The really smart, serious, credible Iraq experts O’Hanlon and Pollack

Like most liberal "war hawks," the Brookings "scholars" falsely pretend that they were critics of the Iraq strategy to save their own reputations.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

The really smart, serious, credible Iraq experts O'Hanlon and Pollack

(Updated belowUpdate IIUpdate IIIUpdate IVUpdate VUpdate VI)

What is the most vivid and compelling evidence of how broken our political system is? It is that the exact same people who urged us into the war in Iraq, were wrong in everything they said, and issued one false assurance after the next as the war failed, continue to be the same people held up as our Serious Iraq Experts. The exact “experts” to whom we listened in 2002 and 2003 are the same exact establishment “experts” now.

Hence, today we have yet another Op-Ed declaring that We Really Are Winning in Iraq This Time — this one in the NYT from “liberal” Brookings Institution “scholars” Ken Pollack and Mike O’Hanlon. They accuse war critics of being “unaware of the significant changes taking place,” proclaim that “we are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms,” and the piece is entitled “A War we Might Just Win.”

The Op-Ed is an exercise in rank deceit from the start. To lavish themselves with credibility — as though they are war skeptics whom you can trust — they identify themselves at the beginning “as two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq.” In reality, they were not only among the biggest cheerleaders for the war, but repeatedly praised the Pentagon’s strategy in Iraq and continuously assured Americans things were going well. They are among the primary authors and principal deceivers responsible for this disaster.

Worse, they announce that “the Bush administration has over four years lost essentially all credibility,” as though they have not. But let us look at Michael O’Hanlon, and review just a fraction of the endless string of false and misleading statements he made about Iraq and ask why anyone would possibly listen to him about anything, let alone consider him an “expert” of any kind:



First, this is not the first time O’Hanlon took a trip to Iraq (for what Sen. Webb recently called the “dog and pony show”) and then came back and announced How Great Things Are, that We Have the Right Strategy, and that We are Winning. From an NPR Interview, September 28, 2003:

LIANE HANSEN: Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. He just returned from a Pentagon-sponsored visit to Iraq and he’s in the studio. Welcome back, Michael. What’s it like in Iraq?

MICHAEL O’HANLON: Well, it’s obviously tough. It’s a little better, however, than I thought for a couple of reasons. One is I think the counterinsurgency effort is going fairly well. Now obviously, you mention the number of attacks per day that continue; it’s a real concern. We’re still losing troops. Everyone’s aware of that. The truck bombings in August were tragic. The assassination of the Governing Council member was tragic, but overall, the counterinsurgency mission seems to be going well in that we are taking out a lot more people than we’re losing and I believe we’re using force fairly selectively and carefully on balance.

There’s some mistakes here and there. Also, security is pretty good in most of the country despite the fact that it’s not good everywhere and that we certainly hear the reports of violence on a daily basis.

HANSEN: You say it was better than you thought. What were the surprises? Were there any?

O’HANLON: I would say that the main surprise for me was probably that one could travel around the country, even flying over contested areas, with relatively confident sense of security. There wasn’t as much need to avoid certain areas as I might have expected.

There is obviously violence. There was violence in some of the regions that we visited on the days we were there. But you’re talking about specific, isolated acts just like you would get in an American city. I’m not trying to say that this is a country at peace, but overall, we really do run most of the country together with our Iraqi partners and the resistance forces are very small pockets who operate only at a given moment here or there. . . .

HANSEN: The Defense Department this past week announced the mobilization of 10,000 soldiers from the Army National Guard. The Bush administration has been trying to get countriesb

O’HANLON: My impression is it’s roughly sufficient. I would probably go a little higher. But the bigger problem is just sustaining that number is going to be very hard, and that’s the reason we have to call up more National Guardsmen.

And, just incidentally, despite heralding his Recent Trip to Iraq, as though that demonstrates he really knows what is going on “on the ground,” this is what it consists of:

HANSEN: Final question. Your visit was sponsored by the Defense Department. Are you concerned that you perhaps were given a rather narrow view of the country by your hosts?

O’HANLON: There’s no doubt. But we only had a couple days there. We talked primarily to American officials. However, we could be quite prying and we could really push them. And I think overall, nonetheless, I was reassured. We didn’t meet a lot of Iraqis who could tell us how things were going, but on balance, I think we had some access.

