Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Failure of American Public Debate

The New York Sun reports that various politicians and pundits have been offering pessimistic assessments about the Iraqi conflict. Henry Kissinger, the foreign policy expert from the 1970s and 1980s who did not predict the important emergence of Islamic terrorism in the millenium, advises us that the war in Iraq is not winnable. The same Sun article quotes John McCain as saying that "there's only one thing worse (than deploying more troops), and that is defeat." Today, the Sun quotes Senator Obama of Illinois as saying that "a substantial number of American troops ought to be withdrawn" from Iraq. Thomas Friedman of the Times (Paid access, November 8) insists that the Bush team arrived in Iraq with too few troops (ignoring that, like Friedman, the Bush team was mostly in the United States and that it relied on the US military, specifically Tommy Franks, to project troop strength). Friedman, bombastic and ill-informed as always, suggests either reshaping Iraq into a federation (bad) or leaving Iraq by a fixed date (worse).

What is fascinating about all of these analyses is the willingness to make strong or absolute assertions without the benefit of a falsifiable theory or a body of empirical evidence that would point to the viability of one theory over another. Rather, pundits like Friedman and Kissinger and politicians like Obama and McCain (with whom I viscerally agree) pretend to know what they are talking about.

What is revealing about the discussion about Iraq is not just the failure of US intelligence and strategic planners (on both the intelligence and military sides) to anticipate and devise an updated strategy that would anticipate the diverse tribal and religious differences in the Arab world and methods for effectively handling terrorism, but the degree to which the politicians, press and media continue to remain uninformed. The arguments being made in the public press suggest a failure of American public debate and an unwillingness to learn.

In particular, Kissinger, McCain, Friedman, Obama and their ilk have had many years to conceptualize an intelligent response to terrorism and to develop a method of proactively responding to strikes like 9/11. Yet, no ideas are forthcoming. Instead, given their assessment that the American military has failed to respond competently (a point concerning which they offer no information and are apparently utterly uninformed), the "pundits" and politicians carp critically but offer no body of falsifiable theory nor any empirical evidence for their endless complaints and criticisms. Those of us who have other occupations (I work in the human resource management field) are forced to spend our valuable time reading about Iraq because those who are paid to do so have done such an incoherent and, plainly put, stupid job.

For example, consider Kissinger's claim that the war in Iraq is not winnable. This is obviously false. We can win any war by redefining it as a total war and killing the entire country of Iraq. I am not suggesting this as an option. However, the use of our moral restraint as propaganda to attack us is a tactic that ought not be permitted to work indefinitely. Perhaps total war ought to be an option against population groupings that support terrorism. I'm not sure why saying it isn't is "realpolitik". Because Kissinger says so? But Kissinger hasn't come up with a solution to terrorism, so what does he really have to offer? Is he the kind of 17th century physician who used leeches to bleed patients? I suspect that the entire field of foreign affairs has this quality of quackery. So why is the public taking the quacks seriously?

The Iraqi war is certainly winnable. The question is which path maximizes the US's interests. One thing that I am certain of: defining the war as not winnable is not in the US's interests. Kissinger ought to reframe his analysis to make it more precise. Someone who has failed to grasp the nature of or project methods to resolve the terrorist assault on America, like Kissinger, ought to be busy revising his theories and doing some basic reading instead of offering advice that has proven unsuccessful in the past. Yet, I do not hear anything new.

It seems evident that in dealing with a multiplicity of terrorist groups the concept of winning and losing that held true through World War II may no longer apply. The question is, how to convince the people of Iraq to support a moderate government and how to convince them to take action to stop terrorist violence. This might involve securing control of specific territories, providing economic support in those areas, propagandizing to the remaining areas, targeting specific terrorists and eliminating immigration here to the United States. There are likely other approaches. One might be total war.

But we are not hearing about them. What we are hearing is that the US's media, press and politicians lack ideas.

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