Monday, June 30, 2008

Coopt the Vote

Earlier this spring, John McCain voiced his opposition to a bi-partisan bill (introduced by Jim Webb) that sought to vastly expand educational assistance, and other benefits, for our veterans and active duty military personnel. Webb's bill represented a long overdue means for this country to share in the sacrifice, ever-so-slightly, and to begin repaying our military personnel for all they have endured, honorably and selflessly, over the past 6+ years. McCain, on the other hand, felt that Webb's bill went too far, and put forth an alternative bill with more modest benefits.

When the final bill was put to a vote last week, McCain was conspicuously absent (other than Kennedy, who missed the vote for health reasons, McCain was the only Senator not to vote). Only six senators voted "no" in fact (all of them Republicans FWIW). One might be tempted to say that McCain showed character on this issue - opposing a popular piece of legislation out of principle on the grounds that he disagreed with its substance. That temptation would lead one astray, however, as McCain shamelessly set about taking credit for the bill's passage at a recent campaign event:

I'm happy to tell you that we probably agreed to an increase in educational benefits for our veterans that not only gives them an increase in their educational benefits, but if they stay in for a certain period of time than they can transfer those educational benefits to their spouses and or children. That's a very important aspect I think of incentivizing people of staying in the military.

"We"? Stay classy John. And keep up the straight talk.

Suffice it to say, Obama voted in favor of the bill (and signed on early as a co-sponsor). Which makes this McCain cheap shot even cheaper:

Unlike Senator Obama, my admiration, respect and deep gratitude for America's veterans is something more than a convenient campaign pledge. I think I have earned the right to make that claim.

Talk is cheap, and tuition is expensive. You earn that "right" by backing up your lofty rhetoric with actual votes. Otherwise, your advocacy is little more than a campaign expedient.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bigger Wars and A Smaller Recovery

A key facet of the argument that we (and/or Israel) should do everything in our power (read: military strikes) to prevent the Iranians from acquiring a nuclear weapon rests on the fact that Iran is, supposedly, undeterrable. That is, that Iran's leadership is driven by religious zealotry to such an extent that, once it acquired a nuclear weapon, it would be willing to risk annihilation via nuclear counterstrike in order to launch an attack on Israel. According to this narrative, while nuclear powers such as China, the USSR, India and Pakistan might be deterred from initiating a nuclear exchange by the likelihood of mutual assured destruction, Iran's leadership would be willing to commit "national suicide" in exchange for the pyrrhic satisfaction of destroying the Israeli state.

Despite the boldness and counterintuitive nature of these claims about Iran's ostensibly unique suicidal nature, there is little actual evidence to support this tenuous argument. Iran's current regime has been in power for approximately 30 years and during that time, rather than rushing headlong toward some suicidal destiny, it has displayed a cagey knack for self-preservation. This despite ample opportunity to become a nation of martyrs.

An interesting thing happened on the way to bomb Iran because it's an undeterable, irrational actor hellbent on Israel's, and its own, destruction. John Bolton, who has been urging the Bush administration (and/or Israel) to bomb Iran using any number of justifications ("terrorist" training camps, Iran's interference in Iraq, Iran's nuclear weapons program, just because, etc.), recently sought to assuage fears that Iran could and would retaliate forcefully against US interests in the wake of a US attack on the following grounds (via Think Progress):

Bolton gamed out the fallout from an attack on Iran. He claimed that Iran’s options to retaliate after being attacked are actually “less broad than people think.” He suggested that Iran would not want to escalate a conflict because 1) it still needs to export oil, 2) it would worry about “an even greater response” from Israel, 3) and it would worry about the U.S.’s response.

So let me see if I have this straight: A country that is supposedly so irrational, reckless and religiously fanatical that its leaders would be willing to countenance the end of its very existence (and that of its population) in order to carry out an unprovoked nuclear strike against Israel will be too cautious to retaliate against an actual attack on its country for fear of economic hardship and conventional military counterattacks?

In other words, Bolton is arguing that Iran's leadership is comprised of rational actors with well-honed instincts for self-preservation capable of applying a typical - conservative even - cost-benefit calculus. Except we have to bomb them because the opposite is true. Or something. Faster, please.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

One Hundred Years of Solitude

When a law was passed back in February that was supposed to ease the scope and severity of earlier de-Baathification efforts in Iraq, the media dutifuly repeated Bush administration spin about the law's significance in terms of signalling a new era of national reconciliation. That celebration was premature. As with most such initiatives, the focus must remain trained on the implementation of the law, not the pageantry of the signing ceremony. In terms of affecting the trajectory of actual reconciliation in Iraq, press releases count for little:

When the Iraqi parliament passed a law in January aimed at rehiring former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party, U.S. President George W. Bush praised it as a step towards national reconciliation.

