Friday, October 31, 2008

The Bomb that Will Bring Us Together

ABC News is reporting today that General Petraeus has been pushing for a meeting with Syria's leadership but the Bush administration has refused. Although ABC News labels this an exclusive scoop, in truth, the story has been circulating for some time. Josh Landis, for example, was on the beat months ago:

The following “Exclusive” ABC story is not so exclusive. Syria Comment has been writing since August 2008 that Petraeus tried to go to Damascus in the fall of 2007, but was refused permission by the Vice President. It wasn’t the president.

As Daniel Levy mentioned recently, Petraeus and Pentagon leadership have been pleased with recent overtures from the Syrians, and cautiously optimistic about the potential to build on that cooperation:

The Pentagon sees Syrian efforts to seal the border with Iraq as having been a mixed bag, and they would certainly want further improvements. General Petraeus has acknowledged these improvements and carries with him a PowerPoint presentation that includes a box entitled "Improved Relations and Coordination with Syria".

But then, despite this progress and the continuation of peace talks between Israel and Syria, the Bush administration went ahead with a cross border raid and airstrikes aimed at targets in Syrian territory. Instead of supporting and expanding the diplomatic process, the Bush administration opted for a show of force. According to initial reports, which, admittedly, should be taken with a grain of salt, this hasn't worked out too well:

The Syrian government has broken relations with Baghdad. It has completely opened its border. This article in Al-Arabiya (Al-Arabiya is generally fairly reliable) says that the Syrians have reduced their forces on the border. That's NOT what I'm hearing from BOTH sides of the border. What I'm hearing from very trustworthy sources whom I've known for years is that the Syrians have completely withdrawn their forces from the border.

  • No troops.

  • No border guards.

  • No police.

Do I have to spell it out? Maybe I do. The Syrians have worked massively to close their border. They have worked massively to prevent armed groups getting across the border. All of that has now come to an end.

But then, the belief in the efficacy of force, coupled with an uncompromising refusal to accommodate the vital interests of various adversaries, is a particular maladay of the Bush administration. This passage from Ron Suskind's One Percent Doctrine (pp. 104-105) is prophetic as to the many foreign policy stumbles and tragedies to ensue: became clear at the start of 2001 that [the Bush] administration was to alter the long-standing U.S. role of honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to something less than that. The President, in fact, had said in the first NSC principals meeting of his administration that Clinton had overreached at the end of his second term, bending too much toward Yasser Arafat -- who then broke off productive Camp David negotiations at the final moment -- and that "We're going to tilt back ward Israel." Powell, a chair away in the Situation Room that day, said such a move would reverse thirty years of U.S. policy, and that it could unleash the new prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and the Israeli army in ways that could be dire for the Palestinians. Bush's response: "Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things." [emphasis mine]

Sometimes it does, but as Sharon learned, as we learned in Iraq, and the Israelis relearned in Lebanon in 2006, the clarification that follows a show of force isn't always a positive. War, the use of force, armed conflict - each has myriad unintended, and often painful, consequences for all parties involved. Yes, that is stating the obvious, but then, our foreign policy during the Bush years has been modeled on a doctrine that disdains reality and empiricism so common sense takes on the air of wisdom.

If it is true that Syria has flung open its borders, then what exactly is the value of clarifying the situation with such bellicosity when the net result is a negative?

To echo publius' point, the Republican Party's foreign policy consensus - drawing heavily from neoconservative doctrine - has been repeatedly discredited and battered by reality. Yet the Bush administration, when Cheney's wing gets too much say, stumbles on. And the McCain campaign, instead of repudiating the neocon program, has doubled down by recruiting the most committed and doctrinaire advocates to fill out his roster of advisors.

Petraeus, much more in line with the progressive/Obama school of thought, recognizes the wisdom of engaging adversaries diplomatically, differentiating between opponents so as to deal with each entity and issue discretely (which disrupts alliances of convenience among enemies rather than encourage them) and, lastly, when the opportunity presents itself, even working with erstwhile battlefiled opponents. Petraeus implemented this strategy in Iraq by encouraging the Awakenings movement that coopted former Sunni insurgents, is beginning to pursue it in Afghanistan by reaching out to certain Taliban elements and is trying to do the same with Syria - where he sees a potential opening and wedge to be driven between Syria and Iran.

Oddly, considering the extent to which he is lionized by so many McCain/Plain supporters, Petraeus would likely have to wait for an Obama administration to see any further exploration of normalizing relations with Syria. McCain/Palin, like the Cheney wing of the Bush administration, label this type of pragmatism reckless, naive appeasement. They don't negotiate with evil, dontcha know.

Because that's worked out so well over the past eight years.

[UPDATE: I forgot to add this bit from McCain/Palin advisors Max Boot and Richard Williamson:

A McCain administration would discourage Israeli-Syrian peace talks and refrain from actively engaging in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

If You Have a Racist Friend, Now Is the Time for That Friendship to End

Juan Cole comments on the ugly attacks unleashed by McCain/Palin on Rashid Khalidi in an attempt to, ultimately, diminish Obama's standing because he knows a Palestinian-American who participated (constructively!) in the Mideast Peace Process. It's vile, it's racist and, sadly, it's par for the course for the McCain campaign and far too many of its supporters.

While this guilt-by-association-to-the-innocent-but-Muslim is the latest degradation, the McCain campaign has truly distinguished itself from its predecessors for its pervasive dishonesty, demagoguery and willingness to use race and religion repeatedly in the most insidious and divisive ways. It's worse than Willie Horton:

Khalidi is an American scholar of Palestinian heritage, born in New York and educated at Yale and Oxford, who now teaches at Columbia University. He directed the Middle East Center at the University of Chicago for some time, and he and his family came to know the Obamas at that time. Knowing someone and agreeing with him on everything are not the same thing. Scott Horton has a fine, informed and intelligent discussion of the issue.

I know it may seem a novel idea to people like McCain and Palin, but it would be worthwhile actually reading Khalidi's book on the Palestinian struggle for statehood. (I urge bloggers interested in this issue to link to his book, which the American reading public should know). At the least, read a whole essay Khalidi has written. Far from being a knee-jerk nationalist, Khalidi has been critical of the decisions of the Palestinian leadership at key junctures in modern history.

McCain's and Palin's attacks on Khalidi are frankly racist. He is a distinguished scholar, and the only objectionable thing about him from a rightwing point of view is that he is a Palestinian. There are about 9 million Palestinians in the world (a million or so are Israeli citizens; 3.7 million are stateless and without rights under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza; and 4 million are refugees or exiled in the diaspora; there are about 200,000 Palestinian-Americans, and several million Arab-Americans, many living in swing vote states). Khalidi was not, as the schlock rightwing press charges, a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization. He was an adviser at the Madrid peace talks, but would that not have been, like, a good thing?

Much of the assault on Khalidi comes from the American loony Zionist Right, which quietly supports illegal Zionist colonies in the West Bank and the ethnic cleansing of the remaining Palestinians. They have been tireless advocates of miring the US in wars in Iraq and Iran to ensure that their dreams of ethnic cleansing are unopposed. They are a tiny, cranky but well-funded group that has actively harassed anyone who disagrees with them (at one point, cued by Daniel Pipes, they cyberstalked Khalidi and clogged his email mailbox with spam for weeks at a time). All opinion polling shows that most American Jews are politically liberal, overwhelmingly vote Democrat, and support trading land for peace to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Khalidi is their political ally in any serious peace process, which many have recognized.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has repudiated the "Greater Israel" fantasy that drives the Middle East Forum, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Commentary, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the Hudson Institute, the American Enterprise Institute and other well-funded sites of far-right thinking on Israel-Palestine that have become, with the rise of the Neoconservatives, highly influential with the US Republican Party. Olmert's current position is much closer to Khalidi's than it is to the American ideologues. That McCain should take his cues from people to the right of the Neoconservatives shows fatal lack of judgment and signals that if he is elected, he will likely pursue policies that are very bad for Israel, forestalling a genuine peace process (which would involve close relations with Palestinians!) McCain even compared the gathering for Khalidi that Obama attended to a "neo-Nazi" meeting! I mean, really. This is the lowest McCain has sunk yet. McCain is bringing up Khalidi in order to scare Jewish voters about Obama's associations, and it is an execrable piece of McCarthyism and in fact much worse than McCarthyism since it is not about ideology but rather has racial overtones. Not allowed to pal around with Arab-Americans, I guess. What other ethnic groups should we not pal around with, from McCain's point of view? Is there a list? Are some worse than others?

Ironically, as the Huffington Post showed, while John McCain was chairing the International Republican Institute, he gave over $400,000 to Rashid Khalidi's Center for Palestine Research and Studies for work in the West Bank.

The rightwing American way of speaking about these issues is bizarre from a Middle Eastern point of view. Lots of real living Israelis have close ties to actually existing Palestinians. There are 12 Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset, and they have helped keep the Kadima government in power. Here is PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas with current Israeli Prime Minister Tzipi Livni [picture]; Livni has repeatedly negotiated with the PLO as foreign minister of Israel. McCain's entire line of attack assumes that Palestinian equals "bad" and ignores Israel's and the Bush administration's support for the PLO against Hamas.

