Friday, December 29, 2006


While this site is busy trying to deconstruct the ill-advised "monolithic" approach to terrorism and regional conflict, Senator Lieberman is diligently adding brick and mortar to patch up the structure. Matt Yglesias observes the deft sleight of hand in Lieberman's opening paragraph by which he manages to link Iran and al-Qaeda in a seamless continuum:

While we are naturally focused on Iraq, a larger war is emerging. On one side are extremists and terrorists led and sponsored by Iran, on the other moderates and democrats supported by the United States. Iraq is the most deadly battlefield on which that conflict is being fought. How we end the struggle there will affect not only the region but the worldwide war against the extremists who attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001.

According to Lieberman's lede, there is "one side" of foes waging war against us in Iraq comprised of "extremists and terrorists led and sponsored by Iran." Yet the rest of the article discusses al-Qaeda's involvement in great length. Even the opening paragraph alludes to al-Qaeda by conjuring the specter of 9/11. Is al-Qaeda now supposed to be a group that takes its orders from Tehran?

At the very least, Lieberman does manage to actually treat al-Qaeda and Iran as separate entities throughout the rest of the op-ed (sort of), but he continues to suggest a unity of purpose and objectives that greatly distorts reality:

On this point, let there be no doubt: If Iraq descends into full-scale civil war, it will be a tremendous battlefield victory for al-Qaeda and Iran. [...]

Radical Islamist terrorist groups, both Sunni and Shiite, would reap victories simultaneously symbolic and tangible, as Iraq became a safe haven in which to train and strengthen their foot soldiers and Iran's terrorist agents.

Perhaps someone should remind Lieberman that al-Qaeda and Iran have substantially different goals (in Iraq and elsewhere), and that the long term designs of the two are in considerable tension. For one, Iran does not want Iraq to descend into a full scale civil war. That would jeopardize the considerable gains made by Iran in Iraq over the past four years, and risk pulling Iran into a regional war that will drain that nation of money, lives, prestige and influence. Why ruin a good thing?

On a more meta-level, I doubt very much that Iran would appreciate being subjugated by a Sunni Muslim revivalist Caliphate (as al-Qaeda envisions) that would demand conversion or death, nor that al-Qaeda welcomes the notion of a theocratic Shiite ascendancy gaining ground in Sunni lands (an extension of the "heretical" Shiite crescent).

Recall that al-Qaeda's adopted son in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was, after all, a dedicated anti-Shiite bigot - to the extent that he seemed to let his bloodlust for Shiite "kafir" surpass his anti-American focus, much to the dismay (at least initially) of al-Qaeda's senior leadership who preferred a less sectarian angle early on in the conflict. But hey, now Iran and al-Qaeda are BFF - or at least Lieberman and his ilk would have you believe.

Spencer Ackerman made the following observation when pondering this sentence from Lieberman's editorial:

Hezbollah and Hamas would be greatly strengthened against their moderate opponents.

Ah, the undifferentiated Islamist menace, spreading like a cancer, on the nefarious march.

As Michael Ledeen once said of treating the Mullah's in Iran the way we treated the Taliban, "Why not, they even look the same." And that's all that counts, right?

On a separate note: If strengthening Hezbollah, Hamas and other extremist groups vis-a-vis the moderates in the region is a valid concern (and it is in my opinion), then why did Lieberman support the invasion of Iraq which, as predicted,...greatly empowered Hezbollah, Hamas and other extremists while weakening the moderate factions in the region?

Matt has the answer:

Obviously, though, that's logic and hawks aren't into logic.

I forgot. Logic is for girlie men. 9/11 changed that.

[UPDATE: Publius at Legal Fiction chimes in with his own gripes. In particular, he mentions one aspect of Lieberman's sloppy analysis that I left untouched:

[Lieberman] inflates “al Qaeda” by essentially equating it with the Sunni insurgency.

Publius is right that Lieberman is wrong. If al-Qaeda's presence in Iraq were to disappear completely today, there would still be a robust Sunni insurgency. It is neither reliant on al-Qaeda, populated primarily by al-Qaeda, led by al-Qaeda nor aligned with al-Qaeda in terms of long term goals. But that type of accuracy in analysis doesn't make for good bogeymen. Also, it's logical.]

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Counterterrorism: Now In Bite Sized Pieces!

Barnett Rubin has written an extremely informative piece on the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, and provided a concise account of the history which is crucial to understanding the various actors and interests. The situation is, to say the least, dire. Echoing the concerns expressed by Anthony Cordesman (pdf), Rubin warns that the Bush administration's neglect of Afghanistan in favor of operations in Iraq has left Afghanistan vulnerable to a resurgent Taliban, and allowed the central government's authority to erode - creating lawless pockets of failed statehood susceptible to al-Qaeda's infiltration. Like Cordesman, Rubin believes that the situation cannot be stabilized without the dedication of considerably more money and other resources.

Rubin also focuses considerable attention on the role that Pakistan plays in nurturing the Taliban's insurgency in Afghanistan (a story that has been covered by Brian Ulrich with some frequency on American Footprints, for example here, here, here and here). In fact, while he argues that the lack of economic development, lack of security, rampant corruption and other factors are exacerbating the situation, he concludes that cooperation from Pakistan is the sine qua non of successful counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan.

The strength and persistence of the insurgency cannot be explained solely by the sanctuary the Taliban enjoy in Pakistan. But few insurgencies with safe havens abroad have ever been defeated. The argument that poverty and underdevelopment, rather than Pakistani support, are responsible for the insurgency does not stand up to scrutiny: northern and western Afghanistan are also plagued by crime and insecurity, and yet there is no coordinated antigovernment violence in those regions.

The seductively "easy" thing to do in this situation would be to publicly decry Pakistan's meddlesome role, and attempt to kow them into cooperation through a series of forceful threats and related bellicosity. Demanding that Pakistan withdraw support from the Taliban is, after all, morally defensible and a strategic imperative - an ample foundation for "muscular" confrontationalism. This approach, however, as similarly applied with respect to Iran and Syria's involvement in Iraq, Lebanon and the region generally speaking, is as emotionally appealing as it is ineffective.

It is doomed by the twin maladies of solipsism and hubris - it simultaneously subordinates complex and deep seated local conflicts to the whim of the hegemonic outsider (us) while at the same time vastly overestimating our ability as the unipolar power to secure and maintain cooperation in these matters through mere threat of force (and/or limited application of force).

Instead we must recognize and appreciate the fact that each side has legitimate - or at least what it deems to be vital - interests at play. As such, and due to comparative geographical proximity, their resolve will likely outlast ours, even if we are able to achieve some level of assistance in the short term. In order to forge lasting solutions, we must account for each party's objectives, and attempt to craft compromises whereby each party wins to some extent. Adherence to the zero sum game model of international relations hasn't been serving us all that well over the past six years.

A brief synopsis of Pakistan's concerns:

Pakistan's military establishment has always approached the various wars in and around Afghanistan as a function of its main institutional and national security interests: first and foremost, balancing India, a country with vastly more people and resources, whose elites, at least in Pakistani eyes, do not fully accept the legitimacy of Pakistan's existence. To defend Pakistan from ethnic fragmentation, Pakistan's governments have tried to neutralize Pashtun and Baluch nationalism, in part by supporting Islamist militias among the Pashtun. Such militias wage asymmetrical warfare on Afghanistan and Kashmir and counter the electoral majorities of opponents of military rule with their street power and violence.

The rushed negotiations between the United States and Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 changed Pakistan's behavior but not its interests.

Rubin seems to endorse the strategic model for treating the "war on terror" as a global counterinsurgency, as discussed on this site. In particular, Rubin supports the "disaggregation model" - rather than lumping all potential enemies into one category and treating them in an undifferentiated manner as monolithic "terrorists," instead we should treat each particular crisis and group separately, and narrowly tailor our responses to address the particular cultural, regional and historical grievances giving rise to the symptoms of terrorism. Lift and separate, as I put it. Rubin offers a prescription for action:

NATO and the coalition members have...failed to devise a common course of action, in part out of the fear that doing so could cause Pakistan to reduce its cooperation on counterterrorism. But failing to address Pakistan's support of the Taliban amounts to an acceptance of NATO's failure. The allies must send a strong message to Pakistan: that a lack of forceful action against the Taliban command in Baluchistan constitutes a threat to international peace and security as defined in the UN Charter. Pakistan's leaders, who are eager to show that their government is a full participant in the international community (partly in order to establish parity with India), will seek to avoid such a designation. Washington must also take a stand. Pakistan should not continue to benefit from U.S. military assistance and international aid as long as it fails even to try to dismantle the Taliban's command structure.

