Wednesday, November 30, 2005


Why does the U.S. Army hate America and love the terrorists? I don't know their rationale, but clearly having Martin Van Creveld (a professor of military history at the Hebrew University) as the only non-American author on the U.S. Army's required reading list for officers is an indication of traitorous, liberal tendencies. Here is the latest from the military historian himself:

For misleading the American people, and launching the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C sent his legions into Germany and lost them, Bush deserves to be impeached and, once he has been removed from office, put on trial along with the rest of the president's men. If convicted, they'll have plenty of time to mull over their sins.
Yeah, but Martin quit being so diplomatic. I mean, tell us how you really feel. Sheesh. Here are some of Martin's other observations:

Handing over their bases or demolishing them if necessary, American forces will have to fall back on Baghdad. From Baghdad they will have to make their way to the southern port city of Basra, and from there back to Kuwait, where the whole misguided adventure began. When Prime Minister Ehud Barak pulled Israel out of Lebanon in 2000, the military was able to carry out the operation in a single night without incurring any casualties. That, however, is not how things will happen in Iraq.

Not only are American forces perhaps 30 times larger, but so is the country they have to traverse. A withdrawal probably will require several months and incur a sizable number of casualties. As the pullout proceeds, Iraq almost certainly will sink into an all-out civil war from which it will take the country a long time to emerge — if, indeed, it can do so at all. All this is inevitable and will take place whether George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice like it or not.

Having been thoroughly devastated by two wars with the United States and a decade of economic sanctions, decades will pass before Iraq can endanger its neighbors again. Yet a complete American withdrawal is not an option; the region, with its vast oil reserves, is simply too important for that. A continued military presence, made up of air, sea and a moderate number of ground forces, will be needed.

First and foremost, such a presence will be needed to counter Iran, which for two decades now has seen the United States as "the Great Satan." Tehran is certain to emerge as the biggest winner from the war — a winner that in the not too distant future is likely to add nuclear warheads to the missiles it already has. In the past, Tehran has often threatened the Gulf States. Now that Iraq is gone, it is hard to see how anybody except the United States can keep the Gulf States, and their oil, out of the mullahs' clutches.

A continued American military presence will be needed also, because a divided, chaotic, government-less Iraq is very likely to become a hornets' nest. From it, a hundred mini-Zarqawis will spread all over the Middle East, conducting acts of sabotage and seeking to overthrow governments in Allah's name.

The Gulf States apart, the most vulnerable country is Jordan, as evidenced by the recent attacks in Amman. However, Turkey, Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Israel are also likely to feel the impact. Some of these countries, Jordan in particular, are going to require American assistance.

Maintaining an American security presence in the region, not to mention withdrawing forces from Iraq, will involve many complicated problems, military as well as political. Such an endeavor, one would hope, will be handled by a team different from — and more competent than — the one presently in charge of the White House and Pentagon.
Much of Van Creveld's discussion seems to track with Fred Kaplan's analysis in the piece I cited yesterday. Here is Kaplan on the fine print of withdrawal:

President Bush is going to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. That no longer seems in doubt. The question is: How does he plan to do it? Which troops will come out first? How quickly? Where will they go? Under what circumstances will they be put back in? Which troops will remain, and what will they do? How will they keep a profile low enough to make the Iraqi government seem genuinely autonomous yet high enough to help deter or stave off internal threats? Who will keep the borders secure, a task for which the Iraqi army doesn't even pretend to have the slightest capability? What kinds of diplomatic arrangements will he make with Iraq's neighbors—who have their own conflicting interests in the country's future—to assure an international peace?

More to the point, does the president have a plan for all this? (The point is far from facetious; it's tragically clear, after all, that he didn't have a plan for how to fight the war if it extended beyond the collapse of Saddam.) Has he entertained these questions, much less devised some shrewd answers? If he's serious about a withdrawal or redeployment that's strategically sensible, as opposed to politically opportune, we should hear about them in his speech Wednesday night.
Shorter version: more planning (just this once), less posturing. In Bush's defense, there are no easy answers at this point. Then again, Bush wouldn't need to find answers to these questions if he hadn't undertaken one of the most mind-numbing foreign policy blunders in American history. World history if you take Van Creveld's word for it. Regardless, history, and apparently historians, will not be kind to President Bush.

The President And His Labyrinth

It's not the first time that the Bush administration has played the part of Lucy from the Peanuts teeing up the football to my Charlie Brown rushing in for a hearty kick, only to have the ball yanked away at the last minute. Some lessons just never sink in. The most recent example may be the non-inclusion of a timetable in Bush's much anticipated speech on the future of Iraq policy delivered today. Matt Yglesias' take:

Based on my quick first read of the Bush "Victory Strategy" for Iraq, I don't really see the groundwork for the big 2006 troop withdrawal that lots of commentators have been expecting. Instead, the "strategy" seems to consist of exactly what the strategy thus far has been -- denial and spin aimed at shoring up domestic political support for a mission whose goals are ill-defined and unrealistic. At the moment, troop levels in Iraq are very high as a result of a pre-election surge, so we may well see tens of thousands of soldiers leave the country next year but still have over 100,000 troops deployed.
If Matt's read is true, it would contradict much of what Fred Kaplan wrote (which I cited and expanded on yesterday) regarding the imminent and inevitable draw-down of substantial numbers of troops over the next 12 months. But there is more than one way to read Bush's speech today.

First (and most likely in my opinion), this could be an example of saying one thing and doing another. Refuse to concede rhetorical ground to your opponents, claim to be "staying the course" while behind the scenes the predetermined pullout begins. This makes political sense as well. While many were waiting to pounce on this change of course and embrace of the dreaded "timetable," Bush throws a curveball (or what looks like a curveball) and wrongfoots many pundits and commentators. It has the added benefit of maintaining the facade that any pullout will be based on facts on the ground. No timetable here, but, wow, serendipitously, the Iraqi forces are coming up to speed in time for us to pull out substantial numbers of troops in time for the Midterms. Call it the luck of the fortunate son. But it wasn't based on a preconceived timetable. Honest. To suggest otherwise would be like putting forth "the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city." Or something like that.

Second, Bush's speech could be an indicator of the disconnect between himself and his political coterie on the one hand and the people that will actually be making the decisions on the other. In other words, Bush is so isolated from actual events that he believes what he is saying even though behind the scenes, preparations are being made to carry out the withdrawal in contravention of his rhetoric. Either he believes in the "progress" he is touting, or believes that the military can maintain its current commitments indefinitely - or both. According to him, we will stay as long as it takes to and no sooner than "when our mission of defeating the terrorists is complete." Whatever that means. This is a variation of the Bush in a bubble theme, which has been enjoying something of a revival lately with some of Seymour Hersh's writings, as well as others who suggest that Bush is slightly detached from reality vis a vis Iraq and can't get a read on the situation because of his notorious distaste for bad news. I find this option less compelling than option one, though there could be elements of this in option one and three (more below).

The third option would be the Occam's Razor approach. As Matt claims, Bush meant what he said and we will be involved at more or less the same troop levels far into the foreseeable future. This is a definite possibility, but if I had to bet, at this point I'd stick with option one. As Heather Hurlburt points out, there were enough hints in Bush's speech about replacing our troops with Iraqi troops to suggest option one is the present course. From Hurlburt:

"We will be able to reduce our troops levels in Iraq without losing our ability to defeat the terrorists." hmmm

Ah, the new code word is "artificial" timetable.
You see, it's all about the kind of timetable we're talking. This sort of lines up with the administration's rush to claim credit for the Biden plan. Regardless, the truth will be revealed in one form or another over the next year-plus. In the meantime, the show must go on.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Cue Sunset

I've been grappling with the question of whether or not the US will be initiating a substantial withdrawal of forces in Iraq in the near future since at least March of 2005, when a Bob Novak article I cited set off a tit-for-tat exchange between myself and Greg Djerejian of Belgravia Dispatch. That Novak article (which I did not endorse as fact - despite Greg's suggestion) stated that the Bush Administration would begin withdrawing troops from Iraq in late 2005/early 2006 regardless of the situation on the ground. Greg was incredulous:

[After January 1, 2006] and only if conditions allow (ie, Sunni participation in nascent political governance structures moving in right direction; insurgency continuing to weaken) only then would there perhaps be major draw-downs in '06....No, Eric's got this one wrong. Sorry. (Yes, indeed, I'd have to eat a lot of crow if Novak had the story right. But I'm pretty confident on this one.
Since March, the situation has grown even murkier. I tried my hand at an analysis of the likelihood of an imminent withdrawal (or lack thereof), and the many related issues, in a three part series in August of 2005 (found here, here and here).

Recent developments seem to be conspiring to serve a plate of "crow" to Mr. Djerejian. Fred Kaplan minces no words:

Brace yourself for a mind-bog of sheer cynicism. The discombobulation begins Wednesday, when President George W. Bush is expected to proclaim, in a major speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, that the Iraqi security forces—which only a few months ago were said to have just one battalion capable of fighting on its own—have suddenly made uncanny progress in combat readiness. Expect soon after (if not during the speech itself) the thing that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have, just this month, denounced as near-treason—a timetable for withdrawal of American troops.

