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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Learning lessons from Iraq

Regardless of what else one thinks of the Iranian problem, one fact seems to have clearly emerged: in dealing with the Iranian threat, we are in a drastically weaker position, on almost every level, as a result of our invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq. By severely limiting our options and consuming our resources, our war against a decrepit and impotent Saddam has made us less able to deal with real threats to our security – exactly what the dreaded war opponents insisted in advance would be the case if we went to war in Iraq.

The question of what to do about Iraq was depicted – and continues to be depicted – as a choice between courage and cowardice, strength and weakness, Churchillian resolve or Chamberlain-like appeasement. With this premise firmly in place, those who cheered on the war (from a safe distance) are courageous, manly fighters in the glorious, resolute mold of Churchill. Those who opposed the war, even on the most pragmatic and even hawkish grounds, are caricatured as cowardly pacifists wanting to appease our enemies and make America weak.

This crude depiction was always pure fantasy, a cheap cartoon, but is unmistakably being hauled out again for Iran. Here is the revealingly self-named Captain Ed already dredging up the tired, deceitful "appeasement" smear for anyone who doesn’t immediately adopt the most bellicose posture possible towards Iran:

Now would be the time for Western nations to stand together in a show of unity to demand Iranian compliance or face the imposition of a tough sanctions regime. Unfortunately, the new government of Germany took the occasion of their first visit to the US to launch the new version of appeasement they want to use . . .

This indicates that the US will shortly face the same conundrum we did with Iraq -- a major security issue on which the UNSC refused to take any action to resolve, opting instead for the illusion of status quo.

Are we really going to again fall for the "appeasement" and cowardice trick from the Captain Eds of the world? Opposition to the war in Iraq had nothing to do with "appeasement" and everything to do with pragmatic predictions – which turned out to be indisputably accurate – that invading Iraq was not justified by the level of threat it posed and, more importantly, would be far more difficult than claimed, thus rendering us weaker as a nation to confront the real threats that we faced.

The number one Appeaser-FlowerChild-Coward on Iraq was Howard Dean, whose opposition to the war was used to depict him as some sort of unholy mix of Joan Baez and Alger Hiss. And yet listen to Dean’s argument, made a month before we invaded, as to why the war was ill-advised – about how an occupation of Iraq would drain away our resources and our credibility for dealing with greater threats to our country:

And I firmly believe that the President is focusing our diplomats, our military, our intelligence agencies, and even our people on the wrong war, at the wrong time, when our energy and our resources should be marshaled for the greatest threats we face. . . .

Now, I am not among those who say that America should never use its armed forces unilaterally. In some circumstances, we have no choice. In Iraq, I would be prepared to go ahead without further Security Council backing if it were clear the threat posed to us by Saddam Hussein was imminent, and could neither be contained nor deterred. However, that case has not been made, and I believe we should continue the hard work of diplomacy and inspection.

We must remember, though, that Iraq is not the greatest danger we face today. . . .

[L]ast month, [the President] again had the whole world listening as he gave his State of the Union Address. He devoted four paragraphs to the war against terror. He devoted sixteen to Iraq. He mentioned Saddam Hussein by name 18 times. He did not mention Osama bin Laden at all. The President sounds like a war President, but I must ask whether he is focused on the right war.

Saddam Hussein should not mistake a debate in this country about the best way to disarm him for any lack of resolve, here or elsewhere, that he must be disarmed. We will ensure that Saddam Hussein is disarmed of weapons of mass destruction. But we must be smart as well as tough.

Can anyone dispute that Dean was right about virtually every prediction he made, every warning that he issued about why invading Iraq was ill-advised and counter-productive? Any doubt about that ought to be resoundingly dispelled by this passage from his speech:

Secretary Powell's recent presentation at the UN showed the extent to which we have Iraq under an audio and visual microscope. Given that, I was impressed not by the vastness of evidence presented by the Secretary, but rather by its sketchiness. . .

We have been told over and over again what the risks will be if we do not go to war. We have been told little about what the risks will be if we do go to war. If we go to war, I certainly hope the Administration's assumptions are realized, and the conflict is swift, successful and clean. . . . It is possible, however, that events could go differently . . .

Compare this outright prescience from Dean to the war supporters’ declarations of cakewalks, predictions of glorious victory celebrations, promises that the war would pay for itself, and shrill fear-mongering about Saddam’s non-existent weapons. In light of what just happened in Iraq -- in light of how wrong the Captain Eds and other war-mongers were about essentially everything -- what rational ground exists for even listening to them on Iran, let alone being bullied again by this same "coward/appeasement" smear that is the only trick they know?

