Friday, December 30, 2005

Happy New Year!!!!

Happy New Year all, and once again, thanks for joining me in TIA's first full year in blogdom. Hope you all decide to stick around in "The '06" (that's what all the cool kids are saying).

As an extra incentive, I thought I would give something back to the readers today. While most outlets are preoccupied with trendy end of the year lists, year-in-review retrospectives, or soon-to-be broken resolutions proclaimed in fits of self-deluded piety - TIA will go in a different direction.

I will clue you in to some of the deep, dark secrets that lie behind the bloggy veneer of TIA. In the process, I hope to unburden myself with some of the things weighing on my conscience, the baggage that I have been toting around with me throughout 2005 and, in some cases, for most of my three-plus decades. Welcome to my end of year confessional - my purge by fire - from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Literary Confessions

1. Something Old: As a one time English major (before converting to Philosophy) I know I'm supposed to feel differently, but I never was much of a Faulkner fan. His work just never spoke to me, and reading him was always more labor than love. It's one of those rare instances (very rare) where I prefer listening to people talk about the author to actually reading the author himself. I'm more energized by the reverence for him, and the ideas that fans extract from his works, than the actual text. I know I'm wrong, but it is what it is.

2. Something New: Like some of the major cultural/literary trends in recent memory, I never did catch on to the J.M Coetzee buzz. The guy has won the Booker Prize and all sorts of other accolades, and so many people whose opinions I respect are fans, but he doesn't do it for me. His books tend to sit around unread and stare at me with the accusatory stare that a book assumes when it knows that you're watching mindless television filler rather than leafing through its pages. The type of book that nags you. I put him and Phillip Roth in the same category of new fiction that leaves me uninspired.

3. Guilty Pleasure: Page Six. What? Stop shaking your head at me. I know it's Rupert Murdoch's paper, and it's not exactly a "literary" confession, but the truth of the matter is The New York Post does two things very, very well: sports and gossip. The rest is utterly worthless, unless you want to scratch the masochistic itch and read a Michelle Malkin or John Podhoretz column. My roommate has a subscription so I indulge this little curiosity from time to time (and by "time to time" I mean daily). It's perversely gratifying, and life can't be all boring foreign policy tomes all the time. There, now I feel better.

Musical Confessions

1. Guilty Pleasures: Bad things happen when you have an iPod and too many Stella Artois. The ability to find individual songs off of obscure records and download them inexpensively (in the anonymity of one's home) can lead to some pretty embarrassing morning-afters. Try this one on for size: in a pique of alcohol-inspired pop music nostalgia (a nostalgia that most resembles some deranged euphoric recall like fondly reminiscing about leg warmers and shoulder pads), I actually downloaded: "How Deep Is Your Love" by the Bee Gees, "If You Leave Me Now" by Chicago and, last and definitely least, "All Out Of Love" by Air Supply.

These songs offend almost every musical bone in my body, to the point that I cringe when typing this admission. These are the songs that occupy the space in my psyche that defies convention and wants to believe that artists who embody the antithesis of everything that appeals to me on an aesthetic level, on occasion, manage to strike a chord and tap into beauty. Or at least can find a formula of musical expression so catchy and irresistible as to overcome my free will.

But this less critical part of my mind is almost always shouted down by the hipper voice, the more pretentious - and aggressive - purist who has no patience for such trash. Wielding the daunting threat of shame, and the power of arrogant certainty, this more discerning voice almost always wins out and so I go and cleanse my musical palate with something more full-bodied.

And yet, when no one's looking, and I'm in that odd mood, I still put 'em on. Resistance is futile.

Sure Signs That I Hate America

1. Make of this what you will, but when I used to watch the Looney Tunes cartoons as a youngster I could feel myself secretly rooting for Wile E. Coyote. I wanted him to finally capture and eat the Road Runner. I guess that, after a while, I started to empathize with the poor guy. Such dedication, such effort, such ingenuity (albeit poorly planned) - with the object of his desire always just out of reach. A sisyphus-ean toil predictably culminating in a long death spiral and puff of dirt.

Unfortunately for my everlasting soul, it doesn't end there. I was also pulling for Sylvester to finish off Tweety (if anything just to silence the annoying little critter), and found myself siding with Tom over Jerry on more than one occasion. And would it have really been such a tragedy if Gargamel was able to satiate his lust for Smurfs with one or two of the little guys? I mean, would the Smurf Village have been ruined forever by the loss of the odd Smurf here and there? I think not.

2. And for some reason unbeknownst to me, I always wanted to the hare to beat the tortoise in that fabled Aesopian race. Maybe the tortoise just seemed a little smug and preachy to me. A bit too self satisfied for my liking. I remember thinking "Just wake up already," and wishing I could reach into the story to prod the little rabbit every time he took his ill-fated nap. And yet, I think I was on the "right" side of every other of Aesop's fables - intuitively so. I'm sure some pop-psychologist could have a field day with that.

Not Laughing

It's also the case that I'm often on the outside looking in at what many people consider to be comedy. More frequently than I would like, I'm there half-heartedly nodding along, and forcing a smile, listening to a conversation about a comedy classic that failed to garner more than a chuckle out of me. For example, Caddy Shack. Never really moved me the way it seemed to move almost every other member of my generation. In the realm of TV, the standout would be Happy Days. For me, Happy Days jumped the shark with episode one. I'm sure that I just uttered some type of comedic blasphemy, but such is the case. Worse than Caddy Shack or Happy Days: Adam Sandler. I've tried. Honest. But he irritates more than amuses, and his schtick is pretty damn near unwatchable for me.

I'm sorry if I've offended anyone's taste in any way, but I do feel so much lighter now, better prepared to meet my maker. I could go on (trust me), but I think I've done enough damage to my reputation today. Besides, you'll have something to look forward to next year - more embarrasing/incriminating revelations.

Feel free to leave your own suggestions in the comments, or point out how clueless I am about any or all of this. Otherwise, enjoy the final days of 2005!!! See ya next year.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Waiting For A Deus Ex Machina

Following up on some of my prior posts on the topic, I wonder if you can detect a pattern in Iraq with respect to the nascent Iraqi security forces.

Muqtada In Samarra

This article courtesy of Swopa:

Fighters loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have set up a base in Samarra, a Sunni-dominated city 60 miles north of Baghdad and home to a powerful insurgent movement.

The troops are part of an Interior Ministry special commando unit, based in Baghdad. But while they wear the camouflage fatigues of a government security force and receive a government salary, many of the SWAT-style team members have pledged their allegiance to al-Sadr and are adamant they are part of the Mahdi Army, his private militia.

At an outpost in Samarra, dozens of officers from the 1st Brigade Special Police Commando -- the Lion Brigade -- told The Chronicle that they followed al-Sadr. One, who identified himself only as Saif, said the men answered to the cleric and would do as he ordered. Like his colleagues, he wore a badge bearing the commando motto: "Loyal to country."

"There are almost 70 commandos here, and 57 of us are Mahdi Army," he explained. "Although we are in commando uniforms, we are still Mahdi Army. We have soldiers all over Iraq now, and every place in the south has Muqtada's men. Sadr is a hero."

All militias were supposed to have been disbanded and absorbed into a combined Iraqi security apparatus, sworn to uphold state rules. The reality is that various private armies continue to exist unofficially.

Mohammad Auoba, from the Shiite district of Iraq's capital where al-Sadr has drawn support from unemployed young men, insisted the commandos had enforced order in Samarra since their arrival last month.

"I'm from Sadr City -- we are in control there and security is very good. There are no problems," he said. "Samarra is bad -- there are terrorists here. I have already been shot at. We will make things better here."

He also claimed the troops did not respect their brigade commander, Col. Bashar Hussein, an ethnic Turkoman from the northern city of Kirkuk. "He is corrupt and no good," Auoba said. Al-Sadr, he added, is a great leader.
Peshmerga In Kirkuk/Mosul

This article comes via reader CW (discussed by praktike as well):

Kurdish leaders have inserted more than 10,000 of their militia members into Iraqi army divisions in northern Iraq to lay the groundwork to swarm south, seize the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and possibly half of Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, and secure the borders of an independent Kurdistan.

Five days of interviews with Kurdish leaders and troops in the region suggest that U.S. plans to bring unity to Iraq before withdrawing American troops by training and equipping a national army aren't gaining traction. Instead, some troops that are formally under U.S. and Iraqi national command are preparing to protect territory and ethnic and religious interests in the event of Iraq's fragmentation, which many of them think is inevitable.

The soldiers said that while they wore Iraqi army uniforms they still considered themselves members of the Peshmerga - the Kurdish militia - and were awaiting orders from Kurdish leaders to break ranks. Many said they wouldn't hesitate to kill their Iraqi army comrades, especially Arabs, if a fight for an independent Kurdistan erupted.

"It doesn't matter if we have to fight the Arabs in our own battalion," said Gabriel Mohammed, a Kurdish soldier in the Iraqi army who was escorting a Knight Ridder reporter through Kirkuk. "Kirkuk will be ours."

The Kurds have readied their troops not only because they've long yearned to establish an independent state but also because their leaders expect Iraq to disintegrate, senior leaders in the Peshmerga - literally, "those who face death" - told Knight Ridder. The Kurds are mostly secular Sunni Muslims, and are ethnically distinct from Arabs.

Their strategy mirrors that of Shiite Muslim parties in southern Iraq, which have stocked Iraqi army and police units with members of their own militias and have maintained a separate militia presence throughout Iraq's central and southern provinces. The militias now are illegal under Iraqi law but operate openly in many areas. Peshmerga leaders said in interviews that they expected the Shiites to create a semi-autonomous and then independent state in the south as they would do in the north. [...]

