Monday, July 31, 2006

Mookie Wilson's War

In the wake of the Qana bombings discussed by Haggai on American Footprints, the stakes just got a little more interesting for all parties involved - not the least, the United States. As Swopa notes, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani upped the ante big time with a thinly veiled warning to America shrouded in, relatively, inflammatory language [emphasis added]:

Iraq's top Shiite cleric Sunday demanded an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon, warning the Muslim world will "not forgive" nations that stand in the way of stopping the fighting. [...]

"Islamic nations will not forgive the entities that hinder a cease-fire," al-Sistani said, in a clear reference to the United States.

"It is not possible to stand helpless in front of this Israeli aggression on Lebanon," he added. "If an immediate cease-fire in this Israeli aggression is not imposed, dire consequences will befall the region." [...]

Al-Sistani, who also has a large following among Lebanon's Shiites, said "words are unable to condemn this crime that was carried out by those who got rid of all humanitarian values."

"The size of the catastrophe in Lebanon resulting from the continuation of the Israeli aggression has reached a point that cannot tolerate more patience and we cannot stand idle toward it," al-Sistani said.

It should come as no surprise that the Bush administration's clumsy approach to the crisis - initially wishing to delay the advent of a cease-fire - is coming back to haunt it. It represents a most extraordinary position from a diplomatic perspective: revealing to the world that we not only tolerate, but perhaps welcome, some level of military confrontation - at least initially. Fairly or unfairly, we will be held accountable for our role in facilitating the bloodshed in the interim period.

But there is also an interesting back-story to Sistani's vocal condemnation. Last week, I cited a post by Spencer Ackerman that told of inter-Shiite maneuvers in Iraq vis-a-vis Lebanon. As Ackerman noted, Moqtada al-Sadr was quick to seize the mantle as the champion to the Lebanese people through a series of blustery speeches culminating in actively pursuing the possibility of mobilizing elements of the Mahdi Army to travel to join the fight in southern Lebanon.

Aside from the obvious (sincere anger at Israel's actions), Moqtada shrewdly gauged the crisis as an opportunity to out-flank his Shiite rivals - safe in the knowledge that few could match his fiery rhetoric, and none (probably) his decision to send fighters - should he ultimately take that step (assuming he hasn't already).

As Juan Cole notes, the vehement tone of Sistani's statements might have been at least partially influenced by the need to respond in kind to Sadr's moves:

Sistani is taking such a hard line on this issue not only because he feels strongly about it (his fatwa against the Jenin operation of 2002 was vehement) but also because he is in danger of being outflanked by Muqtada al-Sadr. [...]

Sistani cannot allow Muqtada to monopolize this issue, or the young cleric's legitimacy will grow among the angry Shiite masses at the expense of Sistani's.

In this sense, the Lebanese/Israeli conflict creates a self reinforcing loop of radicalization in the region: (a) Anger at scenes of the carnage radicalizes constituents; (b) Firebrands like Sadr move to capitalize on, and further stoke, the resentment; (c) Other more moderate voices (like Sistani) are forced to try to match Sadr with forceful rhetoric; and (d) This abandonment of moderation, in turn, further radicalizes the constituents making any position short of that espoused by the radicals untenable. When the moderates are forced to imitate the firebrands, few, if any, positive results follow. Yet that is undoubtedly the result of radicalization, which inevitably flows from military engagements of this nature.

This, of course, says nothing of the heat Nouri al-Malaki must be feeling right about now. With the other major forces in the Iraqi Shiite firmament making loud noises, Malaki risks losing face and legitimacy if he is perceived as a quisling to US interests. Yet how far can he go out on the tightrope, rhetorically and practically, without risking a loss of support from his American patrons? Not an enviable position to be in.

It's not limited to the Shiites, however. Even the Sunnis in Iraq are feeling the pressure to turn the volume up. As Ackerman observed:

To make matters even worse...despite all the talk about Sunnis resisting the pull of Hezbollah, the Iraqi Sunnis feel pressure to one-up Sadr and join the fight against Israel as well, quoting Sunni Sheik Abdul Rahman Al Duleimi:

"This is a must-do, to show all the Arabs that Iraq is still standing," said the Sunni cleric.

"And the other reason is we want to extend the fighting range so they will know Lebanon is not just one country and Iraq is not just one country, it is Muslims from all over the world," he said.

The tricky part is, with moderates like Sistani pushing their chips to the middle of the table in such a bold move with the rest of the powers that be, enraged Iraqis might call the bluff even if moderates like Sistani try to put the brakes on at a later date. Such forces, once unleashed, are very difficult to control.

Again, Juan Cole offers a glimpse at some possible scenarios:

What could he do if he were ignored? Sistani could call massive anti-US and anti-Israel demonstrations. Given Iraq's profound political instability, this development could be extremely dangerous. US troops in Baghdad and elsewhere are planning offensives against Shiite paramilitary groups, so tensions are likely to rise in the Shiite areas anyway. But big demonstrations could easily boil over into actual attacks on US and British troops.

The longer the conflict in Lebanon rages, the more empowered forces like Moqtada al-Sadr will become and the more likely an eruption becomes. If we lose the Shiite population in any significant numbers, and attacks commence on US troops throughout the south of that nation, not only will casualty rates increase measurably, but, as Pat Lang explained, our troops could face a real crisis in maintaining open supply lines. Our sphere of influence, and territory controlled, would shrink commensurately.

With this in mind, I think it's about time to start pressing for that cease-fire. Let's just say that enough damage has been done already - even if not necessarily to Hizbollah.

[UPDATE: Praktike's post at American Footprints - which traces the strengthening of radical elements in other nations in the region - tracks nicely with this post. Says prak:

...regional governments have been pushed from surprisingly strong scolding of Hizballah to harsh criticism of the Israeli reaction.[...]

In other words, even as the U.S. leans on Mubarak for more help in Gaza, with Syria, and in confronting Iran, our policies in the region continue to undermine his legitmacy in favor of people like Mustafa Bakri...and the Muslim Brotherhood.
None of these developments assist us in achieving our goals in the region and beyond. I would say the same goes for the goals of Israel - ironically or not.]

Friday, July 28, 2006

Unlicensed, Too Ill

Earlier this week, William Kristol, writing in the pages of the Weekly Standard, made an attempt to diagnose the comparative "health" of a situation from long distance, the likes of which hasn't been seen since Bill Frist gave his medical opinion on Terri Schiavo from a far away television monitor. Said Kristol [emphasis mine throughout]:

"We might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait?....Yes, there would be repercussions -- and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement."

It's statements such as those that lead one to empathize with Tommy Franks and what he endured during his required interactions with Douglas Feith. Healthy repercussions? From a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities? Right now?

It's not that there wouldn't be any healthy repercussions, I suppose, it's just that the negative would so vastly outweigh the positive as to render the exercise an abject failure. That Kristol would advocate such an ill-fated move is, unfortunately, somewhat typical.

This is a time when our military is stretched thin and fortuitously positioned (from an Iranian perspective) right next door (in both Afghanistan and Iraq). Getting at us has rarely been easier for Iran in terms of geographical proximity. The thought that opening a third front at a time when we can't quite control the two already active ones would be 'good strategy' is really just confused and short-sighted on a fundamental level.

Do we expect the Iranians to sit back and take it? To not mobilize terrorist networks worldwide? To not lash out at our soldiers, via proxy, in both Afghanistan and Iraq? Would they be reluctant to disrupt the world's oil supply? What forces could we muster to attack Iran if they escalated the engagement?

Most of these concerns have been well documented over the past couple of years, so I don't intend to reiterate them all (see, ie, prak's take on a James Fallows article from 2004). But there is an angle that I hadn't considered before that deserves mention.

Pat Lang, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, provides some insight into actual strategic considerations - not the magical thinking of the Green Lantern-ite neoconservatives like Kristol and Ledeen. Lang cautions us about how precarious the situation is in Iraq with respect to the supply lines our military forces rely on:

American forces in Iraq are in danger of having their line of supply cut by guerrillas. Napoleon once said that "an army travels on its stomach." By that he meant that the problem of keeping an army supplied is the prerequisite for the very existence of the force.

A 21st-century military force "burns up" a tremendous volume of expendable supplies and continuously needs repairs to equipment as well as medical treatment. Without a plentiful and dependable source of fuel, food, and ammunition, a military force falters. First it stops moving, then it begins to starve, and eventually it becomes unable to resist the enemy. [...]

American troops all over central and northern Iraq are supplied with fuel, food, and ammunition by truck convoy from a supply base hundreds of miles away in Kuwait. All but a small amount of our soldiers' supplies come into the country over roads that pass through the Shiite-dominated south of Iraq.

Until now the Shiite Arabs of Iraq have been told by their leaders to leave American forces alone....

Southern Iraq is thoroughly infiltrated by Iranian special operations forces working with Shiite militias, such as Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades. Hostilities between Iran and the United States or a change in attitude toward US forces on the part of the Baghdad government could quickly turn the supply roads into a "shooting gallery" 400 to 800 miles long.