On this issue, as on others, Washington should reverse the Bush administration's policy of linking as many local conflicts as possible to the global "war on terror" and instead address each on its own terms. A realistic assessment of Pakistan's role requires not moving Pakistan from the "with us" to the "against us" column in the "war on terror" account books but recognizing that Pakistan's policy derives from the perceptions, interests, and capabilities of its leaders, not from those of the U.S. government. The haven and support the Taliban receive in Pakistan are partly a response to claims Afghanistan has made against Pakistan and are also due to Islamabad's concern about both Indian influence in Afghanistan and Afghan backing for Pashtun and Baluch nationalists operating across the Durand Line.

Accordingly, unified pressure on Pakistan should be accompanied by efforts to address Islamabad's core concerns. The United States and its allies should encourage the Afghan government to open a domestic debate on the sensitive issue of recognition of the Durand Line in return for guarantees of stability and access to secure trade and transport corridors to Pakistani ports. Transforming the border region into an area of cooperation rather than conflict will require reform and development in the tribal territories. And Washington should ask India and Afghanistan to take measures to reassure Pakistan that their bilateral relations will not threaten Islamabad. If, as some sources claim, the Taliban are preparing to drop their maximalist demands and give guarantees against the reestablishment of al Qaeda bases, the Afghan government could discuss their entry into the political system. [emphasis mine throughout]

It is unrealistic and self-indulgent to presume that every nation should put their interests aside and bend to our will simply because of our status as a superpower. Our hegemony might be able to engender tepid support for certain of our initiatives, but that support will be half-hearted and withdrawn at the first sign of inattention on our part - as is the case with Pakistan's "cooperation" in Afghanistan.

Instead, we should use our clout to attempt to forge regional bargains that can drain the venom out of conflicts that serve to destabilize entire territories, making land, and people, ripe for exploitation by jihadists. Finding these solutions won't be easy, and satisfying all applicable parties will require patience, ingenuity and diplomatic finesse (in other words, we might have to wait until after 2008). But attempting to bully other countries into forsaking their interests and adopting ours as their own is fool's gold.

The gains are chimerical at best.

Fitter, Happier, More Productive?

If there's one thing Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on these days, it's that we need a bigger military. More boots for the ground so to speak. Matt Yglesias is rightly concerned with the rather substantial price tag that would accompany such an increase. Others have questioned whether more is the answer, rather than "better specialized" (ie, whether the need for specialized forces such as MPs, translators, and other soldiers with expertise required for nation building operations outweighs the need for more raw manpower as such).*

Yet, one of the issues that doesn't seem to be receiving quite as much attention as warranted is the extent to which we have ability to actually increase the size of the military in the first place - at least without compromising its efficacy. Meeting recruitment targets aimed primarily at maintaining status quo troop levels during the Iraq war (with some modest increases) hasn't been all that easy. So if treading water is problematic as is, how will plans for massive expansion fare? Phil Carter has doubts:

This New York Times story from Dec. 24 makes it clear that growing the all-volunteer force is not as easy as simply adding yeast and letting it rise. The term "all-volunteer force" is a misnomer anyway. It's really a recruited force. To make it bigger, the Pentagon must employ the right mix of advertisements, incentives, recruiting personnel, accessions policies, and strategic leadership. Given the difficulty of reaching the recruiting missions for the past three years, I'm not sure they can get there from here.

Hope springs eternal on the Potomac, I guess. But as retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan always said: "hope is not a method." My gut tells me the military will be able to increase it's size, but that this is going to cost a lot of money, and have secondary and tertiary effects on the force. Pay careful attention to reporting over the next several months about accessions standards, because my fear is that the military will lower these standards in order to recruit the force it needs.

I imagine that after the Iraq war finally ends, recruitment levels should rebound somewhat. Call it the peacetime dividend. Still, many of the fears Carter voices in his post are already a reality. In addition to the fact that increased bonuses are already making recruitment and retention more expensive, as well as the fact that the maximum age of enlistment has been pushed up to 42 years old for the Army, standards for aptitude tests have been falling rather dramatically.

As Fred Kaplan noted in January, the "tertiary and secondary" effects on the armed forces stemming from lowered standards that Carter alludes to are very real:

Some may wonder: So what? Can't someone who scores low on an aptitude test, even very low, go on to become a fine, competent soldier, especially after going through boot camp and training? No question. Some college drop-outs also end up doing very well in business and other professions. But in general, in the military no less than in the civilian world, the norm turns out to be otherwise.

In a RAND Corp. report commissioned by the office of the secretary of defense and published in 2005, military analyst Jennifer Kavanagh reviewed a spate of recent statistical studies on the various factors that determine military performance—experience, training, aptitude, and so forth—and concluded that aptitude is key. A force "made up of personnel with high AFQT [armed forces aptitude test] scores," Kavanagh writes, "contributes to a more effective and accurate team performance." [...]

The pattern is clear: The higher the score on the aptitude test, the better the performance in the field. This is true for individual soldiers and for units. [...]

Smarter also turns out to be cheaper. One study examined how many Patriot missiles various Army air-defense units had to fire in order to destroy 10 targets. Units with Category I personnel had to fire 20 missiles. Those with Category II had to fire 21 missiles. Category IIIA: 22. Category IIIB: 23. Category IV: 24 missiles. In other words, to perform the same task, Category IV units chewed up 20 percent more hardware than Category I units. For this particular task, since each Patriot missile costs about $2 million, they also chewed up $8 million more of the Army's procurement budget.

Then again, viewed from another angle, [the new lower standards] would double the Army's least desirable soldiers. These are the soldiers that the Army has long shut out of its ranks; that it is now recruiting avidly, out of sheer desperation; and that—according to the military's own studies—seriously degrade the competence of every unit they end up joining. No, things haven't gone to hell in a handbasket, but they're headed in that direction. Every Army officer knows this. And that's why many of them want the United States to get out of Iraq.

Sometimes, bigger isn't better.

*[UPDATE: Over at American Footprints, the Armchair Generalist (who knows vastly more than I do about these subjects) links to an interesting piece by Paul Rieckhoff which breaks down and cateogorizes the number and type of specialized forces needed to enhance our military's ability to handle the conflicts likely to be encountered during the next century. Worth the read.]

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Who's That Peeking In My Window? Nobody Now

Despite the fact that Ayatollah al-Sistani unceremoniously quashed the plans to forge an alternative political coalition aimed at diminishing Moqtada al-Sadr's influence in the Iraqi government (effectively rendering those plans a non-starter), certain aspects of the overarching strategy to marginalize Sadr appear to be alive and kicking. US military personnel in Iraq may have just, intentionally or unintentionally, triggered a series of events likely to culminate in some sort of heightened confrontation with Sadr's faction.

Tension was mounting in the Iraqi city of Najaf after an American soldier killed a senior ally of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr during a raid on his house.

Sadr supporters and local police told AFP Wednesday that US and Iraqi soldiers had stormed the family home of Sahib al-Ameri, the president of a pro-Sadr political foundation in the holy city of Najaf, and shot him dead.

The US military confirmed one of its troops had shot Ameri in an overnight raid by Iraqi forces, backed up by coalition military advisers.

A statement said Ameri was implicated in recent bomb attacks on US and Iraqi forces, and was shot by an adviser after he fled to the roof of his house and aimed an assault rifle at an Iraqi soldier. [...]

Hundreds of mourners marched from Sadr's office in Najaf to the revered shrine of Imam Ali chanting anti-American slogans and denouncing Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as a traitor for working with US officials.

If this was a case of a tense situation getting away from the soldiers on the ground, then it is possible that the ripple effect will be minimal. Possible, but not guaranteed. But if this represents the opening salvo in a reinvigorated anti-Sadr military campaign, hold on to your hats.

As some, like Vali Nasr, have speculated, the recent talk of a "surge" in the number of troops in Iraq could be part of this larger plan to militarily neutralize Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia. As Nasr explains, however, such an operation could prove exceedingly difficult, and quite possibly beyond our means - even if our efforts are buttressed by a temporary injection of more troops [emphasis mine throughout]:

New troops will be in Iraq not to police the streets and hold the line against the creeping violence, but to expand the war by taking on the Shia militias. This is an escalation strategy. Will it work; maybe, maybe not. But it runs the risk that it may very well provoke a Shia insurgency—something Iraq has not so far witnessed. Thus far the U.S. has faced a Sunni insurgency (which by most estimates continues to account for 80% of U.S. casualties), and sectarian violence in which Shias and Sunnis are killing each other....Shia militias, unlike the insurgency, are not targeting American troops. But it looks like the administration is set to change that...By going to war with the increasingly popular Sadr Washington runs the danger of losing the Shia altogether.