You know what would be nice? If a Republican could manage to point out that being Muslim and/or Palestinian is not inherently a bad thing. Labeling someone a Muslim or Palestinian should not, ipso facto, be a slur. And then take umbrage at this line of attack.

That is, a Republican who hasn't been driven from the GOP by the Party's shameless race-bating.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


In yesterday's post on the ongoing SOFA/strategic framework saga, I mentioned that the Iraqi cabinet had submitted a revised draft of the SOFA to its American counterparts - this, after Robert Gates had declared that the US would not accept any substantive changes.

Today, Aswat al-Iraq is reporting (according to Marc Lynch) that, true to Gates' declaration, Bush administration officials have rejected the revised draft. Which brings us back to the question: What happens now?

There are only little over two months left before the UN mandate under which our forces are operating expires. If that happens without a replacement authorization, we'll have to remove all of our forces to bases and proceed to evacuate Iraq (or risk remaining in that country without legal authority and subject to Iraqi government jurisdiction). The other route, absent an agreement on the SOFA, would be a short term extension of the UN mandate.

But then, the UN mandate gives the US an extremely broad range of motion, much greater than that provided by the draft of the SOFA proposed by the Bush administration. So that wouldn't exactly be an attractive option for the Maliki government, and such a move could induce a potent public backlash - the type that Maliki and others have sought to avoid by agreeing to a US-friendly SOFA. Unless Maliki et al would be willing to swap the pain of a short term extension of the UN mandate for the benefit of negotiating the SOFA with the next (presumably Obama) administration.

Either way, how far we've come from the delusional grandeur of the Bush administration's neo-colonial agenda. The Project for the New American Century has been so thoroughly eviscerated that the once mighty doctrine has been shrunk down to something like The Working Paper for a New American Three Year Holdover if We Can Get the Iraqis to Agree on a SOFA and Promise to Leave Soon Regardless, Pretty Please.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

We’re Half-Awake In a Fake Empire

On Sunday night, the US military conducted airstrikes in Syrian territory - ostensibly targeting hubs used to facilitate the passage of foreign fighters into Iraq, and possibly to target AQI personnel. Although initially, certain members of the Iraqi government seemed to sign off on the operation, today, the Iraqi government issued a forceful condemnation:

Iraq's government denounced on Tuesday a U.S. air strike on a Syrian border village in an unexpected rebuke of Washington.

"The Iraqi government rejects U.S. aircraft bombarding posts inside Syria. The constitution does not allow Iraq to be used as a staging ground to attack neighboring countries," spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.

The Bush administration chose an interesting time to go ahead with this cross-border attack, as such aggressive actions could severely compromise the already problematic negotiations over the status of forces agreement (SOFA), with autonomy over military operations within, and launched from, Iraq's borders being an issue of contention (the SOFA has been discussed in prior posts, most recently here and here). The article alludes to the delicacy of the situation:

The criticism of the United States was announced after a cabinet meeting to discuss a security pact to allow U.S. forces to stay in Iraq.

The pact has so far been blocked mainly by Shi'ite political parties, and one of their main complaints has been that the accord might allow U.S. troops to use Iraq as a base to attack neighboring countries.

It's not just the Shiite political parties that oppose the current draft, however. The Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), one of the main Sunni political parties as led by Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, has also come out in opposition to the SOFA in its current form. Meanwhile, Maliki's spokesman has indicated that he will not sign the current draft, and as discussed last week, Robert Gates has stated that this is the final offer:

"The problem is that when we were given the latest draft, we were told the American negotiators will accept no amendments to it, and the Iraqi government has more requirements," said Sagheer, an Islamic cleric who later led the Friday prayers broadcast on national television.

He said that Maliki had come to the Political Council for National Security, a top decision-making body, and said the new accord was the best he could obtain, but it didn't include everything that Iraq wanted.

If Maliki signed the accord and turned it over to the parliament, "I'm sure that the agreement will not be approved for 10 years," Sagheer said.

Swopa takes the view that Maliki et al are simply trying to squeeze the best possible deal out of the Bush administration, and has been employing classic negotiating tactics (especically effective given the Bush administration's obvious agenda):

Isn’t that a classic haggling technique in any society? Let the other side know you’re oh-so-close to a deal, encourage them to make a few concessions to close the gap… and just as they do and reach for the pen, pull back and say, “Wait, there’s one more thing you need to agree to.”

You’d almost think they’re having fun toying with the Bushites at this point.

Certainly a possibility. Along these lines, Aswat al-Iraq is reporting that the Iraqi cabinet has made major changes to the SOFA and will resubmit the revised version to their American counterparts. We'll see if Gates was bluffing, or holding firm. To counter Maliki's tactics, the Bush administration has, for the first time that I can recall, attempted to use a bit of leverage itself. Crude, but perhaps effective - reminscent of the "take all my toys and go home" schoolyard gambit:

The U.S. military has warned Iraq that it will shut down military operations and other vital services throughout the country on Jan. 1 if the Iraqi government doesn't agree to a new agreement on the status of U.S. forces or a renewed United Nations mandate for the American mission in Iraq.

Many Iraqi politicians view the move as akin to political blackmail, a top Iraqi official told McClatchy Newspapers on Sunday.

In addition to halting all military actions, U.S. forces would cease activities that support Iraq's economy, educational sector and other areas - "everything" - said Tariq al-Hashimi, the country's Sunni Muslim vice president. "I didn't know the Americans are rendering such wide-scale services."

On the other side of the ledger, a triumverate of Shiite religious authorities have weighed-in on the SOFA. Matt's Atomic Duss Bin has the details:

On October 21, Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah criticized the security pact, saying “the Baghdad government has no right to ‘legitimize’ the presence of foreign troops,” and that any agreement should call for an unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces:

Fadlallah’s edict came in response to questions by some Shiite members of Iraq’s parliament who asked the cleric to give his opinion about the proposed security pact. […]

“No authority, establishment or an official or nonofficial organization has the legitimacy to impose occupation on its people, legitimize it or extend its stay in Iraq,” Fadlallah said in the edict released by his office.

Fadlallah was one of the founders of the Dawa Party in Najaf in 1957, along with his mentor Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr, a relative of Muqtada’s. Fadlallah also helped found Hizballah in Lebanon.

Fadlallah is the marja al-taqlid (source of emulation) for many in the Dawa — including Maliki — which means that they have chosen Fadlallah as a spiritual guide and committed to following his guidance in regard to correct religious practice. This, in and of itself, makes the SOFA in its current form basically a dead letter.

Depending on how one reads Maliki's intentions (secretly in favor of a prolonged US presence or pretending to ally with us, but secretly pushing to the exits), Fadlallah's proclamation either hinders Maliki's ability to compromise with the US, or gives him the cover to shrug his shoulders and plead impotence as he wishes us a fond farewell. Either way, the result might be the same. In other Shiite clerical news:

On Wednesday, Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri, another cleric with roots in the Dawa Party, issued an even more stringent fatwa against the SOFA:

Al-Haeri called the proposed agreement “haram”—which in Arabic means forbidden by Islam—and said that approving the deal would be “a sin God won’t forgive.”

Al-Haeri, based in the Iranian holy city of Qom, has Iraqi nationality and is believed to be a mentor of anti-U.S. Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers oppose the deal. The fatwa, or religious decree, was posted on al-Haeri’s Web site.

In the edict, the cleric claimed the U.S. is pressuring the Iraqi government to approve the security pact.

“We know that this deal will undermine Iraq’s national sovereignty and that approving it will mean accepting humiliation and misery,” al-Haeri said.

As Duss notes, Haeri is the on-again/off-again spiritual mentor of Moqtada al-Sadr (currently "on") and many of the Sadrists. Sistani (the putative source of emulation for many ISCI members and other Iraqi citizens) has issued statements demanding that the SOFA be submitted to parliament and, possibly, a national referendum - which will make it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to pass on any but the most favorable terms for Iraqis. That pretty much sews up the Shiite side of the equation (with the Sadrists, Dawa and ISCI on the same page), and with the IIP and most of Iraq's non-Kurdish population opposed, this is going to be extremely difficult to pull off unless the US bends more to Iraqi demands.

So much for the grandiose designs of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century that imagined the US establishing a vassal state in Iraq from which to project military power in a series of wars, and further dominate the Middle East. As Duss concludes:

The power of these ayatollahs to effectively scuttle an agreement of significant import to the security of the United States throws into stark relief what the Bush administration has created in Iraq: a government dominated by Shia religious parties who take their guidance — and derive their legitimacy — from the opinions and edicts of a small handful of senior Shia clerics.

There would be a touch of humor to this if the abject destruction and profligation of human suffering weren't so bitterly tragic. Hopefully, we can begin to return to a saner foreign policy next week.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Brian Jonestown Massacre

While I was busy pointing out the inconsistency in labeling Obama both Hitler and Chamberlain, The Editors was writing up the latest in "Obama is like [INSERT HISTORICAL SUPER VILLAIN]" chicanery. In this episode, Obama is compared to, amongst others, Jesus, Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot and...Jim Jones?