At present, the convoys of trucks supplying our forces in Iraq are driven by civilians - either South Asians or Turks. If the route is indeed turned into a shooting gallery, these civilian truck drivers would not persist or would require a heavier escort by the US military.

...Trucks loaded with supplies are defenseless against many armaments, such as rocket-propelled grenades, small arms, and improvised explosive devices. A long, linear target such as a convoy of trucks is very hard to defend against irregulars operating in and around their own towns.

The volume of "throughput" would probably be seriously lessened in such a situation. A reduction in supplies would inevitably affect operational capability. This might lead to a downward spiral of potential against the insurgents and the militias. This would be very dangerous for our forces. [...]

Compounding the looming menace of the Kuwait-based line of supply is the route followed by the cargo ships en route to Kuwait. Geography dictates that the ships all pass through the Strait of Hormuz and then proceed to the ports at the other end of the Gulf. Those who are familiar with the record of Iran's efforts against Kuwaiti shipping in the Iran-Iraq War will be concerned about this maritime vulnerability.

"Those who are familiar" with these matters don't write for the Weekly Standard. And if they do, they check their knowledge in at the door in favor of wishes, hopes and the meager substitute of "will."

Part of what made Lang's warnings particularly chilling is the fact that the current Israeli/Lebanese conflict could impact the situation in Iraq - possibly prompting attacks on the supply lines akin to those described in Lang's article with or without an attack on Iran.

Spencer Ackerman, for example, points to a certain Shiite figure who could spark such a series of attacks - and what his motivations might be:

A week ago, I entertained a nightmare scenario whereby Moqtada Sadr sends his Mahdi Army militia to fight alongside Hezbollah. The nightmare would be Israel attacking Sadr in retaliation for his attacks on the IDF or Israeli civilians, thereby prompting...increased violence against American troops in Iraq.

Last week, Sadr was merely grumbling about sending his fighters to Lebanon. Now, according to Sharon Behn of The Washington Times, he's ready to deploy:

A senior member of Muqtada al-Sadr's Iraqi Shi'ite militia, the Mahdi Army, says the group is forming a squadron of up to 1,500 elite fighters to go to Lebanon.

The plan reflects the potential of the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah to strengthen radical elements in Iraq and neighboring countries and to draw other regional players into the Lebanon conflict....

Sadr's ultimate goal is to dominate Iraqi Shia politics. Unsurprisingly, he's using his now-declared response to the Lebanon war as a way to marginalize his Shia rivals in the Maliki government...

In such a "nightmare" scenario, southern Iraq could become a war zone, and our supply lines severed or at least severely snarled, even without our acting on Kristol's foolish advice. This, of course, is one more reason that forging a cease fire in Lebanon is more than urgent. Contra Condi and the Bush administration, we simply can't afford to wait. The violence in Lebanon has too many outlets and avenues ready to receive the raging spill-over.

As an unfortunate aside, former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and former Asst. Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Chas Freeman, writing at Steve Clemons' place, suggests that the interplay of Iraq, Lebanon and Israel could be extremely problematic even after the immediate cessation of hostilities:

The irony now is that the most likely candidate to back Hezbollah in the long term is no longer Iran but the Arab Shiite tyranny of the majority we have installed in Baghdad. But that will not mean that the successors of Nouri Al-Maliki control Sheikh Nasrullah. Sometimes clients direct the policies of their patrons, not the other way around. This is a point exemplified by the dynamic of Israeli-American relations but far from unique to them.

One wonders if that is an example of what William Kristol had in mind in the Winter of 2002 when he was busy enticing the American people with all the "healthy repercussions" that would flow from the invasion of Iraq. With Kristol, it's a pattern. As such, it's well past time that we started ignoring his attempts at diagnosis, and prescriptions for cures. Above all, this doctor needs to heal himself.

A View From the Inside

A guest poster over at Obsidian Wings provides a textured and nuanced look at Lebanon from the inside out that I think is pretty close to 'must read.' The author is Armenian, which perhaps creates a certain distance that allows for a first person account that can achieve some level of detached objectivity. Maybe not.

If anything, the post highlights how the eventual reconstruction effort - and who ends up funding it - might be as important to the interests of Lebanon's neighbors as the fighting itself.

Either way, go read.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Small Minded Hobgoblins

In May of 2005, Vice President Cheney famously uttered the statement that the Iraqi insurgency was in its "last throes." In June of 2006 (13 months deep on the last throes calendar), a reporter gave Cheney a chance to admit his error and explain why an insurgency that he had deemed defeated more than a year earlier, continued to rage. His response was as unrealistic as it was self-refuting: Cheney said he still believes that the Iraqi insurgency is in its last throes - and that it also was when he said it over a year ago. He'll likely continue believing this for as long as the insurgency lasts. Some throes.

Now it appears that Ralph Peters is taking a page out of Dick Cheney's playbook of foolish consistency. Back in March, Peters took a couple of brief tours of Baghdad, and came back to write a scathing column entitled, "Dude, Where's My Civil War." As the title indicates, the premise of the column was that there was no civil war in Iraq - and that any impression to the contrary was the result of misinformed or biased reporters who were by and large spending their days on hotel verandas rather than getting out of the Green Zone to get the real story. The truth being a relatively peaceful Iraq, whose placid citizenry were generally warm and friendly to US troops. And nowhere were there signs of violence.

So it was with some interest that I turned to Peters' latest effort, entitled "Back to Baghdad." I figured this column would take the form of a watered-down mea culpa ("guess there was a civil war after all..."), or even a slightly disingenuous explanation that things had changed dramatically since March ("there wasn't one then, but now there sure is a civil war"). But from the opening line onward, Peters went all Cheney on us:

When I visited Baghdad in March, there was no civil war. There is no civil war in Iraq today.

Nothing, if not consistent. The closest Peters comes to admitting error is his exploration of the fact that there "might" be a civil war in the near future. The reason, he opines, is that whereas there was political violence with religious overtones previously, now the conflict is becoming primarily one of religious character. Why the religious quality of the fighting changes the description of the conflict is never really explained by Peters, other than a couple of tangential points about the potential for greater bloodshed and more difficult resolution when religion enters the equation as a primary motivator.

In particular, I found these passages rather odd for someone claiming that there wasn't then, nor isn't now, a civil war in Iraq [emphasis mine throughout]:

For three years, the violence was about political power in post-Saddam Iraq. Sunni Arab insurgents and Shia militias may have been on opposite sides, but the conflict was only a religious war for the foreign terrorists. [...]

The earlier fighting was over who should govern. Increasingly, it's about who should define Allah's will on earth. Nothing could be more ominous.

So let me get this straight, for three-plus years warring factions fought (with ever mounting body counts) over political power - with certain factions opposing a sovereign government in an attempt to usurp its leadership. But that wasn't a civil war? But it could be if the same sides start fighting over religious affiliations? My head, it hurts.

Obviously, the situation Peters describes would fit almost any definition of civil war - whether it be found in a dictionary, or in more academic settings. But Ralph Peters, like Dick Cheney, has decided to stay the course.

Speaking of staying the course, Peters is all for it, though he is concerned about the trajectory of events in Iraq. His proposed course of action, and appraisal of costs and benefits, however, is as wrong-headed as his analysis of the nature of the conflict. Some examples:

For the first time, we may face a problem we have no hope of fixing. We can defeat the terrorists. We can defeat a political insurgency. But when our forces find themselves caught between two religious factions, the only hope is to pick a side and stick to it, despite the atrocities it inevitably will commit.

We're not ready for that, psychologically or morally. Yet.

Ah yes, the "only hope" we would have is to pick a side in a religious war within Islam, and then get psychologically prepared for the atrocities that will undoubtedly flow from such warfare. By the way, those sides would be (roughly): the Shiites, with backing from Iran, opposing the Sunnis, with backing from Saudi Arabia, et al.

If we pick the Shiites, I would imagine Bin Laden and Zawahiri would dance a jig of jubilation considering the propaganda windfall (note: al-Qaeda is already spinning a tale of collaboration between the US/Israel and Iran). Recruitment would be a breeze as young Sunni men would sign up in droves, eager to strike at us - the ally of the Shiites. Not to mention that our efforts would result in the further empowerment of Iran - which I doubt very much is in our interests.

If we pick the Sunnis, on the other hand, well, then we'd be in the uncomfortable position of aligning with Saddam's Baathists and al-Qaeda type jihadis in an effort to topple the purple-fingered, democratically elected government we helped install to much paradigm-shifting fanfare.

Good call Ralph. In his next stop on the tour d'ignorance, Peters pulls into Amoral Junction:

We helped make this mess. Instead of relentlessly destroying terrorists and insurgents, we tried to wage war gently to please the media. We always let the bad guys off the ropes - and apologized when they showed the press their rope burns.

Ah yes, as anyone versed in counterinsurgency doctrine and 4th Generation Warfare will tell you, we were not brutal enough. Nothing wins over the hearts and minds of a people like ruthless disregard for their well being and safety. More Abu Ghraibs, Hadithas and check-point shootings, please. That would have won the day. And if it weren't for you meddling media types....Speaking of which:

Now the only way to avoid an outright civil war is for our troops and the Iraqi army to break the sectarian militias in a head-on fight. The media will howl and we'll see a spike in American casualties.

