Controlled Demolition, not Flypaper (Ten Years After Cont’d) – UPDATED

ten-years-after-saddamAgain, Daniel Larison, now with the help of Paul Pillar, insists on a bad argument in support of what may be a good case.

Here is the incidentally edited comment I left at Larison’s latest post on the Jackson Diehl op-ed we discussed yesterday:

It’s understandable that Diehl is interpreted by Pillar and others to be “repeating the flypaper theory of counterterrorism,” but Diehl’s statement “in Iraq, the United States faced down al-Qaeda and eventually dealt it a decisive defeat” does not make a “flypaper” claim. It merely asserts that an AQ threat did arise in Iraq, and was actively combated and defeated. (How “decisively” it was defeated is another question, however, that Diehl’s own subsequent analysis complicates.) Diehl does not make any claim at all as to the origin of AQ in Iraq, except, perhaps, as implicit in his observation of an AQ affiliate rising in Syria without US military intervention playing a role. In other words, in Iraq and Syria as in any other contemporary Islamic (more precisely “Islamicate”) society, extreme political de-stabilization will tend to be accompanied by the rise of Islamist radical groups. As many Iraq War proponents will likely also acknowledge, this problem was not adequately, or anywhere near adequately, anticipated during Iraq war planning, but the simplistic argument against the simplistic flypaper theory may not be much better than the flypaper theory itself, or anyway may be inadequate to the Syrian situation.

In addition to not making the argument that it is claimed he has made, Diehl does address the questions that the blogger at the end of the post (again) claims he doesn’t address. Diehl does so via a “controlled demolition of dangerously unstable structure” argument, not a flypaper argument, though the former argument does not absolutely exclude the latter. Diehl specifically asserts that intervening earlier rather than later in an inherently unstable situation – an Iraq destined to fall apart some day, a Syria falling apart now, without any prior American invasion or other overt military intervention – makes shaping the results possible. This argument is concisely introduced in paragraph 4 of Diehl’s article.1 He proceeds to evidenced claims of Syrians now dying and being displaced faster, with arguably potentially far more destabilizing results, than Iraqis dying and being displaced during the period of the American occupation of Iraq. Again, you may not find this argument persuasive, but it is an argument, one which Diehl presents clearly and seeks to evidence.

Whether there is in fact an opportunity for controlled demolition in Syria is not a question I myself feel qualified to answer, but I have my doubts, and I don’t find Diehl’s argument on that score persuasive. If Syrians are dying and being displaced faster in Syria, it might be for other reasons than or in addition to the lack of US armed forces on the ground, or other intervention, but, even if Diehl is more right than wrong, any major US intervention would entail severe risks of its own, including very high political costs to the Obama Administration. In any event, I don’t think there’s much likelihood of any such intervention in the absence of a clear and unambiguous threat to American interests, rather than the mere possibility of such a threat. We do not have an in fact unresolved history of war with Syria or Assad as we did with Iraq/Saddam, and we operate from greater confidence in regard to terrorist threats than in the early 2000s. If this confidence is misplaced, it is something that will have to be proved to us before we embark upon some new improved version of a newly vindicated Bush Doctrine.

Update: As of this writing, the comment has not appeared under Mr. Larison’s post. Nor does it show up on my browser as “being moderated.” Whether that means that I have been quietly banned; or that the comment has been selectively rejected as too personally critical of the blogger following similar comments I have left and have mentioned here; or that some other glitch has occurred, possibly my fault, I am not sure, though I seem to recollect copying the submitted version of the above from the moderation screen.

I suppose I will have to investigate the matter further, as the idea that my criticisms might be disappeared in this way would tend to color my views on both Larison and the magazine.


  1. Diehl: “It was inevitable that, with the exhaustion of their ideologies and economic models, these states would unravel — and that Iraq’s repressed Shiite majority, like Syria’s downtrodden Sunni majority, would demand redress. The difference is that the U.S. military triggered the transformation of Iraq, quickly disposing of the old regime and buffering the subsequent sectarian struggle. In Syria it has leaned back, providing humanitarian aid and prodding the opposition to unify but otherwise refusing to intervene.”


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2 comments on “Controlled Demolition, not Flypaper (Ten Years After Cont’d) – UPDATED

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  1. Syria will fall apart, because unlike what was said of Iraq, it really is an assemblage of Ottoman vilayets held together by force, and Qatar and the Kingdom are running the roulette table, so what does Pillar think of that.

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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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