The Accountability and Justice Law replaced the deBaathification Law, under which tens of thousands of former Baathists, mostly Sunni Arabs, were purged from government and security posts following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

But five months later, implementation of the law is bogged down by infighting between politicians, and the committee once tasked with hunting out Baathists in government has found itself in the odd position of overseeing the process of rehiring them or offering them state pensions.

The government has still not appointed a seven-member panel to replace the deBaathification Committee, whose enthusiastic purge of Baathists from government posts prompted minority Sunni Arabs to accuse them of conducting a witch-hunt.

The Accountability and Justice Law was the first of a series of so-called "benchmark" laws that Washington pressed Iraq's Shi'ite-led government to pass to foster reconciliation. Sunni Arabs, dominant under Saddam, had complained that the deBaathification programme amounted to collective punishment. [...]

The committee has received 14,000 applications from former Baathists asking for either reinstatement or for pensions, he said.

But Iraq's presidency council -- which comprises Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, and his two deputies -- and a separate Accountability and Justice Committee in parliament have ordered [the comittee's head] and his colleagues to freeze their work.

As was noted at the time the law was passed, there are certain provisions that could actually exacerbate tensions between Sunnis and Shiites:

Amid the confusion and conflicting signals from parliament, the biggest Sunni Arab bloc is already seeking amendments to the new law. It objects to a provision under which 7,000 former Baathists serving in the security services would be dismissed.

This de-Baathification hustle is just the most recent example of the game that Maliki and his political allies have been playing for quite a while - and one they'd likely be willing to play for, say, another 100 years or so if given the opportunity. It goes something like this: make a big public show of outreach and reconciliation, and after the spotlights fade, pull back on the follow through.

Actual, meaningful reconciliation remains an elusive prize, in part, because Maliki and his ilk have very little incentive to make concessions, compromises and accommodations to other disempowered groups while the US military is around to play enforcer/defender. We shield them from the facing the full brunt of their maximalist policies. In that sense, a vocal commitment to an indefinite, unconditional presence in Iraq (ala John McCain) allows Maliki and his allies to continue with business as usual.

These tendencies are reinforced by a certain dynamic: the Maliki government knows that US policymakers who favor a prolonged US occupation have few other viable allies in Iraq (in other words, we need them). Our only real leverage with Maliki is that his ruling bloc (portions of Dawa/ISCI/Kurds) needs us as well, but then, we won't be able to use that leverage until we show that we are actually willing to withdraw. Any such threats by a McCain administration will be familiarly hollow.

In a similar vein, Maliki knows perfectly well the value of PR to his US allies, and the media's willingness to go along with White House spin. So every now and again, Team Maliki will make a big show of progress by passing some "breakthrough" legislation, while behind the scenes they strip the law down to the forcefullness of a Sense of the Senate resolution.

It's unclear whether the Bush administration or the Maliki government is playing the other better, but in the end, we are all losing.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

He Still Comes Reeling Through the Door

Patrick Cockburn claims that details of the long term deal for maintaining US troops in Iraq sought by the Bush administration (the Security Framework agreement and associated Status of Forces Agreement) have leaked to the Independent. Similar details have emerged in Arab media in recent days as well. Nevertheless, to be taken with a grain of salt and all:

Under the terms of the new treaty, the Americans would retain the long-term use of more than 50 bases in Iraq. American negotiators are also demanding immunity from Iraqi law for US troops and contractors, and a free hand to carry out arrests and conduct military activities in Iraq without consulting the Baghdad government.

The precise nature of the American demands has been kept secret until now. The leaks are certain to generate an angry backlash in Iraq. "It is a terrible breach of our sovereignty," said one Iraqi politician, adding that if the security deal was signed it would delegitimise the government in Baghdad which will be seen as an American pawn.

The US has repeatedly denied it wants permanent bases in Iraq but one Iraqi source said: "This is just a tactical subterfuge." Washington also wants control of Iraqi airspace below 29,000ft and the right to pursue its "war on terror" in Iraq, giving it the authority to arrest anybody it wants and to launch military campaigns without consultation.

The powers enjoyed by the US would, reportedly, also include the ability to move foreign armies (coalition partners), as well as military hardware and equipement, in and out of Iraq without consultation with the Iraqi government. In addition, the US would not pledge to defend Iraq from foreign aggressors - but rather would retain the right to review the circumstances on a case-by-case basis. Naturally, we wouldn't want to cede any of our sovereignty.