And so it appears (assuming the forecasts about the speech are true) that the White House is as cynical about this war as its cynical critics have charged it with being. For several months now, many of these critics have predicted that, once the Iraqis passed their constitution and elected a new government, President Bush would declare his mission complete and begin to pull out—this, despite his public pledge to "stay the course" until the insurgents were defeated.

This theory explains Bush's insistence that the Iraqis draft and ratify the constitution on schedule—even though the rush resulted in a seriously flawed document that's more likely to fracture the country than to unite it. For if the pullout can get under way in the opening weeks of 2006, then the war might be nullified as an issue by the time of our own elections.
Regardless of whether or not Kaplan is correct, there are many reasons for the Bush administration to be searching for an expedited exit. Chief among them: (a) most Iraqis want us out and thus any long term designs on controlling strategic oil assets and/or the maintenance of permanent military bases will be highly problematic; (b) domestic political concerns (Bush and the GOP are taking a major hit in the polls on the Iraq issue with elections looming); and (c) (last and perhaps most importantly) militarily we cannot sustain the current troop levels into the foreseeable future.

Kaplan discusses the political landscape:

The political beauty of this scenario is that, even if Iraq remains mired in chaos or seems to be hurtling toward civil war, nobody in Congress is going to call for a halt, much less a reversal, of the withdrawal. The Republicans will fall in line; many of them have been nervous that the war's perpetuation, with its rising toll and dim horizons, might cost them their seats. And who among the Democrats will choose to outflank Bush on his right wing and advocate—as some were doing not so long ago—keeping the troops in Iraq for another five or 10 years or even boosting their numbers. (The question is so rhetorical, it doesn't warrant a question mark.)

In short, Bush could pull a win-win-win out of this shift. He could pre-empt the Democrats' main line of attack against his administration, stave off the prospect of (from the GOP's perspective) disastrous elections in 2006 and '08, and, as a result, bolster his presidency's otherwise dwindling authority within his own party and among the general population.
And the military realities:

Top U.S. military officers have been privately warning for some time that current troop levels in Iraq cannot be sustained for another year or two without straining the Army to the breaking point. Rep. John Murtha's agenda-altering Nov. 17 call for an immediate redeployment was not only a genuine cri de coeur but also, quite explicitly, a public assertion of the military's institutional interests—and an acknowledgment of Congress' electoral interests.

Murtha wasn't merely advocating redeployment; he was practically announcing it. As he told Tim Russert on the Nov. 20 Meet the Press, "There's nobody that talks to people in the Pentagon more than I do. … We're going to be out of there very quickly, and it's going to be close to the plan that I'm presenting right now."
I remain of two minds on the issue of a major withdrawal over the next six to twelve months. On the one hand, I am very aware of the fact that our military cannot continue this engagement along the current trajectory (though presumably we could adjust levels without a complete extraction). I am also cognizant of the fact that our presence is an irritant that can exacerbate the strength of some insurgencies and give rise to other factions altogether. Nevertheless, I remain concerned that too hasty a withdrawal could open the flood gates to a full blown civil war. Witnessing, with shock and awe, the incompetence of the Bush administration's handling of this entire affair and serial disfunction within its policy making circles (from pre-war lies and distortions to underpreparedness for the task and myriad basic mistakes in the aftermath), I am left wondering why I should expect different results from their handling of the withdrawal and the many concomitant policies that must be enacted and implemented in order to prevent many of the most dire outcomes. The same folks that bungled the first three years of this endeavor are supposed to get the highly delicate and nuanced dismount correct? I remain unconvinced.

Above all, I think it is important to note that, despite so many assurances and speeches to the contrary from the Bush ("stay the course") team, and despite their willingness to hurl base insults at political opponents for mentioning things like timetables, any withdrawal from Iraq initiated over the next couple of months would not be based on positive developments with respect to the situation on the ground.

The facts are the facts: the insurgencies continue apace (with no major reduction in their capacity for destruction or frequency of attack), vast regions of the country remain violent war zones, the political problems separating the various ethnic/sectarian groups in Iraq remain as pronounced as ever (with an increase in partisan violence and the emergence of ethnic/sectarian "death squads" targeting civilians), the political institutions (even after what could be successful elections in December) remain in their infancy - too feeble to provide an overarching calming force (yet), and in form and substance most of the pressing issues that threatened the maintenance of a peaceful and stable Iraq that existed last year are still around today. Withdrawing from Iraq may be justified on certain grounds (some listed above), but it would be utterly disingenuous to attribute any pullout to what would have to be a shocking near-instantaneous turn around in the situation in that country.

But if Bush is looking for his Hollywood ending, I expect his many supporters to do their best to paint a picturesque sunset for him to ride off into. In reality, though, such an idyllic image will be merely a facade meant to conceal a smoldering catastrophe of potentially epic proportions.

[UPDATE: The indispensable Hilzoy has a great post on the fast food helpings of "crow" being served to some of the blogosphere's usual suspects. Poor guys got all worked up about Biden's planned withdrawal timetable, only to be left high and dry by the Bush administration which was quick to claim Biden's plan as their own. Doh!!! Any Bush administration led withdrawal could create a double inverted, reflective loop of cognitive dissonance for the partisan hacks. After all, aren't Bin Laden and Zarqawi waiting for the conclusion of the timetable to take the throne in Iraq? Isn't our presence in Iraq allowing us to "fight 'em over there" not over here? What gives? (h/t to the Poor Man Institute)]

Monday, November 28, 2005

Thar She Blows

On Sunday, Juan Cole reported on a disturbing development for the Iraq blowback watch (previously discussed here):

Al-Zaman/AFP: Moroccan security agencies said Saturday that they had foiled a attempt by al-Qaeda to attack buildings belonging to the government as well as hotels frequented by foreign tourists. Two of the plotters had Belgian citizenship but were of Moroccan heritage. They were Khalid Ouzigh and Muhammad Raha, and both of them had fought in Iraq against US forces there! [emphasis added]
Flypaper not as sticky as advertised. Two more graduates from the "world's most expensive school for terrorism." At least these grads were not able to, um, join the labor force upon graduation. Unfortunately, there will be many more to follow. Let's hope that the counterterrorism officials will be as successful as the combined Moroccan/European effort on display in this case.

(cross-posted at Liberals Against Terrorism)

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

I won't be blogging today, and the rest of the week is kind of iffy. But I wanted to wish everyone, everywhere a happy holiday. There is so much we can all be thankful for. Especially the fact that we as a nation are blessed with men and women who are selfless enough to dedicate themselves to the armed forces. Too many have already sacrificed more than they should have had to. Let's hope that in the future, we as citizens can match their courage with our own good judgment. It's the very least they deserve.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Money Well Spent?

Something to keep in mind as you watch at the dizzying recalibration of goalposts in Iraq from: (a) model liberal democracy achieved in rapid progression that will transform the region into a democratic bloc, normalize relations with Israel and extinguish the allure of jihadist terrorism throughout the Muslim world; to (b) less than perfect democracy that will still transform the region, limited relations to Israel, maybe still some lingering appeal to terrorism not cancelled out by Iraq; to (c) mildly theocratic democracy, definitely no ties to Israel, close relations with Iran, exacerbating terrorism problems with high likelihood of serious blowback in the near future; to (d) heavy theocratic tendencies, democracy less important, very close ties to Iran, hopefully stable state that can field a national army and avoid fragmentation/ethnic cleansing, praying to head off full blown civil war and not suck in its neighbors into wider regional conflict, trying to eliminate possibility of continuing existence of safe haven and staging ground for Salafist terrorist movements; to (e) is there anyway out of here?:

So far the United States has spent $275 billion on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this is just the tip of a very large iceberg. The costs of continuing operations run at $100 billion a year. When one adds in the long-term costs, including interest payments on war debt and disability benefits that we will owe to veterans for decades, the total cost of the war will exceed $1.3 trillion. [emphasis added]

And those are only the financial costs.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Looks Like A Talking Point

First Rumsfeld tried his hand at solidifying American resolve with some pretty outlandish scare tactics (discussed here). It shouldn't surprise anyone that Cheney would upstage him with an even more fantastical fable:

"Would the United States and other free nations be better off or worse off with (Abu Musab al-) Zarqawi, (Osama) bin Laden and (Ayman al-) Zawahiri in control of Iraq?" he asked. "Would be we safer or less safe with Iraq ruled by men intent on the destruction of our country?"
Wow. The un-holy trinity of Bin Laden, Zawahiri and Zarqawi. Rumsfeld was far too bashful with his choice of only one bogeyman. Should I point out what a big favor it would be to us if Bin Laden and Zawahiri decided to come out of hiding and take up residence in one of Saddam's palaces? Out in the open? Within range of an air strike even if our troops are out of country?

