Thursday, March 13, 2008

Kagan versus Rosen on the 'Surge'

On March 11, 2008, the Online Newshour with Jim Lehrer hosted a debate between Fred Kagan and Nir Rosen on the effectiveness of the 'Surge' in Iraq. You can read the transcript here or watch the ~14 min video here.

Go rea
d or watch it, but here are a few selections:

Fred ("Hooray for the 'Surge'") Kagan:

JIM LEHRER: And now, two very different views of the surge. They come from two frequent visitors to Iraq. Both are experts who have written extensively about the situation on the ground there.

Nir Rosen is a fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security. Frederick Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a former professor at West Point.

Mr. Kagan, to you first. You agree with the president that the surge has been successful, correct?

FREDERICK KAGAN, American Enterprise Institute: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: And why do you say that?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, the main purpose of the surge was to get the sectarian violence in and around Baghdad under control so that it would be possible for the Iraqis to start making political progress.

You have to remember that, when the surge went in, the purpose actually was just to get Baghdad under control. It was initially called the Baghdad security plan.

A variety of developments, including the turning of the Sunni Arabs against al-Qaida and the insurgency, have allowed us to be playing for much more than that. And so we've actually managed to stabilize a large swath of central Iraq.

And there has also been remarkable political progress. There's been progress on almost every one of the major pieces of benchmark legislation.

And so -- and the Iraqis are -- there's a new fluidity. When you look at the Iraqi political dynamic in Baghdad now, at the senior levels and throughout, there's a new fluidity in the equation, which comes from the fact that the Iraqis certainly feel that violence has dropped to levels where what they are starting to care about is less security and more moving forward with their country.

Nir ("Poo poo on the 'Surge'") Rosen:

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Rosen, do you see the same -- do you look at the scene and see the same thing, less violence, more political possibilities on the Iraqi side?

NIR ROSEN, Fellow, New York University Center on Law and Security: No, I think it's absolutely a failure, the surge. I think that less violence is actually a sign of the failure of the surge.

The violence during a civil war was very logical. It was an attempt to remove Sunnis from Shia areas and Shia from Sunnis areas, and it's been incredibly successful. There are virtually no mixed areas left in Iraq.

You have what Americans call gated communities, effectively a Somalia-alike situation, where you have different neighborhoods surrounded by walls, controlled by a militia or a warlord. And they're sectarianally pure, all Shia, all Sunni. There's no reconciliation between the two communities.

You have, fortunately for the Americans, the Mahdi army decided to impose what they call the freeze, so Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader, could sort of clean his house, get rid of some of the bad elements there, and prepare for the next round.

Likewise, the Sunni resistance realized it had lost the civil war. Sunnis were basically expelled from Baghdad. They had lost their resistance to the occupation.

And beginning in 2006, you saw them being much more introspective in Damascus, in Jordan, and in Iraq, thinking, "How do we proceed? Our main enemy is what we call the Iranians." When they say Iranians, they mean basically all the Shias.

Nir Rosen can say the "Resistance" lost all he wants. I think that's great. But, "less violence is actually a sign of the failure of the surge."?!?! Rosen seems to want the violence to explode again almost as badly as some of our self-identifying "antiwar" propagandists from the comments sections of the Iraqi blogs do (especially the ones who come from, oh, I don't know- Italy and South Africa, for example...)

ADDENDUM (from Jeffrey Schuster): When Nir Rosen's Rolling Stone article appeared and I reviewed it here at IBC (Nir Rosen's Fistful of Dollars), I decided to verify my analysis by asking Michael Totten, a writer who had just returned from Iraq himself. On his comments page, I asked him:
Have you read Nir Rosen's Rolling Stone piece, “The Myth of the Surge”? The profiles of Osama, the Awakening leader, and Capt. Arkan, from the Iraqi National Police, are quite good. But I think it's a flawed article. Why? The frame used is too inflammatory and the commentary is too intrusive and at times borders on slander. In the third sentence of the opening paragraph, he writes:

This is what “victory” looks like in an up-scale neighborhood of Iraq: Lakes of mud and sewage fill the streets.

I wonder how his editors allowed him to use sneer quotes so early into the article. Why tip your hand so soon?

Elsewhere, he steps back from watching a few Iraqis being arrested and says:

Raids by U.S. forces have become part of a daily routine in Iraq, a systematic form of violence imposed on an entire nation. A foreign military occupation is, by its very nature, a terrifying and brutal thing, and even the most innocuous American patrols inevitably involve terrorizing innocent Iraqi civilians.

Has that been your experience reporting from Iraq? Would you say that as you accompanied American soldiers that they were “terrorizing innocent Iraqi civilians”? It might be Nir is correct on this. I'd like to hear your opinion.
Michael replied:
Jeffrey: Would you say that as
you accompanied American soldiers that they were “terrorizing innocent
Iraqi civilians”?

I wrote:
Okay, thanks for answering. Here's another question. You have to work with editors all the time, right? I argue in my review that his article would have been much more persuasive if his editors had asked him to add more balance and reduce the pontificating, letting the readers themselves decide what to conclude. From reading the Iraqi bloggers, I know that, while Baghdad is still a dangerous place to be, Dora is just one neighborhood among many others, where Iraqis go shopping every day and one doesn't feel as if one is walking through Nir's “post-apocolyptic” moral/physical landscape.

So how do you think his editors handled him? Did they do a good job? A good job for his kind of reporting? I understand that a slice of the audience at the Rolling Stone is already predisposed to the chaos/surge-is-failure angle. I imagine for them, then, Nir's third sentence with its sneer-quoted “victory” is very persuasive. It confirms the views they already have. But, I guess, I expect more from journalists. What do you think?
Michael responded:
Jeffrey: So how do you think his editors handled him? Did they do a good job?


A good job for his kind of reporting?


I expect more from journalists.

Why? This is typical.

What do you think?

Some editors I've worked with force me be to balanced. They tend to be editors who don't share my views. Editors who do share my views don't push me as hard to be balanced. This is probably universal.

If I were Rosen's editor, his piece might have been good. It certainly would have been better than it is.
We went on to discuss which writers we thought had done a good job covering Iraq. In my opinion, for the Newshour Online, Nir Rosen is playing a Crossfire-like role, a foil to Kagan. He's invited to play the guy who says that the surge isn't working because ... violence has decreased. Huh? What could be better than that? The strange aspect to his role, however, is that it's just possible that Nir Rosen really believes what he's writing. His ideological bias deforms much of his writing, marring a lot of the competent on-the-ground interviews he conducts. As I wrote over on Totten's comments page, it would be better for Rosen if he were honest about his ideological position from the beginning, thus making it easier for us to interpret his reporting.


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