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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.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Rich Lowry, Serious Foreign Policy Expert, announces his serious plan for victory in Iraq

(updated below)

One of the most depressing aspects of the Iraq debate is to watch the self-styled "experts" who advocated this war, such as National Review Editor (and Sean Hannity substitute) Rich Lowry, thrashing around, constantly grasping for new excuses as to why their war is failing, desperate to embrace any explanation at all other than the only true one sitting right in front of their faces -- that the invasion was a bad idea from the beginning, that it was premised on false assumptions, that war advocates were wrong about everything they predicted would happen, and the ongoing occupation has produced incalculable disaster along with virtually no good.

Today, Lowry was given a platform on the Op-Ed page of The Washington Post to outline for us (along with co-author Bill Kristol) the easy, obvious way we can win the war in Iraq -- and, in doing so, said the opposite of everything he has been saying for the last three years:

Rich Lowry (with Bill Kristol), today in The Washington Post:

We are at a crucial moment in Iraq. Supporters of the war, like us, have in the past differed over tactics. But at this urgent pass, there can be no doubt that we need to stop the downward slide in Iraq by securing Baghdad.

There is no mystery as to what can make the crucial difference in the battle of Baghdad: American troops. . . . The bottom line is this: More U.S. troops in Iraq would improve our chances of winning a decisive battle at a decisive moment. This means the ability to succeed in Iraq is, to some significant degree, within our control. The president should therefore order a substantial surge in overall troop levels in Iraq, with the additional forces focused on securing Baghdad.

Rich Lowry, National Review, April 14, 2006 -- just 5 months ago

You hardly qualify as a retired general these days unless you have written an op-ed piece demanding Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. One of Rummy's alleged sins was not providing enough troops to secure postwar Iraq. The debate over troop levels will rage for years; it is both characteristically American and somewhat beside the point.

Obviously, if we had it to do over again, we would send more troops in the hopes that sheer numbers would head off our problems. But to think that higher troop levels would have been a magic bullet is to indulge a very American faith in the power of mass to overcome anything. In Iraq, we have faced a delicate political and cultural problem that requires finesse above all — finesse dependent on a fine-tuned understanding of an alien society.

So, in just five short months in Rich Lowry World, we went from "The debate over troop levels" is "somewhat beside the point" and "to think that higher troop levels would have been a magic bullet is to indulge a very American faith in the power of mass to overcome anything" to "There is no mystery as to what can make the crucial difference in the battle of Baghdad: American troops" and "The bottom line is this: More U.S. troops in Iraq would improve our chances of winning a decisive battle at a decisive moment." It's not just profoundly wrong; it's worse than that. It's ludicrous.

All along, over the past several years, Lowry has been insisting that troop levels don't matter, that we have a sufficient force to get the job done in Iraq, and that we are winning, winning, winning. This is the same Foreign Policy Expert Rich Lowry who, following the example of the Commander-in-Chief's aircraft carrier victory dance, boldly announced in the May 9, 2005 issue of National Review: "It is time to say it unequivocally: We are winning in Iraq" -- an article which prompted this embarrassing NR cover (a cover which, as TBogg notes, competes with "Dewey Wins" for humiliating headlines of historic proportions). In that same article, Lowry announced:

If current trends continue, our counter-insurgent campaign in Iraq will be fit to be mentioned in the same breath as the British victory over a Communist insurgency in Malaysia in the 1950s, a textbook example of this form of war. . . . The basic approach of the Pentagon to the insurgency was right from the beginning.

"The strategy was always political as well as military," says a Pentagon official. A counterinsurgency is never about simply killing enemy fighters the way it is — or at least seems — on a conventional battlefield. Insurgents have an endless capacity to replicate themselves, unless political conditions are created that drain them of support.

Back then -- just a year ago -- we were "winning" because the Pentagon brilliantly realized that you can't defeat an insurgency by increasing troop levels. Today, we would be "winning" if only we would increase our troop levels. It's like an Abbott and Costello routine, but that is what passes for serious foreign policy analysis in our national dialogue.

