Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Kaplan on Iraq

By now, you know that I’m a fan of Robert D. Kaplan. He has an interesting piece in today’s LAT. Here are the un-Fukuyamaesque introduction and conclusion of his essay:

I WAS AN EARLY supporter of the invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Since 2003, my firsthand experiences in Iraq have shaken my faith in large-scale demonstrations of military power on land, but I cannot disavow my earlier support, because it was also based on firsthand experiences in Iraq.

To know a totalitarian regime abstractly is different from knowing it intimately. Iraq in the 1980s was so terrifying that going to Damascus from Baghdad was like coming up for liberal humanist air. People talked furtively in Syria; in Iraq, nobody breathed a syllable of opposition. The whole country was like an illuminated prison yard. I was emotionally affected. Recent events make it easy to forget just how bad Iraq was back then.


The way to avoid tragedy is to think tragically. Those who invaded the Balkans spoke in idealistic terms about the peoples there, but they generally executed their plans as if they also knew the worst about them. Those whose task it was to plan the invasion and occupation of Iraq not only spoke in idealistic terms about the Iraqis, they apparently believed their own rhetoric to the exclusion of other, more troubling realities.

We are not at the end of things in Iraq. Worse, we are in the middle of them. A national unity government will be a bunch of men in bad suits without institutions at their disposal, save for the United States military.

My most recent searing, first-hand impression of Iraq, from last December, is this one: one town and village after another getting back on its feet, with residents telling American troops not to leave.

Read the whole thing.

Discussions - 12 Comments

if you like Kaplan so much, how come we never saw a link to his Atlantic Online piece, "Coming Normalcy".
I admit, as I don’t have an email address for you, that the pdf file was sent to Peter at NLT and not you.
Michael Yon had the link in this post, if you truly admire Kaplan.
BTW, if below doesn’t work, I can send you the pdf.
Mike Daley

Robert Kaplan embedded with US forces in Mosul shortly after I left that city. Mr. Kaplan is a highly respected journalist and author. His lengthy and detailed accounting of the situation in Mosul can be used as a reference point for framing our thinking about the process of building democracy in Iraq. Readers of my dispatches about the outstanding successes of US and Iraqi forces in Mosul, likely will find much of what Mr. Kaplan says imminently familiar. This is probably due to the fact that Kaplan and I are among the few writers who spent enough time in Mosul to discover how isolated incidents and individual threads of concern fit within the larger context. Though I have made it a rule not to respond to critics, the two writers who have criticized my reporting from Mosul both share a distinction of having never been there themselves. One proudly claims to have never traveled outside the US. But the highly respected Robert Kaplan actually did spend his time in Mosul. Mr. Kaplan’s piece, in addition to being well written with particularly trenchant analysis, also serves as an authentication of my dispatches.

"Iraq in the 1980s was so terrifying..." Indeed it was. And it was the administration of Ronald Reagan that was instrumental in helping SH create such a terrifying regime. Was Robert Kaplan speaking out about this situation back then?

"Iraq in the 1980s was so terrifying..." Indeed it was. And it was the administration of Ronald Reagan that was instrumental in helping SH create such a terrifying regime.

Of all the arguments against toppling Saddam Hussein (and I agree that there were some reasonable ones), I’ve always found this the most puzzling. For one thing, great powers have a long history of being forced to choose between the lesser of two evils--for instance, supporting Stalin’s Soviet Union against Hitler’s Germany. In the 1980s the regime in Iran was deemed the greater threat; and given what we knew at the time, it seems to me that this was a fair estimate. And apparently the Soviet Union saw Saddam as the lesser evil as well, since plenty of Soviet money and weaponry (much more than the United States provided) flowed into Baghdad during the 1980s as well.

But even if we were to take the claim at face value, how exactly does that translate into an argument against the 2003 Iraq War? If anything, does it not give a certain moral weight to the argument in favor of intervention? Are we not morally obligated to try to clean up our own messes? Great Britain repeatedly made foreign policy moves in the 1930s that assisted Germany; does that mean that the British should have remained neutral when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939?