"Kirkuk is Kurdistan; it does not belong to the Arabs," Hamid Afandi, the minister of Peshmerga for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the two major Kurdish groups, said in an interview at his office in the Kurdish city of Irbil. "If we can resolve this by talking, fine, but if not, then we will resolve it by fighting."

In addition to putting former Peshmerga in the Iraqi army, the Kurds have deployed small Peshmerga units in buildings and compounds throughout northern Iraq, according to militia leaders. While it's hard to calculate the number of these active Peshmerga fighters, interviews with militia members suggest that it's well in excess of 10,000.

Afandi said his group had sent at least 10,000 Peshmerga to the Iraqi army in northern Iraq, a figure substantiated in interviews with officers in two Iraqi army divisions in the region.

"All of them belong to the central government, but inside they are Kurds ... all Peshmerga are under the orders of our leadership," Afandi said.

Jafar Mustafir, a close adviser to Iraq's Kurdish interim president, Jalal Talabani, and the deputy head of Peshmerga for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a longtime rival of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, echoed that.

"We will do our best diplomatically, and if that fails we will use force" to secure borders for an independent Kurdistan, Mustafir said. "The government in Baghdad will be too weak to use force against the will of the Kurdish people."

Mustafir said his party had sent at least 4,000 Peshmerga of its own into the Iraqi army in the area.
Sistani-loyal Forces In And Around Baghdad

This article from an earlier post:

The Iraqi troops consult with American advisers daily. On big raids in dangerous areas, the Americans often take the lead with their superior firepower.

But day to day, the Iraqi officers mostly run their own show, carrying out most of the patrols and running checkpoints without help. Increasingly, however, they look and operate less like an Iraqi national army unit and more like a Shiite militia.

Shwail, the 1st brigade's top officer, regularly reviews important decisions, including troop distribution, with a prominent local Shiite cleric who's closely aligned with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shiite religious figure in Iraq.

The brigade and its sectarian leanings has alarmed not only Sunnis in the area but also other Iraqi military commanders.

They said they worry that a mostly Shiite military unit will follow religious clerics before national leaders, risking a breakdown in the army along sectarian lines.

"It is a mistake," said Col. Fadhil al-Barawary, the Kurdish commander of the Iraqi army's commando battalion, housed on the same base with the 1st Brigade. "The danger is that when there is strife between Sunnis and Shiites in the neighborhoods it creates problems" with loyalties.

Barawary continued: "It's a total mistake to have soldiers taking orders from the marja'iya. It puts us all in danger." Barawary was referring to the ruling council of Shiite clerics, whose word is law for most Shiites in Iraq.[...]

Some Iraqi troops went a step further, saying they were only awaiting word from the marja'iya before turning on American forces. Although many Shiites are grateful for the overthrow of Saddam, they also are suspicious of U.S. motives. Those suspicions partly stem from the failure of the first Bush administration to support a U.S.-encouraged Shiite uprising against Saddam in 1991. Saddam suppressed it and slaughtered thousands.

"In Amariyah last week, a car bomb hit a U.S. Humvee and their soldiers began to shoot randomly. They killed a lot of innocent civilians. I was there; I saw it," said Sgt. Fadhal Yahan. "This happens all the time. If they keep doing this, the people will attack them. And we are part of the people."

Sgt. Jawad Majid chimed in: "We have our marja'iya and we are waiting for them to decide when the time to fight (the Americans) is, when it is no longer time to be silent."
Sunni Militants

See: the insurgencies.


What do all these stories have in common? Each of the big three groups in Iraq is maintaining and nurturing distinctly ethnic/sectarian fighting forces (with the Shiites even separating along internecine fault lines). In the case of the Shiites and Kurds, militia members and other partisans are infiltrating the official Iraqi security forces but such soldiers remain fairly outspoken as to where their primary allegiance remains. I can't imagine that the Sunnis in the Iraqi military are able to transcend this dynamic en masse - and would almost definitely fall in with their sectarian brethren should the groups turn on each other in a larger sense.

All groups have shown a willingness to regard the other as the enemy despite common nationality, and if the situation calls, none is likely to hesitate to use violence and intimidation to defeat the other and/or secure their respective objectives. On top of that, for the most part, all three groups have distinctly separate goals, often in direct conflict with the other (see, eg, Kirkuk) - and there are even opposing objectives within the Shiite split (with the al-Sadr's group favoring a stable central government, while Hakim and others are pushing for an autonomous Shiite south).

What's missing? A sense of national unity. A belief in serving the larger Iraq rather than a sub-sect or ethnic group. Something to hold the nation together. The schisms run deep, but the glue is weak. praktike applies the hammer to the head of the nail:

[E]ven if you do get the sectarian mix right, as long as primary loyalties are to the peshmerga, the Badr Brigade, the Mahdi Army, or what have you, the military will disintegrate just as the Lebanese army did during the civil war there. The US can train these folks to shoot straight, but it's unlikely that we can realign their primary loyalties from their various militias to the nation as a whole. In Iraq's unsteady environment, belonging to a militia represents quite rational behavior.
What does this mean? I don't know, and nobody does for sure, but unless something happens soon to defuse the underlying political tensions, things could get very ugly. Hence my prayer for a deus ex machina moment. Now more than ever. I'm not saying that full blown civil war is inevitable, but I'm also not overly optimistic that there is a solution on the horizon. And I do know that such a fragmented military - rife with ulterior loyalties - in such a fragile new state is a recipe for tragedy. Whatever political solutions are possible must be pursued with the utmost determination.

As usual, Nadezhda provides a more nuanced and detailed analysis than my comparatively crude effort. Her piece should be read to color in the details and some of the zoomed-in narrative that I might have elided (especially the potential Baghdad for Kirkuk swap between the Shiites and Kurds).

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Building Nothing Out Of Something

Matt Yglesias links approvingly to praktike's lament about the fact that the Bush administration's illegal circumvention of FISA will likely provide fodder for defense attorneys who will use such unlawful actions to make life difficult for prosecutors pressing cases against certain terrorist defendants. The problem, as noted by prak, is that information gleaned from the illegal wiretaps/surveillance will likely be inadmissible and could create a chain reaction of excluded evidence - where such non-wiretap based evidence was obtained as a result of information learned through the illegal surveillance. Former prosecutor ReddHedd at Firedoglake has more on the hardships the Bush team just saddled the various US Attorneys with (via Laura Rozen).

Matt takes the analysis one step further, though, and points out that this pattern of violating Constitutional law, governmental regulations and various statutes is creating a splintered legal regime that will ultimately tie itself into knots:

This is one big underappreciated problem with both the illegal surveillance program and the parallel system of illegal detentions and illegal treatment to which detainees have been treated. A counterterrorism policy divided against itself cannot long stand, and our efforts to fight terrorists can't remain half legal and half illegal on an enduring basis.

The reason is that the illegality of the unlawful operations winds up poisoning the operations of the normal legal process, as we're seeing today, rendering it increasingly ineffective and forcing more and more things to be pushed into the "off the books" illegal side of our policy. You can't, in the long-term, suspend due process and normal legal procedures "just a little." Once you reach a critical mass of outside-the-law activities, their scope will keep on expanding unless you reach a point where you're prepared to disavow them entirely....If the threat of terrorism were a temporary emergency likely to end in a year or two, this might not be the case, but that's obviously not the circumstances we face -- we're looking at a quasi-permanent situation here, so unless our means of coping with it can be brought into the ambit of the law, the corrosive effects will keep spreading for decades.
For those interested, I discussed the legal ramifications of rendition and extra-judicial detention in a two part series on American Footprints back in February (Part One and Part Two). These posts were thorough and, in typical fashion, slightly longish (as a lawyer, I still get stuck in the "paid by the word mode" of writing), so if you're looking for the quick and dirty, below is the most relevant excerpt (quoting from Jane Mayer's piece in the New Yorker):

Fruit Of The Poisonous Forest

The lawyers lurking about this site might be familiar with the evidentiary rules that prohibit using information and evidence obtained from unconstitutional searches...even if the information is probative (though there are certain exceptions). Evidence obtained in such a manner is deemed "fruit of the poisonous tree," and thus barred from admission in court (also see "the exclusionary rule"). As you can imagine, confessions and other statements made under the duress of torture and/or abuse, especially in unconstitutional detention centers, are likely inadmissible, as is any other evidence gained as a result of such confessions. This has raised obstacles to pursuing legal remedies in many of these cases.

Similar problems complicate the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan in March, 2003. Mohammed has reportedly been "water-boarded" during interrogations. If so, Radsan said, "it would be almost impossible to take him into a criminal trial. Any evidence derived from his interrogation could be seen as fruit from the poisonous tree. I think the government is considering some sort of military tribunal somewhere down the line. But, even there, there are still constitutional requirements that you can't bring in involuntary confessions."
There are other procedural issues as well. Namely, how do you produce witnesses that are being kept in unofficial detention centers operated outside the purview of US laws? You just can't wheel them in and out of court while you are pretending that they remain outside the reach of US law.

The trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, in Alexandria, Virginia - the only U.S. criminal trial of a suspect linked to the September 11th attacks - is stalled. It's been more than three years since Attorney General John Ashcroft called Moussaoui's indictment "a chronicle of evil." The case has been held up by Moussaoui's demand - and the Bush Administration's refusal - to let him call as witnesses Al Qaeda members held in government custody, including Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. (Bin al-Shibh is thought to have been tortured.) Government attorneys have argued that producing the witnesses would disrupt the interrogation process.

