Knowledge Gap

by Lawrence F. Kaplan | April 30, 2007

Maybe it was a slip of the tongue. But, when Nancy Pelosi confessed last year that she felt "sad" about President Bush's claims that Al Qaeda operates in Iraq, she seemed to be disputing what every American soldier in Iraq, every Al Qaeda operative, and anyone who reads a newspaper already knew to be true. (When I questioned him about Pelosi's assertion, a U.S. officer in Ramadi responded, incredulously, that Al Qaeda had just held a parade in his sector.) Perhaps the House speaker was alluding to the discredited claim that Al Qaeda operated in Iraq before the war. Perhaps. But the insinuation that Al Qaeda's depredations in Iraq might be something other than what they appear to be has become a staple of the congressional debate over Iraq. Thus, to buttress his own case for withdrawal, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, "We have to change course [away from Iraq] and turn our attention back to the war on Al Qaeda and their allies"--the clear message being that neither plays much of a role there.

What is going on here? There are two possibilities: First, Reid and Pelosi could be purposefully minimizing the stakes in Iraq. Or, second, they don't know what they're talking about. My guess is some combination of the two. Political maneuvering certainly contributes to the everyday pollution of Iraq discourse. But a lot of the pollution derives from legislators being functionally illiterate about the war over which Congress now intends to preside. In this, of course, they're hardly alone. The Bush administration's wretched Iraq literacy has been well-chronicled. But, with Congress demanding a louder say in the management of the war, the same knowledge gap that plagued our arrival in Iraq looks like it will be revived just in time for our departure.

Whatever explains the literacy gap, this much at least is obvious: Having been called into being by politicians on both sides of the aisle, the war in Iraq no longer bears a relation to anything they say. You don't need to cherry-pick quotes to prove the point: Nearly every time a senator's mouth opens, something wrong comes out. A typical example came a few weeks ago when Senator Joseph Biden took to the op-ed page of The Washington Post. In response to an equally surreal op-ed by Senator John McCain, Biden wrote,

The most damning evidence that the "results" McCain cites are illusory is the city of Tall Afar. Architects of the president's plan called it a model because in 2005, a surge of about 10,000 Americans and Iraqis pacified the city. Then we left Tall Afar, just as our troops soon will leave the Baghdad neighborhoods that they have calmed.

A minor detail perhaps, but "we" never left Tal Afar. In 2006, the First Brigade of the First Armored Division replaced the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, actually boosting the number of Americans in the city. Biden's analysis will also come as news for the 25th Infantry Division, whose soldiers were patrolling the streets of Tal Afar even as the senator claimed otherwise. Not to single Biden out: Who can forget Representative John Murtha's suggestion that it would be a cinch for American forces to "redeploy" from Iraq to nearby Okinawa, 5,000 miles from Baghdad? Or House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes not knowing whether Sunni or Shia populate the ranks of Al Qaeda? U.S. officers in Iraq say that, during their briefings to visiting delegations, they routinely find themselves subjected to examples of congressional oversight along the lines of: Is (the northern city of) Mosul east or west of Baghdad? What's the difference between a brigade and battalion?

As to why some of Capitol Hill's would-be war managers can't name more than a single Iraqi province, officers and journalists offer all kinds of theories. A common explanation points to the shrinking percentage of veterans in Congress, which amounts to a paltry fraction of the World War II cohort that legislated the war in Vietnam (and, incidentally, did a lousy job). But the ranks of the confused feature enough veterans, most notably Reid and Murtha, to disprove the theory. Another blames the reluctance of delegations to venture beyond the Green Zone or the bases they visit--and, then, their reluctance to be dazed by the sheer unfamiliarity of it all. "I'll never forget the helicopters coming in at night delivering wounded to the hospital in the Green Zone," the Iraq Study Group's Leon Panetta marveled to The Washington Post. "We've all seen 'M.A.S.H.,' and yet it was happening right there." Which brings us to yet another explanation for the literacy gap: Today's wise men don't exactly rise to the level of their predecessors. In place of William Bundy and Walt Rostow, we have Panetta and Vernon Jordan; as the custodian of William Fulbright's legacy, we have Harry Reid. The former hungered for the data and lacuna of war; the latter seem frankly uninterested.

