Thursday, May 31, 2007

Work Related Outage

Apologies for the silence, but there's been the typical post-Memorial Day crunch here at work. Should be able to resume normal broadcasting tomorrow. Thanks for your patience. See you soon.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Always Got Mad When the Class Was Dismissed, but When It Was In Session...

Today brings more evidence that, contra David Brooks, we won't have to leave Iraq before "every bad guy on earth [studies] and learn[s] [the insurgents'] techniques." First, there's this:

Eight U.S. troops were slain in Iraq on Monday in a deadly chain of events that began when a U.S. helicopter crashed, apparently shot down by small-arms fire, according to a U.S. military official.

A military vehicle rushing to the helicopter crash site was hit by an exploding roadside bomb, and a second "quick-reaction force" vehicle also was hit, the official said.

The two pilots of the Kiowa helicopter were killed in the crash; six soldiers died in the bombings of the two vehicles, and three others were injured.

If you recall, in January/February there was a spate of helicopter downings. It is likely that insurgents involved in those attacks "studied and learned" from our responses. This time, they were able to plan coordinated attacks targeting the response teams. According to Brooks, though, these lessons would only truly sink in once we were ultimately "defeated." Might have something to do with jihadist ADD.

Perhaps more troubling, though, is this confirmation of the obvious and inevitable via Swopa [emphasis his]:

The Iraq war, which for years has drawn militants from around the world, is beginning to export fighters and the tactics they have honed in the insurgency to neighboring countries and beyond, according to American, European and Middle Eastern government officials and interviews with militant leaders in Lebanon, Jordan and London.

. . . Maj. Gen. Achraf Rifi, general director of the Internal Security Forces in Lebanon, said in a recent interview that “if any country says it is safe from this, they are putting their heads in the sand.”

Last week, the Lebanese Army found itself in a furious battle against a militant group, Fatah al Islam, whose ranks included as many as 50 veterans of the war in Iraq, according to General Rifi. More than 30 Lebanese soldiers were killed fighting the group at a refugee camp near Tripoli.

. . . In an April 17 report written for the United States government, Dennis Pluchinsky, a former senior intelligence analyst at the State Department, said battle-hardened militants from Iraq posed a greater threat to the West than extremists who trained in Afghanistan because Iraq had become a laboratory for urban guerrilla tactics.

There are some operational parallels between the urban terrorist activity in Iraq and the urban environments in Europe and the United States,” Mr. Pluchinsky wrote. “More relevant terrorist skills are transferable from Iraq to Europe than from Afghanistan to Europe,” he went on, citing the use of safe houses, surveillance, bomb making and mortars.

A top American military official who tracks terrorism in Iraq and the surrounding region, and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic, said: “Do I think in the future the jihad will be fueled from the battlefield of Iraq? Yes. More so than the battlefield of Afghanistan.”

Militants in Iraq are turning out instructional videos and electronic newsletters on the Internet that lay out their playbook for a startling array of techniques, from encryption to booby-trapped bombs to surface-to-air missiles, and those manuals are circulating freely in cyberspace.

I can't wait for the next Rudy Giuliani to attack the next Ron Paul when the latter suggests that such an esoteric concept as "blowback" exists. Surely, the GOP faithful will have a good hoot at the expense of the latter day Paul.

You see, the World's Most Expensive School for Terrorism exists and the student body isn't waiting for us to dismiss class one way or the other. The rather dedicated pupils are doing fine regardless. And I'm sure they're very appreciative. But it isn't apples that the students are bringing to their teachers. Even if they want to say thank you to Headmaster Bush.

[UPDATE: From Josh Marshall's commenter discussing the flypaper theory way back in '03:
Now that's extraordinary. Kind of like saying "by having a dirty hospital, we fight germs on our terms," or something ridiculous. Its not as if there's a finite number of "terrorists"--chances are anyone fighting us in Iraq never would've thought twice about attacking us elsewhere before we invaded--we're breeding germs is all. Part of the reason Saddam was so brutal was because he had plenty of people as brutal as he going after him all the time--now we've unleashed those forces against our troops. Has there yet been any sign that our real nemesis, Osama and al Qaeda, are in Iraq? No. What we're really doing is diverting our resources while al Qaeda sits back and reaps the windfall of our distraction and formulates their next attack. What horrible logic to rationalize the continuing deaths of American soldiers caught up in a situation that had nothing to with al Qaeda, nuclear weapons, or anything else of significance.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Perched on the Handlebars, of a Blind Man's Bike

The news cycles in Iraq seem to be moving in a pattern of concentric circles - some might say a spiral. Whatever your preferred imagery, one thing is clear: it is taking less time for the various strategic plans/developments to complete their familiar arc across the desert sky and as a result, the plans themselves are being loaded into the chamber with increasing frequency. The trajectory is no doubt recognizable to most observers: First, there is the latest and highly celebrated "magic bullet" launched skyward in triumph; then the unbridled enthusiasm recedes to form expectations of a partial - yet promising success; gradually, the plan becomes a source of cautious optimism; eventually, the futility and lack of impact is recognized; and, finally, the tattered remnants come crashing back to earth to take up their rightful place among the wrecks of prior Icarian fantasies.

The latest in the series of failed auditions for the role of deus ex machina in Iraq is "The Surge." Early on in The Surge's flight, two of the more highly touted indicators of success were the apparent decline in sectarian violence and the sudden vanishing act of Moqtada al-Sadr (the bete noire of the Bush administration, and convenient scapegoat for the aforementioned sectarian tensions). Andrew Sullivan does quick work with the first prong:

"The level of sectarian violence is an important indicator of whether or not the strategy that we have implemented is working," - president Bush, May 10.

"More than three months into a U.S.-Iraqi security offensive designed to curtail sectarian violence in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, Health Ministry statistics show that such killings are rising again. From the beginning of May until Tuesday, 321 unidentified corpses, many dumped and showing signs of torture and execution, have been found across the Iraqi capital, according to morgue data provided by a Health Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information. The data showed that the same number of bodies were found in all of January, the month before the launch of the Baghdad security plan," - Washington Post [May 24].

Oh, and that al-Sadr guy whose fear of The Surge caused him to flee to parts unknown (aka Iran and Lebanon)? Well, he's back too.

Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr appeared in public for the first time in months on Friday, delivering a fiery anti-American sermon to thousands of followers and demanding U.S. troops leave Iraq.

So much for that.

There has also been an attempt to tie some of the recent intra-sectarian friction between Sunni insurgent groups as one of the boons provided by The Surge. Due to the conflicting goals, tactics and strategies (and competition for sources of income) between the more locally inclined Sunni insurgent groups (who want to end the US occupation and regain power) and those that have adopted the al-Qaeda brand (who want to end the US occupation, and then use Iraq as a launching pad for global jihad), a deep rift has formed, and fighting has broken out along that fault line. The US has been able to assist the local Sunni resistance groups in the targeting of the al-Qaeda types. While this effort is all to the good (the less al-Qaeda the better is my motto), the long term benefits to our mission in Iraq are limited, and chalking the formation of this tacit alliance up to The Surge is disingenuous at best. Kevin Drum puts the chronology in order:

This tribal U-turn against AQI predates the surge by many months, of course, and mainly shows that the U.S. presence isn't really necessary in order to fight them. The tribal sheikhs consider AQI a threat, and left to their own devices they'll get rid of them on their own.

Perhaps more important, though, is the fact that our Sunni "allies" in this anti-AQ endeavor also want us to leave, and want to bring down the current Iraqi government. It is a temporary, narrowly focused marriage of convenience. After we "succeed" in routing AQ (assuming that's possible), our alliance will dissolve and it'll be back to a full-on adversarial posture (see, ie, Abu Aardvark & Co. for the superb ongoing analysis).

So with The Surge struggling to maintain altitude like some genetically impaired quail that Dick Cheney would hunt for sport, the news cycle came full circle this week with two "new," and in many ways mutually exclusive, post-Surge plans as reported by David Ignatius and Ann Scott Tyson. The level of "newness" is highly dubious, as these trial balloons are really just warmed over "stay the course." (there have even been indications of support from President Bush for the Baker-Hamilton Commission report that was previously tossed aside by the administration with utter contempt). As the song goes, when you get to the bottom, you go back to the top of the slide.

Larry Johnson has a post that neatly dissects the massive shortcomings of the latest schemes for anyone interested (though Brad at Sadly, No! really gets at the Ignatius column as well). As interesting as the substance of the Life After The Surge proposals, though, is just how quickly they were launched. The denouement of a major strategic endeavor such as The Surge used to take many months to unravel. Now, that process has been compressed to a matter of weeks, and even days. In fact, the Bush administration is so anxious about the rapid descent of The Surge, that they've leaked the details of two separate, and often conflicting, plans simultaneously. And that before The Surge has even kept its high velocity appointment with terra firma. In the near future, it's going to take an air traffic controller from LAX to figure out how many birds the administration has in the air at any given time.