Similarly, German officials fear that they may be unable to convict any members of the Hamburg cell that is believed to have helped plan the September 11th attacks, on charges connected to the plot, in part because the U.S. government refuses to produce bin al-Shibh and Mohammed as witnesses. Last year, one of the Hamburg defendants, Mounir Motassadeq, became the first person to be convicted in the planning of the attacks, but his guilty verdict was overturned by an appeals court, which found the evidence against him too weak.
In addition to these evidentiary barriers, we have been inadvertently creating a class of prisoners that exist in legal purgatory, beyond the bounds of what we are familiar processing, or perhaps have the capability to resolve in an acceptable manner.

...the Bush Administration, having taken so many prisoners outside the realm of the law, may not be able to bring them back in. By holding detainees indefinitely, without counsel, without charges of wrongdoing, and under circumstances that could, in legal parlance, "shock the conscience" of a court, the Administration has jeopardized its chances of convicting hundreds of suspected terrorists, or even of using them as witnesses in almost any court in the world....

Since September 11th, as the number of renditions has grown, and hundreds of terrorist suspects have been deposited indefinitely in places like Guantanamo Bay, the shortcomings of this approach have become manifest. "Are we going to hold these people forever?" Scheuer asked. "The policymakers hadn't thought what to do with them, and what would happen when it was found out that we were turning them over to governments that the human-rights world reviled." Once a detainee's rights have been violated, he says, "you absolutely can't" reinstate him into the court system. "You can't kill him, either," he added. "All we've done is create a nightmare."
Transactional Costs

Torture, rendition, and extra-jurisdictional detentions thus have many hidden costs. They complicate legal proceedings in terms of producing evidence and witnesses for those defendants within the mainstream legal system, make prosecution of others outside the normal track nearly impossible, create a class of prisoners that exist in a state of limbo with no resolution of their status on the horizon and diminish our moral authority in the eyes of a world. Oh yeah, and on top of all that, torture isn't even particularly effective as a source of information in the first place.
In an unrelated matter, I am considering pressing charges against Yglesias for stealing the title to one of my prior posts. Lucky for me, I won't have to rely on torture, rendition, the suspension of due process or illegal surveillance. On the other hand, he might be able to evoke the Modest Mouse defense. We'll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

This Won't Help

I hate to be the prophet of doom and gloom around here, but lately the facts just haven't let me give in to unbridled optimism. Yes, Iraq held elections two weeks ago, and that was a beautiful spectacle to behold and praise, but it seems that every day since the elections has brought a new wrinkle in the Iraqi political/insurgency dynamic that doesn't bode well for the future. As some overly triumphant corners of the blogosphere are wont to overlook, elections, on their own, are less important than the underlying political realities.

First, there were the early results from the preliminary voting tabulations which indicated that the UIA has done quite well again, at the expense of the secular Shiite and Sunni parties - with the latter two groups forming a tentative alliance and threatening a boycott of the government most likely for the purpose of either forcing a new election, nullifying certain of the election's results due to the alleged fraud and tampering or, in the alternative, pressuring the ruling Shiites to make concessions when apportioning seats/cabinet positions in the upcoming government.

As Matt Yglesias has noted, the insurgencies have resumed conducting attacks with pre-election levels of ferocity - proving that there is nothing preventing a "bullets and ballots" approach for Iraq's Sunni population. Part of the "by every means necessary" approach. The Sunni population's willingness to pursue this bifurcated strategy makes finding a broadly satisfactory political solution as important as ever because without one, the violence will no doubt continue.

On Friday, Nancy A. Youssef and Huda Ahmed of Knight-Ridder reported on what will undoubtedly be an additional grievance for the Sunnis/Secular Shiites on the heels of their charges of fraud and tampering:

An Iraqi court has ruled that some of the most prominent Sunni Muslims who were elected to parliament last week won't be allowed to serve because officials suspect that they were high-ranking members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.[...]

The ruling is likely to dampen Bush administration hopes that the election would bring more of the disaffected Sunni minority into Iraq's political process and undermine Sunni support for the insurgency. Instead, the decision is likely to stoke fears of widening sectarian divisions in a nation already in danger of descending into civil war.

Adil al-Lami, the chief electoral official of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, told Knight Ridder that he would honor the court's decision and that none of the accused Sunnis would appear on the final list of parliament members.[...]

But preliminary results showed that some of the prominent Sunni politicians on the list had likely won seats. Among those who could lose their seats are: Adnan al-Janabi, the second-highest ranking member of the constitutional committee and a top candidate on U.S.-backed former prime minister Ayad Allawi's slate, and Rasem al-Awadi, a National Assembly member and also on Allawi's slate. Five members of the Iraqi Accord Front, the principal Sunni electoral slate, also were on the list.

Saleh Mutlaq, a prominent Sunni politician, said that the ruling would agitate already frustrated Sunnis who are questioning the validity of the elections.

"The streets will tell you their reaction," Mutlaq said.
The article notes that the overzealous de-Baathification was the work of the eponymous committee set up by Paul Bremer at the behest of people like Ahmad Chalabi and others. Apparently, Zal Khalilzad is less enthusiastic about the committee's work than some of his predecessors and has pointed out that "there have been abuses" with respect to some of the committee's purges. Zal also noted that at this point, reconciliation should trump score settling and power grabs. Hopefully, someone is listening because this court order is only going to exacerbate the Sunni population's perception of powerlessness, persecution and marginalization. Regardless of the truth of these perceptions, or the historical context of the Baath Party's savagery, it is best to try to avoid disqualifying popularly elected Sunni politicians. It's just not an effective strategy for coaxing the Sunni population to buy into the political process as an alternative to the insurgencies. To say the least.

Sowing The Seeds

Back in October, I wrote a post (cross-posted on Belgravia Dispatch) that discussed the various issues confronting the United States and Iraq in their effort to create an Iraqi military that is: (a) capable of defeating the insurgency; (b) capable of defending the nation from foreign incursions; (c) primarily loyal to the nation of Iraq and not to any one ethnic/sectarian group or militia; and (d) diverse, proportionate and representative of the ethnic/sectarian makeup of the Iraqi population writ large.

In that post, I provided a more detailed argument regarding the importance of achieving those goals, and the progress, or lack thereof, that was being made. Without attaining sufficient success with respect to the above listed criteria beforehand, withdrawing US forces pursuant to the "as they stand up, we stand down" model could actually undermine our effort to stave off the eruption of a full blown civil war. If the Iraqi army we are training is predominately Shiite and Kurdish, and those forces are first and foremost loyal to their ethnic/sectarian groups, then the hope of including the Sunni population in a new and peaceful Iraqi society will be greatly lessened. The likelihood of heavy handedness and large scale reprisals would be too great. For a unified Iraq to succeed, the Iraqi Army must transcend the politics of identification and must include enough Sunnis so as to prevent it from becoming an ethnic/sectarian vehicle.

A recent article appearing in the New York Times highlights the frustrating lack of progress on this front. According to the Times' story, the results of voting trends from the Iraqi security forces illustrate the lack of balance in the composition of those forces. The Sunni population is, predictably, underrepresented:

But on that score there still appears to be a way to go, according to the numbers from the special election tally. In that category, 45 percent of votes were cast for the main Kurdish slate of candidates, compared with the combined total of just 7 percent for the three main Sunni Arab political parties. The principal Shiite political alliance received 30 percent of the votes in the category.

The heavily disproportionate votes for the Kurds and the slight showing for the Sunnis primarily reflected their relative numbers in the security forces, election officials here said.

By contrast, while final election results will not be available for another week, Iraqi news reports have estimated that Kurds and Sunni Arabs each received perhaps 20 percent of the overall national vote for seats in Parliament. The main Shiite political alliance is expected to take slightly less than 50 percent of the seats. Those estimates more closely follow Iraq's demographic makeup.
It should go without mention that it is not as if US forces could just wave a wand and create an integrated army that accurately reflects the contours of the Iraqi population. Such a goal will require years of patience and painstaking safeguards to effect. Nevertheless, getting the army right is crucial to the long term prospects of a peaceful and stable Iraq. I'm not going to rehash the full breadth of my previous discussion, so for those looking for a more thorough analysis of this topic, and why it so important, please see my earlier post.

But I do want to add one additional point that I might not have sufficiently discussed in that first post. Aside from the obvious interest in avoiding a large scale civil war (that could morph into a regional conflict) in the center of the Middle East, there are larger implications in the battle for hearts and minds between the US and al-Qaeda and their fellow jihadists. If in our zeal to stand up an army and beat a hasty retreat from Iraq we end up creating, arming and assisting a military composed primarily of Kurdish and Shiite forces, and that military becomes the fighting force in an eventual civil war, can you imagine the propaganda field-day Osama would have?

The United States (already viewed with suspicion, cynicism and mistrust) will have, in effect, armed, trained and possibly provided air support and other tactical assistance to one side (the Shiites) in a clash of religious sects within the Muslim world. The Sunni population in other Muslim nations (a majority in almost all save Iran), which would no doubt be treated to images of Sunni civilians caught in the grisly cross-fire (and/or intentionally targeted in some circumstances), would be radicalized, horrified, enraged, humiliated and desperate to strike back at the "imperialist crusader" that many would no doubt blame for the carnage - probably inordinately so, but that is to be expected.

How do you think such a dynamic would interact with our effort to curb the appeal and support for extremist jihadists and other groups looking to do harm to American interests? Not well in my estimation - a glaring understatement. If we are perceived as the facilitator and actor in such a sectarian clash, we will undoubtedly come out losers regardless of the outcome. The consequences could be severe and destructive in the short term and provide an indelible blemish on our image in the region in the long term.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Happy Holidays!!!!