Wrong-headed military and political steps provoked the Sunni insurgency in 2003-04, and then more mistakes helped fuel sectarian violence in 2005-06. Another set of mistakes can turn 2007 into the year that U.S. provoked a Shia insurgency. That may prove to be the mother of all mistakes. Hell in Iraq will come when the Shia south—accounting for 60% of the country’s population, largest urban areas, oil, supply lines to Kuwait, and only gateway to the Persian Gulf—rises up against the U.S. Then we either have to get out of Iraq altogether and very quickly, or we will have to commit to many more troop surges to deal with the problems created by the first one.

It is noteworthy that Nasr re-casts the "surge" strategy as an "escalation strategy" because the fine print that the "surge" policy's authors are putting on the contract at this eleventh hour supports such an assessment. Matt Yglesias passes along news that committed surge-nts Jack Keane and Frederick Kagan have rushed to clarify their intentions before the ribbon is cut:

...Keane and Fred Kagan take to the pages of The Washington Post to argue that a three or six month surge "would virtually ensure defeat." Instead we need "a surge of at least 30,000 combat troops lasting 18 months or so."

Once you're talking about an 18 month deployment, of course, you're not really looking at a surge.

John Podhoretz only reinforces the Orwellian nature of the "surge" framing:

The key here is time. A "temporary" troop surge will be a disaster.

Leaving aside the semantics, if the Bush administration truly means to open a second front in Iraq, against one of the most popular Shiite leaders in that country, then I would push for a partial redeployment of troops instead.

But the key here is location. An "incomplete" partial redeployment that doesn't remove all troops from Iraq will be a disaster.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Tonkin in a Teapot

This story, reported by the New York Times yesterday, is generating some heat in that segment of our punditocracy that is overly enthusiastic about the use of the military to address our problems. The opening paragraph has the putative bombshell:

The American military is holding at least four Iranians in Iraq, including men the Bush administration called senior military officials, who were seized in a pair of raids late last week aimed at people suspected of conducting attacks on Iraqi security forces, according to senior Iraqi and American officials in Baghdad and Washington.

Predictably, certain Bush supporters are pointing to this as smoking gun evidence that Iran is interfering in Iraq in order to destabilize the nascent government - and, thus, that these captures should act as a pretense for an attack on Iran. There are some serious problems with drawing such a conclusion from this evidence, though.

For one, two of the Iranians detained were in Iraq on invitation from Kurdish political leader Jalal Talabani - the current Iraqi president. In addition, at least one of the raids occurred at the Baghdad compound of SCIRI leader Abdul Aziz-Hakim - who we were recently floating as a suitable alternative to his rival, Moqtada al-Sadr, in connection with a plan that would have marginalized Sadr and boosted SCIRI's power (a plan that was torpedoed by Ayatollah Sistani's insistence on Shiite unity, regardless).

Perhaps most damning of all, however, is the fact that when two of the detainees were turned over to the Iraqi government, they were promptly released back to Iran. The Iraqi government is continuing to petition for the release of the other Iranian prisoners. This reaction on the part of the Iraqi government is telling.

If these Iranians were really in Iraq to coordinate attacks against Iraqi security forces, why would the Iraqi government (in charge of those same security forces) be so eager to release the detainees? And why would they have invited them in the first place (in the case of Talabani), and sheltered them while in Iraq (in the case of Hakim).

Nevertheless, Glenn Reynolds and others are trying to conjure a tempest out of this tepid affair, wondering whether this, at last, constitues the long sought after "casus belli." Such advocacy is so misguided it's hard to know where to begin. First of all, leaving aside the dubious nature of the story cited above, lets concede for the sake of argument that Iran is indeed meddling in Iraq in order to complicate our occupation. I don't really have that hard a time entertaining such a premise.

With this premise acknowledged, let's allow for the possibility that at some point in the future, new evidence of Iran's malfeasance may be uncovered that holds up better under scrutiny than the Times' story. Would that, then, consistute a casus belli? Not under all but the most egregious circumstances. Think about it.

We have made it abundantly clear that we would like regime change in Iran - a regime Bush labeled part of the nefarious "axis of evil." In furtherance of these goals, we, ourselves, have been meddling in Iran in order to stoke unrest there among certain restive minority groups and outside dissidents. Not to mention the fact that we have amassed a very large army right next door and persisted in refusing just about any diplomatic entreaty or proposal for normalized relations.

Iran responds rationally by trying to pin us to the mat in Iraq through its own ability to create chaos, and also to augment its power and influence through the building of cooperative relationships with potential allies and proxies. At what point in that equally adversarial narrative do we get to cry "foul" as the aggrieved party? What act would stick out against the backdrop of decades of tumultuous US/Iranian relations as over the line?

I'll go even further. Let's say, again ex arguendo, that Iran's actions have been intolerabely malicious and destructive, and that our own acts and intentions have been peaceful and pure. Would it, even then, behoove us to treat Iran's meddling in Iraq as a reason to launch a war against Iran now?

The answer is a pretty clear no.

At the moment, President Bush has the military leadership scrambling to come up with a way to tinker with deployments, rotations and the like in order to create the illusion of a surge of troops in Iraq. Big dreamers at the AEI like Frederick Kagan are spinning fantastical plans for "winning" in Iraq based on the utilization of an army of considerably larger force size than the one that currently exists.

With severe troop shortages and ever-worsening conditions plaguing our efforts in Iraq, we're supposed to invade Iran as well? Even after factoring in the increased risk to our troops in Iraq (see, ie, long, vulnerable supply lines stretching through the Shiite south) that would flow from an Iran in full war footing? Really Glenn? I'd ask "you and whose army" but I know it wouldn't include you.

So, let me redact it: with whose army Glenn?

How easy it is to advocate for war when one is freed from the constraints imposed by reality. All bluster and chest thumping bravado, with no need to even consider the price of the bill, let alone paying it.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Happy Holidays!

Happy holidays, no matter how you choose to celebrate them. As for me, I'm looking forward to what promises to be a splendid rendition of Handel's Messiah at the Riverside Church in Harlem tomorrow night. That, and not working again until Tuesday. Also, gifts (the giving and receiving).

If the holiday season leaves you wanting to curl up next to the yule-time fire with a nice book blog this weekend, though, I'd recommend Nadezhda's analysis of the impact of the Baker-Hamilton report, and the broader implications in the realm of politics, policy and the interaction of the two. A teaser:

There's been a great deal of moaning that the ISG Report brought forth a mouse which has vanished from relevancy in near-record time. Personally, I'm of the James Fallows view, that the ISG Report will eventually be seen as the "Walter Cronkite" of the Iraq war that shifts the basis of any future debates. [...]

Since 9/11, the Bush White House has confused electoral politics with the politics of domestic policy and diplomacy. It has applied its polarizing, "us vs them," Rovian approach to both domestic governance and international relations. Baker, by contrast, is capable of distinguishing between the zero-sum winner-take-all logic of election campaigns versus the politics of managing mutual and conflicting interests in governance and diplomacy. Baker (and Bush pere) is demonstratively of the "win-win" school, which tries to maximize one's interests over the long haul while giving the other party a positive framework in which cooperation can develop and be sustained. Quite a contrast to Junior's "slash and burn" style that tries to demonize, dominate or destroy the other, whether potential partner or enemy.

Also, Spencer examines a topic near and dear to my heart: the tendency of people to - incorrectly - conflate the use of violence with strength.

Lord knows I am no political scientist. But there are some big conceptual problems with Matt Continetti's cover story in the Standard this week. Continetti argues that an overlook partisan divide in America centers around what he terms the Peace Party and the Power Party. You can guess which is which. And, I suppose, it's true enough, in a banal sense. But problems lurk beneath the surface.

The evidence Continetti marshals doesn't actually hover around power as such. It has to do with war, or perhaps more accurately, militarism. He does a good job of demonstrating that Democratic voters are vastly more skeptical of military force. But the conceptual slip is in the conflation of military power with American power.
The notion that power equates to one's willingness to wage war seems like a particularly peculiar thesis to be discussing so near to the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Regardless of the divinity one ascribes to Jesus, it would be hard to argue that he was an individual that lacked "power."

Yet, I seem to recall him having a pretty negative view of war and violence.

To which I say, hallelujah.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Phrase of the Day

The phrase of the day is, caveat emptor.

ca·ve·at emp·tornoun: let the buyer beware: the principle that the seller of a product cannot be held responsible for its quality unless it is guaranteed in a warranty.
This is particularly good advice when purchasing illegal substances that never come with a warranty know....crack! Apparently, Eloise Reaves needs to bone up on her Latin:

A North Carolina woman was arrested after complaining to a police officer that the crack cocaine she had just purchased wasn't very good, authorities said.