Regardless, I don't really think I need to explain how utterly and completely out of the realm of possibility such an al-Qaeda led coup would be. But could someone please explain how someone who would spout such nonsense on a regular basis holds such a high public office? Can't the GOP do better than this? Are there really three years left for this administration?

(h/t to my mate from Oz, Tim Dunlop)

The Big Bad Wolf

Praktike recently flagged a somewhat curious comment from our lexically enigmatic Secretary of Defense the other day. Rumsfeld was discussing the prospect of setting a firm and immediate timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

If you put yourself in the shoes of the terrorists, if they get to believe that all they have to do is wait, because we're going to pull out precipitously, then something enormously valuable has been lost. If that country -- think of that country being turned over to the Zarqawis, the people who behead people, the people who kill innocent men, women, and children, the people who are determined to re-establish a caliphate around the world, the people who are looking for a safe haven. That would be a terrible thing for our country, for the safety of our people.
While Praktike was correct in noting that no one of influence is really recommending a "precipitous" withdrawal from Iraq, and that perhaps Rumsfeld is creating room for a "non-precipitous" version of such an extraction, I wanted to focus on another aspect of Rumsfeld's statement: the likelihood that the possible future outlined by Rumsfeld would ensue even if such a precipitous retreat were undertaken.

Before I go any further, I want to state for the record that I am opposed to the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq according to any firm timetable that ignores the reality on the ground. I believe that we should remain in Iraq as long as the government requests our presence, and as long as our presence can in some way stave off the eruption of a full blown civil war. I hold the view that through our misguided invasion, and utterly bungled occupation, we have assumed a moral obligation and responsibility to the Iraqi people not to simply wash our hands of their messy little affair. This view is contingent on the assumption that our presence in Iraq is doing more good than harm in terms of the pursuit of these goals. I will admit that I am becoming less convinced of the truth of such an assumption. Nir Rosen writing in The Atlantic offers a pretty compelling counterargument.

Regardless, most can agree that too hasty a retreat, or one that does not take pains to fortify the proper institutions, could very well lead to an even bloodier, more prolonged conflict than what is currently besieging Iraq. One that might require a massive redeployment to Iraq by our military within the next five to ten years. That should be avoided at all costs.

That being said, if the satements emerging from the Cairo national reconciliation council are any indicator, the Iraqis could be shuffling us off to the exits regardless of what our ultimate designs might be. We should comply with the directives of the Iraqi government if and when they are expressed in a formal manner. It should be noted, however, that all indications are that even the statement insisting on a timetable for withdrawal still contemplates our presence in country at least through most of 2006. (See also: Haggai with links to a theory that this "statement" was coaxed by a Bush administration eager for the exits but wanting to hide its intentions).

Back to Rumsfeld's notion of leaving Iraq in the hands of Zarqawi. The first point that should be made is that Rumsfeld greatly exaggerates the power, influence and capacity of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He is a convenient bugaboo for many of the region's players (more on this here), and can be evoked for many disparate purposes, including to inspire fear and uncertainty in the listener - as I am sure Rumsfeld intended. For events to unfold as Rumsfeld prophesied, though, Zarqawi would have to be able to usurp and dominate the majority Shiites and their highly motivated and sizable militias as well as the Kurds and their rather potent peshmerga. To accomplish this, Zarqawi would have to command a unified Sunni front, with considerable outside support and aid, and even then - victory would be far from certain or even likely.

Taking a step back, even the aforementioned recipe for victory assumes too much. Zarqawi is not a sufficiently popular figure in Iraq to command such allegiances from the broader Sunni insurgencies - especially when you factor in Iraqi nationalist sentiment which bristles at the thought of a foreigner leading the country and the significant differences in the long term goals held by Zarqawi's followers compared to most typical insurgents. Whereas Zarqawi is a foreigner and relies primarily on foreign fighters, the insurgency in Iraq is primarily composed of ex-Baathists and other Sunnis who are reacting to their loss of power and the intrusion of American forces in their country and their daily lives. They seek to regain their control of the government, their influence and the wealth in Iraq. These Sunnis are not chasing the same goals as Zarqawi, who is looking to initiate a broader uprising in the Muslim world which would lead to the overthrow of countless regimes in order to re-establish a quasi-mythical caliphate in their stead. Some numbers from Anthony Cordesman shed some light on the demographical breakdown of the insurgency.

Non-Iraqi militants made up less than 10 percent of the insurgents' ranks -- perhaps even half that -- the study said.

Most were motivated by "revulsion at the idea of an Arab land being occupied by a non-Arab country."
As Dan Darling pointed out in the comments section to Praktike's post, these numbers don't tell the whole story. There are also Iraqis that have thrown in with Zarqawi that have been indoctrinated with a broader Islamist purpose, and there were indigenous groups in Iraq like Ansar al-Islam that were already friendly to Zarqawi's ideology. Not all Iraqis are or were hostile to Zarqawi's ideology. Christ Albittron talks of the notion of "conversion" to the Islamist cause (via Swopa).

While the Ba'athists can command great sums of cash through old accounts in Syria, Jordan and elsewhere, the jihadis can call on equal funds from the oil-rich sympathizers in the Gulf states....

The jihadis gain influence within the insurgency by initially providing money and materiel to smaller nationalist groups, but then start lobbying for their new-found beneficiaries to starting being better Muslims. More help, more preaching follows, and soon enough, a group of nationalists have grown their beards, stopped drinking beer and smoking cigarettes and start praying five times a day.
It should also be noted that even many of the foreigners who have come to Iraq were not necessarily aligned with Zarqawi's worldview prior to departing on their mission of jihad. Also from Cordesman:

It said Saudi Arabia had interrogated dozens of Saudi militants who either returned from Iraq or were caught at the border. "One important point was the number who insisted that they were not militants before the Iraq war," it said.

"The vast majority of Saudi militants who entered Iraq were not terrorist sympathizers before the war, and were radicalized almost exclusively by the coalition invasion," the study said.

Backing up their claim, 85 percent of those interrogated were not on any watch list of known militants, the study said. Most came from the west, south or center of Saudi Arabia, often from middle class families of prominent conservative tribes.
Not only has the Iraq invasion radicalized Iraqis and converted more to the ranks of the Salafist camp of jihadist ideology, so too has the invasion radicalized many citizens of Iraq's neighbors. As I have mentioned before this has been an extremely counter-productive endeavor when placed in the context of the larger war on terrorism. Whereas Iraqis were, relative to many other people in the region, less inclined toward Islamist jihadism before the invasion, that situation has been changing as a result of our actions.

But despite the conversion of some Iraqis to his cause, and despite his control over elements of the foreign fighters in Iraq, Zarqawi is still a stranger in a potentially very hostile land. Nir Rosen sheds some light on the dynamic.

The foreign jihadi element—commanded by the likes of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—is numerically insignificant; the bulk of the resistance has no connection to al-Qaeda or its offshoots. (Zarqawi and his followers have benefited greatly from U.S. propaganda blaming him for all attacks in Iraq, because he is now seen by Arabs around the world as more powerful than he is; we have been his best recruiting tool.) It is true that the Sunni resistance welcomed the foreign fighters (and to some extent still do), because they were far more willing to die than indigenous Iraqis were. But what Zarqawi wants fundamentally conflicts with what Iraqi Sunnis want: Zarqawi seeks re-establishment of the Muslim caliphate and a Manichean confrontation with infidels around the world, to last until Judgment Day; the mainstream Iraqi resistance just wants the Americans out. If U.S. forces were to leave, the foreigners in Zarqawi's movement would find little support—and perhaps significant animosity—among Iraqi Sunnis, who want wealth and power, not jihad until death. They have already lost much of their support: many Iraqis have begun turning on them. In the heavily Shia Sadr City foreign jihadis had burning tires placed around their necks. The foreigners have not managed to establish themselves decisively in any large cities. Even at the height of their power in Fallujah they could control only one neighborhood, the Julan, and they were hated by the city's resistance council. Today foreign fighters hide in small villages and are used opportunistically by the nationalist resistance.

When the Americans depart and Sunnis join the Iraqi government, some of the foreign jihadis in Iraq may try to continue the struggle—but they will have committed enemies in both Baghdad and the Shiite south, and the entire Sunni triangle will be against them. They will have nowhere to hide. Nor can they merely take their battle to the West. The jihadis need a failed state like Iraq in which to operate. When they leave Iraq, they will be hounded by Arab and Western security agencies.
I would disagree with Rosen's assessment in one area. If and when US forces depart, if the Sunni insurgents decide that they wish to press on with armed conflict, they will likely remain amenable to, and even encourage, the presence, cooperation and assistance of Zarqawi and the foreign fighters. The foreign/Zarqawi element will continue to be useful in terms of providing money and bodies for any ongoing or impending clash with the Shiites and/or Kurds.

Thus, if Iraq descends into civil war, the Sunni regions will likely remain a fertile training, staging, indoctrination and recruiting ground for Zarqawi and his allies. This would be a severe strategic blow to our security interests in the region and beyond and should be avoided to the extent possible. Nevertheless, it remains highly unlikely that Zarqawi would ever be able to take over Iraq. The suggestion is borderline preposterous. But that doesn't mean that our withdrawal will necessarily be a bad thing for Zarqawi either. That will likely depend on the withdrawal method (Nadezhda has more on said method and the implications).

