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Monday, February 26, 2007

On validating the enemy's strategy

I suppose that since she's now the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, saying anything that's true but unpleasant to Nancy Pelosi constitutes "speaking truth to power." Among the people who unquestionably have the right, and the guts, to do that is Vice President Dick Cheney. In yesterday morning's talking-heads news programs, it seemed that the liberal pundits were unanimous in condemning him for saying that her plan to remove American forces from Iraq very soon — and more importantly, absolutely without respect to whether we've achieved any sort of "victory" there — would validate the strategies, the plans and predictions, of al Qaeda and our other enemies.

What I also noted, though, was that this was treated by the Sunday pundits as "just another example" of the VPOTUS being "over the top" and self-evidently "wrong again." And every sound-bite I've heard or read from any of the leading Democratic politicians have taken that same approach — which is to say, an attack on Cheney, via comments on his present credibility given his past statements. Speaker Pelosi insisted that Cheney's comments were "beneath the dignity of the debate we're engaged in." But while I can't claim to have made anything like a comprehensive search, the only attempt I've seen to actually address the probative and logical force of Cheney's observation has been this bit in a WaPo op-ed today from liberal columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. (bold-face mine):

"Al-Qaeda functions on the basis that they think they can break our will,'' Cheney told ABC News on Friday by way of explaining his earlier attack on the speaker. "That's their fundamental underlying strategy, that if they can kill enough Americans or cause enough havoc, create enough chaos in Iraq, then we'll quit and go home.''

Cheney added: "And my statement was that if we adopt the Pelosi policy, that then we will validate the strategy of al-Qaeda. I said it, and I meant it.''

No doubt he did, and those words illustrate the administration's political methodology from the very beginning of its public campaign against Iraq. Back in 2002 and early 2003, it browbeat a reluctant country into this war by making assertions about an Iraqi nuclear program that proved to be groundless and by inventing ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda that didn't exist.

Then, once our troops were committed, anyone who had second thoughts could be trashed and driven back as a pro-terrorist weakling. The quagmire would be self-perpetuating: Once you checked in, you could never leave.

Like the other liberal pundits and politicians, the main thrust of Dionne's argument is, again, an attack on Cheney and the Bush-43 administration. I've discussed in other posts what I think is the intellectually shameful and cowardly retreat so common to liberal Democrats whenever there is any discussion from the other side of the likely consequences of their proposals: "You monster, you've attacked my patriotism!" Never mind if any critical discussion includes an explicit statement like, "I grant that you're a patriot, that you love the United States, and that your intentions are honorable. I'm not attacking your patriotism, I'm attacking your judgment." Indeed, Cheney's clarifying remarks about Pelosi have included that explanation almost verbatim. But in their scornful reaction to Cheney's remarks, the liberal politicians and pundits (and most of the mainstream media reports) simply ignored that statement, stripping that important context from his remarks because it's inconsistent with their "attacking her patriotism" meme. All that is just par for the course, however, and it's nothing new in the long-running political debates — masquerading as foreign policy/national security debates — about the global war on al Qaeda and other radical Islamic terrorists.

No, what caught my eye in Dionne's op-ed was the bolded sentence above, because it's the closest thing I've seen to a skeleton of a principled response to the merits of Cheney's comment. And the reason it interests me is that, in fact, it impliedly concedes the merits of Cheney's statement — as any honest debater must.


The reason it concedes the merits of Cheney's statement is because Cheney's statement itself is logically airtight and completely indisputable.

Osama bin Laden's and other al Qaeda leaders' explicit strategy for fighting America — everywhere, but very specifically in Iraq as well — and the explicit strategy of radical Shi'ite terrorists in Iraq (as with their sponsors in Iran and Syria), has been precisely the same as the explicit strategy of the North Vietnamese communists from the late-1950s through the mid-1970s: Wait for America to get bored, unwilling to accept further casualties, and thoroughly divided. Then the Yankee soldiers and their firepower and technology, which cannot be defeated directly and regularly on the battlefield, will simply go home, leaving the field to their suddenly-victorious enemies. There simply can be no doubt as to the half of the equation having to do with what our enemies' strategy is.

And neither can there be any doubt as to the other half of the equation. Madame Speaker interprets the 2006 election results as a mandate to get our soldiers out of Iraq — not to change policies there, not to do something different in order that we might win, not even to re-define the conditions of "victory" — but as an unequivocal mandate to simply bring our forces home now. ("Protecting these young people," as she has condescendingly referred to the most professional and effective military force in world history.)

In short, Speaker Pelosi could indeed be the most patriotic American ever in terms of her subjective intentions and fervent beliefs. Yet there is still an exact correspondence between Speaker Pelosi' plan and the our terrorist enemies' goals. I will freely grant that she's not Jane Fonda letting the North Vietnamese communists take her picture while sitting on an anti-aircraft gun gleefully pretending to shoot down American aircraft. That is to say, I do not believe that the reason Nancy Pelosi's plan would validate our enemies' strategy is because she actually wants to validate their strategy. (Jane Fonda did.) But what Speaker Pelosi wants America to do next in Iraq is, without any possible question, precisely what the terrorists want America to do next in Iraq — to go home.


Dionne's bolded sentence above is a specific complaint — and a completely accurate one — that given (a) the terrorists' strategy and (b) an American entry into war against them in Iraq, then (c) Cheney's argument can always be used against any American who supports withdrawal. Well, okay. That's true. Doing what the enemy wants you to do is always validating the enemy's strategies. But that's a function of logic, not of some neo-con plot. And although it's an important part of any genuine foreign policy/national security debate, it's not the end of the debate. After all: Sometimes doing what the enemy wants you to do might actually be the smartest thing to do, at least out of the choices then available.

