship in campaign donations and contributions to legal defense funds.

But the unkindest cut comes from New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. Calling the Clintons “the Connivers,” he details his disgust at Hillary for her willingness to do whatever ruthless thing it takes to tarnish Obama. “There would be no Obama phenomenon if an awful lot of people weren’t fed up with just the sort of mean-spirited, take-no-prisoners politics that the Clintons . . . represent.” Hillary, he claims, is “chasing yesterday’s dawn.” Herbert’s column is almost as tedious as his usual fare, but his vehement dislike of Clinton may count as actual news.

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