I'm not intimately familiar with former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, but I know he's a potential Secretary of State for the potential President Kerry. I know he was in favor of overthrowing Saddam but skeptical of our policy of preemption. I know he predicted an easy military victory and a difficult after-war scenario. Today he's claiming that the situation in Iraq is not going well that the administration "simply has no plan for Iraq any more".

I don't think that's true, but I think Richard Holbrooke is a pretty smart guy. So let's go back to 2002 -- before the war -- and look at some of the dire predictions for what Iraq-after-Saddam might be like. These quotes are from a debate moderated by Mr. Holbrooke; he doesn't necessarily agree with all these speakers, but their predictions indicate just how much worse Iraq could be than it is.

Mr. Holbrooke himself feared:

I think Saddam has to be dealt with, and I would support an international coalition willing to deal with it. But the talk of unilateralism and the talk of preëmption have gravely weakened our case....

Well, we did get an international coalition with dozens of countries. He also asked:

But, the last time out, Saddam launched thirty-five or forty Scud missiles against Tel Aviv; the Israelis did not respond, because the elder President Bush begged and convinced them not to. They've said that this time around they will respond. Now, if our military cannot destroy and degrade Iraq's ability to do that at the outset, and the Israelis do respond, what will the Arab states do? Will it metastasize from a U.S.-Iraqi war into an Arab-Israeli war, or will the other Arab countries sit it out? Particularly Egypt, Syria, and Iran—what will they do?

Iraq did launch a couple of missiles into Israel this time around -- if I remember correctly (?) -- but nothing much came of it. They were shot down before hitting the ground, I believe. Israel stayed uninvolved, and this disaster scenario was avoided; I'd say that's a big success. The debate discussed this possibility for quite a while, and their fear appeared significant.

Mr. Holbrooke then asked:

Several critics of the Administration's policies, including Senator Kennedy and former Vice-President Gore, have said this week that this is a diversion from our efforts on terror, our efforts in Afghanistan. Musharraf himself, who was here in New York two weeks ago, said that he would not want Pakistan to participate in any action against Iraq. He's already (a) the indispensable leader for the American effort in Afghanistan, and (b) on a very tight rope himself. How would a war in Iraq affect the situation in Pakistan, if at all?

But the fighting in Iraq didn't hinder our activities in Afghanistan very much. We could do more there, certainly, if we were willing to spend more money (which maybe we should), but our weak engagement isn't the result of the war in Iraq. Furthermore, Musharraf wasn't thrown out of power and Pakistan is still mostly cooperative.

On the topic, Isabel Hilton said:

Once the war in Afghanistan began, for instance, Kashmir became much more volatile and tense, and since then we have nearly had the world's first nuclear war twice. Now, those are not separate narratives, nor will this be. You can say, "What does it matter to Pakistan if America invades Iraq?" Well, what matters is that it generates another huge distraction in which more trouble can be made. And there is a great deal of trouble waiting to be made.

There's been no nuclear war between Pakistan and India. She continues:

Once the doctrine of preëmptive war is out there, then, first India, clearly, but many other people, could say that this is ideal, thank you. All these conditions are met. And all the conditions that the Administration has listed, as far as Iraq is concerned, can be met in several other situations. These cases can be made.

Neither India nor Pakistan has invaded the other. In fact, the idea that America's preemption somehow motivates or encourages other countries to be preemptive is absurd. Countries don't rely on justifications or precedence like that to make decisions. They do what's in their best interests and go as far as they think they can successfully. No country has ever withheld its hand against its national interest just because they lacked a precedent.

Leslie Gelb predicts some potential good results from the war, but warns that it's a huge gamble.

At the same time, it is a terrible roll of the dice. And it could unleash a terrible anti-Americanism, and a fanaticism, an active fanaticism, even beyond what we've seen. So I'm in favor of doing it, for all the reasons you've heard time and again, but this is, I think, potentially the most momentous decision of our adult lifetime.

It is/was a large risk, but no terrible anti-Americanism has been unleashed. Nothing more terrible than we've seen in the past, anyway, what with Palestinians dancing in the streets after 9/11 anyway.

Lawrence Wright says that we don't just have to show strength in the Arab world, we need to encourage liberty, which he doubted we'd do.

It's not just because we didn't beat the hell out of them enough the first time and the second time and the third time. We simply don't trust those people to elect their own governments and follow our example. We're afraid of the people. And until we arrange ourselves in that part of the world in a friendly way and understand what they're after and explain to them what we stand for and show them that we stand for it by encouraging civil society and democratic governments in their own countries, we're never going to have friends—real friends—in that area. We'll only have tyrants that we pay for.