Monday, November 21, 2005

What It's Down To

(jonnybutter, not Eric)

A great Matter of State has been clarified. Iraq is now simple (but not easy). We will draw down troops soon or sooner - everyone knows that. It's now just a matter of how constructively or not the truly bush Administration resists - to show that no one tells THEM what to do (it might damage the office of the presidency, doncha know). Those of us who know of or remember Nixon in Vietnam instinctively wince at the thought of a president refusing to give up on a war because, in Dick's case, he didn't want to be the first pres. to lose a war (despite the fact that it wasn't his war, and getting out was pretty well manifestly popular, and long-manifestly inevitable). It's the pugnacity of a bully/coward, in Nixon's case.

I don't think Bush is going to have the juice to prolong the war too long, no matter what (although of course ALL the troops aren't coming home for a long time). Murtha was possibly a bigger event in the government than in the country. He and Cheney go way back. It's the military serving notice that the end is near. And aside from all this, the GOP is cracking up in slo-mo anyway. The Abramoff thing will be large.

So let's all get serious about Iraq (intentionally preposterous saying that on THIS blog). Yes, Bush made the situation worse rather than better. Yes, he is an astoundingly bad president. But we still have to deal with it. Emotional liberals need to admit the following: yes, it's a disaster, and it's his fault; but yanking the troops out arbitrarilly is a really bad and inhumane idea. Emotional supporters of the GWOT need to admit the following: International terrorism is a real and very dangerous threat, but George W. Bush's policies have clearly made the problem worse, not better, on balance. It's nothing close to 'balance', in fact. Any reasonable government would've done most or all of the things which can be called 'successes'. It's the policies.

The emotional liberals probably have the easier task, here, but whatever it is, let's get on with it. Let us tarry only briefly in this particular personality and media driven cul-de-sac, shall we? (There are so many others to wallow in). It's useless. It's immaterial. Most of all, it's boring - the worst sin of all.

Normally, I'm not sure I want my president to be very weak, politically; but this one ought to be. His administration needs to be in 'receivership'. The World can't be about George W. Bush's personality.

[UPDATE: This post is about the American politics of Iraq. As Eric notes in the comments, and Praktike starts to run down, the 'little hand' has moved a bit, as it were, in the reigon itself. Stay tuned to LAT and watch this space for further developments.]

Black And The Whites

I don't have major disagreements with Duncan Black (aka Atrios) all that often - although there are many lesser nits to be picked. But one of today's posts marks just such an infrequent point of departure. The subject is John McCain, and Black starts out with this intro:

I'll never understand certain liberals love affair with John McCain. I'll set my bar slightly higher than "not as obviously incompetent and evil as George Bush" thank you.
Now I am a liberal, and while I wouldn't describe my relationship with John McCain as a "love affair" I would admit to dating him off and on over the past handful of years. Let me try to explain why. First of all, it should be noted upfront that McCain is a Republican and as such, I disagree with many of his policy proscriptions and philosophical viewpoints. But I think that Atrios should recognize and/or acknowledge that many on the Left find McCain a refreshing alternative precisely because he is a....refreshing alternative to other Republican figures. Last time I checked, we don't get to mold Republican legislators into the shape of Democrats, so any across the aisle affection will have inbuilt limitations. My expectations are tempered by the reality of the situation. But that shouldn't preclude me, or any other individual on the Left or the Right side of the spectrum, from recognizing that there are degrees of disagreement, shades of policies, varying character issues and other factors that can lead to more or less admiration and respect for members from differing political persuasions. I refuse to draw a bright line and say something to the effect of, "everyone on that side of the spectrum is equally and indistinguishably bad."

Does Black have a favorite Republican or one that he considers a stand out? Is it possible to take such a position without it rising to the level of "love affair" or an endorsement of every position or action of that Republican?

Consider some stances taken by McCain that I view as noteworthy and commendable -especially in the modern GOP: McCain is relatively solid on environmental issues, and even goes as far as to acknowledge the existence of global warming, humans' role in exacerbating the problem, and the need to take affirmative steps to mitigate the damage (for contrast, Senator Inhofe considers global warming to be a hoax perpetrated by deranged environmentalists). McCain, with Feingold, has been championing campaign finance reform for many years and while the eventual legislative output from this duo was watered down by critics and dissenters, I praise him for trying. McCain has been pretty outspoken and strong on issues of torture and detainee abuse. As much as it pains me to say it, that is a rare territory to stake out in the current GOP landscape (recent Senate vote notwithstanding). McCain is a fiscal disciplinarian who endorses the pay as you go legislative model whereby new spending programs and new tax cuts must be offset by cuts or increased revenues from other parts of the budget (outside special circumstances that warrant exception). Similarly, he has taken a position that acknowledges that certain of Bush's tax cuts might need to be repealed in order to right the fiscal ship. There are others that I will not list. Our spending priorities might differ, but we both believe in the worth of balanced budgets. So did Clinton.

Obviously, despite these not altogether insignificant areas of agreement, there are still many positions on which me and McCain simply don't see eye to eye. But I will say this, I believe this country would be in much better shape if all Republicans thought like McCain, rather than the Bush administration. Part of the impetus for the McCain love-fest comes from just that: the fact that one is able to distinguish between McCain and Bush in the first place. He shows a willingness to display some backbone and think for himself on occasion - a sharp contrast to the lock-step discipline of the Rove/Delay corralled GOP. Obviously, I would like it if McCain acted on his own more often, and I have been disappointed on more than one occasion by his decisions to buckle, but let's be realistic. He is a Republican and must rely on the Party for support, financing and other logistical assistance. Absent my ability to remake the GOP into Democratic clones, I will continue to appreciate voices that can at least find their own bearing and put forth reasonable policies on certain important issues given the limitations.

Consider, also, the incident that gives rise to Black's critique. According to the title of the post, he seems to suggest that McCain is a "Straight Racist" for speaking at a fundraiser for George Wallace, Jr. What evidence is offered? Wallace, Jr. has spoken at the Council of Conservative Citizens four times - including once this year. The Council of Conservative Citizens' Statement of Principles is a pretty ugly document, and it contains some language that has very serious racist overtones. But I think it a stretch to call McCain a racist for speaking at a fundraiser for a candidate who has spoken before the Council. I generally try to avoid the guilt by association game - especially the guilt by association with six degrees of separation twist. As a liberal, I am all too familiar with the Right's attempt to tar everyone on the Left with the voices of the fringe - buttressed by claims that follow the model: X politician spoke at Y rally and Z political group was one of the attendees at the rally and Z political group is communist. Thus, X politician endorses communism. Why does X politician hate America?

I don't mean this in any way to be an apologia for the contemptible positions taken by the Council of Conservative Citizens, nor for Wallace, Jr.'s decision to speak before such a group. But we should accept that in the world of politics, sometimes politicians stump for other candidates and that shouldn't be read as an endorsement of every position taken by groups that the candidate in question spoke before. The connection is just too tenuous.

[Ed Note: I was also a fan of Jeffords before he made the jump to Independent thus removing the need for preemptive caveats when I praise him]

Friday, November 18, 2005

Silver Linings

Ezra Klein yesterday:

BAD DAY FOR THE RIGHT. Looks like the House Republican Conference is coming apart at the seams. This, I guess, was always the inevitable conclusion of the Bush years. A war started on lies and conducted on ideology was almost certain to go horribly wrong. An economic policy based on tax cuts but eager to spend would undoubtedly force painful cuts and questions later on. A president isolated from dissenting voices and dependent on a small coterie of advisors was a prime candidate to become overwhelmed when the train left the tracks. A congressional leadership that obscured ideological schisms through rigidly enforced discipline had no fallback plan when its prime pitbull got indicted for his tactics. So now the Iraq War is a mess, the budget demands hugely unpopular cuts, the president is widely disliked and increasingly ineffective, and the GOP is falling apart on crucial votes. You have to wonder if there aren't some Republican strategists wishing right now that John Kerry had won the election so their side didn't have deal with all this. You have to wonder right now if there aren't some Democratic strategists secretly thankful he didn't.
Actually, no need to wonder. Though I'm not a "Democratic strategist" I did see this one coming - and was not secretive about my sentiments. I actually wrote a post way back in August 2004 stating that Kerry losing might actually be a good thing in some ways. I argued that, despite the pain to be endured and damage to be done from another four years of Bush, the Democratic Party's long term viability might be better served if the American people were privy to a clearer view of what unmitigated Republican governance looks like. If Kerry had won, the GOP would have acted like everything was on course and going well until Kerry came in and mucked it all up (can't you just here the complaints about how Democrats can't handle a war, and that the Iraq campaign went down in flames because of "cut and run" Kerry?). This was and is obviously not the case. So, who are they going to blame now? Oddly enough, as some GOP lawmakers feeling threatened have resorted to in recent weeks, maybe Bush himself. His record low approval ratings, and a Party of mixed allegiances whose lawmakers don't want him to campaign for them, are harbingers of his legacy. Congratulations Mr. President.

