Full confession: this was going to be about Howie Kurtz and his courageous effort not to let being completely wrong about a story detract from the truthiness of the story itself, but then the Daily Beast, in a rare and tantalizing hint that somebody there has a clue, up and canned his ass. Not much room to go anywhere with that escapade after that.
Michael O’Hanlon, I learned just now, has a very carefully manicured Wikipedia entry. Regarding his thoughts on the coming Iraq War, his Wikipedia page contends that he “wrote in the Washington Post in late 2001 that any invasion of Iraq would be difficult and demanding and require large numbers of troops,” and “also predicted in early 2003 in an article in the journal Orbis that an invasion of Iraq could lead to as many as several thousand American fatalities, a prediction also unfortunately confirmed by later developments.” The citation for the first claim takes you to an article O’Hanlon co-wrote for the Washington Post in 2001, wherein he does, indeed, caution that the war could be sort of costly, though he definitely didn’t want to “exaggerate” those costs. It also includes this gem of a paragraph, warning of the Serious Risk:
Once we announced our goal as regime change, moreover, Saddam would have little reason not to use chemical or biological agents against invading U.S. forces. We would still win, but casualties would increase as a result. With his back against the wall, Saddam might also use his missiles and weapons of mass destruction against civilian targets in places such as Israel, Kuwait, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. As we deployed forces into the region, he could also try to sneak Iraqi agents armed with biological materials onto American or European territory. Even if some were caught, he could still credibly threaten reprisal in the event we actually began the invasion.
Turns out Saddam had one tiny reason not to use chemical or biological agents: HE DIDN’T HAVE ANY. But otherwise this is a very smrt take. The Orbis piece, where O’Hanlon is supposed to have warned that thousands of troops would die, is a long piece about how casualty estimates of the Gulf War were too high so we’ll use the casualties incurred in Panama (!) as a smrter approximation, from which he figures between 600-2000 American KIA, depending on how much of the Iraqi army genuinely resisted. Yeah, not so much. The key thing about both pieces is that in neither is O’Hanlon in any way critical of the planned war itself; he’s just the Sober Realist who recognizes that plenty of People Who Are Not Michael O’Hanlon will probably die in this war, but, you know, oops. Moreover, in both articles he makes his casualty projections by assuming a days-long conflict, with no consideration for the possibility that things could stretch on much, much longer, say for years, as they actually did. Overall excellent and prescient analysis.
In reality, O’Hanlon was a significant voice on the “(supposed-)Liberal Hawk” side that was heavily in favor of the Iraq War. He then spent the next four years simultaneously writing piece after piece about how wonderfully the whole Iraq project was going while also claiming to be a “harsh critic” of the Bush Administration (like all seasoned chickenhawks, he ran with the “Bush screwed it all up” defense rather than admit that the whole thing had been a horrible idea from the start). Amazingly, O’Hanlon was still flogging the “Iraq is turning a corner!” dead horse in 2007, a solid four years after his war had begun and long after anyone could reasonably have continued trying to claim that it had been a good idea. Then in 2008, he tried to rewrite (seriously, read that ThinkProgress piece, it’s shocking) his pre- and early-war prognostications so that he could, with a straight face, award himself a “7 out of 10” for accuracy despite being gob-smackingly wrong about pretty much everything.
Why does this matter? Because, and this comes as a great surprise to nobody, Michael O’Hanlon is a big proponent of the idea of sending US troops to Syria to end the Syrian Civil War.
O’Hanlon’s USA Today op-ed, like his pre-Iraq article in Orbis, manages to combine the worst aspects of the Do Something crowd (“Indeed, I tend to support these kinds of ideas myself,” he vastly understates) with a deeply flawed memory to determine that the model for ending the Syrian conflict is the 1992-1995 Bosnian War and the NATO response that contributed to, or at least coincided with, its end. It’s almost hard to know where to begin with this.
We need a debate about the right exit strategy in Syria before we enter into the war. The right model is neither Iraq, nor Afghanistan nor Libya, but the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Two decades ago, we watched similar killings for a couple years in the nation that had broken away from Yugoslavia, until international outrage and battlefield dynamics converged to make a solution possible. We bombed Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian militias, then forced him into a deal that created a “soft partition” of Bosnia.
The “couple years” we “watched similar killings” in Bosnia (the clashes that prefaced the war started in 1991 and NATO didn’t intervene until 1995) was long enough for Bosnian Serb militias and paramilitaries to ethnically cleanse (and guess why that term became part of the lexicon?) huge portions of the republic that then became Serbian enclaves, then for Croat militias (supplied with arms by the west) to do likewise. This is why I say the NATO campaign “coincided with” the end of the war, because if your war aims are to create ethnically pure zones for your people, and you do that (i.e., achieve your initial aims), the fighting tends to slow down on its own. See also, the decline in Iraqi violence supposedly caused by The Surge, which actually happened because the paramilitaries who were trying to ethnically cleanse their neighborhoods had largely succeeded and thus run out of reasons to keep fighting. But sure, NATO started bombing Bosnian Serb forces and the Dayton Agreement followed soon after, and there was some causation there. This led to what O’Hanlon is calling a “soft partition” of Bosnia, but, and you tell me, when a country is divided into two clearly defined ethnic zones, with boundaries, is that a “soft” partition?
It wasn’t perfect, but 18 years later, Serbs, Muslims and Croats have not gone back to war.
No, they haven’t. Instead (see also), they live in a dysfunctional failed state, split into enclaves where ethnic divisions are still far, far deeper than they were before the war. If all you care about is ending the shooting, then this is a potential model. But if you actually hope to resolve the conflict, this isn’t the way.
Yet this is precisely the model that O’Hanlon wants for Syria:
With a Bosnia-type approach, Assad’s Alawite minority would keep a section of the country, most likely along the coast, where local police would be the main security forces. Assad himself would have to step down and ideally would go into exile. Kurds would keep similar sections of the country in the north. The main central cities would be shared.
So, ethnic cleansing then? Shove the Alawites onto the coast and bottle them up, give the Kurds a region of their own, and then everybody can keep to themselves and live under a government that’s crippled with ethnic tension and an inability to act. It “worked” in Bosnia, it’s “working” in Iraq, so why not keep doing it?
Then there’s the troops, so many troops, let’s put them all in the field:
Yes, this plan does imply a number of U.S. peacekeepers on the ground, perhaps comparable in number to the 20,000 who began the job in Bosnia in 1995. The United States should, however, commit to such a deployment only if other countries, including Arab states and Turkey, provide the majority of peacekeepers. In fact, we should seek pledges of international participation before moving to any direct U.S. involvement in the conflict.
Of course we should only commit to this plan if we put lots of non-American troops at risk too. And notice how we’ve shrugged off the issue of how we actually get from here to the point where peacekeepers (and note, they’re supposed to be peaceKEEPERS, not peaceMAKERS) can be safely inserted. An aerial campaign worked in Bosnia, ipso facto it will work everywhere, including Syria, where the air defense capability is considerably more potent than anything NATO pilots had to cope with in Bosnia or, later, in Serbia. Incredibly compelling analysis there. One country is just like any other.
For his tireless efforts to put other people in harm’s way, I offer Michael O’Hanlon this plate of cookies. They’re shaped like soldiers, so maybe he can get his rocks off eating metaphorical troops as opposed to putting the real ones in danger: