Aug 31, 2010

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column: The Iraq war leaves a fog of ambiguity in which Gene writes: "...wars no longer end with surrender ceremonies and ticker-tape parades. They end in a fog of ambiguity, and it's easier to discern what's been sacrificed than what's been gained."

Hello, everyone. Welcome to our weekly therapy session. Today's column was about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the president, as you know, speaks from the Oval Office this evening on the end of combat in Iraq. But there's much else to discuss, including the Glenn Beck rally over the weekend, the new poll showing that Democrats may be facing a tsunami in November, the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the drowning of New Orleans... Let's get started.

I didn't agree with everything in your column (I felt the civilian death toll was just glossed over among other things), but very happy that you wrote it. I feel like the press can't stop itself from talking non-stop on the midterm elections and framing any and all issues through them, yet I felt like this was a column that one could read in a decade or more and it would still makes sense to the reader. So thank you for sticking with the important topic and not trying to make it about Marco Rubio or Sharron Angle.

Thanks very much. Elections do matter, though, so it's not advisable to ignore them. And no, Sharron Angle won't make sense in a decade, but does she make sense now?

Over 650,000 Iraqis died by 2006 according to the prestigious Lancet Survey, but even with lower estimates, how is it possible to say we didn't lose? The loss on both sides is incalculable. Any discussion minimizing the catastrophe in Iraq is disingenuous "happy talk" at best or downright deception at worst. There is no ambiguity there. Pathetic!

I wrote about that Lancet survey at the time but later became convinced that it almost surely overstated the death toll. That is not to minimize the tragedy, though. I don't think the column qualified as "happy talk" by any standard.

Gee Eugene, we didn't win but we didn't lose. Did we dispose a ruthless dictator who murdered his own people with gas and attacked neighboring countries? Yes. Did the surge work? Yes. Is there an elected democratic government in Iraq? Yes. Are the people better off? Yes. Is Eugene Robinson someone who so angrily hates Republicans and George Bush that he puts whatever spin he wants to on history even to deny truth? Yes.

Did we vastly strengthen the dictatorial theocracy in Iran? Yes. Did at least 100,000 and probably a lot more civilians die? Yes. Did we create an al-Qaeda jihadist presence in an important country where no such thing existed before the invasion? Yes. Did we make the Middle East safer for the United States and its allies? No.

Mr. Robinson, thank you for taking this question. Many on the left, such as yourself, insist as you did today, that Hussein was not an imminent threat. Yet his actions, along with those of Iran's in the 1980's, led to the death of over a million human beings. How can you write with a straight face that Bush was wrong when confronting the prospect this monster could have intentions harmful to our interests? I think this dismissive note from the Left about Hussein is a seriously inhuman gesture, and trivializes the safety of Americans when considering "what could happen if WMD from Iraq..." Thank you for taking this question.

If President Bush had summoned the television cameras to the Oval Office and said, "My fellow Americans, here are the hideous, awful things Saddam Hussein has done -- gassing the Kurds, all of that -- and his actions are so beyond the pale that we need to invade Iraq and depose him" -- if he had said that, then we could have had an honest debate about waging war in Iraq. What he said, instead, was that Iraq posed an imminent threat to America and its allies because it had acquired, or was about to acquire, weapons of mass destruction. That turned out not to be true. Before the invasion, there was some information indicating that Iraq had active WMD programs, but there was also information indicating that it did not. The Bush administration hyped the doomsday reports, and the tactic worked: People believed a threat existed that in fact did not.

I enjoy reading your thoughts and I hope to contribute to this, as someone with a military background who was "over there". I agree with you that we are no longer engaged in conventional wars with clear cut winners. However, the history of counter insurgency conflicts (including Iraq and Afghanistan) show that while they are more drawn out, eventually clearer gains do emerge. An example is the Malayan Emergency: the British were fighting insurgents with the Malays for ten years before withdrawing, and it took the Malaysian government another twelve to finish the job - but it was eventually finished. This timeline should give a decent perspective on the scope of counter insurgency missions: Iraq is entering the "by themselves" phase. I'd also mention that Iranian nuclear ambitions go back at least to the 1990s, and their expanding economy means their own regional power was on the rise, independent of Iraqi fortunes. I still think Iraq is a powerful counterweight to them, given the majority parties are not pro-Iran, and the Iraqi Army is built up and quite competent according to those on the ground.