Eloise D. Reaves, 50, approached the Putnam County sheriff's deputy at a convenience store Friday, telling him that another man had sold her "bad crack" that contained wax and cocaine.

She pulled an alleged crack rock out of her mouth and placed it on the deputy's car for inspection, the Palatka Daily News reported for Tuesday editions.
Aside from not making crack-related quality control complaints to the local police force, also please refrain from calling 911 to report stolen marijuana plants.

A Wichita man called 911 to report he was the victim of an armed robbery. The theft? A pound of marijuana worth about $1,100 that he had been trying to sell at his home.

The victim told police Thursday that a buyer had pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and stole the drugs.

Police brought in a drug-sniffing dog to the house and located more marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

The victim was booked into Sedgwick County jail on several charges, including possession with the intent to sell drug.

(hat tip, Orin Kerr)

Cause Ain't No Such Thing as Halfway Mooks

Did Moqtada al-Sadr just blink?

Allow me to explain. The AP is reporting that Shiite representatives from the new cross-sectarian alliance pushed by the Bush administration as an alternative to the current government will be meeting with Ayatollah al-Sistani and Moqtada al-Sadr over the coming days.

The purpose of this round of meetings is twofold: First to ensure that Sistani gives his endorsement to the potential new ruling coalition; and Second, to see if Sadr's concerns related to this new coalition can be mollified and his cooperation - and possible return to the political fold - secured.

The Sadr outreach angle is truly interesting to me since it appeared that the entire purpose of the new coalition was to marginalize and isolate Sadr in the first place. But then, things in Iraq are rarely as they seem on the surface. Maybe it had more to do with behavior modification, the old fashioned way.

Officials close to al-Sadr said they believe the firebrand cleric and his followers would turn a friendly ear to the coalition, out of fear of being sidelined in the future.

Fearing such political isolation as well as possible attack by U.S. forces, al-Sadr will secretly order his Mahdi Army militia to abide by a one-month halt in fighting, said a Shiite politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the negotiations. He did not give further details.

Another official close to al-Sadr did not speak about the planned truce directly, but said when asked about it that "the security situation will improve in the coming month."

It is possible that the Bush administration may have succeeded in forcing Sadr to assume a more cooperative posture - at least for now. In fact, if Sadr is willing to continue to play ball, I think the Bush administration would be content to let him have his fiefdom and even most of his militia.

But that would probably necessitate a toning down of the anti-occupation rhetoric - which is simply unacceptable in the Bush team's estimation (it does sort of complicate things). Which brings us back to what could actually be one of the driving forces behind the recent political maneuvering: not disbanding militias per se, but clarifying those forces (even militia-related) that are pro- and anti-occupation. As Spencer said:

The Bush administration -- certainly the Cheneyites -- are enthusiastic about the Hakim gambit because it clarifies matters for them. That is, everyone who's happy to be an occupation proxy is in the government and everyone who isn't is out.

So if Sadr wants to join the party, the more the merrier. There are, however, concerns regarding the extent to which Sadr could effectively enforce a cease fire up and down the ranks of the somewhat diffuse Mahdi Army chain of command. According to the AP story:

Even if al-Sadr commands his militia, the Madhi Army, to halt sectarian attacks for a month, questions remain as to whether violence would decrease. The militia is believed to be increasingly fragmented, with some factions no longer reporting to him, and a call for a truce could further divide it.

This could be interpreted as a feature, not a bug, though. Think about it. Sadr calls a truce, those cadres loyal to him heed his command, and those breakaway factions continue to sow violence. This would only further the effort to weed out the trustworthy, pro-occupation forces from those less disciplined, independent-minded rejectionists - assuming that latter group could be effectively identified and neutralized.

Nevertheless, it would be prudent to ask at this point whether this is the prelude to the infamous 80% solution, or a legitimate, long term effort to build a cross-ethnic/sectarian political movement designed to suppress the civil war? Is the Sunni component of this new coalition a useful fig leaf in the short term, or an actual bona fide partner?

Only time will tell.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Did You Hear That?

Somewhere, Arthur Chrenkoff's head just exploded:

First Lady Laura Bush spoke for many conservatives when she excoriated the media’s coverage of Iraq the other day. She complained that “the drumbeat in the country from the media ... is discouraging,” and said “there are a lot of good things happening that aren’t covered.”

What are those things, one wonders? One can only imagine how Mrs. Bush can figure that they outweigh the horrors in Iraq. [...]

In their distrust of the mainstream media, their defensiveness over President Bush and the war, and their understandable urge to buck up the nation’s will, many conservatives lost touch with reality on Iraq. They thought that they were contributing to our success, but they were only helping to forestall a cold look at conditions there and the change in strategy and tactics that would be dictated by it.

-National Review editor Rich Lowry
December 19, 2006
Also, Rich Lowry's:

It is time to say it unequivocally: We are winning in Iraq . . . Even as there has been a steady diet of bad news about Iraq in the media over the last year, even as some hawks have bailed on the war in despair, even as Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has become everyone's whipping boy, the U.S. military has been regaining the strategic upper hand.

-Rich Lowry
April 27, 2005
Please watch for falling debris.

(hat tip, Billmon)

Don't Call It a Comeback?

As Swopa and Spencer have noted, Ayatollah al-Sistani appears to be ending his self-imposed exile from the realm of Iraqi politics - or is he?

According to certain sources cited by the New York Times, Sistani has given his blessing to the anti-Sadr political alliance that the Bush administration is trying to rig with certain interested Iraqi parties, as discussed below. Swopa, though, has his doubts. For one, the reporting relies on anonymous "Iraqi and Western officials" - so it is possible that some of these "revelations" might be more wishful thinking than an accurate representation of Sistani's position.

Also, as Swopa notes, there is a bit of a history for failing to correctly read the signals emanating from Sistani's camp:

Here's a tip right off the bat -- when "officials" (and particularly "Western officials") in Baghdad claim to be telling you the opinions of a house-bound and somewhat xenophobic cleric in Najaf, be suspicious. [...]

Sistani wouldn't ever let Americans believe they were getting away with something, then pull the prayer rug out from under them at the last minute by refusing to go along... um, aside from three years ago, when he single-handedly derailed U.S. plans to impose a heavily filtered form of "democracy" on Iraq, resulting in the current Shiite-dominated government.

Along these lines, Spencer has his doubts about whether or not Sistani would want to be so heavily implicated in a move that: (a) is not necessarily in line with Sistani's long term interests; and (b) doesn't exactly have an overwhelming likelihood of success. Says Spencer:

You might be surprised to learn I think this is fraught with peril for Sistani! The Bush administration -- certainly the Cheneyites -- are enthusiastic about the Hakim gambit because it clarifies matters for them. That is, everyone who's happy to be an occupation proxy is in the government and everyone who isn't is out. Hakim wants to kill a whole lot of Sunnis; the Bushies aren't going to need their arms twisted. Hakim, despite being Iran'd-up, has the virtue of not being Sadr -- and the Bushies are licking their chops for an anti-Sadr offensive after they're done with the Sunnis.

And here, of course, is where Sistani's interests diverge sharply from Bush's. Above all, for years, Sistani has pushed hard for Shiite political unity. Hakim is basically girding himself for a showdown with Sadr in the near future. Maybe Sistani has had it with Moqtada and wonders who will rid him of this meddlesome junior cleric. But Sadr is also far and away the most charismatic figure in Iraqi Shiite politics. There's no guarantee that Hakim can beat him, and if Sistani's fingerprints are all over the purge of the Sadrists, he's putting himself in jeopardy.

Spencer correctly identifies the key tension here: I suspect that, all things being equal, Sistani would rather Sadr be greatly diminished in terms of power and influence, or done away with for good. Sadr has proven to be brash, confrontational and less than obedient to Sistani's word. In many ways, Sadr's considerable street cred, and willingness to exact vengeance in the sectarian tit for tat, has served to push Sistani's more moderate voice into the background. SCIRI, Dawa and Sistani each recognize the threat to their respective power bases posed by Sadr's ascendancy.

On the other hand, though, would Sistani really sanction what will amount to a bloody rift in the Shiite community in Iraq - pitting the most charismatic figure, who boasts an enormous following, against an amalgamation of Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and US forces? Would he willingly sign on the dotted line of the deed to the house divided?

Perhaps, as a commenter at TAPPED mentioned, Iran may be placating Sistani's fears, and encouraging him in this direction, as well? Wonder what they'd be getting in return. Could the larger Shiite-tilt apparatus be revealing itself?

