Liberal Pundits Lost


Mass confusion seems to have afflicted several liberal journalists who are currently trying to get some footing on the crumbly cliff that is our Iraq policy.

The great irony is that the Baathists and Arab dictators are opposing the U.S. in Iraq because -- unlike many leftists -- they understand exactly what this war is about.
-- The New York Times

"Ending the occupation now" is not just an idea that will never see fruition, it's a bad, irresponsible, naïve one that would have disastrous consequences if it were carried out.
-- AlterNet

In conceiving of Iraq exclusively as Bush's venal adventure, Saturday's antiwar speakers, like many Democrats and progressives, left no affirmative role for liberals in resurrecting that broken country.
-- Salon
The underlying message -- issued from pundits at Salon, AlterNet and the New York Times -- is clear: Maybe it was alright to oppose the war before it started, but by now you should have realized that we're committed to a basically benevolent, albeit flawed, occupation that is trying, in the words of Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, "to install some democracy in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world," and if we don't Get It Right we will be blowing an historic opportunity.

But is that necessarily a bad thing? Because if you scrutinize the thinking of the hawks and neoconservatives, the opportunity we are blowing is to install a pro-Western puppet regime and permanent U.S. military bases in one of the most important Arab countries. For liberals to whitewash this under the cover of helping civilian Iraqis is to be willfully ignorant of the larger stage upon which this whole play is being acted out. Pro-occupation liberals and conservatives have completely different underlying motives for forcefully remaking Iraq -- and only one of them is in power. And motives affect results.

Yet, their best efforts to micromanage the occupation from afar, including detailed prescriptions for what the Coalition Provisional Authority needs to do before it can come home, miss the point: The current Iraq crisis is much less about the CPA being dominated by what one anonymous CPA'er caustically told Newsweek was America's "C-Team," and much more about the faulty, cynical premises that the occupation is based upon.

Part of this confusion stems from conflating, whether deliberately or not, reconstruction with occupation. Ending a U.S. occupation would inevitably be followed by some effort, however flawed -- and let's not romanticize the competency of the UN -- by the international community to transition Iraq to self-rule. The United States, as the world's most powerful and wealthiest country, would inevitably have a lot of say and bear much of the burden of supporting such a program, financially and perhaps militarily -- but it would not be directly in charge. To attack the slogan "End the Occupation Now" because it doesn't explain what would happen after is to demand protesters attach addendums and footnotes to their signs.

Friedman insists that while Bush is otherwise "radically conservative," Iraq "is the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the U.S. has ever launched -- a war of choice to install some democracy in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world." A revolution? Maybe by proxy. And does this mean Paul Wolfowitz and Paul Bremer are the Jefferson and Washington of the New Iraq?

He doesn't say, but he does have analogies for the different forces in Iraq that are designed to reassure us that "despite this notion being peddled by Europeans, the Arab press and the antiwar left that 'Iraq' is just Arabic for Vietnam," those mysterious folks behind all these deadly bombings and shootings and rocket attacks are not trying to liberate their country as the Vietcong were, but are actually just Iraq's version of the Khmer Rouge who are "not killing us so Iraqis can rule themselves. They are killing us so they can rule Iraqis."

But didn't our puppet regimes lose in both Cambodia and Vietnam? Didn't our relentless (not to mention secret) bombing of Cambodia and the 1970 U.S.-sponsored coup of Prince Sihanouk create the conditions for the Khmer Rouge's horrific rise to power? Weren't the end results of a decade of blood, death and tears in four countries the establishment of three totalitarian regimes and the humiliation of the United States?

But never mind, Friedman is off and running, although he does have some niggling concerns about those running this "revolution" from above and afar:
Can this administration, whose national security team is so divided, effectively stay the course in Iraq? Has the president's audacity in waging such a revolutionary war outrun his ability to articulate what it's about and to summon Americans for the sacrifices victory will require? Can the president really be a successful radical liberal on Iraq, while being such a radical conservative everywhere else -- refusing to dismiss one of his own generals who insults Islam, turning a deaf ear to hints of corruption infecting the new Baghdad government as it's showered with aid dollars, calling on reservists and their families to bear all the burdens of war while slashing taxes for the rich, and undertaking the world's biggest nation-building project with few real allies?
That's strange; this negative depiction sounds like an argument to end the occupation. This kind of armchair-quarterbacking allows the pundit to be right either way: If the occupation is a success, he backed it all the way; a failure means they didn't follow his advice on how it should have been done.

Perhaps Friedman is hedging his bets after reading this week's Newsweek cover story, "Bush's $87 Billion Mess: Waste, Chaos, and Cronyism: The Real Cost of Rebuilding Iraq." In a "special investigation," the newsweekly reports that:
Six months ago the administration decided to cut corners on normal bidding procedures and hand over large contracts to defense contractors like Bechtel and Halliburton on a limited-bid or no-bid basis. It bypassed the Iraqis and didn't worry much about accountability to Congress. The plan was for "blitzkrieg" reconstruction. But by sacrificing accountability for speed, America is not achieving either very well right now. For months no one has seemed to be fully in charge of postwar planning. There has been so little transparency that even at the White House "it was almost impossible to get a sense of what was happening" on the power problem, says one official privy to the discussions.
The fact is, as Newsweek points out, we wouldn't be in this mess if we had followed Donald Rumsfeld's advice to avoid exercises in nation-building. "A large foreign presence," he once said of such efforts, means "economies remain unreformed, distorted and dependent." But this is not about saying, "I told you so." The sick thing that is happening now is that after so many moderates and liberals were duped into supporting this war on the basis of lies, they are now rationalizing the bankrupting of our country and putting our young soldiers in the line of fire based on faulty beliefs about what the United States can provide Iraqis.

The Salon article quotes George Packer as saying that liberals who care about the welfare of Iraqis must "start to distinguish between their dislike of Bush and their recognition that the mission must succeed. That would be a big start, and the crucial one."

But whose mission is being pursued? Many Democrats and liberal pundits are in danger of falling for the same bait-and-switch tactic they fell for before the war -- then it was the placing of Saddam Hussein at the center of the "War on Terror"; this time it is convincing us that the occupation is really about Iraqi human rights and democracy.

If and when liberals are running the government again, they might have some say in how and for what end U.S. military power is employed. Right now, though, they are just providing the smokescreen for a neocolonialist war being engineered -- and badly -- by their ruthless political opponents.

Christopher Scheer is the co-author of "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq."

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