Tragically, our military personnel, and the Iraqi people, will be along for the ride. The in-flight safety tips that flight attendants are required to read prior to departure will be about as useful to them.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Gift Ideas

I know what you're all thinking: What can I get my favorite a blogger that I occasionally read on his birthday? A blogger that seemingly has everything. Trust me, family and friends found this conundrum equally daunting.

Here's the good news: there is one thing I don't have, and it's cheap and easy. That would be a Silk Pajamas Award for Best Non-European Weblog. And while TIA somehow flew under the radar of the nominating committee, my other bloggy home, American Footprints, was nominated. Remarkably, the voters have yet to assert their collective will and grant the AmFoot mandate that we all know is lurking in the hearts and minds of the silent majority.

Just sayin'

Happy Birthday.....

To me.

Today marks the beginning of the 12 months that I'll spend at the palindromically balanced age of 33. It's not a bad birthday, really. The weather here in NYC is ideal, the natives are mirthful, there's a three day weekend looming and, to top it off, I can scrape at least one night of free drinks from the pack of deadbeats I, sometimes reluctantly, refer to as friends. Ain't life grand?

The date itself has also always seemed a little special to me - it being Bob Dylan's birthday as well. Surely this harmonic nativity means that I, too, am destined for great things.

Still, I began to doubt the value of my very existence when I stumbled over to Lawyers, Guns and Money and noticed that Dave Noon had released Volume XV of his ongoing Worst American Birthdays series. It was with special interest that I took in this edition, as I hoped that Noon would reveal that I share my birthday with one of this nation's great scoundrels who, while no doubt a repugnant sort, would at least confirm my neurotic delusions of grandeur manifest destiny.

My hopes were dashed in an instant, however. Instead of a greedy robber baron who made millions on the backs of others, a twisted sadist who wrought destruction in his path or some other tyrannical oppressor of the masses, the post was dedicated to one of this country's legion of pop music mediocrities: Jewel. Coming fast on my sudden rush of chagrin, came the line that struck dread in my heart:
Jewel turned 33 today...
The same birthday and age as me? Vertigo had me reeling. This is too much. And then, by the grace of God (in whose infinite wisdom I am now a firm believer) I looked at the date stamp above the post and bore witness to my salvation: May 23, 2007.

My stubborn refusal to exit my mother's womb by a mere handful of hours spared me this ignominious fate. So today I celebrate procrastination in all its glory - an art form that I had pretty well mastered by age 10, with the past 23 years dedicated to applying a finely hued sheen to my masterpiece-in-progress. And today, I received confirmation that my tireless efforts have not been in vain.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Lipstick and Callous and Fishnets and Malice

There are a few things to keep in mind when reading racist-infused fearmongering like this from serial offender Michelle Malkin:

Those who approve of killing in the name of Islam are here among us. They are your neighbors, your co-workers, and your children's classmates. They may be your doctors, your cabdrivers and your friends.

The new Pew poll found that, while 80 percent of U.S. Muslims believe suicide bombings of civilians to defend Islam cannot be justified, fully 13 percent said they can be justified, at least rarely.

Worse, one in four younger American Muslims - those under 30 - find suicide bombings in defense of Islam "acceptable, at least in some circumstances."

They must have missed out on the "religion of peace" lessons.

One might want to consider that every religion, culture and population produces a certain segment that believes in the moral righteousness of violence committed under certain circumstances ("at least rarely"). Christianity is certainly no exception. And sometimes, the "at least rarely" standard is not as rigorously applied as it should.

As a matter of fact, those who approve of killing in the name of Christianity are here among us now. They are your neighbors, your co-workers, and your children's classmates. They may be your doctors, your cabdrivers and your friends.

A small group of protesters gathered near the funeral services to criticize the man who mobilized Christian evangelicals and made them a major force in American politics -- often by playing on social prejudices.

A group of students from Falwell's Liberty University staged a counterprotest. And Campbell County authorities arrested a Liberty University student for having several homemade bombs in his car.

The student, 19-year-old Mark D. Uhl of Amissville, Va., reportedly told authorities that he was making the bombs to stop protesters from disrupting the funeral service. The devices were made of a combination of gasoline and detergent, a law enforcement official told ABC News' Pierre Thomas. They were "slow burn," according to the official, and would not have been very destructive.

There are other examples of Christian-inspired terrorism in the United States, of course. This type of extremism is, unfortunately, ubiquitous - as it has been throughout thousands of years of human history.

But pundits like Malkin don't want to discuss these attitudes and beliefs in a holistic way, such that the associated problems can be addressed objectively, absent the cheap demonization of an entire religion. Then again, what do you expect from someone who wrote an entire book in defense of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

What amazes me is that the Washington Post would sing the praises of a pundit with such an agenda. Maybe "amaze" is the wrong word...

[UPDATE: Also, Glenn Greenwald.]

A Dimming of the Brights

One of my favorite conservative bloggers, The Cunning Realist, has stepped out from the concealing shadows afforded by nefarious blogospheric pseudonymity to pen an article for The American Conservative magazine...under a pen name (hey, they don't call him Cunning for nothing). Regardless of the layers of secrecy, he provides quote of the day material via his discussion of the passing of David Halberstam, and his seminal Vietnam work, The Best and the Brightest.

The value and relevance of the book is less its Vietnam-specific facts than its enduring lesson, which is that every generation is at risk of its own deceptions, delusions, and Five O’Clock Follies. And they are just as likely to result from the best of intentions—our “best and brightest”—as the worst. Because this is part of what it means to be American, knowing or even experiencing history is no guarantee against disaster. The ultimate validation of Halberstam’s thesis appears ironically in the wisdom of John McCain, arguably one of our best and brightest, who wrote the book’s reflective and tragically prophetic foreword:

It was a shameful thing to ask men to suffer and die, to persevere through god-awful afflictions and heartache, to endure the dehumanizing experiences that are unavoidable in combat, for a cause that the country wouldn’t support over time and that our leaders so wrongly believed could be achieved at a smaller cost than our enemy was prepared to make us pay. No other national endeavor requires as much unshakable resolve as war. If the nation and the government lack that resolve, it is criminal to expect men in the field to carry it alone.

Halberstam saw firsthand the consequences of McCain’s memory hole, of hubris and jingoistic adventurism, of lessons studied but never learned. With his passing, we lost one of our most sharp-eyed observers at a time when vigilance is more important than ever.

And yet...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Told 'Em I Finished School, and I Started My Own Business

Last week, I discussed the strategic myopia revealed in David Brooks' odd conclusion to his review of John Robb's book, Brave New War. Said Brooks [emphasis added]:

If the Iraqi insurgents defeat the U.S. then every bad guy on earth will study and learn their techniques. The people now running for president will find themselves in bigger heaps of trouble than the current one now is — trouble that this presidential campaign hasn’t even dealt with.

That earlier post dealt with the wisdom of avoiding insurgent entanglements in all but the most exigent circumstances - sound advice given how difficult fighting insurgencies is, and how one can frequently avoid bumping into (or creating) them at little cost (actually, at enormous savings!). Not only have insurgencies historically been able to punch above their weight - taking on, with varying degrees of success, larger and more capable military forces - but recent innovations in the fields of technology and communications (the Internet for one) and the ubiquity and affordability of armaments (to name but a few causes), has increased the potency and efficiency of insurgent groups considerably.

Insurgents in one part of the world, for example, can share tactics, strategies and technological developments with insurgents half a globe away. This transfer of knowledge and expertise can be updated and expanded in real time - via the Internet - which provides a means of information dissemination that is capable of reaching many connected, and unrelated, groups simultaneously.

For example, if one group in Iraq learns the best way to disable the Stryker, groups in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Gaza and elsewhere can work off that knowledge the same day - possibly adding their own innovations and inputting them back into the knowledge pool in a symbiotic loop of invention. Open Source Warfare - as John Robb has termed it.

Speaking of which, these are some of the topics that Robb has been exploring for years on his blog, and to which he delves into in greater detail in the book that Brooks was supposed to be reviewing. Which makes the conditional "if" that prefaces Brooks' conclusion that much odder. Using Brooks' language, "every bad guy on earth" is already studying and learning from the insurgents in Iraq. This illicit scholarship, and open source innovation, will continue apace whether or not the "insurgents defeat" the US. Such is the nature of the Brave New War - and the crux of Robb's thesis.