More than that, congressional leaders often seem loath even to hear about events on the ground. During General Petraeus's visit to Washington last week, for example, House Democrats at first denied the Iraq commander an opportunity to brief them, citing "scheduling conflicts." And, when he finally did brief Congress, the evidence of progress that Petraeus was expected to present was dismissed before he even offered it. "He's the commander," Senator Carl Levin reasoned. "We always know that commanders are optimistic about their policies." The joke here, of course, is that Levin and his colleagues were not so long ago denouncing the Bush administration--and rightly so--for the sin of disparaging military expertise. True, civilians have no obligation to heed that expertise. They do, however, have an obligation to be informed or, at a minimum, to listen.

But, then, expertise may be beside the point. Obliviousness, after all, has its uses. It comforts the sensibilities of politicians whose varying levels of awareness allow them to favor certain facts and not others. Obliviousness testifies to the virtue and good intentions of members of Congress who, in truth, couldn't care less what comes next in Iraq. It invites Americans to indulge in the conceit that what happens in Washington obviates the need to think seriously about what happens in Baghdad.

Most of all, illiteracy makes for good politics. There is the conviction, to paraphrase McCain, that winning a war takes precedence over winning an election. But it isn't so clear that this conviction guides a partisan brawl in which the Senate majority leader can gush, "We're going to pick up Senate seats as a result of this war." In such an environment, the subordination of facts to politics inform matters small and large, from the relatively trivial question of whether U.S. troops still operate in Tal Afar to enormous questions regarding the future of the U.S. enterprise in Iraq.

These big questions, of course, are where literacy matters most--and where you won't find a trace of it. Consider a speech last week by Reid, who neatly summarized the strategic logic behind legislation mandating a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq. Speaking of "where things stand on the ground in Iraq," Reid insisted that the role of U.S. forces is to train Iraqi security forces, protect U.S. troops, and conduct targeted counterterrorism operations.

This transitions our mission to one that is aligned with U.S. strategic interests, while at the same time reducing our combat footprint. U.S. troops should not be interjecting themselves between warring factions, kicking down doors, trying to sort Shia from Sunni, friend from foe.

There are several problems with this formulation, not the least of which is that, far from being a "new strategy," it mirrors exactly the approach that was tested and found wanting when Donald Rumsfeld was presiding over the war and "reducing our combat footprint" was a raison d'être. Chaos, not stability, was the result.

Still, the idea dovetails neatly with Reid's insistence that it is "the specter of U.S. occupation [that] gives fuel to the insurgency"--and that, absent this specter, the violence will magically subside. But just the reverse has been true. Falluja and Tal Afar in 2004, Ramadi in 2005, Western Baghdad in 2006--these places became charnel houses when U.S. forces pulled back. The suggestion, moreover, that American forces ought to confine themselves to "targeted counter-terror operations" rather than trying to sort "friend from foe" misunderstands the most basic tenets of counterinsurgency, ignores the lessons of the past four years, and purposefully slights the testimony of Petraeus and his fellow experts. Living among the population and sorting "friend from foe" is precisely how the military generates intelligence tips, which, in turn, provide the key to "targeted counter-terror operations." It can't be done from Kuwait, and it can't be done from Okinawa.

Though Reid has no use for the Bush administration's military "surge," he does propose a "surge in diplomacy," in line with the cliché that the war has no military solution. As The Washington Post's David Broder has pointed out, "Instead of reinforcing the important proposition ... that a military strategy for Iraq is necessary but not sufficient to solve the myriad political problems of that country, Reid has mistakenly argued that the military effort is lost but a diplomatic-political strategy can succeed." Nor is this the only reason to doubt the reasoning behind Reid's "diplomatic surge." To begin with, even if they were inclined to assist the American cause in Iraq, neither Iran nor Syria have much, if any, sway over Al Qaeda. Moreover, the violence in Iraq has its own, wholly internal logic. In fact, the one brand of diplomacy that truly matters in Iraq--the U.S. Army's tribal diplomacy, which accounts for the recent turn-around in Anbar Province--is precisely the mission that Reid's demand for a skeleton force would shut down.

Where all this leads is clear. Piece together a string of demonstrably false "facts on the ground" from a suitably safe remove, and you're left with a scenario where we can walk away from Iraq without condition and regardless of consequence. You don't need to watch terrified Iraqis pleading for American forces to stay put in their neighborhoods. You don't need to read the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which anticipates that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal will end in catastrophe. Why, in the serene conviction that things are the other way around, you don't even need to read at all. Chances are, your congressman doesn't either.

Lawrence F. Kaplan is editor of Entanglements. Previously, he was editor of World Affairs, executive editor of The National Interest, and senior editor at The New Republic, for which he reported from Iraq during 2005-2007. Kaplan is also a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the U.S. Army War College. He is a graduate of Columbia University, Oxford, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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