President Obama's Impossible Choices in Iraq

Three weeks later, in "Iraq's Pathetic Pols," Podhoretz had this to say about Iraq's politicians:

The people of Iraq have done their part. They voted, at great personal risk, in overwhelming numbers on three separate occasions .... And what has come from it? The astounding dereliction of Iraq’s elites, the supposed leaders and future leaders of the country. Shiite politicians won a plurality of the seats, yet they’ve spent months caviling and complaining about sharing power in any way with the minority Sunnis. Now Shiite pols are warring among themselves, jockeying for power and, most ominously, lining up with different armed militias to demonstrate that they have firepower of their own and can’t be ignored .... Iraq’s Sunni and Kurd politicians are far from faultless as well .... It’s a tragedy that the politicians have failed to rise to the challenge as well as the man and woman in the Iraqi street .... The question remains ... whether Iraq’s elites can find it in themselves to act in ways that further their country’s democratic future instead of collapsing into factional anarchy.

This is but a small sample of Podhoretz's inconsistent commentary. How does this man still have confidence in his ability to forecast events in Iraq? Here's more analysis from August 2006 expressing yet another take on the country

The grinding Second War may have come to a successful conclusion due to two events: The formation of the Iraqi government on May 20 and the killing of Zarqawi on June 8. The inability of the enemies of progress to prevent the government from coming to power must have been a huge blow, and certainly the death of its key strategist may have been the coup de grace. The Coalition casualty toll has decelerated radically in the last 9 weeks. But now Iraqis are dying at a gruesome rate—in civil strife between Shiites and Sunnis.

As many as 1,300 people were killed last month alone.

This is the Third Iraq War, and the most striking aspect of it is that it doesn’t involve us. The Sunnis have now embarked on what I think is a pretty crazy strategy of trying to engage Iraq’s Shiites in vicious sectarian conflict. It’s crazy because the Shiites outnumber the Sunnis three-to-one. It’s even crazier because the Shiites have a natural ally in Iran, a Shiite nation that can secretly or not so secretly help them to win. But then, the Sunni strategies in this conflict haven’t been entirely rational. Saddam’s demented strategy before the war failed to keep us from invading. The insurgent strategy of trying to drive us out ultimately failed to shake American and British resolve. And now they seemed determined to start a civil war that they can only lose.

If the Sunnis and Shiites really go at it, it’s hard to see what exactly we can do to get them to stop. And thus, if the civil war flowers fully, the Third Iraq War may be the one we’re going to lose. Even though we’re not one of the combatants, a sectarian victory by Shiites fighting with Iran’s backing will strengthen Tehran. And a stronger Iran is not something any American should want to see. If Iraq wants to commit suicide in this manner—if the Sunnis want to be massacred and the Shiites want to end up under Iran’s thumb—what can be done to prevent it?

This is directly at odds with the notion that Obama even could've lost Iraq by failing to keep troops there. But why expect consistency over years from Podhoretz when his always confident analysis of the war has swung at others times in a matter of weeks?

The optimal policy in Iraq right now is beyond my knowledge. I strongly suspect that it is beyond everyone else's knowledge too, but if the choice is between trusting the neoconservatives or Obama, as depressing as that choice is to me, I have no problem determining who's been wrong on Iraq earlier, more often, and with greater consequences in the past, though they never admit it. Hawkish hubris and irrepressible faux-certainty makes Obama look good by comparison, quite a feat given his own ample missteps and shortcomings. Let's all hope that in the present crisis he succeeds spectacularly, whatever that means, remembering that none of us would know just what to do in his place.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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