The vast majority of those who opposed the war in Iraq did so based on the pragmatic ground that the risks and costs of the war vastly outweighed the gains, and most importantly, that devoting our military and financial resources to a contained Saddam would weaken America in its ability to deal with other, more pressing threats -- beginning with Al Qaeda and extending to a nuclear-seeking North Korea and Iran.

Can there be any doubt that war opponents were exactly right that invasion of Iraq would make us far weaker in dealing with every other threat, including Iran? Even the war-mongers are acknowledging how limited our options are in dealing with Iran because we are presently occupying Iraq. Let us count the ways that our occupation of Iraq impedes our ability to deal with the Iranian threat:

First is the obvious fact that our military occupation of Iraq renders non-existent any credible threat of full-scale military action against Iran:

But behind the scenes there is no stomach for a fight. The US is the only country that could take military action. But with the US military already seriously overstretched in Iraq and with the mid-term congressional elections approaching there is no impetus in the White House or in Congress for another military adventure.

And the Iranians know this, of course (h/t The Moderate Voice):

"The Americans cannot do anything to us at the moment - they're a bunch of donkeys stuck in the mud of Iraq," said Tayebeh Biniaz, a chemistry tutor, wrapping her black chador tightly against the freezing winter wind.

And then there is the fact that the large numbers of soldiers we have in Iraq, along with our dependance on the good will of Iraqi Shiites, makes even targeted air strikes in Iran, which would result in scores of civilian deaths, virtually impossible -- so says no less of a war-lover than Victor Davis Hanson:

But 2006 is not 1981. We are in war with Islamic radicalism, at the moment largely near the Iranian border in Iraq and Afghanistan. The resulting furor over a "Zionist" strike on Shia Iran might galvanize Iraqi Shiites to break with us, rather than bring them relief that the Jewish state had eliminated a nearby nuclear threat and had humiliated an age-old rival nation and bitter former enemy. Thousands of Americans are in range of Iranian artillery and short-term missile salvoes, and, in theory, we could face in Iraq a conventional enemy at the front and a fifth column at the rear. . .

The Shiite allies in Iraq might go ballistic and start up a second front as in 2004. Muslim countries, the primary beneficiaries of a disarmed Iran, would still protest loudly that some of their territories, if only for purposes of intelligence and post-operative surveillance, were used in the strike. After Iraq, a hit on Iran would confirm to the Middle East Street a disturbing picture of American preemptory wars against Islamic nations.

Nor is a strategy of supporting a coup against the democratically elected Iranian President feasible, given that our only remaining justification for our invasion of Iraq is that we are crusading to bring democracy to that region. Whatever credibility and moral leadership we had and could use right about now is pretty much non-existent for reasons that need no elaboration. And all of this is independent of the way in which our invasion of Iraq – and all of the amusing insults directed at our European allies – has weakened those alliances, which we particularly need to accomplish anything constructive inside of Iran given that we have virtually no intelligence assets there and Europe does.

The real point is that we need to avoid, first and foremost, this inane dichotomy where one’s views for dealing with foreign threats become a test of one’s courage and manhood. Not every conflict is World War II, and not every foreign policy challenge is about proving that you are Churchill and not Chamberlain.

This is the destructive paradigm that pushed us into this plainly ill-advised occupation of Iraq. It assumes in advance that the more mindlessly belligerent one is in dealing with any threat, the better. It similarly holds that those who do not join in the war dances ought not be listened to at all because the mere fact that they counsel a more restrained or subtle course exposes them as cowards and appeasers. That warped mentality – which quite deliberately confuses war-mongering for courage and wisdom -- is what led us into the mess that we are in, but there is no evidence that any of the perpetrators have learned any lessons. Quite the contrary.

Imagine a world where Saddam is still in place, sputtering around impotently and in check by stringent inspections. There has been no WMD debacle in Iraq. Our decades-long alliances are intact. Our military has been engaged only in precision strikes against actual terrorists where they are found -- rather than occupying a country of 25 millions Muslims plagued by brewing sectarian civil war -- and is therefore primed, energized, and fresh. And U.S. credibility on issues like these is what it was before we invaded Iraq, rather than what it is now. The credible threat we could pose to Iran under those circumstances is in a different universe than the virtually non-existent threat we can pose now.

Can we at least avoid being subjected this time to the childish notion – already being peddled by the same people who were wrong about essentially everything as they pushed us into invading Iraq – that anyone who does not rush to embrace the most militaristic solution possible for Iran is an appeasing, irresponsible coward who should not be taken seriously? Just look at what that mindset has wrought.

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