New meme: Obama is nuclear holocaust Jesus:

Anyone familiar with the history of communism knows enough to be terrified by utopian visions. Equally frightening is the staggering breadth of the Moonbat Messiah’s ego. Not long ago, Obama told Sunday worshipers in Greenville, South Carolina that they don’t have to wait for any Second Coming:

“I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on Earth.”

Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, et al. had ambitions on a similar scale, although I don’t recall them comparing themselves to God. For the messianic aspect, you normally have to leave politics for cults like Heaven’s Gate.

Obama isn’t the first to mix Marxist utopianism with cult deification. Jim Jones did it with his Peoples Temple. Fortunately Jim Jones never had access to the USA’s nuclear codes.

A bit of a misstep here, comparing Obama to Jim Jones, rather than the more evocative Charlie Manson. True, Jones brewed the original Kool-Aid, and did go to darkest Africa swarthiest South America. But Charlie Manson was much scarier, was all about the class and race war, and - and this is critical here - was from the Epochal and Very Scary Late Sixties, rather than the Forgettable and Mostly Embarrassing Late Seventies. [...]

But once you’ve made a narrative choice, you do have to stick with it - you can’t just keep bouncing around, or people become confused. If you are telling the story of a scary vampire, you can’t decide in chapter 2 that he’s also 500 feet tall and radioactive and bent on destroying Tokyo, in chapter 3 that he is actually a giant man-eating shark, and in chapter 4 that he is all this and a super-terrorist trying to plant a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. All of these things are, indeed, scary, but taken together they add up to a muddle.

This is the problem. It’s not just the McCain campaign’s problem - although their inability to pick a narrative and stick to it is a special kind of inexcusable - it’s a problem for the entire wingnut noise machine. Obama is a Marxist Muslim Arab Jesus Black White Terrorist Technocrat Racist Do-Gooder Liberal FDR Stalin Hilter [me: Chamberlain!] Commie Fascist Gay Womanizing Naive Cynical Insider Noob Boring Radical Unaccomplished Elite Slick Gaffe-Prone Pedophile Pedophile-Seducing Liberation Theology Atheist Etc. & Anti-Etc. with a bunch of scary friends from - wait for it! - the Nineteen Hundred And Sixties. It makes no sense. It’s a jumble sale of fears and scary associations from 50 years of wingnut witch hunts and smear campaigns, a flea market of pre-owned and antique resentments, and if one does detect a semi-consistent 1960’s motif running through it all, that’s because that’s when most of these ideas were coined.

One of the more common GOP memes this election season (from the days of "Obama's a celebrity" on) has been how Democrats view Obama as the Messiah. In reality, however, it's the GOP that has the outsized conception of the man. Seriously. McCain supporters act as if Obama's some demi-god capable of ushering in enormous societal changes with the sweep of a hand.

Democrats, at least the pundits and bloggers that make up the majority of the commentariat, are entirely supportive of Obama (after 8 years of Bush, I'd be supportive of just about anyone not promising 4 more years), but also realistic about the fact that he is, in the end, a politician bound to disappoint.

Despite the unhinged railing about Obama being a radical Marxist redistributionist/terrorist enabler, Obama's record (on foreign policy, economics, the environment, etc.) is primarily that of a center-leftist. Recall: the so-called Marxist is featuring massive tax cuts as the centerpiece of his economic policy (aimed at the middle class, not upper class, which makes them socialist I guess); the alleged terrorist coddler has hawkish positions on Afghanistan and Pakistan (more hawkish than McCain - at least according to proclamations); and the supposed reckless tree hugger is willing to support nuclear energy, clean coal technology and ethanol subsidies.

Let's put it this way: he's no Russ Feingold or Bernie Sanders. And even if he was, he would still have to deal with the House and Senate, which means compromise on any progressive agenda.

Obama's appeal has more to do with his calm steady leadership, displays of competence and advocacy of common sense policies at a time in American history when common sense and basic competence are confused for visionary genius due to the ever-present comparison to his would-be predecessor. That's why so many on the right have swallowed hard and endorsed Obama. They're not under the spell of the new-fangled cult leader. They just reached their collective limits with GOP failures. If those that lean steeper to the left are hoping for Obama to be a progressive transformationalist in the mold of FDR, they should prepare for disappointment.

Yes, Obama inspires people and has been drawing huge crowds at rallies and the like. But again, after eight years of one of the worst presidencies in US history, and with the country beset by a host of serious crises, such enthusiasm is not really peculiar. Despite this rather obvious state of affairs, McCain supporters have whipped themselves into a delusional frenzy, writing impassioned pleas to fellow Americans about "The All-Powerful One" whose omnipotent eloquence, charm and mind control powers are going to help him to implement a plan to kill an estimated 25 million Americans who refuse to convert to communism, usher in (or permit) a new holocaust, impose martial law, outlaw free speech, convert the country to a marxist dictatorship and/or make us all drink poisoned kool-aid. Or something.

And the Democrats are the one that think Obama has super-powers?

You Say I've Got Another Face, That's Not a Fault of Mine These Days

Neoconservatives, and even some paleo-conservatives, have displayed a compulsive tendency to view each new crisis through the lens of 1939 Nazi Germany. Every foe, no matter how middling, is the new Hitler. Every politician or pundit that advocates restraint, no matter how reasonable the counsel, is the new Neville Chamberlain. Every crisis is cataclysmic and defining.

However, Barack Obama has pulled off what few, if any, of the great villains in the neoconservative pantheon have been able to achieve. Obama has unified the two poles of neoconservative alarmism and fear mongering in an unholy amalgamation that, I submit, portends of Rapturous events on the horizon.

Obama is now being characterized as the embodiment of both Adolph Hitler (here, here, here, here, here, here, ie) and Neville Chamberlain. Behold, William Kristol warning voters against being fooled by Obama's positive attributes into thinking that this new Hitler is anything but the new Chamberlain. Also, too:

Neville Chamberlain also had a fine temperament and a good intellect.

My friends, that's hypostases we can believe in.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Condition Was In

Spencer Ackerman catches McCain in one of those awkward moments that leave the reader with one of those unfortunate choices: either McCain is ignorant as to the substance of the recent draft of the status of forces agreement for US troops in Iraq, or he's lying about what the draft actually says. From an interview with Wolf Blitzer discussing the draft SOFA:

Blitzer: The Bush administration seems to be close to what is called a “status of forces” agreement with the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It calls, in the draft agreement at least, for the complete withdrawal of combat forces from villages and cities by July 30 of 2009, and out of the country by December 30, 2011. If you’re elected president, would you, as commander-in-chief, honor this agreement if, in fact, it’s formalized?

McCain: With respect Wolf, and you know better, my friend. You know better. It’s condition-based. It’s conditions-based, and Ryan Crocker, our ambassador to Baghdad, said, “If you want to know what victory looks like, look at this agreement.”

You know better than that, Wolf. You know it’s condition-based, and that’s what the big fight was all about.

Here's the thing, though: It's very clearly not conditions based. At all. The draft SOFA establishes one of those firm, fixed date "timelines for withdrawal" that people like McCain have been warning about, and railing against, for years. As Ackerman explains:

...[I]f you read Article 25 of the Oct. 13 text — as I blogged yesterday — you’ll see it says that “The U.S. forces shall withdraw from Iraqi territories no later than December 31st, 2011″ and goes on to say “U.S. combat forces will withdraw from all cities, towns, and villages as soon as the Iraqi forces take over the full security responsibilities in them. The U.S. withdrawal from these areas shall take place no later than June 30th, 2009.”

The only possible claim to truth McCain has here is in subsection 4, which allows for a “review” for “one side asking the other to extend or reduce the time periods mentioned.” But changing the dates requires “both sides’ approval,” which is going to be difficult to obtain and easy for one side to obstruct. What the agreement definitely does not call for is “conditions” to determine the pace of withdrawal.

Sorry, my friend, but your position on the war is in tatters.

In other McCain/Palin conditions-based incoherence, Ilan Goldenberg cites Sarah Palin flubbing a question posed to her about the infamous preconditions that Obama would, or would not, insist upon prior to high level meetings with Iranian leaders. Goldenberg cites an excerpt from a Palin interview with Brian Williams:

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Gov. Palin, yesterday, you tied this notion of an early test to the president with this notion of preconditions, that you both have been hammering the Obama campaign on. First of all what in your mind is a pre-condition?

PALIN: You have to have some diplomatic strategy going into a meeting with someone like Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong Il, or one of these dictators that would seek to destroy America or our allies. It is so naive and so dangerous for a presidential candidate to just proclaim that they would be willing to sit down with a leader like Ahmadinejad, and just talk about the problems, the issues that are facing them, that's some ill-preparedness right there.