The plot, it thickens.

Get Mookie

In light of this new characterization of Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the unfolding chronicles of Moqtada that I have been following since October. But first, the new outlook:

Armed militiamen affiliated with radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr pose the gravest danger to the security and stability of Iraq, surpassing Sunni Arab insurgents and Al Qaeda terrorists, a new Defense Department report to Congress says.
This description of the nature of the threat posed by Sadr is, at the very least, consistent with the Bush administration's recent attempts to manipulate the political landscape in Iraq in an effort to curtail Sadr's burgeoning power and influence. Regardless of the accuracy of such assessments, the flanking maneuver is on.

As it now stands, there appear to be two parallel tracks being pursued in service of the cause to neuter Sadr. Both involve building cross-sectarian/ethnic political alliances that would isolate Sadr, and remove him from the government's ruling coalition (and associated ministerial positions). The differences hinge on the role current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would play in the newly crafted contra-Sadr alliance. Call it the With or Without You approach. First, the 'without you' portion, as reported by the New York Times:

After discussions with the Bush administration, several of Iraq’s major political parties are in talks to form a coalition whose aim is to break the powerful influence of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr within the government, senior Iraqi officials say.

The talks are taking place among the two main Kurdish groups, the most influential Sunni Arab party and an Iranian-backed Shiite party that has long sought to lead the government. They have invited Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to join them. But Mr. Maliki, a conservative Shiite who has close ties to Mr. Sadr, has held back for fear that the parties might be seeking to oust him, a Shiite legislator close to Mr. Maliki said.

Officials involved in the talks say their aim is not to undermine Mr. Maliki, but to isolate Mr. Sadr as well as firebrand Sunni Arab politicians inside the government....

The Americans, frustrated with Mr. Maliki’s political dependence on Mr. Sadr, appear to be working hard to help build the new coalition. President Bush met last week in the White House with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Iranian-backed Shiite party, and is to meet on Tuesday with Tariq al-Hashemi, leader of the Sunni Arab party. In late November, Mr. Bush and his top aides met with leaders from Sunni countries in the Middle East to urge them to press moderate Sunni Arab Iraqis to support Mr. Maliki.
Ideally, I think the Bush administration would like to keep Maliki on board in order to maintain the democratic trappings, but if he flinches, they will pursue alternatives - even a possible coup if necessary (though this would be the least desirable path). For these cosmetic reasons, I tend to lean toward the "with you" faction's reading of events. Here, Eli Lake describes the "commitment" to Maliki - or at the very least, preference for non-coup related methods:

An administration official yesterday said the president has been insistent that no new strategy for Iraq would abandon the elected government in Iraq, despite that government's failure to stem anti-Sunni violence from some Shiite militias. "This war will be won if understand it in terms of the government against those reject it. It cannot be won if this is Sunnis against Shiites," this official said.

To that end, the State Department has already informed the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministry of a scenario whereby Mr. Maliki would stay in power, but Mr. Sadr would be marginalized.
The former Knight Ridder summarizes the situation along these lines as well:

A revised Iraq political strategy aimed at forging a "moderate center" of Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim Arab and Kurdish politicians that would bolster embattled Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. The goal would be to marginalize radical Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents.
Even if the Bush administration is able to successfully negotiate the intricate web of Iraqi domestic politics in order to forge such a delicate alliance (involving groups that, though described as "moderate," still have largely divergent interests), I'm not sure what, exactly, would be accomplished. Aside from the fact that potential alliance members like SCIRI have been heavily implicated in sectarian violence, too much is being made of Sadr himself as the new bogeyman.

Part of the problem stems from the Bush administration's tendency to view such conflicts through the "Great Person Theory" lens of historical analysis. Rather than appreciating the structural and environmental conditions that create conditions conducive to a given conflict, instead, an "enemy" is fixated on as the source of the trouble. Capturing Saddam, killing Uday and Qusay, killing Zarqawi and nabbing countless of al-Qaeda's "trusted lieutenants" were each events that were touted as watershed moments in the Iraq occupation, but none have turned out to have the degree of impact as advertised. Unsurprisingly, the insurgency was not dependent on some inspirational figures (Saddam and his sons), or dominant personalities (Zarqawi).

Similarly, the sectarian strife in Iraq is not the result of one man's position in the ruling coalition and related influence in the official Iraqi government. Removing Sadr from the equation will, sadly, not alter the current trajectory of sectarian violence in a measurable way. The underlying conflict has taken on a life of its own apart from Moqtada al-Sadr's role in the government.

His Mahdi Army militia (responsible for stoking the fires of civil war) would, after all, remain intact even if Sadr himself were squeezed out of the government. If, on the other hand, the militia itself could be disbanded, then some degree of progress might be possible.

Which brings us to the next stage in Operation Get Mookie. The Bush administration could attempt to target the Mahdi Army once Sadr's official ties to the Iraqi government have been severed, but that would represent an operation of enormous complexity and, as they say, hard work. Sadr's militia has already swelled to approximately 60,000 members, and those already sizable ranks could increase dramatically if the cultishly popular Sadr - and his militia - were to come under large scale direct attack. This could pose a threat to those vulnerable US military supply lines that run through southern, Shiite dominated Iraq.

As has been noted, Sadr's movement has become a cultural phenomenon, and societal force. It is not merely a stand alone militia/political party, but a community unto itself that is closely intertwined with the militia as well as a network of vital social services delivered by Sadr's organization. Further, many of these Mahdi Army members have already infiltrated the Iraqi police and security forces such that any Iraqi government move against Sadr would be made exceedingly problematic - even with US military support.

Lastly, Sadr's popularity, and the unpopularity of the occupation forces, would also greatly weaken the eventual contra-Sadr bloc formed for the purpose of knocking Mookie down a peg or two. Casting Sadr out, and rallying to the side of the American forces, is not going to play well in the Iraqi street. On the contrary, Sadr's status and popularity amongst rank and file Iraqis will likely increase as he is seen as the embodiment of the anti-occupation sentiment, while the participants in the newly minted ruling alliance will be tarnished by their apparent obsequiousness to American interests.

So there is Catch-22 #2,987 in Iraq. Removing Sadr from the official Iraqi government and disbanding his Mahdi Army militia might (together) help to reduce some of the sectarian violence, but in the process of attempting to accomplish those tasks, Sadr will have been made stronger - making it harder to neutralize him and his militia.

Even if we killed him, his martyr status would enable him to plague us from the grave. It's the dilemma Darth Vader faced when squaring off against Obi Wan in Star Wars: If we strike Sadr down, he shall become more powerful than we can possibly imagine. And we all know how that one turned out.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Lift and Separate

Kevin Drum links to an illuminating George Packer article that tracks nicely with many of the themes that I have been pursuing for the past two-plus years. The article itself focuses on counterinsurgency doctrine in the era of the war on terror - and in particular, the scholarship of Australian Army captain David Kilcullen. Kilcullen proposes a paradigm shift in the way we view the current struggle:

Last year, in an influential article in the Journal of Strategic Studies, Kilcullen redefined the war on terror as a “global counterinsurgency.” The change in terminology has large implications. A terrorist is “a kook in a room,” Kilcullen told me, and beyond persuasion; an insurgent has a mass base whose support can be won or lost through politics. The notion of a “war on terror” has led the U.S. government to focus overwhelmingly on military responses.

This has been a position that I have been advocating since before I first quoted Francis Fukuyama saying much the same thing in August of 2004 (I have since recycled the quote ad nauseum, but I'm not above repeating myself):

The War on Terror is, in other words, a classic counter-insurgency war, except that it is one being played out on a global scale. There are genuine bad guys out there who are much more bitter ideological enemies than the Soviets ever were, but their success depends on the attitudes of the broader populations around them who can be alternatively supportive, hostile or indifferent-depending on how we play our cards.

While Fukuyama correctly discerned the nature of the conflict relatively early on, Kilcullen takes the ball and runs with it. In particular, Kilcullen endorses a strategy of "Disaggregation" that is the essential first step in the policy of "Marginalization" that Nadezhda proposed last May (to which I subsribe wholeheartedly). Kilcullen with some background [emphasis mine throughout]:

“After 9/11, when a lot of people were saying, ‘The problem is Islam,’ I was thinking, It’s something deeper than that. It’s about human social networks and the way that they operate.” In West Java, elements of the failed Darul Islam insurgency—a local separatist movement with mystical leanings—had resumed fighting as Jemaah Islamiya, whose outlook was Salafist and global. Kilcullen said, “What that told me about Jemaah Islamiya is that it’s not about theology.” He went on, “There are elements in human psychological and social makeup that drive what’s happening. The Islamic bit is secondary. This is human behavior in an Islamic setting. This is not ‘Islamic behavior.’ ” Paraphrasing the American political scientist Roger D. Petersen, he said, “People don’t get pushed into rebellion by their ideology. They get pulled in by their social networks.” He noted that all fifteen Saudi hijackers in the September 11th plot had trouble with their fathers. Although radical ideas prepare the way for disaffected young men to become violent jihadists, the reasons they convert, Kilcullen said, are more mundane and familiar: family, friends, associates.