Nor should this be news to any attentive observer, including, even, David Brooks. In little over a year or two into the Iraq occupation, similar tactics and strategies to those developed on Iraqi battlefields began appearing in other hot spots such as Afghanistan. According to this report by Andrew McGregor for the Jamestown Foundation, the unremarkable is occurring in Somalia as well:

After assessing their losses, the insurgents appear to have abandoned their preferred methods of hit-and-run mortar attacks and open gun-battles in favor of a shift to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and targeted assassinations. For example, a remote-controlled roadside bomb hidden in a pile of trash killed four Ugandan soldiers and injured five more on May 16. Four days later, a large roadside explosive device hidden in a plastic bag killed two civilians, while another bomb narrowly missed a Transitional Federal Government (TFG) convoy, killing two civilians instead. The main road through the Bakara market was closed the same day when another bomb was discovered close to a TFG base.

Just as the "emboldening" of terrorists has already happened by way of our invasion of Iraq (and continues with our prolonged presence), so too has The World's Most Expensive School for Terrorism been graduating students for the past four years. Our enemies don't require our withdrawal to cash in on their emboldening-dividends, nor do they require our "defeat" for their diplomas from Jihad University.

We've been a rather generous benefactor, and an accommodating headmaster to boot.

Friday, May 18, 2007

So I Tells the Doctor, It Hurts Whenever I Do This, and the Doctor Says....

Matt Yglesias (riffing off of Brian Beutler's discussion of David Brooks' latest offering) has this to say:

I agree with Brian Beutler. David Brooks' discussion of insurgent tactics in Iraq ends up in a very strange place:

If the Iraqi insurgents defeat the U.S. then every bad guy on earth will study and learn their techniques. The people now running for president will find themselves in bigger heaps of trouble than the current one now is — trouble that this presidential campaign hasn’t even dealt with.
But, look, the Iraqi insurgency is hardly the first group to demonstrate that it's possible to force foreign occupying armies to withdraw from territory where they're not wanted even if the occupying army is, in some sense, militarily superior. This has been a well-known feature of the world for decades, if not centuries. Indeed, it's worth pointing out that advocates of invading Iraq used to be perfectly aware that we wouldn't be able to use military force to trump public opinion.

It is odd how this seemingly obvious fact has been forgotten, or is being deliberately ignored, by so many that should know better (or do). One of Matt's commenters nails it:

You'd think a country that was founded on a guerilla insurgency against a superior British force would have a better grasp of the efficacy of guerilla warfare.

But then, as Jim Henley noted, even those discussing counterinsurgency doctrine in various exalted circles lose sight of this most salient of features: fighting insurgencies will likely only be a problem for us if we proceed to impose ourselves as a military power in distant lands. We must work to make that an extremely rare event. Which would be the only truly sound counterinsurgency doctrine.

In fact, if we ensure the rarity of our foreign military interventions by applying strict tests to any future commitment of forces, we make it likelier that we will not face as dogged an insurgency when we truly must (ie, ensure that there is a high level of domestic support for our intervention in the target country, establish the legitimacy (and morality) of the action, attain high levels of international cooperation/support, present clear and attainable goals, etc.).

Sure, indigenous insurgencies can erupt in weak states to challenge an ineffectual sovereign, but it is unclear to what extent we would want to get involved in such a fight - and we're not really vulnerable to such a domestic insurgency here in the States (military coup and civil war fantasies notwhistanding). Further, indigenous insurgents squaring off against domestic counterinsurgents tend to lack many of the familiar advantages they would normally have vis-a-vis a foreign power -- such as superior knowledge (cultural, linguistic, geographical, topographical, etc.). Nor will they necessarily enjoy the rhetorical high-ground that nationalism and xenophobic impulses provide. Of course, the more we involve ourselves in such a fight, the more likely we can stigmatize our favored side and thus cede the rhetorical high ground to our opponents (see, ie, recent Somalia/Ethiopia conflict).

Here's Henley with the goods:

This I think is the issue that Yingling and the rest of the Army’s “counterinsurgency insurgents” avoid. Insurgency can’t pose an existential threat to the country. Is there a single instance of insurgency warfare conquering foreign territory? Even if you consider South Vietnam and North Vietnam to have really been separate countries, it was, as certain hawks never tire of pointing out, Hanoi’s regular Army that conquered the South. The FLN could kick France out of Algeria, but it could never rule France. Hezbollah drove Israel out of Lebanon in the 1990s using guerrilla warfare. It couldn’t use the same tactics to drive Israel out of Galilee. Insurgencies can prevent foreign or local governments from consolidating control over the insurgents’ “own” territory. Guerrilla movements that get big enough have been able to take power in their own countries.

But they can’t conquer. Insurgency is fundamentally reactive and, if not always merely “defensive” . . . parochial. A guerrilla army swims in the sea of the people, like the man said, and foreigners make a lousy sea. Even if all “the terrorists” wanted to follow us home after we “cut and run” from Iraq, they could never have remotely the effect here that they manage in Iraq. Here they lack a sea.

By and large, a country like the United States only needs to commit to an ongoing posture of counterinsurgency if it is also committed to serial military domination of foreign populations. In fact, the United States is currently so committed, on a bipartisan basis. But that’s an unwise and immoral posture that will lead to national ruin in the medium to long term. The Iraq defeat offers one of those rare moments for real national reappraisal, an openness to genuine reform. Rather than work at getting better at executing an unwise and immoral grand strategy, let’s choose a different one.

Good idea.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Boomin' Grannies?

This, from Laura Rozen, is deeply, deeply disturbing:
Editor & Publisher/NYT: Cartoonist's site among targets of pre-GOP convention NY police surveillance. Here's the list of groups and individuals reported on and surveilled by NYPD intel, including Planned Parenthood, Greenpeace, Billionaires for Bush, cartoonist Ted Rall, the NYC Independent Media Center, the ACLU, MSNBC, the Sierra Club, NOW, the Federation of East Village Artists, and Grandmothers Against War.
Yeah, because we know what a terrorist threat the "Grandmothers Against War" are. The Geriatric Jihadists. And MSNBC? What the hell is that all about?

Which is most definitely NOT to say that the rest of the list deserved such scrutiny (Planned Parenthood?). These are the actions of a police state, not a liberal democracy. Oh, and they hate us for our freedoms.

You're Drifting Off to Sleep, With Your Teeth In Your Mouth

Ralph Peters ponders the prospects for the new "War Czar" to rectify the mess in Iraq and pronounces his reign dead on arrival. The reason: despite the grandiose title, the War Czar will lack the authority to truly command the various nodes of Executive branch power. He is, as Peters describes him, a "Toothless Tiger":

On paper, the appointment of three-star Gen. Douglas E. Lute as White House "war czar" - after five retired four-stars turned down the job - makes perfect sense. It's about time somebody took charge.

The reality is something else: The whoppingly mislabeled "czar" will have neither the authority to force departments and agencies to do what they were supposed to do all along, nor the vital power of the purse.

He'll have to rely on persuasion. In D.C., that's a joke.

Lord knows, the administration needs a grown-up to make its brats do their homework, to ensure that our commanders and troops get the support they need and to look ahead instead of forever scrambling to fix yesterday's goofs.

But the problem with past "czars" has been that they were handed big missions and zero clout. Despite the hoopla surrounding their appointments, they were little more than nags in the government kitchen. At most, they provided the illusion that a problem was taken seriously. [...]

The fundamental issue is this: How much authority will the war czar have? If the usual pattern prevails, the feudal domains on the Potomac will nod politely when he speaks, but ignore him when their parochial interests are threatened.

Will he be able to order the State Department to send its cowering personnel to fill the empty slots they've left in Iraq? I guarantee you that the answer is "no."

Will he be able to command the intelligence agencies to refocus their in-house priorities to better support our troops? Nope.

Will he be able to shift Pentagon resources to support the wars we face instead of the fantasy wars we'd like to fight someday? Not a chance. The services know how to defend their toy boxes, and the Capitol Hill porkmeisters would knock out any teeth his office might have.

Will he at least be able to persuade the Department of Agriculture to send enough experts to Iraq to make a difference? Not if the Aggies ain't in the mood to plant date palms.

And the elephant-with-dysentery on the White House South Lawn is, of course, the spectacularly corrupt and incompetent private-sector involvement in Iraq. Will the American people's war czar be able to force corporate carpetbaggers to fulfill the contracts for which they've received billions?

Will he have the authority to regulate and discipline the private security firms whose thugs have done so much to undermine our relations with the average Iraqi? [...]

In Washington, if you can't fire people, prosecute them or take away their money, you're a joke.

He's got a point. Of course, there is one person in Washington who could take control of the "administration" and its "brats" and compel them to execute the plan laid out by the Commander in Chief. That person happens to be...why, the Commander in Chief himself, President Bush.

