Friday, February 29, 2008

High Postin' When You Far From Home

Teh Aardvark (or his friend) is funny:

It will be interesting to see the response to Mahmoud Ahmedenejad's upcoming big visit to Baghdad. A very well informed Iran expert friend of mine noted the other day the irony that American officials make surprise visits to Iraq while Ahmedenejad announces his visit well in advance with great fanfare. Who's got more control?

Yeah, but can A-Jad "walk freely"* around a Baghdad market like Johnny from the Block?

*(please note that for purposes of this blog post, the phrase "walk freely" shall mean accompanied by at least 100 US soldiers, three Blackhawk helicopters and two Apache gunships)

Just Wants to Share Your Light

Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein decry the hypocrisy inherent in President Bush's recent criticism of Obama's stated willingness to meet with leaders from Cuba (and other places shunned by the Bush administration). Although Bush argues that the president of the United States should not meet with Cuba's leader because of the latter country's atrocious human rights record, Bush himself regularly meets with despots, dictators and tyrants. Here is a humorous collection of photos depicting Bush in just such scenarios.

Matt rightly points out that this cold-shoulder policy fails to accomplish much in terms of desired results:

Is it a good thing that the people of China and Russia and Saudi Arabia are, like the people of Cuba and Syria and Iran, ruled by dictators? Of course not. And if the lessons of history indicated that some kind of "no meetings ever" policy caused those regimes to melt and transform into wholesome democracies, then we wouldn't be having this debate.

But things don't work like that, and in the world as it is it's hardly practical to eschew all meetings with everyone whose political system you don't approve on. The question is, thus, whether or not this posture of creating a mostly arbitrary class of "bad guy" that we're going to take down with our awesome powers of snubbing accomplishes anything meaningful. Obama's contention is "no." Bush's contention is "yes" but he has absolutely nothing to show for it.

So if there is little to be gained in terms of bringing those regimes to an end, what's the purpose? Interestingly, Bush justifies his no-meetings policy by pointing to the symbolic value of such tete-a-tetes:

"What's lost ... by embracing a tyrant who puts his people in prison because of their political beliefs?” he said. “What's lost is, it'll send the wrong message. It'll send a discouraging message to those who wonder whether America will continue to work for the freedom of prisoners. It'll give great status to those ... who have suppressed human rights and human dignity.

“The idea of embracing a leader who's done this, without any attempt on his part to ... release prisoners and free their society, would be counterproductive and send the wrong signal.”

Warming to the subject, Bush continued: “Sitting down at the table, having your picture taken with a tyrant such as Raul Castro, for example, lends the status of the office and the status of our country to him. He gains a lot from it by saying, 'Look at me. I'm now recognized by the president of the United States.[emphasis added]

Now personally I don't ascribe to that view regarding the impact of meetings, negotiations and photo ops, but consider the ramifications for someone like Bush who, ostensibly, does.

By his own criteria, he repeatedly "sends the wrong message" to populations ruled by despotic regimes that happen to be on our "friend" list and thus worthy of a face-to-face. According to Bush, his meetings with leaders from places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China, Uzbekistan, Russia, etc. are "counterproductive" to the cause of human rights. He has on numerous occasions lent the status of the office to brutal dictators that flagrantly violate human rights - allowing such regimes to gain in stature by the association.

I mean, he sat down with Islam Karimov: a leader with a zeal for torturing prisoners and a particular yen for boiling his enemies alive. Or should we assume that Bush was thinking to himself as the flashbulbs went off, "It's a good thing I'm lending the status of the office to this Karimov guy, giving him the recognition he deserves. This meeting will send the right message to the people of Uzbekistan."

At least those not stuffed in a cauldron.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

From the Sage to the Ridiculous

I first read Marc Sageman's, Understanding Terror Networks a few years back, and it changed the way I viewed the international jihadist threat. It was eye-opening. Sageman (himself, a forensic psychiatrist and former CIA operative) employed a unique method (poring over hundreds of biographical profiles of known-terrorists) to reveal truths and dispel myths about the identities and motivations of terrorists that join al-Qaeda-like organizations. Sageman offers a pretty good summary of this work here. I have cited Sageman numerous times (examples here and here), and consider him one of the preeminent experts in the field (I am not alone in this estimation).

Thus, it was with some excitement that I perused David Ignatius' column on Sageman's latest effort, Leaderless Jihad (via K-Drum):

What distinguishes his new book, "Leaderless Jihad," is that it peels away the emotional, reflexive responses to terrorism that have grown up since Sept. 11, 2001, and looks instead at scientific data Sageman has collected on more than 500 Islamic terrorists -- to understand who they are, why they attack and how to stop them.

The heart of Sageman's message is that we have been scaring ourselves into exaggerating the terrorism threat -- and then by our unwise actions in Iraq making the problem worse. He attacks head-on the central thesis of the Bush administration, echoed increasingly by Republican presidential candidate John McCain, that, as McCain's Web site puts it, the United States is facing "a dangerous, relentless enemy in the War against Islamic Extremists" spawned by al-Qaeda.

The numbers say otherwise, Sageman insists. The first wave of al-Qaeda leaders, who joined Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, is down to a few dozen people on the run in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. The second wave of terrorists, who trained in al-Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan during the 1990s, has also been devastated, with about 100 hiding out on the Pakistani frontier. These people are genuinely dangerous, says Sageman, and they must be captured or killed. But they do not pose an existential threat to America, much less a "clash of civilizations."

It's the third wave of terrorism that is growing, but what is it? By Sageman's account, it's a leaderless hodgepodge of thousands of what he calls "terrorist wannabes." Unlike the first two waves, whose members were well educated and intensely religious, the new jihadists are a weird species of the Internet culture. Outraged by video images of Americans killing Muslims in Iraq, they gather in password-protected chat rooms and dare each other to take action. Like young people across time and religious boundaries, they are bored and looking for thrills.

"It's more about hero worship than about religion," Sageman said in a presentation of his research last week at the New America Foundation, a liberal think tank here. Many of this third wave don't speak Arabic or read the Koran. Very few (13 percent of Sageman's sample) have attended radical madrassas....

Sageman's harshest judgment is that the United States is making the terrorism problem worse by its actions in Iraq. "Since 2003, the war in Iraq has without question fueled the process of radicalization worldwide, including the U.S. The data are crystal clear," he writes. We have taken a fire that would otherwise burn itself out and poured gasoline on it. [...]

Sageman's policy advice is to "take the glory and thrill out of terrorism." Jettison the rhetoric about Muslim extremism -- these leaderless jihadists are barely Muslims. Stop holding news conferences to announce the latest triumphs in the "global war on terror," which only glamorize the struggle. And reduce the U.S. military footprint in Iraq, which fuels the Muslim world's sense of moral outrage.

Um, yeah. To all that. Almost on cue, John McCain rushes forward to showcase his ignorance in order to provide Sageman the contrast he needs to bring his ideas into clear relief:

…I am told that Senator Obama made the statement that if Al Qaeda came back to Iraq after he withdraws -- after the American troops are withdrawn -- then he would send military troops back, if Al Qaeda established a military base in Iraq. I have some news: Al Qaeda is in Iraq. Al Qaeda, it's called Al Qaeda in Iraq, and my friends if we left they wouldn't be establishing a base, they wouldn't be establishing a base, they'd be taking a country. And I'm not going to allow that to happen my friends. I will not surrender. I will not surrender to Al Qaeda.

Oh brother. Juan Cole probably does more than what is required to dispense with this shallow thinking, but it's worth the read:

...[T]he allegation that he makes about there being 'al-Qaeda in Iraq' that could well take over the country is part lie and part insanity. The Sunni Arabs are no more than 20% of the Iraqi population. How could a tiny minority from within them take over the whole?

...But there are only a few hundred foreign fighters. A small minority of Iraqis has associated with them. They don't call themselves 'al-Qaeda in Iraq.' The major such group is "The Islamic State of Iraq." And to say that they have "bases" in Iraq is pretty grandiose. They have some safe houses and try to take and hold neighborhoods, so far with indifferent success.

The idea that this small minority of violent Muslim fundamentalists could take over Iraq is completely crazy. They haven't even been able to keep their toehold in Baghdad-- the Sunnis have been largely ethnically cleansed from the capital by Shiite militias.

So the Shiites would not allow an "al-Qaeda" takeover of Iraq. Neither would the Kurds. Nor would most Sunni Arabs (as in al-Anbar Province, where the Dulaim tribe is at daggers drawn with the Excommunicating Holy Warriors).