As I have mentioned previously, the Bush administration is pushing very hard to get this arrangement finalized by the end of July - in part to affect the policy trajectory of the next administration and to offer a boost to GOP hopeful John McCain. If McCain were to win, this deal would allow for a seamless continuation of Bush administration policy. If Obama were to win, there would be a certain level of deference shown to prior commitments - though this would not necessarily prevent Obama from renegotiating or creating a new set of agreements. However, it should be acknowledged, even an Obama administration might be tempted by the ability to maintain a military foothold of such dimensions in the middle of such a strategic oil producing region.

More importantly, perhaps, this deal will cause considerable upheaval in Iraq - with that country's various political groups, and their respective constituencies, potentially pushed toward conflict (not to mention the propaganda boon it will provide Osama bin Laden, and the further degradation to our image in the region). The general state of play is as follows: Moqtada al-Sadr and certain Sunni groups oppose any long term deal outright (preferring the setting of a timetable for measured withdrawal). The Fadhila Party (an offshoot of the Sadrist movement) is also said to favor a timeline for withdrawal.

The Sadrist position enjoys widespread popular support in Iraq. Considering the Iraqi public's overwhelming preferences, electoral considerations likely influenced, at least in part, recent statements criticizing the proposed deal emanating from Maliki's own Dawa party, as well as our closest ally (and Iran's) ISCI (headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim). That being said, the terms leaked thus far are so onerous that even these parties that rely on our presence to prop them up likely find certain elements difficult to swallow. In fact, the infringement upon Iraq's sovereignty are so extensive that even one time favorite Ayad Allawi has come out against the parameters of the deal.

It should be noted, however, that thus far the opposition from Maliki and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim has been to specific provisions, but not the general notion of a long term deal. In a similar vein, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has begun making his qualified opposition known. According to Hakim (via Juan Cole), Sistani lists the following elements as essential to any such deal:

- Preservation of Iraqi national sovereignty

- Transparency as to the terms of the deal

- National consensus [ed: I assume via referundum as proposed by the Sadrists, which was reportedly previously endorsed by Sistani]

- Parliamentary approval

The Bush administration opposes all four of Sistani's planks, though the second is probably not a deal breaker, nor would the third and fourth should the votes align with the Bush administration's goals (though that is highly unlikely - at least in terms of the national referendum. Parliamentary approval is more of a possibility considering the likely support of the Kurds as well as some Sunni groups that now prefer the US to remain as a bulwark to Shiite hegemony). Cockburn's article states that Dawa/ISCI might be too vulnerable to push back and might fold in the end:

Although Iraqi ministers have said they will reject any agreement limiting Iraqi sovereignty, political observers in Baghdad suspect they will sign in the end and simply want to establish their credentials as defenders of Iraqi independence by a show of defiance now.

This indeed might be the case, but if Sistani opposes the deal, it would be almost impossible for Maliki and Hakim to offer their assent. That might actually provide Maliki and Hakim with a plausible excuse to explain their position to the Bush administration ("We'd love to agree to this, trust us we would, but we can't oppose Sistani..."). Further, if they do ratify this deal, as Ilan Goldenberg points out, it will prove electoral suicide for Maliki/Hakim in the upcoming provincial elections slated, now, for November.

That is, absent a decision to postpone those elections (which could lead to intra-Sunni strife from the Awakenings groups that want a cut of political power) or absent a massive effort to manipulate the results and weaken their more powerful adversaries (the Sadrists, for example). Just to be clear, the further "weakening" of the Sadrists would likely involve military operations and large scale loss of innocent life akin to what was seen in Sadr City and Basra in recent months. In fact, rumor has it that another Sadr stronghold, Amara, might be next.

Liberation! Democracy! Freedom!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Lord, Will You Make Her a Star?

I propose that we hold a massive fundraiser. Then I, posing as a right wing Scaife type with millions in tow (I have a killer fake moustache), will approach John McCain with an offer to pay Kathryn Jean Lopez's entire salary if he will take her on as the head of his campaign team. Victory, my dear friends, would be assured:

Exactly Right [Kathryn Jean Lopez]

Sean Hannity just offered some advice to McCain on Hannity & Colmes. If he wants to give an inspiring speech, the senator ought to look at Mitt Romney's CPAC exit speech and Fred Thompson's exit speech; they were both fantastic, conservative, uplifting speeches. And so, John McCain should make like he's about to bow out of the race to find, as Hillary might put it, his voice.

I don't know what would be better: her convincing McCain to mimic Fred Thompson's soporific oratory, or persuading McCain to adopt the concession speech frame for all his big addresses. Or both!

Nothing inspires like a candidate with one foot in the bed and the other out the door.

(via this somewhat popular guy)

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