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Those Crazy Hippies At Brookings Are At It Again

Coming so soon after the War Party’s O’Hanlon/Pollack op-ed swoon, this Kagan/Daalder op-ed may be more excitement than the average jingo can handle.  I suppose this would be an example of some of the precious bipartisanship that has become so scarce in Washington.  Better yet, it must be more evidence that “Even The Liberal Brookings Institute” has begun to come around on the question of the circumstances of when the government should use force overseas.  Why, Daalder’s co-written an op-ed with one of the Kagans in favour of interventionism!  On the editorial page of The Washington Post!  In the popular conservative imagination, the Post is only slightly to “the right” of The Nation, so this must be a significant blow to the forces of defeatocracy (or whatever they call it).  Bill Kristol’s next column practically writes itself.  That would all be the case, except that Ivo Daalder, like those “far leftie” colleagues of his, is a rabid interventionist now, and he has been for years.  The Brookings Institute, that redoubt of peacenik radicalism, is one of the most staid, establishment consensus think tanks out there.  If they are out there flacking for the war or interventionist foreign policy generally, it is not surprising in the least.     

It has been fascinating to watch the war supporters’ excitement around the O’Hanlon/Pollack op-ed, which continues today with Barone.  Shorter Barone: “Why, look, a brief blip in public opinion in a less antiwar direction!  Why, look, an op-ed about Iraq that is not completely filled with predictions of doom!  Things are looking up!  The Democrats are in trouble now!”  Like Continetti’s article yesterday, Barone recites the Tale of Nancy Boyda, which seems likely to become the regularly cited piece of evidence in every indictment of antiwar views from now on.  The Tale recounts Boyda’s “refusal” to hear positive news from Iraq.  Now, not only do the media not report the “good news,” but antiwar politicians won’t even stand to listen to it–that will be the theme. 

What is striking about it is that it does not represent the nature of the debate at all.  It has hardly been the characteristic trait of the antiwar side of the debate to ignore evidence that did not match with our views.  Recently, I have seen many people talking about how antiwar pols and war opponents are “deeply invested” in seeing the war end badly, which, besides being insulting, is a stupid charge to make.  If the Iraq war comes to anything resembling a decent, stable conclusion (i.e., if Iraq were almost nothing like what it is today), a great many war opponents, including myself, would actually be relieved.  We would marvel at how, in spite of the chronic lack of proper support and supply, the epic incompetence of the government, the unceasing dishonesty of the political class and the completely adverse conditions in Iraq, the outcome was not as bad as we feared.  It is, of course, because we are not so foolishly optimistic to believe, yet again, in the false hopes and misleading promises of the government and its cheerleaders that we do not expect such an outcome. 

Of course, how many times have we been told about the impending corner that will soon be turned and the “good progress” we have been making, only to see Iraq get progressively worse?  When Baghdad is getting a few hours of electricity per day and other parts of the country are cutting off Baghdad from their power plants in order to provide for their own needs, the O’Hanlon/Pollack tours of Ramadi and Ghazaliya are, at best, of marginal importance.  When the Iraqi parliament is incapable of passing any law of consequence that might provide for some political settlement that could at least lessen the fighting, optimistic reporting from Tal Afar (where there was another suicide bombing not too long ago) should hardly impress anyone.  That it seems to have deeply impressed a number of prominent war supporters is more an indictment of their judgement than it is of O’Hanlon’s and Pollack’s own credibility. 

This is something that is deeply troubling about war supporters’ handling of evidence from the very beginning: they seem to have no sense of what is significant and what is irrelevant or marginal.  For them, if a bomb goes off in the parliament building and a school is re-opened, these are events that they seem to think are of political–and therefore journalistic–importance.  Hence the constant lament about the “failure” to report the “good news.”  In this view, to focus on the former and “ignore” the latter, as if the resources of news agenices were infinite, is to express bias.  Well, I suppose it is a bias of a sort–it is a bias in favour of covering important stories rather than unimportant ones.  The O’Hanlon/Pollack op-ed offers war supporters the kind of reporting they prefer: anecdotal, impressionistic, experiential and therefore often unverifiable, and above all the describing of things that are of lesser importance (or things already known for some time) and treating them as evidence of a meaningful change or a new trend that you, the idiot public, have yet to take fully into account.   

You will recall the recent craze among some on the right for a revival of teaching military history.  One day, these enthusiasts will (mistakenly) tell you how much more vastly significant a few days of battle were than whole decades that preceded it, contrary to the flim-flam from all those miserable academics.  Then they or their colleagues will come back the next day and complain that the lousy liberal journalists are reporting about primarily military and political events.  “They’re not writing feel-good stories about repaired soccer fields and kite-flying!  Obviously they hate all that is good and true.”  Something is amiss there.

Perhaps having learned their lesson from embarrassing cheerleading like this, war supporters are now once more keen to show that they are very much focused on security and any reports of declining civilian casualties.  Wasn’t it the standard talking point back in the spring that a surge in casualties was proof that the “surge” was working (because it was proof that the insurgents were desperate)?  If that was true then (which is doubtful), a decline in civilian casualties would be a sign that the insurgents are calm, relaxed and not even bothered to launch as many attacks–except, of course, that they are launching more attacks and often more devastating attacks than ever before.  In the end, the O’Hanlon/Pollack op-ed doesn’t tell us much at all, because the most relevant factors determining whether security and stability will be established in Iraq are precisely those that cannot be observed while strolling, without body armour, down the streets of Ramadi, because that is no longer where the main security problem is.  It is like going to a building that had already mostly burned down before the fire was extinguished, taking a good look around at the sopping wet wreckage and declaring, “Yes, sir, the fire is certainly out here!  We can therefore safely say that the danger of fire everywhere else in the country is also less than it was.”

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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