Moreover, the neighbors would not allow the radical Sunnis to take over. Iran would sit on its hands while Shiites were massacred in Baghdad? Secular Turkey would allow this development? Baathist Syria? Hashemite Jordan (which played a major role in tracking down and killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi)?

McCain's assertions that "al-Qaeda" has a strong position in Iraq or has any chance of taking over the country if the US leaves are both inaccurate. One is an error, the other is a dark but insubstantial fantasy.

It is imperative that John McCain be kept away from the Oval Office. He simply doesn't understand terror networks.

Been There, Done That

So Defense Secretary Gates will soon be making the rounds in Turkey, urging that country's leadership to bring its military incursion into northern Iraq to a hasty end. From the New York Times:

“It’s very important that the Turks make this operation as short as possible and then leave,” Mr. Gates told reporters in New Delhi on Wednesday as he prepared to leave for Turkey.

His words reflected the Bush administration’s sharper tone toward the Turkish government over the cross-border raids and stood in contrast to earlier American statements backing the Turks in their operations against guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the P.K.K., the initials of the group’s name in Kurdish.

“I measure quick in terms of days, a week or two, something like that, not months,” Mr. Gates said. It was the first time he had demanded a strict timeline for the Turkish operation to end.

Spencer Ackerman takes note of the irony associated with us lecturing another country about respecting the sovereignty, and territorial integrity, of Iraq. But it doesn't end there. We've also been dispensing advice on how to best handle terrorist threats. From the LA Times piece:

The Pentagon chief said the military action by Turkey would not solve the problem of Kurdish insurgency unless it was accompanied by economic development in Kurdish territories and the political will to address the community's grievances.

"There certainly is a place for security operations, but these also need to be accompanied with economic and political initiatives that begin to deal with some of the issues that provide a favorable local environment where the PKK can operate," Gates said. "They need to address some of the issues and complaints that some of the Kurds have."

From the NY Times:

"Military activity alone will not solve this terrorist problem for Turkey,” Mr. Gates said.

While Gates is right to push for calm, the ironi-meter just went to 11 (out of 10). Think about these admonitions in terms of "war on terror" framing. Turkey actually has a legitimate reason to invade Iraq - not that I think it's a particularly good choice. Nevertheless, actual terrorist groups based in Iraq have been committing actual terrorist attacks in Turkey with some regularity - leading to death, destruction and domestic unrest.

What was our pretext for invading Iraq? That Saddam had supported certain Palestinian groups that had committed terrorist attacks in Israel, and that this made him an unacceptable threat to our security (because...well...9/11 changed everything!). Plus: Saddam might have some leftover chem and bio weapons that are ill-suited for terrorist attacks (in most cases, regular explosives lead to a higher body count). Oh, and Saddam might give those clumsy munitions to anti-American terrorists that he doesn't have a relationship with (and that are openly hostile to his regime). Riiight.

Yet we're the ones lecturing Turkey on the virtues of restraint and when it is, and isn't, appropriate to use military force to address terrorism problems. I'm sure they are impressed by the consistency of our position. On the other hand, our advice would take on a different hue if it were given from the vantage point of, "Trust us, more than anyone, we should know how flawed that approach is. Why just look at..."

Crossed in Translation

Jim Henley's post provides me with a segue to finally link to, and highly recommend, the Nir Rosen piece that Henley discusses. Rosen's reporting (aided by his knowledge of Arabic - a novelty of sorts for Americans in Iraq) provides a ground-level view of the incoherence underlying the strategic shift toward arming and funding the localized militias formed by ex-Sunni insurgents and tribal elements (CLC's and Awakenings, respectively, though "Awakenings" is often used as shorthand to refer to both, or "sawha" in Arabic).

Rosen exposes the fact that we are frequently left at the whim of groups that, while paying us lip service and offering some level of cooperation (mostly a cessation of anti-coalition attacks), pursue an ulterior and divergent agenda. Their goals (usurpation of the Iraqi government, accumulation of power) are not our goals, though linguistic and cultural ignorance force our troops into a position of near-blind reliance and trust. In what has become a familiar dynamic in Iraq, in certain respects we have become our proxies' proxy.

Brian Katulis goes into greater detail in this insightful report - highlighting both the splintering within the Sunni community, and the inter-sectarian fissures, that have each been exacerbated by the sawha tilt:

What’s worse, current U.S. policy in Iraq does not take into account how the sahwa movements have further fractured and fragmented Iraqi politics, making it more difficult to achieve progress in striking the power-sharing deals necessary to stabilize their country.

With intra-Sunni tensions and violence rising, continued sectarian divisions between Shi’a and Sunnis, and ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs plaguing Iraq, the country is no closer to a sustainable security framework than it was at the start of 2007. In many ways, the situation in Iraq is beginning to look increasingly like what has recently transpired in Lebanon, with the emergence and strengthening of smaller political factions, each with its own armed militia asserting its influence in different parts of the country.

The full report is highly recommended.

Henley does take issue with one aspect of Rosen's article, though:

The puzzling thing about the piece is what we might call Rosen’s "Paul Wolfowitz moment," when he recounts his conversation with a secular-Shiite National-Police commander:

"Before the war, it was just one party," Arkan tells me. "Now we have 100,000 parties. I have Sunni officer friends, but nobody lets them get back into service. First they take money, then they ask if you are Sunni or Shiite. If you are Shiite, good." He dreams of returning to the days when the Iraqi army served the entire country. "In Saddam’s time, nobody knew what is Sunni and what is Shiite," he says. The Bush administration based its strategy in Iraq on the mistaken notion that, under Saddam, the Sunni minority ruled the Shiite majority. In fact, Iraq had no history of serious sectarian violence or civil war between the two groups until the Americans invaded. Most Iraqis viewed themselves as Iraqis first, with their religious sects having only personal importance. Intermarriage was widespread, and many Iraqi tribes included both Sunnis and Shiites. Under Saddam, both the ruling Baath Party and the Iraqi army were majority Shiite.

This seems rosy.

Indeed, I had the same reaction when reading that particular portion. This topic is a bit tricky in that the pendulum frequently swings between two exaggerated interpretations: that sectarianism wasn't an issue at all in pre-invasion Iraq (at one end), and on the other end, that sectarian divides were so pervasive and determinant that a large sectarian-based conflict was inevitable regardless of whether or not we invaded (and irrespective of the policies that we implemented post-invasion). The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and itself has been a fluid an evolving phenomenon.

Certainly, post-invasion, people have fallen back on communal impulses out of fear, desperation and anxiety. Likewise, there was also much more harmony and less communal identification when Iraqi society wasn't under siege. But in the years prior to the invasion, sectarian identification was trending upward. I have linked to this post by the Non-Arab Arab more than once, but I offer it again as a concise accounting of some of the ways in which Iraqi internal (and external) politics contributed to the growth of the sectarian mindset amongst its population throughout the past thirty years.

So for the third and final time in this post, I say, highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

They Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful

In many ways, US foreign policy in the Muslim world has created a series of perverse incentives for the despotic regimes that we support (such as Mubarak in Egypt, the monarcy in Saudi Arabia and Musharraf in Pakistan). These leaders know that they can maintain the lucrative flow of money and military hardware by presenting themselves as the only viable leadership option in terms of promoting a pro-Western and/or anti-terrorist agenda. Along these lines, such leaders take pains to point out that should actual free and fair democratic elections occur, anti-American and un-democratic Islamists would seize power via the ballot box. Thus, true democracy must wait. Indefinitely, or as long as such radical elements remain a political force.

Given this dynamic, leaders like Mubarak have an incentive to ensure that no viable, non-radical alternatives emerge that could actually challenge his regime in an election (if such an option were to present itself, Mubarak would lose the justification for maintaining his grip on power). Thus, it actually serves Mubarak's interests to thwart the growth of relatively secular and/or pro-democratic forces while giving a certain amount of leash to more extremist elements.

Suffice it to say, such a situation is ultimately damaging to our interests: the radical groups gain in popularity and prestige as they are given a certain amount of room to grow in an environment in which they are seen by the population as the only alternative to the unpopular ruling regime. Relatedly, we become closely associated with that same unpopular regime by virtue of our efforts to prop it up.

We would be better served if we pressured these regimes to allow more room for non-radical political organizations to coalesce - political groups that could offer credible and popular alternatives to the current set of despots through free and fair elections. It wouldn't be easy, but then, our massive amounts of aid do provide a certain leverage. That way, we could rightly assume the role of champion of democracy which we claim regardless, and could sever ties with the brutal dictators that we take pains to label democrats even when our rhapsodizing is fooling no one (but instead tarnishes the concept of democratic reform itself).

