In our era in Washington, whole careers have been built on grotesque mistakes. In fact, when it comes to our various conflicts, God save you if you’re right; no one will ever want to hear from you again. If you’re wrong, however... well, take the invasion of Iraq. Given the Islamic State, that creature of the American occupation, can anyone seriously believe that the invasion that blew a hole in the heart of the Middle East doesn’t qualify as one of the genuine disasters of our time, if not of any time? In the mad occupation that followed, Saddam Hussein’s well-trained army and officer corps were ushered into the chaos of post-invasion unemployment and, of course, insurgency. Meanwhile, at a cost of $25 billion, a whole new military was trained that, years later, summarily collapsed when faced with insurgents led by some of those formerly out-of-work officers.
But the crew who pushed it all on Washington has never stopped yakking (or being listened to). They’ve been called back at every anniversary of the invasion to offer their wisdom in the New York Times and elsewhere, while those who counseled against such an invasion have been nowhere in sight. Some of the planners of the invasion and occupation are now advisers to Jeb Bush as he heads into the 2016 election campaign, while the policy wonks who went off to war with the generals (taking regular VIP tours of America’s battle zones) couldn’t be better thought of in Washington today.
Take Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. When it comes to American war, you can count on one thing: he’s a ray of sunshine on any gloomy day. It hardly matters what year you’re talking about -- 2003, 2007, 2009, 2013, Iraq or Afghanistan -- and “our odds of success” are invariably “rather good” (if the U.S. military just pursues the path O’Hanlon advocates). Things always seem to be trending in the right direction; there’s invariably “progress,” always carefully qualified; Washington’s troops remain forever steadfast; chances are good that... you fill it in: the invasion will be successful, the occupation a smash, the surge a triumph of an unconventional sort, the latest Afghan election a positive step forward in a tough world. And here’s the amazing thing: year after year, op-ed after op-ed, he never seems to end up on the right side of anything, which seems to work like a charm in Washington.
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In recent years, he’s made himself into an op-ed tag team with his former Princeton classmate David Petraeus. He began plugging General Petraeus as a “superb commander” back when and, despite the former CIA director’s recent misdemeanor plea deal for “providing his highly classified journals to a mistress,” he’s still touting him as a “national hero.” (“To my mind, what he did in Iraq was probably the greatest complex accomplishment by any American general since Washington in the Revolutionary War.”)
Since 2013, on op-ed pages nationwide, he and Petraeus have been promoting the idea that these aren’t the years of America’s decline, but of its rise to greater glory as the leader of a new North American Century (a line that Republicans are passionately running with for campaign 2016). If this came from anyone else, perhaps it would be a debatable position, but not with the O’Hanlon guarantee attached to it. Let’s just say it: if he thinks America is ascending, there’s only one possibility: it’s going down.
So many words and what are the odds that none of them would work out? Still, you might think that O’Hanlon is small potatoes in our large world. If so, think again. As Andrew Bacevich, author most recently of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, makes clear in “Rationalizing Lunacy,” O’Hanlon is part of a roiling mass of “policy intellectuals” who have given this country a distinctly hard time.