Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
April 4, 2003
WAR: Sullivan v. Marshall
Andrew Sullivan and Josh Marshall have been sparring lately about whether or not Marshall's critiques of the war will be discredited if the war ends with a swift victory in the near future. Marshall's latest posts are here and here; Sullivan's are here and here.
Marshall had been hammering Rumsfeld, in particular, with charges that the war was bogging down due to inadequate troop strength, citing the various anonymous 'Pentagon sources' and retired generals like Barry McCaffery, and of course he's argued all along that the 'neocon' vision of a democratic Iraq as the first domino in the Middle East was unrealistically optimistic; Sullivan accuses Marshall of 'moving the goal posts' now that the war has started going better, by saying this about whether he was going to be embarrassed if the war turned out well:
Presumably, I'll be haunted one or two months from now when we're off on an easy occupation of Baghdad, governing a peaceful nation of thankful Iraqis, and resting easier since we've cowed Syria, Iran and the Palestinians into quiescence.
I think Sullivan has the better of this argument, although Marshall isn't so much moving the goal posts (he's announcing the same objectives he's always set to measure the success of war in Iraq) as he is performing a classic bait-and-switch. What Marshall has been doing is symptomatic of recent war criticisms, starting with the New York Times barrage of 'Baghmire' stories; here's why. Marshall has, as I noted, long argued that the Bush Administration's postwar strategy was not going to work. This is a political argument, and it is an essentially dovish position, since it argues for the status quo. But that just distinguishes Marshall as a critic of the Administration from the left, a position which has not gained much traction. Thus, he opened a second front in the opinion war by arguing that Bush and Rumsfeld screwed up the conduct of the war itself; this is a military argument, and it is on some level a hawkish position, since it assumes the use of force and argues for applying even more force. The critique is enormously attractive to the Administration's critics, because it enables them to look more hawkish than they are and to argue that only they truly have the interests of our soldiers at heart, while arguing that while Republicans get all this credit for being serious about national security, they will even screw up militarily because of their political ideology. It also permits a 'threefer' argument, since the lack of troops strength can be tied directly to the failure to get Turkey's permission to run the 4th Infantry Division through Turkey into northern Iraq.
If correct, this would be a devastating critique; if American troops really faced disaster in the field because the war plan supplied too few troops and too little armor on the ground, Rumsfeld and probably Bush would be finished. But the military argument now appears to be in tatters, as Coalition forces have encircled the few remaining urban centers the regime still holds, and the feared weakness of our supply lines hasn't been tested again after the initial disaster with the 507th Maintenance Company. If the war goes badly from here, it will more likely be only because of the inherent risks of urban combat, not because too few boots were on the ground.
In response, Marshall says, in effect, that my critiques are not misguided because I still expect the war to fail to achieve its political objectives. He could still be proven correct -- but that doesn't validate the military critique, which was always the more damaging argument. Marshall gambled that that argument could blow a big hole in the Administration; now that it's failing, he's switching back to his initial tack and trying to squeeze residual credit from the military critique by claiming that it was valid if the political critique holds up.
Sorry. We're not buying it.