I’m not trying to be a smart-ass here--I really do want to understand. Is there some part of this argument that I’m missing?

You are distorting the truth HDT.

John- I won’t pretend to answer for anyone else, but I think that the problem is that the best way to keep the world clean of our messes is to recognize how we keep making them, and then to stop it. And, as long as we keep thinking and acting militarily, and as long as we frame cries for prevention, for thoughtfulness, and for patience as anti-American, then we will be so busy cleaning up our messes that we cannot spare time to figure out how to stop making them!

So, yes, as long as we keep pouring gasoline on fires across the world, (arming X to fight Y, then calling X an evil madman) then we have an obligation to try to put out the fires. Better yet, however, to stop making things worse, and calling it "our responsibility."

FMG, I think you missed the crux of John’s point: the USSR/Nazi problem and situations similar to it. There are times when we HAVE to pick a side, or the enemy (one or both) will grow so powerful they will eventually take the fight to us. We necessarily have to "make messes" in order to stay ahead of the game. I hold no illusions that this will change your mind, however, because it seems you lack the prudence to recognize the potential of some small threats to grow and grow until they require many times more lives and materials to deal with after they’ve had time to mature. Again, I think Germany is a great example.

Andrew. I did not miss the point. Instead, you have missed the point. By relating SELECTED problems to Hitler and the USSR, warhawks elevate the threat in the hearts and minds of people, thus making it more likely that we all brainlessly accept your argument that the USA must make war in order to avoid war.

We find other ways than war to deal with China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Darfur, and others, and why? Because (a) it is not in our best interests to make war against such countries, and (b) because we are, in fact, smart enough to consider other options, such as diplomacy, sanctions, asking other countries to share responsibility for the problem and solution, and simply ignoring the problem.

We pick and choose the next "Hitler" or "Stalin" according to our needs and wants,; not according to any real such comparison.

And sometimes all those things you mentioned still don’t work and as we take the time to try them all out the threat grows and grows and once we realize that they can only be stopped with force it is too late to avoid a costly war.

Andrew: I am certain that your scenario could happen, but I am utterly unconvinced that anything close to that has occurred since WWII. Certainly Vietnam was not threatening US interests? Granada? I would admit the Cuban Missile Crisis as a likely exception to my own statement.

I don’t think that Iran is close to becoming a nuclear threat for years, but if I am wrong, then I would have to think seriously about Iran, as well.

I am certain that your scenario could happen, but I am utterly unconvinced that anything close to that has occurred since WWII.

Well, that’s precisely the point of the Hitler analogy. The idea is to act before the situation gets to that point. If Hitler had been challenged in 1936, when he remilitarized the Rhineland, the cost would have been tiny compared to what it ultimately cost to destroy Nazi Germany. Was Saddam another Hitler? We’ll never know; the important point is that we never gave him a chance to become one (although, it has to be said, Saddam by 2003 had killed far more people, and committed far more flagrant acts of aggression, than Hitler had by 1936).

John- I understand that point. My point is that we are awfully biased in our selection of the "next Hitler." North Korea, Sudan, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Chad,the Balkans, the PRC, are (or were) arguably sites of greater genocide and murder than Iraq. So, if you want to go after the next Hitler, then we should attack, or we should have attacked those countries. But, we don’t, which leads me to question the "Next Hitler" motivation.

I’d be all for limited interventions to prevent instances of genocide such as what we saw in Rwanda and Darfur. However, this is only part of the picture. As nightmarish as Rwanda was, it did not threaten to spread outside of that country. The Hutus weren’t looking to conquer new lands to clear of Tutsis, or trying to establish regional hegemony, or anything like that. The like could be said of almost all the cases you mention. The exception, of course, is North Korea, which is not only a brutal dictatorship but one which has designs against its neighbors. We’ve already let that go too far--the time to act was when we first learned that they were developing nuclear weapons. At this point considerations of prudence should be paramount.

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