Peters thinks the Iraqi army is going to help us break up the sectarian militias? Which army exactly? The one that lacks motivation, that won't fight against its brethren, that is heavily infiltrated with sectarian elements as is? Brilliant!

Next, Peters makes a go at blaming the Iraqis for petulantly wasting our precious gift. When in doubt, shift responsibility elsewhere - another trusted Cheney tactic. Interspersed within these passages emerges another frightening attitude: an exuberance for the carnage that might be released:

The alternative would be to let Iraq fail. And we need to ponder that possibility honestly....We can force the Iraqis to do many things, but we can't force them to succeed. If the jealousy, corruption and partisanship in the Iraqi government prevent the country's leaders from dealing forcefully with Iraq problems, we should no longer sacrifice our troops.

Here's the brutal reality: If Iraq is destined to become yet another monument to Arab failure, there could be far worse outcomes than a bloody civil war...We should be drawing up contingency plans to move a reinforced division and adequate airpower to the Kurdish provinces in the north, to withdraw the remainder of our forces to the south, and then to let Iraq's Sunni Arabs and Shias go at it.

Let's raise another "impossible" issue: If the Arab world can't sustain one rule-of-law democracy - after we gave Iraq a unique opportunity - might it be a useful strategic outcome to watch Arabs and Persians, Shia and Sunni, slaughtering each other again? [...]

If they won't unite to fight for their own country, we'll have to accept that our noble effort failed.

Unsurprisingly, Peters sets a timeline of one Friedman:

We should never publicize a timetable for a troop withdrawal, but here's what President Bush should have told Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, yesterday: "You are failing your country. We'll give you six months. If your government can't produce a unified response to sectarian violence that treats all sides impartially, we'll withdraw our troops and our support. Then you can fight it out among yourselves."

This final part perfectly caps off an otherwise rambling, contradictory, myopic and strategically daft column:

Failure in Iraq would be a victory for terror. In the short run. But the terrorists might then find themselves mired in a long and crippling struggle. An Iraqi civil war might become al Qaeda's Vietnam, not ours.

Good point Ralph. Our super-secret, double-reverse plan to lure al-Qaeda into a trap by creating a failed state which is the site of a bloody, de-stabilizing Islamic civil war in the heart of the oil producing - and jihadi producing - world. Dude, that is so visionary.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Don't Paper The Tiger

One of the rationales for invading Iraq had to do with putting on a display of force for the world to see - and react to. The thinking behind this "shot off the bow" doctrine was that uncooperative and emboldened regimes the world round would think twice about acting to subvert US power and/or support elements that would attack US interests. In the wake of 9/11, America had to flex its muscles in order to reaffirm our dominance, and create a change in the geo-political kinetics. We had to recapture the momentum.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to Baghdad. While the initial display of "shock and awe" did seem to bear fruit - there was a surprisingly conciliatory outreach from Iran in the form of a letter complete with bold concessions to the US on many desired fronts - the end result has created a negative motion. While the Bush administration, at the apex of its hubris, rejected Iran's overtures, the image of America's unipolar, globe straddling might began to crumble.

A prolonged insurgency has sapped the US of billions of dollars, international prestige, diplomatic leverage, intelligence assets, the lives of thousands of soldiers (and the health of tens of thousands more), has chewed up military equipment that we are barely replacing and brought the all-volunteer military to the brink of collapse or severe degradation. The US has been unable to quiet a country and control a comparatively unsophisticated, loosely organized amalgamation of insurgents - and the World has been able to watch on satellite TV.

Beyond Iraq, our hands have been tied. Our influence, and moral authority, on the wane. Our ability to act in other theaters, substantially limited by our current commitments. Even when our commitments eventually end, the World will know exactly what we are capable of, and what we aren't. Instead of advertising our strengths, we have revealed our weaknesses.

The momentum has now shifted in the other direction, with frightening results. Iran is emboldened in a way not seen in decades. Suffice to say, the US won't be receiving any plaintive letters from Iran offering a generous dowry of compromises in the near future. Quite the opposite: Iran is thumbing their nose at the US, rejecting repeated offers of carrots in exchange for halting certain nuclear activities and scoffing at blustery threats about military intervention. Teheran is fearless.

They are free to act in Iraq, and free to attempt to manipulate events in the Levant. Their ascendancy has been so sweeping that certain Arab governments in the region (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan) even flirted with taking the Israeli side in its conflict with Hizbollah - that is, until popular sentiment in those countries forced an about-face.

Despite the enormity of the strategic blunder on display daily in Iraq, it appears that Israel may have walked into a similar trap - and for some of the same reasons. After the inflammatory incursion by Hizbollah that killed eight Israeli soldiers, and resulted in the kidnapping of two more, some Israeli factions and their allies abroad made loud and persistent pleas for, of all things, a display of force. Israel must show its neighbors that it will not allow this type of action. To do so by not responding with its own version of shock and awe, it was argued, would be to give a green light to would-be attackers.

I never found this line of argumentation particularly compelling. No nation in the region, or armed group, had any grounds to doubt the potency of the Israeli military, nor the resolve of its people. Previous small-scale attacks from Hizbollah had been met with limited responses from Israeli leaders in the past - even the notoriously hawkish Sharon had shown such restraint in response to provocation. The consequences were nothing like dire. So why, suddenly, the pressing need to re-assert the obvious? The rewards for this action are somewhat ephemeral in character.

On the risk side of the ledger, however, the consequences could be far more damaging if Israel's attempt to flex its muscles ends up displaying its weaknesses the same way the US invasion of Iraq has done for us.

An article in today's New York Times contains some details that might have pulses quickening in the upper-echelons of the Israeli government: [more after the jump]

A week ago, Israeli officials said their military had knocked out up to half of Hezbollah's rocket launchers and suggested that another week or two would finish the job of incapacitating the Lebanese militia. That talk has largely stopped.

Hezbollah is still launching 100 rockets a day at Israel, nearly as many as it did at the start of the war. Soldiers return from forays into Lebanon saying the network of bunkers and tunnels is more sophisticated than expected. And Iranian-made long-range missiles apparently capable of hitting Tel Aviv remain in the Hezbollah arsenal.

"Two weeks after Israel set out to defeat Hezbollah, its military achievements are pretty limited," lamented Yoel Marcus, a columnist and supporter of the war, in the daily Haaretz on Tuesday. [...]

At the Pentagon, senior military planners cast the conflict as a localized example of America's broader campaign against global terrorism and said any faltering by Israel could harm the American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hezbollah "has features of a stateless terrorist organization, but it also holds territory - and is quite dug in there - and is able to hold at risk the population of the regional superpower in the way that only national militaries once could," said a senior military officer with experience in Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. [...]

A government minister, Eitan Cabel, a former paratrooper, caused a stir on Sunday when he expressed disappointment in the performance and speed of the army. "I admit I had hoped for better from the army," he said, arguing that it was illusory to try "completely to eliminate Hezbollah as an armed force in Lebanon."

While the tone of that article is calm and measured, this post by Billmon is anything but - with the caveat being that it is more speculative in nature:

My friend is an old Middle East hand who has some good sources on the Israeli side, mostly ex-military and ex-Mossad, plus some contacts among the Bush I realist crowd -- although of course they're not in government any more either.

He didn't have any secret dope on what the next military or diplomatic moves will be -- it seems to be purely day-to-day now -- but he DID get a clear sense that the Americans and the Israelis both understand now that they are in serious danger of losing the war.

They're freaking out about this, of course, because they're deathly afraid that if Israel is seen to fail, and fail badly, against Hizbullah, everybody and their Palestinian uncle will get it into their heads that they can take a crack at the Zionist entity. (The tough guy realists see this as a disaster in its own right; the "cry and shoot" gang frets the IDF will have to pound the West Bank and Gaza even harder to re-establish the balance of terror. Either way, it's an unacceptable outcome.)

...My friend can't tell, nor can I, if the primary objective is still to smash the hell out of Hizbullah, or whether the Israelis are just looking to save a little face.

The parallels are disturbing if anything like the scenario described by Billmon is in fact reality. Right down to the lack of international prestige and support - made worse now, no doubt, by news of the sustained shelling and bombardment of clearly marked UN facilities resulting in the deaths of four UN workers. Putting a missile - bullseye - through the top of a Red Cross ambulance wasn't exactly a PR coup either. Actions such as those will make it even more difficult to assemble the international force ex machina - assuming everyone in the IDF is on the same page.

My only hope is that Israel will not feel compelled to up the ante in order to "save face" as it were. If they get bogged down in Lebanon for any length of time, then they will also likely replicate US costs in lives, equipment, money, diplomatic leverage and range of motion. The gains made from such an occupation might prove equally dubious. I think Billmon summed up the deja vu qualities of this endeavor quite well.