Shadi Hamid passes along an anecdote that neatly captures this backwards phenomenon:

Last Wednesday, Khaled Hamza, an influential (although low-profile) moderate in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested. Hamza is the editor-in-chief of Ikhwanweb, the Brotherhood’s official English website. I got to know Hamza in the summer of 2006, where we met numerous times over coffee at Groppi, a cavernous ice cream joint in Tahrir Square. He was incredibly helpful, putting me in touch with senior Brotherhood leaders, and pointing me to documents I needed for my research. I also got the chance to do something few Westerners ever do – I got to know him not just as a contact or an interviewee, but also as a person. We had long, fascinating discussions about the internal tensions within the Brotherhood and about the future of Egyptian democracy. In this man, I saw a microcosm of the struggle before Egypt, and before America – on one level a struggle within Islam, but also a struggle between reformers and the dictators who seek to silence them.

Sure enough, Hamza is an Islamist, but he is, most of all, a democrat. He didn’t care how many times a day you prayed, or whether you mixed with members of the opposite sex. He didn’t care if you called yourself a “secularist” or a “socialist.” He only cared if you were on the side of democracy. For him, Islam was a motivation, a point of reference; it was not, however, a strict, legal system, with limits and punishments to be inflicted. Inspired by Justice and Development Party in Turkey, he wanted to move the Brotherhood and the "Islamic project" beyond an obsession with shariah and toward a model that was unequivocally democratic.

More interestingly, as I got to know him, I could also tell that he had, in one sense, fallen in love not necessarily with America, but perhaps with the idea of America. Let me explain what I mean by this. Like nearly everyone in the Middle East, he viscerally opposed U.S. policies. But where many Brotherhood leaders I met seemed genuinely angry at America, Hamza expressed, instead, a deep sadness. It was almost as if he felt betrayed, because he believed – or wanted to believe – that America was capable of so much more. He saw what so many Americans themselves had forgotten, that we had the potential to aspire to something greater in our engagement with the Middle East, that we could, one day, align ourselves not with brutal dictators, but with the everyday Arabs who had suffered under them.

He believed it was still possible. That’s why he was so willing to meet and talk to me. He wanted to send a message to the U.S., asking us for help, imploring us to play a more constructive role. This, after all, was pretty much the point of the Brotherhood’s English-language website. It was an effort to build bridges with the West and to start a dialogue across the divide. He knew that most of the Brotherhood's senior leadership had little interest in reaching out. So he did what he could. He worked from within the organization, advocating for a more moderate, pragmatic approach. He knew he was in the minority and that the Brotherhood, at large, was still dominated by people who were thoroughly conservative and reluctant to adapt to a changing political environment.

Shadi is spot on with his conclusions:

That said, it would be a mistake - and a naive one at that - to assume that Hamza is representative of Islamism writ-large, or the Brotherhood itself. He isn't. He is unique, but that’s precisely why it's such an outrage he was imprisoned last week. It provides further proof that the Egyptian regime is terrified of the possibility that there might one day be a rapprochement between the West and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamza, and other Brotherhood reformers who have been arrested of late, represent that very possibility, and, for that reason, they are seen as too dangerous. We've seen this before. It is an old story in the Arab world. Hopefully, this time, we'll think harder about our response.

I don't expect the Bush administration - noted more for rhetorical flourish than actual policy shifts in favor of democracy promotion - to handle this situation with anything more than passive protest, if at all. However, I relish the thought of being proven wrong.

Gone Til November?

The regional elections in Iraq that were tentatively slated for early October might not make that appointment:

Iraq's presidential council rejected Wednesday a measure setting up provincial elections — seen as a key step to develop Iraq's nascent democracy — in the latest setback to U.S.-backed national reconciliation efforts.

The three-member panel approved the 2008 budget and another law that provides limited amnesty to detainees in Iraqi custody. [...]

"No agreement has been reached in the Presidency Council to approve the provincial elections draft law and that it has been sent back to the parliament to reconsider the rejected articles," the presidential council said in a statement.

That being said, this is not a fatal setback, and the sticking points could very well be hammered out in time for an autumn election (in October, or shortly thereafter). As argued previously, though, these elections are a mixed bag in terms of fostering "reconciliation" and fostering democratic norms in Iraq.

On the one hand, since the Sadrist current and many Sunni resistance groups boycotted the regional elections in 2005, a new round will improve on the legitimate representation of local populations. On the other hand, the Sunni and Shiite groups that did participate in those elections (Iraqi Accord Front and ISCI respectively) are not keen to cede their privileged position. As a result, ISCI has been resisting setting a date for elections for some time, and are likely pleased by today's announcment.

Percolating underneath, and likely boiling over during election season, will be conflicts within the Shiite and Sunni regions. In the Shiite south, ISCI and the Sadrist current will continue doing battle, though likely at an increased pitch (especially given that the truce between the two parties has recently been scuttled). In Anbar and the other Sunni regions, the Awakenings groups and other elements of the Sunni resistance will seek to unseat the current Sunni lawmakers, which could stoke a parallel spate of intra-sectarian violence.

According to Reidar Visser, some maneuvering is already underway in the Shiite south - and the early results indicate that ISCI has cause for concern:

With the exceptions of oil-rich Basra and Maysan, the Shiite-majority governorates south of Baghdad are frequently referred to by observers as the loyal fiefdoms of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), America’s and Iran’s principal partner among the Shiites of Iraq. However...Shiite Islamist politicians in the southern city of Nasiriyya have engaged in an intense internal struggle about the local security forces, casting doubt on the image of ISCI hegemony. On 25 February, a two-thirds majority of the governorate council decided to dissolve the local security council and transfer its powers to the local police chief instead.

This development is noteworthy for two reasons. Firstly, it is taking place in a setting - the provincial council - where no Sadrists are represented because they boycotted the January 2005 local elections. In other words, it is other Shiite Islamist forces, primarily Fadila but probably also at least some members of Daawa (Tanzim al-Iraq) that are behind the move. Whereas ISCI originally had managed to install their own man as governor of Nasiriyya, they are now being threatened from within in one of their supposedly “safe” constituencies. In this respect, Nasiriyya could be a bellwether for this autumn’s provincial elections...

While Fadhila and the Sadrist current have clashed in the past, the two groups make natural allies at this juncture - due to their mutual enemy (ISCI), the nationalistic outlook of each, their resistance to partition (a favored agenda of ISCI) as well as other common religious and ideological leanings. The two combined could greatly weaken ISCI's position via elections - which has led many to wonder whether ISCI will attempt some level of fraud. I would guess yes, but then the Sadrists and Fadhila will likely counter with their own, neutralizing the effect.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Hope is Not a Prediction

Jim Henley flags an interesting passage in a recent LA Times piece (emphasis his):

And the United States, which backed Kosovo’s separation from Serbia and was among the first countries to recognize it as a new nation, will receive the brunt of Serbian fury.

Far from stabilizing the region, as the Bush administration had forecast, the move by Kosovo has launched a period of volatile uncertainty.

Henley responds appropriately:

Surely, surely even the Bush administration can’t have forecast that a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo in the face of Serb objections, outside the UN process and opposed by Russia, would "stabilize the region" - particularly when, and maybe you’ve noticed by not noticing, the region has been relatively quiet for years.

Right. It's one thing to accept the costs of a given policy yet still conclude that the benefits outweigh those costs (a plausible argument in the present example). It is another entirely to suggest that the costs don't exist at all - and that, in fact, benefits will emerge on the pivot of those very costs. So it is that Kosovo's push for independence was not expected to lead to destabilization - not even the status quo ante in terms of stability. No, actual stabilization will result! Or not.

Yglesias is right that there has been some level of neglect for the situation in that region, leading to reactive rather than proactive policy (partly due to the fact athat Iraq has voraciously been hording the limited supply of resources and attention of US government policymakers).

At the end of the day, recognizing Kosovo['s] independen[ce] was probably the best choice to make, but it's a very problematic path. It's the kind of thing that, before you do it, you need to lay the most groundwork possible and also have plans in place for dealing with the fallout. Instead, the administration seems to have kind of wandered into it as a kind of afterthought.

Neglect might have forced policymakers into a reactive posture in this example, leaving them to make due with a bad situation after the Kosovar's moved faster than anticipated and without our taking the steps suggested by Matt. Thus, we get some ex post facto spin about expected stabilization in order to justify the outcome and appear in control (though highlighting one's ignorance is a method of dubious value when seeking to bolster confidence in one's ability to guide events).

That doesn't tell the entire story, however. Even with respect to developments in regions that are fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of the Bush administration's unblinking focus and planning, similar mistakes have been made, and they fit a pattern.