Hence, the fallacy of characterizing the "war on terror" in religious terms:

A war on terror suggests an undifferentiated enemy. Kilcullen speaks of the need to “disaggregate” insurgencies: finding ways to address local grievances in Pakistan’s tribal areas or along the Thai-Malay border so that they aren’t mapped onto the ambitions of the global jihad. Kilcullen writes, “Just as the Containment strategy was central to the Cold War, likewise a Disaggregation strategy would provide a unifying strategic conception for the war—something that has been lacking to date.” As an example of disaggregation, Kilcullen cited the Indonesian province of Aceh, where, after the 2004 tsunami, a radical Islamist organization tried to set up an office and convert a local separatist movement to its ideological agenda. Resentment toward the outsiders, combined with the swift humanitarian action of American and Australian warships, helped to prevent the Acehnese rebellion from becoming part of the global jihad....“It’s really important that we define the enemy in narrow terms,” [State Department official Henry]Crumpton said. “The thing we should not do is let our fears grow and then inflate the threat. The threat is big enough without us having to exaggerate it.”

By speaking of Saddam Hussein, the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the Taliban, the Iranian government, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda in terms of one big war, Administration officials and ideologues have made Osama bin Laden’s job much easier. “You don’t play to the enemy’s global information strategy of making it all one fight,” Kilcullen said. He pointedly avoided describing this as the Administration’s approach. “You say, ‘Actually, there are sixty different groups in sixty different countries who all have different objectives. Let’s not talk about bin Laden’s objectives—let’s talk about your objectives. How do we solve that problem?’ ” In other words, the global ambitions of the enemy don’t automatically demand a monolithic response.

The tendency to lump such groups together, using umbrella terms such as "Islamofascism" is counterproductive rhetoric that I have criticized repeatedly (see here, here and here). This is how I summed up my concerns in a comment to this related post:

[The use of the term "Islamofascism] tends to create a clash of civilization type of dynamic, and taint an entire religion. It instills the impression that we in the West paint Muslims with a broad brush - and an unflattering one at that (everyone from Saddam, to Arafat, to bin Laden, to Nasrallah, to Ahmadinejad are the same in our eyes).

Taking the time to distinguish between these groups that have, in actuality, significantly different goals, and labeling them accurately based on those positions, just seems smarter to me.

A funny thing happens when you pool people together into one group and criticize them as such, even if they traditionally have animosities, inconsistencies and incongruities. They tend to begin to think like a group, defend the entire group and [become] siege-minded. Here, that dynamic could be exacerbated by the fact that the phrase can be seen by those [Muslims] not aligned with these groups as targeting them as well.

As Kilcullen, and another scholar-cum-bureaucrat, Montgomery McFate, take pains to emphasize, the global counterinsurgency effort must view the various actors in narrow, culturally specific terms. Consolidating them into larger groups does bin Laden's work for him. In this way, we can tailor tactics, as well as the crucial dissemanation of information, to meet the needs of a particular group/region.

After September 11th, McFate said, she became “passionate about one issue: the government’s need to actually understand its adversaries,” in the same way that the United States came to understand—and thereby undermine—the Soviet Union. If, as Kilcullen and Crumpton maintain, the battlefield in the global counterinsurgency is intimately local, then the American government needs what McFate calls a “granular” knowledge of the social terrains on which it is competing. [...]

Montgomery McFate noted that the current avatars of right-wing Cold Warriors, the neoconservatives, have dismissed all Iraqi insurgents as “dead enders” and “bad people.” Terms like “totalitarianism” and “Islamofascism,” she said, which stir the American historical memory, mislead policymakers into greatly increasing the number of our enemies and coming up with wrongheaded strategies against them. “That’s not what the insurgents call themselves,” she said. “If you can’t call something by its name—if you can’t say, ‘This is what this phenomenon is, it has structure, meaning, agency’—how can you ever fight it?” In other words, even if we think that a jihadi in Yemen has ideas similar to those of an Islamist in Java, we have to approach them in discrete ways, both to prevent them from becoming a unified movement and because their particular political yearnings are different.

In response to sage advice as offered by Kilcullen, McFate and others, the counterargument regarding the intrinsic, intractable nature of anti-American animus is frequently proferred. According to these overly categorical and simplistic narratives (which I have attempted to rebut here and here), no matter what we do, "they're" going to hate us anyway.

As I have pointed out, though, it is quite possible to make gains even if we do not convince all potential detractors (this is not an all or nothing game after all), and even where we come up short in winning over converts to the cause of 'democracy, whiskey, sexy,' we may still lessen the intensity of the anti-American sentiment as espoused by those that call us an enemy. It's one thing to have a group of young Muslim men venting and complaining in a cafe in Cairo, and quite another to have them so enraged as to enlist in the cause of violence in the name of Islam. Kilcullen takes this analysis even further:

Drawing on these studies, Kilcullen has plotted out a “ladder of extremism” that shows the progress of a jihadist. At the bottom is the vast population of mainstream Muslims, who are potential allies against radical Islamism as well as potential targets of subversion, and whose grievances can be addressed by political reform. The next tier up is a smaller number of “alienated Muslims,” who have given up on reform. Some of these join radical groups, like the young Muslims in North London who spend afternoons at the local community center watching jihadist videos. They require “ideological conversion”—that is, counter-subversion, which Kilcullen compares to helping young men leave gangs....A smaller number of these individuals, already steeped in the atmosphere of radical mosques and extremist discussions, end up joining local and regional insurgent cells, usually as the result of a “biographical trigger—they will lose a friend in Iraq, or see something that shocks them on television.” With these insurgents, the full range of counterinsurgency tools has to be used, including violence and persuasion. The very small number of fighters who are recruited to the top tier of Al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist groups are beyond persuasion or conversion. “They’re so committed you’ve got to destroy them,” Kilcullen said. “But you’ve got to do it in such a way that you don’t create new terrorists.”

In what has become a distressingly familiar scenario, we have sound advice from seasoned experts that could greatly assist our efforts in the global counterinsurgency against violent extremism. Sadly - inevitably - this advice will be ignored by the Bush administration for its failure to reinforce the wrongheaded, counterproductive policies employed to date. Packer passes along this observation:

According to the expert, an American diplomat with years of experience identified another obstacle to American outreach. “Let’s face it,” he told her. “All public diplomacy is on hold till George Bush is out of office.”

Not just public diplomacy. Counterinsurgency too. Wake me in 2008.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Immaculate Dodge

Back in August, I took a whack at the tendentious claim put forth by Iraq war supporters that because some that opposed the Iraq war made predictions that did not come to pass, somehow the anti-war camp was as mistaken and lacking in prescience as the war supporters that foretold of cakewalks, dominoes and easy victories. Something like, "Don't trust them, they were wrong too."

Mine was a lengthy attempt at point by point refutation of a particular rendition of this refrain, but perhaps Matt Barganier better captures the soul of wit:

Yes, millions of people opposed the Iraq invasion, and I’m sure that at least a few of them offered highly specific predictions that were way off. But let’s skip the outliers and focus on the broad sweep of antiwar thought. The gist of pragmatic arguments against the Iraq invasion...was that so many things could go horribly wrong that almost certainly some things would go horribly wrong.

At this point, I’d like the pro-war people reading this to eliminate all distractions in their surroundings, take a few deep breaths, and concentrate really, really hard, because I’m about to throw a brain-buster out there. Ready? OK: We didn’t say that all of the bad things that could have happened were going to happen. In fact, some of the nightmare scenarios we offered were mutually exclusive. The Iraqi army could either stand up and fight the invaders to the death conventionally, inflicting horrific casualties for a few months before ultimately losing, or they could slink away and regroup as guerillas, bleeding the occupiers slowly. Obviously, they couldn’t do both, but they probably would do one or the other. Either way, many lives would be lost, the ensuing occupation would be brutal for soldiers and civilians alike, and the U.S. triumph would likely turn increasingly Pyrrhic over the long term.