If all this sounds familiar -- the half-baked war plan, the unexpected setbacks, the frantic search for foreign legions, the lack of an exit strategy, the rising tide of blood -- it certainly should. We've already seen this movie, in fact we're still sitting through the last reel. It's a hell of a time to release the sequel.

You know, sometimes its better to leave a good reputation alone.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Plausible Deniability of Personal Responsibility

Back in early April, I joked about the fact that the Bush administration had begun showing a penchant for lecturing us 'uninformed masses' about the reality of the longstanding ethnic/sectarian divisions in Iraq. The recent appeal to history, made in an attempt to excuse their own incompetence in helping ignite the current civil war, stood in sharp contrast to the pre-invasion rosy predictions about how Iraq had no real history of ethnic conflict, and that it was only "pop sociologists" that predicted tensions between the Shiites and the Sunnis. They were busy talking cake-walk.

In one of the more embarrassingly simplistic tutorials, our President, employing the tone of an exasperated parent, offered this account of historical significance [emphasis mine throughout]:
It's what Americans have got to understand. We tend to forget. Ours is a society where things are like instant, so therefore, history almost is like so far back it doesn't count.

In fact, much of the animosity and violence we now see is the legacy of Saddam Hussein. He is a tyrant who exacerbated sectarian divisions to keep himself in power. Iraq is a nation with many ethnic and religious and sectarian and regional and tribal divisions.
At the end of that post, I concocted some other satirical, after-the-fact courses of study that I speculated, in jest, we might be treated to from the Right over the next couple of decades. One such hypothetical class was as follows:
- Global Warming Is Real/Why Environmentalists Are To Blame For Inaction - How environmentalists thwarted the GOP's many plans to address global warming (Instructors: Gail Norton, Dick Cheney, Michael Crichton and James Inhofe, 4/01/15)
Unfortunately, as I've been forced to acknowledge, both satire and snark are dead - casualties of the increasingly detached-from-reality narratives put forth by the Right to explain away the inconvenient truths encroaching on their well-spun world view. At the vanguard of the crusade to vanquish satire, we find the inimitable Peggy Noonan getting a head start on blaming the environmentalists and scientists themselves for, of all things, thwarting GOP plans to address global warming (via the Poor Man's Kit-utopia):
During the past week's heat wave--it hit 100 degrees in New York City Monday--I got thinking, again, of how sad and frustrating it is that the world's greatest scientists cannot gather, discuss the question of global warming, pore over all the data from every angle, study meteorological patterns and temperature histories, and come to a believable conclusion on these questions: Is global warming real or not? If it is real, is it necessarily dangerous? What exactly are the dangers? ..Also, if global warning is real, what must--must--the inhabitants of the Earth do to meet its challenges?

You would think the world's greatest scientists could do this, in good faith and with complete honesty and a rigorous desire to discover the truth. And yet they can't. Because science too, like other great institutions, is poisoned by politics. Scientists have ideologies. They are politicized.

All too many of them could be expected to enter this work not as seekers for truth but agents for a point of view who are eager to use whatever data can be agreed upon to buttress their point of view.

And so, in the end, every report from every group of scientists is treated as a political document. And no one knows what to believe. So no consensus on what to do can emerge.

If global warming is real, and if it is new, and if it is caused not by nature and her cycles but man and his rapacity, and if it in fact endangers mankind, scientists will probably one day blame The People for doing nothing.

But I think The People will have a greater claim to blame the scientists, for refusing to be honest, for operating in cliques and holding to ideologies. For failing to be trustworthy.
Amazing. My jaw hit the floor when I read it - as surprised at the gall of Noonan's argument as I was at its remarkable similarity to my previous attempt at satire. The only difference being that Noonan's pre-emptive revisionism isn't waiting around to silently spring into action. She is, as they say, ahead of her time.

And funny you should mention all those scientists that can't seem to come to a consensus, Peggy. If one scratches the surface of the faux-debate, it becomes clear that the editorial page that employs you has some part in creating the illusion of dissonance that you so cynically enlisted in your attempts to kick up dust. As Kevin Drum noted:

Two years ago, Naomi Oreskes published a widely cited piece in Science that reviewed a large sample of journal articles on climate change published between 1993-2003. Her conclusion: not a single paper refuted the position that the earth is warming and humans are largely responsible.

Last month the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed declaring that Oreskes was mistaken and suggesting that there really was considerable debate within the scientific community.
Here, Oreskes responds in her own words:

An Op-Ed article in the Wall Street Journal a month ago claimed that a published study affirming the existence of a scientific consensus on the reality of global warming had been refuted. This charge was repeated again last week, in a hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

I am the author of that study, which appeared two years ago in the journal Science, and I'm here to tell you that the consensus stands. The argument put forward in the Wall Street Journal was based on an Internet posting; it has not appeared in a peer-reviewed journal - the normal way to challenge an academic finding. (The Wall Street Journal didn't even get my name right!)

My study demonstrated that there is no significant disagreement within the scientific community that the Earth is warming and that human activities are the principal cause.

Papers that continue to rehash arguments that have already been addressed and questions that have already been answered will, of course, be rejected by scientific journals, and this explains my findings. Not a single paper in a large sample of peer-reviewed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003 refuted the consensus position, summarized by the National Academy of Sciences, that "most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations."

...In 1988, the World Meteorological Assn. and the United Nations Environment Program joined forces to create the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to evaluate the state of climate science as a basis for informed policy action. The panel has issued three assessments (1990, 1995, 2001), representing the combined expertise of 2,000 scientists from more than 100 countries, and a fourth report is due out shortly. Its conclusions - global warming is occurring, humans have a major role in it - have been ratified by scientists around the world in published scientific papers, in statements issued by professional scientific societies and in reports of the National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society and many other national and royal academies of science worldwide. Even the Bush administration accepts the fundamental findings. As President Bush's science advisor, John Marburger III, said last year in a speech: "The climate is changing; the Earth is warming."
Yeah, but why can't the scientists come to a consensus? See, if I keep asking that question, it becomes self-validating. As for the exceptions that the Right clings to in order to create the impression that this almost universal agreement is somehow plagued by conflicting views and dissenting opinions, Oreskes gives us a useful historical analogy:

To be sure, there are a handful of scientists, including MIT professor Richard Lindzen, the author of the Wall Street Journal editorial, who disagree with the rest of the scientific community. To a historian of science like me, this is not surprising. In any scientific community, there are always some individuals who simply refuse to accept new ideas and evidence. This is especially true when the new evidence strikes at their core beliefs and values. [...]

A historical example will help to make the point. In the 1920s, the distinguished Cambridge geophysicist Harold Jeffreys rejected the idea of continental drift on the grounds of physical impossibility. In the 1950s, geologists and geophysicists began to accumulate overwhelming evidence of the reality of continental motion, even though the physics of it was poorly understood. By the late 1960s, the theory of plate tectonics was on the road to near-universal acceptance.

Yet Jeffreys, by then Sir Harold, stubbornly refused to accept the new evidence, repeating his old arguments about the impossibility of the thing. He was a great man, but he had become a scientific mule. For a while, journals continued to publish Jeffreys' arguments, but after a while he had nothing new to say. He died denying plate tectonics. The scientific debate was over.
I don't think that Peggy Noonan, James Inhofe, Michael Crichton, Dick Cheney, et al, will necessarily remain resolute in their disbelief of the realities of global warming until the end as Sir Harold Jeffreys did. In fact, I'm not so sure that all of them are sincere in their agnosticism to begin with - many involved in the debate are actually motivated by nothing other than a reluctance to acknowledge, publicly, what they know to be the case privately. It's an acknowledgement that comes with certain costs - both political and monetary. Nevertheless, eventually, the evidence will overcome the ability to maintain even plausible deniability.

On the other hand, some political actors on the Right who insist on shouting down those who raise valid concerns about global warming probably fall into the true-believer category. Many of these people will be forced to confront the destructive repercussions of their previous adherence to a policy of belittling environmental causes. But as we all know, cognitive dissonance is a bitch. Which is where Peggy and her soothing ointment come in. Taking their cues, and salve, from Ms. Noonan and other snake oil purveyors, many will - properly anesthetized on their death beds -go down meekly swinging at phantom environmentalists and the cadre of "untrustworthy" scientists who should be blamed for failing to sufficiently convince them of something that they worked very hard to refute. The folks that politicized science will blame the scientists for the politicization.

Nice rhetorical trick really: Any wrongheaded opinions that I currently hold which are later proven to be wildly inaccurate are the fault of my opponents who I spent enormous amounts of time, energy and resources demonizing - portraying them as unhinged, fringe, treasonous and unfit to lead. The blame lies with them for not overcoming my attacks to persuade me of the errors of my ways.

Now that's personal responsibility.

