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Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack: There They Go Again

Joseph Palermo

In [yesterday's] New York Times Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack make their same tired argument for permanently occupying Iraq they've been making for the last five years. There's nothing new in this piece. They might as well have run one of their old articles under a snazzier title. President Barack Obama, they argue, must show "strategic wisdom" and keep American troops in Iraq until the United States realizes "our goals of sustainable stability in Iraq." Never mind that the Bush administration didn't bother to tell us before invading Iraq that "our" objective was to spread "democracy" and "stability" there; and never mind that the war and occupation have killed 100,000 Iraqi civilians, 4,300 Americans and will probably end up costing us as much as $3 trillion, O'Hanlon and Pollack once again tell us that "we" must stay there indefinitely and throw away even more lives and treasure, even in these dire economic times.

"Young democracies are fragile entities," they write. Yet they ignore the fruits of the democracy they laud. Iraqis voted for candidates in the recent elections, in part, because they promised American troops would be out of Iraq's cities by June 30th. Now O'Hanlon and Pollack criticize even this modest goal. They talk up once again "Iraq's enormous progress" but argue (yet again) this "progress" doesn't mean U.S. soldiers can now come home. "Iraq's calendar this year is also jam-packed with other important political events," they note. But when will there be a "calendar" in such a volatile country where "important political events" won't be happening? This is a red herring that never gives the United States the "right" time to get out.

They ignore the fruits of American democracy, which in the past two election cycles registered the people's disdain for continuing the occupation of Iraq. O'Hanlon and Polllack claim to be experts on "democracy" yet they discount the election results in Iraq and in their own country because they don't fit into their pre-conceived objective, for whatever reason, of staying in Iraq indefinitely. It's the same argument they've made together for years. At least they're consistent.

They give no evidence that "new democracies" behave in the predictable and formulaic ways they claim for Iraq. They never point to an example in the real world of a "new democracy" behaving in their pre-programmed way to prove their thesis. More often than not "new democracies" express through popular will strong nationalistic tendencies that run counter to the kind of open-ended foreign occupation O'Hanlon and Pollack are advocating for Iraq. In fact, if the recent Iraqi elections proved anything it is that the Iraqi people want their nation back. They do not want the occupation to continue and demanded through their elected officials a date certain for an American troop withdrawal.

O'Hanlon and Pollack warn President Obama of the "serious risk" of any timetable for American soldiers to come home even though both the Iraqis and the Americans have voted for this outcome in recent elections. And of course they love the idea of a "residual force" staying in Iraq indefinitely, which is consistent with what they've been saying for years; they offer high praise for President Obama on this score.

"We have no choice but to see Iraq through to stability," they write, but they never define "stability." Does "stability" mean that Iraq will have about the same level of violence as Mexico or Columbia? Or is "stability" turning Iraq into Peoria, Illinois?

At another point in the article O'Hanlon and Pollack even resort to using "Friedman Units." The United States, they write, "faces one last crucially intense period in the coming 12 to 18 months." Where have we heard that before?

They emphasize Iraq's "strategic significance" and its "enormous regional significance" but these concerns fly in the face of their pronouncements about altruistically spreading "democracy" as their motivation. In fact, the opposite could be true: The endless occupation could make it more likely that nationalist sentiment will be fueled to the point of throwing out the occupiers on worst terms than if we withdrew responsibly on our own. O'Hanlon and Pollack's prescriptions for staying in Iraq could lead to a nationalist backlash that undermines their stated "strategic" goals for the region.

The most disingenuous part of the article is where O'Hanlon and Pollack write: "It is worth remembering that our current economic disaster started with a great rise of oil prices from 2004 to 2007, which then helped set off the mortgage and credit meltdowns." Here they are using economic scare tactics to drive home their point of continuing the occupation that are not only poppycock but distasteful given that so many Americans are scared and suffering from the current crisis. "Pull out of Iraq and expect to see $4 gas again!" I suggest O'Hanlon and Pollack review the record-breaking windfall profits of the oil conglomerates in exactly that period they mention. This type of fear mongering is disgraceful, especially coming from two supposedly "apolitical" policy wonks. So fellas, is it about "democracy" or is it about oil?

Their conclusion once again reflects their neo-colonial mindset: "[W]e should not baby-sit Iraq through all of its problems as a young democracy." Viewing the Iraqis as "children" who need to be "baby-sat" was one of the favorite throwaway lines of Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld. It must sound a bit strange to Iraqi ears coming from people whose nation was formed in 1787 while Iraqi politics go back to the beginning of recorded history.

As O'Hanlon and Pollack make the rounds talking up their tired old ideas on the PBS/NPR latte and arugula circuit, the hosts of these shows should at least remind their viewers and listeners that they made the same basic argument for occupying Iraq in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.

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Joseph Palermo is Associate Professor of History, CSU, Sacramento and an expert in political history, presidential politics, presidential war powers, social movements of the 20th century, movements of the 1960s, civil rights, and foreign policy history.

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