Merry Christmas, and, however you choose to celebrate them, have a happy holiday! And thanks again for making this as enriching and pleasurable as it has been. Let's all hope for a return to sanity in the New Year. Actually, I'd settle for vague recollection of sanity at this point. Anyway, see you all on Monday. Or Tuesday. Depending on the size of the egg nog-induced hangover.

Leaving Footprints

For those interested, I have a post up on American Footprints that is not cross-posted over here. Hey, sometimes it has to be an exclusive, that's all. It ain't easy serving two blog masters. A bit like trying to drive two cars across the country at once. While holding down a day job. I know, I know time to put away the violin.

[UPDATE: Nadezhda follows up my post with a closer look at the story - including a more balanced look at the potential new MARAMist "vector." As usual, well worth the read.]

Thursday, December 22, 2005

One Big Happy Family

Some post-Iraq election developments via the AP:

Dozens of Sunni Arab and secular Shiite groups threatened Thursday to boycott Iraq's new legislature if complaints about tainted voting are not reviewed by an international body.

A representative for former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi described the Dec. 15 vote as "fraudulent" and the elected lawmakers "illegitimate."

A joint statement issued by 35 political groups that competed in last week's elections said the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, which oversaw the ballot, should be disbanded.

It also said the more than 1,250 complaints about fraud, ballot box stuffing and intimidation should be reviewed by international organizations such as the United Nations.
Just so we're all on the same page here: According to the Bush administration and its supporters, these elections were significant because the Sunnis came out en masse to vote, which is supposed to be a clear indication that they are joining the political process instead of pursuing violent means via the insurgencies to press their demands.

With that in mind, does a boycott coupled with charges of illegitimacy count as "participation" in the political process? Is such an environment really going to convince Sunni nationalist/Baathist insurgents to abdicate violence? My guess is, just the opposite.

The allegations of fraud (undoubtedly true in many instances) and the perception that the political game is rigged is not going to persuade many Sunni insurgents/insurgent supporters to give up their arms and go along with a Shiite dominated political process - one in which they will have little power and what power they do have can be capriciously yanked away from them at every interval. As a matter of fact, the insurgencies might be looking a bit more attractive today, after the glimmer of optimism and exaggerated expectations of electoral gains have faded away. No doubt many are wondering where else they can turn - what options other than the insurgencies exist? At the very least, those intent on pursuing the "bullets and ballots" approach will not be putting away the bullets just yet.

There is still room, I suppose, for there to be an "adjustment" in the electoral tally, or the invitation of international reviewers - though I wouldn't bet on it. And even if the election results are unaltered, the Shiites could still make a grand concession in terms of amending the constitution - but a boycott of the legislature by the Sunnis and secular groups would sort of complicate that process. Khalilzad has his work cut out for him.

One more thing: When international bodies and other policy makers and pundits criticized previous Iraqi elections as illegitimate due to the exclusion of entire swathes of the Iraqi population, they were accused of being unrealistic, quixotic and/or engaging in mindless Bush-bashing. So, how do we characterize Iyad Allawi's position and the position of other secular Iraqis and Sunni parties? Do these partisans just need to get a historical perspective on "elections and their discontents"? Should we treat Allawi and other secular Iraqis to analogies of elections during the American Civil War to reassure and/or scold them? Just asking.

(cross-posted at American Footprints)

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Same As It Ever Was: Out Brief Candle

For those banking on the elections of December 15 marking some grand turning point in Iraq, whereby there would emerge a secular third way or broad religious coalition that could unite Iraqis across sectarian/ethnic lines thus tamping and fragmenting the insurgencies, the early results are less than encouraging. The short version of the preliminary read is that the religious Shiite ticket, the UIA, will once again dominate the political landscape, while the secular ticket led by Iyad Allawi has performed well under American expectations and predictions, saying nothing of the embarrassing rout of Ahmed Chalabi's ticket - despite the altogether in-character delusions of certain neoconservative thinkers who predicted the moon for Chalabi (ed note: how does someone who manages roughly 1% of the vote ever ascend to the prime minister's office? Even with 5%? Are there historical precedents for such a feat?).

But seriously, echoing praktike, how can anyone point to either the Wall Street Journal or Michael Rubin (or most of his cohorts) as a source for accurate information or insight on Iraq? They have been so consistently wrong about almost everything from day one (make that from before day one) that I applaud every time they manage to spell the name of the country correctly.

While these elections were carried off under the melodic sound of silence as insurgent attacks were nearly non-existent, and there was the attendant rhetorical fury of those vicariously purple fingered pundits, they will ultimately signify nothing if the larger, underlying issues are not addressed. I know this analysis might sound like a broken record to many readers, but that is only because remarkably little has changed with respect to this predicament since I first expressed these concerns back in early January 2005: despite three rounds of national elections, the insurgencies continue to rage on, and unless there is a political solution involving the sharing of power, influence, wealth, resources and prestige with the disgruntled Sunni population, and unless there is an effort to quiet the forces on all sides that want to maximize their share of the pie in a zero-sum cycle of violence (read: militias, insurgencies, separatists, demagogues etc.), Iraq will continue to spiral out of control and, most likely, be torn asunder. As the same poor players strut across the stage of Iraq, posturing for their constituency, the very serious fundamental problems continue to plague the process and light the way to dusty death.

Each round of elections, including the referendum approving the Constitution, have been accompanied by the same breathless predictions of a turning point - but nothing seems to turn. In fact, in some ways, these milestones have served to worsen the condition of the patient in the sense that what does not get better, gets worse. The constitution, as I have explained previously, only confirmed the fears of the Sunni minority of its exclusion from power and influence, and also established the principles whereby a dangerous devolution of power away from the central government and to the near-autonomous provinces would occur. The earlier January 2005 elections provided Sunnis with a glimpse at life under Shiite/Kurdish rule - complete with an uptick in paramilitary and militia activities - as well as the formation of a national army made up of components of each (note: I do acknowledge that the Sunnis have been as violent or more than the Shiite/Kurdish paramilitaries - so far - but that doesn't change the corrosive effect of cyclical violence on a spirit of national unity).

After the Sunnis mostly boycotted last January's elections, they participated in large numbers this December. Unfortunately, many Sunnis thought that this participation would translate into control of the government based on the Baath-era propaganda that the Sunnis are actually the majority, population-wise, in Iraq (this was used by the Sunni-dominated Baath Party to normalize the concept of Sunni control over the majority Shiites/Kurds). The December elections will shock those Sunnis who are operating under this myth, and the resulting cognitive dissonance will lead to louder and louder charges of fraud and manipulation on the part of the Shiites and Kurds (not altogether unwarranted, but not to the extent alleged by the Sunnis).

Keep in mind, according to some, this participation by the Sunnis is supposed to provide the stepping stone to the formation of a national pact - the abdication of violence in favor of the political process and a unity government. Mistrust, accusations and background violence is not a very solid foundation for such a structure to be built. Regardless, the story is a familiar one: if there is any hope of splintering the insurgencies - coopting portions of the Sunni nationalist/Baathist strains and turning them against the jihadists under Zarqawi's banner - there must be a political solution. This election in and of itself offers none. A million elections won't either unless the grievances and motivations that give rise to the insurgencies are addressed.

In fact, this election will once again confirm the UIA's dominance while not, in any significant way, enhancing the Sunni bloc's ability to satisfy its needs and concerns. If there is to be a solution, it will require an agreement on the part of the Shiites and Kurds to accommodate the Sunni population's needs/desires/expectations - either through legislative accord or, more importantly, amendment of the Constitution. Expecting the long-suffering Shiites to willingly cede hard fought gains in such a scenario is asking and expecting a lot. So far, there has been no indications that such a compromise is on the horizon. Instead, all indicators point toward the continuation, and increase in the intensity, of the violence and the low-level civil war as the warring factions grow frustrated with the lack of progress on the political front and increasingly turn to their private armies to affect the situation. Then again, when did an aversion to unbridled optimism and expectations ever stop the Bush administration and its neoconservative coterie? Forgive me if I remain more guarded in my appraisal.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Making Lemonade

Looking on the bright side of things, the Bush administration's most recent foray into the realm of totalitarianism-lite will likely clear up one small matter for readers of TIA: the origin of this blog's name. I'm sure most of you informed readers (cough, cough) immediately got the cheeky ironic tone of "Total Information Awareness" but for the rest, here's the necessary clue from Senator Jay Rockefeller, commenting on the revelation that President Bush ordered surveillance on US citizens in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA):

"As I reflected on the meeting today, and the future we face, John Poindexter's TIA project sprung to mind, exacerbating my concern regarding the direction the Administration is moving with regard to security, technology, and surveiliance." [emphasis added]
(I leave the rest to your investigative powers, and the utility of the all-powerful Google. Kneel before Google!)

The above quote came via Kevin Drum, who has an excellent round up of the legal issues at play, as well as a concise summary of each. His sources include this post by Orin Kerr of The Volokh Conspiracy (first pointed out to me by reader Patrick in a discussion on another blog). Very balanced and worth the read.

Drum doesn't stop there, though. In a subsequent post, he begins asking the right questions about the underlying motivations for circumventing FISA in the first place. Drum, commenting on the justifications for disregarding FISA put forth by the Bush administration, states:

None of these quotes makes sense if the NSA program involved nothing more than an expansion of ordinary taps of specific individuals. After all, the FISA court would have approved taps of domestic-to-international calls as quickly and easily as they do with normal domestic wiretaps. What's more, Congress wouldn't have had any objection to supporting a routine program expansion; George Bush wouldn't have explained it with gobbledegook about the difference between monitoring and detecting; Jay Rockefeller wouldn't have been reminded of TIA; and the Times wouldn't have had any issues over divulging sensitive technology.

