"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
This month, after almost nine years that left 4,484 American soldiers and well over 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead, the U.S. war in Iraq came to an end. As the troubling recent reports indicate, the new Iraq will continue to struggle with enduring political tensions and serious security challenges for years to come.
As my colleague Peter Juul and I noted in our recent report on the war’s costs, The Iraq War Ledger, the end of former Iraq President Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime represents a considerable global good, and a nascent democratic Iraqi republic partnered with the United States could potentially yield benefits in the future. But when weighing those possible benefits against the costs of the Iraq intervention, there is simply no conceivable calculus by which Operation Iraqi Freedom can be judged to have been a successful or worthwhile policy.
While these questions will doubtless continue to be debated into the future, the holiday season and the New Year are an appropriate time to move beyond the rifts that so divided our country over this war.
But before we do, let’s take a moment to remember some of the people who got the Iraq War completely wrong. This is important not only as a historical matter, but also because many of these same people are now calling for escalation against Iran, from the same perches and sinecures whence they helped get our country into Iraq. And, as former general Anthony Zinni said in regard to the consequences of a war with Iran, “If you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you’re gonna love Iran.”
It’s worth noting that a lot of people got various things wrong about Iraq at various times. This writer is no exception. But the following critics are particularly notable not only because they were completely and catastrophically wrong about the costs and benefits of the Iraq War, and more generally about the capacity of American military power to determine outcomes, but also because they tended to go about it in the most condescending way possible. They have also suffered no apparent penalty for it. Going forward, our country will be safer and more secure in inverse proportion to the amount of influence these people have.
Bill Kristol, Editor, the Weekly Standard
It tells you a lot about the neocon Don that “Sarah Palin as John McCain’s VP” is not the dumbest thing he’s ever advocated. Kristol’s ability to be consistently wrong on the most important issues of the day is matched only by his refusal to ever cop to it (though the fact that he shut down the Project for the New American Century — the neocon letterhead most closely associated with the Iraq debacle — and rebooted it in 2009 as the Foreign Policy Initiative at least shows that he recognized that he had a branding problem).
It’s probably impossible to catalog all of Kristol’s incorrect assertions about Iraq, but surely one of the most representative is this dismissive response to war critics in 2003: “I think there’s been a certain amount of, frankly, a kind of pop sociology in America that, you know, somehow the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime.”
Soon after, of course, Iraq exploded into a civil war driven by Sunni and Shia militias trying to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime.
Kristol has been calling for escalation against Iran since at least 2006. Indeed, Kristol is so hot for Iran that President Bush reportedly mockingly referred to Kristol and fellow neocon Charles Krauthammer as “the bomber boys.” When even George W. Bush considers you too trigger-happy, it’s time to take stock.
Charles Krauthammer, columnist, the Washington Post
In April 2002, Krauthammer responded to critics who noted the absence of Iraqi WMDs, “Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We’ve had five weeks. Come back to me in five months. If we haven’t found any, we will have a credibility problem.” Indeed. April 22 is now observed as “Krauthammer Day,” on which Americans are encouraged to pause to consider his credibility problem.
Krauthammer responded angrily to the U.S withdrawal, declaring that “Obama lost Iraq,” a claim impressive for how effectively it mocks itself.
As for Iran, in July 2004 Krauthammer asked, “Did we invade the wrong country? One of the lessons now being drawn from the 9/11 report is that Iran was the real threat. The Iraq War critics have a new line of attack: We should have done Iran instead.” This is funny, because Iraq War critics have never actually ever said this.
Reule Marc Gerecht, senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Gerecht likes to joke that he talks about bombing Iran so much that “even my mother thinks I’ve gone too far,” which is funny because thousands of people will die.
Back in 2002, Gerecht dismissed as “unfounded” the idea that a war with Iraq could compromise America’s war on terrorism. “Self-interest and fear of American power, not feelings of fraternity and common purpose, are what will glue together any lasting international effort against terrorism,” Gerecht wrote. “It should be obvious that if the Bush administration now fails to go to war against Saddam Hussein, we will lose enormous face throughout the region.”
Gerecht’s understanding of the workings of power in the Middle East hasn’t gotten any more complex in the intervening years. If the Israelis “can badly damage Iran’s nuclear program, the regime will lose enormous face,” he wrote in the Weekly Standard last year. “While there is no guarantee that an Israeli raid would cause sufficient shock to produce a fatal backlash against Khamenei and the senior leadership of the Guards, there is a chance it would.” A magazine actually published this.
Gerecht has also claimed that bombing Iran could actually help Iran’s democracy movement. “If anything can jolt the pro-democracy movement forward, contrary to the now passionately accepted conventional wisdom, an Israeli strike against the nuclear sites is it.” Unmentioned by Gerecht is the reason why the conventional wisdom is so “passionately accepted”: Because Iranian pro-democracy activists have said repeatedly that an attack on Iran would devastate their movement.
Danielle Pletka, vice president, the American Enterprise Institute
An early backer of Iraqi confidence man Ahmad Chalabi — whom Pletka accused the U.S. of “betraying” when it was revealed that Chalabi had passed classified information to his friends in the Iranian government — Pletka helped make AEI into a key player behind the Iraq invasion.