Still too hard? Fine. Let’s say you and I are walking down a crowded street. You point out some random guy and announce, “I’m going to go kick his ass.” I grab your arm and say, “Wait! I’m not sure what good you think will come of this, but I assume you foresee some twisted ego boost in it. Whatever. What will most likely happen in the world outside your cranium, however, is one of the following: One, your would-be victim turns out to be more of a badass than he looks, and, win or lose, he knocks your teeth out. Or two, you successfully pummel him – then somebody calls the cops, you go to jail, and he launches a civil suit against you for all you’re worth.”

You proceed to purée the guy with ease. Later, when you call me from jail, your life ruined, your property liquidated, you chuckle, “You moron – you said he would knock my teeth out.”

Sound familiar?

So, would you trust your friend the next time they counseled against starting a fight, or point to the fact that everything predicted didn't go wrong and, therefore, trust your instinct again?

(via J-Hen)

Friday, December 15, 2006

There's Someone in My Head, but It's Not Me

Sometimes you come across a piece that succinctly, and neatly, expresses otherwise amorphous ideas that have been circulating in your muddled consciousness. It's like reading what the resolution of your inner debate would look like if you had been able to achieve such clarity yourself. Or how you would have liked to have formulated a hodgepodge of thoughts if you could have only organized them in such an eloquent, plainspoken manner.

But when it all comes together, reading such a work can be like reading yourself - only better. Even if it's nothing ambitious or grandiose, it resonates.

Many times, those pieces are written by someone named Hilzoy. Here's one example.

A Fool and His Money

Jonah Goldberg, almost two years ago, proposing a ghoulish wager with Juan Cole following their much publicized feud about the respective parties' expertise:

Anyway, I do think my judgment is superior to his when it comes to the big picture. So, I have an idea: Since he doesn't want to debate anything except his own brilliance, let's make a bet. I predict that Iraq won't have a civil war, that it will have a viable constitution, and that a majority of Iraqis and Americans will, in two years time, agree that the war was worth it. I'll bet $1,000 (which I can hardly spare right now). This way neither of us can hide behind clever word play or CV reading. If there's another reasonable wager Cole wants to offer which would measure our judgment, I'm all ears. Money where your mouth is, doc.

One caveat: Because I don't think it's right to bet on such serious matters for personal gain, if I win, I'll donate the money to the USO. He can give it to the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade or whatever his favorite charity is.

What, do you suppose, could change between now and February 8, 2007 (less than two months) that would make any of Goldberg's predictions come true. Lucky for him, Cole had more dignity than to accept a bet placed on the lives and suffering of actual people.

Jonah Goldberg v. Juan Cole. Talk about a mismatch.

(via LGM)

Three Feet High and Rising*

More warning signs from the Earth's ecosystems [emphasis mine throughout]:

The world's oceans may rise up to 140 cms (4 ft 7 in) by 2100 due to global warming, a faster than expected increase that could threaten low-lying coasts from Florida to Bangladesh, a researcher said on Thursday. [...]

A rise of one meter might swamp low-lying Pacific islands such as Tuvalu, flood large areas of Bangladesh or Florida and threaten cities from New York to Buenos Aires.

On top of that, there is this obviously linked news, passed along by greenboy at Needlenose, that the polar ice caps are melting at a faster rate than expected - and this pace will continue absent some significant and fundamental changes in global energy policies:

The increasing rate of melting sea ice is contributing to a positive feedback system, which feeds global warming further because open ocean absorbs heat from the sun rather than reflects back into space as does ice.

Increasingly, we are uncovering evidence that the scientists who were derided as global warming scaremongerers over the past three decades were actually being conservative to a fault in their estimates. The implications cannot be overstated.

Despite the tragedy unfolding in Iraq, I predict that the historians that Bush is so preoccupied with these days will treat him much more harshly on this front in the long run. As bad a strategic blunder as the invasion of Iraq was, and as many negative repercussions as could emanate from that maelstrom, large scale environmental catastrophe of the magnitude described above would easily dwarf Iraq's parade of horribles.

The foreign policy/national security elite are rightly concerned with threats from an emerging China, regressing Russia and hostile non-state actors/terrorists - especially fear that the latter may acquire some sort of WMD that could wreak havoc on an American city like New York (my home).

But Ansar al-Carbon Dioxide could end up doing a much more effective job of it, rendering all those concerns, and many others, moot. There is no foreign policy if there is no planet after all, and business interests migh suffer a bit if Wall Street is made to resemble an octopus's garden. But concern about the environment lacks the exhiliration of military conflicts, and international power politics, and so it goes largely ignored. I am certainaly not without blame on this front, I acknowledge.

Maybe it would help if we called it the War on Global Warming?

In Bush's defense, unlike Iraq, he didn't create the current environmental crisis. But at a time when the world seemed to be finally taking notice, as manifested by movement toward adopting the Kyoto Protocol, Bush chose to hinder those plans by and block any similar effort at reaching an alternative that would have included the United States. For eight long, costly, vital years he fiddled - and the world suffered for our lack of leadership on this issue. Now we'll have to wait until 2008 and beyond, and hope that Bush's successor takes a more realistic approach - and that the environment will continue to indulge our fecklessness.

That is the truth, and it is well beyond inconvenient. Speaking of which, it was a bitter pill to swallow to see so many in the media relish the opportunity to relive their bizarre fixation with Al Gore's personality traits after his commendable effort to shake America out of its slumber on the issue of global warming. Instead of grappling with the important ideas presented in An Inconvenient Truth, we were treated to more complaints about Gore's "know it all" attitude. How dare he.

You'd think, by now, that Americans would be wondering whether we might prefer our leaders to possess a certain advanced level of knowledge, prudence, mastery of facts, expertise and the like. But no, it's still high school writ large - and everybody hates the nerds! So we continue to be plagued by a resurgent anti-intellectualism that, in part, brings to power leaders like the 'folksy' George Bush. While perhaps a better drinking buddy than Gore, Bush has let this country down time and again through his galling ignorance and the resulting inability to steer policy in his own administration.

Rather than Gore's empirism and dialectical approach to policy making and analysis, our environmental policies have been guided by Bush's "gut" and the influence of his fossil fuel industry patrons. The two do seem to agree with a remarkable level of consistency, don't they. The confluence of Bush's "gut" and energy industry interests, also, has been more than inconvenient. But hey, maybe me and Bush can split a six pack in my life boat as we float away from what used to be the island of Manhattan, shooting spitballs at all the Tri-Lams.

Wouldn't that be a blast.

(*will give credit for two different responses to the current installment of post title bingo)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

What the World Needs Now

Maybe Jonah Goldberg would like to take a spot in line behind the three aspiring fascists pictured below. This is just remarkable:

I THINK ALL intelligent, patriotic and informed people can agree: It would be great if the U.S. could find an Iraqi Augusto Pinochet. In fact, an Iraqi Pinochet would be even better than an Iraqi Castro. [ed note: why, oh why, is there never an option "C"?]

Both propositions strike me as so self-evident as to require no explanation. But as I have discovered in recent days, many otherwise rational people can't think straight when the names Fidel Castro and Augusto Pinochet come up. [...]

An Iraqi Pinochet would provide order and put the country on the path toward liberalism, democracy and the rule of law. (If only Ahmad Chalabi had been such a man.)
Where do I begin? It's almost a morale-crushing amount of ignorance to ponder.

I'll take note of one thing in brief, and otherwise leave Goldberg's dubious sense of morality alone since judgment on this latter point seems to be, as Jonah might say, "self evident." (more here for a debunking of some of Jonah's other fallacies):
Now consider Chile. Gen. Pinochet seized a country coming apart at the seams. He too clamped down on civil liberties and the press. He too dispatched souls. Chile's official commission investigating his dictatorship found that Pinochet had 3,197 bodies in his column; 87% of them died in the two-week mini-civil war that attended his coup. Many more were tortured or forced to flee the country.

But on the plus side, Pinochet's abuses helped create a civil society. Once the initial bloodshed subsided, Chile was no prison. Pinochet built up democratic institutions and infrastructure....But today Chile is a thriving, healthy democracy.
Here we see the "Pinochet brought democracy to Chile" myth that is rather prevalent amongst the Pinochet apologists. This ahistorical claim is just not true though. Chile was Latin America's longest standing (more details here) democracy prior to the coup that toppled the democratically elected leader, Salvador Allende. Pinochet's dictatorial rule interrupted Chile's democratic trajectory, he did not initiate it. And by what measure does one get credit for razing democratic institutions, and then allowing their incremental, gradual reconstitution?