It seems clear that there's something involved here that goes far beyond ordinary wiretaps, regardless of the technology used. Perhaps some kind of massive data mining, which makes it impossible to get individual warrants? Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Lots of people have suggested that the NSA program has something to do with Echelon, a massive project that vacuums up communications of all kinds from all over the globe. The problem is that Echelon has been around for a long time and no one has ever complained about it before - so whatever this new program is, it's something more than vanilla Echelon. What's more, it's something disturbing enough that a few weeks after 9/11 the administration apparently felt that even Republicans in Congress wouldn't approve of it. What kind of program is so intrusive that even Republicans, even with 9/11 still freshly in mind, wouldn't have supported it? [emphasis added]
No answers yet, but very good questions. And gratuitous mentions of TIA makes the heart skip a beat - Poindexter's too I'm sure. Either way, this story is definitely something to keep an eye on.

Monday, December 19, 2005

A Shiny New Edsel

Apropos of my most recent post, which attempted to pause the partisan tug-of-war over Iraq, if but for a moment, Steve Clemons has a timely admonition:

In my view, opponents of the Iraq War need to be careful not to co-opt every bad development in Iraq to justify assessments that are worse than reality. But the President is doing the opposite -- as are other leading neoconservative voices who are ignoring important factors that should be legitimately considered in their takes on what is unfolding in Iraq.
Steve (shamelessly in TIA's humble opinion), provides a link to an op-ed he wrote on the subject. All joking aside, Steve's laments are music to my ears. He complains of the fact that the latent agendas of the respective warring camps (war supporters and war opponents), and the desire to use developments on the ground in pursuit of these agendas, has led to a dearth of, dare I say, fair and balanced reporting. I don't claim to be free of any fault in this regard - though I do take pains to filter out bias where I recognize it. Still, getting a read on the situation, and informing policy going forward, is made more difficult by the "don't give an inch" style of analysis on display in Washington both before and after the invasion.

In fact, it was the desire to garner and maintain support for the invasion in the first place that led the Bush administration to downplay, bury and distort any evidence of ambiguity regarding WMD, as well as to dismiss, out of hand, any suggestion that the invasion of Iraq, toppling of the Baath regime and establishment of a peaceful, unitary and stable Iraq would cost anything more than $50 billion, last any longer than six months, require anything more than around 100,000 troops, necessitate the involvement of multilateral organizations, generate an actual insurgency, etc.

The problem for Americans, and more likely Iraqis, is that the Bush administration seems to have let this rhetorical discipline infect the policy making apparatus. They were either monumentally naive, convinced by their own spin or were so engrossed with maintaining the facade that they banished any form of realism from the decision making progress. Either way, the results have been near catastrophic, and the irony is that their quick and dirty pursuit of support from the American people may doom their long term plans in Iraq. When you sell a product as a low cost, maximum benefit, one-size-fits-all, panacea and it turns out to be an exorbitantly expensive, malfunctioning Edsel, you're going to have a lot of disillusioned consumers on your hands asking for their money back.

Unfortunately, the current overzealousness of the salesmen, now in the used car business, carries similar risks. I do believe that the latest round of elections in Iraq could potentially lead to some of the more important, and ultimately necessary, political breakthroughs in terms of power sharing, economic cooperation and common cause across ethnic/sectarian lines. Appreciating the likelihood of this occurring would be made less complicated with more objective analysis. But worse than that, I know that if the war's proponents continue to promise the moon at each "tipping point" they will lose the patience and support of the American people. Honesty is actually the best policy - even if that means admitting the long and arduous road ahead and refraining from some of the more vainglorious purple finger hagiography.
Iraq may indeed end up surprising all those who doubt that democracy is an export commodity. And Kristol, Kagan and Kaplan - as well as Bush - may prove to be correct. Still, their respective interpretations seem more sentimental than logical - not to mention self-serving.

At the same time, critics of the invasion and occupation of Iraq are predisposed to discount the positive possibilities that may arise from the election and instead conjure historical metaphors like South Vietnam's acclaimed high-turnout 1967 elections that did nothing to forestall the fall of Saigon. These critics argue that Iraq's state building project is cosmetic and while electoral turnout, even among the Sunni population, may be high, as soon as US pressure disappears, Iraq will cease worrying about its image and will dismantle the government in favour of three independent states. If this division is not massaged in an orderly manner, the most mentioned scenario is anarchy and civil war.

What is missing in the general interpretation of events in Iraq is a dispassionate depiction of what is going on and analysis of what it means. In a recent New Yorker profile of general Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first Bush president, George H. W. Bush complimented his adviser and indicted his son's administration by stating that Scowcroft "was very good about making sure that we did not simply consider the 'best case', but instead considered what it would mean if things went our way, and also if they did not".
To his credit, Clemons does his part to point out the very real flaws in the latest elections, absent hyperbole and grand proclamations - do go read. Such an appraisal should help us to keep this electoral event in perspective and take steps in the months ahead to correct the flaws and maximize the beneficial potential. But correcting flaws, and righting the course, first requires an honest, objective cataloguing of those flaws and detours. This is not the Bush administration's strong suit. But it's the presidency we have, if not the one we want.

[UPDATE: They don't call him Swopa-damus for nuthin'. Swopa's been right about this stuff more than almost anyone else I've read. And I think he was right again. Here's his look at the prelimenary results from the Iraq elections - which looks a lot like his prediction for the prelimenary results from the Iraq elections. Shorter version, of an already succinct post: the UIA did well, again, and the secular American favorite, Ahmad Chalabi Iyad Allawi didn't meet the lofty expectations in the American commentariat. I would say that part of the unvarnished truth telling (as per above) should include a section on how the Iraqi voting population is not as enamored with CIA-linked former Baathists as we would like and that Iranian and Islamist influence will be a force to reckon with in Iraq for years to come. This isn't necessarily a deal breaker in terms of Democracy and the future of Iraq, but the sooner we understand this, the better. It should at least tame some of the messianic rhetoric writ large. From Swopa:

Meanwhile, speaking of secular candidates with meager vote totals, there's this heartwarming tidbit from the Financial Times:

The Iraqi National Congress of controversial Shia politician Ahmed Chalabi, tipped as a possible prime ministerial candidate, did much worse than many had expected, taking only 0.36 per cent of the vote in Baghdad and 0.34 per cent in Basra.
Ahmad Chalabi: still not ready to take over Iraq and normalize relations with Israel. That shouldn't really be news.]

Friday, December 16, 2005

A Pause For Perspective

I wanted to take a break from some of my more critical analysis to acknowledge and appreciate the rather significant political event that just took place in Iraq. Leaving aside questions of justification, cost/benefit analyses, overall historical impact and even the prospects for permanence and long term success, I simply want to offer my sincere appreciation of the courage and perseverence of the Iraqi people.

After all that the Iraqis have endured over the past centuries, for a moment on Thursday at least - however flawed and imperfect that moment may have been - they were able to feel the exhiliration at finally having a say in deciding the manner in which their country will be ruled. As an American, I am sure I take this right for granted (though I never skip votes), but for the Iraqi people at this time, the newness and boundless expectations are more potent forces than complacency, apathy and inattention. As I have hoped for at the occurence of other important political milestones in Iraq, I reiterate my wish to see this event create a momentum within the collective Iraqi consciousness that will encourage the healing of the rift in Iraqi society and bring leaders and groups closer to compromise, peace and unity and away from the destructive cycle of violence.

Only the hardest of hearts could ignore the pride and happiness on many Iraqi faces, and the relief felt at emerging from the Baath regime's mis-rule to what hopefully will be a brighter future. We shouldn't let our opposition to this war, or the knowledge of all the bad that has come along with it, to obscure this reality. It would help, of course, if war supporters would refrain from overly triumphalistic crowing or other dubious contentions about the significance of this one election which end up putting people on the defensive about what should otherwise be a unanimously welcomed event. Maybe both sides could give each other some breathing room.

All too often, the Iraqi people themselves are what we lose sight of in the scuffle over the policy issues, the discussions of costs, the prognostications, pollyannic spin, good news/bad news and associated argumentation. More than most perhaps, I have been very willing to express my fears, misgivings and doubts about the contours of the road that lies ahead - although I have always strived to be nothing more than objective. But maybe for a brief period, on this Friday in December, we can all just sit back and enjoy this window of optimism and promise - however fleeting it may turn out to be. We can resume our contentious conversation on Monday. There'll be plenty of time for that. In the meantime, I hope the Iraqi people were able to derive a sense of accomplishment and hope from this week's events. It's the very least they deserve.

The Real Elections

Sure, Iraq just had what some might consider an historical election, but there are more important issues to discuss. With that in mind, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the very important, highly influential and rather lucrative (not yet but that's what I'm told) annual Koufax Awards - handed out to the left side of the blogosphere. The folks running the Koufax Awards, Wampum, have just begun receiving nominations. I won't be as completely shameless in my self promotion this year - at least not unless I make it to the semi-finals in which case I will be all over you like a telemarketer on methamphetamine. That being said, I won't be coy either, and I do encourage all to vote for their favorites (read: me you fools!).

Categories are below, and the Wampum site has a fuller explanation of the criteria for each. I won't be making any recommendations until the next round when the field is lessened a little bit, but I do offer a few helpful suggestions (and I would note that I consider my entire blogroll to be an ongoing recommendation):

Best Blog

Best Blog -- Pro Division

Best Blog Community

Best Writing

Best Post: Some of my TIA/LAT favorites - to save you the time of scouring the archives (because I know you were going to): What Might Have Been (a look at what would have happened had we not invaded Iraq), Enlightened Hardboiled-ness (the military's own guru on interrogations says torture is ineffective), Intrigue, Vectors and a Mosaic of Fault Lines (borrowing a concept from publius at Legal Fiction, a look at the Iraqi political landscape).