When the war went bad, Pletka classily blamed … the Iraqis themselves, for not appreciating freedom enough. “Looking back, I felt secure in the knowledge that all who yearn for freedom, once free, would use it well,” Pletka wrote in 2008. “I was wrong. There is no freedom gene, no inner guide that understands the virtues of civil society, of secret ballots, of political parties.”
Pletka declared herself in agreement with recent Iranian propaganda that the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq represents a “golden victory” for Iran. In reality, of course, Iran’s “golden victory” was the U.S. invasion that removed Iran’s biggest foe, Saddam Hussein. It wasn’t the first time she’d been caught echoing Iranian talking points in an effort to build up Iran as an enemy. On a panel last February at the annual Herzliya Conference in Israel, Pletka dismissed former Israeli Mossad chief Efraim Halevi’s assertion that the U.S. and Israel were winning against Iran. “I understand the propaganda effect of saying we’re winning,” Pletka said, “but if Iran is losing, I’d like to be that kind of loser.”
“What I’m saying is not propaganda,” Halevi shot back. “The danger is in believing the propaganda of others.”
Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies, Council on Foreign Relations
“The debate about whether Saddam Hussein was implicated in the September 11 attacks misses the point,” Boot wrote — on Oct. 15, 2001. “Who cares if Saddam was involved in this particular barbarity?”
Once Saddam was removed, Boot continued, “We can impose an American-led, international regency in Baghdad, to go along with the one in Kabul. With American seriousness and credibility thus restored, we will enjoy fruitful cooperation from the region’s many opportunists, who will show a newfound eagerness to be helpful in our larger task of rolling up the international terror network that threatens us.”
Initially a huge fan of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s “New American Way of War,” Boot scoffed at those who suggested that “the war could last months and result in thousands of casualties” or “that Rumsfeld had placed the invasion in jeopardy by not sending enough troops.”
Years later, Boot lamented the size of the force that had been sent into Iraq and Afghanistan, blaming Clinton-era defense cuts which, in his newly revised view, “practically dictat[ed] that the forces sent to Afghanistan and Iraq would be too small to pacify two countries with a combined population of nearly 60 million.”
Urging President George W. Bush not to be swayed by antiwar protests in 2003, Boot wrote, “When the demands of protesters have been met, more bloodshed has resulted; when strong leaders have resisted the lure of appeasement, peace has usually broken out.”
Similarly railing against appeasement of Iran recently, Boot deployed the most overused historical reference in foreign policy, asking, “Why did the West do so little while the Nazis gathered strength in the 1930s?” As if the adoption of some of the most stringent multilateral sanctions ever, successfully supporting the appointment of a special UN human rights monitor for Iran, and unprecedented defense cooperation with regional allies was “doing little” to confront Iran.
Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent, the Atlantic
Goldberg wins the award for the single most condescending/most incorrect claim by an Iraq War supporter. In a Slate symposium on Iraq in 2002, Goldberg dismissed opponents of the invasion by claiming, “Their lack of experience causes them to reach the naive conclusion that an invasion of Iraq will cause America to be loathed in the Middle East, rather than respected.” Well, not so much.
In regard to Iran, Goldberg has stressed that he’s “opposed to either an Israeli or an American strike against Iran, especially at this moment.” But, he continued, “I’m all for creating the impression in Iran that Israel or America is preparing to strike.” (Interestingly, former Israeli Mossad chief Meir Dagan recently warned that this is precisely the sort of thing that could convince the Iranians that they need a nuclear capability “as quickly as possible.” But perhaps Dagan is just another one of those inexperienced, naive folk.)
Harold Rhode, senior advisor to Hudson Institute
A lesser-known player in the lead-up to the Iraq war (he worked in the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment), Rhode recently authored a piece for the Hudson Institute in which he claimed that “there would be no reason for this Iranian regime not to use -– or threaten to use — [nuclear] weapons against the Sunni Muslims and their oil fields, and against Iran’s non-Muslim enemies in Europe, the US, Israel and beyond” because, according to Rhode, Iranians believe “their Imam would come and save them.”
As I’ve written elsewhere, the idea that the Iranian regime, by virtue of its Shiite ideology, is uniquely immune to the cost-benefit calculations that underpin a conventional theory of deterrence is one unsupported by evidence. But Rhode’s claim is not out of character when one considers that he was also a supporter of perhaps the single most bizarre idea about how to handle post-invasion Iraq, which is the reason why he’s included here. As George Packer reports in his book “The Assassin’s Gate,” Rhode subscribed to the idea–first promulgated in the infamous “Clean Break” memo –”of restoring the Hashemite Kingdom in Iraq, with [Jordanian] King Hussein’s brother Prince Hassan on the throne and [Ahmed] Chalabi as prime minister.”
A bit of history: the British installed the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq in 1921, during the post-World War I League of Nations mandate era. Never regarded as legitimate by Iraqis, the monarchy was overthrown in 1958, with the Ba’ath Party eventually taking power in 1968. In other words, while some Iraq war boosters may have been content to figuratively repeat the mistakes of the past, Rhode wanted to literally repeat the mistakes of the past.
In order for America not to repeat the mistakes of Iraq, it’s important to reexamine the erroneous claims that helped get us there. As a response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Iraq War was intended to show the extent of America’s power. It succeeded only in showing its limits. Those who continue to suggest that the maintenance of American “credibility” requires launching new and more expensive military adventures should be reminded of this constantly.
Matt Duss, policy analyst at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, is a regular contributor to Salon. Follow him @mattdussMore Matt Duss.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)