Monday, July 24, 2006

I'd Say This Settles It

Nicholas Sambanis attempts to answer a question about classification of the persistent, organized violence in Iraq that has previously been the source of some controversy as noted in prior posts. That question being, to quote Sambanis: "Has the conflict in Iraq turned into a civil war?" His answer is as follows [emphasis mine throughout]:

Civil wars are defined as armed conflicts between the government of a sovereign state and domestic political groups mounting effective resistance in relatively continuous fighting that causes high numbers of deaths. This broad definition does not always distinguish civil wars from other forms of political violence, so we often use somewhat arbitrary criteria, like different thresholds of annual deaths, to sort out cases. Depending on the criteria used, there have been about 100 to 150 civil wars since 1945. Iraq is clearly one of them.

Many people might have a narrowly construed idea of what constitutes a civil war based on familiar examples, like the American Civil War. Civil wars, however, actually vary widely. They include bloody yet short-lived coups (Argentina in 1955); organized civilian massacres by the warring parties (Burundi in 1972 and in 1988); guerrilla warfare combined with genocide (as in Cambodia and Guatemala); recurrent bouts of factional conflict in the military (Central African Republic from 1996 to 1997); combinations of criminal and political violence (Chechnya and Algeria in the late 1990’s); self-determination struggles (Sri Lanka since 1983, Bangladesh in 1971 and Sudan from 1983 to 2005, when Khartoum and southern rebels signed an accord); or warfare between large, well-organized armies (China from 1927 to 1949, El Salvador from 1979 to 1992, Mozambique from 1976 to 1992, Croatia in 1991, and Angola from 1975 to 2002). Some unlucky countries have had combinations of all the above — the Congo is the best example.

For obvious reasons, the Bush administration and its allies have tried to cut-off discussion of Iraq being mired in a civil war. Acknowledging the reality of the nature of the conflict in such a way could cause severe negative political repercussions domestically. The Bush administration, however, is not alone in displaying this type of reluctance:

The question of whether a country has fallen into civil war is often deliberately muddied for political reasons. States avoid using the term to play down the level of opposition to them....

But if the term “civil war” seeks to convey the condition of a divided society engaged in destructive armed conflict, then Iraq sadly fits the bill. Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds together have managed to create 40 or so political parties and dozens of militias in two years of sovereign rule.

The insurgency started while Iraq was under foreign occupation, but it intensified since the handoff of sovereignty. The insurgents have been fighting continuously, violence affects all sides and there have been more than 30,000 civilian and military deaths [ed note: I think that number is vastly under the actual figure, as it was used last year by Bush himself and the violence has only increased since then], dwarfing the median number of 18,000 deaths for all civil wars since 1945.

In addition, sectarian violence is uprooting ever larger numbers of Iraqis. On Thursday, the Iraqi government reported that in the previous week alone, more than 1,000 families had left integrated areas for Shiite or Sunni strongholds.

Sambanis' discussion of the way out of the labyrinth of civil war is not entirely encouraging, though not entirely pessimistic either.

...[I]t is sometimes hard to know when a civil war ends, as wars can turn into long-lasting minor insurgencies, like the conflict between Indonesian security forces and the Free Papua Movement. [...]

In some countries — like Chad, Colombia and Myanmar, which have been in and out of civil war for more than 40 years — civil war becomes a fact of life rather than an anomaly.

What can be done? History shows that the one way to build peace after a civil war is through a decisive victory — something that’s easier said than done. Negotiated settlements can also produce a lasting peace, but durable settlements like those in Cambodia, Mozambique and El Salvador usually come after long wars (10 years on average). And the United Nations can help, but only after an agreement has been reached. The United Nations cannot win wars, but it can shore up the foundation for a peace.

More than a third of civil wars restart within five years and Iraq has many risk factors: a dependence on oil, a population polarized along religious lines, meddlesome neighbors, no democratic traditions and a long history of violent conflict.

But there is also good news. Iraq is better off than many countries in the midst of a civil war: its income is relatively high, it has an educated populace and it can count on abundant foreign assistance if fighting ends.

Whether these factors will help to bring an end to the conflict in Iraq is an open question. What is no longer an open question, however, is the nature of the conflict. It is a civil war, not an insurgency.

I worry about the possibility that in Iraq "civil war becomes a fact of life rather than an anomaly" or that the duration of the fighting reaches or surpasses the 10 year average. Things have been moving along these lines for more than 3 years, and the trends are all negative - with no sign of any side relenting. Further, many of the moderate forces in Iraq's "educated populace" that might help to mitigate the conflict are heading for the exits.

Maybe the stubborn nature of the civil war, and its projected longevity, are what's causing the leaders of Iraq's "unity government" to begin openly discussing a partitioning of the country. Needless to say, a partition of the country could lead to state-to-state wars in place of civil wars depending on the division of resources and land. Not to mention a continued ethnic cleansing - through both violence and intimidation.

One more thought, now that Sambanis provides a useful list of criteria to use in connection with classifying this conflict as a civil war, maybe someone should ask him about the question of plurals.

Blogging Made Easy

Sometimes it's easier for a blogger just to hitch a ride on the well-crafted thoughts of others rather than pound out 1,500 words per post on his own. I'll take advantage of that opportunity today by tapping a few worthy sources.

First up, Swopa constructs a devastating (because of its accuracy) analogy for the situation in Iraq. To put this quote in context, Swopa is discussing the fact that US military officials in Iraq are pulling manpower from Camp Fallujah in Anbar province to move them to Baghdad in an attempt to quell the raging violence. This despite the fact that insurgent activity in an around Anbar province is as relentless as ever.

It would be too generous to classify this as a game of whack-a-mole with far too many moles and too few hammers. If you compared it to a fire engulfing a house, with an overwhelmed man racing from one end to the other wondering where to pour his lone bucket of water, you might be closer to the mark.

Next up, Chris Allbritton offers some insights on the nature of military power's impact on the target population. Though not exactly counterintuitive, these points must still be made in the current political climate where the obvious has taken on the gilded luster of wisdom because of so many fundamental errors made by people in high places.

Why, oh, why do people with access to really big bombs continue to think they can change people’s loyalties by dropping those big bombs on their homes and families?

Israel’s strategy in Lebanon is pretty clear now: Make the pain of “supporting” or “harboring” Hizbullah so great that the Lebanese will deal with the group....It’s also the hot air for the trial balloon often floated in D.C. regarding regime change in Iran: Bomb the mullahs and watch the pro-American youth embrace the Pax Americana!

Except… it almost never works. [...]

I've been in love with Lebanon since 2004 when I took a flat here and began immersing myself in the place whenever I could take a break from Iraq. In March, I settled here for the foreseeable future. I have a wide variety of friends, not just upper-crust Christians, and while I’m not a polling company, I think I have a decent grasp of the zeitgeist here.

Before this damn war, Hizbullah was losing support. It wasn't draining, but it was ebbing. The political process was stuttering along, but it was moving. Many people here hated Hizbullah… Many people also loved it. The society was split but there was a consensus the problem had to be settled judiciously and politically because no one wanted another civil war.

When the first Israeli bombs fell, some Shi'ites even blamed Hizbullah. I met a guy in the southern suburbs last Saturday, just four days after things started. He’s a Shi'ite from Nabatiyeh in the south and hated Hizbullah. He thought they’d screwed up big-time. These days, when I talk to him, he says he hopes Hizbullah rips the Israelis apart. Another friend of mine, one of those upper-crust Christians, told me last night that as much as he hates Hizbullah, he hates the Israelis even more now.

The Lebanese are closing ranks in the face of an external threat, just like people all over the world do....They’re no different from anyone else....The same pattern would play out in Iran, too, if this war gets that far east. The West has no monopoly on unity, patriotism and nationalism. [emphasis added]

Thomas Barnett provides a macro-analysis that tracks nicely with Allbritton's on-the-ground reporting. Barnett is laying out the reasons why the attempts to recast the recent turmoil in the Middle East as "World War III" are so wrong-headed. Barnett himself believes that, instead, these problems should be approached with a "Long War" strategy. We join him mid-stream (hat tip nykrindc):

Third, the road to victory in the Long War, as the new Counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine argues, is overwhelmingly non-kinetic. A "war," however "global" in its day-to-day expression...that is both won or lost on the question of non-kinetics (the ultimate exit strategy in the Middle East is called JOBS!) ain't exactly a rerun of either of [World War I or World War II]. [...]

Fifth, this view indulges in the myth that what Israel does against 4GW opponents actually works, when it does not. Masada-on-steroids isn't the answer. We, the Core, don't have to shoot ourselves out of this situation. Time is on our side, as [are] all the major dynamics that count (energy, investments, demographics, sheer firepower, enduring ingenuity, strength of our societies, our enduring resilience--none of which favor the other side). The Brits in Northern Ireland or the U.S. cavalry in the Wild West are our models. Stick to the Long War. Don't give in to quick fixes or Armageddon-like fantasies. WWIII is just the End Timers with a patina of strategic analysis, but shit on a stick still tastes bad.

But worst of all, the WWIII talk obscures the solution set, which is not destruction but construction, not disconnectedness but connectedness, not take down nets but put them up. When you call everything a war, you come up with more "war" answers, and those inevitably involve firepower.

