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Monday, November 27, 2006

Straw Strongmen

by digby

When I read Jonathan Chait's piece in the LA Times from yesterday, I assumed he was making a Swiftian modest proposal. I read his piece to be a satirical left hook to the notion that the Baker Commission was going to find some magical solution to the Iraq quagmire and conclude that the only formula that would work would be to put Saddam back in charge.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I just saw him on Matthews explaining that he was engaging in "a little bit of hyperbole but I think there's something to it" and "maybe we should put it back where we found it."

Chait said "almost everyone with a brain says we shouldn't have gone in the first place" but later admits that he was for the war but on different grounds than the neocons who were delusional about spreading democracy. He was for the war because he thought "weapons of mass destruction were the rationale" and said "I didn't pay attention to, I confess, I didn't pay much attention to the possibility of a completely failed state. When the Bush administration talked about democracy I thought they were lying they way they lie about everything else that they do."

Matthews reminded him that in 1991 Baker and Powell had warned about the break up of Iraq if the US invaded and admitted that he got tired of hearing about that and now knows they were right. Chait, however, disagrees. He says that the post war was "bungled as badly as you could have, they had no plan, Rumsfeld threatened to fire the next general who said, 'what do we do about Iraq' in the post war. They didn't have enough troops, they broke up the Baathist bureaucracy, they broke up the army, they did it as badly as you couldn't have, so you know, I think what they could have had was a stable, you know ... last vicious dictatorship.

Matthews asked if he would have gone with the INC and Chait responds, "No, no, I thought what they would do all along was keep the Baath Party in place, get rid of Saddam, get rid of his sons..."

Matthews interrupted as he always does and moved on to another point, so perhaps Chait had something else to say, but I have to admit I was astonished by his point of view throughout the exchange. I had thought his op-ed a rather unsubtle piece of satire and it turns out that it was only barely exaggerated version of what he thought should have happened to begin with and what he still thinks should happen now. He's making a real argument.

Jonathan Chait, you'll remember, wrote the seminal essay on why liberals should support the war in October of 2002 in TNR. Apparently he forgot to mention what he "really" thought the Bush administration was going to do. (That's probably because it was as illiberal as it's possible to be and even Henry Kissinger would have found it to be beyond our ken.)

Here's what Chait had to say back then:

When asked about war, they [liberals] typically offer the following propositions: President Bush has cynically timed the debate to bolster Republican chances in the November elections, he has pursued his Iraq policy with an arrogant disregard for the views of Congress and the public, and his rationales for military action have been contradictory and in some cases false. I happen to believe all these criticisms are true (although the first is hard to prove) and that they add more evidence to what is already a damning indictment of the Bush presidency. But these are objections to the way Bush has carried out his Iraq policy rather than to the policy itself. (If Bush were to employ such dishonest tactics on behalf of, say, universal health care, that wouldn't make the policy a bad idea.) Ultimately the central question is: Does war with Iraq promote liberal foreign policy principles? The answer is yes, it does.

Liberals and conservatives share many foreign policy values in common: encouraging democracy and capitalism, responding to direct aggression, and so on. That is why, for instance, both overwhelmingly supported overthrowing the Taliban and hunting down Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In the post-cold-war era, though, liberals have centered their thinking around certain ideals with which conservatives do not agree. Writing in these pages in 1999, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer identified three distinctly liberal principles: advancing humanitarian (rather than merely national) interests; observing international law; and acting in concert with international institutions, such as the United Nations. Krauthammer cited these three principles in order to dismiss them. I disagree. Underlying all three is an understanding that American global dominance cannot last unless it is accepted by the rest of the world, and that cannot happen unless it operates on behalf of the broader good and on the basis of principles more elevated than "might makes right."

This article was widely discussed at the time and many of us chewed it over in some detail. I remember his argument quite well. (The bit about international law was particularly incoherent.)So you can imagine how startling it was to hear Chait say today that he always thought the Bush administration was lying about what it planned to do in Iraq --- and that he backed an invasion that would result in the installation of a friendly dictator. All in the name of liberal values.

Wolfowitz said long ago that WMD was the argument they could all agree upon, but the "liberal" argument was not completely ignored. We certainly got it from TNR and in the pages of the major newspapers. Indeed, it was the official liberal argument in favor of the war. Only realist misanthropes and dirty hippie throwbacks argued that the democratic domino theory was a crock. We were borderline racist and hated America for even suggesting that it might be just a tad unrealistic.

To be sure, Chait based his argument most fully on the WMD threat, but for all his skepticism about Bush's honesty in other areas, it apparently didn't cross his mind that they might lie about that. Neither did it occur to him and all the other liberal hawks that Saddam might have had good reason to exaggerate his arsenal for regional or domestic purposes, something that the thin gruel Powell presented to the UN and the continuous debunking of "proof" (as with the aluminum tubes and the drone planes) should have made thinking people at least consider.

But now we find out that certain liberal hawks (or Chait at least) always had their own "cakewalk" fantasy. The US was going to invade, get rid of the WMD, install our own friendly dictator and then get out. Who knew?

Matthews rather acidly asked him if we shouldn't just pick sides now that the whole mess had devolved into civil war -- or maybe just back Moqtada al Sadr for president of Iraq and let it go at that --- and Chait looked flummoxed. (Of course, it was Matthews incoherently shouting, so you can't really judge from that alone.)

But it does raise the question: do liberal hawks think that this is still a solution to the problem? Chait indicated that he was exaggerating to get people "thinking." But perhaps his "bring Saddam back" was as serious a piece of advice as his earlier exhortations that liberals should support the war. I would suggest that it has just as much merit.

Update: Chait just appeared on Tucker and expanded on his thesis:

We've learned that there are worse things than totalitarianism and one of them is unending chaos...My argument is not an entirely cynical argument... One of the things that foments chaos is the expectation of chaos, when people's behavior changes, when they don't see any established order, and one of the few things we'll be able to do, I was sort of supposing, would be the return of Saddam Hussein --- he has high name recognition, people know who he is, they know what he's capable of doing and you have, it's still a recent enough that he was in charge of the state, that you still have the Baath army units and the infrastructure to put in place. So I was hypothesizing that this may be the only force capable of actually ruling the country, not that we want that by any means, it was horrendous, but simply that you have order, I mean it might be the best of some very, very, bad alternatives.

TC: Best for us. It seems to me the one thing about Saddam, as deranged as he may have been, he did have something to lose, he didn't want to die, and he wasn't a religious nut, he was incredibly brutal. Does that tell us something about what we would need to do in order to secure Iraq. I mean, he killed people with poison gas, Was that something he had to do? Was that required?

Chait: No I don't think so. But look, he's psychotic so you can't assume that anything a psychotic man does is something he rationally had to do. And he would still be psychotic if he was in power. There would be no doubt about it. I mean, it certainly would be better for us,

We wouldn't have the Iranian influence and you wouldn't have Iraq becoming a potential terrorist haven, both things that threaten us a great deal, if we had Saddam in power. You would have someone who would brutalize his own population but again you're getting that right now anyway and you might be getting less of it if he returned.

TC: Obviously we're not... because there is a civil war, and according to NBC it officially begins today, that kind of implies we ought to pick a side. And in fact pick a strongman to preside over the country in a less brutal way than Saddam did, but in a brutal way nonetheless and keep that place under control? Should we pick a side?

Chait: I don't know. I think I'm probably like you. You read all these proposals about what to do with Iraq and there all people who specializing in the topic and know more about it than I do and probably more than you do and it just doesn't sound that convincing and when they pick apart the other guy's proposal, when they say "here's why we need a strongman and here's why partition won't work" and you say "that makes a lot of sense" and the other person says "here's why we need partition and why the strongman won't work" and that seems right also, so that sort of the mode I'm in. I just don't know what to do. The only time anyone seems convincing is when they say why everything else won't work.

I hate to be a profane blogofascist, but that is just chickenshit nonsense. This guy makes a living as a pundit. He wrote an extremely provocative article saying that we should re-install Saddam (or some other strongman.) And then he cops out by saying he's confused because the "experts" don't have any easy answers.

This kind of thinking has permeated the establishment from day one. Plenty of people said in advance that the war was a mistake for exactly the reasons that Chait is now so surprised by. Nobody listened to them then and nobody is listening to them now. In fact, they were and are derided and marginalized. Today allegedly liberal pundits are rather seriously discussing the merits of installing friendly dictators now that their fantasies failed to become reality. How ridiculous.

Update II: One thing that should be noted is that Chait, like many of his DC brethren, has what seems to be temperamental aversion to the dirty hippies of the left. During the Bush years he has gone slightly cuckoo over Deaniacs, anti-war protesters, Lieberman ousters and grassroots troublemakers in general. I don't know the guy, but from reading his stuff it appears to be the result of a reflexive emotional reaction.

This is one of the fault lines that exists in liberalism today --- the knee jerk assumptions by the elites about the grassroots populists and vice versa. The problem for the party, however, is that opinion makers like Chait are taken seriously by policymakers while the grassroots troublemakers are not and the result is that their visceral dislike of our ilk comes into play in important ways. I happen to think that Chait's disgust with the activist left leads him to make incorrect decisions. He's not in the same league as someone like Richard Cohen, but then Richard Cohen has become something of a joke, whose inexplicable sinecure on the op-ed pages of the Washington Post mostly serves as fishwrap. TNR, on the other hand, is listened to by Democratic policymakers and Chait's overheated reactions to the grassroots should be addressed.

He and others -- he's far from alone --- should try to see things with clearer eyes. This is not the early 70's and grassroots progressivism in 2006 isn't a youth or a social movement. It is passionate and it is populist, at least in a stylistic sense but it is not radical or anti-intellectual. The liberal pundit class is making a number of errors in judgments at least in part because they are emotionally recoiling from being associated with what they see as dirty hippies. This is a problem.

At the end of his interview with Chait, Matthews said something like "what's going on with you guys at "The New Republic?" You're going liberal." Chait responded, "we've always been liberal."

Mark my words, soon it will be said that when the going got tough the liberals said we should bring back Saddam Hussein. Everybody knows that the left are totalitarians from way back.

Chait sticks in the shiv coming and going.