Thursday, April 3, 2003

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Why Wright is wrong

I'm betting that Robert Wright's Tuesday article in Slate will be an eventual winner of Andrew Sullivan's prestigious Von Hoffman Award for "prophetically challenged pieces of media war-wisdom" -- though it will be hard to top Sullivan's latest nominee.

This is what Wright wrote two days ago:

[A]s the war drags on, any stifled sympathy for the American invasion will tend to evaporate. As more civilians die and more Iraqis see their "resistance" hailed across the Arab world as a watershed in the struggle against Western imperialism, the traditionally despised Saddam could gain appreciable support among his people. So, the Pentagon's failure to send enough troops to take Baghdad fairly quickly could complicate the postwar occupation, to say nothing of the war itself. The Bush administration's prewar expectation of broad Iraqi support for the invasion may turn out to be a self-defeating prophecy....

It isn't just that, as noted above, the Iraqi people will grow more hostile to the United States as the war lingers on—and American soldiers kill more civilians and Saddam has more time to kill his own civilians and blame it on Americans (a tactic that, remember, doesn't surprise Don Rumsfeld!). It's that Muslims all over the world are watching the same show, and they are not amused.

Even assuming Muslim rage doesn't produce a worst-case scenario—say, regime change in Pakistan that puts nuclear arms in the hands of terrorists—there is still plenty to worry about, most notably the next generation of anti-American terrorism quietly incubating in the hearts and minds of adolescent Al Jazeera watchers around the world. Further, anti-American Muslims—already trickling into Iraq from Jordan—could start showing up in larger numbers, including the occasional suicide bomber (who will make American troops even more jittery, leading to more dead Iraqi civilians for Al Jazeera to highlight, and so on). Every week that this war drags on is a week in which bad things can happen, and Rumsfeld's seeming indifference to this fact does not inspire confidence.

Wright's vision might be correct, but I doubt it. First, there is mounting evidence that the Iraqis are quite pleased about Operation Iraqi Freedom. I blogged yesterday about the reaction in Najaf. Today, according to Reuters, a "top local Shi'ite Muslim leader" issued a fatwa telling Shi'ites not to fight the Americans. In the north, Kurds are overjoyed that the U.S. has expelled the Ansar al-Islam militants. As for the Sunni Muslims near Baghdad, this report suggests they will also be happy to see the back of Saddam:

The Republican Guard may be ceding this territory, thinking their forces must make their stand in Baghdad in the days to come. But in an unexpected sign of popular sentiment, some residents streamed out of the city and greeted the American troops as they approached.

[What about Josh Marshall's point that these tribal reactions are actually strategic?--ed. Marshall's right -- but politics is all about acting opportunistically. These leaders have seen twenty years of war and sanctions -- rationally, it's highly unlikely they will try to advance their interests via violent action].

Wright seems to think that this happiness will fade with time, but there are good reasons to believe otherwise. Humanitarian aid is about to pour into Umm Qasr and the rest of southern Iraq. What will the reaction of the local population be once they realize that not only is Saddam finished, but that the days of economic sanctions are over?

As for the rest of the Arab world, Wright seems to think that the invasion itself will prompt Arabs to launch terrorist attacks within Iraq. But it's equally possible that what happened in Afghanistan will happen in Iraq. The video of Kabul's residents celebrating the fall of the Taliban quickly defused much (though not all) of the Arab resentment against the U.S. use of military force. Similar footage from Baghdad, Najaf, Mosul, Basra etc., would be likely to have a similar effect. [UPDATE: This effect is likely to be even more concentrated now, since Iraq expelled two Al Jazeera journalists, causing the network to suspend its coverage from Hussein-controlled territory. This will cause a sharp drop in the broadcasting of incendiary images to the Arab street]

Of course the speed of the Iraqi army's collapse will hopefully render this a moot point. [Won't the Republican Guard prove to be excellent guerilla fighters?--ed. This piece suggests the answer is a strong "no." So, overall, you saying Wright is an idiotarian?--ed. No, that's the funny thing. I have the same reaction whenever I read a Wright piece -- this is a fundamentally smart guy who's just dead wrong in his conclusions].

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan comments on Wright's argument: "Bob's piece seems to be moving inexorably toward a von Hoffman award (not yet, but it's not looking good for the earthling U.N.-lover)."

posted by Dan on 04.03.03 at 01:22 PM