Best Series: Since I am a series-addict, here, again, some of my favorites: Democracy Debate (series of posts and rebuttals with Marc Schulman at American Future), The Fog of Withdrawal [one, two and three] (a look at the issues of impending withdrawal from Iraq), The Epilogue [Parts one through three linked to here] (another look at withdrawal), The Sound of One Country Clapping [Parts one and two linked to here] (a look at America's increasing isolation and the triumphalism of unipolarity), The I Didn't Do It Country [Parts one and two] (a look at torture, extraordinary renditions and the larger implications).

Best Single Issue Blog

Best Group Blog: (ahem, American Footprints, nee Liberals Against Terrorism - it doesn't get any better than that...)

Most Humorous Blog

Most Humorous Post

Most Deserving of Wider Recognition: (Since I can't go for Best New Blog this year [somehow, through your help, made it to the finals last year], I guess I'll have to settle for this category - which judging by my cult-status-like readership levels, will be open to me for many years to come. Like the blogosphere's Susan Lucci, I will be a perennial favorite for deserving of wider recognition due to my consistently...low profile.)

Best Expert Blog

Best New Blog

Best Coverage of State or Local Issues

Best Commenter: (there are a few that frequent this site that should get votes in this one - especially the frequent guest poster mister jon....ter, and the oft cantankerous Mr. A.)

Go forth and nominate away. Vote early and often. And often. And then again. Until you have ten purple fingers. If you don't vote, the terrorists win. Show those folks at Wampum no mercy....

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Judean People's Front

According to Heather Hurlburt, we, of the progressive/liberal persuasion, are addicted to infighting - foolishly prone to internecine squabbles in pursuit of the "purest" vision of progressivism. Since Monty Python analogies are the theme of the day, allow me to suggest that we are like the myriad Jewish resistance groups in the film The Life of Brian who are so focused on bettering each other, and providing "the" way to liberation, that they fail to direct their attention at their common target: the Romans. Remember the unforgettable scene where two such resistance groups (the People's Front of Judea and the Campaign for Free Galilee), each on their way to kidnap Pilate's wife, meet up in the sewers and begin fighting with each other instead of going on to strike at the Romans. In the heat of battle, Brian attempts to restore sanity:

Brothers! Brothers! We should be struggling together!

We are!

We mustn't fight each other! Surely we should be united against the common enemy!

The Judean People's Front?!

No, no! The Romans!

Though she adds another layer to the analysis, Heather's mild (in comparison) rant tracks with my previous attempt to admonish the Democratic Party for its notorious self sabotage and maddening tendency to jump into the middle of its political opponents' crises. My main thesis was that, as a Party, the Democrats would be better off with a more understated approach on Iraq than the one on display in recent weeks - with the result of the recent stumbles likely to provide cover for Bush (in terms of deflecting negative press coverage, solidifying his base and offering a scapegoat for the inevitable withdrawal). Here's Hurlburt (emphasis mine):

And President Bush says he is in [Iraq] until victory, even though his Pentagon seems to be getting ready to draw down next year.

But is that in the papers every day? No.

Why? No, not because of a right-wing media conspiracy. Because most Republicans are too disciplined to discuss it -- and, frankly, because at least some of them are probably too busy figuring out how to carve each other up with stilettos. Quietly.

Folks, we are sucking up all the oxygen that ought to be going to serious debate of serious issues around Iraq -- or, failing that, at least to fan the fire around the Administration's failures. That is MORE IMPORTANT than Murtha vs. Lieberman, Pelosi vs. Hoyer, or Dean vs. everybody.

Positive plans are great -- gives people something to think about, Americans something hopeful to hold onto, and can even be used to push back on other plans. We have lots to say that is positive and pro-active.

But the next time somebody's plan shows up in your inbox, and you take five minutes to write a critique -- stop before you hit global send. Please. None of us is going in the history books for the effectiveness of our hatchet jobs on this war.
I would add that before you think to draft the master plan for Iraq (if you are a politician, party appartchik or other influential figure), you might want to stop before you send it at all, hit save and sit on it until Bush is done roasting. In fact, why don't you throw a couple more coals on the fire if you feel the need to speak out about something. There's plenty of kindling available. Besides, last time I checked, he wasn't listening to you anyway, so spare us the vanity pose. If you must, please refer to the series of "first rules" regarding momentum and your adversary's struggles contained in my earlier post.

The Stars of Rack and Wheel Are Beautiful People

The Bush administration has come up with an interesting way to neutralize the effects of that pesky McCain Amendment which is gathering steam now in the House after passing in the Senate. First, some background: the short version of the story is that the McCain Amendment would make it the law of the land that all entities within the US government adhere to, at a minimum, the standards set forth in the Army Field Manual on the interrogation of prisoners (prohibiting cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment - with certain specific exceptions). At present, according to the Bush administration's legal authorities in the Department of Justice, the CIA and other intelligence gathering entities are exempt from such requirements. The initial response from Bush and Cheney to McCain's attempt to create a unified standard of conduct for interrogations has been to push for the attachment of a provision to the McCain legislation that would preserve the CIA's exemption - so that the CIA could continue to use torture and abuse in the interrogation process.

It appears that even the Bush administration is getting a little skittish about taking such a public stance against an anti-torture bill - especially because the McCain legislation is enjoying bi-partisan support in Congress and in the nation at large. So, they've come up with a solution: if the McCain bill will force the CIA to adhere to the Army Field Manual on interrogation, and as it stands the rules set forth therein would likely preclude the use of torture, then why not just amend the Army Field Manual. That way, everybody is happy: McCain gets his bill, and the CIA and other entities involved in the interrogation process can keep on doing what they were doing. It is as clever as it is cynical and morally dubious. Unfortunately, by amending the Army Manual, the Bush administration may be in effect widening the breadth of the current exception from just the CIA to the armed forces in general. Under the newly amended manual, not only would the CIA be free to act in abusive ways, but no rank and file soldiers would have a broader array of abusive practices to call upon. In other words, if given the choice, shooting down the McCain bill would have a better result.

The recent stealth approach is so disturbing, that even Victor Hansen (a solid Bush-booster) has written an op-ed denouncing the back door torpedoing of the McCain legislation. Strange days indeed. In light of these recent moves, I thought it would be a good time to look at some of the potential costs of changing America's moral footing on the torture and abuse of detainees. Lounsbury has some interesting, and in my opinion well-balanced, thoughts (via Nadezhda):

I have followed with some bemusement the 'debates' over torture in the US media.

I have to say, they are fairly grotesque on some level.

Let me say that my pragmatic self accepts that from time to time outfits like the CIA may have to engage in, well, less-than-Snow-Whitish behaviour. I accept that in the same way I accept that in the Middle East and similar neighborhoods in business one has to turn a blind eye towards certain things.

But in both cases, they should not be the baseline, the standard. They should be exceptional, else quickly a rot sets in.

Turning to the issue of torture, I find it astonishing that so few US commentators understand the profound damage this entire process is doing to the US image and standing. These are not mere trifles, look to the cold hard world of finance, we still care about reputational risk, even if it is more about appearance than fact. Lose your reputation, and your transaction costs skyrocket, to say the least.

The US is losing its brand power, as it were, in the area of government. American society is largely attractive to many, the American story and its socio-economic dynamism (however exagerated and mythologised, still relatively better than most of the world, including the developed world). However, this brand is being pissed away by bumbling fools who do not understand its importance, and think gross, short termism is strategy.

It is, in short, grotesquely stupid. As Talleyrand (a real favourite of mine, although it was likely Boulay de la Meurthe's phrase) is said to have said, "It is worse than a crime, it is a blunder."

However, it is typical of the childish, indeed often Hollywoodish manner in which the Beit Ibn Bush has conducted its affaires.

Regardless, what I found most, well, depressing I suppose, was the plebian ignoramus definitions of "US interests" as if one does not have to continually do business globally. Pure idiot insularity. Now it is well taken one can not let bleeding heart little idjit Leftist protestors who manage to be offended by anything at all dictate one's actions. However, at the same time it is rather trivially obvious that alienating, above all needlessly, large swaths of international opinion not so idiotically and knee-jerkingly opposed to American interests is counter productive.

However, the arguments being bandied about on these "news" programs struck me as rather Bolsheviki in their bizarrely ideoglurghish party line content.

In some sad ways they are perfect illustration of why I have taken to calling a good swath of the American Right, Right Bolsheviks.
Yes, this is a theme I have been trying to hammer away at repeatedly of late. I see now that the Bush administration is growing fond of viewing the Iraq conflict as a counterinsurgency - complete with military leaders brushing up on relevant texts on the subject matter (better late than never I suppose). Who knows, they might eventually even come around to the understanding that in many ways the meta battle with al-Qaeda is also very similar to a counterinsurgency war - though, as Kingdaddy points out, there are differences that should make our counterterrorism effort easier to abide with a higher prospect for success. I'm no expert on the matter, but I can tell you that both counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts demand a level of concern, responsiveness and attention to the hearts and minds of the target population. Supporting torture will not win us any raves in this regard - to say the very, very least. An anonymous commenter on Lounsbury's post makes the point a different way:

For every person you're able to extract any useful information from by torture, there are a thousand -- or a million -- who would freely give information if America made even a pretense of living up to its ideals. The true power of America is not that it can break people's legs -- any petty dictator can do that. The true power of America is that it represents something people want to cooperate with. By refusing to torture people under any circumstances, you take one small step toward staking out an absolute moral position. The statement "America will never torture people because it's wrong." means America stands for something. America will only be trusted when it will refuse to do some things that are wrong even if they are expedient.

