"Vox is wrong about X" is a new genre of political commentary that has sprouted within the last year. It was probably inevitable given the internet site’s stated mission to be the place "where you go to understand the news and the world around you." Here’s Breitbart’s list of 49 times Vox got it wrong in 2014, adding on to a Deadspin article which listed 46 instances.
I don’t care about most of those stories – the date of the longest night on earth is an interesting but ultimately useless piece of information – but yesterday Vox stepped out of line in a much more egregious way.
The headline reads "Blackwater’s Baghdad massacre is a reminder of how the US became what it hated in Iraq." No burying the lede there. The rest of the piece attempts to support this thesis in a shockingly myopic way. The author, Amanda Taub, identifies herself as "Senior Sadness Correspondent" and a "Former human rights lawyer, now covering foreign policy, human rights, and shetland ponies."
No word on whether the shetland ponies have ever been to Iraq, but it’s clear Ms. Taub has not been, nor has she studied or thought about the Iraq War in any kind of systematic manner. She has a conclusion, and an incorrect one at that – Americans were the problem in Iraq, not part of the solution – and attempts to shoehorn the atrocity in Nisour Square to fit that conclusion.
The first clue that something is awry with the analysis is her omission of religion. The words "Sunni" and "Shia" appear only once (the word Kurd, never) in reference to armed militias, but Ms. Taub has no interest in analyzing that dynamic.Her thoughts are simplistic and binary, saying for example that for Iraqis Nisour Square was "a reason not to trust their government to protect them."
Once Malaki was elected prime minister the Sunnis in Iraq had plenty of reasons not to trust their government to protect them. The Shia, following decades of brutal Sunni rule, had reasons not to trust any Sunnis remaining in government positions. And the Kurds didn’t trust either Sunni or Shia and sequestered themselves in the north as much as possible.
If incidents like Abu Ghraib or Haditha had given Iraqis reason not to trust US forces, by the time the Surge rolled around in 2007 most Iraqis had spent enough time around US forces to know that they could trust us more than they could trust rival ethnic or religious groups. I asked every Iraqi who came to see me at my Joint Security Station the same question – why me? – and they all gave me a variation of the same answer. They didn’t know who else to trust.
The heart of Taub’s analysis is the idea that the US was "a powerful group that refused to be constrained by the very rule of law it was trying to build." Were Taub speaking of Iraq circa 2004 she might be correct, but post-Surge Iraq saw US forces very much constrained by the rule of law wewere trying to build.
During my final tour in 2009, we had very good intelligence telling us that a bomb maker was in a specific area of Kirkuk. We raided the house, found who we thought wewere looking for but found no other evidence – no weapons or explosives. We turned that gentleman over to Iraqi authorities who kept him about24 hours before releasing him without being charged. The rule of law had begun to take hold.
I’ve written about Nisour Square and military contractorspreviously in this space. I have no love for Blackwater and I’m on record as saying the jury reached the correct verdict at the trial. Ms. Taub tries to equate this rogue contracted outfit with the rest of the soldiers serving in Iraq in 2007, but she can’t do it. She doesn’t even try to support the assertion, she just assumes the reader will know it’s true.
But even the Iraqi she quotes at the beginning of the piece can tell the difference. She notes that Mohammed Hafedh Abdulrazzaq Kinani testified at the sentencing hearing that "Blackwater was perceived as so powerful that its employees could kill anyone and get away with it." Notice the specificity. Blackwater was the culprit, not the US Army, US Military, US forces, etc.
The people of Baghdad knew what a Blackwater truck looked like, and they were quite capable of distinguishing it from US military vehicles. The Iraqi Brigade commander I worked with, and who was on the scene at Nisour Square that day, understood very well how different Blackwater was and how unrepresentative of US troops they were.
Blackwater was an aberration, not the rule Ms. Taub needs you to think they were. Only by making Blackwater’s atrocity in 2007 somehow representative of all US forces in Iraq does her case become plausible.
But if her thesis were plausible – if the US really did "become what it hated in Iraq" – then other things should also have happened.
The Sunni tribes, for example, should have remained loyal to Al Qaeda. That they chose to work with US and Iraqi Shia forces clearly indicates that they trusted us (they could not have foreseen that Obama would later abandon them so completely).
The Surge should have failed. We put thousands of troops into small outposts scattered throughout the country and they interacted more closely with Iraqis then they ever had before. If we were undermining the rule of law then Iraqis would have rejected our presence. The opposite happened, they embraced us to a much greater extent.
If the US had become what we hated in Iraq, we would not have left the country in a state of relative peace in 2011. And if Blackwater was somehow representative of all US forces in Iraq, we would have seen a lot more footage of atrocities like Nisour Square.
Taub isn’t just wrong, her conclusion is precisely the opposite of what the facts on the ground suggest. Vox can screw up can screw up the number of toilets in the city of Boulder and we’ll all have a laugh about it, but Iraq remains a serious foreign policy issue which deserves a more rigorous analysis than she offers.
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