Early on in the electoral process in Iraq, the Bush administration was flummoxed by the success of the UIA - predicting, instead, strong showings for candidates like Ayad Allawi and Ahmad Chalabi (though with respect to Chalabi, pre-war analysis pegged him as popular enough in Iraq such that elections wouldn't really be necessary for several years as he could be implanted as a friendly leader almost immediately). As the actual levels of Allawi and Chalabi's popularity (nil) have become clear through successive elections, we have been left to cobble together an incoherent and contradictory patchwork of policies whereby we are stuck in the peculiar position of defending allies of Iran in the Iraqi government from former-Baathist and insurgent groups that we are now arming, funding and training as well.

Then, after pushing democratic elections as the panacea for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and promising cooperation once the Palestinians embraced democratic reforms (and, presumably, the Fatah party) via elections, the Bush team was caught flat-footed by a Hamas victory that ran counter to predictions. Condi Rice admitted:

"I've asked why nobody saw it coming," Rice said Sunday, speaking of her own staff. "It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse." [...]

Rice said that the election results surprised just about everyone. "I don't know anyone who wasn't caught off guard by Hamas's strong showing," she said on her way to London for meetings on the Middle East, Iran and other matters. "Some say that Hamas itself was caught off guard." [...]

"There is a lot of blame to go around," said Martin Indyk, a top Middle East negotiator in the Clinton administration, referring to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and his Fatah party. "But on the American side the conceptual failure that contributed to disaster was the president's belief that democracy and elections solve everything."

As a result, punitive measures taken against democratically-elected Hamas, and a refusal to engage that party's leadership, has greatly tarnished efforts of democracy promotion in the region, casting extreme - and justifiable - doubt on our intentions.

Most recently, the Bush team invested its "capital" in Pervez Musharraf, expecting him to do well enough in elections to maintain his role as president. In banking on a Musharraf victory (or strong showing), the Bush team failed to cultivate relationships with other candidates/parties - you know, the ones that would actually be receiving the votes and thus be in the driver's seat. In the process, we have also become closely identified with an extremely unpopular political force in Pakistan. Well played.

This wishful-thinking-as-policy-making is symptomatic of serious flaws in the Bush administration's larger policy-making process. The Bush team tends to pick a desired policy first, and then seek out supporting evidence, data, intelligence and planning (rather than letting the policy grow out of a clash of ideas/debate with all data on the table). This is an inversion of the empirical-based, dialectical approach that, historically, tends to generate superior results (or at least results that comport with reality). It was in this mode of policy-making that the vast literature on Iraq (and many actual experts) was cast aside in favor of pollyannic predictions, ideologically pure (or biased) sources and true believers.

At its root, there is a hubristic overestimation of the ability to shape events and bend them to our will, regardless of what the empiricists report. The problem, of course, is that the rest of the world has this crazy notion that they get a say. Ignoring what the target population is likely to say or do simply because it contradicts the favored narrative, or because our leaders believe that America can run roughshod over the will of the target population, is not only sophomoric, it has devastating real world effects.

In all of the above cited examples, we would have been in a better/stronger position to achieve positive outcomes if we had built plans around likely outcomes, rather than desired ones. It is frequently said in response to Iraq war plans that are based largely on luck and hope as a means to deliver increasingly ephemeral "victory," that "hope is not a plan." Relatedly, the Bush administration needs to remember that "hope is not a prediction.

Friday, February 22, 2008


OK, I don't plan on posting too much about the McCain scandal (or most others), but there was one thing that caught my eye, and K-Drum's post today made be remember it. Drum lists the ways in which McCain has been dodging the press - and otherwise keeping reporters at a safe distance - which is odd considering McCain's well-known access (and the favorable coverage it has garnered). Drum:

Look, there's no two ways about it it: this is very weird behavior. If there were really no story here, McCain wouldn't be avoiding reporters. He'd be yukking it up and insisting to a sympathetic press corps that he was the subject of a comically thin hit job from the Times. Instead he's acting almost like a caricature of a guilty man. What's going on here?
Speaking of the caricature of a guilty man, an interesting thing happened in yesterday's (or the day before?) press conference. Reporters were asking McCain a series of questions about the scandal, and McCain responded to each, albeit with a touch of stiffness. Then, a reporter asked if McCain had had any conversations with the New York Times about the story before it was published, and McCain immediately responded "no" and went on to reiterate the point.

The problem is, McCain did have a conversation with Times editor Bill Kellor and a reporter called him on it moments later. McCain then recanted, and offered a series of clumsy clarifications. What struck me, though, is that this type of mistake is often made when a person is lying about a given subject. When giving a truthful account of events, you stick to the truth and answer each question forthrightly from memory. There is no reason to hesitate, think too hard or lie. When you are concocting a story, however, the reflex is to prevaricate about every detail for fear that the truth will slip out from some unforseen crevace. Thus, even with respect to a relatively innocuous occurence (McCain's conversation with Keller), McCain's first impulse was to stick to the non-truth.

Now obviously this is not dispositive evidence, but it didn't seem like behavior indicative of candor.

[UPDATE: The tangle continues (via Matt):

Just hours after the Times' story was posted, the McCain campaign issued a point-by-point response that depicted the letters as routine correspondence handled by his staff--and insisted that McCain had never even spoken with anybody from Paxson or Alcalde & Fay about the matter. "No representative of Paxson or Alcalde & Fay personally asked Senator McCain to send a letter to the FCC," the campaign said in a statement emailed to reporters.

But that flat claim seems to be contradicted by an impeccable source: McCain himself. "I was contacted by Mr. Paxson on this issue," McCain said in the September 25, 2002 deposition obtained by Newsweek. "He wanted their approval very bad for purposes of his business. I believe that Mr. Paxson had a legitimate complaint."
Straight talkin'!]

Contracts and All That, Guns, Guns!

Very welcome news: Moqtada al-Sadr has decided to extend the Mahdi Army cease fire for another six months. While this is a positive development (both for US forces and, consquently, Mahdi Army forces), it is important to remember that this declaration of truce is not exactly a binding contract. It is entirely contingent on developments on the ground, namely the extent to which raids on Sadr's cadres (even non-militia members) persist. If the US military, in alliance with factions in Iraq hostile to the Sadrist current, continue to push too hard, they will force a response from Sadr - either of his own accord or as a result of mounting pressure from an increasingly hawkish Sadrist leadership. That would not be good.

In less positive news, Turkish ground forces have crossed the border into Iraq:

Turkish troops launched a ground incursion across the border into Iraq in pursuit of separatist Kurdish rebels, the military said Friday — a move that dramatically escalates Turkey's conflict with the militants.

It is the first confirmed ground operation by the Turkish military into Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. It also raised concerns that it could trigger a wider conflict with the U.S.-backed Iraqi Kurds, despite Turkey's assurances that its only target was the Kurdistan's Workers Party, or PKK.

The ground operation started after Turkish warplanes and artillery bombed suspected rebel targets on Thursday, the military said on its Web site. The incursion was backed by the Air Force, the statement said.

Turkey has conducted air raids against the PKK guerrillas in northern Iraq since December, with the help of U.S. intelligence, and it has periodically carried out so-called "hot pursuits" in which small units sometimes spend only a few hours inside Iraq.

The announcement of a cross-border, ground incursion of a type that Turkey carried out before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a major development in its conflict with the Kurdish rebels, which started in 1984 and has claimed as many as 40,000 lives.

Turkey staged about two-dozen incursions in Iraq during the rule of Saddam, who launched brutal campaigns against the Kurdish population. Some Turkish offensives involved tens of thousands of troops. Results were mixed, with rebels suffering blows to their ranks and supplies but regrouping after the bulk of the Turkish forces had left.

Let's hope this incursion is limited, contained and brief.

I'm Eric Martin, and I Approve This Message

Work is still squeezing me (wahfer thin in fact), but here's a nice musical interlude to keep the savage beasts inhabitating the vast TIA-nation sedated in the meantime. Don't want you all mucking up the intertubes just because you can't get to read a mildly interesting your most favoritest blog.

David Ford. Digging it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


He really was a uniter. Will Bunch on the consensus forming around President Bush:

George W. Bush is now the most unpopular president in recorded American history. (h/t Atrios)

Worse than Richard Nixon in the days before he resigned in disgrace during Watergate, worse than Jimmy Carter during the Iran hostage crisis, much worse than Bill Clinton when he was impeached. Just as Roger Bannister raced through what once seemed the unreachable 4-minute mile, Bush has burst through a barrier once also thought impossible, below the 20-percent mark.