But that prediction hasn't come true either. Sure, Iraq's democracy is still young, but we didn't just install a new strongman in Saddam's place.

Isabel Harris was afraid of how the war itself would play out:

Nor is it clear to me where this war will be fought. The last one was fought in the western desert; will this one be fought in the cities? If it's fought in population centers, is there a limit to the number of Iraqi civilian casualties that this war will produce?

There was city fighting, but casualties were pretty low.

There are, as I'm sure you know, various projections for how Iraq should or might go in a post-Saddam world. The one that appears to be favored by the Administration is, as it were, a new version, but a cleaner and more friendly version, of the strongman: another general.


One of them says five hundred thousand American troops and five years to stabilize, eighteen months before the constitutional convention and the election. Well, I can't see that happening. If that's the price, I can't see it being paid.

Nope again. Only about 150,000 troops, some from other countries, and the democratic experiment is proceeding according to plan. Maybe more troops would have been useful, but we didn't go that route.

If Saddam is to be overthrown in order for there to be a similar set of arrangements with a different man, then I think that many of the consequences that we have laid out in our Jeremiah-like way are more likely. If you forget a democratic, stable Iraq, which we would all clearly like, financed by renewed oil flows and so on and so forth. It's a question for me still as to whether the American Administration really wants that.

Apparently it did.

Jeffrey Goldberg then lays out some potential difficulties with the Turks and the Kurds.

So let me put it this way. One very smart Kurdish leader I spoke to in Washington a couple of weeks ago said this: "If we're smart, we'll march to Baghdad. If we're dumb, we'll march to Kirkuk." Kirkuk, of course, is the oil center in the north that the Turks are very keen on having. If they march on Kirkuk, the Turks are going to see that as a signal; the Turks will come in, and then it'll be a bloodbath.

R.H.: We need to underscore that for all of you. If the Kurds do anything in the line that Jeff's suggesting, the Turks, and this has not been reported in the papers here, but it's quite clear that the Turks will send troops into the northern part of Iraq, there's no question about it.

I'm not sure if the Kurds met the criteria for this prediction -- whether they marched on Kirkuk or not -- but either way, here's another bad thing that didn't happen. There were some reports of Turkish troops in northern Iraq, but not very many, and they're not there now.

Leslie Gelb goes on:

Iraq really could turn into a bloodbath. The scenario that the Shiites could decide to take vengeance against the ruling Sunnis is not at all far-fetched. And, if that happens, that triggers terrible things throughout that region. That's big business. You've got to think about the deals you want to try to make with the different factions in Iraq now, and begin to think of how you're going to try to apportion power, and begin to prepare Americans and other countries for the postwar commitment. It's a big deal if you want to avoid the most negative kinds of consequences. And this has not been done.

There was no Shi'ite massacre of Sunnis, and America has dealt with the various factions very well.

Here at home, we'd have to assume that what we do in Iraq could well trigger more terrorist attacks against us. I pray it doesn't happen, but responsible policy demands that we plan for it. Nothing has happened on that front.

As if there were terrorists who just weren't sufficiently motivated to attack us, but would have been once we invaded Iraq. Anyway, there haven't been any successful attacks at home since we invaded Iraq, although I do agree that the Department of Homeland Security is pretty pathetic and a lot more could be done.

Lawrence Wright must be happy that this prediction was wrong:

Well, the view from the Middle East is that we go in and knock off Saddam—our history is we bang somebody on the head and then we go home. And the Administration is trying to sell this "Marshall Plan" idea. Oh, come on. You know, nobody believes it. ... Our history gives nobody any confidence that we are going to stay there and clean up the mess that we're going to create. And we will create a huge mess, because Iraq is a fractious country of five thousand years of contending ethnic groups.

People believe it now. We're staying, and we're working on the mess.

I think that the Iranians are going to take advantage of the chaos. I think that the Turks are naturally going to try to protect their interests, and this whole entity will be pulled apart, and there will be this chaotic vacuum that we will then be responsible for.

Well, the Iranians are making trouble, no question, but they haven't pulled Iraq apart yet. There's no chaotic vacuum, except in a few isolated towns.

Jeffrey Goldberg concludes the debate with this fear:

I mean, we're feckless, and we're cheap, and we have the attention span of fleas when it comes to rebuilding countries we invade or countries we try to aid. But I don't know the answer to that. I mean, that's up to Congress, that's up to the Administration, that's up to the people there as well. It is a tough one. It is a tough one; but it is not a reason to not act for our own national security.

Weak, cheap, fickle... that's how the world saw us too. But hopefully not anymore.



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