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Helprin on Iraq


Mark Helprin has taken to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to insist that George W. Bush has made us more vulnerable by incompetently prosecuting two wars. Let’s examine a few of Helprin’s arguments. 

First, he states:

[The Bush Administration’s] one great accomplishment — no subsequent attacks on American soil thus far — has been offset by the stunningly incompetent prosecution of the war. It could be no other way, with war aims that inexplicably danced up and down the scale, from “ending tyranny in the world,” to reforging in a matter of months (with 130,000 troops) the political culture of the Arabs, to establishing a democracy in Iraq, to only reducing violence, to merely holding on in our cantonments until we withdraw. 

This is an example of very sloppy writing on the part of Helprin. For one thing, it is simply wrong to say that the explicit war aims were “ending tyranny in our world.” What Helprin is referring to is a line from the president’s second inaugural address, in which he said:

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way. The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations. [emphasis added]

The president laid out an aspiration, as almost all inaugural speeches do, and he made it clear that the goal of ending tyranny in our world “is not primarily the task of arms.” So Helprin either didn’t read the speech from which he quotes, or he willfully misinterpreted it.

On the matter of establishing a democracy in Iraq: For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, Helprin seems persistently unwilling to accept that Iraq is a democracy. Now it is a nascent and fragile one, and the gains can be undone. But the fact is that Iraq is a free, self-governing nation that is an ally instead of an adversary of the United States. This is an enormously important achievement.

On the matter of reforging the political culture of the Arabs: that, too, is happening. As Charles Krauthammer, America’s best columnist and one of our finest geopolitical thinkers, put it recently:

[A second hugely important effect of Iraq] is the regional effect of the new political entity on display in Baghdad — a flawed yet functioning democratic polity with unprecedented free speech, free elections and freely competing parliamentary factions. For this to happen in the most important Arab country besides Egypt can, over time (over generational time, the time scale of the war on terror), alter the evolution of Arab society. It constitutes our best hope for the kind of fundamental political-cultural change in the Arab sphere that alone will bring about the defeat of Islamic extremism. After all, newly sovereign Iraq is today more engaged in the fight against Arab radicalism than any country on earth, save the United States — with which, mirabile dictu, it has now thrown in its lot.

Several other points in response to Helprin’s arguments:

  • The “light” military force structure of which he complains was actually the transformation agenda of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld designed to prepare us better for … China.  The thinking was that we can’t match China mass-for-mass, so transformation, which involved lightening up the forces, was the answer.  Did Helprin prefer that we try to build a massive army the size of China’s? Perhaps he does, but that is wholly unrealistic (which op-ed writers and columnists who have never served in government often are). And should we have done so while China was simultaneously transforming (lightening) their military to look more like the one Rumsfeld was building? 
  • Helprin complains about transforming the military into “a light and hollow semi-gendarmerie focused on irregular warfare.” As I argue here, the Pentagon’s effort to elevate the military’s mission of unconventional or “irregular warfare” to an equal footing with traditional combat will help prepare us to wage future conflicts against non-state actors, including insurgents and terrorists. This outcome is the result of a fundamental and much-needed overhaul of U.S. defense doctrine.  
  • Helprin writes, “The pity is that the war could have been successful and this [domestic and international] equilibrium sustained had we struck immediately, preserving the link with September 11th.”

    I gather that Helprin is lamenting the fact that we did not attack Iraq immediately after 9/11.  But we could barely attack Afghanistan immediately after September 11, 2001, and Afghanistan required a strategic innovation that Halperin totally ignores.  Attacking Iraq, which did not have links to the attacks on 9/11, rather than Afghanistan, which had undeniable links, is not a way to “preserve the link.”   

  • How exactly do we force upon Saudi Arabia and Pakistan the choice Helprin talks about? Should we, for example, have threatened nuclear devastation of Islam’s holy land unless they, say, renounce Wahabism? This is not just armchair generalship from Helprin; it is romper room generalship. The truth is that Saudi Arabia has made considerable progress compared to where it was in 2001, and the same is true of Pakistan. Both nations are not doing nearly enough — but both are doing much more than they were.  
  • Helprin writes that for “seven years we failed to … make intelligent arguments for policies that were worth pursuing. Thus we capriciously forfeited the domestic and international political equilibrium without which alliances break apart and wars are seldom won.” 

    In fact, the speeches by the president — from the September 20, 2001 address to a joint session of Congress, to the 2002 and 2003 State of the Union addresses, to his speech to the American Enterprise Institute in early 2003, to his National Endowment for Democracy speeches, to many others — presented the arguments for war in an intelligent and persuasive manner. That’s why the public and Congress overwhelmingly supported the war. The reason public support dropped was because of the difficulty of the war, not because of the failure to make the right arguments. 
    Reading between the lines, his use of the word “eloquently” probably translates into “we need more speeches written by Mark Halperin.” It’s worth recalling, then, that Helprin’s most notable speechwriting achievement to date was penning Robert Dole’s 1996 acceptance speech, arguing that Dole would be our Bridge to the Past. The speech was a bust, and helped contribute to Dole’s loss to Bill Clinton. 
    As for forfeiting the equilibrium without which wars are seldom won: thanks to the president’s decision to pursue the “surge” and a new counterinsurgency strategy, the Iraq war is being won. It’s not finally and decisively won, of course, but if the current trajectory continues, it will be. 

  • Helprin is right that many Democrats have been feckless.  But if everyone from George W. Bush to Democrats have been feckless — and surely Helprin would throw in every other global ally on that spectrum, too — then Halperin is saying everybody, but him, has got it wrong. This is akin to the man on the highway who is going the wrong way and talks to his wife on the phone about how many morons are going the wrong way. 
  • Helprin argues that focusing on militant Islam has deterred us from dealing with the resurgence of China and Russia. By Helprin’s reasoning, President Roosevelt made us vulnerable to the Soviet Union by exhausting US military on the fight against the Nazis. 
  • It’s worth recalling that in an earlier piece, Helprin argued that “American columns should have cut through Baghdad after three days and exited three weeks later, leaving Saddam dead and a pliant Iraqi strongman to keep the country harmless or suffer the same quick take-down.” (Helprin also downplayed the importance of the surge, saying it was “merely coincident” with a change in Sunni strategy.) As I argued at the time:
  • the idea that the United States should have exited Iraq after three weeks is, I think, deeply flawed. In liberating Iraq, we inherited a divided, traumatized, and collapsing nation. If we had left after less than a month, its descent into chaos and civil war would have been accelerated, not averted. Mass death and genocide would probably have followed. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Iran would have filled the vacuum immediately — and Iraq would be in far worse shape than it is now. The problem with the post-war (Phase IV) planning was that we had too few troops and did not embrace the population-centric counterinsurgency strategy that General Petraeus is now employing, to great effect.

    All in all, Mr. Helprin’s piece is quite odd. He writes as if the strategic situation in the war against militant Islam hasn’t changed at all during the last several years. He fails to take into account one of the most important and far-reaching effects of the Iraq war: the Arab and Muslim world, including key religious and intellectual architects of jihadism, turning against bin Ladenism. Helprin also ignores the wide array of things the President has done, from the Patriot Act and FISA to homeland security to much else, to place America on a war footing. He speaks as if the Anbar Awakening, the surge, and David Petraeus had never happened. And he writes as if the fact that America has not been attacked since 9/11 is an accident of fate rather than the result of comprehensive and forceful response to the attacks on September 11.

    What would motivate Helprin to overlook such things is hard to discern. But reading his brief in print is to lament what has happened to Helprin, and to the force and power of his arguments. He seems to be utterly detached from reality.