Check this out:

George W. Bush's overall job approval rating has dropped to a new low in American Research Group polling...Among all Americans, 19% approve of the way Bush is handling his job as president and 77% disapprove...

Among Americans registered to vote, 18% approve of the way Bush is handling his job as president and 78% disapprove.
That is just mind-blowing. How does it compare to other presidents? There's no comparison.

Nixon, as he was hounded out of office in August 1974, never dipped below the mid-20s.

Here's a pretty good compilation of poll numbers from Roper. To summarize the highlights:

Clinton low: 36 percent, May 1993 (early missteps like Zoe Baird)

George H.W. Bush low: 29 percent, August 1992 (recession)

Reagan low: 35 percent, January 1983 (recession)

Carter low: 28 percent, July 1979 (high gas prices)

Ford low: 37 percent, January 1975 (economy, Nixon pardon)

Nixon low: 23 percent, January 1974 (Watergate)

Johnson low: 35 percent, August 1968 (Vietnam)

Lowest ever? That would be Harry Truman during the Korean War, in February 1952, at 22 percent.
I really think the American people got this one right - eventually. It has long been my contention that Bush will go down as one of the worst presidents in US history. I think it's probably time to drop the caveats. Bush is #1. Roughly 8 out of 10 Americans agree.

Don't Say a Word, Don't Say Anything

Hey Surge, your slip is showing.

As Fester and Juan Cole both observed, the shaky and and occasionaly ineffectual truce between the armed components of the Sadrist current (Mahdi Army) and ISCI (Badr Corp) is likely coming to a conclusion. Cole is right to note that the timing of this coincided with the long-anticipated announcement of a target date for regional elections (October 1).

As discussed last week, the Sadrists and ISCI are pitted in a spirited struggle for mastery of the Shiite-dominated south. Due to the fact that the Sadrists boycotted regional elections in 2005, ISCI controls many of the local political institutions. Now that regional elections will be held in a matter of months, and due to the popularity of the Sadrists and the association of ISCI with the unpopular Green Zone government, the Sadrists stand to make serious inroads. Thus, the truce is off as both sides will want to have maximum range of action as they jockey for positioning during what promises to be a conflict-fraught election season.

But there is another side to this story. During the recent Sadr-imposed Mahdi Army cease fire, ISCI's Badr Corp militia (often acting under "official" cover as its units have been incorporated into Iraq's security forces) together with US forces have continued to conduct raids on Mahdi Army groups. Some of these raids were likely welcomed by Sadr in his attempt to purge unruly, disloyal and radical elements from his ranks.

But the US forces and ISCI went too far - creating a nearly untenable position for Sadr, who has been facing extreme pressure from within his movement's ranks to release his hold on the militia and respond to this aggression. Sadr is letting ISCI know that, going forward, full retaliation will result from any future assaults (with perhaps a bit of payback mixed in for good measure).

What will be interesting to watch is whether or not Sadr also drops the de facto truce between the Mahdi Army and US forces. US forces have thus far appeared unfazed by warnings from Sadr that continued assaults on his cadres would force his hand. The threats are growing louder - or, in this case, quieter:

Anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr may let a six-month cease-fire expire as soon as Saturday, a move that could send his Shiite militia fighters back out on the streets and jeopardize recent security gains that have led to a sharp decline in violence.

Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, said that if the cleric failed to issue a statement by Saturday saying that the cease-fire was extended, "then that means the freeze is over." Al-Sadr's followers would be free to resume attacks.

On an Internet site representing al-Sadr, al-Obeidi said that al-Sadr "either will announce the extension or will stay silent and not announce anything. If stays silent, that means that the freeze is over."

Al-Obeidi said that message "has been conveyed to all Mahdi Army members nationwide."

The US response has thus far been respectful (using the honorific that I discussed recently):

"Al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr's cease-fire has been helpful in reducing violence and has led to improved security in Iraq. We would welcome the extension of the cease-fire as a positive step," he said, using an honorific reserved for descendants of the Prophet Muhammed.

While the U.S. has welcomed the cease-fire, it also has insisted on continuing to stage raids against what it calls Iranian-backed breakaway factions of the Mahdi Army militia — moves that have angered the cleric's followers.

But actions speak louder than words. Especially when silence is consent.

Dangerous Bedfellows, Part II

So the Matt Drudge-affiliated website, the Politico, cites an "anonymous" Clinton aide making the incindiery claim that Clinton would target Obama's pledged delegates. That's an amazing bit of information to let slip if true, and the veracity of the story should be severely questioned due to the potential damage it could do to the Clinton campaign (why admit that?) as well as the messenger (Roger Simon of all people!).

Naturally, Obama supporters having paid attention to the way rumors and innuendos are churned out regularly by GOP hack shops, then parrotted reflexively by mainstream outlets to launder and amplify the charges in order to greatly damage Democratic candidates refused Actually, they jumped all over it, with nary a grain of salt in sight!

This is equal parts shortsighted, superfluous and succor to the enemy. Think about it: with Obama the presumptive nominee, tarring Clinton with this dubious accusation was more or less unnecessary from a political advantage point of view at this time. Further, as the likely Democratic candidate, the Politico, Drudge and various Swift-Boat like outlets will soon train their sites on Obama (they've started already) - and the Obama camp has just bolstered the Politico's credibility.

Unfortunately, the Obama camp is going to find it harder to dismiss the Politico outright since it has already treated its reporting as legitimate. What the Obama camp should have done was immediately undermine the messenger, call out the Politico for what it is, taken the high road and thus preserved its principled objection to the source. Not only would Obama have looked bigger - actually practicing the "new kind of politics" that he so eloquently preaches - but he would have reinforced the frame that there are right-wing rumor mills in the business of making unfair attacks so that in the near future, when Roger Simon starts quoting "anonymous" sources in the Obama camp making startlingly suicidal "confessions," the public would be primed to interpret the slander as such.

Furthermore, Obama's future rebuttals to Politico et al it wouldn't appear opportunistic and defensive, since the Obama camp would have already taken the same stance when the unfounded rumors were being spread about an opponent. This is part of what I was getting at in a post last week about the risky flirtation with right wing media and rhetoric. That's one voracious beast to feed.

(To his credit, staunch Obama supporter Scott Lemieux is hip to the game)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

This Blog Is Experiencing Technical Difficulties

Sorry bout the radio silence folks, but a quick out of town jaunt and a crazy workload have left me unable to offer my usual wild ravings and conspiracy theories. The bedlam to resume shortly.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Moderation in All Things (Rhetorically Speaking)

In a bit of relatively good news from Iraq, three potentially beneficial political measures have been passed (even if the unorthodox bundling of three separate laws into one measure for an up or down vote, and questions surrounding the voting method itself, raises constitutional and procedural concerns). The package includes a budget, the granting of amnesty to large swathes of prisoners (or, in some cases, switching custody of detainees from coalition prisons to prisons run by the Iraqi government) and the passage of rules regarding various Iraqi governates - with a proviso setting a date for regional elections tacked on (governates should not be confused with federal regions - see Reidar Visser for a detailed clarification).

Like Marc Lynch, I'll take a wait-and-see approach to these new provisions, as the last time we witnessed a legislative "breakthrough" (the de-de-Baathification law), when the dust settled, it wasn't clear what was really achieved. To repeat my admonition: amateurs talk big picture, professionals talk implementation. Speaking of implementation, the Times notes:
[T]he parliamentary success was clouded because many of the most contentious details were simply postponed, raising the possibility that the accord could again break into rancorous factional disputes in future debates on the same issues.
I tend toward the view that regional elections are a good thing due to the lack of legitimacy that many of the local governments enjoy as a result of prior Sunni boycotts (though Ilan Goldenberg raises several valid concerns about the potential for elections to heighten conflict). Leaving that discussion aside for a moment, there was an interesting backstory to the inclusion of the regional elections provisions - namely, that our primary allies in Iraq, the Kurds and ISCI, tried to scuttle the plan, while some of our ostensible "enemies" (the Sadrists) pushed the democratic ball forward.