It would be ideal if lessons could be learned in less painful ways - but I'd be happy enough with the "learned" part.

Show Me The Way

I just got finished reading A Million Little Pieces (recommended) by James Frey and I wanted to comment, briefly, on one of the recurring themes in the book. The central story is of Frey's battle with an addiction to drugs and alcohol that is of such epic size and strength that it is a miracle that he lived long enough to write the book in the first place. Following a binge, a drug-related accident and a period of semi-consciousness, Frey is whisked off to a rehabilitation and treatment center somewhere in Minnesota by intervening friends and family.

While in rehab, Frey frequently butts heads with the staff over treatment options. The problems arise because Frey doesn't take to the 12 Step Program, or the AA model, and refuses to follow the proscribed path. What is interesting, though, is the certainty with which the staff at the rehab center tell Frey that he will fail and relapse into addiction unless he follows their method. It is the only way to health and an addiction-free life. There is no other way to stay clean. Nothing else will work. No debate.

I am immediately distrustful of any group, individual, philosopher, guru, prophet, politician, cleric or other entity that claims to have the one and only path to salvation - whatever that "salvation" might be. In the case of Frey and the 12 Step/AA model, just consider what the ramifications would be if the 12 Step zealots are right and there really is no other method for overcoming addiction to drugs and alcohol. It would mean that no one in the history of the world was able to beat addiction before the 12 Step/AA model was invented - or revealed. Further, every person without access to, and instruction in, the 12 Step/AA model is inevitably doomed. No other culture, society, individual, counselor or thinker was ever able to resolve the complicated issues of addiction. Only the 12 Step/AA model.

I remain highly incredulous. Not to mention the follow up question: Is there any way to improve on the 12 Step/AA model? Don't mess with perfection I guess - even though by their own admission, the success rate of the 12 Step/AA model is roughly 15%.

I am equally skeptical of similar claims made by organized religions. I understand that for recruiting and discipline purposes, religious dogma invariably contains the concept that its particular teachings are the one and only true path to salvation. I think the ubiquity of this claim is also related to humans' desire for a sense of certainty in a world in flux. People have always been drawn toward gurus, ideas and concepts that offer a foundation and an opportunity to find firm footing in an ever-changing and unsettling world. It is easier to abdicate control, put such notions to rest and move on to other matters. As a result, we get this formulation: Without following the tenets of [insert religion] you will be damned to eternal suffering. But the same problems arise as in the context of the 12 Step/AA model.

What about all the people that lived before the creation or revelation of [insert religion]? For example, if Christ is the only path to salvation, what about all those poor shlubs that had the bad fortune to be born before Christ's appearance? Further, what about the people born in far away lands who, for centuries after Christ was born, lived their lives without any access to the teachings of Christ, Christianity or even the knowledge of his existence? Would God so capriciously and arbitrarily damn millions and millions of people to eternal suffering out of the happenstance of the timing and location of their births? What if there is life in other parts of the vast universe? Sorry folks, God picked Earth and, even then, one little plot on the planet Earth, to deposit the one vehicle for salvation. Those lucky enough to find themselves near him will have a chance at being saved. The rest of you will be playing catch-up for centuries to come. Those are the breaks.

It reminds me of a series of questions my grandmother asked when she was a child attending a religious school. The teacher that day was discussing the topic of missionaries spreading the "good news" to all the heathens in distant lands. My grandmother, precocious would be an understatement, then asked about the fate of the souls of the "heathens" before the missionaries arrived. The teacher, taken aback at the question, answered that God would not punish them for what they did not know, so surely they would be admitted into heaven. Call it the "ignorance is bliss" exemption. After thinking it over for a moment, my grandmother then responded, "Then why ruin their chances?"

Please understand that I do not mean to disparage any religion, or the 12 Step/AA method of overcoming addiction. I do not discount the fact that truth abounds in various religions as well as treatment methods. But I doubt very much that any one group or individual has a monopoly on truth, salvation, health or any other desirable trait or aspiration. There are too many teachers from which to learn to ever declare game over - this is it. It would be encouraging if people could accept that level of uncertainty and recognize that life's rich pageant - so complex, so intricate and amorphous - defies simple answers that form straight lines which bisect and exclude entire hemispheres of alternatives.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Mothers of the Disappeared

Nadezhda takes on the issue of torture and the deprivation of habeas corpus rights with a slightly different point of emphasis. Her post does much to augment my arguments about the sacrifice of our moral authority, and my arguments alone leave out much of what needs to be said. In many ways, she gets to the heart of the matter - why this move could be one of the most damaging blows to our image in the world yet dealt.

In some ways I find the manner in which our legislators are dealing with the habeus corpus matter even more troubling than the highly emotional issue of torture. When considering the rights of a prisoner to challenge indefinite detention without charges, we're not talking about the hard task of drawing lines between acceptable and unacceptable behavior based on modern standards of morality. No, we're talking about something far more fundamental -- a core principle defining the limits on executive power in any liberal political system, regardless of form -- democracy, constitutional monarchy, etc. You know, Magna Carta and all that. Ironically (or should I say tragically), the people who are pushing for a derogation of this core principle are the same conservatives who are on the great global crusade to bring freedom to the oppressed. Heaven knows how they define "freedom" (or for that matter, how they can call themselves "conservatives," given their cavalier approach to ancient legal and constitutional tradition).

I agree with Eric that all of this represents a terrible failure to live up to the standards America preaches to others, a failure which undermines US foreign policy. There is, of course, the erosion of "moral authority" in a broad sense that Eric points to. But the hypocrisy of "do as I say, not as I do" also produces concrete damages to US interests.[...]

The damage to the US is not limited, however, to being seen as hypocrites. The Senate's habeus corpus political stunt will be viewed by much of the world as simply part of a cynical pattern, which includes the failure by Congress to tackle the practices of "black sites," "ghost detainees" and "extraordinary renditions." Much of the world is concluding, reluctantly or not, that Americans have abandoned their basic principles and now tacitly endorse the "disappearing" of people by the US government.

Perhaps Americans don't understand that "the disappeared" is the most powerful symbol of political oppression across much of the developing world -- the very regions where the BushAdmin is conducting its freedom crusade against tyrants and extremists, not only in the Middle East but also in regions like Latin America. Perhaps Americans are simply too insulated from what goes on beyond their borders.

In order to understand how profoundly "the disappeared" resonates as an idea, perhaps one has to have lived or worked in the developing world, watched closely the politics of countries after authoritarian or totalitarian regimes have been overthrown, or followed carefully the various "reconciliation commissions" that often accompany attempts to democratize. Although abusive treatment and torture of political prisoners is usually an issue in these countries, their biggest hurdle is often the trauma associated with massacres of civilians (usually by paramilitaries) and the thousands of people who simply have disappeared into an opaque system run or sanctioned by the authorities.

America is connecting itself with practices that are associated, in the minds of hundreds of millions of people, with the most odious of tyrants and the worst of authoritarian regimes. [emphasis added] No matter how skillful US public diplomacy may be in the future, it's going to take an enormous amount of effort and considerable time to overcome this self-inflicted damage.
This is truly a sad moment for us all. Whether it be the reckless deficits careening out of control on the eve of the crunch of the Boomer retirements, the inexcusably myopic inattention to (or exacerbation of) pressing environmental issues, the ramifications of a policy in Iraq that will likely enable a terrorist blowback to rival and eclipse that from Afghanistan in the 1980's and 1990's, or the almost incurable wounds being dealt to our image and standing in the world through the adoption of policies that mimic the foulest of dictators and despotisms, it will take generations of Americans to undo the hurt left by the Bush Administration. History will not look kindly on the players involved in this tragedy. But that is the coldest of comforts.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


I fear that the Bush administration is establishing a disturbing new standard in the realm of the rule of law, detainee treatment and human rights more generally. This is highlighted by Bush's recent statement that "we do not torture" which is lingering in the air rather conspicuously as the Vice President works fastidiously behind the scenes in Congress to undermine an amendment put forth by John McCain that would codify the President's words.

Cheney is seeking a carve out an exemption in the law that would allow the CIA to engage in what is ultimately torture (despite the strained legal reasoning of those in the Bush administration that argued in legal memoranda that interrogation techniques only rise to the level of torture if they cause pain tantamount to "organ failure or death," and, even then, only if such result was the intent of the interrogator) [As an aside, I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me how painful "death" is. Oh wait, anyone in the know is already....dead. How 'bout a seance then?]. Some, however, are not satisfied with the Bush administration's touchy-feely approach. The Wall Street Journal editorial board thinks Cheney is being too soft. That's right, according to the good folks over at the WSJ, it would be unfair to limit the exemption to the CIA: Every government agency should have the same latitude to mistreat detainees.

