The United States is now well into the fifth year of a war in Iraq that has, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, managed to get more Americans killed than 9/11 while alienating global opinion, undermining our strategic posture around the world, arguably speeding nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran and detracting from American efforts against Al Qaeda. The nation’s elites, ever vigilant, have located the source of the problem: Public outrage over the sorry situation.
Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius, for instance, wrote on Sunday that “a good start” in finding an exit from Iraq “would be for Washington partisans to take deep breaths and lower the volume.”
That same day, Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton’s prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, argued in the Post that, in the foreign policy realm, “the fiercest battle is no longer between the left and the right but between partisanship and bipartisanship.” The former, with its hard-right hawks and strident antiwar types, is bad, of course.
Given that the initial authority to use military force in Iraq was a completely bipartisan affair, with backing from the then-leaders of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses, plus the two men who would eventually make up the party’s 2004 presidential ticket, and also the woman who’s currently the front-runner for the 2008 nomination, one might wonder when, exactly, this partisan tussle was so fierce. To Slaughter, though, criticizing people for collaborating in policy fiascoes is part of the problem, not the solution. “In the blogosphere,” she complained, “pillorying Hillary Clinton is a full-time sport.” What’s more, "[Barack] Obama has come in for his share of abuse as well.”
It’s true. I, for example, write a blog where I have criticized Clinton frequently and Obama on occasion, just as Slaughter warns. But what of it? There’s a presidential campaign underway, and they’re both running. What better time is there to pillory someone than when they say something you think is wrong?
The urge to urge calm is hardly limited to the Washington Post. Monday saw a perfect storm of anti-partisan elites, as Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, both scholars at the liberalish Brookings Institution, complained in the New York Times that “the political debate in Washington is surreal” and that “the administration’s critics” -- who, unlike Pollack and O’Hanlon, have not had the privilege of recently taking a guided tour of Iraq organized by the very officials conducting the policy the two scholars are defending -- “seem unaware of the significant changes taking place” there.
O’Hanlon and Pollack are both Democrats, so their endorsement of current policy and “sustaining the effort” in Iraq indefinitely are examples of the sort of razor-sharp thinking we can expect from Washington if we all just stop and submit ourselves to soothing bipartisanship.
Of course, those of us who read Pollack’s celebrated 2002 book, “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq,” and became convinced as a result that the United States needed to, well, invade Iraq in order to dismantle Saddam Hussein’s advanced nuclear weapons program (the one he didn’t actually have) might feel a little too bitter to once again defer to our betters.
Meanwhile, the very elites we’re supposed to trust can’t seem to get their stories straight. Ignatius says everyone’s looking for the exits in Iraq, and we should just calm down. O’Hanlon and Pollack want us to stay put. And as TPM Media’s Greg Sargent pointed out Monday, the optimism of O’Hanlon and Pollack is at odds with the conclusions of Brookings’ own Iraq Index project. It reported July 23 that “violence nationwide has failed to improve measurably over the past two-plus months,” and that -- contrary to their enthusiasm about the provision of electricity and other essentials -- “the average person in Baghdad can count on only one or two hours of electricity per day,” far less than they had under Hussein. More ironically still, the person in charge of the Iraq Index is none other than Michael O’Hanlon!
Citizens who have come to fear letting the powers-that-be sort things out from above have some sound basis for their anxiety -- the bipartisan elite turns out to have a fairly awful track record on Iraq. Indeed, one might begin to suspect that the real agenda here is to try to stifle political debate lest it risk displacing current elites from their cozy positions in favor of some new experts who’ve shown better judgment.
That, though, would be shrill and partisan. Better to not complain and just assume it’ll all turn out for the best.
Matthew Yglesias blogs for the Atlantic Monthly. matthewyglesias.theatlantic.com