This exposes some of the silliness behind the compulsion to describe our allies as "moderates" and our adversaries as "extremists" regardless of the actual qualities/platforms of the entities involved. This is true in cases when our "moderate" allies in Iraq include a Shiite fundamentalist party (like ISCI whose head Bush feted at the White House) which even a Fox News columnist suggests is Iran's primary ally in Iraq. It is equally true when we call Musharraf a committed democrat or when we label brutal, non-democratic Middle Eastern depsots "moderate" because they back our particular agenda. Reidar Visser gets to the heart of the matter:
Again, it is the alliance of Kurds and ISCI that is making itself felt, but this time in a manner that seems less ideological: they flatly reject the idea of any timeline for provincial elections being inserted in the law...Significantly, the challenge to the ISCI–Kurdish axis on this issue comes from the cross-sectarian alliance in parliament that the United States routinely overlooks in favour of its own “moderate” government partners, and includes parties like the (Shiite Islamist) Sadrists and Fadila, the (Sunni Islamist) Tawafuq and the (secular) Wifaq and Hiwar. Today, their “dangerous radicalism” is being expressed in a unified demand for a guarantee for local elections to be inserted in the governorates law...whereas Washington’s “moderate” partners (who greatly benefited from Sunni and Sadrist non-participation back in the 2005 elections) seem to be deliberately slow-moving over the elections issue.
The last parenthetical gets at the true motivation for ISCI - and it has nothing to do with their "moderation" or respect for democratic process. ISCI fears a massive victory for the Sadrist current in local elections throughout the Shiite south, and so prefers to postpone elections indefinitely. ISCI's fears are well-founded. The Sadrists have cleverly distanced themselves from the unpopular central government - while ISCI has been unable to do so despite the repeated song and dance. In terms of earning support, the Sadrists have also been able to do what the central government has not: deliver vital social services to the people.

Juan Cole and Kevin Drum are concerned that ISCI might try to either fix the elections or simply refuse to concede defeat (how moderate!), setting the stage for a bitter battle with an angry and, ipso facto, disenfranchised Sadrist current. This type of election-related conflict could bubble over, bringing intra-Shiite violence to a peak (think Kenya, but with more guns). Which gets back to some of those concerns Ilan Goldenberg expressed.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

For Whom the Brooks Trolls

David Brooks published a piece yesterday teeming with well-intentioned advice for the Democratic Party - but then, despite his conervative leanings, Brooks makes a habit of looking out for the best interests of Democrats. In the latest installment of concern trollery-via-column, Brooks throws a life preserver to Democrats on the issue of the Iraq war:

Both Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have seductively hinted that they would withdraw almost all U.S. troops within 12 to 16 months. But if either of them actually did that...[t]here would be private but powerful opposition from Arab leaders, who would fear a return to 2006 chaos. There would be irate opposition from important sections of the military, who would feel that the U.S. was squandering the gains of the previous year. A Democratic president with few military credentials would confront outraged and highly photogenic colonels screaming betrayal.

There would be important criticism from nonpartisan military experts. In his latest report, the much-cited Anthony Cordesman describes an improving Iraqi security situation that still requires “strategic patience” and another five years to become self-sustaining.

There would be furious opposition from Republicans and many independents.

Let's take a look at each of these claims one by one. First, the angry Arab leaders. Would those be the same leaders in places like Saudi Arabia and Syria that have been contributing to the violence and chaos in Iraq by backing their preferred proxies? Actually, beginning the process of withdrawal would likely incur their ire, but it would also force them to begin reckoning with the aftermath and thus shift their focus from passive neglect/spoilerism to constructive cooperation. Ditto Iran. And since we ignored their advice and anger at our decision to invade in the first place, it would be a curious time to start offering such deference.

Next, the concern over the incensed military. In actuality, key leaders in the Joint Chiefs and elsewhere in the hierarchy are trying to scale back the mission due to strains on the readiness of the military. The active and reserve forces have been stretched dangerously thin by multiple prolonged deployments such that retaining experienced officers (a must) has been jeopardized, and overall standards for new recruits have been lowered so many times that there are legitimate concerns for unit quality and ability.

Certainly, some military figures would bristle at a withdrawal, but others would welcome the opportunity to reconstruct and rehabilitate both the equipment and manpower depleted by the extended mission in Iraq. Withdrawal might also enable us to better prosecute the war in Afghanistan which could, in turn, bolster pride and morale. Regardless, civilian leaders control the military, not the other way around. And for good reason. Military leaders should want to succeed, and believe in their ability, even against the odds. But civilian leaders should apply a more objective and critical standard. Refusing to cut short a disastrous policy because some in the military would be angered is not leadership.

On to the criticism from non-partisan military experts. Again, such critiques would emerge, but there would also be praise from some highly regarded members of the same pool of experts. Take Anthony Cordesman, whom Brooks mentions. Brooks doesn't actually give Cordesman's position a fair hearing. For one, the fuller title of the report cited by Brooks is, "A Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq." In other words, Cordesman himself acknowledges that the case for strategic patience is tenuous. In that report, Cordesman states up front that his views differ from the pollyannish accounts proffered by Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack. A taste of Cordesman's highly caveated and qualified recommendations:

From my perspective, the US now has only uncertain, high risk options in Iraq. It cannot dictate Iraq’s future, only influence it, and this presents serious problems at a time when the Iraqi political process has failed to move forward in reaching either a new consensus or some form of peaceful coexistence.It is Iraqis that will shape Iraq's ability or inability to rise above its current sectarian and ethnic conflicts, to redefine Iraq's politics and methods of governance, establish some level of stability and security, and move towards a path of economic recovery and development. So far, Iraq’s national government has failed to act at the rate necessary to move the country forward or give American military action political meaning.

The attached trip report does, however, show there is still a tenuous case for strategic patience in Iraq, and for timing reductions in US forces and aid to Iraqi progress rather than arbitrary dates and uncertain benchmarks. It recognizes that strategic patience is a high risk strategy, but it also describes positive trends in the fighting, and hints of future political progress.

When your cited expert repeats, throughout his report, that the case is tenuous, high risk and that the ability to shape events is largely out of our hands, would you expect that expert to sharply criticize a leader who decided such an enormously costly endeavor that only had a slight chance for success was not worthy of pursuing further? After what will be 6 or 7 years of multi-trillion dollar failure. I don't.

Finally, Brooks warns us of the wrath of Republicans and independents. One wonders whether Brooks has been paying attention to the polling data on Iraq. Here's a hint David: the American people, en masse, oppose the war, favor a withdrawal and have done so for quite some time. A majority of independents take this position. Even many Republicans. The ones that would be alienated are the hardcore partisans that were never going to be happy with a Democratic administration regardless.

The last bit of advice Brooks doles out to the Dems regards fiscal policy:

Both campaigns now promise fiscal discipline, as well as ambitious new programs. These kinds of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too vows were merely laughable last year when the federal deficit was running at a manageable $163 billion a year....the Democrats have conducted their race amid unconstrained “Yes We Can!” unreality.

Ah yes, those silly Democrats. They would try that wouldn't they. Unlike the Republicans, who sagely concluded that a series of unprecedented multi-trillion dollar tax cuts primarily serving the wealthiest Americans at a time of not one, but two wars is called making tough choices in the pursuit of fiscal discipline. There are, of course, a couple of pretty good way to get the deficit under control while freeing up money for domestic spending. Let portions of Bush's trillion dollar tax cuts expire, and withdraw troops from Iraq. But David Brooks would warn you, in earnest, that such a course would be disaster. So magnanimous is he.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Please. Stop. This.

Josh Green offers up some pretty thin gruel when discussing the recent departure of Patti Solis Doyle from the Clinton campaign team:

Rather than punish Solis Doyle or raise questions about her fitness to lead, Clinton chose her to manage the presidential campaign for reasons that should now be obvious: above all, Clinton prizes loyalty and discipline, and Solis Doyle demonstrated both traits, if little else. This suggests to me that for all the emphasis Clinton has placed on executive leadership in this campaign, her own approach is a lot closer to the current president’s than her supporters might like to admit.
This analysis is backwards in at least a couple of ways. First of all, when choosing people to work on campaigns, loyalty and discipline are extremely important attributes!!! You don't want your people off message ever (discipline!), doubting your qualifications (loyalty!) or looking at potential rival campaigns for career opportunities (loyalty!). Show me a candidate that does not value loyalty and discipline in their campaign personnel and I'll show you an also-ran.

Second, Bill Clinton did not fetishize loyalty and discipline. His administration spawned a fair share of deserters, leakers and naysayers (Morris and Stephanopolous immediately spring to mind, though even Gore drifted away at the end - to his detriment). Beyond that, though, Clinton actually sought out dissenting opinions in policy debates - preferring the marketplace of ideas to ideological conformity, discipline and loyalty. He incorporated Republicans like Wiliam Cohen into his cabinent, and left non-political entities like the DOJ alone - as he should (though it cost him in a way that it wouldn't have if he had gone all Abu Gonzales on the Attorney General's office).

Comparing the Clintons to Bush in this regard is facile and unsupported by the evidence. Using the Solis incident to do so is, dare I say, symptomatic of derangement.