Marty Lederman provides an excellent overview of the McCain amendment battles, and some insight into what practices, exactly, are being fought over. Remember: not torture. his confirmation proceedings, the Attorney General [Gonzales] represented that "some" techniques from among waterboarding, use of dogs to induce stress, forced nudity, hooding, sensory deprivation, food and sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures, a face or stomach slap, the forcible injection of mood-altering drugs, mock executions, and threatening to send detainees to countries where they would be tortured " permissible in specific circumstances, if appropriately limited, depending on the nature of the precise conduct under consideration."...Judge Gonzales could not ensure the Senate that reported practices such as forced enemas, infliction of cigarette burns, and binding detainees hand and foot and leaving them in urine and feces for 18-24 hours, are legally off-limits.

Tim Flanigan (then the nominee to be Deputy Attorney General) wrote to the Senate that he was unwilling to say whether waterboarding -- "intentionally inducing a detainee's perception of suffocation" -- is unlawful, because that "depends on all of the relevant facts and circumstances."

....DOJ reportedly has informed the CIA that it may, outside the U.S., lawfully use extreme methods such as waterboarding, the threat of live burial, and threatening rendition to sadistic interrogators in other nations -- and why the CIA reportedly has used at least some of these techniques in its interrogations.

-- And that's apparently why the CIA believed that it was entitled, along with a small team of the CIA-sponsored Iraqi paramilitary squads code-named Scorpions, to assault a detainee with fists, a club, a length of rubber hose, and the handle of a sledgehammer. (Senator Stevens apparently intends to exempt foreign agents of the U.S. such as the Scorpions, from the McCain prohibition, too: they are, in his words, persons who "may not be citizens of the United States, but are working for us.")
Many Bush supporters are quick to argue that some of these interrogation techniques (such as waterboarding) are not torture because they are not physical punishment per se, but rather psychological stresses. For those pursuing that line of argumentation, Andrew Sullivan has some graphical depictions of the putatively "harmless" practice of waterboarding. Now tell me this, is that the vision of America that you hold? Sounds more like the Soviet Union or Vietnam. Well, actually, funny I should mention that. From the New York Times noted (via praktike):

The Pentagon effectively signed off on a strategy that mimics Red Army methods. But those tactics were not only inhumane, they were ineffective. For Communist interrogators, truth was beside the point: their aim was to force compliance to the point of false confession.

SERE methods are classified, but the program's principles are known. It sought to recreate the brutal conditions American prisoners of war experienced in Korea and Vietnam, where Communist interrogators forced false confessions from some detainees, and broke the spirits of many more, through Pavlovian and other conditioning. Prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, painful body positions and punitive control over life's most intimate functions produced overwhelming stress in these prisoners. Stress led in turn to despair, uncontrollable anxiety and a collapse of self-esteem. Sometimes hallucinations and delusions ensued. Prisoners who had been through this treatment became pliable and craved companionship, easing the way for captors to obtain the "confessions" they sought.
Now many of the above listed techniques could also be classified as "psychological" and not physical (to the extent such a distinction is instructive or meaningful anyway). So am I to conclude that Cheney, the WSJ Editorial Board and other Bush supporters think such methods were perfectly legitimate? Not torture? Maybe Dick Durbin was on to something after all.

I wonder what the American soldiers who endured such treatment would say. At least one, John McCain, has already made his opinion known and he is emphatic about his disgust. Sadly for McCain, the rest of the Republican Party doesn't share his distaste for North Korean interrogation techniques. While it's hard to limit one's choices, one of the more disturbing aspects of the "SERE" story is that the methods employed by these Communist regimes were not even designed to elicit actionable intelligence - just force confessions from broken prisoners.

Keep this in mind when you consider all we are giving up in exchange for the carve-out allowing us to torture and "disappear" prisoners. As I've argued before, torture isn't even particularly effective as an intelligence gathering tool - especially when you're copying methods that weren't even designed to serve such a purpose in the first place. But, as Mark Kleiman and others have argued, any marginal successes in intelligence gathering gained from torture are vastly outweighed by the damage done to our image and standing in the world. For the sake of preserving our legal access to this tactic of dubious value and certain costs, Cheney and his supporters would sacrifice our already tattered image at a time when winning hearts and minds is of paramount importance. Some strategy.

Another measure rattling along the legislative conveyer belt in Washington at this time (though comparatively under the radar) is a measure that would strip statutory habeas corpus rights from detainees at Guantanamo and presumably elsewhere. Katherine and Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings are all over it in far more detail and insight than this post would allow. The purpose of such legislative moves is to push the envelope in the direction of empowering the Executive branch to implement indefinite, unrestricted detention of suspects - a matter of heightened concern given the recent revelation of "black sites" across Eastern Europe in what appears to be some sort of variation of extraordinary rendition theme. A loss of such habeas corpus rights would also, not coincidentally, limit a prisoner's access to courts to make claims of abuse, torture and mistreatment - or to forestall imminent deportation under the rendition regime.

A look at the justifications offered for such practices is telling, and it reveals the crux of how the Bush administration is setting a new, lowered standard in so many areas that the United States used to lead in - rhetorically and by example. Time and again, Bush administration officials take pains to deny that they are employing "torture" or that they are abandoning the principles and values associated with our respect for the rule of law, human rights, humane detentions and treatment of the accused. Yet, in practice, they are betraying our ideals across the board. If one pays attention to the denials, there are coded justifications and an underlying rationale being communicated.

The exchange between a reporter and State Department spokesman Adam Ereli at a recent press briefing (excerpted by Laura Rozen) is a perfect example. In Ereli's attempt at the feint and dodge of the half-denial, he relies on all the usual suspects: we are fighting terrorists in an unconventional war, they are out of uniform, they deliberately target civilians, they represent a grave threat, they are evil, the Geneva Conventions don't apply and the President must use any and all power to defeat them.

What is interesting is that these justifications are raised by pundits, administration officials, Scott McClellan and even Bush himself in the context of denials of torture and other activities that run contrary to our stated principles. But if we really don't torture, and really don't support policies that deviate from the norm, why describe the enemy in such exceptional language - language that creates the basis for justifying a utilization of new, "special" tactics? What difference does it make who we are fighting if the answer really is: we do not torture no matter what, and we will not compromise our values no matter who the enemy is. Why raise these points repeatedly when asked about torture and denial of rights if there is no connection?

The truth is, these interjections are not just a randomly repeated non-sequitur. There has been an elaborate legal edifice for a new regime of laws and practices erected on just that premise: the old "quaint" rules don't apply because of who and what we are combating. A new code of conduct for a new enemy. The broader implications of this radical standard are frightening.

Think about it: If we are saying that torture, indefinite detention without trial, ghost facilities, suspension of habeas corpus rights, denial of access to attorneys, denial of access to the Red Cross, etc., are all acceptable measures to take when a nation confronts a terrorist threat, then we will surely have to water down or withhold our condemnations of foreign nations that engage in the same practices. Maybe Egypt isn't so bad, at least when it's torturing and repressing Islamist extremists. Same goes for Syria, and Tunisia. Uzbekistan too. China, sorry for all the bad press. Why, after all, should we be free to engage in these practices but not these other nations? Surely the existential threat from terrorist forces, and other armed resistance, is no greater for us - much less in fact considering the size and strength of our nation. The bar has been lowered.

To some extent, our case was already weakened by the practice of extraordinary rendition anyway. It becomes increasingly hypocritical to condemn others for torture when we are asking those same nations on our list of offenders to, er, aggressively interrogate some of our prisoners for us - wink, wink - and, here's a list of questions to ask. But now, we could be entering a fuller, more complete hypocrisy.

Maybe we'll just have to draw the line between acceptable torture and denial of human rights, and the unacceptable variety. We'll decide who should and shouldn't be tortured domestically, and abroad. We'll serve as the arbiter of this moving target, and adjust the goalposts as we see fit. I'm sure the rest of the world will view such parsings and rationalizations in a positive light. The city on the hill and all that. As Kleiman noted:

Isn't it extraordinary how it's the people who reject "moral relativism" and insist on the black-and-white difference between good and evil who argue for making exceptions when it comes to torture?
Unless the Republican Party rises to defeat its leaders on these issues, there will be one more casualty from the Bush administration's tragically incompetent handling of the war on terror: Our moral authority. Rest in peace.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Shades Of Gray

In reading the transcript of Anthony Cordesman's recent testimony before the Senate concerning the Saudi Accountability Act (a punitive and heavy-handed measure that might be more feel good than efficacious in altering Saudi policy), I am reminded of many of my concerns with the cult of democratization that has sprung up in recent years - and grown empowered and emboldened post-9/11 (hat tip to praktike).

Part of the problem in discussing the topic of democracy promotion is that the way the debate is framed naturally leads to certain policy manifestations. How can one seriously oppose democratization without sounding like the Grinch that stole Christmas? It's like opposing puppies and kittens.