At roughly the same time, he wrote a report about his field trip to Iraq and decreed:

But the Iraqis we met were nonetheless grateful for the defeat of Saddam and passionate about their country’s future. Their enthusiasm, and their desire to work together with U.S. and other coalition forces, warmed the heart of this former Peace Corps volunteer. Maybe that is why, on balance, I couldn’t help but leave the country with a real, if guarded and cautious, feeling of optimism.

Also in September, 2003, O’Hanlon published another progress report which revealed all the happy news in Iraq:

How can we really determine if the Iraq mission is going well? . . . To convince a skeptical public about progress in Iraq, the Bush administration would do well to provide more systematic information on all of these and other measurable metrics routinely — even when certain trends do not support the story it wants to sell.

The administration should want to do this, because on balance the Iraq mission is going fairly well . . . But most indicators are now favorable in Iraq . . . .

As for Baathist remnants of Saddam’s regime, they are diminishing with time as coalition forces detain and arrest them. For example, in the region north of Baghdad now run by General Ray Odierno’s 4th infantry division, some 600 fighters have been killed and 2,500 arrested over recent months.. . . .

Around Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, and other parts of the northern “Sunni triangle,” for example, former regime loyalists have been sufficiently weakened that they need reinforcements from other parts of Iraq to continue many of their efforts. Most Baathists from the famous “deck of cards” are now off the street; many second tier loyalists of the former regime are also being arrested or killed on a daily basis. . . .

In these counterinsurgency operations, American troops are following much better practices than they did in Vietnam . . . . Coalition forces and other parties were slow at times to anticipate such tactics, resulting in excessive vulnerability to the kinds of truck bombings witnessed in August and the kinds of assassination attempts that just took the life of a member of the Governing Council, Akila al-Hashimi. But these mistakes are being corrected, and future such attacks are unlikely to be as devastating.

That sure is a real harsh critic of Bush’s war management there. While virtually all of these “liberal hawk” war proponents try to salvage their own reputations by pretending that their Glrious War was ruined by Bush’s “terrible mismanagement,” that is not what O’Hanlon was saying back then. In fact, O’Hanlon testified (.pdf) before the House Armed Services Committee in October of 2003 and titled his report “A Relatively Promising Counterinsurgency War: Assessing Progress in Iraq.” After acknowledging a few “mistakes” — the Mission Accomplished Speech and Cheney’s excessively “rosy” language — he proclaimed:

In my judgment the administration is basically correct that the overall effort in Iraq is succeeding. By the standards of counterinsurgency warfare, most factors, though admittedly not all, appear to be working to our advantage. While one would be mistaken to assume rapid or easy victory, Mr. Rumsfeld’s leaked memo last week probably had it about right when he described the war as a “long, hard slog” that we are nonetheless quite likely to win. . . .

That said, on the prognosis of Iraq’s future, the Bush administration is at least partly and perhaps even mostly right. Negative headlines need to be quickly countered with good news, of which there is an abundance. . . Most of Iraq is now generally stable . . . . [T]he state of affairs in Iraq and recent trends in that country do not look so disconcerting. Things are getting gradually better even as we progress towards an exit strategy that could further diffuse extremist sentiment.

On April 9, 2003, he published a piece for the Brookings Daily War Report entitled “Was the Strategy Brilliant?” — in which he struggled with the deeply Serious question of whether Don Rumsfeld’s strategy was unprecedentedly brilliant or merely mind-blowingly smart:

Two weeks ago, when the U.S.-led campaign against Saddam Hussein’s regime seemed to be bogging down, Secretary Rumsfeld defended the coalition’s war strategy. Though keeping some distance from it himself, describing it as General Frank’s plan rather than his own, he described it as excellent. General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went one step further, calling the overall concept “brilliant.” Others who had seen it admired its simplicity and its flexibility.

Three weeks into the war, with the conflict’s outcome increasingly clear, it is a good time to ask if General Myers was right. Will war colleges around the world be teaching the basic coalition strategy to their students decades from now, or will the conflict be seen as a case in which overwhelming military capability prevailed over a mediocre army from a mid-sized developing country?

On balance, this victory will be primarily due to the men and women and technology of today’s U.S. and U.K. armed forces. Our military is so good that it probably could win this war even with a poor strategyb

That said, there have been major elements of military creativity in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Whether the overall concept deserves to be called brilliant is debatable. But it does appear to have been clever in several specific ways, most notably in the special operations campaign of the war’s early days and in the recent battles for Basra, Baghdad, and other cities. . . .