So if Lute's mission is doomed because he doesn't have the authority and "clout" that the President has, it does sort of make you wonder why the President doesn't, you know, do all of those things Lute would do if he only could. Or at least take Lute's suggestions and give him some dental implants.

What a curious fiction. Peters would have us all pretend that a President who has openly embraced a style of governance that has maximized the authority and prerogatives of an all powerful "unitary executive" is still utterly powerless to act in a role that has traditionally, and textually, been well within his office's purview.

And When I Was Tired, I Was Tired of Lying

This is quote of the day material from the Anonymous Liberal. AL cuts to the heart of the revelations gleaned from former Deputy Attorney General James Comey's recent testimony about the dubious legality of various warrantless surveillance programs implemented by the White House:

First, it appears that the White House was willing (and in fact did, for a time) authorize a program that the Justice Department--including the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, the head of the OLC, and the FBI Director--had determined to be illegal. And if all of these people had not threatened to simultaneously resign, it is very likely that the White House would simply have continued renewing this program without the Justice Department's blessing. That's a rather stunning fact, and one that I wish at least a few mainstream journalists would attempt to grasp the significance of. The White House authorized a program that everyone of significance in the Justice Department had determined to be lacking any legal basis. They willfully violated the law.

That is about as clear an indictment as can be assembled. Stunning indeed.

There are a host of great posts on this topic, and Mona and Hilzoy have most link-bases covered (as well as their own contributions, as usual). In particular, check out the Marty Lederman links they provide...

[UPDATE: I wanted to add one more thought on this, which I touched on in comments to Mona's post. This episode has inspired a new-found respect for John Ashcroft. What the narrative revealed by Comey tells me is that the Ashcroft has limits. I disagree with much of his basic outlook on political matters, but there are at least overriding legal and Constitutional principles that he will not abandon - even when pressured by his boss.

That is probably a low bar to set for the nation's number one law enforcement officer, but in this administration, he’s an overachiever.

Gonzales, on the other hand, is a man with barely a shred of integrity. His principles are defined as: whatever the President wants to do. Literally. The hollow man. If there is a Constitutional/legal boundary that he is not willing to cross, we haven't seen it yet. From torture, to indefinite detention without Constitutional rights for US citizens, to illegal, warrantless wiretapping.

Not only would Gonzales never have balked at signing the desired authorization (as Ashcroft did) Gonzales actually accompanied Andy Card to the Ashcroft’s sick bed to try to coax it out of him at a time when Ashcroft's capacity was compromised.

Next to Cheney, he is the worst character this administration has managed to produce. And that, obviously, is saying a lot.

UPDATE II: One more for the kitty from Benjamin Wittes (via Laura Rozen):
At least as Comey relates it, this affair is not one of mere bad judgment or over-aggressiveness. It is a story of profound misconduct on Gonzales's part that, at least in my judgment, borders on the impeachable. Put bluntly, faced with a Justice Department determination that the NSA's program contained prohibitive legal problems, the White House decided to go ahead with it anyway. In pursuit of this goal, Gonzales did two things that both seem unforgivable: He tried to get a seriously ill man to unlawfully exercise powers that had been conveyed to another man and to use those powers to approve a program the department deemed unlawful. Then, when Ashcroft refused, the White House went ahead and authorized the program on its own. In terms of raw power, the president has the ability to take this step. But it constitutes a profound affront to the institutional role of the Justice Department as it has developed. The Justice Department is the part of the government that defines the law for the executive branch. For the White House counsel to defy its judgment on an important legal question is to put the rawest power ahead of the law.
Impeach Gonzales now.]

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

He's Like a Detuned Radio

Rudy Giuliani, no doubt sensing a potential surge in the polls from Mitt "Double Gitmo" Romney, takes the public discourse for a nosedive to the bottom:

It reminded me of the Saudi prince that gave me the $10 million. He did the same thing: "This is America at fault, the way America has outreach to the world." Look, it's real simple what happened. These people came here and killed us because of our freedom of religion, because of our freedom for women, because they hate us...If you're confused about this, I think you put our country in much greater jeopardy. The reality is, these people are planning to kill us because -- and this is hard for people to recognize, I usually hear this on the Democratic side, don't usually hear it on the Republican side -- you've got to face reality. If you can't face reality, you can't lead.

What audacity: to peddle such ignorant dreck and claim that those that don't buy in to such a misinformed narrative "can't face reality." It boggles the mind. Look, whether you're partial to Jim Henley's read, or my own (and really, there is much in common between the two), to suggest that we were attacked on 9/11 "because of our freedom of religion, because of our freedom for women, because they hate us" is the type of dysfunctional worldview that has led this country from one foreign policy blunder to the next over the past 6+ years.

It didn't take long for Giuliani to confirm my earlier suspicion: "For Giuliani and his ilk, al-Qaeda attacked us for our freedom or some other nonsense." Obvious, huh.

And this guy is the frontrunner for the Republican Party's nomination. Watching this type of shallow thought rewarded by so many of my fellow Americans stirs in me the same type of anxiety and exasperation I felt in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Can people really not grasp how very dangerous this kind of thinking is? Are we really doomed to make the same mistakes again and again like some eternally recurring nightmare?

Don't answer that.

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.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Mountains and Mole Hills

Ezra Klein says all that needs to be said about Social Security - with charts and graphs. So concise is Ezra, that you don't even need more than a few of sentences from me. That's a first. Go check it out.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Ali for One, and One for Ali

The big news over the weekend in intra-Shiite political intrigue was the roll-out of the new SCIRI product (before Labor Day no less - somewhere Andy Card weeps). In conjunction with some of the more substantial shifts in tone and platform, SCIRI (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) announced a name change to something approximating SIIC (the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council) - although some have suggested SICI (Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq).

While this rearranging of words and letters might appear to be a mere re-branding, there is some significance to the modification. Namely, the party formerly known as SCIRI is looking to establish a stronger "Iraqi" identity, and thus is shedding a name that itself paid homage to the Iranian "Revolution" - which is no mere accident, as SCIRI itself was formed at the behest of (and with ongoing active support from) Iran's leadership dating back to Khomeini himself. Jim Henley is the early front-runner for this story's snark award (also a contender in post title bingo): a [SCIRI] spokesman won’t quite say, “We changed the name because the ‘Revolution’ is over, and we won.”

As Juan Cole points out, though, the official SCIRI spin on the use of the term "revolution" is that it denotes the struggle against Saddam, and so Jim's explanation may not be that far off the mark (leaving aside the Iranian implications).

Of more impact than the name change, though, are indications that SCIRI may be willing to compromise on its erstwhile desire to "federalize" Iraq, and thus carve out a separate Shiite region in southern Iraq akin to the Kurdish autonomous region in the north. As Reidar Visser explains in an extremely informative piece:

Firstly, the document represents a notable softening of tone on the question of federalism in Iraq. In 2005 and 2006, SCIRI held a high profile in advocating the establishment of a single Shiite region of nine governorates from Basra to Baghdad. This region is not mentioned in the recent press release; instead there is general praise for the idea of federalism and emphasis on the need to follow the Iraqi constitution in this question, where after all a single Shiite region is but one of several possible outcomes (and, in fact, a rather unlikely one at that, given the complicated procedures for forming a federal region). Indeed, the explicit mention in the press release of “governorates” among the building blocks of the future federal Iraq suggests that SCIRI is now moving away from the view that the entire country should necessarily become subdivided into federal regions.

Here, again, SCIRI bolsters its "Iraqi" nationalist bona fides in a policy position move that is consistent with the name change. There is another aspect of this subtle adjustment worth mentioning: the shift away from federalism and toward advocacy for a unified Iraq also comports with the wishes of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. I wonder if Sistani's recent "bonding experience" with Moqtada al-Sadr (also a staunch opponent of federalization), helped SCIRI to see the light as it were.

It is likely that SCIRI is either bowing to pressure from Sistani (whose position on this matter is fortified by Sadr's support), or SCIRI is moving toward the nationalist position in order to siphon support from its political rival, the Sadrists. Or both. What will be interesting to watch is if the "new SCIRI" attempts to steal more support from the Sadrists by adopting that group's other popular positions - especially its anti-occupation stance. That would bring us pretty close to "game over" territory.

Whatever the motives may be, this move brings SCIRI closer in line with the other major Shiite players in the UIA, and such harmony has been an overriding goal of Sistani's from the beginning (that is, reducing tension and in-fighting between Shiite factions, while maintaining a united political front). That is why I remain unpersuaded by certain aspects of this analysis cited by Cole:

Al-Zaman adds its own analysis. Ahmad al-Musawi says that his sources in SCIRI told him that the changes made at the party convention look forward toward the next election. The United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of 17 Shiite religious parties that is led by SCIRI, has been falling apart. The Islamic Virtue Party or Fadhila pulled out its 15 MPs, and the Sadrists (32 seats) keep going in and out. It is also possible that SCIRI's remaining ally, the Da'wa Party, led by PM Nuri al-Maliki, will fall out with them.

The implication is that in the next elections, the Supreme Council may run as a list rather than under the rubric of the United Iraqi Alliance.

While SCIRI's "rebirth" better positions that party to survive on its own, and thus the recent maneuvers are certainly politically expedient, such a break would presumably anger Sistani and that would be an extremely risky move, to say the least. If necessary, they may go solo (especially if the UIA disintegrates on its own), but that would seem like a last resort.

Speaking of Sistani's renewed relevance, SCIRI also made noises concerning their allegiance to Sistani over Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. While some of the early press reports have claimed that SCIRI made a clean break with Khamenei in favor of Sistani, Reidar Visser suggests that such a stark realignment is overstated, at least for now:

The second important point related to the press release is illustrated by the stark discrepancy between leaked information to the press by SCIRI officials prior to the publication of the document, and its actual contents on one key issue: SCIRI’s relationship with Iran generally, and with that country’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, in particular. Some early media reports suggested that SCIRI were about to formally renounce their ties to Khamenei, in favour of greater emphasis on the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. That sort of loud and clear renunciation would have been immensely helpful to the Iraqi political process, and, along with a more flexible position on federalism, could have helped the party emerge as a true moderating force in Iraqi politics. Accusations against SCIRI of “pro-Iranian” and “Safavid” loyalties could then have been more easily consigned to the realm of conspiracy theories.

Ultimately, however, no such clarification of the party’s role was included in SCIRI’s press release. The only mention of Sistani was in a non-committal statement that SCIRI “valued” the efforts (already construed in the Western mainstream media as a decisive “pledge”) of the higher clergy in Iraq, including Sistani. (This of course reflects the fact that SCIRI does not have a reciprocal relationship with the leading Iraqi ayatollah; they need him more than he needs them.) True, the language of the press release is admirable and politically correct as such, with a condemnation of all external meddling in Iraqi affairs. But the failure to clarify SCIRI’s relationship to Khamenei means that considerable ambiguity on this issue remains. [emph. added]

Despite the ambiguity, though, the trajectory is clear, and Visser is right to point out that SCIRI needs Sistani more than the reverse. Thus, SCIRI is trying to establish, or rehabilliate, its image as an "Iraqi" institution distinct from its Iranian roots/ties, and as part of this process SCIRI is publicly acknowledging, and acquiescing to, the dictates of Sistani (even if the media interpretation of this shift has been somewhat overblown).

As Visser points out in his closing paragraph, the version that the media is reporting likely came from SCIRI members using selective and slanted leaks to create the desired impression. This attempt at media manipulation is indicative of an internal schism in the SCIRI power base around issues of Iraqi identity/nationalism, federalism and fealty to Sistani vs. Khamenei. As a result, none of these initial movements should be taken as permanent. Further, one should not discount the possibility that SCIRI is making hollow rhetorical gestures for the sake of improving its public image, while in actuality, the hinted at follow through will stall and peter out.

Nevertheless, Sistani must be pleased with the recent turn of events. Just think, six months ago conventional wisdom was that Sistani had lost his clout and was being ignored by all the major players.

Whatever the eventual outcome, rumors of Sistani's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

[UPDATE: This IraqSlogger piece claims that the leadership of SCIRI has confirmed the more comprehensive re-alignment away from Khamenei and toward Sistani that Visser claimed was ambiguous. The IraqSlogger piece also claims that SCIRI reiterated its support for the federalist plan of creating a Shiite-dominated region in the south (rather than signaling a softening on that position as Visser suggests). As usual, there are conflicting stories and murky details. Proceed with caution.]

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Troops are Quiet Tonight, but It's Not Alright

Jonathan Chait discusses a certain myopia prevalent among the ranks of the GOP [emphasis added]:
Of all the low points during the Bush administration, perhaps the most surreal was the week in December 2004 when Bernie Kerik was poised to become secretary of Homeland Security. By the traditional measures used to judge qualifications for this sort of job, Kerik was not an ideal candidate. The main points in Kerik's favor were his loyal service to Rudy Giuliani, first as driver for his mayoral campaign, then corrections commissioner, then police commissioner--the last of which was commemorated by the casting of 30 Kerik busts. On the negative side of the ledger were his multiple alleged felonies, including tax evasion and conspiracy to commit wiretapping (currently being investigated by federal prosecutors), and his (also alleged) ties to the DeCavalcante and Gambino crime families.

If a "Sopranos" writer proposed a plotline in which a Kerik-like figure rose through the ranks to become head of the department charged with preventing the next terrorist attack, he would be laughed off the show. So how did it almost happen in real life? The Washington Post recently reconstructed the Kerik nomination: The decisive factor seemed to be that Bush was "lulled by Kerik's swaggering Sept. 11 reputation."

That last sentence is, in many ways, the perfect epigraph for the Bush presidency. The Kerik episode displayed many of the pathologies of modern Republican governance: incompetence, corruption, an obsession with loyalty over traditional qualifications. But it shows with particular clarity Bush's most distinct contribution: the mistaking of macho bluster for strategic acumen.
My initial reaction when reading those opening paragraphs was to think that Chait was only telling half the story at best: while this particular recurring lapse in judgment may be more pronounced on the Republican side these days, the malady in question afflicts almost all Americans - and the same goes for the rest of the world's population. Chait, to his credit, offers some clarification:
The error Bush made in judging Kerik is, of course, the same error the country as a whole made in judging Bush. We (or most Americans, anyway) were lulled by the president's swaggering September 11 reputation, by the image of him finding his voice in the rubble of Ground Zero. Of course, it turns out that understanding how to lead the war against terrorism requires more than standing on a pile of rubble and talking tough. A certain level of intellectual depth and curiosity is needed. You not only need to want to kill the bad guys, you need to know which bad guys to kill, and you need to have some kind of plan for what happens after you're left occupying their large, strategically vital, anti-American, ethnically riven failed state.
While it would be nice to assume that after 8 years of what will undoubtedly be viewed as one of the worst, most destructive presidencies in US history, the country will have learned its lesson in this regard (even if not most of the GOP constituency) . Unfortunately, the seduction of the swagger, and the cheap allure of macho bellicosity, is rooted in patterns of thought that are embedded deeper in our psyches than 8 years of expose-in-action can undermine.

This is a topic that I have explored at some length in previous posts. From one of those posts:

I have on occasion posted about what I consider to be a malady of the human condition - which seems to effect Americans in healthy doses: the belief that violence equals strength. This fallacy pervades many aspects of our society....In our pop culture, at least beginning in the 1980s, we began celebrating the morally ambiguous (at least morally aloof), muscle-bound, one-man killing machines most ably personified on film by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.

This trend marked something of a departure from the reluctant heroes and, only occasionally violent by comparison, icons of the 1950s and 1960s like Gary Cooper and even the macho but body count challenged John Wayne. According to this cinematic trope, these new-breed, shoot-first-ask-questions-later heroes are depicted marching into town, leaving a trail of corpses strewn across the screen, and departing into the sunset with all of the erstwhile dilemmas solved through the redemptive quality of mass carnage. These ultra-violent big screen avatars have been reborn and recycled in countless video games, celluloid depictions and print incarnations for subsequent generations to consume. In the American mindset, strength is equated with violence, and violence solves all the world's problems - from an unruly child to a crime infested neighborhood to a rogue regime. Put simply, might makes right.

In the arena of foreign policy, this violent predilection manifests itself in the belief that certain leaders are "strong" on issues of national security while others are "weak." In this context, strength basically translates into a hawkish willingness to use military options instead of what are perceived as "weaker" diplomatic routes. Regardless of the ramifications and long term results, or wisdom of the engagement in the first place, if a leader opts to bomb, strike or assault, they earn the label "strong." Further, in times of heightened fear and anxiety, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, people will actually opt for "strong and wrong, rather than weak and right." In this sense, Iraq was explained away by many Americans with the vague reference to the fact that "At least Bush was doing something," as if any old military action would suffice as payback for 9/11. Someone had to pay, and Kerry wasn't strong enough to make sure of that.

I think this represents a psychologically underdeveloped conception of strength - a kind of emotionalism that only recognizes the impulse, the instant result, and the immediately tangible and fails to account for the big picture, the repercussions, the nuance, and the ultimate efficacy of a given course of action. It also flies in the face of historical evidence. [...]

