Friday, January 16, 2004

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Roger L. Simon (Mis)reads Wesley Clark

[Note: Below I finally realize that people are confusing two very different questions:

A. Did Clark support the decision to go to war in Iraq?


B. Does Clark think that there were good things about the war in Iraq (e.g. it was well executed, it had some beneficial consequences)?

This is what's causing the problem. The answer to B is clearly 'yes'; the answer to 'A' is what's at issue. Most of the people who think that the op-ed proves that Clark supported the war seem to be confusing A and B. I don't always make this clear below. Sorry. This was written in haste.]

Via Instapundit: Roger L. Simon posts an op-ed Wesley Clark wrote on April 10th of last year, and claims that it proves that Clark supported the war. Had I read the op-ed quickly without knowing anything about Clark, I might very well have concluded that he was expressing qualified support for the war. However even a passably careful reading of the thing reveals that it fails to provide significant evidence that Clark supported the war. Everything Clark writes is consistent with opposition to the war--though perhaps combined with recognition that the world is better without Saddam and a desire to to portray the whole enterprise in a good light. All of these things are, of course, consistent with thinking that the self-defense case for war was a crock and that the decision to go to war was a sub-optimal one.

The most important passage for those who would portray the essay as strong (or even conclusive) evidence that Clark was for the war is as follows:

"Can anything be more moving than the joyous throngs swarming the streets of Baghdad? Memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the defeat of Milosevic in Belgrade flood back. Statues and images of Saddam are smashed and defiled. Liberation is at hand. Liberation! the powerful balm that justifies painful sacrifice, erases lingering doubt and reinforces bold actions. Already the scent of victory is in the air. Yet a bit more work and some careful reckoning need to be done before we take our triumph."

Needless to say we have to resist the urge to strain for a non-pro-war message here. Intellectual integrity is in short enough supply these days. Our question is not can we force a non-pro-war reading on this essay? but rather is there a sensible non-pro-war reading of it?

Well, I was against the war (torn, but just barely more against it than for it by H-hour), but I could have written this op-ed (er, were I smarter...and if I knew more...and if I were a better writer...and...oh, you get the picture...). I was happy to see the tyrant deposed, the statue come down, etc. And who could NOT think of liberations past? The only part of this passage I probably would not have written is this part:

"Liberation--the powerful balm that...erases lingering doubt and reinforces bold actions."

(Note: these are not drudgelipses--they indicate that I have elided words rather than pages.)

This proposition is almost certainly true--liberation (like success in general) erases lingering doubt and reinforces bold actions--but I wouldn't have written that because it could easily be interpreted to mean that the war was a smart idea, or that this success should embolden us to undertake more actions of this kind in the future. But that's not what the sentence means. On the face of it, it's not a claim about what our reactions ought to be, but, rather, a claim about what kind of reactions we tend to have to such events--it, for example, makes us forget our doubts, it doesn't make them unreasonable (so it doesn't make forgetting them reasonable). If we are being urged to do anything here, it is to resist indulging too much in these reactions, to sober up a bit and contemplate the task ahead. In fact, the following seems to me to be a perfectly sensible gloss on what Clark wrote:

The scenes from Baghdad inspire us. They make us think of the fall of the Wall and the defeat of Milosovic. It's good to see those statues of that SOB smacked with shoes. Liberation is at hand. In general, liberation makes sacrifice worthwhile, makes you forget whatever doubts you had about the undertaking, and emboldens you to try other hard and risky endeavors. But, um, let's not get too excited yet--there's there's more work and more thinking to do.

I want to make it clear--on a first read, that's not how I interpreted it (I didn't know how to interpret it)--but we usually don't interpret things correctly on a first read if they are even moderately subtle or complex. And my guess is that what Clark is trying to do here is rather subtle and difficult--he's trying to counsel caution at a time when celebration seems to be in order, and he's trying to do it without sounding like a nattering nabob of negativism.

The rest of the op-ed is consistent with this interpretation. It praises the soldiers who carried out the battle plan, points out the good things about the planning and execution of the war, and notes the rough spots too. It's a sober and balanced assessment of the war, in my opinion. Clark notes problems without carping and dispenses praise when appropriate and without fawning. But there is nothing in it that shows or even strongly suggests that Clark thought that the war was a good idea. (Though there are some passages that can kinda sorta be read that way with a little effort.)

At the end of the essay, Clark does write:

"As for the political leaders themselves, President Bush and Tony Blair should be proud of their resolve in the face of so much doubt."

Again, this might rather naturally be taken to indicate approval of the war, but it probably shouldn't be. Resolve in the face of doubt, if it is a virtue at all, is a virtue even when one has undertaken an enterprise in error. (I myself am not sure that it is a virtue at all, but that's probably just one difference between a pointy-headed geek such as myself and a four-star general...) Again, Clark is apparently simply giving credit where credit is due. But saying "you stuck to that project with admirable resolve" obviously does not mean the same thing as "boy, you sure were smart to undertake that project."