None of this is to claim that the war is over just yet. And of course, victory is coming at a significant human cost; largely for that reason, the broader strategic benefits of this war may be less clear-cut than the battlefield successes. But military historians are already getting ready to put pen to paper, especially to discuss the role of coalition special forces as well as the coalition’s urban-warfare techniques. On balance, Secretary Rumsfeld’s description of the overall war plan may be more judicious than General Myers. But it has indeed been a very good plan.

On April 30, 2003, O’Hanlon went to The Baltimore Sun and wrote gleefully about how Dick Cheney could mock the ex-general war critics because Cheney had been so vindicated:

Much of the controversy centered on whether the Army was perhaps a division or division and a half short of the force that it should have had. In my judgment, it was a bit short — but the problem never threatened the basic integrity of the war plan.

As such, former military officers such as retired Gen. Barry M. McCaffrey may have overstated their points when criticizing the war plan. At times they sounded as if they thought the sky was falling. . . .

Vice President Dick Cheney had a nice rebuttal to the retired officers when he understandably, and humorously, took a moment to gloat shortly after Baghdad fell.

Teasing the pundits “embedded in TV studios,” he took his fair shot at them during a speech to newspaper editors and then moved on. That would have been the right thing for Mr. Rumsfeld and General Myers to do, too.

More worship for Rumsfeld and his strategy — which O’Hanlon now tries misleadingly to claim he opposed — spilled out of his pen in the Japan Times on June 19, 2003:

Tip your cap, at least halfway, to Rumsfeld; despite his initial ideological blinders on the subject, he is keeping the postwar U.S. presence strong enough to get the job done as it becomes clear that the job will be hard.

Right as the war was about to begin, O’Hanlon was hardly objecting to the strategy. Quite the contrary, he was writing what could only be called adolescent war pornography. From The Financial Times, March 18, 2003:

Another camp fears Mogadishu writ large — a scenario like that experienced by US troops in Somalia in 1993 on a vastly greater scale. But both the cakewalk and quagmire predictions are probably wrong.

. . . However, the Mogadishu debacle will not be repeated, even if elite Iraqi forces fight hard . . In all likelihood, the war will culminate in a battle for Baghdad starting anywhere from five days to two weeks after bombs begin to fall. The war could be over within a month . . .

Hardest to predict is how vigorously Iraqis will fight after their command structure is shattered in this urban blitzkrieg. The block-by-block fighting could be intense in places. But most likely, no more than a few tens of thousands of Mr Hussein’s elite troops will wage war once cut off from his authority. US-UK losses could number in the high hundreds or even low thousands, but the battle for Baghdad will almost surely not last more than a week or two. And its hero will be the American and British soldier, not fancy technology or awesome battle plans.

The very level-headed, Serious National Security Scholar was saying things like this to America as the Bush administration made its case for war, from The Washington Times, December 31, 2002:

While the President decides whether to march to Baghdad, Saddam Hussein may be poised to bring the battle to American cities via terrorism. Yet Washington’s focus on creating a new Department of Homeland Security has left America’s cities not much better protected than they were sixteen months ago.

“Saddam Hussein may be poised to bring the battle to American cities via terrorism.” Wow. That’s Scary. And Very Serious. As one of the most visible “liberal foreign policy experts,” at the “liberal serious think tank,” O’Hanlon became one of the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for the war, evidenced by this Washington Times column from February 5, 2003:

Yet, the president was still convincing on his central point that the time for war is near. Even those of us who have questioned the case for war over the last year, and who do not buy all of the Bush administration’s arguments for invasion even today, need to face the fact that there soon will be no other plausible option.

Since his U.N. speech of Sept. 12, 2002, Mr. Bush has adopted a firm but patient Iraq policy. Overruling hardliners in his administration who favored war without further inspections or U.N. debate, Mr. Bush also elected to use multilateral channels to insist that Saddam disarm or be disarmed. Alas, Saddam is not eliminating his banned weapons of mass destruction voluntarily, and hence we soon will need to lead a military coalition to do the job ourselves. The case is that simple.

In taking this basic approach, Mr. Bush heeded the counsel of multilateralists, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, the elder President Bush, Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, Tony Blair and many Democrats. It is now time for multilateralists to support the president.

So, as we decide now what to do about Iraq, we should definitely look to Michael O’Hanlon to guide us. His judgment has proven to be so reliable, his reports about the war so trustworthy and credible, and the course he advocated so wise and constructive. And he is so very objective, because it isn’t as though his entire reputation depends upon avoiding failure in the War he urged. He is one of our Very Serious Experts and if he says — especially after returning from 8 days in Iraq — that Things are Going Well and We are Winning, why would anyone doubt him?