In the truth that lies beyond instinct and reflex, the strength is in the results. I am by no means a pacifist, though I aspire to the day that all humans could be. Unfortunately, sometimes violence is needed and in certain contexts war is the only route, but not nearly as much as our gut might dictate or as frequently as to justify our collective prejudices. More often than not, violence should be seen as the last resort, a product of the breakdown of the preferred process, and itself recognized as the instigator of a cycle of self-perpetuating and escalating conflict - not a desirable course of action, and rarely a perfect solution ala Rambo. Peace through strength must not allow the latter concept to overshadow or confuse the former - which must always be the driving force and overarching goal.
These inherent inclinations are part of what makes Jim Henley's post on taking the longview with respect to potential war with Iran so prescient:
Much as I might like to see our “benevolent hegemonists” driven into the wilderness clad only in loincloths, that’s not going to happen. They’ll retire to their think tanks and Weekly Standard columns and be treated with the absurd respect official Washington lavishes on anyone lacking the grace to slink away in shame. And they’ll wait. And between now and 2008 they’ll try to instantiate policies that make eventual war with Iran all but inevitable.

This is exactly what happened with Iraq. In 1991, the GHWB administration took certain steps that put the US permanently at odds with the regime of Saddam Hussein. In 1993 and thereafter, the Clinton administration affirmed those policies. Sanctions became not a spur to disarmament but a program for regime change. “No fly” zones became an excuse for a bombing campaign intended to make Saddam lose face enough that nationalistic officers would depose him. The CIA under both presidents fomented numerous coups. The President signed legislation in 1998 that raised the level of confrontation materially while reinforcing the meta-message that this particular tinpot dictator 8,000 miles away was somehow of overriding importance. All the while, the Iraq hawks in both parties, but chiefly in the GOP, worked to keep the engines of intervention on warm idle, to be fired up whenever an opportunity finally presented itself. Eventually it did.

The rest is a very unhappy history, but the prehistory - mainstream commentators have the damnedest time remembering the 1990s clearly - made it possible.

I fully expect something like this to be the Iran hawks’ Plan B. [...]

Which is to say, those of us who don’t want a war with Iran need to worry about a lot more than just keeping John “Beach Boy” McCain out of the White House. If you didn’t like the Iraq War, realize that the time to stop it was years before it actually happened. Approach the 2008 Presidential campaign and Iran with that thought in mind.
It's not just the tendency of human beings to view violent solutions as expedient and effective. Nor is it the human compulsion to engage in, and on some primal level, enjoy, war. In addition to those tirelessly ebbing and flowing forces that seem to come to a violent crescendo every decade or so, the post-Iraq war period will also be marked by a familiar malaise. The process of reckoning with our failure in Iraq (and the unpleasant confrontation with the eventual trillion dollar price tag and tragic human consequences) will add heat to a slow simmering resentment. The magnitude of this debacle will eventually bring to a boil a sense of indignation seasoned with dashes of fear, humiliation and impotence.

In search of relief from this psychic discomfort, excuses will be clung to, and scapegoats identified - with the liberals and war opponents likely receiving the brunt of the blame for forcing us to surrender on the eve of victory. Those looking to cultivate a war in ten years or so, will find fertile soil. Especially those busy sowing the seeds, and piling on the fertilizer, today.

For the rest of us, it's KYEO.

We Can't Go On Together

After re-reading a post by the Non-Arab Arab that I linked to, again, yesterday (well worth the read and re-read btw), I wanted to highlight these paragraphs that speak to the plausibility, or lack thereof, of a broad, cross-sectarian alliance between Sadr and Sunni elements [emphasis added]:

The Sadrists have a wee bit of a problem though: their militia (the Mahdi Army) is wildly out of control and is slaughtering members of other sects. Big problem for inter-sect cooperation. Yes, the Arab or Iraqi nationalist and resistance angles give space for cooperation, but Iraq is just entering it's civil war and the Sadrists and Mahdi Army are young and undisciplined whereas Lebanon already went through a civil war (hopefully there's not another coming) and Hizbullah is a well-established and disciplined force. Even if Moqtada says the right things, it's hard to win friends on the basis of nice anti-occupation words when he can't control his foot soldiers and those foot soldiers are staging mass kidnappings of folks from other sects and dumping their drill-hole ridden bodies on rubbish tips.

Of course it's not just a matter of "well then why don't they just stop it?" Fact is emotions for the constituency Sadr represents are incredibly raw. They suffered immensely for the past century (they were always the poorest of the poor and being targeted under Saddam for supporting Islamists made it that much worse), and now from their perspective they're being targetted again. The Sunni resistance to the occupation has several strikes against it for winning Sadrist trust: (1) lots of ex- or current-Baathists who the Sadrists in many instances rightly know were the guys who used to torture and kill their people, (2) the Al-Qaeda type minority in the Sunni resistance is blatantly sectarian anti-Shi'a with all the infamous beheadings and car bombs in marketplaces and what not, and (3) the presence of those forces makes it really hard to trust anybody who works with them including what one might term "honest" nationalist resistance fighters. Think about it, if you're some guy who's grown up in Madinat ath-Thawra / Sadr City your whole life, walking through sewage, your dad and uncle disappearing or getting tortured for years for being a member of Da'wa, and then suddenly the Ba'ath falls and the guys who you tried to make nice with at first from over in Aadhamiya (Sunni part of Baghdad) to fight the Americans together are now seen as allies of the folks who are sending car bombs to the fruit market -- well, it's not hard to see why there's a lack of trust.

The flip side also holds true: if you're a Sunni opposition fighter or sympathizer whose primary goal is to rid the country of US occupiers and at first you saw great hope in all those joint Sunni-Shi'a prayers and Sadrist aid convoys to Fallujah in April 2004, but now you see the Mahdi Army mortaring your living room and torturing and killing people in the streets and in secret for having the wrong name...well, kinda hard to trust them too eh?

So, even though Sunni nationalists (minus Al Qaeda) tend to say the right things about national unity and common opposition to the US occupation, and even though Sadrist leaders tend to say much the same stuff, the reality is that dead fathers and raped sisters tend to have a bigger impact on people's feelings. And those feelings are raw. I'm afraid at this point that the scab has been ripped off and every day more salt is being poured into the wound.

One interesting development, though, is that Sadr has been taking steps to instill greater discipline within the Mahdi ranks. After observing the recent successes of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the model looks like an ever more attractive choice for emulation. Ensuring such discipline is not an easy feat by any stretch though - made exceedingly difficult by the cyclical, sectarian-based violence that tends to create imperatives and motivations that trump loyalty to hierarchical power structures, or charismatic leaders.

Aside from the fact that it is not a given that Sadr wants to leave the UIA flock in search of a Sunni alliance as a replacement, even if he did, the prospects would be shaky at best. Still, if he gets squeezed too hard by the US and his Shiite rivals, he may give it a go. That's the most important variable, and the story to watch.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

If He Hollers, Let Him Go

David Ignatius interpreted the recent Cheney tour of the Gulf States (not including Iraq) in a similar fashion to my own read (as alluded to in this comment to the Armchair Generalist's post):

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may make the headlines with her high-profile diplomatic missions to the Middle East. But for a glimpse at the hidden power plays, follow Vice President Cheney's trip this week to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi King Abdullah has emerged over the past nine months as the Bush administration's most important and strong-willed Arab ally. He launched an aggressive campaign last fall to contain Iranian influence in the Arab world and, in the process, buttress American interests in the region despite U.S. setbacks in Iraq....

The Cheney visit is aimed partly at mutual reassurance. Both sides want to reaffirm the alliance, despite disagreements over Iraq policy and the Palestinian issue. [...]

The heart of the U.S.-Saudi alliance is a new effort to combat Iran and its proxies in the Arab world. This began after last summer's war in Lebanon between Israel and the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, Hezbollah. Working closely with the United States, the Saudis began pumping money to Lebanese Sunni, Christian and Druze political groups that could counter Hezbollah's influence [ed note: and some have suggested that we are funding al-Qaeda type terrorists groups targeting Hez as well].

Later in the column, Ignatius gets at what, in the end, represents the fatal flaw in the blueprint to construct an effective anti-Iranian coalition of Sunni regimes: the Iran-friendly, Shiite-dominated Iraqi government that the US is busy protecting and sponsoring. There is no way to reconcile the Saudi position with that of the US on the future character of Iraq. For example:

Abdullah's criticism of the "illegitimate" American presence in Iraq reflects the Saudi leader's deep misgivings about U.S. strategy there. Saudi sources say the king has given up on the ability of Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to overcome sectarian divisions and unite the country. The Saudi leadership is also said to believe that the U.S. troop surge is likely to fail, deepening the danger of all-out civil war in Iraq.

The Saudis appear to favor replacing the Maliki government, which they see as dominated by Iranian-backed Shiite religious parties, and are quietly backing former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and ex-Baathist who has support among Iraqi Sunnis. Allawi's advisers say that his strategy is to exploit tensions within the Shiite religious alliance and form a new ruling coalition that would be made up of Sunnis, Kurds and secular Shiites. Allawi's camp believes he is close to having enough votes, thanks in part to Saudi political and financial support.

