Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Amnesia in Real-Time

It does provide comfort, on occasion, to remind myself that we are in the last throes of the Bush presidency - and that in little over 600 days, the country can hopefully begin the long hard slog of clearing the wreckage left behind (literally and figuratively). In particular, I eagerly anticipate a return to some semblance of competence in the realm of foreign policy.

Prior to the Bush presidency (and its long shadow), I would have been inclined to say that the restoration of sound leadership would be the overriding goal, even if the end result were not a Democrat in the White House. But that type of equanimity was born out of remembrances of a Republican Party and movement that felt more comfortable to people like this.

Witnessing the faux-bravado and utter daftness on display during last night's Republican debate, and previously on the campaign trail, has convinced me that the rot has spread throughout the entire corpus republicansis. It's actually quite frightening. It is as if the entire Republican field (Ron Paul excluded) has learned absolutely nothing during the course of the past 6+ years. A stubborn refusal to make an honest appraisal.

In turn, each candidate does his best to show how completely dedicated he is to the most glaring flaws in the Bush Doctrine: A stunning ignorance of world affairs, leavened with contempt for civil liberties and held together by an ill-conceived, yet supreme, faith in the utility and efficiency of military solutions in almost every setting.

For example, the big news from last night's debate was the dust-up between Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani over Paul's suggestion that part of the motivation for the attacks on 9/11 was aggressive US foreign policy in the Middle East - specifically the decade of conflict with Iraq that preceded 9/11. Giuliani pounced:

“May I comment on that?” Mr. Giuliani said, looking grim. “That’s really an extraordinary statement. That’s an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of Sept. 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don’t think I’ve heard that before, and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for Sept. 11.”

Mr. Giuliani was interrupted by cheers and applause. “And I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn’t really mean that,” he said.

Here's the thing, though: Paul likely overstated the direct influence that US attacks on Iraq had - but it is our involvement in the Muslim world that Osama and Zawahiri were trying to end by attacking us (and it is our involvement in Afghanistan during the 1980s that gave sustenance to their brand of Islamic radicalism).

Recall the history of al-Qaeda's conflict with the US. Initially, al-Qaeda and its predecessor organizations targeted the local "apostate" regimes that they were seeking to destabilize and usurp in order to usher in the Caliphate's renaissance. What they discovered was that, in the process of attacking the "near enemy," they were killing fellow Muslims which wasn't endearing people to their cause and, further, the regimes in question were proving resilient - propped up by American support.

So, the brain-trust decided on what they considered to be a better strategy: attack the "far enemy" America. By attacking America, al-Qaeda could now reap the anti-American dividend while being able avoid alienating fellow Muslims that they were actually seeking to win over. Further, as a result of suffering the pain from these attacks, America would withdraw from the Muslim world and the target regimes would then be left vulnerable to a more popular (and thus larger) al-Qaeda movement.

To a certain extent, the activities cited by Paul fattened the anti-American dividend (and that matters in terms of making al-Qaeda's job easier, and bringing them closer to achieving their goals). But the ultimate strategic aims were unrelated.

Still, Giuliani's response was cheap and shallow. For Giuliani and his ilk, al-Qaeda attacked us for our freedom or some other nonsense. To probe our adversaries' motives beyond the superficial level, and to look at which of our own actions are hurting and helping our strategic objectives, are activities for "blame America" liberals. The Republican Party doesn't do self-criticism.

But hey, who needs expertise when you have swagger?

Not to be outdone by Giuliani, serial gaffe-ist Mitt Romney got in the mix with one of the most perplexing statements to come along in a while. From Crooks and Liars:

The candidates are asked if they believe Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, including waterboarding, should be used to get information from the detainee.

Romney: Yes on Enhanced Interrogation Techniques and while you're at it, Double Guantanamo! (loud applause from audience)

Double Guantanamo? What does that even mean? The most plausible explanation is that Romney would like to double the number of prisoners we are currently holding without habeas corpus and other basic detainee rights. Romney would like to vastly expand a prison that is a blight on our nation's reputation worldwide - and that itself is proving a valuable recruiting tool and propaganda piece for our enemies, al-Qaeda in particular. Even our staunch allies, like Great Britain, have repeatedly advised us to close this prison.

