On going to Iraq

[Conor Friedersdorf]

Says Matt:

...there's really something very strange about the conceit that flying to Iraq and taking a guided tour courtesy of the U.S. military is the best way to learn about the country. I went to Spain for a week once, saw the central parts of Madrid and took some day trips to noteworthy towns that were easily accessible by train, but to answer even very basic question about Spain like "how wealthy is this country?" or "how many immigrants live here?" you need to look up the data not wander around.

Matt is right that there are a lot of things visiting a country can't tell you, but my experience of travel is that there are a lot of things visiting a country can tell you that you'd be hard pressed to glean from merely reading up on the place.

Prior to taking residence in Seville during the spring of 2004, I'd lived there for 6 months, read up on Catholicism in Spanish history and enjoyed several descriptive passages about the Holy Week processions that transform the city each year.

As you can imagine, the picture I formed in my head from my reading proved untrue to the experience of actually being in the city for the relevant week. It went beyond my notion of the aesthetics involved -- seeing Semana Santa gave me a whole new perspective on how Catholicism is practiced in different cultures (I attended Catholic school growing up), and challenged my notions about how a secular culture might host a very public religious celebration.Were we fighting a war in Andalusia that included a strong religious aspect, I'd certainly count it as an advantage for a decision-maker to have seen Semana Santa up close.

That's not to say that John McCain will necessarily be better at Iraq policy than Barack Obama (or that Barack Obama will be better at Kenyan policy, for that matter), but were I elected president, I'd want to visit the places I'd be making decisions about to the extent possible, and I hope that whoever prevails between Senator McCain and Senator Obama visits Iraq, among other places. It's much easier to grasp the import and consequences of your actions when you've actually seen the country you're going to bomb or pacify or police or withdraw from, the Iraqis you're going to befriend or kill or enlist or abandon or empower, and the soldiers who are going to be risking their lives for the cause.

Finally, a word about the politics of all this: Matt says that "active duty generals are hard surrogates for Obama to push back against." One effective way to push back would be to say, "When I went to Iraq, I asked my military guides to show me the very same place you are talking about. Here is the lesson I gleaned from talking to the people I met there." The more I think about it, the more I conclude that Obama and the country will be better insofar as he makes a couple productive trips to Iraq.