And note that Clark continues:

"And especially Mr Blair, who skillfully managed tough internal politics, an incredibly powerful and sometimes almost irrationally resolute ally, and concerns within Europe."

So even (approximately) the resolve Clark has just praised he now characterizes as "almost irrational." So if these two components taken together constitute a compliment, it is a highly attenuated one at best. Hardly unalloyed approval.

And I think that the end of the essay provides reasonably strong confirmation of my reading:

"Their opponents, those who questioned the necessity or wisdom of the operation, are temporarily silent, but probably unconvinced. And more tough questions remain to be answered.

Is this victory? Certainly the soldiers and generals can claim success. And surely, for the Iraqis there is a new-found sense of freedom. But remember, this was all about weapons of mass destruction. They haven?t yet been found. It was to continue the struggle against terror, bring democracy to Iraq, and create change, positive change, in the Middle East. And none of that is begun, much less completed."

Well, you probably know the kinds of things I'm going to whine about at this point. But I haven't slept in quite some time (note the crappy writing...sorry!), so I'll keep the whines short. Go back and read David Brooks's comments on The Great Unhinging (or better, of course, my own comments on those comments!). What we have here is probably a case of Mr. Simon seeing what he wanted to see and/or what he expected to see, plus perhaps the effects of political polarization and the pervasive influence of the gotcha atmosphere. And maybe something else I've been meaning to note as well: everything happens so fast in the blogosphere...speed is of the essence...nobody thinks very much about what they write. It's getting to be like academic philosophy--people get famous by saying outrageous things that they haven't really thought through very carefully, and then lots of other people waste their time going through the initial poorly-thought-out positions explaining why they're wrong. Note that I don't mean to insult Mr. Simon here, he's just doing what what's done around these parts. But we should all do less of it. Of course I may be the one who's wrong here, but you can be the judge of that.

[I'll post this on Blogcritics too, so if you can't resist commenting on it you can go there to do so. I swear--a comment section is coming soon!]

[4. Addendum/Appendix: The Rest of the Op-Ed

A comment at Blogcritics made me realize that it's worth including comments on the rest of the letter. After going through it carefully, I've formulated the following conjecture about what is going on:

People who think that this letter proves that Clark was in favor of the war are probably drawing this conclusion because they think that no one will say anything positive about the war or admit that the war had any beneficial consequences unless they were in favor of going to war. This is, of course, false. My guess is that people believe that because of the polarization and preposterousness of our political discourse. We tend to line up into two camps and to oppose each other in all possible ways. And anybody who says anything that the other side could say must be on the other side. So anti-war liberals refuse to admit that anything good could come of the war (just as pro-war conservatives refuse to acknowledge that anything bad will come of it, that Bush lied to get us to do it, etc.). Anyway, Clark doesn't play that game. That's one of the reasons I respect him.


Starting with paragraph 2 (I discussed para. 1 above):

[2] "In the first place, the final military success needs to be assured. Whatever caused the sudden collapse in Iraq, there are still reports of resistance in Baghdad. The regime?s last defenders may fade away, but likely not without a fight. And to the north, the cities of Tikrit, Kirkuk and Mosul are still occupied by forces that once were loyal to the regime. It may take some armed persuasion for them to lay down their arms. And finally, the Baath party and other security services remain to be identified and disarmed. "

No endorsement of the war here; just a counsel of caution and reminders about what remains to be done.

[3] "Then there?s the matter of returning order and security. The looting has to be stopped. The institutions of order have been shattered. And there are scant few American and British forces to maintain order, resolve disputes and prevent the kind of revenge killings that always mark the fall of autocratic regimes. The interim US commander must quickly deliver humanitarian relief and re-establish government for a country of 24 million people the size of California. Already, the acrimony has begun between the Iraqi exile groups, the US and Britain, and local people."

No endorsement, just more points about what needs to be done.

[4] "Still, the immediate tasks at hand in Iraq cannot obscure the significance of the moment. The regime seems to have collapsed ? the primary military objective ? and with that accomplished, the defense ministers and generals, soldiers and airmen should take pride. American and Brits, working together, produced a lean plan, using only about a third of the ground combat power of the Gulf War. If the alternative to attacking in March with the equivalent of four divisions was to wait until late April to attack with five, they certainly made the right call."

Could this be an endorsement of the war? No. Either an opponent or a proponent of the war could write this. I could have written it. The moment WAS significant. The "defense ministers, generals, and soldiers" SHOULD take pride. The US and UK DID work together, the plan WAS lean, etc. Many opponents of the war refused to acknowledge these truths, but acknowledging them IN NO WAY indicates that it was a good idea to go to war in the first place.

As for:

"If the alternative to attacking in March with the equivalent of four divisions was to wait until late April to attack with five, they certainly made the right call."

Well, I've discussed this one before. (Er, if you follow that link, you'll see me back in my green period...literally and figuratively...also I regret how snide that post is.) Anyway, the lefties were harping on this sentence last year, now we get the righties doing the same. Sometimes I think we all need a reading comprehension course... Are simple English conditionals really that baffling? 'If our choice was between A and B, then A was the right call' does not mean that A was the right call except in conjunction with 'our choice was between A and B'. Clark has made it clear that he doesn't think that attack now and attack later were our only options. He favored don't attack.