(via Matt)

Thunder Jeep

Over at Sadly, No! Gavin has a post entitled, "Baking Carrot Biscuits." The title is a reference to one person's misinterpretation of the song lyrics to "Taking Care of Business." Ha. There should be a word to describe this particular type of malapropism. Maybe there is.

A good friend of mine famously botched AC/DC's line "dirty deeds and they're done dirt cheap" to read "dirty deeds in the thunder jeep." What the hell is a thunder jeep anyway? He still gets ridden for that one. Another friend used to sing, passionately, "Levree dumree" instead of "Let Freedom Ring" - assuming that the former was a latin phrase or some other esoteric language that he was unaware of. That's bad.

On a slightly related note, I used to read the warning "contents under pressure" as if the word "contents" was a verb. As in, be careful this thing will content under pressure. Feel free to offer up other embarrasing mistakes that your "friends" might have made in the comments.

Dangerous Bedfellows

Obama supporter Clive Crook nails it:

Some commentators accused Bill of playing the race card when he called Obama’s account of his position on the Iraq war a “fairy tale”. How so? What did that have to do with race? And does Hillary’s comment about King, the only instance Morris bothers to offer, even qualify? She merely said that getting the job done required a can-do president as well as an inspiring and visionary champion. And so it did. I cannot see that this subtracts anything from King’s stature, or that it was intended to. Whatever its merits, this is the Clintons’ old theme, not a sinister new one: if elected, she would hit the ground running, whereas the inexperienced Obama would be out of his depth. It took a hyper-sensitive press to turn that comment into a racial slur.

By all means, do what [Dick] Morris suggests and ask who benefits. Can it seriously be contended that the Clintons thought to advance their campaign (yes, “their” campaign) by alienating black support—that the crushing defeat in South Carolina is something, as Morris seems to believe, they actually sought? The idea is ridiculous. Obama’s remarkable gathering of solid black support to his cause is a big and unexpected setback for the Clintons.
That bit about South Carolina always bugged me. I just couldn't figure out what advantage the Clinton team would have supposedly seen in alienating black voters heading into the South Carolina primary. Obviously, there was no advantage and I find it exceedingly difficult to think that their political team simply forgot about the make-up of South Carolina's electorate (or the Democratic Party's for that matter!). But the media drummed up a controversey, and Obama didn't exactly defuse the crisis when he commented negatively on an innocuous reference to MLK and LBJ.

Krugman is right:

If you want to see what playing the race card looks like, watch the Willie Horton ad. What do we have here? MLK/LBJ — but that was totally innocent. Jesse Jackson — a stupid way to spin a big loss, but hardly part of a coordinated campaign. Cocaine — stupid and crass, but only race-based if you want to see it that way. Pretty thin gruel.
Folks, you’ve been played like a fiddle by people in the media who just plain hate the Clintons. They tried to take Hillary down over her clothes, her voice, her tears. When none of that worked, they invented a race war.

There are some perfectly good arguments against Hillary — Iraq, the presence of people like Mark Penn, the big-money Dems in her circle. But this really is Al-Gore-says-he-invented-the-Internet stuff. And it’s deeply depressing to see so many progressives fall for it. [...]

And to Obama supporters, just remember: these people are not your friends. After they take down Hillary Clinton, if they can, your man will be next.
Krugman again following up on those wise words of caution:

All my criticisms of Obama have been from a progressive direction. I don’t think I’ve said anything that conservatives could use against him in the general election, or use to undermine his efforts if he makes it to the White House.

Can you say the same about progressive columnists who attack the Clintons, claiming that they’re ruthless, that they’ll do anything to win, etc. etc? I don’t think so.
Again, try to think beyond the intraparty struggle, and realize who your friends really are.
These tactics employed by the Obama camp and its supporters have bothered me most, and led me to doubt the sincerity of the "new" kind of politics that he has been preaching. Claiming that he doesn't go negative, and then trading in GOP talking points about Hillary just doesn't rub. Comparing her to Dick Cheney was also a particularly enlightened touch.

Getting back to Krugman though: be careful which beast you feed and with what. The diet will remain the same, and the hunger will not be satiated by Hillary's defeat. Better to cut short these dubious non-troverseys than to encourage them.

Do you really think Obama will be spared? If Hillary beats Obama, have you helped the Democratic Party contend in November? Then are you helping the cause by fueling this machine?

(See, also, Greg Sargent on the willing use of "Clinton Rules" by those that should know better)

The War on Carbonofascism

Quote of the day from Michael Bloomberg (via Blake):

Terrorists kill people. Weapons of mass destruction have the potential to kill an enormous amount of people... [but] global warming in the long term has the potential to kill everybody."

-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations

Short of "killing everybody," global warming can and will likely lead to bloody competition for suddenly scarce arable land and fresh water - as it has already contributed, to some extent, to the tragic violence in Darfur. That is, if things go well and we are able to stave off the worst case scenarios.

Bloomberg rightly captures the magnitude of the stakes involved and highlights the confoundingly disparate treatment that the various threats to national security are receiving. This is a topic that I riffed on a little over a year ago:

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

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

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

Or the War on Carbonofascism? Maybe we could pretend that our addiction to greenhouse gas producing fuels is the result of a plot by Iran and al-Qaeda to destabilize power structures making it easier for the implementation of the impending joint caliphate.

Global Warming = Dhimmitude!!

Would that get the Republican Party's attention?

Friday, February 08, 2008

Leave the Hammer in the Tool Shed

The International Crisis Group is sounding warnings similar to those that I have been making regarding the US military posture vis-a-vis the Sadrist current (most recently, here and here):

Among Sadrist rank and file, impatience with the ceasefire is high and growing. They equate it with a loss of power and resources, believe the U.S. and ISCI are conspiring to weaken the movement and eagerly await Muqtada’s permission to resume the fight. The Sadrist leadership has resisted the pressure, but this may not last. Critics accuse Muqtada of passivity or worse, and he soon may conclude that the costs of his current strategy outweigh its benefits. In early February 2008, senior Sadrist officials called upon their leader not to prolong the ceasefire, due to expire later in the month.

The U.S. response – to continue attacking and arresting Sadrist militants, including some who are not militia members; arm a Shiite tribal counterforce in the south to roll back Sadrist territorial gains; and throw its lot in with Muqtada’s nemesis, ISCI – is understandable but short-sighted. The Sadrist movement, its present difficulties aside, remains a deeply entrenched, popular mass movement of young, poor and disenfranchised Shiites. It still controls key areas of the capital, as well as several southern cities; even now, its principal strongholds are virtually unassailable. Despite intensified U.S. military operations and stepped up Iraqi involvement, it is fanciful to expect the Mahdi Army’s defeat. Instead, heightened pressure is likely to trigger both fierce Sadrist resistance in Baghdad and an escalating intra-Shiite civil war in the south.

Muqtada’s motivations aside, his decision [to implement a cease-fire] opens the possibility of a more genuine and lasting transformation of the Sadrist movement. In the months following his announcement, he sought to rid it of its most unruly members, rebuild a more disciplined and focused militia and restore his own respectability, while promoting core demands – notably, protecting the nation’s sovereignty by opposing the occupation – through legitimate parliamentary means. The challenge is to seize the current opportunity, seek to transform Muqtada’s tactical adjustment into a longer-term strategic shift and encourage the Sadrists’ evolution toward a strictly non-violent political actor. [emphasis added]

Short-sighted indeed. Whither the virtuosos of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine? Does the US military really think it can wipe out a movement consisting of millions of Iraqis? Even if it could, would it want to extract such a toll in blood? This is not winning hearts and minds.

Tactics such as these make me wonder if the US military is congenitally incapable of prosecuting successful COIN doctrine: every time things appear to be moving in the right direction, the temptation to use brute - though counterproductive - force just gets the better of our military/political leaders. The lessons from the siege of Fallujah are forgotten while that city still smolders.

It's good to see Petraeus and his subordinates making pleasant sounding entreaties to Sadr, but the honorificis will mean little if the accompanying military strategy backs Sadr into a corner and forces his hand with respect to maintaining the cease fire. Further, the strategy of arming new Shiite militias in order to use them as proxies to attack the Sadrist current is not a means to de-escalate violence in Iraq. That is sowing the seeds for larger numbers of civil conflicts, fought with greater lethality. The ICG has the right idea:


To the U.S. and the Iraqi Government:

2. Narrowly circumscribe operations against the Mahdi Army and Sadrist movement by:

(a) focusing on legitimate military targets, including armed groups involved in attacks against civilians or U.S. or Iraqi forces, weapon stockpiles and hideouts, or arms smuggling networks;

(b) taking action against Sadrist-manned patrols or checkpoints; and

(c) tolerating Sadrist activities that are strictly non-military, including those involving education, media, health services and religious affairs.