Firepower won't get us the win here, plain and simple. WWIII is not realism, it's romanticism. It's starry-eyed, not clear-eyed. It looks for what is easy, instead of what is right. [emphasis added]

As they say, read the rest. All rather worth your while.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Tending to the Curtain: The Imperfect Science of C.H.A.

Ron Suskind's The One Percent Solution is the gift that keeps giving in terms of providing a fly-on-the-wall view to behind the scenes machinations for what has been an otherwise notoriously secretive administration. In fact, that very secretiveness might serve a purpose (more below). The description Suskind provides as to why CIA Director George Tenet was willing to fall on his sword and endure the scathing criticisms issued by Condi Rice and others over the inclusion of the dubious Niger yellowcake claims in the President's now infamous state of the union address is telling.

By way of background, despite numerous objections voiced by the CIA in response to White House desires to use the Niger story in prior speeches, and the state of the union address itself, the Bush team included it anyway. When confronted with the bogus nature of the evidence after the speech (due, in no small part, to Joe Wilson's fateful op-ed), Condi Rice pointed the finger directly at CIA, and Tenet was willing to take the bullet. Suskind offers a glimpse as to how and why the doctrine of CHA (Cover His Ass) came to replace the more universally appealing tendency to CYA [emphasis mine throughout]:
George W. Bush, with his demonstrative firmness, his willed, unflinching certainty, shows vulnerability and confusion only to those in a very small, secretive circle, just a handful of people. He is very good at some things that presidents are prized for, and startlingly deficient in others. No one in his innermost circle trusts that those imbalances would be well received by a knowledgeable public, especially at a time of crisis. So they are protective of him - astonishingly so - and forgiving. That goes for Cheney, Rove, Rice, Card, Rumsfeld, and Tenet, the trusted half dozen. In fact, it may be the only impulse they all share.
The problem facing the tenders of the curtain erected around Bush's glaring weaknesses is that sometimes the curtain gets pulled back. The persistent unpredictability of life has a way of tugging at facades.

Despite an unprecedented reluctance to appear before the media in neutral settings, even Bush must submit to a non-scripted press conference on occasion (although this does tend to put all those tightly controlled campaign events into focus). Further, to the consternation of his supporters, the stray microphone might be left on from time to time to capture some less than presidential verbiage. In addition, the foreign press, all too often, has shown less discretion than our own in terms of bringing the real-life flaws to light. Fate, as it were, conspired to bring together, in an unnerving collision, Bush's fundamental shortcomings with some of the most crucial geo-political developments in recent memory.

It hasn't been a good week for Bush, or his handlers, as he bumbled his way through the G-8 summit with the gravitas of an insurance salesman all while the Levant erupted in violence that waxes apocalyptic. He inspired that particular feeling of mortification one would be seized with if your parent showed up at your graduation in a lime green suit and pink shirt, yelling uncouth comments as you approached the stage and then proceeded to make inappropriate gestures to the women at the reception afterward. For a brief and cringe inducing period, it was President Dangerfield - at a time when the world needed to be reassured of America's stature and efficacy.

First things first I suppose. While in Germany meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel late last week ahead of the G-8 summit, Bush was inappropriately glib and childish when being asked serious questions by the journalists assembled. A taste (so to speak):

With the world's most perplexing problems weighing on him, President Bush has sought comic relief in a certain pig.

This is the wild game boar that German chef Olaf Micheel bagged for Bush and served Thursday evening at a barbecue in Trinwillershagen, a tiny town on the Baltic Sea.

Reporters from Germany and the U.S. peppered him with questions about the standoff in Iran, violence in the Middle East and flagging democracy in Russia. He answered all in earnest but leavened it all with pig talk. [...]

And when an American reporter asked whether Bush is concerned about the Israeli bombing of the Beirut airport and about Iran's failure to respond to an offer for negotiations, Bush replied with more boar jokes before delving into the substance of the questions.

"I thought you were going to ask about the pig," said the president. "I'll tell you about the pig tomorrow."
Sigh. Is it too much to ask that our President take a more empathetic and serious tone when confronted with such weighty issues? But it got worse. A nearby microphone on a table at the G-8 summit in Russia picked up some rather, er, choice language from the President in a conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair:

"See the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it's over," Bush told Blair as he chewed on a buttered roll.

He told Blair he felt like telling U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who visited the gathered leaders, to get on the phone with Syrian President Bashar Assad to "make something happen."
Remember how the Right seized on Janet Jackson's nano-second long, barely perceptible flash of only slightly covered bosom at the Super Bowl halftime show to create a firestorm of controversy about the loss of decency in our nation? Do you recall all the incessant FCC crackdowns on colorful language and imagery? Now I'm perfectly willing to admit that "shit" has nothing on Dick Cheney's "Go fuck yourself" moment on the Senate floor, but still: what do I tell the children?

As others have noted, I was almost equally offended at the fact that Bush insisted on working blue with his mouth full of food, lips smacking and wide apart. I'm not a prudish Emily Post, or a stickler for etiquette and manners per se, but let's just say that two sets of rules should apply: one for beer and wings at the local bar, and another for conferences of the world's most influential leaders.

Which says nothing of the substance of Bush's statement. After dodging the expletives and flying food, praktike observed:
This little episode reveals that Bush's thinking on foreign affairs is as simplistic as it appears.
The embarrassment at the G-8 meeting only continues.

Someone, probably an aide, asks Bush something, evidently whether he wants prepared closing remarks for the end of the summit:

Bush: No. Just gonna make it up. I'm not going to talk too damn long like the rest of them. Some of these guys talk too long.
Nothing like a extra dose of contempt to really drive home the point. Well done. Followed closely by some ignorance befitting a five year old, flaunted by the Commander in Chief:
Bush expresses amazement that it will take some leaders as many as eight hours to fly home -- about the same time it will take Air Force One with Bush aboard to return to Washington.

"You eight hours? Me, too. Russia's a big country and you're a big country," Bush said, at one point telling a waiter he wanted Diet Coke. "Takes him eight hours to fly home. Russia's big and so is China.
Apparently not content to simply make wise cracks about life and death situations, inject expletives into conversations with world leaders, chat with his mouth full of food and wax childish about how "big" Russia and China are, Bush took it one step further. Check out this awkward moment in which Bush gives German Chancellor Merkel an impromptu, and uninvited, neck rub. Dear Lord, You are undoubtedly testing me.

But perhaps the most bizarre moment in Bush's recent European jaunt came when Bush, in an apparent state of supreme denial, recommended to Russia's leader Vladimir Putin that Russia should adopt the same type of democracy as Iraq. Iraq!!!!

During a joint news conference Saturday in St. Petersburg, Bush said he raised concerns about democracy in Russia during a frank discussion with the Russian leader.

"I talked about my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world, like Iraq where there's a free press and free religion, and I told him that a lot of people in our country would hope that Russia would do the same," Bush said.

To that, Putin replied, "We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy that they have in Iraq, quite honestly."
Statements such as those convey a break with reality that must be anything but reassuring to a world gripped by anxiety as Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Iran maneuver in and out of position to incite what could actually end up being World War III. The week that, unfortunately, was.

The bad news is that Bush's Putin gaffe might have been indicative of a true malady, not just some clumsy wording. Via Billmon, we get a glimpse of Bush's reckless frivolity:
One former senior administration official said Bush is only emboldened by the pressure from U.N. officials and European leaders to lead a call for a cease-fire..."He thinks he is playing in a longer-term game than the tacticians," said the former official, who spoke anonymously so he could discuss his views candidly. "The tacticians would say: 'Get an immediate cease-fire. Deal first with the humanitarian factors.' The president would say: 'You have an opportunity to really grind down Hezbollah. Let's take it, even if there are other serious consequences that will have to be managed.'"
Consequences huh (warning graphic images). It is deeply unsettling to see so much chaos transpiring on a daily basis in Iraq and beyond, and know that this man is in charge.

Reality TV


It's hard to be the child of the famous or accomplished. You can never really measure up (certainly not in your own mind), but you can pull them down - one way or another. 'Greatest Generation': face your spawn.

Baby-boomer Extraordinaire - Professor G., Historian:

"This is World War III," Gingrich said. And once that's accepted, he said calls for restraint would fall away....

There is a public relations value, too. ['too'? -ed] Gingrich said that public opinion can change "the minute you use the language" of World War III. The message then, he said, is "'OK, if we're in the third world war, which side do you think should win?"

An historian, Gingrich said he has been studying recently how Abraham Lincoln talked to Americans about the Civil War, and what turned out to be a much longer and deadlier war than Lincoln expected.


".....I'm a historian. I don't do anything new. I just imitate. I guarantee you there are 60 or 70 Democrats, if their districts thoroughly understood their record, they'd lose this year even though people aren't happy with Bush. Because people aren't suicidal. ..."

Yes, people aren't naturally suicidal; they have to be convinced!

Meanwhile, on another channel:

"[The war in Iraq is] like after Katrina, when the secretary of homeland security was saying all those people weren't really stranded when we were all watching it on TV," said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.). "I still hear about that. We can't look like we won't face reality."