More seriously, by framing the issue as a pro-democracy/anti-democracy binary choice, proponents of a certain strain of policies designed to bring about democracy (at least in theory), can win support for their cause and portray themselves as the lone champions of freedom, human rights and democracy. They can represent an irresistible force in terms of garnering support - at least within certain influential circles. But in truth, not all roads lead to the promised land, and some methods (such as, ahem, invasion) can actually lead to costly, bloody and counterproductive detours. Further, not all non-violent means are necessarily effective either - nor can important issues such as timing (read: patience), indigenous support and underlying institutional strength be ignored or undervalued.

It is also crucial that we come to appreciate that the transition to democracy can be a highly tumultuous, chaotic and unpredictable affair. It can be, in many ways, a drastic realignment of a nation's society on a revolutionary scale. In a recent post, I discussed the fact that in situations where elections precede strong institutions necessary to empower a democratic model, nations can slip back into despotic rule, or lash out violently at neighbors. Such states are actually more prone to start wars than other more autocratic and dictatorial regimes. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of allowing a more organic, natural evolution of support amongst the target population and growth of other institutional, economic and cultural factors needed to assure more stability and lasting success. An overly imposing or heavy-handed approach by the United States in these endeavors can easily lead to resistance and entrenchment of un-democratic forces, or violent destabilization from half-democracies.

Without further ado, I turn to Cordesman who is speaking words of wisdom about many of the aforementioned topics, and more:

A US Strategy for Saudi Arabia and the Region

For all of these reasons, I see the Saudi Accountability Act as the kind of US posturing that will do far more to aid Bin Laden and extremism than put meaningful leverage on Saudi Arabia or any other friendly Arab and Muslim country. It will simply reinforce all of the regional stereotypes and conspiracy theories that the US does not understand the region, cares little about its people and a great deal about its own interests, and is trying to impose its values and create puppet regimes for its own purposes.

The Bush Administration has almost certainly been correct in stating that the Arab world and Middle East can only achieve stability through reform. Terrorism and extremism can only be defeated at the ideological, political, economic, and social level. Without such action, military and internal security efforts will fail -- sometimes quickly as in the case of Iraq and sometimes slowly as in the case of today's more successful "one man" regimes.

The Need for the Right Kind of US Reform Effort

Where the US, the Bush Administration, and the Congress need to be careful to avoid acting on the assumption that reform can come from the outside, that the same largely American or Western solution can work in all Arab and Islamic states, and that "democracy" is somehow a magic word that transforms entire societies.

• The fact is that meaningful religious reform can only come from within Islam, the region, and individual states. The US and the West cannot fight Islam's battle for the soul of Islam. This is a struggle that can only be fought and won within the region. If it is left to outsiders, or dealt with through denial, it is a struggle that will go on indefinitely and sometimes be lost. It is a struggle that every Middle Eastern intellectual, and every government, needs to face.

• The most outsiders can do is point out the obvious: This struggle is the most important single strategic priority for virtually every Middle Eastern and Islamic state. It is necessary and unavoidable, and interacts with the broader struggle for a tolerant global society based on mutual respect and human rights.
More broadly, the US, the Bush Administration, and the Congress need to be careful to adopt realistic time scales for evolutionary change, and to avoid focusing on "democracy" as if a simple political fix could be encouraged or imposed on every nation from the outside and at the nearly the same time.

• At a minimum, workable "democracy" means taking the time to create government with strong checks and balances. It means priority for human rights and the rule of law over the simple act of voting. It means creating functional political parties capable of both serving the nation and looking beyond one man, one vote, one time. Pure democracy has never worked in any state. Sufficiently crude democracy is little better.

• Both development, and regional strategic stability, will occur one nation at a time, and at different rates and in different ways. They will be driven either by local reformers and by political evolution, or will often collapse into forms of revolution that may be worse than the status quo.

• The real world priority for reform also has to give equal balance to economic reform, employment, education, social services, and reducing population growth rates. It means finding solutions to ethnic and religious divisions, and social change. It means giving at least as much priority to the economic role of women as the political role; creating a broad and globally competitive labor force.

• This kind of evolutionary reform can only occur at a different pace and in a different way in each state in the region. Like religious reform, it can only come from within and must be driven by local reformers. It cannot be driven by US public diplomacy, or by seeking to makeover every state in something approaching the form of the US or Europe. We are not talking about a few years; we are talking a decade and sometimes decades.

If we are to avoid letting extremists like Bin Laden drive us into a true clash of civilizations, we need a realistic strategy for reform on both sides. Saudi Arabia, the Arab world, and other Islamic states cannot deal with their needs for reform through denial, through complaining about outside states and forces, complaining about US and other external calls for reform, or waiting for the solutions to the region's other strategic problems. The US cannot deal with the issue by demanding mirror images, instant action, and all the other aspects of its traditional initial solution to every problem: "simple, quick, and wrong."

The Saudi and Arab Side of the Effort

The Middle East and Arab world will succeed, if and when, it starts to solve its problems one nation at a time, honestly, and without waiting for outside aid or solutions to all the region's ills. It is also important to note that it now has a unique window of opportunity.

The resources for action are also much greater today. The current projections of the EIA indicates that MENA oil export revenues will rise from a recent low of around $100 billion in 1998 in constant 2004 dollars to over $500 billion in 2005 – reaching or exceeding the former peak of some $500 billion reached in 1980..
The question is whether MENA governments will act upon this window of opportunity, whether the wealthier states will look beyond their own needs, and whether the poorer states will actually move towards effective development and reform. No nation has developed since World War II that did not develop itself, and solve virtually all of its own problems. If Asian states like Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, or other Asian states had waited for peace or regional solutions, Asia would be another Middle East.

The US and Western Side of the Effort

The US and Europe, however, need patience, a balanced approach to reform, strong country missions capable of encouraging local governments and reformers, and the understanding that different societies and cultures will often take a different path. In practice, this means a very different strategy based on persuasion, partnership, and cooption rather than pressure and conversion:

• Implement a broadly-based reform strategy: Social, economic, and political reforms should be supported, but in an evolutionary sense. The US and Western states, however, cannot be seen as pushing these reforms in ways that discredit local officials and reformers. Outside pressure for change will be resisted even if the reforms are necessary, and too much overt pressure is counterproductive.

• One size does not fit all. The Arab and Islamic worlds are not monolithic. Each
country requires different sets of reforms and needs. Some need help in reforming their political process, others need economic aid, and others need special attention to their demographic dynamics and population control. The West, therefore, must avoid any generalized strategy of dealing with the Arab-Islamic world as one entity.

• Work on a country-by-country approach and rely on strong country teams, not regional approaches: Regional polices, meetings and slogans will not deal with real world needs or provide the kind of dialogue with local officials and reformers, tailored pressure and aid, and country plans and policies that are needed. Strong country teams both in Washington and in US Embassies are the keys to success.

• Recognize that the pace of reform will be relatively slow if it is to be stable and evolutionary, and dependent on partnership and cooption. Artificial deadlines and false crises can only lead to failed tactics and strategies. Outside support for reform must move at the base countries can actually absorb, and shift priorities to reflect the options that are actually available. History takes time and does not conform to the tenure of any given set of policymakers.

• Carefully support moderate voices: “Moderates” in the region do need the support of the West, but obvious outside backing can hurt internal reform efforts. Moreover, “moderate” must be defined in broad terms. It does not mean “secularist” and it does not necessarily mean “pro-American.” It also, however, does not mean supporting voices that claim to support freedom and democracy, but are actually the voice of extremism.

• Democratization is only part of reform and depends on creating a rule of law, checks and balances and a separation of powers, protection for minorities and human rights, and effective political parties. Trying to force or "rush" democracy on Middle Eastern countries is impractical and counterproductive. The goal should be to help MENA countries develop more pluralistic and representative governments that respect the rights of minorities.

• Recognize that the key to effective action is local political action, dialogue, education, efforts to use the media, and public diplomacy: The West and the US cannot hope to win a struggle for Islam and reform from the outside. It is the efforts of local governments, reformers, educators, and media that will be critical. Encouraging and aiding such efforts is far more important than advancing the image of the US or Western states or trying to shape local and regional attitudes through Western public diplomacy.

• Avoid generalizing about Muslims: generalizing Islam as a source of violence and discriminating against Muslims in the west can alienate “uncommitted” Muslims.

• Demonizing any part of Islam will aid extremists: The problem of terrorism is not the problem of “puritan” or “Wahhabi” Islam, but the attitude of violence and intolerance of politically motivated groups that exploit religious teaching to gain legitimacy in the eyes of their recruits and followers. To defeat these groups, their motivations need to be understood and fought at their roots. E.g. Al-Qa'ida's goal of ruling the “Arabian Peninsula.”

• Avoid supporting “secularism” against “traditionalism:” The region has seen its share of failed governance systems. Most efforts to secularize have failed and the US should not be seen as a driving force behind what may be assured failure. Moreover, the word “secularism” translate into “elmaniyah” is often intermingled with “atheism.”

• Don’t try to divide and conquer: The West should stay clear of issues like Sunni-Shiite frictions, and taking sides with ethic and sectarian groups. It does not serve anyone when they are played against each other. The Iran-Iraq War was a perfect example of how interfering can backfire. The US should avoid playing any role that could encourage such divisions, particularly given the current environment in Iraq.