3. Freeze recruitment into the Shiite sahwa (awakening), the U.S.-backed tribe- and citizen-based militia set up to fight the Mahdi Army, and instead concentrate on building a professional, non-partisan security force, integrating vetted Mahdi Army fighters.

If I were working on the McCain campaign, I'd be pleading with Bush to move in this direction. McCain's decision to hang his electoral hat on the "success" of the Surge leaves him particularly vulnerable if the levels of violence increase. Provoking Sadr into unleashing his militia - or stoking even more intra-Shiite conflict - would most certainly do that.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Triple Double

Behold the dizzying logos of the Duke of Double Speak himself, Dick Cheney, as excerpted by Spencer Ackerman from today's CPAC event:

The United States is a country that takes human rights seriously. We do not torture. It’s against our laws and against our values. And we expect all those who serve America to conduct themselves accordingly, and we enforce those rules. Some years ago, when abuses were conducted at Abu Ghraib prison, abuses that had nothing to do with the CIA program, abuses that came to light were investigated and those responsible were busted. America is a fair and a decent country. [applause] President Bush has made it clear, both publicly and privately, that our duty to uphold the laws and standards of this nation make no exceptions for wartime. As he put it, we are in a fight for our principles and our first responsibility is to live by them. The war on terror, after all, is more than a contest of arms and more than a test of will. It’s also a war of ideas.

How many instances of extreme duplicity can you spot in that paragraph alone? The last bit is particularly rich - as if this administration hasn't eviscerated our standing on matters of principles and ideas.

I mean, the basic argument is: We don't torture because we took the time to redefine the methods of torture that we use as not being torture any more. It's up to us to decide if what we're doing is torture. And by "us" and "we" I mean the executive branch (as augmented by Cheney's magical Fourth Branch) in a loop of self-authorization, self-oversight and self-regulation.

Now, if we just tell the world - publicly and privately - that this banana republicanism is a principled position, the world will respect us for it. And respect is important!

Can't. Wait. Until. November.

Playing with Fire...Brands

If we keep doing this...:

U.S. troops raided Baghdad's largest Shiite slum early Thursday and arrested 16 people, U.S. and Iraqi officials and witnesses said. The American military said one person died. [...]

Police and residents said American soldiers in Humvees backed by helicopters sealed off a block of the neighborhood and raided four houses. The front door lock on one of the houses was shattered by gunfire, and 22-year-old Arkan Abid Ali was shot in the chest and wounded, witnesses said. [...]

Ali was one of 16 Iraqis, including three teenage boys, detained by U.S. forces, an Iraqi police officer said on customary condition of anonymity.

Two women and an elderly man were also wounded and taken to Sadr City Hospital, he said. It was unclear which of the wounded had died.

...we're going to make it much harder for Sadr to overcome internal dissent sown by his decision to keep doing this:

Anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has ordered his Mehdi Army militia to maintain its six-month ceasefire, Sadr's spokesman said on Thursday, while his militiamen clashed with Iraqi and U.S. soldiers.

Salah al-Ubaidi said the ceasefire, which expires later this month, should continue to be observed until militia members are told it is over or has been renewed.

Some members of Shi'ite cleric Sadr's bloc are pressuring him not to extend August 29's freeze on the feared Mehdi Army's activities, which has been vital to cutting violence in Iraq.

As discussed a couple weeks back. Further, unless we can better prevent incidents such as these...:

Also Thursday, gunmen stormed a house northeast of Baghdad, separated out the women and children inside and killed three brothers — all members of a U.S.-backed neighborhood watch group, police said.

The attack happened early Thursday in the Muradiyah area near Baqouba, about 35 miles northeast of the capital. Such groups — comprised mostly of Sunni tribesman partnering with the Americans to oust al-Qaida from their hometowns — have become frequent targets recently because of their alliance with U.S. and Iraqi forces.

...the various civil wars will flare up again. But then, considering how many potential culprits there are behind these attacks (including our ostensible "allies" in the Iraqi government), I'm not overly optimistic about our ability to prevent these assassinations going forward.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Sort of Homecoming

Cernig passes along this disturbing news:

Iraqis are once again leaving Iraq for Syria in greater numbers than are returning, despite the lower level of bloodshed in their homeland, the UN refugee agency said on Wednesday.

A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, citing Syrian immigration officials, said that in late January an average of 1,200 Iraqis entered Syria every day compared with around 700 who returned.

Most of those Iraqis who return say they are doing so because their Syrian visas have expired or because they have run out of money, rather than because conditions in their homeland have improved, the report said.

..."According to an Iraqi Red Crescent report issued in January 2008, some 46,000 refugees returned home from Syria between September and December 2007, a much lower figure than that given by the Iraqi government," the report said.

It is unclear how reliable this information is, but it is a trend worth monitoring. The flow of refugees inside and/or out of Iraq is a pretty good indicator of at least the base-line security situation. People generally don't uproot their lives and set off on the perilous and uncertain path of refugees unless they have a palpable fear for their lives. The staggering number of internally and externally displaced Iraqis is also one of the ways in which post-invasion Iraq differs from life under Saddam.

Then again, a large influx of returning refugees could prove to be a combustible situation given the extent to which abandoned homes have been commandeered and neighborhoods cleansed. Makes for some, er, awkward homecomings.

And You Thought The Democratic Primary Was Nasty

Back in December 2004, I warned of the possibility that then-upcoming Iraqi elections could exacerbate - or at least not ameliorate - the conflicts percolating throughout that country at the time:

Elections are being used as a synonym for the establishment of democracy as well as a means to cure all that ails Iraq, despite the lack of organizational integrity and infrastructure needed to support civic society. It is dangerous to conflate one election with democracy, and it is even more perilous to assume that the problems that plague Iraq will disappear like so many ballots descending into boxes.

Iraq is...problematic in some respects in that the elections themselves will bring to a head many of the simmering ethnic/sectarian tensions that have thus far remained under wraps...In an inversion of conventional wisdom, elections could be the precursor to civil war...

More than three years later, Ilan Goldenberg argues that we are faced with a remarkably similar dynamic:

The new conventional wisdom inside American military and diplomatic circles is that sustainable stability can only be achieved by bringing these groups into the political process through provincial elections. President Bush and Secretary Rice have both made holding provincial elections a central political benchmark in Iraq’s road to reconciliation...

Unfortunately rather than act as the natural next step on the way towards stability in Iraq, provincial elections at this time are much more likely to simply be the next major spark that plunges parts of Iraq back into full scale chaos. Elections are the exact opposite of conflict resolution. They are, by their very nature, an intense struggle for power. When they occur in stable liberal democracies they lead to increased tensions and partisanship (Just ask Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain or Mitt Romney). But these tensions are resolved peacefully through liberal institutions that guarantee a certain (Though not always perfect) level of fairness. However, when elections take place in unstable societies that don’t have strong institutions, they can often lead to chaos, especially if there is no confidence in the results (See Kenya or potentially Pakistan in two weeks).

Given these tendencies it’s not hard to imagine that provincial elections in Iraq would likely have horrific and unintended consequences. First, there are some practical questions about how one would manage an election. Two million people have fled Iraq and another two million are internally displaced. Given this mass migration, it’s hard to conceive of how Iraq would develop coherent voter rolls.

But even taking this consideration aside, provincial elections are still likely to lead to chaos.

Then again, there are problems with not holding elections as well: namely, many Sunni regions lack legitimate representation due to boycotts of prior elections by the local Sunni populations [UPDATE: See, ie, Teh Aardvark]. Further, elections could integrate many of the tribal and CLC elements into certain official Iraqi governement structures which is a prerequisite for eventual normalization. Speaking of those tribal and CLC groups, Goldenberg also makes an important distinction - one that I admit to glossing over for the sake of convenience even though I should know better as I've seen this clarification before.

In the Sunni parts of the country an internal power struggle is already under way. Members of the Anbar Salvation Council (ASC) are being targeted for assassination by Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is still a major force. Meanwhile, there are increasing tensions between the rising Awakening movements and the Iraqi Islamic Party, which controls most of the local provincial councils in the Sunni areas and represents the Sunnis in the national government. Add to that mix brewing tensions between the “Concerned Local Citizens (CLC)” groups, which are former members of the insurgency and the ASC that consist of the local tribes. These two groups are usually thought to be one and the same, but they are different and in actuality the leadership of the CLCs is frustrated with the ASC, which they feel has taken much of the credit for their hard work against AQI.

Just in case the situation wasn't confusing enough as is. Also, discouraging.

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