Immortal words worthy of a Thomas McJefferson, or a James Madisonson. Better History Through Marketing.™

[UPDATE: (via Digby):

“[W. Bush] was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999,” said author and journalist Mickey Herskowitz. “It was on his mind. He said to me: ‘One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.’ And he said, ‘My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.’ He said, ‘If I have a chance to invade ... if I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I’m going to have a successful presidency.”

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Vertigo For The Village Green Preservation Society

The Siren Call of the Abyss

What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.

-Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Sadly, No! posted an interesting excerpt from a conversation between a couple of media personalities concerning the recent anthrax scare at the New York Times [emphasis mine throughout].

[W]hat should be done with Ann Coulter, who has argued that The New York Times should have been blown up by Timothy McVeigh and that Times executive editor Bill Keller should be executed by firing squad?

This was the question one Times source asked on Friday after an employee at the paper of record received an envelope with an X scrawled through it and a suspicious powder inside. "This thing makes all of Ann Coulter's comments a little less funny," said the source. "I wonder if she considers herself at all responsible when lunatics read her columns and she says that we should be killed."
A little less funny? Really? So, before the predictable results of Coulter's continued violent exhortations manifested, all those comments about killing you was kind of funny? LOL.

And in answer to the question posed about whether Coulter feels responsible for the results of her words, the answer is quite clear: Not at all. She may claim, when convenient, that these calls for violence are humorous - "funny" ha, ha; get it? - but I doubt that much of her audience is laughing. Why would they? Aside from her occasional half-hearted dodges, Coulter gives them no reason to believe she is arguing in jest.

For example (and there are myriad), when given the chance to clarify her infamous statement that her "only regret" about the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City was that McVeigh hadn't bombed the New York Times building in NYC, Coulter goes for a real gut-buster:

When I told a New York Observer reporter that my only regret was that Timothy McVeigh didn't hit The New York Times building, I knew many would agree with me -- but I didn't expect that to include The New York Times. And yet, the Times is doing everything in its power to help the terrorists launch another attack on New York City.
And by "agree with me" she means...think that it was a joke and not agree? How odd. As Travis from Sadly, No! noted, browsing through the comments to Coulter's most recent column provides absolutely no indication that any of those chiming in view her work as primarily dark humor. On the contrary, her opinions are treated as unvarnished truth. One commenter said of Coulter that she uses, "irrefutable logic and documented facts." Another noted:

No one on the left talks like Ann Coulter. She states facts. The left speaks in propaganda sound bites that are totally meaningless, are unsubstantiated, lack evidence to support them and are soleley [sic] intended to appeal to the uninformed.
Now that's funny - but not in the way intended. The willingness with which the media endorses, patronizes and promotes the violent, eliminationist rhetoric of Coulter and her ilk is simply astounding (also discussed here). It's as if they fail to realize - or don't want to acknowledge - that so much of the menacing language is directed at them ("She's talking about those other, uncool journalists, but I'm different").

That is, until the uncomfortable, though inevitable, consequences begin to brush up against them in the form of death threats, revelations of private information (home addresses) and other more overt acts of violence. But even then, will Coulter and her kind suffer for this or will they continue to be given prime access to the venues they so openly want to destroy and ravage?

It is as if journalists in America have been looking down from atop a precarious precipice, but listening for far too long to the seductive voice that tempts them from the abyss. They've lost their fear of the urge to jump. It's almost like they want the backlash.

Smile When You Say That

We are the village green preservation society...
God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties
We are the custard pie appreciation consortium...
God save little shops, china cups and virginity
We are the skyscraper condemnation affiliate
God save tudor houses, antique tables and billiards
Preserving the old ways from being abused
Protecting the new ways for me and for you
What more can we do?

-The Kinks, The Village Green Preservation Society
Glenn Greenwald has done invaluable work documenting the endless stream of treason accusations and calls for the violent deaths of journalists/political opponents issuing forth from some of the most prominent Right-wing blogs and pundits.

As Greenwald observes, despite the frequently employed rhetoric of mass violence, the media has consistently ignored covering the subject. Instead, there has been a confounding preoccupation with the level of vulgarity being used in liberal blogs. Well, shit. From Greenwald:

Many journalists seem to be under the impression that using bad words in a post or an e-mail is not just equal to — but worse than — daily calls to hundreds of thousands of readers in the right-wing blogosphere for journalists and mainstream political figures to be treated as traitors and arrested and/or hanged.
Don't get me wrong, I think some of the mindless invective hurled by those on the Left is, well, mindless invective. It doesn't contribute a heck of a lot to the dialogue, and often serves to create an escalating level of distracting noise. People tend to take your arguments less seriously when you resort to base insults - and not without good reason often times. I don't fault the media, necessarily, for getting hung up on trying to maintain some level of decency (though George Bush's recent use of "shit" and Dick Cheney's "go fuck yourself" don't seem all that proper to me either). But it is not the same thing as calling for violent death. Perspective please. Greenwald offers a telling anecdote:

In response to all of this, blogger Terry Welch noted on Sunday that the Washington Post’s media reporter, Howard Kurtz, was scheduled to have an online chat the following day, and urged readers to attend the chat and ask Kurtz questions about this matter:

Why is the opposition of a candidate considered an "Inquisition" from the left, but death threats from the right get ignored? Why is it worth covering an in-house Kos spat, but not the calls to violence by frequent guests on national news programs like Michelle Malkin and David Horowitz?
Kurtz is a particularly appropriate target for these questions because numerous different parts of his Washington Post have devoted substantial attention to the liberal blogosphere, the vast bulk of it negative and almost all of it bizarrely focused, like a Victorian-era grandparent, on the use of "vulgarity" — i.e., bad words — in blog posts and e-mails. [...]

But it seems that journalistic choices are beyond satire these days. Several people followed Welch’s suggestion and attended Howard Kurtz’s chat this week in order to ask him why journalists cover every petty detail of the liberal blogosphere while ignoring the extremism and increasingly violent rhetoric in the right-wing blogosphere, much of it directed at journalists. Several times, Kurtz attempted to dismiss the point by invoking the favorite journalistic tactic of the False Equivalency masquerading as objectivity, dismissively noting that it "seems to me there is considerable anger on both sides." But when pressed a third time about the lack of media discussion over the rhetoric and tactics of the right-wing blogosphere, Kurtz had this exchange:

Philly, Pa: Howard, come on..."Seems to me there is considerable anger on both sides."

Are you serious? What lefty blogs or pundits have called for the hunting of reporters? What lefty blogs or pundits have called for the gassing of those they disagree with (Melanie Sloan), or the firing squad (Coulter)? There is definitely a difference!

Howard Kurtz: If you got the email I get, you’d know that passions run high on both sides. I don’t know of any liberals who have suggested that journalists be executed, but many are plenty angry at media coverage of Bush, Iraq, you name it.
So, the reader asked Kurtz about right-wing blogs calling for "the hunting of reporters" and calls for the gassing and/or hanging of political opponents and journalists, and all Kurtz can say is that "passions run high on both sides" — as evidenced by the critical e-mail he gets from liberals. Why can’t journalists understand this very clear point? We’re not talking about garden-variety vulgarity or mean and coarse language. Notwithstanding the media's obsession with the "Angry Left" in the blogosphere, that sort of vulgarity and rage is extremely common on the Right, as conclusively demonstrated by these posts just from this week alone — all in response to my posts and virtually all of which were promoted by Instapundit.
I would also emphasize the fact that Kurtz was referring to emails he received. Surely, the rhetoric catalogued by Greenwald would be darker and more insidious if he were to stoop to referencing emails and comments sections from Right-wing sources (which tend to be far more unhinged). But that is not the case: we're talking about the language and ideas of actual Right-wing pundits and prominent Right-wing bloggers - not random utterances from the peanut gallery.

Regardless, it is imperative that journalists wise up to this very disturbing, and burgeoning, trend in our country: blaming journalists and the Left for being treasonous and sabotaging this nation's goals. With that established as "Point A," "Point B" is obvious. If you want a good guide to decoding the major narratives at play, you can start by perusing the titles of Coulter's many books. Not coincidentally, it's all there.

While it may be uncomfortable for journalists to chronicle and confront these virulent strains of modern political thought, such a reckoning is long overdue. The longer you ignore it, the worse it gets. The more you offer a podium and megaphone to its primary proponents, the greater the risk that you will reap the whirlwind. It's time to call a spade a spade, even if the Right will accuse you of "bias" for objecting to someone calling for your death by gas chamber, firing squad or hanging (most don't want to give you the choice by the way).

And in the interest of maintaining civility and decency, and as a nod to the proper Village Green Preservation Society Press Corp, let me say: Pretty please. Thank you very much.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Trigger Happy Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight

Even a once-bitten, twice-jaded cynic must admit to being somewhat caught off guard by the recent onslaught of full-throated war cries shouted from atop the many peaks within the neoconservative firmament (as well as the echoes reverberating from their ideological allies).

We've seen Michael Ledeen's "faster-please" mantra thrown into nitro-box-popping-turbo overcharge, complete with accusations that George W. Bush, of all people, is beginning to resemble Neville Chamberlain. Yes folks, Bush is overly cautious. Too circumspect. An 'appeaser' if you will.