Ilan makes it a teaching moment:

Ummm.. What Palin is describing is what would be called preparation not preconditions. Just to be clear. Not negotiating until preconditions are met means not starting your negotiatins until the other side has met some kind of condition you imposed. In the case of Iran, McCain insists that the Iranians suspend their uranium enrichment program before we can even begin to negotiate. Obama opposes this preconditions. The basic argument against preconditions is that you can't ask your adversary to give up a big negotiating point in exchange for absolutely nothing and expect them to actually sit down at the table. Doesn't happen. Didn't happen when we dealt with the Soviets or the Chinese. And so then you have no exchange of information whatsoever and can't find points of common interest or negotiate. You end up in a total stalemate.

I couldn't agree more. I've always found the Bush administration's insistence on preconditions with respect to uranium enrichment to be unrealistic to the point of absurdity. The Bush administration is, ostensibly, willing to negotiate with Iran with respect to Iran suspending its uranium enrichment program but only if Iran first...suspends its uranium enrichment program!

I should try that the next time I'm trying to negotiate a deal for one of my clients.

Me: My client is interested in acquiring ownership of your client's Product X because it competes with many of our most important products and my client wants to lock-up the market.

Opposing Counsel: Interesting, perhaps we should meet to discuss what you had in mind.

Me: Well, before we agree to a time and a place to hammer out the terms of a possible agreeement, you have to agree to stop marketing Product X now, and throughout the entire negotiation process, which we both know could take years.

Opposing Counsel: Hangs up phone.
Or maybe not.

Monday, October 20, 2008

That's What You Get When You Misuse What I Invent, Your Empire Falls and You Lose Every Cent

Rich Lowry neatly summarizes the political advantages inherent in claiming the mantle of morality in foreign policy making, as Bush and his neoconservative supporters have attempted to do rather ostentatiously:

Bush’s emphasis on the inherent hunger for freedom is powerful. It clothes his foreign policy in an undeniable idealism. It puts his liberal opponents in a tight spot, because it is awkward for them to object to the kind of sweeping universalism they have always embraced. It might be simplistic, but that is often an advantage in political communication.

Lowry is right in as much as he decscribes a short-term, domestic, political expedient, and Bush has been able to capitalize on this uplifting narrative to great effect, especially early on in his tenure, both in terms of achieving his policy objectives and commanding the public's support. Part of this has to do with the attractiveness of the message, especially for those that have the luxury of thumping their chest from a safe distance. As Rob Farley observed while reviewing an interesting back and forth between Stephen Walt (realist) and Joshua Muravchik (neoconservative):

Indeed; the moral component of neoconservatism has always been the appearance of moral rectitude, rather than any practical effort to achieve moral goals. This makes it particularly appropriate for creatures of the Beltway, who endure no real costs for their moral postures.

However, there are underlying contradictions that limit the effectiveness of using this facade of idealism and, in the end, the rhetoric itself can serve to box-in its purveyors and/or accentuate the hypocrisy. Take, for example, the pervasive anti-Muslim bigotry amongst the population that Bush draws his support from - a demographic reality that co-exists, uncomfortably, with the fact that Bush's policies are sold, at least publicly, on the basis of bestowing the gifts of freedom and democracy on various Muslim nations at great cost to the American people.

Along these lines, Neoconservatives seem to have a tough time deciding if Muslims are uncivilized brutes, congenitally incapable of embracing democracy, or if, to the contrary, they are so ready for American-style governance that simply conducting airstrikes on Muslim nations will cause pro-American democracy to spring up organically like shoots through bomb-tilled soil.

Then there is the inability of the Bush team to make accommodations for democratic expressions that go against predictions and preferences, such as the outcome in Gaza where elections that were pushed for on a rapid schedule by the Bush administration (against Israeli and moderate Palestinian warnings) resulted in Hamas coming to power. The Bush administration reacted with hostility to the newly elected government, casting its democracy promoting agenda as a cynical, self-serving and highly contingent brand of idealism.

Iraq, too, has been an interesting case study neoconservative rhetoric on democratization confronting real world democratic outcomes and popular opinion.

Recall, initially, that the Bush team hoped to put off elections in Iraq for several years, allowing for stewardship by viceroy (kicking it colonial school) and then later a limited sovereign. However, relenting to pressure from Iraqi leaders like Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, the Bush team first handed the reins over to CIA asset Iyad Allawi and, next, to an elected Iraqi government that, despite Bush administration hopes/predictions, did not include Ahmad Chalabi or, in any significant measure, Iyad Allawi. Instead, a coalition, comprised mostly of religious fundamentalist Shiite parties with significant and long standing ties to Iran, emerged as the dominant force.

This was less than ideal from the Bush administration's perspective, to understate the frustration of purpose: the new Iraqi government would not be a friend of Israel's, would not countenance being a base for launching attacks on neighboring Iran and would, in fact, quickly open warm relations with Tehran. And these were the positions of our "allies" - our adversaries were openly attacking our troops and civilian personnel.

Still smarting from the results of the Gaza elections and, to some extent, the Iraqi elections, the Bush administration took a more proactive role in trying to shape the political landscape ahead of regional Iraqi elections - targeting the factions most hostile to a prolonged US military presence (the Sadrists), while bolstering Maliki's power and authority vis-a-vis the Sadrists and his other rivals. These actions were pursued under the (most likely false) assumption that Maliki would welcome a prolonged US military presence. While Maliki's hand has indeed been strengthened by US efforts (to the extent that he has even begun challenging his closest Shiite allies in some arenas), the end result may be of little value to US policymakers seeking to establish an enduring military foothold in Iraq.

Months ago Maliki began making noises opposing certain aspects of the rather one-sided strategic framework and SOFA agreements put forth by the Bush administration: specifically, Maliki demanded an actual timetable for complete withdrawal of US troops, control over important national security decisions (actions launched internally and externally, ie) and limitations on the immunity for US personnel sought by the Bush administration. At the time (and since), there was much speculation about the source of Maliki's assertiveness: whether he actually found the proposed terms repugnant, or whether he had been forced to oppose them because of their extreme unpopularity amongst the Iraqi population.

As I wrote at the time: Regardless, our position is untenable in the long run. Maliki will either push us to the exits as he desires or, eventually, be forced to respond to the dictates of the ballot box or other popular upheaval/challenges even if he would prefer to keep his bodyguards around for longer. So how would the neoconservative set handle the fruits of its democratization efforts in Iraq when the outcome does not suit its long term designs?

Unsurprisingly, the McCain camp prefers the "Maliki-is-forced-into opposing us for domestic political concerns" storyline. As if this would be reassuring to those that favored a long term military presence in Iraq. "Don't worry, he just has to say that to the Iraqi people to get their votes, but after elections, he'll go back on his word and the Iraqi people won't notice." Or something.

Not everyone was convinced. Seeing the handwriting in the Iraqi constitution, conservatives such as Andy McCarthy and John Derbyshire began railing against Maliki's close ties to Iran (facts that were ignored or downplayed when Maliki was cast as our anti-Iranian "friend" and the more nationalistic/anti-Iranian Sadr was the pro-Iranian "enemy"). McCain's top foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, as well as spokesman Michael Goldfarb, stated that Maliki's position would be taken under advisement, but that John McCain would not be bound by the decisions of Iraq's democratically elected government. Said Goldfarb:

The disposition of a sovereign, democratically elected government is one of the conditions that will be taken into account."

One condition to be considered! My friends, that's democratization we can believe in!

Recently, the Maliki government (bolstered by Sistani and other Shiite powers) has grown even firmer in pressing its prerogatives. Maliki realizes that the Bush administration is more desperate to get these deals done than he is. Time, as it were, is on his side. Sistani has stepped in in recent weeks to demand that parliament gets a vote - a concession that will forestall the passage of any laws that contain many items from the controversial Bush administration wish list. As Spencer Ackerman puts it:

With the agreement in the final phases, most Iraqi political factions, including Maliki's, are balking at the deal. A parliamentary rejection to the deal as it stands isn't out of the question. Already the deal includes terms that the Bush administration has been dragged kicking and screaming into accepting -- most importantly, a promise to leave Iraq entirely by 2011 at the latest, which is a reversal of everything Bush has ever said about "timetables" for withdrawal.

What happened? Most importantly, the administration again miscalculated the depth of Iraqi hostility to the occupation. It especially miscalculated the degree of pressure placed on Iraqi leaders from their people not to sign away the country's independence, especially with provincial elections looming next year.

I would also add that the Bush administration miscalculated what Maliki himself likely views as his top priorities, his dependence on US forces and our leverage over him. As Reidar Visser notes:

Maliki knows about the forces of Iraqi nationalism and has always known that at some point the popular pressure towards withdrawal of foreign forces will force him to stand on his own feet. Hence, his calculation has probably been to maximise his benefits as a strongman ruler in the window that is available to him...The timeline for the full withdrawal – the end of 2011 – seems almost perfect from Maliki’s point of view, as he can use that period to exploit the American presence as much as possible before the nationalist pressures become unbearable. Clues to his motives may be found explicitly in the text of the agreement: the United States undertakes to deliver “cooperation in carrying out operations against al-Qaida, other terror groups and outlawed groups, including remnants of the former regime” and “bolstering the security capabilities of Iraq” – in other word, to make Maliki a very strong ruler and to help him sideline his political adversaries.