The Bush administration appears to have little enthusiasm for an Allawi putsch, despite its frustration with Maliki. U.S. officials fear that a change of government in Baghdad would only deepen the political disarray there and encourage new calls for the withdrawal of troops.

I'm not sure what Ignatius means by "little enthusiasm for an Allawi putsch." That enthusiasm likely exists in spades. The damper is the fact that there is little chance for an Allawi putsch to succeed absent an all-out coup, which would alienate the vast majority of Shiites rendering our presence untenable. It would do more than amplify "new calls for the withdrawal of troops" - we'd have a much larger insurgency than the Sunnis have thus far produced, and the already vulnerable Green Zone would collapse.

Which brings us to the second paragraph excerpted above, which mentions Allawi's political (non-coup based) "strategy" to peel away certain disaffected Shiite factions. He might have a chance with the aggrieved Fadhila Party - still smarting after it was deprived of the Oil Ministry, and further under siege from SCIRI and other more powerful Shiite factions in parts of the South. But I don't think Fadhila alone (itself not guaranteed) would get Allawi's group over the hump. For that, they'd need a major defection, like the Sadrists (as discussed in this post).

While there has been a lot of chatter lately of the "New Sadrists" - and how that current is breaking with the UIA and charting its own course which includes a major outreach effort to Sunni groups - it remains to be seen how this will play out. Despite this well-timed noise, it is highly unlikely that Sadr would sidle up to Allawi absent a major effort by his Shiite rivals, aided by US forces, to put the full court press on. There are deep social and economic factors that make such a union highly improbable (see here for a summary and some useful links), as well as a recent history of confrontation and heightened communal identification that makes such cooperation exceedingly difficult.

Speaking of an anti-Sadr "full court press," recall that Sadr has made noises about withdrawing from the UIA before (famously instituting a Sadrist boycott of Iraq's parliament back in November 2006). Sadr's motivations for the previous boycott, and current "distancing," are remarkably similar.

In each case, Sadr got to present himself as the anti-occupation, nationalist champion while creating space between himself and the unpopular government (recall: Sadr's November boycott was, ostensibly, premised on his objection to Maliki's meeting with Bush in Jordan and how this act showed the subservience of the Iraqi government to the Americans. The current resignation of six Sadrist ministers from Maliki's cabinet was, supposedly, based on Sadr's frustration at the Maliki government's failure to demand a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces).

More important than these popular public reasons for playing political "hardball," though, is that each such instance provides Sadr with a means of flexing his muscle, and reminding the various players involved of the formidable extent of his power and indispensability. Each came at a time when Sadr was under siege and in search of a reversal of trends.

While the public rationale for Sadr's previous boycott was his indignation at the occupier/occupied dynamic manifested in the Bush/Maliki meeting, the real reason was likely the flurry of anti-Sadr political activity that was being orchestrated by the US at the time, and the potential implications that Bush's meeting with Maliki might have had along those lines. So Sadr made a bold display of his importance, and he got the desired result as the anti-Sadr alliance dissolved.

Meanwhile, under the current predicament, US forces have been doggedly pursuing Mahdi Army members with at least the tacit approval of the Maliki government (though, apparently, the fighting against the Mahdi Army has been the sole purview of US forces, with Iraqi government forces exclusively engaged in other operations). In addition, SCIRI and other Shiite factions have been looking to consolidate positions in the South at the expense of Sadr and his allies. The violent clashes attendant to this jockeying have been heating up.

So the situation is primed for Sadr to remind his Shiite rivals that he is not a minor player that can be sacrificed or rolled over, and that there are limits to the heat he's willing to take. If I had to bet, I'd say Sadr will get the reprieve he's looking for - and won't end up completely abandoning the UIA or joining an Allawi-led coalition government. Sistani will likely intervene (again as he did with Sadr's previous boycott) in order to forestall a deeper splintering in the Shiite ranks.

So, whither the Saudis? How will they react to the fact that political leaders in the US are courting withdrawal, while the Bush administration has thus far proven impotent in establishing a less Iran-friendly leadership in Iraq?

The answer is that they'll likely keep doing what they've been doing all along: either actively or tacitly supporting insurgent elements in Iraq in order to maintain a foothold, and stymie the progress and long term designs of the Iran-friendly, Shiite powers in Iraq. It is frightening to consider that certain segments of the Bush administration, like the Cheney wing, may have in the past (and still) viewed those disruptive Saudi influences as a useful card to use as leverage against a potentially uncooperative Shiite ruling bloc.

It will be very hard to keep the conflict in Iraq from going regional - to the extent that it hasn't already. And we might have encouraged that trajectory in more ways than one.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Deal or No Deal

Probably more than many on the left side of the blogosphere, I've been willing to cut Congressional Democrats some slack - let them ease into their newfound positions of power, gently massage the levers of power to forge a solid foundation from which to push certain prerogatives and resist the urge to move too swiftly, without first cultivating ample public support. In particular, my Iraq war patience has drawn the ire of many hoping for faster, more comprehensive confrontation.

So now I'm calling in my "patience chit," so to speak. The issue, one that Hilzoy raises (as does Kevin, Atrios, Matt Stoller and many others) is whether or not the United States of America will re-establish the principle of habeas corpus in American run detention facilities and prisons. This is an issue that I have discussed on more than one occasion, for those looking for some background. Currently, there is chatter that House Democrats on the Armed Services Committee may insert the habeas-resurrecting language into an upcoming appropriations bill that will be hard for Bush to veto.

Matt Stoller has a list of the applicable House Members for your contacting pleasure. Drop them a line.

Kevin Drum says:

We could use some spine in this matter. Will the netroots help provide it?

I sure hope so.

It's incumbent on us all to keep the spotlight on the Democrats and Republicans in Congress (though 99% of the modern day Republican Party stopped caring about quaintisms like habeas corpus years ago - got no Soul and all that).

So how about it Senators Clinton and Obama? You too John Edwards. It's not your vote yet, but you could sure tell us where you stand on what should be the least controversial topic of our time: respect for habeas corpus (a well established principle in the Western tradition since...the freakin' Magna Carta!). If you can't spine up about that, what good are you.

Habeas corpus is deal breaker territory.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Success is So Forbidding, but It Makes Me Think I'm Winning

The War Nerd provides quote of the day material:

A funny thing happened on the floor of the Senate last week. Somebody asked a serious question: "If the war in Iraq is lost, then who won?"

Of course Sen. Lindsay Graham, the guy who asked the question, didn't mean it to be serious. He was just scoring points off Harry Reid, the world's only Democratic Mormon. Reid had made a "gaffe" by saying in public what everybody already knows: "The war in Iraq is lost." When you say something obviously true in politics, it's called a "gaffe." [emphasis added]

Nevertheless, Mssr. Brecher, in his typically irreverent style, provides the answer to Graham's botched attempt at a rhetorical question:

But let's take the question seriously for a second here: who won in Iraq? To answer it, you have to start with a close-up of the region, then change magnification to look at the world picture. At a regional level the big winner is obvious: Iran. In fact, Iran wins so big in this war that I've already said that Dick Cheney's DNA should be checked out by a reputable lab, because he has to be a Persian mole. My theory is that they took a fiery young Revolutionary Guard from the slums of Tehran, dipped him in a vat of lye to get that pale, pasty Anglo skin, zapped his scalp for that authentic bald CEO look, squirted a quart of cholesterol into his arteries so he'd develop classic American cardiac disease, and parachuted him into the outskirts of some Wyoming town. And that's how our VP was born again, a half-frozen zombie with sagebrush twigs in his jumpsuit, stumbling into the first all-night coffee shop in Casper talking American with a Persian accent: "Hello my friends! Er, I mean, hello my fellow Americans! Coffee? I will have coffee at once, indeed, and is not free enterprise a glorious thing? Say, O brethren of the frosty tundra, what do you say we finish our donuts and march on Baghdad now, this very moment, to remove the Baathist abomination Saddam?"

It took a couple years for Cheney-ajad to get his American accent right and chew his way into Bush Jr.'s head, but he made it like one of Khan's earwigs, got us to do the Ayatollahs' dirty work for them by taking out Iraq, their only rival for regional power. Iraq is destroyed, and Tehran hasn't lost a single soldier in the process. Our invasion put their natural allies, the Shia, in power; gave their natural enemies, the Iraqi Sunni, a blood-draining feud that will never end; and provided them with a risk-free laboratory to spy on American forces in action. If they feel like trying out a new weapon or tactic to deal with U.S. armor, all they have to do is feed the supplies or diagrams to one of their puppet Shia groups, or even one of the Sunni suicide-commando clans.