Unfortunately, extricating ourselves from the legal tangle that we've stumbled into through the use of prolonged extra-judicial detentions and torture at Gitmo won't be easy. Too many detainees are stuck in limbo: for those found innocent, their home countries won't take them back. For those that are threats, putting them into a legitimate legal system would likely lead to their release due to the rights violations already committed against them. Parsing detainees that are credible threats from those that aren't is also complicated by the legal process issues.

It is a colossal mess that provides no easy ways out, or answers that don't entail their own drawbacks: most likely, we will either be forced to release terrorist threats or detain innocent people for life. It is understandable that many policymakers grapple with these choices, and rue opening this Pandora's Box.

Just think, though: President Romney would want to add another wing! He wants us to dig deeper into that hole. No remorse, no regrets. And the audience loved it. Amazing.

Romney, of course, has provided us with multiple examples of his ignorance - and something tells me he's not quite done yet. Spackerman explains one of Romney's recent episodes, which came while discussing the importance of capturing bin Laden:

But I don't want to buy into the Democratic pitch, that this is all about one person, Osama bin Laden. Because after we get him, there's going to be another and another.

Bin Laden is a singular figure, but, you know, fair enough; there will be a successor to bin Laden. But where might Romney be going with this?

This is about Shi'a and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate.

Mitt Romney's War: the total conflation of all Islamist movements. Not only is the Muslim Brotherhood not a jihadist organization, but its very lack of jihadiness is what spawned Ayman Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Suffice it to say that there is no caliphate on heaven or earth that will simultaneously satisfy Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, which goes a long way toward explaining why there is no concerted "worldwide jihadist effort" by these groups to establish one.

It's hardly remarkable that Romney doesn't know what he's talking about. In this year's State of the Union, Bush forced the same conflation when he stated baldly, "The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat." What's far more troublesome is that there's absolutely no political consequence for demonstrated ignorance about a jihadist phenomenon that motivates the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- precisely the sort of ignorance that will make the blithe forecasts of a global war expanding over generations a self-fulfilling prophesy.

That is my fear exactly. Shockingly, the tendency to mirror President Bush's simplistic conflation of various, unrelated and often conflicting Islamic groups is not Romney's alone. Giuliani, again, does his best to display his Bush bona-fides:

As for Iran, Mr. Giuliani said that “in the long term,” it might be “more dangerous than Iraq.”

He then casually lumped Iran with Al Qaeda. “Their movement has already displayed more aggressive tendencies by coming here and killing us,” he said.

Mr. Giuliani was asked in an interview to clarify that, inasmuch as Iran had no connection to the Sept. 11 attacks. Further, most of its people are Shiites, whereas Al Qaeda is an organization of Sunnis.

“They have a similar objective,” he replied, “in their anger at the modern world.”

The real kicker is that the boast that Giuliani made following up on that amateurish analysis isn't that far off the mark - at least in the realm of Republican candidates:

“It is something I understand better than anyone else running for president.”

I don't know what's worse, though: that the Republican Party promotes and supports such candidates, or that our media is almost completely derelict in its duty to report the parameters of this noxious blend of ignorance, bellicosity and disregard for human rights.

This is of paramount importance, though. The road to the Iraq invasion was one paved with these familiar raw materials - building blocks that will inevitably produce similar catastrophes, catastrophes that we cannot afford on any level. People are dying by the thousands. The military is straining and creaking under the pressure. Our budget is being drained at a time when greater fiscal flexibility is needed. This nation's focus and attention are being diverted from crucial problems such as environmental degradation. Vital regions of the world are being destabilized and conflict is percolating in multiple locations. Our status in the world is approaching all-time lows.

Yet the entire Republican field (save Paul) would like to "double" that - and the crowds of faithful supporters love it. Precisely when this nation needs them most, our media is suffering from amnesia in real-time.

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