In short, the democratic process in Iraq, and our putative dedication to it, is making it almost impossible to pursue the two prized items on the neoconservative/neo-colonial agenda: enduring military bases and sweetheart oil deals. Sigh. Empires aren't what they used to be, when conquest could be sold to the masses without concealing the ugliness of the endeavor under all that democratic wrapping paper.

Should be interesting to observe how our neoconservative champions of freedom and democracy react to the Maliki government's increasing independence and freer exercise of sovereignty. No doubt it is one condition they will consider.

[UPDATE: Matt Duss has more]

Thursday, October 16, 2008

You Say that Like It's a Bad Thing

Joe Klein saw what I saw:

Pundits tend to be a lagging indicator. This is particularly true at the end of a political pendulum swing. We've been conditioned by thirty years of certain arguments working--and John McCain made most of them last night against Barack Obama: you're going to raise our taxes, you're going to spend more money, you want to negotiate with bad guys, you're associated somehow--the associations have gotten more tenuous over time--with countercultural and unAmerican activities.

Again, these arguments have "worked" for a long time. The Democrats who got themselves elected President during most of my career were those most successful at playing defense: No, no, I'm not going to do any of those things! And so the first reaction of more than a few talking heads last night was that McCain had done better, maybe even won, because he had made those arguments more successfully than he had in the first two debates. I disagreed, even before the focus groups and snap polls rendered their verdict: I thought McCain was near-incomprehensible when talking about policy, locked in the coffin of conservative thinking and punditry. He spoke in Reagan-era shorthand. He thought that merely invoking the magic words "spread the wealth" and "class warfare" he could neutralize Obama.

But those words and phrases seem anachronistic, almost vestigial now. Indeed, they have become every bit as toxic as Democratic social activist proposals--government-regulated and subsidized health care, for example--used to be. We have had 30 years of class warfare, in which the wealthy strip-mined the middle class. The wealth has been "spread" upward. The era when Democrats could only elect Presidents from the south, who essentially promised to take the harsh edge off of conservatism, is over. Barack Obama is the most unapologetic advocate of government activism since Lyndon Johnson--which is not to say that his brand of activism will be the same as Johnson's (we've learned a lot about the perils of bureacracy and the value of market incentives since then)--and he seems to be giving the public exactly what it wants this year. Who knows? Maybe even the word "liberal" can now be uttered in mixed company again. [...]

The point is, this is a very good year to be Senator Government. Ronald Reagan used to say that the most frightening nine words in the English language were "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." That is no longer true. This year, the most frightening eight words are "I'm John McCain and I approved this message."

I was saying the same thing to people in the room watching the debate last night: does McCain really think that "spreading the wealth around" is going to sound like a bad thing to a middle class that has been taking a pounding under the upwards-redistributionist Bush years? Does McCain really think that people will be frightened by the thought of "government provided health care" (it's not, it's government provided insurance, but either way), when tens of millions are uninsured, underinsured and tens of millions more face the prospect of losing health care?

Quite the contrary. The middle class is hurting. The thought of tax cuts for the wealthies isn't selling the way it did when people either assumed that they, too, would soon be part of "the club" or that wealth trickles down in copious amounts. This is an election in which even people who think Obama was himself in a terrorist outfit with Bill Ayers are going to vote for him anyway because he promises government provided health insurance.

Joe the Plumber, meet Joanne the Trickled-On:

The next was a woman, late 50s, Democrat but strongly pro-life. Loved B. and H. Clinton, loved Bush in 2000. "Well, I don't know much about this terrorist group Barack used to be in with that Weather guy but I'm sick of paying for health insurance at work and that's why I'm supporting Barack."

John McCain should be careful. If he keeps shouting "class warfare," the people might in fact take up arms. And won't he be surprised when the angry mob doesn't attack the guy trying to spread the wealth with the masses, rather than horde it in his myriad palatial estates.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Daniel Larison with a Two-Fer Tuesday special. First, on the importance of political mythmaking, and its applicabaility to the modern Republican Party:

Another reason why political myths are so powerful and enduring is that they help to justify past actions that cannot really be justified and to cover over present actions that need to be forgotten.

Thus Lincoln “saved the Union,” when in reality he destroyed the Union and replaced it with something else, but the reality is too terrible and cannot be defended without endorsing a radicalism his admirers usually do not want to endorse. WWI, which was a bloody catastrophe from beginning to end, was fought, according to the propagandists, for the rights of small nations and to “make the world safe for democracy,” when it actually resulted in the ruin of many small nations and had nothing to do with protecting democracy. According to another popular myth, Reagan “won the Cold War,” the clearest example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy in modern history. Of course, those most interested to promote this myth are among those who most bitterly opposed Reagan’s engagement and negotiations with the Soviets at the time–to credit Reagan with this accomplishment is to align themselves with him despite their previous opposition and to appropriate him for their own purposes later on. This is just one part of the Reagan myth, which has been built up and expanded over the last two decades as Americans on the right have become disgusted with Reagan’s heirs: they glorify Reagan in the past for much the same reason many glorify Palin today, which is their disgust with the last twenty years of Republican leadership. They can find something admirable only in the past or in very new figures. This is why I think there has been such powerful resistance to questioning the myth of Palin the champion of reform, because looking too closely at her record (or lack of a record) exposes the mythologizing for what it is.

It was an odd Republican Primary in that respect: There were candidates that, early on and from a distance, appeared popular and electable, but the more each putative or predicted frontrunner (Giuliani, Romney, Thompson) came into focus, the less appealing they became to their base (and, even moreso, the nation as a whole). McCain himself kind of stumbled to the nomination as the fallback choice settled on by a decidedly less-than-enthused base. Even at this late date, his campaign is still trying to shore up the support of the dispassionate party faithful.

Meanwhile, the nostalgic evocation of Reagan has been as reverential as it has been constant: from the debates during the GOP primary, to the convention speeches (and movies!) to the most recent presidential and vice-presidential debates. The myth has not only grown to eclipse the reality of Reagan's tenure, but the entire field of GOP personalities has been dwarfed by the incongruous juxtaposition of euphoric revisionism and real-time mediocrity.

Larison's other piece examines the use of terrorism as a cudgel, and other tools in the demagogue's toolkit:

Conor Friedersdorf notes the unseemly exploitation of terrorism for political purposes:

But the McCain campaign has exploited the fact that Bill Ayers was a terrorist to imply that their opponent is sympathetic to our enemies in the War on Terror, a campaign tactic so irresponsible that even GOP partisans should forcefully denounce it, and for a reason that hasn’t anything to do with fairness.

Larison argues that this type of rhetoric is not limited to recent anti-Oabama attacks, or even past anti-Obama attacks. Democrats in general, and even conservatives, are not safe from such scurrilous charges - at least when doubt is expressed about a given foreign policy orthodoxy. The problem is so pervasive that many examples fail to garner the media attention, and backlash, such reckless accusations deserve:

By definition, disagreeing with them becomes proof of wanting to surrender, no matter how irresponsible and genuinely damaging to the national interest the policies they advocate may be. Having framed their opponents as no better than abettors of the enemy, they are then bewildered when someone says that they have questioned anyone’s patriotism.

When Romney suspended his campaign in February, he said that he was doing it to avoid facilitating surrender to terrorism, which, it almost went without saying, he believed would be the result of a Democratic victory. This has been a consistent theme of pro-war arguments for the last two years once large numbers of people began seriously considering withdrawal from Iraq as a viable alternative. During this long campaign, Obama’s critics have repeatedly pushed the idea that he is somehow sympathetic to anti-Israel terrorists, and some on the right have dwelled on the so-called Hamas “endorsement” as if it meant something. In the earlier version of the association game, Obama’s critics obsessed about peripheral advisors’ views on Israel. Before we heard about Obama as the “pal of terrorists,” we were lectured frequently about how significant and terrible it was that Robert Malley had a small, informal role in the campaign, which simply had to mean that Obama favored talking to Hamas despite his stated opposition to this very thing.

So talk of Obama “palling around with terrorists” is not exactly a new attack, nor is it a function of a flailing, losing campaign. Unfortunately, this is all rather commonplace. Palin has misrepresented Obama’s views about tactics in the Afghan war in an effort to portray Obama as reflexively anti-military and, by extension, more sympathetic to the enemy than to our own soldiers...Just as they have demagogued the fear of terrorism to push for surveillance powers and invasions, many Republicans seem to treat our ongoing wars as little more than campaign props and they seem to have no qualms about demagoguing reasonable criticisms of current tactics as a way to impute disloyalty or lack of patriotism to their opponents.

Just last week, the Wall Street Journal labeled those of us that have been arguing for the re-establishment of the rule of law with respect to those accused of terrorism-related crimes as the "anti-antiterror lobby." Nice touch.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

His Love Hate Affair With His Racist Clientele*

An interesting bit of campaign-related gossip (via Newshoggers, my favorite home away from other homes):

With his electoral prospects fading by the day, Senator John McCain has fallen out with his vice-presidential running mate about the direction of his White House campaign.

McCain has become alarmed about the fury unleashed by Sarah Palin, the moose-hunting “pitbull in lipstick”, against Senator Barack Obama. Cries of “terrorist” and “kill him” have accompanied the tirades by the governor of Alaska against the Democratic nominee at Republican rallies.

