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The O’Hanlon Primary


Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack’s New York Times op-ed is a litany of utter dishonesty and misrepresentation; like Matt, I’m wondering whether any of the Democratic candidates will step up and try to win the “O’Hanlon primary” by publicly rejecting his strategic advice.

O’Hanlon and Pollack insist that this is “a war that we just might win” without pausing to indicate what “victory” means in this context; at best, it seems, we could hope for some temporary stability. They seem to define stability as a reduction of civilian casualty rates by “roughly a third since the surge began”. I’ve written before about the nonsensical efforts of surge advocates to claim success by pointing to Iraqi government casualty figures; no one believes that those figures are accurate, including the US military, the Iraqi government, and any sensible analyst. Nevertheless, lets take the argument seriously for a moment. If we take February 1 as the official start date (icasualties uses this date), then Iraqi casualties since the beginning of the Surge have amounted to 12741. Casualties in the six months prior to the Surge were 13462. That’s a drop of about 700 dead, assuming that the count for July 2007 doesn’t go up (it will). Okay, let’s compare this six month period (12741) with the same six month period in 2006. From February through July of last year, 6216 Iraqis are recorded to have died. Note that 12741 is a larger number than 6216. Also note that the Golden Mosque was destroyed in February 2006, which set off (apparently not) the worst sectarian strife since the fall of Saddam.

Okay, that’s not so super. I assume that Pollack and O’Hanlon are using “Surge Start Date Mojo”; you may have noticed that the “surge” has a magical start date that moves back and forth, depending on when the advocate wants to start counting from. So I’ll do them the credit of assuming that they’ve found a creative way of arguing that civilian casualties have dropped by a third. If you start from the worst month ever, then it’s not hard to find improvement. Unfortunately, this puts to the lie everything else they right about finding “stability” in Iraq; stability, it appears, does not include a cessation of bloody massacres, relentless suicide bombings, and an astonishing death rate. It’s about outcomes, people; if the country is stabilizing, then civilian death rates should go down. If the insurgency is being defeated, then its capacity to launch attacks on US forces should decrease. Statistically, these things aren’t happening. The same can be said for O’Hanlon and Pollack’s claim that “everywhere, Army and Marine units were focused on securing the Iraqi population, working with Iraqi security units, creating new political and economic arrangements at the local level and providing basic services — electricity, fuel, clean water and sanitation — to the people.” That may be true, but it hasn’t revealed itself yet in outcomes; Baghdad receives less electricity that it did a year ago, and far less than it received under Saddam Hussein.

I can only assume that Pollack and O’Hanlon consciously decided to wander Iraq with rose-colored glasses; they make no effort to detect or describe any of the enduring difficulties in the country. They don’t, for example, note the continuing failure of the Iraqi political process, or the fact that the Iraqi prime minister apparently loathes David Petraeus. They don’t mention the increasing tensions between Turks and Kurds in the north, or between Kurds and Sunnis in Kirkuk. They wave away the difficulties of training and sectarian violence within the Iraqi Army by noting that its ethnic divisions roughly mirror those of the country, without making any apparent effort to determine whether this diversity is within or across units. That’s rather an important distinction, as diversity across units does not speak well for national unity. They don’t mention that the Iraqi prime minister strongly opposes the strategy of bringing Sunni insurgent groups within the umbrella of the security services. They ignore the fact that sectarian violence in Baghdad may be down (if indeed it is down) because Sunnis and Shias have, through murder and intimidation, effectively ethnically cleansed their neighborhoods. They recklessly conflate, as the Bush administration has, the Iraqi insurgency as a whole with Al Qaeda, without considering that Al Qaeda has become formidable indeed if it can carry out hundreds of attacks per day during the “Surge”.

In short, O’Hanlon and Pollack have set out to describe all of the positive aspects of the “Surge”, and none of the negative. As I note about, even this effort is clumsy and deceptive; they have to manipulate the few statistics that might support their case. Perhaps worst of all, however, is this:

As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily “victory” but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.

Whatever criticism O’Hanlon and Pollack may have made of the Bush administration, they have both been vigorous supporters of the Surge, and they were both supporters of the initial invasion. I would like to say that their credibility as analysts depends on the perception of the Surge’s success, but of course that’s not quite right; no one ever loses pundit tenure simply by being appallingly wrong and obviously dishonest while advocating war. To paint themselves as harsh critics who’ve somehow “come around” is to create a fantasy.

Of Kenneth Pollack enough has been said. Of Michael O’Hanlon, more should be. Winning Ugly, written with Ivo Daalder about the Kosovo War, is a fine book that I’ve used before in classes. However, I would trust his analysis far more if I felt that he was more concerned with painting an accurate strategic picture than with maintaining his own position and influence. Note, for example, this awful Washington Times op-ed, in which he excoriates Harry Reid for pointing out that General David Petraeus would essentially be judge in his own case, assessing for Congress the success of a military operation he designed. Without apparent irony, O’Hanlon suggests that Reid’s time would be better spent trying to produce a second Iraq Study Group. O’Hanlon doesn’t bother noting that the first group was utterly ignored by the administration and by surge advocates like… Michael O’Hanlon. O’Hanlon also doesn’t bother to delve into the rhetorical use to which the administration and its allies on the right have put General Petraeus, preferring instead simply to laud his integrity. I’m forcibly reminded of Ari Berman’s article The Strategic Class, in which he detailed how think tank creatures like O’Hanlon and Pollack have carved out a space on the far right wing of the Democratic Party, and used it essentially to pillory left and moderate Dems into various interventions. The relevance of such analysts depends on their apostasy; they must be understood as standing apart from mainstream Democratic thought to have any influence at all.

Finally, I’m left thinking about the peculiar position that O’Hanlon and Pollack, among others, occupy with respect to the academy that produced them. Political science opinion, across the left-right spectrum and from all of the different schools of IR resolutely opposed the Iraq War and predicted that it would be a disaster. Rock ribbed realists, liberal institutionalist, and social constructivists disagreed as to why the war would be a disaster, but nevertheless stood against it almost to an individual. I have to wonder whether the continued advocacy of O’Hanlon and Pollack for disastrous policies in a disastrous war has something to do with the need to set themselves apart from the rest of academia, and to point out that they, unlike their Ph.D. holding brethren, have sensible and “serious” attitudes about military action.

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