Iraq: NYT columnist correct, if annoyingly so

It took me a couple of reads of Ross Douthat’s column on Iraq, then a few minutes of reflection, to figure out why it bothered me.  Its breezy tone, well written and succint, annoyed me at first. ( “Few Americans noticed, though, and even fewer cared.”) But I quickly realized my annoyance didn’t come from any personal grudge against Douthat, or a disdain for his writings or political beliefs. It was just my own emotional response to what he’d written. Mainly, that his column was, more or less, spot on. 

I suppose I’m one of those “fewer” Americans who actually care about the war. I spend good chunks of the day thinking about it, as I’ve done for the past six years, in varying degrees of intensity. So to see an issue I care about(though “care” seems a pretty weak word here, as does “issue”) dismissed, or to have it pointed out that it’s being dismissed by the country, provoked me to bloggery.

Douthat smartly explains the political analysis behind why Iraq is now “the forgotten war.” Specifically, why Obama’s happy to forget it, and why the anti-war left has gone silent.  

Plenty of war-skeptics are unconvinced that Iraq’s recent stabilization will deliver a happy outcome in the long run. But the surge smoothed the way for withdrawal, which is what the war’s critics have wanted all along — so why rock the boat?…For the Obama administration, there’s nothing to be gained from reopening old wounds. They’re just happy to have inherited a timeline for pulling out our troops, instead of having to negotiate their own.  

He also nails the other big reason why it might be wise not to forget Iraq just yet. The war isn’t over.

Except that the Iraq war isn’t finished yet. There are still 130,000 American troops in the country. As Maliki acknowledged during his visit to Washington, there will probably be thousands of soldiers there after 2011, when the current Status of Forces Agreement states that our troops must be withdrawn.

Nobody’s sure exactly what this residual force will be doing. But that’s because nobody — nobody — knows how Iraq will look once American combat troops are gone. As soon as we do, the current consensus will likely come apart. It holds, for now, because everybody has an interest in the idea of a swift withdrawal. War supporters want the chance to claim victory. War opponents want the chance to claim vindication. Obama wants the problem off his desk.

Sure, I could quibble with a few of his points. The argument that the anti-war crowd wanted to “leave Iraq to the furies” misses the point that the furies already got a pretty good whack at the country before and during the surge. (We were told that if we left there would be “dire consequences.” I’d just point out that under our watch, much of the sectarian cleansing took place, and it’s hard to get more dire in country of 26 million than having 250,000 of your civilians killed, and a million plus refugees.) 

I’d also argue that Iraq, for a good five years, dominated and shaped the political debate in a way that Korea and the Phillipines never did. Plus, I’d like to know what the “long term benefits” of kicking Spain out of the Phillipines were for us. (South Korea, that’s easy–Samsung!) 

But, as I said, minor points of debate in his essay. We are forgetting the war in Iraq, and we’re doing so at our peril. Forgotten wars can get re-remembered real quick.  Afghanistan is dominating the headlines now, but even as late as last fall when I went there, many soldiers I talked to still thought of Afghanistan as the forgotten one.


About michaelhastings

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2 Responses to Iraq: NYT columnist correct, if annoyingly so

  1. jaimecolemansc says:

    Michael, I enjoyed your response to Douthat’s column. (I am a regular reader of your articles and also liked I Lost My Love in Baghdad.) My interest in the Iraq war and recent Middle Eastern history is fairly new–3 years–but I am catching up. I just finished The Forever War by Dexter Filkins. Have you read it? If so, what are your thoughts?

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Hi Jaime, thanks very much for the note, and I appreciate you reading my book.

      Actually, I haven’t read The Forever War yet. I’ve heard only good things about it, though. And I’ve followed his other reporting over the years, and it is always of a pretty high quality. (For what it’s worth, both Filkins and I have stories that were selected for The Best American Political Writing Anthology 2009, which will be out in the fall. I think his is on Pakistan, mine is on Afghanistan.)

      Anyway, it’s only recently that I’ve started reading books about the Iraq war again, in preparation for a story I’m doing over the next few months. (For a variety of reasons, I had a real aversion to reading other books on the war over the past two years, but that has changed lately.)

      So I’ve been re-emerging myself in Iraq, doing some catching up, too. And I’ll let you know what I think of the Forever War once I read it.

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