Mark Salter, McCain’s long-serving chief of staff, is understood to have told campaign insiders that he would prefer his boss, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, to suffer an “honourable defeat” rather than conduct a campaign that would be out of character – and likely to lose him the election.

Palin, 44, has led the character attacks on Obama in the belief that McCain may be throwing away the election and her chance of becoming vice-president. Her supporters think that if the Republican ticket loses on November 4, she should run for president in 2012. [...]

“Sarah Palin is no fool. She sees the same thing and wants to salvage what she can. She is positioning herself for the future. Her best days could be in front of her. She wants to look as though she was the fighter, the person with the spunk who was out there taking it to the Democrats.”

Like Jim Henley (my favorite libertarian), I detect a whiff of self-serving McCain spin in this in that it neatly pushes all the negativity on to Palin. But that's not really the whole story is it. After all, Palin was not responsible for the nasty ad-buys, nor did she force McCain himself to pursue these scurriluos lines of attack.

Nevertheless, Palin does have a history of "turning" on her political benefactors, as Henley put it, when the opportunity for self-advancement presented itself. It is possible that McCain does want to try to contain the damage to his reputation at this point, and that Palin has other plans.

And above all, McCain chose Sarah Palin, so the responsibility for her prominence in this race, and the message she chooses to promote in that position, begins and ends with McCain. As John Cole (my favorite disenchanted Republican) put it:

Who could have imagined that if you take an ethically challenged know-nothing religious nut from backwoods America, have Bill Kristol and the Rove 2000 team whisper in her ear for weeks, that she would turn into a vicious political opportunist with no regard for the country and an eye on her personal future?

While we're on the topic, I found this piece from Kite Runner novelist Khaled Hosseini (my favorite Afghan-American novelist) instructive (via Thoreau, my favorite theoritician):

I prefer to discuss politics through my novels, but I am truly dismayed these days. Twice last week alone, speakers at McCain-Palin rallies have referred to Sen. Barack Obama, with unveiled scorn, as Barack Hussein Obama.

Never mind that this evokes -- and brazenly tries to resurrect -- the unsavory, cruel days of our past that we thought we had left behind. Never mind that such jeers are deeply offensive to millions of peaceful, law-abiding Muslim Americans who must bear the unveiled charge, made by some supporters of Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin, that Obama's middle name makes him someone to distrust -- and, judging by some of the crowd reactions at these rallies, someone to persecute or even kill. As a secular Muslim, I too was offended. Obama's middle name differs from my last name by only two vowels. Does the McCain-Palin campaign view me as a pariah too? Do McCain and Palin think there's something wrong with my name?

Perhaps, but regardless of what is true in their respective heart of hearts, they are both perfectly willing to stoke a vile racism that treats Arabs (and Muslims) as terrorists and morally inferior by mere virtue of being Arab (and/or Muslim), and then capitalize on the results electorally.

This reminds me of the tension between the lofty principles used to sell Bush's foreign policy, and the prevalent attitudes of the population that form its strongest base of support. According to Bush Doctrine spinners, we are, putatively, spending trillions of dollars, losing thousands of American lives, causing debilitating injuries to tens of thousands more Americans and incurring so many other sizable costs in the name of bestowing the gifts of freedom and democracy on...a bunch of mostly Muslim Arabs in Iraq. Many with the name Hussein.

I imagine this campaign-related storyline that emphasizes the toxicity with which Arabness/Muslimness is viewed by many Americans (particularly on the right) is doing wonders to improve our image throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. I can't imagine why so many Arabs and Muslims doubt our benificent democracy promoting agenda?

The Boys with the Arab Trap, as I termed it.

(*from my favorite song by said group)

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Putting the Big in Small

This brief excerpt from Sarah Palin's speech at the RNC rather concisely encapsulates much of what is wrong with the Republican Party's approach to Constitutional protections and individual freedoms:

Al-Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America ... [Obama's] worried that someone won't read them their rights? Government is too big ... he wants to grow it.

The second phrase highlights some of the internal contradictions in "small government" conservativism. First of all, the government that is deemed "too big" by Palin is the same government that was enlarged exponentially under a Republican president and a compliant Republican Congress. So the rhetoric, even in terms of fiscal discipline and budgetary matters, varies wildly from the actual policies.

Second, this statement betrays the lack of regard for individual liberties that undermines the GOP claim to the small government mantle. For the modern Republican Party, there is little fear expressed with respect to a government being too "big" when it comes to employing police state powers that encroach on rights enshrined in the Constituion (other than Second Amendment rights, to be fair). In fact, not only is the GOP mute on these matters, it is the party implementing the "big" government policies that weaken individual rights. When it comes to the GOP's views on executive authority and police powers, bigger is apparently better.

Getting back to Palin's speech, the first phrase from that excerpt reveals one of the fundamental misconceptions about the purpose and effect of Constitutional freedoms. Arguing that suspects deserve habeas corpus rights is not the same as arguing that al-Qaeda terrorists deserve habeas corpus rights (even if, in the process of granting such rights to the accused, some al-Qaeda terrorists will be granted them). The argument is that when people are accused of a crime, they deserve the basic protections of a legal system that recognizes the incontrovertible fact that sometimes innocents will be detained, and thus the accused deserve a right to an attorney, the right to know the charges being leveled against them, the right to confront witnesses, etc. You know, innocent until proven guilty. Republicans, focusing on the reprehensible nature of the criminals sought ("terrorists"), seek to usher in a legal regime that treats anyone accused of terrorism as, by virtue of that accusation alone, an actual terrorist.

Hilzoy recently discussed the case of 17 Chinese nationals that were wrongly detained at Guantanamo and are finally going to be released after a long battle through a Kafka-esque legal system implemented by the Bush administration. These Chinese prisoners were not the only innocent people that we have detained at Guantanamo, and elsewhere, who were denied basic legal protections.

This type of demagoguery in the service of curtailing liberty is not, by any logic, necessarily limited to the realm of law enforcement/executive action in response to terrorism. It is easy to imagine a determined politician introducing rights-stripping legislation under an emotionally charged title like, say, the "Child Rape and Child Murder Prevention Law." Under that law, those accused of the heinous crimes of raping and murdering children would be denied some or all of the following: habeas corpus rights, the right to an attorney, the right to confront witnesses and evidence and other protections that are currently denied "terrorists."

Think of the enormous potential for serious and irreversible injustice. Countless innocent people would be destroyed, without recourse. Yet, if and when some politicians oppose this Child Rape and Child Murder Prevention Law, the Sarah Palins and John McCains of the world could stand up and say:

Rapists and murderes still plot to savagely assault your children... [Obama's] worried that someone won't read them their rights?

And if you think my hypothetical is too fanciful, I invite you to review the recent "developments" in the area of anti-drug laws.

The same type of "presumed guilty" rationale, and commensurate demagoguery of opponents, underlies the push for warrantless wiretapping and other forms of domestic surveilance that erode our search and seizure rights. Again, as should be obvious, these programs do not infringe on the rights of terrorists alone, so when one is concerned about their impact, that is not the same thing as concern for terrorists. For example, earlier this week, we learned of this:

The Maryland State Police classified 53 nonviolent activists as terrorists and entered their names and personal information into state and federal databases that track terrorism suspects, the state police chief acknowledged yesterday.

Police Superintendent Terrence B. Sheridan revealed at a legislative hearing that the surveillance operation, which targeted opponents of the death penalty and the Iraq war, was far more extensive than was known when its existence was disclosed in July.

"The names don't belong in there," he told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "It's as simple as that."

The surveillance took place over 14 months in 2005 and 2006, under the administration of former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). The former state police superintendent who authorized the operation, Thomas E. Hutchins, defended the program in testimony yesterday. Hutchins said the program was a bulwark against potential violence and called the activists "fringe people."

Today, more news:

Despite pledges by President George W. Bush and American intelligence officials to the contrary, hundreds of US citizens overseas have been eavesdropped on as they called friends and family back home, according to two former military intercept operators who worked at the giant National Security Agency (NSA) center in Fort Gordon, Georgia.

"These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones," said Adrienne Kinne, a 31-year old US Army Reserves Arab linguist assigned to a special military program at the NSA's Back Hall at Fort Gordon from November 2001 to 2003.

Kinne described the contents of the calls as "personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism."

But we were assured that the Bush administration would only be listening to terrorists, or at least individuals for which there was a reasonable basis to suspect involvement with terrorism. Why concern yourselves with the rights of terrorists? After all, if you're not a terrorist, you have nothing to hide, right?

Faulk says he and others in his section of the NSA facility at Fort Gordon routinely shared salacious or tantalizing phone calls that had been intercepted, alerting office mates to certain time codes of "cuts" that were available on each operator's computer.

"Hey, check this out," Faulk says he would be told, "there's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, 'Wow, this was crazy'," Faulk told ABC News.

The spin continues:

In testimony before Congress, then-NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden, now director of the CIA, said private conversations of Americans are not intercepted.

