O'Hanlon Strikes Back
In his recent critique of what he calls the punditocracy in the May/June issue of The National Interest, Glenn Greenwald makes a fair point. In fact, not only political pundits, but policy scholars and advocates and analysts, should be held accountable for their work.
However, Greenwald's own approach is at times flip and at other times not well researched. His writing often fails to comply with his own guidelines for scholarship and commentary.
Take one example that concerns my case personally: in casually describing me as "infamous" in the article, with no further explanation or justification, Greenwald takes a fairly low road. In fact, to the extent I may be infamous in some circles, it is in no small part thanks to Greenwald's scalding critiques of the work I did last summer after returning from a trip to Iraq and writing about it with my colleague Ken Pollack in the New York Times. Greenwald was among the most prominent and vocal of those who criticized us for being politically motivated, uninformed, easily fooled or otherwise irresponsible when we argued that the new surge-based strategy had yielded impressive results and created the possibility of a much-better outcome in Iraq than had seemed possible six months before.
However, let me accept Greenwald's larger argument and respond to it, for I think that he is onto something. My track record on Iraq is not of any particular importance or inherent interest to most, and to those readers I apologize, but it may be of interest to some-and a brief evaluation is in keeping with the larger purpose that Greenwald rightly advocates. Below are my main predictions or assessments about the war over the last six years, together with my admittedly subjective scores about how well they have withstood the test of time:
- Initial argument, made starting in late 2001, that Iraq would be no "cakewalk," and require large forces: correct.
- Argument that war should be avoided if Saddam cooperated with weapons inspectors: correct, I believe.
- Willingness to support war once that inspection record was revealed to be imperfect: incorrect, given how poor the Bush administration's preparation for the post-Saddam period turned out to be. It was very hard to realize how shoddy this preparation was, looking from the outside, but I wish I had dug deeper and pressed harder.
- Prediction that the occupation/stabilization mission would be long and challenging: correct.
- Prediction that U.S. fatalities could reach several thousand: correct.
- Emphasis on the importance of protecting the Iraqi population from all forms of violence including crime: correct.
- Early and sustained advocacy for job-creation programs in Iraq: correct.Belief in 2004 that a schedule for U.S. withdrawal of most troops would help matters: probably wrong (the war was different back then, and the insurgency was in fact largely motivated by anti-Americanism, but in retrospect it is hard to believe a firm drawdown schedule would have succeeded). Hope that sectarian tensions could be contained in the war's early years: incorrect. Support for the surge in 2006/2007/2008: correct.
Grading my own homework, I give myself a score of 7 out of 10. Whether that is a good or bad grade is in the mind of the beholder. More important is the exercise prescribed by Greenwald (and others) of occasionally scrutinizing one's own work for accuracy, consistency, rigor and care. I thank him for the encouragement to do so myself-and hope he heeds his own counsel as well.
I believe Ken Pollack and I have been generally proven right by events-especially since we did not overstate by arguing that Iraq was calm, or that a good outcome was within easy reach. (Unfortunately, the New York Times did give the article the headline of "A War We Just Might Win," when Ken and I had expressed a preference that the words victory and win not be part of the title, but the text of our article was cognizant of the challenges ahead.) Were Greenwald to hold himself to his own standards for accountability, he might have acknowledged that in retrospect he was wrong. Yet there were no such mea culpas in the article. If he didn't have the space to get into this matter, he could at least have saved a couple words by dropping gratuitous adjectives.
Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.