UPDATE: Like clockwork: Hugh Hewitt: “The authors have just returned from a trip to Iraq, and they saw what everyone else has seen — noteworthy progress . . . By all means, read the whole thing. If the left has lost Brookings. . . ”

Powerline: “These are basically the same observations that most visitors to Iraq have made lately. Yet, some think this piece is significant, because of who wrote it — two liberals from Brookings — and the fact that it appeared in the Times.”

Michelle Malkin’s Hot Air: “This NYT article is significant both for what it says, and for who is saying it.”

And on and on.

UPDATE II: O’Hanlon on February 17, 2004: “Coalition and Iraqi security forces will ultimately defeat the rejectionist remnants of the Ba’ath Party, as well as foreign terrorists who have entered the country. These dead-enders are few in number and have little ability to inspire a broader following among the Iraqi people.”

O’Hanlon on March 19, 2004:

That said, there is plenty of reason for hope, and much going right today in Iraq as well. . . .

Central Command now estimates the number of hardened insurgents at 3,000 to 5,000. It has also suggested coalition forces are killing or arresting more than 50 insurgents a day, a total up considerably since Mr. Hussein’s capture in December. (Indeed, only 10 individuals from the original 55 on the famous “deck of cards” remain at large).

At that pace, one might think the war should be won by summer. . . .Overall, the glass in Iraq is probably about three-fifths full. Considering the growing strength of Iraqi security services and the fact that $18 billion in American money (as well as a few billion more from other foreign donors) is beginning to flow into Iraq, it is likely to get somewhat fuller soon.

Even as O’Hanlon began expressing increasing concerns about instability in Iraq, it was almost always tempered with rosy overall assessments, such as this, from May 16, 2004:

While the overall situation is disconcerting, there is still hope — especially if the standard for success is defined realistically as an absence of civil war, a gradually improving economy, and slowly declining rates of political and criminal violence. The scheduled transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi caretaker government on June 30 may at least begin to defuse the growing anti-American anger that is helping fuel the insurgency. And most American assistance, tied up in bureaucratic red tape until now, should begin to jump-start Iraq’s economy in the coming months, with a likely beneficial effect on security as well.

As the failure of the war became manifest in late 2004 and into 2005, O’Hanlon began acknowledging the problems in Iraq but blamed the “administration’s strategy,” even though he was a constant defender of that strategy and did not object to it until the war failed. That is what Serious Experts do — advocate plans and then blame everyone else when they fail, including those whose “plans” they cheered on at the time.

UPDATE III: Greg Sargent has much more on the complete lack of credibility of this war cheerleading pair, including additional facts demonstrating further how underhanded this Op-Ed is.

UPDATE IV: For the handful of O’Hanlon/Pollack defenders out there (“most of their false and misleading statements were from a couple years ago; they’ve improved!”), Robert Farley points out just some of the intellectually dishohest claims plaguing this morning’s Op-Ed. Along the way, he notes:

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. . . .

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.

In a separate post, Greg Sargent points out that the Op-Ed’s sunny claims about Iraq contradict even the Brookings Institution’s own “index” for measuring the success of the mission.

UPDATE V: A reader emails and (consistent with several other emailers) says:

Tucker Carson reads your piece on the air re: O’Hanlon and Pollack. Hilariously he fake-stumbles over your name “Greenwald? Grenwald? Whatever.”

He quoted part of the graf that included: “They are among the primary authors and principal deceivers responsible for this disaster.”

Naturally, he didn’t address your arguments against the duo’s credibility, he only wanted to use your piece as a jumping off point to discuss whether Democrats actually want the U.S. to lose the war in Iraq. His ‘strategists’ both agreed that, yes, they want to win. Kabuki at its best.

P.S. Tucker claims in that segment to have been against the invasion, says he did not vote for Bush in 2004, and that the President will go down as one of the worst in history. About a second of Googling reveals that Carlson did, in fact, support the invasion, but changed his mind after the first year [citing this].

Pretending to be a war opponent notwithstanding one’s support for the war seems to be a trend today (though not only today). And it is amazing, though it should not be, how easily manipulated the media is by this tactic.

Attention: journalists and news producers: they have these new things now called “computers” that record what people say and write and keep all of that stored. So if someone claims to be a “war critic” or “war opponent,” you can actually look and find out whether that is true.

UPDATE VI: ThinkProgress has the video of a petulant Tucker Carlson protesting the “ferocious” attacks on O’Hanlon and Pollack by bloggers.

UPDATE VII: More on O’Hanlon and Pollack throughout 2006 and 2007, here.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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