May 12, 2009

Tuning out what doesn't fit the template...

I am, most of the time, a fan of David P. Goldman (Spengler). But I think this, from The Torture Debate Shows Our Vulnerability to Radical Evil, at First Things, is just malarky, and comes from his internal movie, not from reality...

...The scandal over torture is the perverse result of the previous administration's exercise in nation-building, that is, an attempt to bring the benefits of democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan. When Justice Department lawyers write memos to set ground rules for "enhanced interrogation," something has gone woefully wrong. In the case of Iraq, the American military got up to its neck in the septic-tank of Iraqi civil society without the means to engage it. Apart from first-generation immigrants, few Americans speak Arabic, let alone Persian or Pashtun. Iraq's welter of resistant organizations was entirely opaque to American intelligence, which proposed to beat the required information out of a large pool of Iraqi prisoner. In retrospect it seems delusional to believe that the United States could shape a civil society without even the ability to communicate with it...

1. Unless I've missed something (correct me please!) the "torture" scandal has little to do with supporting operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. The (very few) cases of water-boarding were about threats by al-Qaeda to the US or Europe. (Abu Ghraib was not about interrogation.) I think Goldman is simply making stuff up.

2. The "septic-tank of Iraqi civil society" is a false description. I would say that Iraqi civil society is surprisingly healthy considering the decades of totalitarian misrule, and the general state of Arab culture. The violence we experienced was deliberately ginned-up by several murderous groups, but does not seem to have ever been what Iraqis in general wanted.

3. "...entirely opaque to American intelligence" Even if true, where are the Iraqi Defense Forces in this analysis? Turned to zombies? This is a bizarre variant on the liberal tendency I've written about to only consider America "real." The picture Goldman is painting, with only America able to act, is simply crazy.

4. I've been following accounts by our guys in Iraq since 2003, and it is very clear that they do in fact communicate effectively with Iraqis. There are lots of English-speaking Iraqi interpreters, and many of our troops have learned at least some basic Arabic.

5. Though we provide lots of advice and aid, we are not "shaping a civil society," nor trying to. The Iraqis are clearly doing that themselves.

6. We seem to be succeeding. (See quote below by Nibras Kazimi.) Iraq is now safer than a lot of US cities. Therefore, it looks like "delusional" describes Goldman much better than it does American efforts in Iraq.

(Here are a few links to reports from Iraq, stuff I think Goldman just tunes out or ignores: Link, link, link, link. There is lots more where those came from.)

One of Goldman's schticks is that America is "arrogant," and will surely come a cropper. Maybe so, but I think in the case of Iraq he's seeing his own mental picture of the world, not what's there. (By the way, my list of reasons for invading Iraq is here. I don't just assert things, I back them up.)

I'd recommend Nibras Kazimi as a useful antidote to Goldman's fantasies. This is from an article of his, Dodging 'Democracy' in Iraq:

...It seems that U.S. policy views the words 'democracy' and 'Iraq' as mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, if it is policy then it was one begun by Clinton's predecessor, Condoleeza Rice, who in the latter years of the Bush administration began to shy away from the term.

Iraq is democratic. It has a noisy political process whereby politicians are always mindful of how their constituencies will react to their actions come election time. It managed to pass a constitution by referendum, and for the first time in the Middle East, the thorniest of issues such as sectarianism, minority rights and women's empowerment are being debated, and voted on, by the Iraqi electorate. A vocal parliamentary opposition assails a coalition cabinet on anything from budgetary pitfalls to the abuse of prisoners. Heck, even prisoners and ex-felons are allowed to vote in Iraq, something that can't be said about America.

Right before the last provincial elections, teams from the country's Electoral Commission visited prisons and hospitals to explain to voter their rights, and the procedures by which their votes would be collected and counted. That's not only a stark contrast to Iraq's brutal totalitarian past, but a stark contrast to Iraq's immediate neighborhood, where elections are 'managed' to produce the results the ruling establishment decrees...

Goldman is a great thinker, and I admire him very much, but in this case I think I'm seeing things more clearly than he. Why? Because I care about Iraqis, and like them. I'm not sure why—I ind neither other Arabs nor Afghans interesting—but I glom onto Iraqi news avidly, and have been for years now. I don't think Iraq is real to him. Just something useful for his arguments.

Democracies, by the way, are always uglier the lower the per capita income. Therefore, a reasonable level of success for Iraqi democracy would still be more flawed than even Mexico or Turkey.

* Update: Actually, I'd say that Iraq is evidence that America is NOT arrogant. We said we could do the job, and even though it turned out to be ten times a hard as expected, we pulled it off! Sounds like clear-minded confidence in our abilities and in the attractiveness of our ideas to me. Not arrogance.

Posted by John Weidner at May 12, 2009 10:52 AM
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