Monday, June 23, 2014

Why Beinart is wrong about Obama's Iraq Policy

I always find it interesting to hear what Peter Beinart has to say - even when I don't agree with him. Mostly that's because - as an avowed liberal - he doesn't tend to follow the common orthodoxies, which means that he thinks for himself.

Its true that Beinart blew it when he came out as a vocal proponent of the Iraq War. But unlike some of his neocon counterparts, he openly admitted his error and examined how it came about. Instructive for understanding his recent column criticizing President Obama's Iraq policy are his insights about what he got wrong.
I supported the war because I considered it the only remaining way to prevent Saddam Hussein from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

I also believed it could produce a decent, pluralistic Iraqi regime that might help open a democratic third way in the Middle East between secular autocrats and their theocratic opponents: a third way that offered the best long-term hope for protecting the US.

On both counts, I was wrong.
What I'd call your attention to is the fact that Beinart thought that a military invasion "could produce a decent, pluralistic Iraqi regime." Aside from ignoring the ongoing clash between Sunni and Shia that fuels much of the conflict in the Middle East, he bought into the idea that the United States can bring democracy to a country via a military invasion. That's classic neocon BS and has always struck me as obviously paradoxical. I suspect that the only reason so many Americans buy it is because their thinking is clouded with the privilege that is fueled by exceptionalism.

It is important the keep those kinds of assumptions in mind when analyzing Beinart's latest column titled: Obama's Disastrous Iraq Policy.
Since the president took office, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has grown ever more tyrannical and ever more sectarian, driving his country’s Sunnis toward revolt. Since Obama took office, Iraq watchers—including those within his own administration—have warned that unless the United States pushed hard for inclusive government, the country would slide back into civil war. Yet the White House has been so eager to put Iraq in America’s rearview mirror that, publicly at least, it has given Maliki an almost-free pass.
Reading through the particulars that Beinart chronicles to come to this conclusion, two things stand out. First of all, the only thing he implies would qualify for "pushing hard for inclusive government" is public statements criticizing Maliki (as if American displeasure with him wouldn't have bolstered his position with an Iraqi public disgusted with our interference in their country). On several occasions Beinart admits that he doesn't know what President Obama or VP Biden have said to Maliki in private. But we're left with the idea that the use of a foreign policy "bully pulpit" via public statements would have made him change his ways. Personally I find that to be an absurd assumption.

Secondly, on several occasions Beinart subtly injects partisan political motives as the reason for President Obama's lack of forcefulness in pushing Maliki. For example:
...Obama now claims that maintaining any residual force was impossible because Iraq’s parliament would not give U.S. soldiers immunity from prosecution. Given how unpopular America’s military presence was among ordinary Iraqis, that may well be true. But we can’t fully know because Obama—eager to tout a full withdrawal from Iraq in his reelection campaign—didn’t push hard to keep troops in the country.
This is an extremely prevalent tool used to discredit someone you disagree with...assigning nefarious motives to their positions. We would all do well to notice it more often because its a lazy way to shut down a conversation in your own favor.

As an alternative, I would suggest that in order to understand President Obama's position on Iraq, we should listen to what he actually says. Here are a couple of examples from his remarks last week.
As I said, it’s not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders. Part of what our patriots fought for during many years in Iraq was the right and the opportunity for Iraqis to determine their own destiny and choose their own leaders...

Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.
This is something the President has emphasized over and over again as politicians, pundits and even some in his own administration push him to take sides in these ancient conflicts between Middle Eastern sects. He's not interested in taking sides and he's not going to put the United States in the position of picking winners/losers. It is ultimately something for the people to decide.

For a country that has spent the last 60 years assuming it is our job to make these kinds of calls (without actually naming that privilege), that is going to be a very hard message to get across. While Beinart isn't resorting to calling for military intervention this time, its obvious that he still doesn't understand the whole idea that it shouldn't be up to us. How we spread democracy in the world is by actually letting it happen (even if we don't like the results) - not by telling other countries what to do.

Finally, it doesn't surprise me that our first African American President is someone who highlights a message like this. He described why pretty well in his commencement address to Morehouse graduates.
As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination...

So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need. If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy -- the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to know what it’s like when you're not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple. It should give you the ability to connect. It should give you a sense of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers...

So it’s up to you to widen your circle of concern -- to care about justice for everybody, white, black and brown. Everybody. Not just in your own community, but also across this country and around the world. To make sure everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at the table...


  1. Our troops may have given the Iraqis the chance to choose a more pluralistic society. But it was never responsibility to guarantee that they would actually do so. Part of being given a choice is being given the choice to make the wrong decision. If all you are allowed to do is make the "right" decision then you don't really have the right to choose.

    To many enter this discussion with the assumption that a successful result is only one in which the Iraqis make a choice that we agree with. That is an incredibly paternalistic approach to international relations and it is probably the primary reason why regard for America is at such a low point around the world.

  2. I get a massively higher batting average ascribing "trying to achieve best result possible" motive to Obama, than any other hypothesis.

  3. Nice, piece, Nancy. Interesting how this author seems to know whether or not the President pushed hard to keep troops in country. Seems like I read a couple days ago that he tried very hard to do just that, but the Iraqis wouldn't accept the standard SOFA terms. Don't know who this Beinart guy is, so can't speak to his qualifications to make pronouncements on foreign policy, but given that he himself admits he was wrong suggests his opinion isn't to be valued.

    Saying the President needed to get all the troops out of Iraq to bolster his re-election is not just lazy, it's cynical.