Thursday, October 27, 2011

Catch of the Day (Plus: Elections, Democracy, and the Surge)

How about one for Matt Duss, who has been having fun beating up on Fred Kagan and associates over the Iraq withdrawal. I was going to give one to Duss the other day on the same subject, but this one is even better; after quoting Fred and Kim Kagan on why the withdrawal ruins everything, Duss notes: "What the Kagans seem to be describing here is a scenario in which the surge didn’t really achieve its goals."

Exactly right. The Kagans say that the withdrawal is a defeat of the US by Iran, but the truth about this is that George W. Bush negotiated the US surrender when he signed the agreement to leave; Obama has been doing little more than managing that surrender. Although it's worth saying that managing a surrender is a tough assignment, since there are always going to be people around who will suggest that sticking around just a little bit longer (despite the agreement) could make all the difference; expect those same people to blame Obama for surrendering too soon whenever anything goes wrong in Iraq or the general region once the US troops are gone.

The other thing worth noting, again, is the imperfect but real relationship between elections and policy. Imagine if Republicans had done well in the 2006 elections, retaining control of both branches of Congress (which requires also imagining a much more popular George W. Bush in 2006). What happens in Iraq then? My guess is...more of the same. No surge, but no withdrawal, either. What the 2006 elections "caused" (quotes because direct causation is too strong) was for Bush to start actively managing the war with an eye towards being able to at least have it winding down in some way by fall 2008. That this wound up producing the surge and an increase in US casualties is, I suppose, ironic, and certainly not what the most energetic folks in the 2006 election cycle wanted, but even putting aside any claims that the surge "worked" it's still the case that active management of the war was almost certainly better than the autopilot that seemed to be the case in 2004, 2005, and 2006 up to election day.

A lot of people, of course, were very upset that Democratic electoral victories sparked in large part by disgust with the war apparently produced the surge and increased casualties. And again, I'm not claiming here that everything worked out perfectly the way that antiwar folks should have wanted it to if only they understood things better (remember, I started this by linking to a piece that pointed out that the surge didn't work).

But while I think the policy stunk, I'd still defend the democratic process that produced it. After all, the people who were seriously antiwar in 2006 were a kind of minority, too (a larger minority than pro-war types if I remember the polling correctly, but still a plurality, not a majority). A whole lot of people in 2006 didn't feel strongly either way, and they voted on other issues: the economy, something about their local candidates, guns or abortion or Afghanistan or Katrina or GOP corruption in Congress, or just plain normal partisanship.

What the 2006 elections did is what elections can do: they pushed politicians who previously had been acting as if no one cared about Iraq one way or another to start acting as if they could be punished if Iraq went bad. They aligned politicians' incentives correctly. And the result (down the road, and after another bloodbath, and still not quite done yet) was, I think, one of the potential results of getting those incentives aligned correctly. (Of course, remember that in 2007-2008 George W. Bush was just as legitimately an elected president as the Congress was legitimate; the Constitution forces overlapping temporal majorities to get along, too). Well, elections do more than that; they also produced some representatives whose representative relationship with their constituents was closely tied to opposing the war. That group wasn't a majority in 2007-2008, but having them around makes a difference, too.

Elections aren't plebiscites; they don't actually tell us "what the voters think" or "what the voters demand." If we expect that of them, we'll wind up thinking that democracy doesn't work well. But that's wrong; it just asks more of elections than they can give. Which doesn't mean that self-government doesn't work; it just means that if you really want self-government, it can't be only about voting. If that's all you got, you don't have much of a democracy.

I seem to have wandered a bit. Back to Duss: really good post, and nice catch!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?