In Socratic thinking, the wisest of men admit they know nothing; those who claim expertise are considered suspect--a thought that often crosses my mind when watching cable news shows or reading a commentary piece by the "expert" of the day.
The war in Iraq has created a large stable of Middle East "experts," each of whom feels qualified to occasionally posit what they advertise with unblinking certainty as the ideal strategy the US should pursue.
Many do not enjoy a depth of knowledge and experience to adequately support their opinions, but that is of no consequence, since it seems a preening self-confidence has replaced logic, reason, and argument support as the key qualifications for developing a reputation for contributing value to the public discourse.
With the era of egos currently at its peak, the admission of one who voices a disclaimer that he is no expert before offering an opinion on Iraq makes this jaded blogger take note.
As a former soldier and member of the British Foreign Office, Rory Stewart served the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq as Deputy Governor of the southern provinces of Maysan and Dhi Qar from 2003 to 2004, an experience he described in the book The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.
The New York Review of Books has published portions of a discussion with Stewart from an event at the Asia Society in New York on April 20, 2007. When an audience member asked what Stewart would do in Iraq now, he responded:
What would I do in Iraq now? I am not an expert, but I believe that the time has come to withdraw, that our presence is infantilizing the Iraqi political system. That we're like an inadequate antibiotic. We are sufficiently strong to have turned what might have been a conventional civil war into a highly unconventional neighborhood conflict. But we're not strong enough to eliminate it entirely. At the same time I fear that, without intending to, we have discredited democracy in the eyes of many Iraqis. We have created a situation in which many Iraqis now feel that the only way to keep security is to bring back a strongman. They are extremely skeptical of our programs and suggestions for development.
I think that Iraqi politicians are considerably more competent, canny, and capable of compromise than we acknowledge. Iraqi nationalism, in my view, can trump the Shiite–Sunni divisions. Our continuing presence is encouraging Iraqi politicians to play hard-ball with each other. Were we to leave, they would be weaker and under more pressure to compromise. In our relations with the Iraqis we often blocked negotiations with Moqtada al-Sadr or Sunni insurgency leaders, or the offer of troop withdrawals and amnesties for former Baathists and insurgents, among others. Yet these will probably be elements in any kind of settlement.
And therefore, my belief—and I emphasize this is my belief, not a certainty—is that were we to withdraw, things would improve. I say belief because that may not be the case. I can't predict the future. Iraq and its neighbors and its internal forces are extremely difficult to understand.