Thank you for a very thoughtful perspective. I would quibble on a couple of points. Yes, Iran's nuclear ambitions are not new, but it's clear that the regime accellerated its nuclear program after the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- if only as a defense mechanism, figuring that they could be next if they didn't hurry up and get the bomb. And yes, Iran's regional power was increasing, but deposing Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq meant that the mullahs no longer had to worry about, and devote resources to defending against, the threat that Iraq posed. And while the Iraqi regime clearly does not intend to be a puppet of the Iranians, neither does it intend to be an adversary or even a counterweight. They seem to be aiming for amiable coexistence.

When deploying to Iraq in 2003, I remember our mission was "regime change." Since Saddam Hussein isn't reascending to power anytime soon, couldn't it be construed as a victory? Short of colonizing Iraq (which was never on the table) wasn't a political fog--leaving Iraq's fate to the Iraqis--really the only option left?

The mission expanded beyond regime change. We ended up fighting an insurgency and trying to mediate among Iraq's various regional, religious, ethnic and political sectors. But yes, a fog was bound to be the ultimate result -- as is the case in Afghanistan, too. still opposition. How much more effective could our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been if there hadn't been a chorus of people like you saying the efforts were doomed? Even in the medieval Middle East, enemies of the US can see what you say, and take sustenance from your words, and decide to go ahead and strap that bomb to their chest.

If they're really reading me, then: DON'T STRAP THAT BOMB TO YOUR CHEST. Dissent is an essential element of democracy. War is an enterprise thas has to be conducted by a nation, not an administration -- which means there has to be consensus that war is the right course of action. The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, but presidents -- of both parties -- routinely ignore this stricture.

So, where are we now, Mr. Robinson? We are trying to end the Iraq war, but whatever you call leaving 50,000 troops still in Iraq, it doesn't seem like there is really an end in sight. So, there is a timeline to bring them home next year. It "ain't gonna happen," because this country is now going to devolve again into sectarian, insurgents, terrorists (whatever you want to call it), so that I think we will be there forever. Ditto for Afghanistan -- a worse scenario, because the Taliban have got US on the run, not the other way around -- just like they've had every "invader," "occupier" (another whatever you want to call it) to eventually leave, defeated. Many of our precious troops have died this week for a corrupt government and an internal civil war that is funding itself on DOPE -- and quite honestly, I don't know what for -- do you know?

I think Afghanistan is a worse scenario than Iraq. At least in Iraq there's an educated population,  modern infrustructure and huge reserves of oil. If the Iraqis can agree on a political accommodation, they've got a lot to work with. Afghanistan is poor, far too many of its people are illiterate and most of the country has no modern infrastructure to speak of.  So, to answer your question, no, I don't know.

Mr. Robinson, I still can't see what your position on Afghanistan is other than "it doesn' t work." You've spent several columns the last few months saying that we will leave Afghanistan a mess... but you never offer a sound alternative. You can't argue that we didn't need to go there... are you saying today that we should have just gone in, bombed a bunch of terror camps and left? Do you seriously think that would have been effective? What would you have done differently the last 9 years to have made it work?

I wouldn't have shifted resources and attention to Iraq -- which gave the Taliban the time and space to rebuild and regroup, and allowed the Afghan government to behave in ways that forfeited credibility with the Afghan public. After smashing and ejecting al-Qaeda, I would have looked for a way to bring at least part of the still-fractured Taliban into the political process.

And he was a U.S. ally then, remember? "How do we know Saddam has weapons of mass destruction? Because we kept the receipts." Twisting history this way is typical of the right wing.

It is worth recalling that, yes, Saddam Hussein was once our ally.

What would Glenn Beck have me do, since I could never embrace any sort of religion, let alone hardcore Christianity? Should I resign myself to life as a second-class citizen in Beck-World, or do like the Jews in Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition, and just fake it publicly, while retaining my true beliefs in private, and just hope the figurative political auto-da-fe doesn't catch up with me?

Back of the bus for you, I'm afraid. Actually, one interesting thing about Beck's call for a religious awakening is that he is a Mormon -- and some evangelical Christian congregations don't really accept LDS members as fellow Christians.

In today's Media Notes, Howard Kurtz says that "virtually nothing objectionable was said at Beck's rally, confounding his critics." Well, you were critical of Glenn Beck's rally before the event: Are you confounded? Or do you possibly think, as I do, that the "spiritual, back-to-God talk" was more in the way of being an convenient inoculation against those who who accuse him of self-serving or political goals? Also, any comment on Alveda King?

I was neither confounded nor surprised by the rally. Well, maybe I was a little surprised that the focus was so exclusively religious -- I thought there would be more politics thrown in. But I expected Beck to do whatever he could to squelch objectionable rhetoric, because he led up to the event by seeking to embrace Dr. King's legacy. He couldn't claim he was "reclaiming" the true path of the civil rights movement and then go up there and talk a lot of trash. As for Alveda King, she's of course entitled to her views -- which no one else in the King family shares.

"Show of hands: Who believes the Middle East is safer now than before the U.S. invasion? " I'm not sure if this is the correct comparison to make. The sanctions regime was eroding quickly and the status quo before the Iraq invasion didn't look like it was going to hold, especially with France and Russia advocating more trade. Now, deterrence may have been a better option, but the choice between the invasion and the old status quo was probably not a true choice. In many ways, the choice was deal with Saddam in 2003 or deal with him later. Personally, I believe the best time to have dealt with him was the first time he stopped cooperating with the weapons inspectors in 1998 which was a clear violation of the cease fire terms.

I put it that way because it's a difficult question. When did the Middle East ever really look "safe"? My point, which I think is right, is that we traded one set of dangers for another -- at a cost of more than 4,000 lives and more than $700 billion.

Were you surprised that Fox News didn't cover the Glenn Beck rally with wall to wall coverage, since this event was so heavily promoted on its airwaves?

I was surprised that Fox didn't preempt its bloc of business-related shows to cover the rally. The only wall-to-wall coverage I found was on C-Span.

Yeah, like the consensus Bill Clinton achieved when he bombed the aspirin factory and Kosovo. Oh, that's right -- it's different for democrat "wars."

Please read what I write -- or at least read to the end of the sentence. Just a few questions ago, I wrote that presidents of both parties routinely ignore the Constitution's provision that Congress, not the executive, has the power to declare war.

Since 2001, I have been struck by how cold, rational foreign policy decision making has all but vanished. Looked at objectively, Saddam was never a threat to us directly--he had no capability of building weapons systems that could strike the U.S. mainland. Yes, he might have threatened U.S. allies in the region, but given what happened in Kuwait, a simple back channel ultimatum promising his country's destruction might well have sufficed. I know we had to attack the Taliban for providing a safe haven for Osama, but, put in the coldest possible light, we could have bombed the Afghans to rubble and said, "That's what will happen to anyone who gives shelter to anyone who attacks America." Our own geography and overwhelming military might make us safe. 9/11 was, frankly, the equivalent for Osama of hitting Powerball and MegaMillions in the same week. Our reaction was to bleed ourselves of manpower and treasure, while destroying a dictator who was wretched, no doubt, but also secular. We gave Bin Laden just what he wanted.

That's the cold, rational, realpolitik analysis. I think a persuasive case can be made for the invasion of Afghanistan. I don't think one was made for the invasion of Iraq.

The more the onion is peeled in Afghanistan and the closer it gets to Karzai the more autocratic he gets, recently firing the attorney general who was pursuing corruption charges against people very close to Karzai. It's hard to have much hope for our troop's success in Afghanistan turning over security to the Afghan government when they are more concerned about protecting Swiss bank accounts. Thoughts?

You're right. The Karzai government is really digging in its heels over corruption, and this is going to be a huge problem going forward. The government's corruption is a major factor is leading some Afghans to decide that the Taliban might not be so bad after all.

It seems to me that the situation in Iraq, a shaky, uncertain, but ostensibly democratic government is the best we could have hoped for. It was a war we had no business starting in the best of times let alone while trying to root out terrorism in another, more remote country. It is that other country that concerns me, because I don't think any success will be easy to come by. Do you see any way in which the war in Afghanistan has at least a less bad ending?

I wish I could say that I did. But I honestly believe that the end-game in Afghanistan, whenever it comes, will be even messier and less satisfactory (from the U.S. point of view) than the end-game in Iraq.


And with that, unfortunately, we've reached the end-game -- the end-point, actually -- of this discussion. Thanks for stopping by, and join us again next week.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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