As always, abject, endless error is accompanied in people like Lowry with a grotesque mix of smugness and bravado. Just last week, Lowry donned his tough-guy warrior mask and trotted out all of the cliches: "On Iraq, the Democrats are the party of defeat." He complained that "The Democrats don’t offer stirring rhetoric about the need for victory and for stalwartness in the face of setbacks, but instead a dreary recitation of mistakes in the war leavened with little hope or positive policy proposals."

Those dreary, un-fun Democrats. They keep pointing out the deceit and errors which brought us into this unparalleled strategic disaster in Iraq -- so that we don't make the same mistakes by listening to the same people -- when they should instead just "offer stirring rhetoric about the need for victory and for stalwartness in the face of setbacks." But all Lowry ever does is "offer stirring rhetoric about the need for victory and for stalwartness in the face of setbacks," and, in case he hasn't noticed, it doesn't help. It's equally meaningless and misleading. Here is what Lowry said on December 16, 2005:

This is why Democratic calls for retreat are so politically perilous, and so senseless, when Iraq might be on the cusp of a turning. What a fine irony it would be if after denouncing President Bush for being out of touch with Iraqi reality, Democrats were even more so, right at the moment they began to be true to themselves.

To Lowry, we're always on the cusp of winning. It's always -- as he announced today -- the "crucial moment." The "decisive battle at a decisive moment." Everything is always going really swell in Iraq. And all we need for it to get even better, to get to the finish line, is some more Churchillian "stirring rhetoric about the need for victory and for stalwartness in the face of setbacks." Anyone serious can see that that's all we need.

And war critics have been so annoying, so unfair -- above all, so unserious -- because they have been drearily pointing out the reality that things actually aren't going very well in Iraq and that more "stirring rhetoric" is unlikely to change that. That's what leads Lowry to say things like this:

What is legitimately in question is whether Democrats can be trusted on national security.

Just go read a few Rich Lowry columns about Iraq over the last few years -- just pick some randomly -- and then ask yourself if there is anyone you would trust less on national security; ask whether, short of being Bill Kristol, it would be possible to have been more wrong about everything. Virtually every one of his Iraq columns are filled with bitter mockery of those who were right, along with pompous predictions about what would happen which were plainly grounded in a world composed in equal parts of adolescent fantasy and rank ignorance.

But as always with Iraq and terrorism debates, being endlessly wrong is a sign of profound seriousness, and cheering on wars -- no matter how misguided and misinformed the cheering is -- renders one a serious foreign policy expert who recognizes the serious threats we face in these very serious times. That's why, when The Washington Post wants to find someone to counsel us on its Op-Ed page as to what to do in Iraq, it turns to two of the Wrongest People in America.

If we had determined our Iraq policy over the last three years by picking proposals out of a hat, we would have been way more right than we were by listening to Bill Kristol and Rich Lowry. But they favor wars and more wars and put on a grave, serious face when they talk about The Terrorists, so they are Serious Foreign Policy Experts and need to be listened to.

UPDATE: As A.L. notes, there is a real question -- at least according to Gen. Barry McCaffrey -- as to whether we would even have the troops available to increase our troop levels by any meaningful amount in Iraq. Gen. McCaffrey flatly says that "they're not available."

As I've explained before, I do not agree that someone who advocates a war has an obligation to fight in that war, nor do I think there is anything per se improper about advocating a war without having served (most Americans favored the war in Afghanistan and the first Iraq war). But if one advocates, as Lowry does, sending more troops to a war where there is a troop shortage, and if, as is true for Lowry, one is of an age eligible to fight in combat, doesn't that at least give rise to an obligation for the increased-troop advocate to explain why he won't make the sacrifices for his own policy by becoming one of the reinforcing troops?

More generally, is it ever legitimate to ask what sacrifices war advocates are making on behalf of the wars they advocate? Scott Lemieux asks a related question about Lowry.

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