Politics & Policy

The Sullivan Fisk

A response on Iraq.

Just a few quick thoughts on Andrew Sullivan’s “fisking”–a typically forceful Sullivan piece–of NR’s editorial on Iraq. He kinda agrees with most of it, primarily objecting to its tone. He then absurdly over-interprets that tone as amounting to preparation for a call to cut and run.

‐First, he implies on his blog that we only made the magazine editorial available online after he wrote about it for The New Republic on Tuesday. But it was posted last Friday.

‐He objects to our using the phrase “a glimpse at the abyss” to characterize the last couple of weeks in Iraq. Yet when the recent bout of trouble broke out there, Sullivan himself employed the phrase “nightmarish portents” to describe it. So maybe his position is that we only had a “glimpse at nightmarish portents”? I don’t know; but whether it was an abyss or portents, it was very ominous nonetheless. The cover of The New Republic this week asks of Iraq, “Coming Apart?” That line is followed by these others, “Losing the Shia,” “Iraqification Fails,” and “Iran Moves In.”

Nightmarish portents, indeed.

‐He defends Don Rumsfeld from our complaint that the SecDef explained away the utterly disastrous postwar looting as an exuberant response to freedom–and that he initially denied there was a guerrilla war on.

But Sullivan agrees that Rumsfeld was “lamely” trying to explain away the consequences of not having enough troops in Iraq. He notes that Rumsfeld has since been very up-front about the awfulness of the insurgency. Indeed, he has, and the editorial wasn’t meant to imply–and doesn’t say–otherwise. Another word on Rumsfeld: He has been savaged by some neos–including Sullivan, in this very TNR piece–who portray him as almost single-handedly responsible for the troubles in Iraq, because of his insistence on keeping force levels down. Now, I’m prepared to believe that we needed more troops from the beginning, but I’m also prepared to believe that things would have been very rough in Iraq regardless. Any second-guessing here should be done with some humility–and that’s the tone our editorial tried to strike.

‐Sullivan complains when we say the difficulty of a new Iraq was underestimated–but then agrees with us, more or less. He writes, “Yes, many did underestimate the astonishing damage done to civil society by decades of the most brutal dictatorship imaginable, the devastation of sanctions on the Iraqi infrastructure, and the psychological damage done to the communal psyche after living in a collective torture chamber for years on end.” That’s a lot of underestimating. Sullivan then goes on to implicitly lower expectations: “But again, what are the standards of success here?” Lowering expectations, however, is one of the major aims of the editorial he so objects to. Sullivan continues by arguing the necessity of the war, despite the difficulties; we agree entirely. He concludes this section: “A mere year later, after a couple of weeks of violence, it is absurdly premature to judge this enterprise as doomed.” Again, we agree entirely–which is why we don’t do it.

‐He makes the point that building a better Iraq could have a beneficial effect on the region. We make the same point in our editorial. Indeed, we argue that this was, and still is, a war of national interest. By the way, this is the cover of the issue in which the editorial appears.

‐Sullivan wraps up with a flurry of straw-man arguments. Nowhere do we advocate, as Sullivan writes, “‘leaving it’ as soon as we can.” Sullivan explains that there is no “exit strategy” in Iraq, suggesting that NR calls for one. We don’t. In fact, we hate the very idea of “exit strategies,” and have said so over the years–they’re often just ways to cut and run. More Sullivan: “To have supported the invasion of Iraq only now to support as quick an exit is possible is to give us the worst of both worlds.” Right. The editorial notes the potentially disastrous consequences of getting chased from Iraq. Now, at the end we do say that we will have to defer more to Iraqis on the ground going forward–an obvious point, made by other hawks. Otherwise, how is this political transition going to work?

I appreciate Sullivan’s vigilance against any wobbliness at NR. The tone of the editorial was indeed very sober, but it has been a sobering time in Iraq. By my count, the ranks of chastened hawks -chastened in their own differing ways, of course-now includes Charles Krauthammer, David Brooks, and Francis Fukuyama. It’s possible to be sadder, wiser, and still resolved to see this thing through. That’s where NR is, and where, I suspect, a lot of supporters of this war are.

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