"It's not for the heck of it. We are narrowly focused and drilled on protecting the nation against al Qaeda and those organizations who are affiliated with it," Gen. Hayden testified.

The truth:

NSA awarded Adrienne Kinne a NSA Joint Service Achievement Medal in 2003 at the same time she says she was listening to hundreds of private conversations between Americans, including many from the International Red Cross and Doctors without Borders.

"We knew they were working for these aid organizations," Kinne told ABC News. "They were identified in our systems as 'belongs to the International Red Cross' and all these other organizations. And yet, instead of blocking these phone numbers we continued to collect on them," she told ABC News.

As for me, I'm just glad that our national press corps so admirably fulfilled their ethical mandate by asking the tough questions and showing an appropriate level of skepticism toward those people that ...suggested these provisions might violate our freedoms.

Bravo press corps. Bravo "small government" conservatives. Take a bow. You should be proud.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Just Like Kissinger's Cousin (yeah that's kinda clever)

One of the more curious reactions to last night's debate comes courtesty of Andrew McCarthy in a post at The Corner. McCarthy, in a fit of rage, calls his fellow Cornerites "nuts" for not properly labeling McCain's performance a "disaster." But McCarthy does not feel that McCain's poor performance was the result of his meandering oratory, his failure to address policy specifics, his irascible demeanor or his disrespectful digs and failed attempts at humor. Rather, McCarthy's frustration stems from his belief that McCain did not, get this, go full bore on the William Ayers non-story.

Now, as the night went along, did you get the impression that Obama comes from the radical Left?...Would you have guessed that he's pals with a guy who brags about bombing the Pentagon? [...]

Memo to McCain Campaign: Someone is either a terrorist sympathizer or he isn't; someone is either disqualified as a terrorist sympathizer or he's qualified for public office. You helped portray Obama as a clealy qualified presidential candidate who would fight terrorists.

Pretty stark choice. Rather black and white. I wonder if that standard is applied evenly to both candidates (more on that in a minute). First, though, what is this talk of Obama being "pals" with Ayers? This is the extent of the documented relationship, and it hardly rises the already low bar of "pal." From Paul Campos:

In fact, Obama doesn't appear to have met Ayers at any time in the past six years. When Obama was running for the Illinois legislature in 1995, Ayers hosted a fundraiser for Obama at his house, and they later served on the board of a community anti-poverty group.

Also serving on that board were stalwart Republicans. Would they, then, fall into the category of terrorist sympathizer when pushed through the binary meat grinder wielded by McCarthy? Let's be clear: Obama's interactions with Ayers are limited and tangential, and even then, the most significant of those limited contacts occured over a decade ago.

It is incontrovertible that Obama has no formal relationship with Ayers. Ayers is not an official advisor, informal advisor, confidant or, in the parlance of the day, a pal. Contrast Ayers' non-relation to Obama with that of, say, Henry Kissinger. As Campos recounts, "Kissinger is honorary co-chair of McCain's New York campaign, and a foreign policy adviser to McCain himself."

Now let's compare some of the terrorist activities of, on the one hand, non-advisor, non-related William Ayers and, on the other hand, official adviser and honorary co-chair Henry Kissinger. Ayers:

...[A]s a member of the Weather Underground, [Ayers] set off several bombs that did some serious property damage. None of the bombings Ayers was involved with killed anyone, but several years later other members of the group took part in an armed robbery in which two police officers and a guard were killed.


An abbreviated list of the events that have made it dangerous for Kissinger to travel overseas, because of the possibility he would be arrested as a war criminal, include: covertly sabotaging Vietnam peace talks in 1968 in order to help get Richard Nixon elected; playing a key role in convincing Nixon to launch illegal wars in Laos and Cambodia (the latter action helped create the conditions that led to the Cambodian genocide); helping to plan the overthrow of Chile's democratically elected government, which included numerous assassinations funded by the CIA (again, all this in direct violation of international law); and helping to facilitate the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, which may have killed as many as 200,000 civilians.

Kissinger appears to have had every bit as much contempt for the law as Ayers, with the difference being that his brand of contempt led to millions of deaths.

Campos doesn't even mention Kissinger's involvement with Operation Condor. For those that don't know, here is a description of Operation Condor from one of my previous posts:

Operation Condor [was] an international state-sponsored terror network set up by the Pinochet regime to track and eliminate opponents living abroad with the cooperation of the governments in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and, later, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. US policymakers [including Kissinger] even knew that a Chilean assassination team had been planning to enter the United States to carry out the infamous car bomb assassination on September 21, 1976 of Orlando Letelier, Allende’s foreign minister and later minister of defense, who perished along with Ronni Moffitt, his American assistant. This brazen act of cross-border violence occurred in Washington DC less than fourteen blocks from the White House.

That post (link for those that want to read more about this episode) discussed a book review of Peter Kornbluh's The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability appearing in Foreign Affairs, and the wrath of Henry Kissinger directed at the author in the aftermath of the publication of the review. Here are some more interesting details:

Kornbluh discovered details pertaining to the CIA's involvement in a kidnapping that resulted in the murder of Chile's chief of staff, General Rene Schneider, in 1970. Schneider's elimination, which came three years before the coup, according to Maxwell's review, "was regarded as essential by the Nixon administration, since Schneider was a strict constitutionalist and therefore an obstacle to U.S. efforts to promote a military intervention before Allende could take office."

...[D]ocuments released in the extensive declassification ordered by President Bill Clinton in 1999 and 2000 [are] reprinted in Kornbluh's book. These documents include: transcripts of top-secret discussions among President Nixon, Kissinger, and other cabinet members on how "to bring Allende down"; minutes of secret meetings chaired by Kissinger to plan covert operations in Chile; new documentation of the notorious case of Charles Horman, an American murdered by the Chilean military and subject of the movie Missing; comprehensive documentation of the Letelier case and the extensive CIA, National Security Council, and State Department reports surrounding it; and U.S. intelligence reporting on Operation Condor.

In addition to the other morally reprehensible acts cited by Campos, and others that remain unmentioned still, Kissenger was complicit in, and oversaw, terrorist activities committed by foreign agents on US soil and abroad. He also oversaw terrorist acts committed by the CIA on behalf of aspiring, and later existing, South American dictatorships.

Kissinger has an official role in the McCain campaign.

So is John McCain a terrorist sympathizer? McCarthy labels Ayers a terrorist and connects Ayers' comparatively innocuous (though still despicable) activies to Obama, and then from this concludes that Obama is a terrorist sympathizer. Using McCarthy's criteria, one could come to no other conclusion: John McCain is a terrorist sympathizer.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Have a Cigar

Our distinguished conservative punditry give us two ways to explain the recent economic crisis. First, Dr. Helen unearths a conspiracy that, ostensibly, includes such disparate figures as Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke, John Boehner, the Wall St. Journal and the MSM:

Is your head spinning from all the doom and gloom being blasted from the media and Congress day and night about impending financial disaster? Mine is, and frankly, I sometimes wonder how much of the financial picture is accurate and how much is manufactured in order to get a Democrat elected. One has to ponder about the timing of all of this bad news.

Why the crescendo of economic collapse right before the election? Why didn’t the media and congress act just as concerned some time ago or wait until sometime after the election to go into crisis mode? The timing of the current financial crisis seems too planned and calculating to be just a coincidence. Polls show that people’s number one concern right now is the economy and that for the most part, voters believe Democrats are somewhat more likely to help with the economy. Could it be that the liberal media and those in Congress, knowing that, is blaring the bad economic news from the rooftops in order to manipulate voters into voting for a Democrat? If so, it won’t be the first time.

And if it weren't for you meddling conservative pundits, they would have got away with it too. In the alternative, Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of the website of the premiere American conservative magazine, offers this chronologically-challenged effect and cause cause and effect:

Does the selloff on Wall Street have anything to do with the increasing likelihood that Obama will be our next president?

Note that the two trends — the financial meltdown, despite passage of the bailout, and the solidification of Obama’s lead — are coinciding. At a minimum, the market’s behavior is not a vote of confidence in an Obama presidency.

So, for those following along with conservative attempts to explain real world phenomena using the Liberagayislamofasciblametron XG, the story goes something like this: Members of both political parties, including both presidential candidates, as well as media outlets as diverse as the New York Times and Fox News, are conspiring to give Obama and other Congressional Democrats the win by agreeing (via super secret hand shake and blink code) to hype and exaggerate economic non-crises. The bipartisan propaganda blitz regarding these non-crises is causing the stock market to plummet, yet the stock market is really plummeting because Obama's poll numbers started increasing after it plummeted. Causing it to plummet in the first place.

Heh. Indeed.

(both versions of alternative reality via Matt)

Pretty Hate Machine

I'm trying not to veer too far in the direction of hyperbole, but at a certain point the hateful rhetoric being disseminated by the McCain camp (especially Sarah Palin, doggone it!) crosses a threshold and becomes incitement to violence; a poison recklessly injected into the bloodstream of our body politic by a cynical Republican ticket in search of the next short-term political fix. Josh Marshall:

So we have McCain today getting his crowd riled up asking who Barack Obama is and then apparently giving a wink and a nod when one member of the crowd screams out "terrorist."

