Saturday, August 25, 2007

O'Hanlon answers some of his critics.

Michael O'Hanlon's concluding paragraph (see below) is quite a slippery piece of reasoning. Manifestly, the U.S. has failed in Iraq but is failure the same as defeat in a war? Invasion proponents, such as O'Hanlon, supported the invasion as a means to enhance American security. They argued that the regime in power in Baghdad posed a serious potential threat to the U.S. Therefore removing it would make America safer. Is America is safer as a result of the invasion? Hardly.

By a variety of other criteria offered by the Bush administration, including the promotion of democracy, fostering a more pliant mood among Palestinians, and undermining Iran's clerical regime, the invasion failed. Failure in Iraq is given. The key question is how the U.S. may best salvage its interests?

Marginal improvements in the security environment in Iraq are certainly important. Improved security, in principle, is a necessary condition for the consolidation of an effective inter-sectarian government. However, improved security is not a sufficient condition for more effective governance, as the government of Prime Minister al-Maliki reveals so very clearly. By bolstering tribal militias the U.S. is improving local security, as in al-Anbar notably, but at the cost of reducing the incentives for the Shi'is and Sunnis to cooperate toward building a shared government in Baghdad. In other words, the U.S. is working at cross purposes with its declared objective of strengthening a stronger (not to say, democratic) inter-sectarian government.

The issue now is whether reducing the U.S. presence in Iraq will contribute yet another dimension of failure, even adding to the to the extant failures by signaling weak resolve, or begin an essential process of recalibrating U.S. involvement in Iraq. That is the essence of the debate that is now joined over U.S. policy in Iraq. If troop reductions are likely to be deleterious for U.S. security interests, then it may make sense to postpone reductions as long as possible, as O'Hanlon hints. Skeptics, like myself, argue that a drawdown in forces in inevitable. Keeping the overstretched army bogged down in Iraq signals strategic confusion not resolution. Moreover, there is little doubt Iraq will continue to be in tumult for years to come and notions of conclusive victory or clear defeat will be illusory.

In my view, the urgent task for the U.S. is to recalibrate its policies and to begin the long process of restoring American credibility in the region and the world. Repairing the damage that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has done to U.S. interests will arguably be the most important foreign policy challenge for the next president. Postponing the repairs is not prudent, especially if key U.S. security concerns may be met with lower troop levels.

Mr. O'Hanlon is no Johnny-come-lately to Iraq, and he is justified in reminding his critics that he has a network of contacts and informants that allow him to construct a more nuanced appreciation of the situation than would a first-time visitor to Iraq. Even so, it is fair to ask how perspicacious he has been in the past? The answer is that his record of prognostication is a mixed one. "Use with due caution" might be a good label for his advice.

Michael O'Hanlon - The Work Behind Our Iraq Views -

"In the end, even if Iraqis cooperate more at the local level, our strategy for Iraq probably cannot work absent major national political cooperation across sectarian lines. With Americans dying in large numbers, it is reasonable that some conclude we have already shown enough patience. But with battlefield dynamics and some local economic and political efforts gaining considerable momentum, and with several big ideas for transforming Iraq's politics still untested, this would be a sad time to conclude we have been defeated."

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