[5] "But no one ever won a war or a battle with a plan. Every soldier knows there are only two kinds of plans: plans that might work and plans that won?t work. The art of war is to take a plan that might work and then drive it to success. This, General Tommy Franks and his team did very well indeed."

Again, no endorsement of the decision to go to war, just praise for those who conducted it.

[6] "Everyone who has ever served knows that battles are won at the bottom ? by the men and women looking through the sights, pulling the triggers, loading the cannon and fixing the planes. The generals can lose battles, and they can set the conditions for success ? but they can?t win. That?s done by the troops alone. And nothing could have been more revealing than those armored fights in which a handful of US tanks wiped out a score of opposing Iraqi armored vehicles, again and again, and usually without suffering any losses, while in the south, the British troops worked their way through the suburbs of Basra with skills born of sound training and firm discipline, minimizing friendly casualties, civilian losses and destruction."

No endorsement of the war, only praise for the soldiers.

[7] "It?s to the men and women who fought it out on the arid highways, teeming city streets and crowded skies that we owe the greatest gratitude. All volunteers, they risked their lives as free men and women, because they believed in their countries and answered their calls. They left families and friends behind for a mission uncertain. They didn?t do it for the glory or the pittance of combat pay. Sadly, some won?t return ? and they, most of all, need to be honored and remembered. "

No endorsement of the war, just praise for the troops. True words, too, incidentally.

[8] "As for the diplomacy, the best that can be said is that strong convictions often carry a high price. Despite the virtually tireless energy of their Foreign Offices, Britain and the US have probably never been so isolated in recent times. Diplomacy got us into this campaign but didn?t pull together the kind of unity of purpose that marked the first Gulf War. Relationships, institutions and issues have virtually all been mortgaged to success in changing the regime in Baghdad. And in the Islamic world the war has been seen in a far different light than in the US and Britain. Much of the world saw this as a war of aggression. They were stunned by the implacable determination to use force, as well as by the sudden and lopsided outcome. "

Clearly no endorsement of the war; if anything, this is criticism. Though again, Clark is just stating facts. Even a clear-eyed neo-con (is there such a thing?) would have to agree with this.

[9] "Now the bills must be paid, amid the hostile image created in many areas by the allied action. Surely the balm of military success will impact on the diplomacy to come ? effective power so clearly displayed always shocks and stuns. Many Gulf states will hustle to praise their liberation from a sense of insecurity they were previously loath even to express. Egypt and Saudi Arabia will move slightly but perceptibly towards Western standards of human rights."

Again, no endorsement of the decision to go to war, just an acknowledgment of some likely effects of the war. This is probably one of the passages people take to be an endorsement. But, again: 'X will have the following good consequences' doesn't mean 'it was a good idea to do x.'

[10] Germany has already swung round from opposition to the war to approval. France will look for a way to bridge the chasm of understanding that has ripped at the EU. Russia will have to craft a new way forward, detouring away, at least temporarily, from the reflexive anti-Americanism which infects the power ministries. And North Korea will shudder, for it has seen on display an even more awesome display of power than it anticipated, and yet it will remain resolute in seeking leverage to assure its own regime?s survival. And what it produces, it sells.

Again, no endorsement. He's just pointing out what's likely to happen. Some of these effects would be beneficial, but if that makes you think Clark is endorsing the war, you should note the last two sentences. If you are going to make the mistake of concluding that noting likely beneficial consequences of the war means endorsing the war, it seems like you should also conclude that noting likely negative consequences of the war means opposing the war. If you are consistent enough to make both errors, then you've probably got to call this a toss-up.

[11] "The real questions revolve around two issues: the War on Terror and the Arab-Israeli dispute. And these questions are still quite open. Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and others will strive to mobilize their recruiting to offset the Arab defeat in Baghdad. Whether they will succeed depends partly on whether what seems to be an intense surge of joy travels uncontaminated elsewhere in the Arab world. And it also depends on the dexterity of the occupation effort. This could emerge as a lasting humiliation of Iraq or a bridge of understanding between Islam and the West."

No endorsement. What else is there to say?

[12] "But the operation in Iraq will also serve as a launching pad for further diplomatic overtures, pressures and even military actions against others in the region who have supported terrorism and garnered weapons of mass destruction. Don?t look for stability as a Western goal. Governments in Syria and Iran will be put on notice ? indeed, may have been already ? that they are ?next? if they fail to comply with Washington?s concerns."

No endorsement. If anything, a kind of criticism: don't expect stability out of this.

[13] "And there will be more jostling over the substance and timing of new peace initiatives for Israel and the Palestinians. Whatever the brief prewar announcement about the ?road map?, this issue is far from settled in Washington, and is unlikely to achieve any real momentum until the threats to Israel?s northern borders are resolved. And that is an added pressure to lean on Bashir Assad and the ayatollahs in Iran. "

No Endorsement.


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