And later we have Sarah Palin with the same mob racket, getting members of the crowd to yell out "kill him", though it's not clear whether the call for murder was for Bill Ayers or Barack Obama. It didn't seem to matter.

These are dangerous and sick people, McCain and Palin. Whatever it takes. Stop at nothing.

The Washington Post:

McCain had said that racially explosive attacks related to Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, are off limits. But Palin told New York Times columnist Bill Kristol in an interview published Monday: "I don't know why that association isn't discussed more."

Worse, Palin's routine attacks on the media have begun to spill into ugliness. In Clearwater, arriving reporters were greeted with shouts and taunts by the crowd of about 3,000. Palin then went on to blame Katie Couric's questions for her "less-than-successful interview with kinda mainstream media." At that, Palin supporters turned on reporters in the press area, waving thunder sticks and shouting abuse. Others hurled obscenities at a camera crew. One Palin supporter shouted a racial epithet at an African American sound man for a network and told him, "Sit down, boy."

Will Bunch:

I received in an email the sleaziest political press release I've ever seen. It came from the Republican Party of Pennsylvania and it's headlined: "PAGOP: OBAMA - A TERRORIST'S BEST FRIEND."

At the very least, these most recent efforts to debase political discourse in America feed a pernicious partisanship. Deliberately stoking a sense of bitter alienation from fellow Americans, trading in racial epithet and innuendo, openly challenging the patriotism of one's opponent: John McCain and Sarah Palin, the self-described mavericks "known" for reaching across party lines, are nurturing hateful impulses in a segment of the population that already harbors an outsize persecution complex.

These are chaotic forces to attempt to manipulate for short term political gain. One way or another, this will not end well. Country first? Farthest thing from it.

I don't say the following lightly: John McCain, you have no honor.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Iraq Fox News the Model

The Washington Post reported on a disturbing new development on Friday of last week, but due to the poor timing of the story's release it has received less attention than it deserves (not only was it released on a Friday, but the day after the highly anticipated vice presidential debate). The WaPo article tells of a massive new propaganda effort undertaken by the Pentagon in Iraq and elsewhere, including, possibly, the United States itself:

The Defense Department will pay private U.S. contractors in Iraq up to $300 million over the next three years to produce news stories, entertainment programs and public service advertisements for the Iraqi media in an effort to "engage and inspire" the local population to support U.S. objectives and the Iraqi government.

...a lengthy list of "deliverables" under the new contract proposal includes "print columns, press statements, press releases, response-to-query, speeches and . . . opinion editorials"; radio broadcasts "in excess of 300 news stories" monthly and 150 each on sports and economic themes; and 30- and 60-minute broadcast documentary and entertainment series.

While the Bush administration has engaged in generating propaganda-masquerading-as-news in the Iraq theater previously, as Marc Lynch notes, this latest initiative contains a distinction:

In contrast to earlier efforts, where there was supposedly always a "produced by MNF-I" label, these efforts explicitly will not have such attribution. As one official explains, "They don't know that the originator of the content is the U.S. government. If they did, they would never run anything."

Maintaining such secrecy is nearly impossible, though, and the damage that inevitably results from the exposure of the scheme is as widespread and significant as it is enduring:

When the payments are exposed, as they inevitably are in today's global media environment (for example, with page one stories in the Washington Post), they then discredit not only the specific messages but also every other pro-U.S. message which will quite reasonably then be dismissed as "paid for by the United States." At our panel this week, [Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Support to Public Diplomacy] Mike Doran and others suggested that the key to success in the "war of ideas" is building up credible third party messengers. Nothing could be more devastating to the credibility of third party messengers than this kind of program.

At a deeper level, these efforts fatally compromise the long-term objective of building free, credible and independent media as the foundation of a democratic system. I've argued many times that support for free and independent media should be at the center of all efforts to promote reform in the region. Only a free and independent media can provide the flow of information, the transparency and demands for accountability, and the open contestation of political ideas necessary for real political pluralism and democracy. Turning the media into a tool for spreading propaganda compromises not only the very media which we should be promoting but also our own credibility in arguing for a free and independent media.

The other obvious point is that current "war of ideas" and COIN thinking explicity considers U.S. public opinion an important domain of information warfare. The Post quotes from the contract solicitation this passage which should be deeply disturbing: one goal is to "communicate effectively with our strategic audiences (i.e. Iraqi, pan-Arabic, International, and U.S. audiences) to gain widespread acceptance of [U.S. and Iraqi government] core themes and messages." Presenting American audiences as a key target for manipulation through the covert dissemination of propaganda messages should be seen as scandalous, subversive of democracy, and illegal.

Lynch is right that such US-directed propaganda is illegal, but it is not unprecedented - neither for the Bush administration, nor its predecessors. While the Bush administration famously hired journalists such as Armstrong Williams to shill, surreptitiously, for various domestic policies, some of the CIA's efforts during the Cold War make the Bush administration's malfeasance look tame by comparison (both in the CIA's creation of fake media outlets to launder propaganda, and in influencing/coopting decision makers in charge of other major media organs in order to persuade them to disemmanate government dictated talking points). But those were simpler times [sigh].

Even government-paid propagandists refrain from deliberately targeting US audiences, there is no real barrier between foreign news and domestic news. In an increasingly globalized world, stories planted in the foreign press inevitably "blow back" on domestic audiences. A bombshell, or simply a significant story, reported in the Iraqi press, for example, would be picked up by US media outlets reflexively and as a matter of course. In fact, US news outlets would be negligent if they failed to carry such reporting. So the distinction enunciated above might not matter in the end. Such propaganda will infiltrate our discourse regardless.

What is more troubling, however, is what this reliance on propaganda reveals about the so-called democracy promotion agenda of the Bush administration and the Bush team's outlook regarding our public image in the region. Subverting a free and fair press greatly undermines the foundation of democracy in myriad ways. Further, in seeking to control the flow of information by corrupting the media and other opinion makers, the Bush administration casts a shroud of doubt over any outlet that takes a positive view of US actions. Ultimately, in a modern setting where revelations regarding this arrangment are bound to find the light of day, the program has the opposite from intended effect in that it retards the growth of key democratic institutions and weakens American-friendly voices.

Even if undetected, however, it is dubious to what extent programs such as these would be effective in shifting public opinion on key issues. But then, this is an administration that views public diplomacy as an exercise in convincing foreign audiences that policies which are unpopular for tangible reasons are actually just fine - based solely on the magic of slick marketing.

Back in May, I wrote a post discussing some of these themes while reacting to a claim by Paul Bremer that the use of the word "occupation" to describe the presence of coalition forces in the aftermath of the invasion was "in many ways more important" in generating anti-coalition attitudes in the Iraqi population than the physical presence, and associated, actions of the troops themselves. A relevant excerpt from that post follows:

[T]he contention that the use of the word "occupation" and not the actual reality of being occupied by a 150,000 strong army had any measurable impact on our mission (hint: it was the tanks outside the doorway, not the semantics used to describe them) reflects a flawed way of thinking that has led to mishap after mishap for the Bush administration.

Throughout its two terms, the Bush administration has taken the position that America's image in the world (particularly the Muslim world) has been suffering not because of our implementation of wildly unpopular policies, but rather the lack of an effective communications strategy to explain these policies, and American ideals, to the target population. As Fred Kaplan observed:

You've probably never heard of a State Department official named Price Floyd...but his resignation-in-protest, [in March 2007], is as damning a commentary on President George W. Bush's foreign policies as any of the critiques from retired military officers. [...]

[Floyd] explained his reason for quitting...Basically, he was tired of trying to convince journalists, here and abroad, "that we should not be judged by our actions, only our words." [...]

Shortly after the terrorist attacks, Bush hired Charlotte Beers, a prominent advertising executive, to be undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. She spent nearly a year producing a slick documentary, which preview audiences greeted with howls and catcalls, before hightailing it back to Madison Avenue. After Beers came Margaret Tutwiler, James Baker's can-do press aide during the presidency of Bush's father, who, it turned out, couldn't do this job, either. Then came Karen Hughes, Bush Jr.'s own former spin-master, who embarked on two disastrous trips to the Middle East early on in her tenure and has lain low ever since.

The problem wasn't Beers, Tutwiler, or Hughes personally. Rather, it was the assumption that led Bush to believe that they were qualified for the job to begin with—the assumption that public relations is a synonym for diplomacy.

The logical extension for one that espouses this way of thinking is to make the facially absurd claim that the Iraqi people would be more amenable to the upending of their society, and the continued presence and interference of our military, if we only had a better way of marketing the situation. In a sense, the reliance on this spin-based strategy of policy making is a product of the Bush administration's infamous preference for the political over policy, reinforced by the domestic electoral success produced thereby (until recently at least). [...]

[It's a problem] when you're trying to convince people whose houses you're searching, whose family members you're arresting (and torturing) and whose relatives you've bombed that you're not really an occupying power, just a guest who brought over some democracy, whiskey, sexy for a slumber party!


So the Bush administration is hoping that $300 million can, at last, make occupation-ade. I remain unconvinced.

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