The bottom line here, in case you missed it, Mr. President, is that torturing people will actually lose the U.S. far more vital intelligence than it gains. If you won't stop torturing people because it's wrong, stop torturing people because it's bad policy.
As if we needed more than the moral justifications to outlaw torture anyway. You'd think that the larger policy concerns would have permeated an administration that is finally coming to grips with the reality that exits beyond its bubble encased group-think: American principles matter. Regardless of how many times you try to trumpet those principles, people will stubbornly look to the real world manifestations. Those examples will ultimately decide how seductive our vision is, not the marketing effort or the shade of lipstick applied to the pig. In such a world, and in such a mission, torture has no place. Plain and simple.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Citing Relevant Authority

The New York Times is reporting that there has been another discovery of a Shiite-run detention center rife with the abuse, torture and mistreatment of the mostly Sunni captives.

The discovery of the prison was the second case in less than a month of a detention facility found with prisoners who seemed to have been tortured or abused. On Nov. 15, American soldiers entered an Interior Ministry basement and found 169 malnourished prisoners, some of whom, the Americans said, had been tortured. Most of those prisoners were Sunni Arabs.

Last week, a surprise American-Iraqi search of the detention center, which was run by an Iraqi commando unit attached to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, resulted in the discovery of an even larger number of prisoners.

...13 of the prisoners [were] in such bad shape that they needed to be hospitalized.
Iraqi officials issued a response that might seem familiar to many Americans privy to the Bush administration's contorted song and dance performed over the past three years. It comprises the initial denial of the act committed, then the downplaying the severity of the act committed, followed by the justifications for committing the act - which was denied in the first place (following the model of: America doesn't torture, these incidents are at the level of frat pranks, followed by "we are at war and must do everything to defend the homeland.").

The Iraqi Interior Ministry insisted Monday that none of the 625 prisoners discovered last week in an Iraqi detention center had been tortured or abused, despite assertions by American officials to the contrary.[...]

"Only a few guys were slapped on their faces," Mr. Anbagi said. "The prisoners who were taken to the hospital didn't have any serious injuries. They suffered from headaches only."

He did not elaborate on that point but added: "What do you want policemen to do after their colleagues have been attacked? Policemen die everyday because of those guys."
As noted above, this account was disputed by the American military personnel on the scene.

A spokesman for the American command disputed Mr. Anbagi's account, saying the physical condition of the prisoners who were hospitalized was worse than what Mr. Anbagi had described.

"These were very real medical conditions that needed immediate attention," said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson. "There were U.S. forces that provided medical attention on the scene and that transported them to the hospital."
Mr. Anbagi went on to cite what he called relevant legal authority, noting that none of the prisoners had been tortured because none had experienced pain equivalent to organ failure or death, and that even if a prisoner had experienced such pain, the infliction of such was not the specific intent of any of the interrogators/jailers. "Besides," he added, "what if there had been a ticking time bomb hidden somewhere in Baghdad and one of these prisoners knew where it was? Shouldn't they be tortured? How many innocent Iraqi lives should be sacrificed for one terrorist?"

Bush administration officials in the Department of Justice could not be reached for full comment, but did note that Anbagi's standard was prima facie valid. One anonymous source went on to add that any waterboarding conducted by interrogators at the facility should be viewed as a valid interrogation technique and not torture.

Vice President Cheney issued a statement saying that he hoped Iraqis would outlaw torture, but that any law addressing such an issue should specifically exclude any current or future Iraqi intelligence agencies from that law's scope and reach. According to Cheney's office, the establishment and preservation of a free and democratic society based on the rule of law demands such exceptions.*

*(please note, the last three paragraphs were satirical in nature)

Monday, December 12, 2005

Caliph-ornia Dreaming

A couple of weeks back, I wrote a post which sought to refute the clumsy scare tactics hauled out by Rumsfeld (and later Cheney) regarding the potential for Zarqawi, Bin Laden and Zawahiri to take over in Iraq if we were to withdraw our troops prematurely. As I wrote then, Zarqawi and his al-Qaeda brethren do not enjoy the popular support needed to secure the mantle of leadership of Iraq. For the most part, the various strains of the Sunni insurgencies have been tolerating Zarqawi because of his usefulness (read: the money and cannon fodder garnered from Zarqawi's foreign fighter network) in pushing their disparate agendas - for the former Baathists, regaining control of Iraq through destabilization of the current regime, and for the nationalists, lashing out at the occupying power and its accomplices .

There is, no doubt, more synergy to be found with Iraqi Salafists who buy into Zarqawi's manichean vision of a Muslim caliphate (and some previously non-Salafist Iraqis have been radicalized and converted by the Zarqawi group), but their numbers are still comparatively small when viewing the proclivities and aspirations of the overall Sunni insurgency and broader population (more on this below). More likely, the Sunnis will find common cause with Zarqawi until he is of no more use to them, and/or their goals diverge, and then be done with him.

Juan Cole discusses some recent reports that indicate a growing trend toward the marginalization of Zarqawi and his chosen tactics among Sunni insurgents:
Al-Hayat's sources say that several changes have occurred in the arena of guerrilla action in 2005, which have benefited the Iraqi nationalist groups that reject attacks on civilians and the practice of "excommunicating" (takfir) other Muslims. The method of "national resistance" has instead gained advantages over the bloody tactics of the jihadis, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Ansar al-Islam. More than 50 guerrilla bands, including "Phalanges of the 1920 Revolution," "the Army of Islam," "The Army of Holy Warriors", "Holy Warriors of the Armed Forces," are actually led, despite their Islamist names, by officers of the former Iraqi military. They have decided to unite their ranks and will soon announce a Front for the Iraqi Resistance, which will comprise all these guerrilla groups. They will adopt joint military and political stances. This front will be led by a "Consultative Council" that includes former officers, clerics and clan elders. It will be charged with working to prevent attacks on civilians and with promoting dialogue for the purpose of "expelling the occupiers."
My American Footprints blogmate, Brian Ulrich, cites an article that highlights the rift between the various Sunni insurgent groups in the context of the upcoming round of elections:

"In a move unthinkable in the bloody run-up to the last election, guerrillas in the western insurgent heartland of Anbar province say they are even prepared to protect voting stations from fighters loyal to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaida in Iraq.
Ulrich also cites a study that predicts that Zarqawi's group (composed of foreign fighters and Iraqi co-Salafists) makes up little more than 14% of the total insurgent pool in Iraq. A further indicator of his comparatively muted strength and ability (even if the study is off by five-ten percentage points). Some have argued that Saddam/the Baath Party was able to control Iraq from a minority position and thus Zarqawi might do the same. But this ignores the fact that Saddam was an Iraqi, with extensive knowledge, contacts and expertise in the local political terrain. Zarqawi (a Jordanian), less so. Saddam also had, and used, a vast arsenal of heavy weaponry including tanks, air power and artillery to maintain control. Zarqawi has none of those, and will not likely be securing any in the near future. While the Shiites and Kurds are not exactly awash in the aforementioned weaponry, they do have the United States which would likely extend air power to the Shiite-Kurdish side if threatened by a Zarqawi-led insurrection. This would be true even if our troops have been withdrawn from that nation.

For Zarqawi, successful elections that foster cooperation between the warring factions are incongruent with the goal of establishing a Muslim caliphate. Instead, destabilization and chaos in Iraq are the short-term desired outcomes in order to create conditions conducive to a potential coup of Islamists and/or to foster the cultivation of an epicenter of destabilization (complete with terrorist training facilities) capable of emanating outward and toppling the apostate regimes that rule the nations that would become the new caliphate. The majority of Sunni insurgents, on the other hand, are more interested in power, money and influence in Iraq - not some broad vision of a quasi-mythical pure Islamic state. Hence the tension and potential clash over the elections which most Sunni insurgents seem inclined to use in order to attempt to meet their needs.

It should be noted, however, that if the Sunnis do not secure sufficient money, power and influence after the upcoming round of elections, there is a very strong possibility that the violence plaguing Iraq will continue and the civil war escalate. In such a scenario, Zarqawi would likely be seen as useful again, and thus his insurgent "visa" extended. So unless there is a political solution that can tamp the insurgencies and exploit the underlying rift between Zarqawi's group and the other insurgent groups, al-Qaeda in Iraq could still come out winners in the sense that they will be able to maintain their training ground for future terrorists, as well as exacerbate the potential destabilizing influence of an Iraq thrown into internal chaos. Too hasty a withdrawal of US troops under such circumstances could be detrimental to many of our goals in the region and the GWOT more generally. Even if we'll never see Emir Zarqawi atop the throne. That is, once again, why finding a political solution to the insurgency is of paramount importance and why pushing through the Constitution on schedule, despite that document's obvious flaws in this regard, was such a mistake. As I said back then, the Constitution was being fixed around the timetable.

[UPDATE: For more on the problems with the Iraqi Constitution and their interplay with the issues confronting that nation, read Kanan Mikaya's recent op-ed in the New York Times (h/t to Belgravia Dispatch). Here's a teaser:

WASHINGTON and Baghdad will be tempted, with the adoption of a new Constitution and the election on Thursday for a four-year government, to declare victory in Iraq. In one sense, they are right to do so. The emerging Iraqi polity undoubtedly represents a radical break not only with the country's past but also with the whole Arab state system established by Britain and France after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

But in the larger sense, such optimism is misguided, for none of the problems associated with Iraq's monumental change have been sorted out. Worse, profound tensions and contradictions have been enshrined in the Constitution of the new Iraq, and they threaten the very existence of the state.
The rest is, as they say, well worth the read. Keep in mind, this is the same Iraqi ex-pat Kanan Mikaya who was firmly in the pro-invasion camp. In fact, I believe he is attributed with the infamous quote that we would be greeted as liberators with "flowers and candies." So if anything, this might give his not-so-rosy assessment some extra credence - or at least reduce the likelihood that his opinions are overly influenced by his political biases.]

