Pendulum Pundits

How to misread the ways of Iraq's souq


"The Bush administration has proven incapable of…inquiring into the genuine meaning of liberation for the Iraqi people. Liberation…means self-governance—the antithesis of occupation."

Once you divine who composed those sour lines you'll be in a position to better contemplate the internecine cannibalism that is the latest pastime of American supporters of the war in Iraq, who are preparing for the prospect that their grand project might fail. They were penned by Danielle Pletka and Molly McKew of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Pletka is hardly weak-kneed on Iraq—or anything else. She is close to Ahmad Chalabi and once told me, as we discussed how the U.S. would react to myriad threats in the Middle East: "Everybody is in our sights."

Supporters of the Iraq war are breaking ranks. Between the start of fighting in Falluja and southern Iraq and the release of the Abu Ghraib prison photos (and we haven't even seen yet the pics of Pvt. Lynndie England having sex with various comrades), the mood has suddenly shifted to one of unseemly nervousness.

Plunge your hand into the barrel of pro-war commentators and pick your Pendulum Pundit. Tom Friedman of The New York Times, confronting the growing American difficulties in Iraq, offered an extraordinary list of political hair shirts to the U.S. administration, including a proposal that George W. Bush apologize for the abuses at Abu Ghraib to, among others, the leaders of Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and "explain that we are losing in Iraq, and if we continue to lose the U.S. public will eventually demand that we quit Iraq, and it will then become Afghanistan-on-steroids, which will threaten everyone."

Andrew Sullivan in an entry on his blog, asked: "[I]f I knew before the war what I know now, would I still have supported it?" His faltering answer? "Yes, I still would have supported the war. But only just." David Brooks, in a New York Times column last week screwed on his truth-is-hell face to announce that this was a "crushingly depressing period, especially for people who support the war in Iraq." Though it was too soon to declare Iraq a failure, he insisted the US was "blinded by idealism" and had presided over an intellectual failure that had not "anticipate[d] the response [U.S.] power would have on the people we sought to liberate."

Over at the National Review, many troops still manned the barricades, but David Frum, Webley in hand, shot some soldiers to reimpose order.

What is going on? That Iraq is proving a headache none will deny; and many of those vacillating haven't actually proposed that the U.S. pick up and leave. However, what is remarkable is that previous poise has very abruptly been replaced by wide-eyed panic. And the irony is that the pendulum pundits don't realize how, even as they believe the Iraq game may soon be over, the Iraqis themselves have just sat themselves down to bargain over their own future with the U.S.

To Brooks' credit, he noted: "[M]any Iraqis have stared into the abyss of what their country could become and have decided to work with renewed vigor toward the democracy that both we and they want." Indeed, if anything will save the American endeavor, it is the Iraqis themselves. Though they may not much care for American management of their country, they realize that the imperfect, but palpable, freedoms of their post-war society allow for heightened expectations—notwithstanding the imbecilities muttered by the likes of Hans Blix.

Or those of a disgruntled U.S. general who recently remarked: "That strategic objective, of a free, democratic, de-Ba'athified Iraq, is grandiose and unattainable. It's just a matter of time before we revise downward…and abandon these ridiculous objectives." Someone less thick would have taken such objectives more seriously and grasped that Iraq already is fairly free, de-Ba'athified and democratic, so that abandoning those gains would be downright irresponsible.

The shortcoming of the pro-war crowd in Washington is that in their zeal to topple Saddam Hussein, they never read up on the world they were entering into—particularly the ways of the Arab market, or souq. One doesn't have to like or be liked in the souq, but one must stand up for his end and avoid retiring when there is still room for compromise. Much like their anti-war foes who have an interest in proving the "quagmire" theory right, the pendulums are having trouble reading the dynamism in Iraq. Things may be bad for the U.S, but the Iraqis realize that once the bargaining ends, everybody loses.

Arab societies, like many others, have always bought breathing space by negotiating with those in authority. Even Saddam had to play patronage politics to stay in place. The U.S. is in a similar position today. It alone has the power of the purse, but with a difference: it has not stifled the Iraqis, nor has it reacted to the armed groups in the "Sunni triangle" and southern Iraq with mass repression. For Iraqis, the June 30 transfer of power deadline is real enough that some are fighting to gain the most out of it; those with whom the U.S. has already dealt, such as Ayatollah Ali Sistani, prefer to secure their gains through a peaceful transition.

Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami recently observed: "It is in Washington where the lines are breaking, and where the faith in the gains that coalition soldiers have secured in Iraq at such a terrible price appears to have cracked. We have been doing Iraq by improvisation, we are now 'dumping stock,' just as our fortunes in that hard land may be taking a turn for the better."

Ajami is right. Iraq's ambient instability comes partly from the fact that virtually everyone there expects something to happen come June 30. Where the Iraqis are concerned with agreeing a price, the anxious pendulums still think in terms of "winning hearts and minds." Brooks had a good quote, but his aim was off. It is less the U.S. that is blinded by idealism than the pendulums who supported the war, but who cannot see that war is also diplomacy by other means.