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.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Jim Webb, Marty Peretz and our "serious" national security leaders

(updated below)

One of the most harmful flaws in our political system is the irrelevance of rightness and wrongness. While George Allen was "arguing" in favor of the invasion of Iraq by spewing all of the standard, trite, adolescent GOP talking points about the Threat Posed by Saddam-- almost all of which turned out to be completely false -- Jim Webb, in September, 2002, wrote an Op-Ed in The Washington Post vehemently arguing against the invasion of Iraq. It is striking just how right Webb was about virtually everything he said, and it is worth quoting at length to underscore what "serious, responsible national security" viewpoints actually look like:

Meanwhile, American military leaders have been trying to bring a wider focus to the band of neoconservatives that began beating the war drums on Iraq before the dust had even settled on the World Trade Center. Despite the efforts of the neocons to shut them up or to dismiss them as unqualified to deal in policy issues, these leaders, both active-duty and retired, have been nearly unanimous in their concerns.

Is there an absolutely vital national interest that should lead us from containment to unilateral war and a long-term occupation of Iraq? And would such a war and its aftermath actually increase our ability to win the war against international terrorism? On this second point, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the Joint Chiefs vice chairman, mentioned in a news conference last week that the scope for potential anti-terrorist action included -- at a minimum -- Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Georgia, Colombia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and North Korea.

America's best military leaders know that they are accountable to history not only for how they fight wars, but also for how they prevent them. The greatest military victory of our time -- bringing an expansionist Soviet Union in from the cold while averting a nuclear holocaust -- was accomplished not by an invasion but through decades of intense maneuvering and continuous operations. With respect to the situation in Iraq, they are conscious of two realities that seem to have been lost in the narrow debate about Saddam Hussein himself.

The first reality is that wars often have unintended consequences -- ask the Germans, who in World War I were convinced that they would defeat the French in exactly 42 days. The second is that a long-term occupation of Iraq would beyond doubt require an adjustment of force levels elsewhere, and could eventually diminish American influence in other parts of the world.

Other than the flippant criticisms of our "failure" to take Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War, one sees little discussion of an occupation of Iraq, but it is the key element of the current debate. The issue before us is not simply whether the United States should end the regime of Saddam Hussein, but whether we as a nation are prepared to physically occupy territory in the Middle East for the next 30 to 50 years. Those who are pushing for a unilateral war in Iraq know full well that there is no exit strategy if we invade and stay. . . .

The Iraqis are a multiethnic people filled with competing factions who in many cases would view a U.S. occupation as infidels invading the cradle of Islam. Indeed, this very bitterness provided Osama bin Laden the grist for his recruitment efforts in Saudi Arabia when the United States kept bases on Saudi soil after the Gulf War.

Nations such as China can only view the prospect of an American military consumed for the next generation by the turmoil of the Middle East as a glorious windfall. Indeed, if one gives the Chinese credit for having a long-term strategy -- and those who love to quote Sun Tzu might consider his nationality -- it lends credence to their insistent cultivation of the Muslim world. . . An "American war" with the Muslims, occupying the very seat of their civilization, would allow the Chinese to isolate the United States diplomatically as they furthered their own ambitions in South and Southeast Asia.

These concerns, and others like them, are the reasons that many with long experience in U.S. national security issues remain unconvinced by the arguments for a unilateral invasion of Iraq. Unilateral wars designed to bring about regime change and a long-term occupation should be undertaken only when a nation's existence is clearly at stake.

It is true that Saddam Hussein might try to assist international terrorist organizations in their desire to attack America. It is also true that if we invade and occupy Iraq without broad-based international support, others in the Muslim world might be encouraged to intensify the same sort of efforts. And it is crucial that our national leaders consider the impact of this proposed action on our long-term ability to deter aggression elsewhere.

Each and every one of the dangers about which Webb warned has come to fruition. But thoughtful, sophisticated, rational and -- as it turns out -- prescient analysis like this was haughtily dismissed away by the tough-guy political and pundit classes as unserious and wimpy, even when coming from combat heroes. Instead, those who were deemed to be the serious, responsible, and strong national security leaders -- and who still are deemed as such -- were the ones shrilly warning about Iraqi mushroom clouds over our cities; handing out playing cards -- playing cards -- with pictures of the Bad People underneath their comic book nicknames; and making predictions about Iraq which the most basic working knowledge of that country should have precluded.

And such individuals, rather than hiding in shame or expressing remorse for their grave errors, continue to prance around pompously as the Foreign Policy Experts and Serious National Security Adults. Witness Marty Peretz's revolting (though revealing) homage today on his New Republic blog to Bush-worshipping warmonger Mark Steyn as "a brilliant writer, a funny writer and a persuasive one" who "on the real agenda of the time, the challenge to civilization that you won't avoid even if it you ignore it (sic), he is absolutely correct."

In a minimally rational political culture, political figures like George Allen, Marty Peretz, Mark Steyn, and most of the somber pro-war Beltway pundits would be hounded out of public life and would suffer a total loss of credibility, at least for a good long time if not permanently. They were so profoundly and patently wrong about the most important political issue of the decade and, much worse, demonized those who were right. Worse still, most of them continued to defend the war long after its failures were manifest and, through today, remain so unrepentantly wrong (George Allen, April 2006: "'You have to stay the course.' Defeating the 'vile terrorists' in Iraq is 'going to take perseverance and resolve'").

By contrast, in a rational or honorable world, those who knowingly subjected themselves to an onslaught of vicious attacks from all corners for having been so right, such as Jim Webb -- and Howard Dean -- would be heralded as the serious and wise leaders whose judgment can be trusted. In such a world, there wouldn't be a close race between George Allen and Jim Webb. There wouldn't be a race at all, because George Allen wouldn't have the audacity and shamelessness to seek re-election.

But, lamentably, that is not the political world we inhabit. As a result, the political party that, from top to bottom and with very few exceptions, was wrong about virtually everything with regard to Iraq still preens around as the serious national security party that can be trusted, while those who were right are still somehow depicted as the hapless, confused losers whose judgment can't be trusted to "protect" the country (John J. Miller: "The problem with Webb is that he's too liberal"). Those premises have eroded substantially this year, but the fact that they endure at all -- and continue to be particularly strong among the guardians of our political discourse -- is really one of the great and enduring mysteries of our political culture.

UPDATE: The latest Rasumussen poll has Webb leading Allen, 48-46. That same link shows the Democratic candidate leading in every key Senate race (including Tennessee), with the sole exception of Missouri, where the candidates are tied.

UPDATE II: As Markos explains, when undecided respondents were pushed to respond in that Rasmussen poll, Webb's lead increased to 51-46, which suggests that undecided voters (despite, or perhaps because of, the sex novel "scandal") are trending to Webb.

Additionally, I realize that the link above to the Webb Op-Ed is now broken. The link was to Webb's site, which seems to be down, and I could not find any other place where the Op-Ed is available (it is in the paid archives section of the Post). If you know of another link to that Op-Ed, please e-mail me or leave it in comments. (Link above now fixed, thanks to sysprog).

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