April 05, 2008

The Iraq Narrative(s)

Dave at Small Wars Journal encouraged everyone to read the article by Richard Kohn on the coming crisis in civil-military relations, and Abu Muqawama seconds Dave's recommendation for this passage alone:

In the civil-military arena, the consequences of even a slowly unraveling debacle in Iraq could be quite ugly. Already, politicians and generals have been pointing fingers at one another; the Democrats and some officers excoriating the administration for incompetence, while the administration and a parade of generals fire back at the press and anti-war Democrats. The truly embittered, like retired Army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, who commanded in Iraq in 2003­­–04, blame everyone and everything: Bush and his underlings, the civilian bureaucracy, Congress, partisanship, the press, allies, even the American people. Last November, Sanchez went so far as to deliver the Democrats’ weekly radio address—and, with it, more bile and invective. Thomas Ricks, chief military correspondent of the Washington Post, detects a “stab in the back narrative . . . now emerging in the U.S. military in Iraq. . . . [T]he U.S. military did everything it was supposed to do in Iraq, the rest of the U.S. government didn’t show up, the Congress betrayed us, the media undercut us, and the American public lacked the stomach, the nerve, and the will to see it through.” Ricks thinks this “account is wrong in every respect; nonetheless, I am seeing more and more adherents of it in the military.”

Abu Muqawama read this passage this past week and realized exactly why so much of what the Kagans write about Iraq makes him angry. Divorced from the complicated realities on the ground, the Kagans' narrative allows readers of the Weekly Standard to think that Iraq is a black-and-white world in which Our Brave Boys are winning the fight. Although the left says Iraq is a disaster, they are all lying -- it's actually going 100% well. Why is this dangerous? Because when the next president -- Obama or McCain -- comes to office and is suddenly confronted with the messy reality of Iraq, he might have to make some tough decisions. And if he decides to start cutting our loses and moving our finite troops to Afghanistan and back to the U.S. for re-training, he -- especially if it's Obama -- is going to get mercilessly crucified by the right for abandoning the glorious success that was our involvement in Iraq. The "stabbed in the back" narrative will take hold, and it proponents will seize the dishonest picture of Iraq painted by the Kagans as evidence that we were winning in Iraq before the cowardly liberals took charge.

The left, meanwhile, is reading their own version of events in newspapers like the Guardian and the Independent. The left and center-left will also have the testimony of folks like Gen. William Odom and Nir Rosen to rely on. (Read excerpts via Abu Aardvark.) Abu Muqawama disagrees with Nir about a lot but respects his friend for spending years on the ground in Iraq, speaking (Arabic!) with normal Iraqis of all political and sectarian stripes. Sometimes Abu Muqawama thinks Nir loses the forest for the trees, but his description of the reality on the ground in Iraq is closer to the truth than anything Fred Kagan is going to write from his office at AEI. He also has a well-aimed dig at the so-called experts:

Most embedded journalists, just like embedded politicians and embedded members of think tanks on Washington’s K Street or Massachusetts Avenue, lack language skills and time on the ground in Iraq—and since they are white, they cannot travel around Baghdad without attracting attention and getting kidnapped or killed. They know nothing about Iraq except what they gain through second- or third-hand knowledge, too often provided by equally disconnected members of the US military. Recently we have seen positive articles about events in Iraq published by so called experts such as Anthony Cordesmen, Michael O’Hanlon, Kenneth Pollock, Fred Kagan and even former members of the Coalition Provisional Council such as Dan Senor. These men speak no Arabic and cannot get around without their babysitters from the American military. But it seems that the more they get wrong, these and other propagandists for the war, such as Thomas Friedman, manage to maintain their credibility.

In defense of Kagan (and Pollock and O'Hanlon and Cordesman), Abu Muqawama has to say that although these men may not speak Arabic or have spent much time on the ground in Iraq, their considerable military expertise makes them worth listening to. The problem Abu Muqawama has with someone like Kagan is when he begins to craft an alternate reality of Iraq in which everything gray becomes either black or white, like when he paints the Sadrists as tools of Iran and the Badr/ISCI crew as the legitimate authority in Iraq when, in reality, the Sadrists have more popular Iraqi support than Badr/ISCI and Badr/ISCI are also supported by Iran. It's just not as clear-cut as it looks from the corner office on K Street.

But like Tom Ricks, Abu Muqawama lives in fear of this "stabbed in the back" narrative that the less scrupulous members of the Weekly Standard/National Review crowd will push relentlessly if Obama becomes president and starts moving troops out of Iraq to Afghanistan as he had pledged to do. This is not good for the country, it's not good for the military, and it's a disaster for civil-military relations.

While we're on the subject, do you know what else isn't good for the country? The way this organization in particular has egregiously politicized Gen. David Petraeus. Abu Muqawama is glad George Catlett Marshall did not live to see this video. Sickening:

Update: Ricks didn't just come up with this stab-in-the-back-idea yesterday. It was originally floated in one of his articles last spring.

"I think the hangover from this war will be at least as bad as Vietnam and wouldn't be surprised by a growing movement toward retrenchment and isolationism," said Erin M. Simpson, a counterinsurgency expert at Harvard University. She also is worried by a "stab-in-the-back narrative" emerging about who lost Iraq that could poison discourse between the military and political leaders for years to come.