The Making of 'A War We Just Might Win'--Hats Off to Glenn Greenwald

Tuesday, August 14, 2007 at 08:30 PM

At the end of July, Michael E. O'Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack published an Op-Ed in the NY Times and elsewhere headlined A war we just might win. Its optimistic view of the current state of things in Iraq made war supporters ecstatic and caused mainstream media to pass on the observation that these were war critics, see, and even they think things are looking up. Of course, all was not what it seemed.

Here's how the Op-Ed began:
Viewed from Iraq, where we just spent eight days meeting with American and Iraqi military and civilian personnel, the political debate in Washington is surreal. The Bush administration has over four years lost essentially all credibility. Yet now the administration's critics, in part as a result, seem unaware of the significant changes taking place.

Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration's miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily "victory," but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.

After the furnace-like heat, the first thing you notice when you land in Baghdad is the morale of our troops. In previous trips to Iraq we often found American troops angry and frustrated - many sensed they had the wrong strategy, were using the wrong tactics and were risking their lives in pursuit of an approach that could not work.

Today, morale is high. The soldiers and Marines told us they feel that they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus; they are confident in his strategy, they see real results and they feel now they have the numbers needed to make a real difference.

Everywhere, Army and Marine units were focused on securing the Iraqi population, working with Iraqi security units, creating new political and economic arrangements at the local level and providing basic services - electricity, fuel, clean water and sanitation - to the people. Yet in each place, operations had been appropriately tailored to the specific needs of the community. As a result, civilian fatality rates are down roughly a third since the surge began - though they remain very high, underscoring how much more still needs to be done.

It closed with this overt plea to congress:
How much longer should American troops keep fighting and dying to build a new Iraq while Iraqi leaders fail to do their part? How much longer can we wear down our forces in this mission? These haunting questions underscore the reality that the surge cannot go on forever. But there is enough good happening on the battlefields of Iraq today that Congress should plan on sustaining the effort at least into 2008.
Steve Huntley of the Chicago Sun Times was impressed:
We've been hearing more positive reports about the military surge strategy implemented by Gen. David Petraeus -- and they're coming from unlikely sources.

Perhaps the most influential assessment came in a New York Times op-ed titled "A war we just might win," written by Michael E. O'Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack of the prestigious liberal-leaning Brookings Institution. Well-known for their fierce criticism of the Bush administration's conduct of the war, O'Hanlon and Pollack said they were surprised by the military progress they saw during eight days in Iraq and "the potential to produce not necessarily 'victory' but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with." They said Congress should sustain the current strategy into 2008.

So was Noel Sheppard of News Busters:
Maybe more shocking, the following day, an op-ed was published in the New York Times claiming that "We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, "morale is high," and, as a result, this is "a war we just might win."

Adding to the shock is that this piece was written by two members of the Brookings Institution, which even Wikipedia acknowledges is "widely regarded as being politically liberal." The authors - Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack - described themselves as "two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration's miserable handling of Iraq."

Not anymore. Better prepare yourself for an alternate reality...

... How extraordinary to read this in the New York Times.

Thomas Sowell weighed in at the National Review:
Defeatism Defeated? Cracks on the homefront ...the solid front of the mainstream media in filtering out any positive news from Iraq and focusing only on American casualties — in the name of “honoring the troops” — is now starting to show cracks.

One of the most revealing cracks has appeared in, of all places, the New York Times, which has throughout the war used its news columns as well as its editorial pages to undermine the war in Iraq and paint the situation as hopeless.

But an op-ed piece in the July 30 New York Times by two scholars at the liberal Brookings Institution — Michael E. O’Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack — now paints a very different picture, based on their actual investigation on the ground in Iraq after the American troop surge under General Petraeus.

But....O'Hanlon & Pollack weren't exactly critics of the war so much as critics of the occupation strategy. And who cares if Brookings is generally a "liberal" institution? And, most importantly, exactly what kind of trip had O'Hanlon & Pollack really undertaken, what had they seen, who had they seen, how representative were these things? Glenn Greenwald started to ask those questions, loudly, and got immediately attacked by The National Review:
Greenwald Tackles Trees; Misses Forest Glenn Greenwald, president of the WWS fan club, spends an extraordinary amount of ink today trying to debunk the credentials of Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack as critics of the war in Iraq. He also argues that because their visit to Iraq was coordinated by the U.S. military, with the military arranging most of their visits and interviews in Iraq, that their opinion on the success of the surge is called into serious question.


Leaving aside the fact that Sandals doesn't arrange tours of Iraq, and that Greenwald's premise assumes that the military is a deceitful institution intent on manipulating the American people, O'Hanlon and Pollack are in good company in speaking of the changes in Iraq since the implementation of Operation Phantom Thunder. We await Greenwald's debunking of the optimistic comments from Senators Durbin, Casey, Levin and Reed, and Representatives Ellison and McNerney. Are all these war critics being fooled when they speak of the military progress in Iraq? The only other alternative--that they are closet supporters of the war in Iraq--can be dismissed out of hand.

So what was the actual basis for the O'Hanlon & Pollack Op-Ed? To O'Hanlon's credit, he sat down with Greenwald for an excellent interview that is available via Raw Story. Here's as big an excerpt of the relevant parts as I feel is a fair use; you can use the link to read the full interview (I highly recommend it):
Greenwald: OK, I just want to ask you some questions about the trip that you just took. Whose idea was that trip? How did that trip arise and who planned it?

O'Hanlon: Well, I have wanted to go back to Iraq for a long time. I feel it’s- I've been there once in September 2003 - it behoves anybody who's working on this issue a lot of the time as I've been for a few years trying to get some on-the-ground experience and observations. And so I've been trying to get back for a couple of years and I started putting in these requests a little bit more assertively...

