January 09, 2007
Wishful Thinking, Grasping at Straws, and Other Habits of Highly Effective Pundits
I know that taking Andrew Sullivan apart whenever he embarasses himself talking about Islam is old hat on this blog, but his recent post about the possible benefits of the Iraqi civil war for the war on terror deserves special mention. You see, by declaring victory and then leaving Iraqis to slaughter each other, we counter al-Qaeda's "West versus Islam" narrative with an "Islam versus Islam" narrative.
Part of me wants to take this seriously and patiently explain why I think Mr. Sullivan is incorrect. For one thing, he underestimates the power and persistence of victimization narratives. It's not a difficult rhetorical leap to take such a situation and say, "see, the West is trying to divide Muslims against each other - that was the plan all along". That's the great thing about a victimization narrative, you see. Whatever the heck happens, it was exactly what the Victimizers had been planning all along. Beyond that, though, it's not clear to me how framing the conflict in Iraq as a battle over the soul of Islam itself - a battle fought between extremist fanatics and, err, non-extremist non-fanatics, I suppose - could make sense anywhere but in the hopeful head of a pundit. And anyway, most people in the region view its various conflicts as interconnected. How exactly will the Islam v. West framing lose its salience while U.S. involvement in the region (sabre-rattling with Iran, supporting Israel, etc etc) persists along roughly the same lines as before?
But, there's only so much serious debunking that can be done in the face of such a silly, wishful argument. From reading his blog, Sullivan has been frustrated for some time by the stubborn refusal of Iraqis, Arabs and Muslims to see things through the narratives we want them to. But now he thinks that if we just butt out of Iraq then a rapidly entrenching ethnic and sectarian conflict over power and prestige within a particular state will finally make Muslims the world over realize that "current Muslim pathologies, paranoia and self-hatred" are the problem? That's not even wrong. That's a non-sequitur. He seems to be hoping that al-Qaeda (whatever that name even means in Iraq right now) will be so brutal that their tactics will turn Muslims off to extremism, but it's a waste of breath if people on the ground don't even read the conflict in those terms.
And, maybe the argument doesn't really need to make sense. Sullivan is ultimately arguing that withdrawing from Iraq is a better idea than staying and getting even further bogged down in a civil war America can neither solve nor manage. He knows his audience well enough to know that depressing predictions don't sell well in America - that's why freedom is always and forever on the march - and so I think he's looking, increasingly desperately, for some kind of silver lining to be found in a withdrawal, and he's settled upon the happy hallucination of a civil war that will finally lay bare the evil of al-Qaeda for all Muslims to see. Something to make withdrawal sound like a bold strategic ploy. So, he's grasping at straws in the hopes that maybe, if you look at it from just the right angle, failure is actually victory.
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Sullivan is ultimately arguing that withdrawing from Iraq is a better idea than staying and getting even further bogged down in a civil war America can neither solve nor manage.
Rory Stewart made a similar argument on TV today fairly convincingly- the situation in Iraq is bleak, and there is little that American and British troops can do at this point, so they should launch a phased withdrawal. But while he also thought many people in Iraq were not willing to step up to the plate and do more to maintain security, and suggested that this had to with the way people in that country think, he seemed to imply that blame for the current situation largely lies with the invading forces. They went in with unrealistic goals and didn't consider how things might turn out in Iraq.
The trouble in Iraq isn't, it seems to me, that they aren't enough for their own security, but that they are doing too much for their own security, in a manner of speaking, by going after the "bad guys" preemptively (or, at least providing implicit or explicit support for those who do)--with the "bad guys" defined by your ethno-religious affiliation. If these people suddenly stopped worrying about providing for their security by not preemptively going after the "bad guys," why, this civil war business would stop in its tracks. Just saying....
Yeah, well, you go first.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at January 9, 2007 04:36 PM
My silver lining:
As the region descends into hell, oil prices will go up, up, up, and nations all over the world will seriously turn to nuclear power and other energy providers than fossils. Good for the environment.
Or they might just burn more brown coal instead. Meh.
Dubaiwalla - I think Stewart has the better of the argument, though at this point attributing blame draws you into really tedious and insecurity-ridden arguments with, well, everyone. But I'll still scream to the skies that anything that reeks of defeatism won't sell well here in the states. Think of how easily this 'surge' business has sapped the momentum from withdrawal proponents and pushed the ISG recommendations out of the public sphere.
Klaus - funny, that's just how Sullivan ended his piece. He thinks (and I actually agree) that the market's not going to offer up much in the way of alternative energy unless scarcity starts to really be felt. Of course, he glosses over just how ugly that could get...
Posted by: homais at January 9, 2007 11:04 PM
He's right about that at least, but it's an easy call. Car ads make a much bigger deal of out their product's fuel efficiency now the fuel prices have gone up. Of course. Gletchers may melt in Greenland, whatever, but soaring fuel prices, that calls for action. That's just how it is.