And then the macro-lens view:

So the [other] likely winner of a war like this is an up-n-coming world economic power that has been investing in its own economy while we blow a trillion - yep, a trillion - dollars on nothing. Not hard to figure out who the likely suspects are here.

China understands that an army is most effective when kept penned in and on parade, rather than riding around a hostile, far-away country.

The answer to "Who won Iraq?" is Iran in the short run, and in the long run, China and India.

While we flounder around in the Dust Bowl, they've been running up their reserves, putting the money into infrastructure and bullion.
The rest, as they say, is well worth the read...

All Too Human

Our friend the badger has an interesting post about recent political developments in Iraq in which he takes a little snipe at this "progressive blog-jihadi" (I've been called worse):

Along with the fixation on US exit-strategy, we have also been fed a steady diet of self-cleansing blame. According to the NYT editorial yesterday, the whole Iraq problem is the result of the do-nothing attitude of the Maliki administration. And the "progressive" blog-jihadis have been at the forefront of this interpretation, dismissing internal UIA political tensions as "theater", describing Sadr as a thug and Sistani as a Mafia figure, all of them driven by narrow self-interest only, and together engaged in deceiving the Americans about the prospects for reconciliation. As if the sole purpose of the Americans in Iraq was to establish peace and tranquillity, like missionaries in a way, so as to be able to leave with a clear conscience...

Badger's post generously provides me with an opportunity to clarify my position on these, and related, matters. First of all, I want to make it abundantly clear that I do not seek to "blame" Iraqis for the current political deadlock, and attendant inter- and intra- sectarian/ethnic fighting. The results were predictable, and predicted. The unrest was set in motion by the proximate causes of our invasion of Iraq, the evisceration of Iraq's security infrastructure and the upending of its social order with few institutional safeguards in place to manage the aftermath.

Observing the tragic state of affairs in Iraq that currently pits myriad armed groups against each other in pursuit of money, power and influence (as well as the settling, and preoccupation with, historical grievances), and recognizing that this is an impasse that we are powerless to resolve, does not and should not necessarily be construed as an abdication of responsibility for the situation.

Further, I have never argued - or even implied - that the "sole purpose of the Americans in Iraq was to establish peace and tranquillity, like missionaries in a way." On the contrary, among the primary motives for our invasion of Iraq (at least for some of the key authors of the policy) was the desire to attain physical proximity to, and control over, vast oil resources (especially vis-a-vis other hungry global consumers such as China). In addition, there was the drive to establish a long term military presence in Iraq through the construction and staffing of massive permanent bases - which themselves could be used as staging grounds for subsequent military adventures in nearby Iran and Syria or, at the very least, as a formidable defensive straddle of the aforementioned oil supplies.

The eventual realization of those goals, however, is in jeopardy because of the uncertainty wrought by the ongoing conflicts, the enormous toll in terms of military and economic resources such unrest is exacting, the resulting erosion of domestic political will and means, as well as the empowerment of factions in Iraq that are considerably less amenable to these designs (Sadr, Sistani) than some of the pre-war draft picks would have been (see, ie, Chalabi, Ahmad).

So, no, the desire to establish relative stability is not necessarily born out of some moral or ethical well-spring of magnanimity (after all, the same "do-gooders" were the ones that unleashed "shock and awe" in the first place). Nevertheless, it is in the interest of those motivated by more cynical aspirations to see the fighting die down and some semblance of calm take root. In pursuit of this, the US has been searching for a political accord acceptable to enough of Iraq's population so as to sap the potency of the insurgency and militia reliance. Thus, the US has been pressuring the various factions to make concessions in the interest of forging such a national modus vivendi. Thus far, however, those factions have resisted making such concessions (the Sunni's continue to support insurgent attacks, there has been no progress on Constitutional amendment, oil revenue sharing, de-de-Baathification, etc.).

Now why would all these groups refuse to make concessions if they are really motivated by a desire for unity and national reconciliation?

With respect to the "theatrical" component of UIA political tensions, I should clarify the limits and extent of such an interpretation. There are, without a doubt, very real "tensions" in the UIA political coalition - as well as between current UIA constituents and erstwhile members like Fadhila. Sadr's forces have been clashing with SCIRI's in the south (with Fadhila mixing it up as well at times), and Maliki himself seemed to get sucked in on the SCIRI side for a brief interval in the Summer/Fall of 2006 (and might again, if the right opportunity presents itself). There currently exists - despite Sistani's ongoing efforts - a very real possibility that a schism will form between some or all of the Shiite factions that could prove to be explosive and unmanageable.

However, the recent withdrawal of ministers from the Maliki government seemed like a bit of theater because Sadr was able to use this demonstrative act as a means to bolster his nationalist/anti-occupation bona fides and distance himself from the unpopular government - without completely abandoning the UIA (his parliamentarians have, thus far, remained in the legislative body, despite the heated rhetoric). This was an important objective for Sadr. Oddly enough, badger himself seems to acknowledge this angle in subsequent paragraphs [emphasis mine]:

Meanwhile, closer to the real world, Sadrists are telling Al-Hayat that Sadr is making efforts to regain his nationalist and resistance credentials, having emissaries talk with Sunni groups outside of Iraq, and trying to engineer a purge of lawless elements in the Mahdi Army. The Sadrist sources say the current is seriously considering exiting from the UIA, as a result of the ongoing dispute over demands for a US withdrawal timetable, and more immediately as a result of disputes over how to replace the Sadrist cabinet ministers who have been pulled from the government by the movement. Sadrists say it now appears SCIRI will be trying to have those positions filled, not with competent and politically neutral technocrats, which was the original idea, but instead with SCIRI partisans. As reported, there have been Badr-Mahdi Army military clashes in the south, probably not unrelated to these political disputes.

The Tariq al-Hashemi interview with CNN is a reflection of the same trend. Hashemi too is bent on trying to salvage some degree of nationalist credibility, saying his decision to participate in this government will have been the "mistake of my life" (if the constitution is not amended, he added). What both Sadr and Hashemi are trying to do is distance themselves from the existing political arrangements, Sadr from the UIA, Hashemi from the Maliki administration. Naturally, the integrity, self-esteem and continued existence of the groups they lead is uppermost, but also, and as part and parcel of that, the preservation of their own reputations and that of their groups as proponents of national unity. And both of them seem to have decided that this has to lie in some other direction than continuing to hope for a government-led reconciliation. That would be the resistance.

I'm sure that Sadr's only objection to a potential take over of his former ministries by SCIRI (his chief rival) is SCIRI's lack of "technical" prowess. Just as Fadhila's earlier withdrawal from the UIA was based on Fadhila's disappointment with the "narrow sectarian agenda" of the UIA (nothing to do with Fadhila's loss of the oil ministry). No narrow self interest there. Nor, I suppose, should the need to bolster any party's "reputation" be seen as a motive for any type of political theater on the part of the players involved. Just honest, straight talk in the service of enlightened, nationalistic principles.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Sadr, Maliki, Sistani, SCIRI, Dawa, Fadhila, Hashemi, et al, are in fact all interested in reconciliation and unity due to their selfless, nationalistic impulses. Let's again assume, ex arguendo, that it is only the "progressive blog-jihadis" such as myself that would ascribe less noble motives to these parties.

If so, what could possibly be stalling the realization of a national reconciliation? What, or who, is getting in the way and preventing the Iraqis (who, despite differences in ethnicity and sect, are all more or less on the same page) from overcoming the divides? Is the stalemate really just the result of an elaborate and prolonged misunderstanding (see, everybody really wanted the same outcome, they just didn't know the other guy wanted the same thing!)?

The more cynical might argue that the US is deliberately stoking sectarian tensions to keep Iraq weak, divided and in chaos. This argument is not overly persuasive, however, given the fact that those divisions, and the resulting chaos, are threatening our ability to stay in Iraq - not prolonging our tenure. How does making our position in Iraq less tenable comport with either the cynical, or generous, interpretations of the Bush administration's long term goals? It doesn't.

Rather, the truth is the same in Iraq as it has been in almost every other conflict zone in human history: narrow, self-interest and greed trumps more enlightened principles, and where those enlightened principles were once present, they are too easily corrupted by temptation. Where there is a vacuum of power and rampant lawlessness, people will do the most unthinkable things to fill the void (especially when there is a back-story of violent repression, distrust and persecution animating the various parties - as well as interference from neighboring, and far away, interests). So now in Iraq, there is a swirling conflict of all against all, with certain alliance structures in place to delineate some of the combatants. But even then, those structures might not hold permanently.

Again, this was predictable, and predicted. And, it doesn't mean that we are free of blame for the obvious result.

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