On his June 11 Swampland blog, Joe Klein once again comments on Iraq. On the effects of the so-called surge, Klein admits to progress. In his words:
the military situation in Iraq has improved so much that normally sober and pessimistic military and intelligence sorts are simply stunned.
… the successful operations in Basra, Sadr City and Mosul have had a completely unexpected effect on the stature of the formerly hapless Nouri Al-Maliki: At a recent cabinet meeting after the Sadr City operation, the entire room stood when Maliki entered, a sign of newfound respect for a leader who was regarded as little more than a place-holder only months ago. [italics in original]
… the tide of good news is unmistakable.
Klein offers several caveats in his posting, and they are good ones. But elsewhere he veers badly off track and gets sloppy in the process. And because his views so often reflect conventional, if flawed, wisdom at the time, they are worth examining with some care.
To begin with a specific point of clarification: Klein refers to Fred and Kim Kagan as “persistent Pollyannas about progress” on Iraq. In fact, that’s not correct. Long ago the Kagans were concerned that things in Iraq were going poorly and that, pre-Petraeus, the wrong counterinsurgency plan was in place. They made no secret of their views. On January 17, 2005, for example, Fred Kagan wrote an editorial for The Weekly Standard. In his words, “Claims that there are no serious problems with military policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, or with the equipment our soldiers have, or with the number of troops available, are childish and damaging to efforts to identify and solve real problems.” These are hardly the words of a Pollyanna.
Klein concludes his post with this paragraph:
In all this, we should be clear on one thing: Even if the optimistic scenarios prevail, this war was a mistake from beginning to end. It was a scandalous waste of lives, money and American prestige. It diverted U.S. attention from the real threat of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan–a war that still needs to be won. The threat of neoconservative neocolonialism overseas remains a real problem–and it is likely to be the fault line on which the foreign policy debate takes place in the coming presidential campaign. But those who oppose neocon arrogance and intransigence have to do so from facts, and an acknowledgment of the reality on the ground–an acknowledgment of the brilliant work done in the past year in Iraq by the U.S. military, an acknowledgment that the Iraqis just may have grown tired of killing each other. And with a demand that the troops come home as quickly as possible.
Let’s unpack this a bit.
1. Since Klein declared the Iraq war a mistake “from beginning to end,” it’s once again worth reminding people that Klein favored the war before it began, as I’ve documented here and here. Joe now refers to that as a one-time moment of weakness, one he seems unhappy to be reminded of. But note well: Klein not only favored the war; he offered persuasive reasons why he did.
2. What about Klein’s predictive and analytical powers as they relate to the surge? Klein was a vocal, persistent critic of it and repeatedly declared it could not succeed. Let’s take things chronologically.
On January 7, 2007, Klein wrote this:
Pelosi’s right, though: it’s too late for a surge. Instead of putting all its brainpower into surging, the military should be focusing on how to get our conventional forces out (and leave our unconventional forces in the neighborhood) in a way that prevents an all-out regional conflict
On January 8 alone, he wrote three different posts, including this:
The Democrats who oppose the so-called “surge” are right.
The question is, will it lead to a quieter Baghdad? And another question: How long will our troops have to be there for this to change Iraq’s violent sectarian culture–if it can work at all? Serious surgers tell me…ten years . That seems more a glacier than a surge.
For the record, I’m outraged Bush is ignoring the election results and the reality on the ground in Iraq. I think he is sending more young American lives into an impossible situation.
On February 14, Klein wrote this:
This piece, by Lawrence Kaplan, is the smartest thing I’ve read in a while about what’s actually happening on the ground in Iraq. It has the virtue of first-hand reporting from al-Anbar Province and some very good analysis about why the Baghdad “surge” is probably doomed. I differ from Kaplan on one point, however: he’d maintain our troop levels in Baghdad and concentrate the surge on the provinces. I’d withdraw from the civil war in Baghdad, begin pulling our troops out of Iraq–but focus on our long-term national interests: i.e. helping the Sunnis to fight Al Qaeda in al-Anbar.
And from April 3:
I’d like to think that if we concentrated the big brains–civilians like James Baker, elected officials like Senator Jack Reed, military people like McCaffrey and Petraeus–on a creative withdrawal plan we might be able to extricate ourselves, save our Army and prevent a regional war. No chance of that in the Bush Administration, of course. But it’s the only vaguely plausible option that remains.
Ten days later Klein wrote this:
Since many readers seem to have short memories, let me repeat that I’ve been opposed to the surge. I stand precisely with Senators Jim Webb, Jack Reed and Chuck Hagel on this: I think our best military minds–people like Genl Petraeus–should be devoting their attention to the safest, and least disastrous, and most responsible, way out of this.
And a week later this:
The ultimate Iraq “surge” end strength is projected at 167,000, which won’t be enough–especially given the lack of readiness (especially when it comes to equipment), the newly extended tours and the fact that Guard and Reserve troops will be called back. This is an exhausted force. Morale will be a bitch. And for what? The damage to our military will be considerable. A disaster, any way you cut it.