• Liberalism vs. counter-terrorism: The liberty democratic societies afford people is sometimes the same tool extremists use to spread their hateful ideology. The west must be careful in advocating immediate liberalization and freedom of speech of the Middle East.

• Apply a single set of standards to Western and regional counterterrorism: Do what you preach and preach what you do. The West and specifically the US should void being seen as supporting violation of human rights and abusive security measures in counter-terrorism, which advocating human freedom. Violence by states against civilians be it Russia, Egypt, or Israel should be equally condemned.

In short, any effective strategy to deal with terrorism and extremism means addressing two key strategic issues that go far beyond the so-called war on terrorism. One is whether the Arab world can recognize the need for reform and achieve it. The second is whether the West, and particularly the US, can learn to work quietly with nations for effective reform, rather than seek to impose it noisily, and sometimes violently, on an entire region.
Go read the rest. Overall, a very nice summary.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Take This Job And Shove It

Wow. What a week to be bogged down with the day job. Big wins for the Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey, Arnold suffers an across the board defeat of his various propositions in California, and the GOP is looking oddly in disarray as infighting and sniping rises to a cacophonous din. Or sweet melody depending on your perspective.

Are these the first rippling waves of a Sea Change? Maybe the Democrats have come Round the Bend, and we are poised to enter a new Golden Age. Could it be that the GOP's dominance is Already Dead? That it was always something of a Paper Tiger? There is, of course, the possibility that any such optimism is All In Your Mind, and I've cried enough Lonesome Tears over the dashed hopes of recent elections to be sufficiently jaded. But one can hope for some Sunday Sun, no? [ed note: 50 TIA points for identifying the poorly constructed musical puns in this paragraph]

Then, the tragic. More flies managed to wrest loose from the flypaper in Iraq to conduct horrific attacks in nearby Jordan. But surely they will be re-stuck to the flypaper shortly never to come free again. Or something.

And of course, Paris is burning. Unfortunately, I don't have time to address all of these truly significant events, so I only wanted to resurface to help beat back some of the more pernicious storylines circulating about the situation in France - which is migrating to nearby Belgium. I wish I could pen a lengthy and in depth analysis, but time only permits a quick hit and run link drop. So, as usual, I recommend Praktike, and will use his summary as a brief introduction:

In his usual tactful way, the illustrious Lounsbury points out two key common errors among commentators:

1. Not all of the rioters are Muslim.

According to Lounsbury, "it is very clear to those of us who know the 'sub-urbs' that a good percentage are not Muslim at all - merely sub-Saharan African oft of non-Muslim origin."

2. The recurring use of the word "immigrants" to refer to French citizens is inaccurate and offensive. Lounsbury again:

"As most of the rioters are born and bred in France - the entire immigrant usage ongoing is disturbing as it merely reflects French prejudice - one thing one remarks in France is the amazing habit of French ‘native French’ of calling 2nd, 3rd and even 4th generation descendants of immigrants, 'immigrants' as if they arrived 'off the boat.'"
Prak also references this Oliver Roy Op-ed that is very well worth the read. Juan Cole has also written a rather insightful take on the subject. These authors are saying what I would be if I had the time to commit my thoughts to paper (or ether?), only they do it more eloquently and from a better informed position.

Hopefully, I will be back to regular posting next week. Maybe even tomorrow. Dare to dream.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Safety In Numbers....

Too busy to blog today, but luckily my blog-mates at Liberals Against Terrorism are picking up the slack - big time (see: ie, the tireless Praktike). Much to read and ponder, especially (but not limited to) this piece by Nadezhda that traces the ever-evolving landscape of foreign policy doctrine. An informative and highly useful guide to the nomenclature, labels and jargon tossed around so freely these days. Perhaps too much so, at least for accuracy's sake - as Nadezhda explains. She's so smart. Go read.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Onward To Vectory?

Readers of this site might be familiar with the ongoing discussion relating to the creation of cross-ethnic/sectarian political movements, or "vectors," in Iraq. I have argued before that such broad-based, non-factional political movements are necessary for Iraq to develop a healthy political environment, and stave off the forces that are pulling Iraq apart.

As long as Iraqis remain committed to voting their ethnic/sectarian identities, politicians will have less incentive to broach the divides between Sunni, Shiite and Kurd that fuel the simmering civil war, and there will be an increased likelihood of corruption and tyranny. Politicians that know they will receive votes merely because of common heritage or identity are not compelled or incentivized to govern efficiently or in an enlightened manner. Under this dynamic, tyranny of the majority "faction" is an all too likely outcome. There is nothing keeping it in check. In Iraq, this could spell the demise of the nascent democracy and/or further escalate the current low-level civil war into full blown chaos.

On the contrary, if voters are more fluid in their electoral expressions, new alliances can be formed or abandoned around certain political issues, and no one group will dominate based on ethnic or sectarian composition. Politicians would have to appeal to the populace based on ideas and a platform. Such a political arrangement would facilitate the emergence of a new national compact, a unifying force that could rise above the fray of ethnic/sectarian clashes. This would also help to curtail some of the more theocratic and despotic tendencies of political parties that currently feel free to pay less attention to their manner of rule as to their religious/ethnic character. Above all, there would be accountability instead of electoral blank checks.

The outcome in Iraq is looking increasingly grim in terms of the creation of "vectors" ahead of the elections slated for December 15th. Despite what has been a less than stellar and surprisingly unpopular tenure in office, the UIA bloc of Shiite parties has largely remained intact and will most likely dominate the December elections in much the same way as they did in January. The ongoing violence, and the fear and insecurity it has sown, has only served to exacerbate the problem and forestall the creation of freely forming political movements. Instead of being punished for its incompetence, the UIA will be rewarded for its strong Shiite ties. This from a Reuters article (via Juan Cole):
Iraq's ruling Shi'ite Islamist Alliance party has no lack of enemies as it prepares for an election in six weeks time but sectarian loyalties should ensure it still dominates the next parliament, analysts say.

Assailed by minority Sunni insurgents, criticised by its own voters for economic stagnation, deserted by former allies and unloved by the U.S. occupiers, the United Iraqi Alliance should again take the bulk of votes among the 60-percent Shi'ite majority as it did in January's ballot for the interim assembly.

Three main Islamist parties making up the Alliance patched up their differences last week in time to register on Friday as a united list; it should capitalise on clerical backing and fears among voters to see off any challenge to its dominance from defectors who set up rival groups and from secular leaders.
The population, according to analysts cited in this article and elsewhere, still largely identifies with one or more camp regardless of other political factors. Fluidity is at a minimum.

"The Alliance will emerge the strongest again from this election; it will remain the most powerful," said Jaber Habib, politics professor at Baghdad University.

"The election itself will divide on sectarian and ethnic lines and Shi'ites don't think they have much of a choice."
While Sistani will probably not openly endorse any one bloc this go around, his support is implied - or at least the UIA intends to portray it as such. As long as the perception is maintained, the particulars are less important.

With voters increasingly entrenched in mutually fearful sectarian and ethnic camps, the Alliance retains an aura of religious authority derived from its support from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and will appeal to the once oppressed Shi'ites to stick together under one banner for protection.

"In the hearts and minds of the Iraqis we represent the Shi'ites," Alliance official Abbas Bayati told Reuters. "That's what we have inherited from the last election and this what we are going to use in December's election...Religion is key."

Though the reclusive Sistani has made it known he is keeping out of politics, last week's renewal of the Alliance has ensured that the political brand-name linked with him is on the ballot.

"For the people, Sistani...was behind forming the Alliance in the first place so of course to them he still supports them even if he doesn't say so in public," said Hazim al-Naimi, politics professor at Baghdad's Mustansiriya University.

"The results are clear -- the Alliance will continue to be the monster of the election and win all the southern and central provinces where Shi'ites are in a majority."
There have been efforts to form secular, cross-ethnic/sectarian coalitions, but so far the results have been less than encouraging. In addition to Allawi's broadly representative coalition (broad in the sense of variety, if not sheer numbers), the article takes note of some others:

Several groups, including the Islamist Fadila party, Ahmad Chalabi's secular Iraqi National Congress and independents led by Ali Dabagh have defected from the Alliance in recent days. [...]

"All these withdrawals and separate lists will not affect it really because it depends on strong symbols like Abdul Aziz al- Hakim and others," Baghdad University's Habib said.

Yet few analysts believe the secular groups can exert mass appeal in the present climate. Said Naimi: "Elections are being portrayed as a religious duty to make your sect victorious."
Under the current paradigm, the most likely outcome will be that the Kurds will vote for the Kurdish ticket, the Shiites for the UIA and the Sunnis for the Sunni ticket - with a smattering of votes going to the other parties. The UIA will dominate and, even if it lacks an outright majority, will remain a crucial coalition partner - most likely embracing a few smaller parties to get it over the 50% hurdle in the assembly. Not much in the way of cross-cutting vectors, and nothing indicative of a polity capable of creating the spirit of a new national compact needed to overcome the violent siren's call of the insurgencies.

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