Greenwald: Who did you put them in with?

O'Hanlon: To the military, starting in about the spring.

Greenwald: And then, at some point they accepted and said that they would organize a trip for you?

O'Hanlon: Yeah. I think the trip was ultimately originally scheduled for other people as well. I think it’s public knowledge that Tony Cordesman also on our trip, and I think he had plans to go before Ken and I managed to get ourselves invited as well, but --

Greenwald: Why did you need the permission of the U.S. military in order to go? Why couldn't you just go yourself?

O'Hanlon: I suppose I could have, but I was hopeful that someone could help take care of my security, for one thing. I'm not going to try to sound more heroic than I am. And also I wanted to talk to a lot of military personnel and get their impressions.

And also I'm not a long-standing enough specialist on Iraqi politics. I'm more of a defense scholar. So I don't have the kinds of contacts in Iraq that some of my friends who are first and foremost Iraq specialists have. And therefore in order to have a useful trip, I need to sort of tag along with somebody. So this was a great benefit to me that not only the U.S. military would help arrange the trip, but also that Ken Pollack and Tony Cordesman -- who were two long-standing Iraq experts, two of our nation's best Iraq experts -- would be on the trip as well. So for all these reasons, that was why I took the chance to go on that trip.

Greenwald: You were there for eight days, right?

O'Hanlon: Correct.

Greenwald: Eight full days, or...?

O'Hanlon: Well, if you’re counting hours, I guess seven and a half days, you know . . . .

Greenwald: And you went to how many cities?

O'Hanlon: I went to about -- well cities -- if I count cities and also forward operating bases, and I’m happy to break these down one by one in a minute -- I went to probably two dozen separate sites inside of Iraq, and roughly half of them being towns or cities and the other half being various kinds of combat outposts.

Greenwald: So you went to roughly a dozen different towns or cities?

O'Hanlon: Yeah, or sectors of a given city. In Baghdad, for example, we went to three or four different parts of town, and then also to three or four parts of the belts around Baghdad. So depending on how you break it down. If your point is that seven and a half days is not a long time, I'll be the first to agree.

Greenwald: What was the longest you stayed in any one place?

O'Hanlon: Well, we spent each evening in Baghdad, and we spent a number of days in Baghdad talking to different people, so we always in Baghdad for a good chunk of any given day. For some days we were in Baghdad for longer chunks, anywhere from the overnight hours of the evening always but sometimes also a longer part of the day.

Most of the other places we were anywhere from 2-4 hours.

Greenwald: The first line of your Op-Ed said:"viewed from Iraq where we just spent the last eight days interviewing American and Iraqi military and civilian personnel..."

How did you arrange the meetings with the Iraqi military and civilian personnel?

O'Hanlon: Well, a number of those -- and most of those were arranged by the U.S. military. So I'll be transparent about that as well. These were to some extent contacts of Ken and Tony, but that was a lesser number of people. The predominant majority were people who we came into contact with through the itinerary the D.O.D. developed.

[Break in recording – reconstructed from notes and, regarding parts used in the article,with O’Hanlon’s confirmation]:

Greenwald: Were you concerned that you were getting an unrepresentative view of the situation in Iraq because the Iraqis with whom you spoke were ones hand-picked by the U.S. military?

O'Hanlon: If someone wanted to argue that we were not getting a representative view of Iraqis because the ones we spoke with were provided by the military, I would agree that this would be a genuine concern. Certainly that might have influenced the impressions that we were presented, though by no means did all of the Iraqis agree with the view of progress in Iraq.

Greenwald: Given that some of the claims in your Op-Ed are based upon your conversations with Iraqis, and that the Iraqis with whom you spoke were largely if not exclusively ones provided to you by the U.S. military, shouldn't that fact have been included in your Op-Ed?

O'Hanlon: If the suggestion is that in a 1,400 word Op-Ed, we ought to have mentioned that, I can understand that criticism, and if we should have included that, I apologize for not having done so.

But I want to stress that the focus here was on the perspective of the U.S. military, and I did a lot of probing of what I was told, and remain confident in the conclusions that we reached about the military successes which we highlighted. But if you're suggesting that some of our impressions might have been shaped by the military's selection of Iraqis, and that we might have disclosed that, that is, I think, fair enough.

Read the entire interview, it's worth it.

The impression I'm left with is that O'Hanlon & Pollock saw what the DoD wanted them to see. In answer to the National Review's question of how to explain optimistic comments from Senators Durbin, Casey, Levin and Reed, how about the same explanation--they saw what the DoD wanted them to see.

As to the right wing war supporters jumping all over the Op-Ed to tout their own agenda, without even bothering to ask the obvious questions that Greenwald asked, that's more like S.O.P. than a surprise. But it's beyond disappointing that people like O'Hanlon & Pollock would write what they did and leave out the circumstances of how they acquired their information. If the legislators who have lately been more rosy in their assessments acquired their info the same way, then shame on them, every one of them.

Based on the Greenwald interview with O'Hanlon, I'd have to say that if there is a war that the Iraq war supporters still think they just might win, it's the war for public opinion by means of manipulating the media.


...though by no means did all of the Iraqis agree with the view of progress in Iraq.

The 'hand picked by the DoD' factor ought to have been noted.

Greeny did apologise but Spud still thinks it should have been noted and factored into the assessment.

The Iraqi Dog and Pony show is a well greased machine by this time.

Patreous, by his own estimates, doesn't even have enough troops to secure Baghdad properly. The 80% political/ 20% military solution that Patreus speaks of, is doing 5/18 on the benchmark front politically with an increasingly destabilising Malaki government and that means despite Gen Dave's best efforts on the military front the job aint getting done anytime soon.

And the clock is running out.

In so many ways.

Be Well.