Friday, December 09, 2005

If I Ruled The World...Or At Least The DNC

Snatching "Unwinnable" From The Jaws Of Victory

If I was supreme emperor of the Democratic Party, this is what I would do: I would gather every Democratic politician, pundit and public figure and usher them into one enormous conference room. I would approach the podium in a stern and august manner. After deliberately prolonging the task of organizing my papers on the lectern, I would cast a piercing gaze across the room, making eye contact with as many faces as I could manage. Lieberman, Pelosi, Dean, Murtha, Hillary, etc. Then, with the tension properly built, I would place my forefinger over my lips and say, "SHHHH!!" After that, I would walk off stage, my mission accomplished.

But seriously, are the Democrats completely devoid of strategic thought? Has the Gore/Kerry ham-handedness spread like a virus throughout the entire corpus democratis? Allow me to explain my puzzlement by way of some analogies. It is often said that the first rule of politics is to get out of the way when your opponent is shooting him/herself in the foot. Well, it works in other milieus as well. When in a courtroom, never (I mean never) interrupt the proceedings or object to anything when your adversary is going down in flames. Don't try to pour it on or bolster your case in any way. Let them do the damage, and rest your case. Your actions - even if you think you can score some extra points - can only hurt your cause. Low reward, potentially high cost.

In football, if you're the coach and your team is marching down the field on offense, and the defense can't stop you or figure out what you are doing - don't call time out and give them time to regroup. In baseball, when you're the manager and your pitcher is in a groove, and the opposing batters are flailing helplessly at the ball and getting jelly legs at the combination of hot hot heat and nasty breaking pitches, don't halt the momentum by calling time out and heading out to the mound for a conference with the pitcher.

Feel free to consider other relevant analogies as you see fit. But why is it that what is basic common sense to ordinary folks, football players, attorneys, baseball players and most politicians eludes so many within the Democratic Party? I am responding to the recent spate of "plans" being offered for the future of Iraq by the Democrats and other related entities.

The events of the past six months have conspired to induce a confusing combination of shock, horror, vindication, relief, encouragement and sadness as the American people have finally begun to recognize the level of incompetence on display in the White House and GOP writ large: The ongoing violence in Iraq, the Katrina fiasco, Plamegate, Rove/Libby, Harriet Miers, Duke Cunningham, Jack Abramoff, Tom Delay, the Republican caucus in the House, the thinly veiled attempt to gut Social Security, the ballooning deficits (which the GOP intends to solve with - get this - MORE tax cuts!!!), the stagnant wages and tepid labor market, the steady erosion of worker benefits, environmental degradation, etc. But I guess the Dems can't stand success, because in the middle of Bush's decline, with the entire nation (save the die-hard 30%) riveted on what many historians are now saying may be one of the worst presidencies ever, the Democrats have done the unthinkable. They've interrupted the court, called a time out, offered up a distraction and thrown Bush a lifeline.

I am referring, in the main, to the recent comments by Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi regarding the war in Iraq, and the suggested course of action in terms of troops withdrawals. First and foremost, I want to table the discussion of whether or not Dean's and Pelosi's statements are right from a strategic point of view (that the war is unwinnable and that we should proceed with a Murtha-endorsed timed withdrawal, respectively). John Judis has written an interesting article chronicling the surprising consistency with which Dean has turned out to be "right" with respect to almost all of his brashest and most controversial statements. But as publius argued rather convincingly, you can be right and wrong. One refers to empirical truth, the other to political tactics. I have my own doubts about Dean and Pelosi, but that is for another post.

To use my courtroom analogy above, even where your opponent is making a mistake, and even where you think you can add some spice (even if you're "right"), the smart thing to do is just shut up. Literally. Let your opponent dig his/her own grave. Instead of letting Bush dangle in the wind, with his own policies around his neck like an albatross, the Democrats have, amazingly, shifted the focus back on themselves. And to what end? Instead of talking about Bush and Iraq (in a favorable light: intelligence manipulation, poor planning, etc.) and the many other scandals and failures surrounding the President, the press is talking about the Democrats. Brilliant.

Fight Vague With Vaguer

My guess is that certain Democrats grew frustrated with the oft-repeated, though relatively innocuous, taunts of the GOP (repeated by the compliant media) that the Democrats don't have a plan for victory Iraq. Well guess what: they don't. Nor should they. Nor can they. Nor is anyone listening. Why should the Democrats have a plan to solve this problem that was created entirely without their input, counsel or prerogative? It is as if Bush and the GOP tied up our foreign policy/military into a Gordian knot and then blamed the Democrats for not knowing how to solve the riddle. I'd rather be left with the tag of not knowing how to clean up Bush's mess, than other less desirable labels sure to follow.

And here's the other half of the equation: the Republicans don't have a plan either. There are no plans, no magic bullets, no simple courses of action, no mystical strategies that if only we adhered to, voila!, Iraq would emerge as a peaceful, stable, secular, democratic and friendly nation. We might be able to achieve at least some of those goals, and damage control remains a crucial objective, but time is not on our side, and any success will likely only be the result of an adjust-on-the-fly and hope for the best combination. I mean, Bush's latest unveiling of the new grand strategy for victory in Iraq was little more than a reupholstered version of his previous strategy - only now with bullet points! More interestingly, that speech contained the hints at the inevitable: because our armed forces are so overstretched, because of the waning support for the war domestically, because of Iraqis losing patience with our presence, because of Bush's plunging approval ratings, because of the 2006 midterm elections and because the situation in Iraq is so chaotic, we will be withdrawing significant numbers of troops over the course of the next 12-18 months. Even if couched in terms of new Iraqi forces being "ready" to take over, whatever follows in Iraq, be it civil war or some lesser level of violence, will be Bush's legacy. At least it should be.

Enter, the Keystone Democrats. Now the Democrats are jumping into the fray, stealing the spotlight and, in effect, shielding Bush from the eventual fallout. We have replaced the "Democrats don't have a plan" charge to "the Democrats have as many plans as there are Democrats." We look confused, befuddled, internally fragmented and generally hapless. Bravo. Well done. What's worse: the Democrats have fallen into the trap and have, foolishly, claimed the mantle of "withdrawal" (although some of this charge is clearly unfair, overstated and duplicitious). Let me put it this way, if you were Rove and Bush, and you knew that you had to begin pulling out troops in 2006, and you knew that with the current troop levels we can't defeat the insurgency so with fewer troops we will be even less successful, would you be upset or relieved to hear that at least some Democrats were leading the charge on withdrawal? If I were Rove or Bush I would let out an enormous sigh of relief. Say thank you. There's the exit strategy: The Democrats made us do it! Just like Vietnam, we were on the verge of winning in Iraq, and were this close, but the liberals rushed us to the exits prematurely. It all would have been a smashing success, but for those traitorous, yeller' liberals. That should sound familiar.

On the other hand, if Bush and Rove actually intend to continue on in Iraq, against the advice of the military and the wishes of nervous GOP legislators facing re-election, what better aid to galvanize the base and win back some wandering moderates than to have a vocal anti-war movement to push against and use as a foil. Whereas up until recently the Democrats have, rather deftly, let Bush shadow box himself into a corner, now the Democrats have stepped into the ring and given Bush an adversary to fight against. If they want to stay in Iraq, statements like Dean's help them to keep their supporters in the fold. If they want to leave, Dean gives them the perfect scapegoat. What does Dean get?

You know who has a better plan? Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton (this should come as no surprise because, um, she's getting advice from the only strategic thinker left in the Democratic Party - her husband). Neither of them are offering anything radically different than Bush, and neither of them are big on the specifics, but why should they be? Bush isn't. Nobody is. And nobody should be. Here's another first rule: when negotiating a contract, settlement or anything else, let the other side speak first. Be vague. You'd be surprised how often you end up getting more than you were going to ask for by letting the other side propose their solution first. In the present context, why offer up a plan that can be critiqued and ridiculed when your opponent isn't? Fight vague with vaguer, and let Bush's actions be his alone.

I would also recommend the approach suggested by Bob Herbert in his most recent column: call Bush's bluff. If he says he wants to keep our troops in Iraq until we "defeat all the terrorists," sit back and let him do the talking. In fact, as Herbert did, challenge him to take the steps necessary to achieve this: raise taxes to pay for it, and increase the size of the Army through draft or other means. Demand more troops (even though we know there aren't any). [Please Note: This should in no way be read as an endorsement of the embarrasing, inept and far more damaging rants of the hypocritical Joe Lieberman.]

I would rather the Democrats be taking the line that if Bush wants to win it, we need to do more, or that no one can solve the mess Bush created, than the position that we should withdraw. Or no line at all. The quieter, the better (see: above). Aside from the fact that I think, strategically, we still need to try to stablize the situation in Iraq and too hasty a withdrawal could damage us considerably, from a political point of view, let withdrawal be Bush's legacy. My guess is his hand will be forced one way or another. Even if Murtha, Dean, Pelosi and others are right in their stances, Bush isn't going to take their advice anyway, so they're shouting in the wind. So what's the point? The self-satisfaction of being right? It is far more important that if and when the full toll of Iraq becomes apparent to the American people, and Bush leads our troops out of that situation, that there is no Vietnam redux where the folks who opposed the debacle get blamed for the outcome because of the potent blend of cognitive dissonance, guilt, humiliation and anger. At least that's what I would do if I were King. Maybe I'm missing something.

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