In a related note, to the extent that Pinochet "seized a country coming apart at the seams," it should be noted that the CIA (under the guidance of Nixon and Kissinger) was taking serious measures to create conditions of chaos and destabilization in order to facilitate the coup itself. In other words, Pinochet was complicit in helping to tear the country apart at the seams, so that he could swoop in it back up? Viva the tailor of Santiago, father of Chilean democracy.

In addition, Goldberg puts forth the utterly bizarre claim that "once the initial bloodshed subsided" - the vast majority of which he limits to the "two-week" period surrounding the coup itself - Chile was not an authoritarian state ("no prison" as Jonah put it). I don't know what standard Goldberg is using to make such a proclamation, but I'd love to hear about it. So too, I imagine, would many Chileans who were terrorized by the repressive society Pinochet crafted. For a brief, though relatively innocuous, look into Goldberg's liberal paradise, read this.

I always wonder how someone like Jonah Goldberg would react if he were to find himself, transported in time and space, to a country like Chile in the mid to late 1970s. Do you think he would be so enthusiastc, so flip, so apologetic, so sycophantic?

Is the answer self-evident?

(hat tip to Kevin Drum)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

We Salute You

A fitting, if unsettling, tribute to the late Augusto Pinochet. Sure looks to be in earnest:

(hat tip to jonny b)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Inevitability Dodge

A narrative that has been gaining steam with Iraq war supporters feeling chastened by events on the ground, seeks to create a refuge from the painful consequences of the war by pointing to the problematic sanctions regime and its uncertain viability going forward.

According to this storyline, the US had no other choice but to invade Iraq because the sanctions containing Saddam were crumbling and so he would have soon been out of his proverbial cage - free to reconstitute his WMD program.

Cicero at Winds of Change makes this point, though I don't mean to single him out as his is in no way the most egregious example, only the most recent one that I've come across (see also, here and here):

[The invasion of Iraq] seemed positive in the face of the alternative, which was to continue fiddling in the corridors of the UN and in the salons of Arabia and Europe while Saddam would break apart the sanctions regime.

France, Russia, China and others, acting on selfish economic interests, and under the sway of Saddam himself, it is argued, were going to scuttle sanctions. So we had to act.

I have a few problems with this theory, however. First, the level of certainty attributed to this hypothetical outcome is exaggerated. While it is quite likely that there were conflicts of interest among the Security Council members that jeopardized the sanctions regime, its imminent demise was not exactly a fait accompli.

In response, some might point to oil-for-food related malfeasance as evidence of the sanctions' decay, but it is important to note that the OFF scandal was not connected to WMD related embargoes/sanctions which were of paramount importance in terms of keeping Saddam's regime free of...WMD. That more crucial part of the sanctions initiative was a great success.

Furthermore, it is also possible that the US, armed with the twin cudgels of post-9/11 sympathies and threats to invade Iraq if its demands were not met, could have coerced those considering dismantling the sanctions regime to abandon such plans (and there was certainly room to explore how to "smarten" the sanctions by lessening some of the impact on civilians - thus reducing the humanitarian complaints/resistance).

Proponents of the inevitability doctrine often respond that maintaining the cooperation of the Security Council on this matter would have been extremely difficult. This is true: difficult, but perhaps not impossible. Either way, have you taken a gander at the alternative lately? You know, the invasion, regime change, occupation, democracy birthing, nation building cakewalk?

I have a hard time accepting that the hardships involved in trying to bolster the sanctions regime would have been more onerous than those associated with the invasion itself. That's apples and oranges watermelons.

And think of the upside. What if we were able to convince the relevant parties to maintain the sanctions regime in some improved form? Wouldn't that have averted the current disaster?

Nevertheless, let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the sanctions regime was doomed, and that embargoes and the like were going to be abandoned regardless of the appeals - and threats - communicated on the world stage by the US government. Our good faith efforts came up with nothing, etc.

Couldn't we have waited until that eventuality came to pass before we invaded? Wouldn't our cause have seemed more justified, and engendered more sympathy, if we had?

The bottom line is that if you want to justify our invasion based on what we thought might happen to the sanctions regime at some point down the road, how do you respond to someone who suggests that it would have been wiser to cross that bridge when we came to it?

If at all.

Los Insurgentes de Historia - Edicion de Chile

[R]evisionists are like...insurgents: they don't need to disprove the truth, they need only to make you think that the truth and a lie are equal possibilities-they just need to stop the truth from winning, in other words.

-Spencer Ackerman

Documenting the efforts of history's insurgents, and other assorted revisionists, has been a familiar endeavor for me, as well as others. Still, the death of Augusto Pinochet, and the predictable dissembling that it has sparked, reminded me of the Generalissimo of all insurgents de historia: Henry Kissinger.

From the Washington Post editorial page, we get this curiosity - which may have been at least partially inspired by one of Henry's many allies, concerned with preserving (or rehabilitating) his legacy:

Allende['s] responsibility for creating the conditions for the 1973 coup is usually overlooked.

Perhaps, but that probably has to do with the fact that any "responsibility" he bore was dwarfed by the considerable efforts undertaken by the CIA beginning in the years preceding the coup (under Kissinger's guidance) in sowing chaos, destabilization, violence and other conditions conducive to the eruption of the coup.

These excerpts are from Kenneth Maxwell's review of The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability, a book by Peter Kornbluh, one of the lead researchers and co-founders of the National Security Archive, a non-profit, non-partisan research library dedicated to the acquisition and cataloguing of declassified government documents:

But what is very clear in all of this is that the coup in Chile is exactly what Kissinger's boss wanted. As Nixon put it in his ineffable style, "It's that son of a bitch Allende. We're going to smash him." As early as October of 1970, the CIA had warned of possible consequences: "you have asked us to provoke chaos in Chile. ... We provide you with a formula for chaos which is unlikely to be bloodless. To dissimulate the U.S. involvement will be clearly impossible." [...]

Kornbluh's bill of particulars and the supporting documents he has uncovered confirm the deep involvement of the U.S. intelligence services in Chile prior to and after the coup. In outline, this story has been known for many years and will be no surprise to Chileans. The extent of the involvement was originally hinted at during the Senate hearings conducted by the late Frank Church in the mid-1970s. The scope and nature of these clandestine activities are significantly amplified by the documents released in the extensive declassification ordered by President Bill Clinton in 1999 and 2000 and reprinted in Kornbluh's book. These documents include: transcripts of top-secret discussions among President Nixon, Kissinger, and other cabinet members on how "to bring Allende down"; minutes of secret meetings chaired by Kissinger to plan covert operations in Chile; new documentation of the notorious case of Charles Horman, an American murdered by the Chilean military and subject of the movie Missing; comprehensive documentation of the Letelier case and the extensive CIA, National Security Council, and State Department reports surrounding it; and U.S. intelligence reporting on Operation Condor.

The rest of the Washington Post editorial is similarly riddled with illogical arguments, and half-truths, presented, with sleight of hand, as penetrating insight. The Washington Post, though, is not the only esteemed institution to be tainted by such mendacity with respect to the history of US involvement in Chile.

The story goes back to the Kenneth Maxwell review cited above, as it appeared in Foreign Affairs (the respected periodical put out under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations) and the reaction it received from Henry Kissinger and some of his close relations at the CFR. Kissinger was able to use his considerable influence and access to cloud the historical record surrounding this chapter in US-Chilean relations, or at least that magazine's treatment of it.

In response to this perversion of empiricism, Maxwell was left with what he considered to be no option other than to resign both his position at the magazine as well as his endowed chair as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in May 2004 - positions he had held for fifteen and eleven years respectively.

A more in-depth treatment of this story is contained in this post from a couple of years back that has once again been made timely by the arc of events. The lessons are as germane as ever.

Tears of a Clown

There's been some appropriately irreverent, if dark, gallows humor popping up in response to the Iraq Study Group's report. On the Daily Show, Stewart was Jonny on the spot, as usual, explaining his qualified approval of ISG-related program activities:

You know, we're glad they got a study group together, but the test was three years ago.

It's been a while since I've cracked a book in an academic setting, but I do seem to remember that study groups generally preceded tests. Then again, 9/11 did change everything.

Andy Borowitz has more:

Just days after the Iraq Study Group issued their downbeat assessment of the war on Iraq, Iraqi insurgents announced that they have formed their own study group and have released their own report, one that offers a much rosier picture of the Iraqi conflict. [...]

“The war in Iraq is going great and is improving every day,” the Insurgents Study Group’s report begins.

In contrast to the Iraq Study Group’s report, which advocates that the United States and its allies change their strategy in Iraq, the Insurgents Study Group recommends “not changing a thing.”

“As insurgents, our strategy could be summarized in three words,” the report concludes. “Stay the course.” [emphasis added throughout]


(hat tip to Henley)

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