So concede the logic of Cheney's particular point here, you anti-Iraq War forces. This is the time for you to trot out the old "broken clock is right twice a day" debating line before moving into a substantive argument that you should want. If you can indeed justify your position, you absolutely must advance beyond that concession to some other and genuinely persuasive argument. "Yes," your argument must begin, "al Qaeda and radical Shi'ite terrorists want us to withdraw from Iraq right away, but ...." And your statement after the "but ..." has to persuade the listener that what will happen as a consequence of the withdrawal — some combination of bad consequences avoided and good consequences achieved — will outweigh the validation of the enemy's strategy.

I'm open to the possibility of others, but I can only think of two such arguments. I concede that these two arguments can be made in parallel, arguably strengthening both.


The first argument is that the cost of staying in Iraq, as measured in American blood and treasure, is simply too high for the benefits, as measured in Iraqi blood spared and Iraqi liberty. You can argue that somewhat over three thousand American deaths (and many thousands more wounded) so far, when combined with the further deaths and injuries that must be reasonably anticipated if we stay in Iraq, is simply too high a price for us to pay for the benefits we have achieved, and the benefits that we might still reasonably hope to achieve, in Iraq (or elsewhere). Those benefits can be measured in terms of both lives saved and the quality of life for the lives so saved. The "guns and butter" corollary of this argument focuses on the dollar costs, past and future, but inevitably that comes back around to the cost in lives and whether the dollars spent, both directly and indirectly, are justified based on the number of lives saved and the quality of lives lived by those so saved.

Some people genuinely think, for example, that the price we've already paid in dead and wounded American soldiers isn't worth the scores of thousands of Iraqi civilian lives that Saddam's regime would certainly have snuffed out absent an American invasion to topple his government. Some people likewise think that the value of living in a fledgling and struggling democracy instead of under a despot isn't worth the price our soldiers have paid.

The comparative value of American soldiers' and Iraqi civilians' lives is a pretty subjective thing. The bloodbath almost certain to occur if we depart suddenly from Iraq will be hard to quantify with precision. Living in freedom may be "priceless" to those freed, but obviously Americans are not willing to pay the blood and treasure price to bring that liberty to everyone everywhere in the world. So if you adjust the weights in your moral calculus adequately, you can always eventually find some quasi-numerical "cost-benefit" justification for our pull-out.

So if that's what you mean, Speaker Pelosi, then just say it straight out: "The costs are too high because their lives aren't worth as much as our soldiers' lives and their liberty isn't worth as much as our liberty. Therefore getting out is the right choice even though it will validate the enemy's strategy."


The second argument is either that the global war on terrorists is simply unwinnable, or maybe just that the conflict in Iraq — which, however you think it started, is now clearly a war against al Qaeda and at least a proxy war against radical Shi'ite terrorists and their state sponsors in Iran and Syria — is unwinnable. The concepts and results being weighed for this argument are much more subjective, and harder to define and evaluate, than arguments focusing on dollars and casualty rates and even liberty, but that doesn't mean they're impossible or impractical to debate.

Growing elements in the United States argued that it should accept defeat by pulling out of Vietnam; I think they were wrong, but whether they were right or wrong, it was a principled argument. Growing elements within the U.S.S.R. argued (mostly quietly, because it was at the risk of their lives) that it should accept defeat by pulling out of Afghanistan; I think they were right, but whether they were right or wrong, it was a principled argument. Good liberals should still be able to cite those as appropriate examples of super-powers simply accepting that they've been defeated in a less-than-total war.

So if that's what you mean, Speaker Pelosi, then just say it straight out: "We can't win there. Therefore getting out is the right choice even though it will validate the enemy's strategy."


What makes me grind my teeth, though, is the refusal of Speaker Pelosi, the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party (now joined by white-flag Republicans), and the liberal punditry to tell us which of these arguments, or which combination of them, they're actually relying on for their conclusion that we must pull out of Iraq. To justify the mantle of patriots — on which Cheney and I are still entirely willing to give them the benefit of the doubt — they have to have reached some reasoned and defensible judgment on the basis of arguments like these two. I believe their reluctance to focus on either of these arguments, however — and their fondness for instead falling back on ad hominem attacks on targets like Dick Cheney — ties directly to their sense of how American public opinion would react to either of those arguments if expressly made in those terms.

An honest debate of these issues when phrased those terms also has to include a discussion of the risks of validating the enemy's strategy — with the glaringly, chillingly obvious risk being that it will encourage more 9/11s.

I believe a substantial majority of the American public, or at least the American electorate, is still unwilling to buy into either of those two arguments when made in those honest terms. Speaking truth to the public, in other words, would be political suicide for a Democratic Party still drunk on newly returned liquors of political power — and suicide, too, for white-flag Republicans.

So the Democrats mostly just won't acknowledge that their plan validates the strategies of our enemies, and they will instead continue to rely on vilifying targets like Dick Cheney. Cheney's remark isn't worth repeating because it ends the foreign policy/national security debate, and certainly not because it demonstrates a supposed lack of patriotism on the part of Iraq War opponents. Instead, the reason Cheney and others should keep making this observation is simply this: Acknowledging that withdrawal from Iraq would validate our enemies' strategy is an essential precondition for an honest foreign policy/national security debate over whether America ought to withdraw its forces from Iraq.

Posted by Beldar at 12:37 PM in Global War on Terror, Politics (2007) | Permalink | Comments (8)