There is much more in the Klein anti-surge oeuvre, but to briefly sum up Klein’s positions on Iraq: He supported a war that he later referred to as the “stupidest foreign policy decision ever made by an American President.” He was a ferocious critic of a counterinsurgency strategy that is, by his own admission, stunningly successful. And he favored a policy which, if it had been put into effect, would likely have led to mass death and perhaps genocide, a victory for jihadists and Iran, greater destabilization in the region, a defeat in a war of enormous consequence and therefore a genuine demoralization of the American military. It’s not clear what in this record commends Klein as an authoritative voice on Iraq specifically or national security matters more broadly.
3. Klein refers to what he terms the “threat of neoconservative neocolonialism overseas.” There are other names for this, such as “liberation” and “championing freedom.” And back in 2005, during the “Arab Spring,” Klein was supportive of it.
In the February 6, 2005 issue of Time, Klein wrote this:
Yes, disentanglement will be difficult. And, yes, we shouldn’t “overhype” the [Iraq] election, as John Kerry clumsily suggested. But this is not a moment for caveats. It is a moment for solemn appreciation of the Iraqi achievement-however it may turn out-and for hope…. This was a symptom of a larger disease: most Democrats seemed as reluctant as Kerry to express the slightest hint of optimism about the elections.
A few weeks later, Klein wrote this:
And yet, for the moment, Bush’s instincts-his supporters would argue these are bedrock values-seem to be paying off. The President’s attention span may be haphazard, but the immediate satisfactions are difficult to dispute. Saddam Hussein? Evildoer. Take him out. But wait, no WMD? No post-invasion planning? Deaths and chaos? Awful, but…. Freedom! Look at those Shiites vote! And now, after all that rapid-eye movement, who can say the Shiites and the Kurds won’t create a government with a loyal Shiite-Kurd security force? And who can say the Sunni rebels won’t–with some creative dealmaking–eventually acquiesce? The foreign-policy priesthood may be appalled by all the unexpected consequences, but there has been stunned silence in the non-neocon think tanks since the Iraqi elections.
It even got to the point that Klein declared that “If the President turns out to be right–and let’s hope he is… he will surely deserve that woolliest of all peace prizes, the Nobel.”
It is an odd thing indeed when the effort to promote self-government in a region that has never known it, and for a people who for decades lived under the lash of the whip, is referred to as “neocolonialism overseas.” The United States is actually trying to help the Iraqis on the path to a decent, stable, peaceful, and free society. That work has involved serious errors of judgment by the Bush Administration, which I have dilated on elsewhere, and entailed enormous sacrifice by our nation. But it has been done in order to advance a noble cause, one Klein once embraced and, given the pinball nature of his views, he may embrace again.
4. Klein claims that Iraq “diverted U.S. attention from the real threat of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan–a war that still needs to be won.” Yet Klein admits that al Qaeda is “facing an intellectual challenge from within its own ranks.” That is correct–and it is happening in part because of events in Iraq. The “Anbar Awakening”–an organic Sunni uprising against the brutality of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and which was greatly assisted by the United States military–is a development of enormous significance. Al Qaeda chose to make Iraq a central battleground in the war against jihadism–and having done so, it is on the receiving end of punishing blows, there and elsewhere.
The Washington Post reported this a few weeks ago:
Less than a year after his agency warned of new threats from a resurgent al-Qaeda, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden now portrays the terrorist movement as essentially defeated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and on the defensive throughout much of the rest of the world, including in its presumed haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In a strikingly upbeat assessment, the CIA chief cited major gains against al-Qaeda’s allies in the Middle East and an increasingly successful campaign to destabilize the group’s core leadership. While cautioning that al-Qaeda remains a serious threat, Hayden said Osama bin Laden is losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Islamic world and has largely forfeited his ability to exploit the Iraq war to recruit adherents.
The widely respected U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, said earlier this month, “You are not going to hear me say that al Qaeda is defeated, but they’ve never been closer to defeat than they are now.”
We are also seeing, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, “large and growing numbers of Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere rejecting Islamic extremism.” And there have been large drops in support for bin Laden.
If the President had taken Klein’s counsel to withdraw from the “civil war in Baghdad” and begin pulling troops out of Iraq, it would have been the greatest boon possible for al Qaeda. And so the very thing Klein says he fears would in fact become a reality.
If things turn out well in Iraq–and that is certainly a possibility now, given the enormous progress we’ve seen–then the war may well prove to be a net plus for America’s national security interests and for the broader cause of liberty. That didn’t seem possible a few years ago but, thanks to policies embraced by President Bush and which Klein fiercely opposed, a good outcome in Iraq is now within reach. If that day comes to pass, Joe Klein may well remind people, in his customarily emphatic and cock-sure way, that this was a war he once supported and deemed winnable. It just goes to show that there are advantages in taking shifting stands on all sides of an issue.