Everyone from Newt Gingrich to Jonah Goldberg (even, the ubiquitous Ledeen himself) have been rushing to label this skirmish "World War III." Or "World War IV," depending on your method of historical categorization. This breathless haste to up the ante rhetorically speaking has resembled a form of ghoulish wishful thinking for a widening of the conflict. If you frame it, they will bomb.

Michael Rubin chimed in with an ominous, and historically uncomfortable, demand for the "eradication of Hezbollah and Hamas" (two groups whose members number in the millions - which might require some interesting means to carry out said "eradication"). What exactly did you have in mind there Michael?

The normally intelligent Michael Oren came up with this unintentionally laughable line: "To prevent a regional conflagration, Israel should attack Syria..." Yeah, that should really quiet things down.

Charles Krauthammer comes across sounding almost giddy while describing the ongoing bloodshed as "a rare, perhaps irreproducible, opportunity" and a "golden, unprecedented opportunity" before offering a resolution so improbable as to boggle the mind. "The road to a solution is therefore clear: Israel liberates south Lebanon and gives it back to the Lebanese." Sure. Piece of cake. Continues Krauthammer, "Only two questions remain: Israel's will and America's wisdom." Funny you should mention "wisdom" because....

...The Weekly Standard has been, well, the Weekly Standard - complete with urgent pleas that the US take this opportunity to attack Iran and/or Syria and join Israel in something that would resemble a real-life version of a script from Bin Laden's propaganda shop. Brilliant!

But the hits, as they say, keep coming. David "there's no such thing as a neoconservative" Brooks couldn't resist for long, offering his own studied attempt at politically expedient historical revisionism last Friday on the PBS News Hour (via Billmon):

DAVID BROOKS: If you look at the jihadists, they had a victory in '79 by pushing the Soviets out of Afghanistan. They pushed the U.S. out of Lebanon. The pushed the Israelis out of Gaza and out of Lebanon. They're probably pushing the U.S. out of Iraq. They are on the march.

Billmon had this to say in response:

It's not that the things Brooks says are completely untrue (except for the '79 date, which is when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, not when they left.) It's that each of them contradicts -- some blatantly; others more subtly -- both the actual context of those events and the official party line at the time, as expounded by official sources and regurgitated in the paper Brooks works for. [...]

...Brooks applies the fear stimulus (in a gentle way, admittedly, but then this is PBS.) He warns us that "they" (meaning, presumably, the armies of jihad) are "on the march" -- neatly conflating in one plural pronoun Shi'a and Sunni, religious and secular, Lebanese politician and Palestinian nationalist and Iraqi insurgent and Al Qaeda terrorist. They're all on the march...

Hey, any sufficiently angry Muslim is a "they" in my book. I don't do nuance.

Apparently undeterred by George Will's smackdown, William Kristol is taking no chances - for fear of letting the prospect of more war, more chaos and the attendant lack of stability slip through his fingers. To aid his cause, he is attempting to, as they say, fool us twice.

Check out Mr. Kristol's "informed" predictions on the likely reaction of Iran's citizens should we heed his advice and launch military strikes on that country. Although cautious not to utter the words "flowers and candies" to describe our reception, the concept is remarkably similar. From an interview on Fox News (via Think Progress):

QUESTION: You know, the down side, though, you know very well, to all of that being that we’re involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also that Iran is much different than Iraq. It’s huge and more formidable.

KRISTOL: It is, but also the Iranian people dislike their regime. I think they would be – the right use of targeted military force — but especially if political pressure before we use military force – could cause them to reconsider whether they really want to have this regime in power. There are even moderates – they are not wonderful people — but people in the government itself who are probably nervous about Ahmadinejad’s recklessness.

This is why standing up to Iran right now is so important. They’re overreached. They and Hezbollah have recklessly overreached. They got cocky. This is the moment to set them back. I think a setback to Hezbollah could trigger changes in Iran. People can say, wait a second, what is Ahmadinejad doing to us. We’re alone. The Arab world is even against us. The Muslim world is against us. Let’s reconsider this reckless path that we’re on.

Yes, nothing like a little shock and awe to make friends and influence people. Works every time, like clockwork. Just look at Iraq. Speaking of which, this is the same William Kristol who brought us this keen historical analysis:

"There's been a certain amount of pop sociology in America," he told National Public Radio listeners in the war's opening weeks, "that the Shia can't get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There's been almost no evidence of that at all," he continued. "Iraq's always been very secular."

No evidence indeed. Why, the Sunni and Shia are getting along swimmingly! This is also the same William Kristol who, in one of his headier moments immediately preceding the US invasion of Iraq, defiantly proclaimed:

We are tempted to comment, in these last days before the war, on the U.N., and the French, and the Democrats. But the war itself will clarify who was right and who was wrong about weapons of mass destruction. It will reveal the aspirations of the people of Iraq, and expose the truth about Saddam’s regime.…History and reality are about to weigh in, and we are inclined simply to let them render their verdicts.

On second thought, this is actually one of the smartest things Kristol has ever said. While I am reluctant to take his advice on any matter, perhaps it is time to let "history and reality weigh in and render their verdicts." I offer this as Exhibit A.

And when the verdict comes down, I can think of an appropriate sentence to be handed out: no sane person, and/or person of influence, takes these pundits seriously on any weighty matter of foreign policy for at least the next 25 years. To life.

Always Look On The Bright Side Of Death...

The pessimistic amongst you might view the exponentially mounting death tolls in Iraq, as cited in a UN report derived from Iraqi government statistics, as a bad sign. After all, the particulars could be interpreted in a negative fashion by the uninitiated - those who lack the handy Weekly Standard international relations decoder ring.

In reality, however, the spiraling death toll is nothing but unvarnished good news - as long as you know how to read the tea leaves. If you can get to the truth that lurks behind the pesky facts, more dead Iraqis is actually a sure indicator that we are succeeding, and that our increasingly desperate and marginalized enemies are on the run. First, the raw data [emphasis mine throughout]:

An average of more than 100 civilians per day [ed note: in US population terms, that would be akin to more than 1,000 killed a day] were killed in Iraq last month, the highest monthly tally of violent deaths since the fall of Baghdad, the United Nations reported today.

The death toll, drawn from Iraqi government agencies, was the most precise measurement of civilian deaths provided by any government organization since the invasion and represented a dramatic increase over daily media reports.

United Nations officials also said that the number of violent deaths had been steadily increasing since at least last summer. In the first six months of this year, the civilian death toll jumped more than 77 percent, from 1,778 in January to 3,149 in June [ed note: in US population terms, that would be akin to roughly 35,000 dead in a month], the organization said.

This sharp upward trend reflected the dire security situation in Iraq as sectarian violence has worsened and Iraqi and American government forces have been powerless to stop it.

In its report, the United Nations said that 14,338 civilians had died violently in Iraq in the first six months of the year [ed note: in US population terms, that would be akin to more than 155,000 violent deaths over six months].

According to the United Nations’ tallies, 1,778 civilians were killed in January, 2,165 in February, 2,378 in March, 2,284 in April, 2,669 in May and 3,149 in June.
With such breathtakingly large numbers, it would be easy to get swept away in doom and gloom defeatism. But that would be missing the forest for the trees. And it is a vibrant and growing forest, populated with the hearty oaks of democracy, peace and stability. For example, as our President foresaw some months back, 6,000 dead Iraqis in the last two months is incontrovertible evidence of "freedom in action."

President Bush warned Americans yesterday that they can expect to see more violence in Iraq over the next year but called this the price of progress as the country stands up its own security forces and moves toward democracy.

Speaking to members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bush said that in the coming weeks Iraq is likely to be the scene of "a good deal of political turmoil" as factions jockey for position and vie for power. Rather than being alarmed by those developments, he said, "we should welcome this for what it is: freedom in action."
When faced with similarly discouraging reports about insurgent activity and sectarian violence(discouraging to the media, the Left and the French perhaps), military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson calmly put the bloodshed in perspective: "Desperate people are dangerous people." As we can infer from the upward escalation in violence and death since then, the "desperation" of the insurgents and sectarian warriors is nearing its peak. Dare I say, these groups are in their collective last throes.

Building on the insightful, if utterly counterintuitive, analysis put forth by President Bush and Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Donald Alston instructs us on how to interpret the ever increasing number of attacks against coalition troops, Iraqi security forces and civilians. Said Brig. Gen. Alston, "It tells me the coalition and the Iraqi forces have been very aggressive in taking the fight to the enemy."

Wow. What a relief. I'm sure, like me, you found this guide to deciphering events an enormous help. Feel free to wield it with unrelenting frequency against the nattering nabobs of negativism who will likely come to the opposite, and clearly wrong-headed, conclusion when leafing through the findings of the UN report. And just remember that acrid odors such as these emanating from the Baghdad morgue:

The morgue stank of bodies. Visitors burned paper and wood in the parking lot to mask the smell.
Actually smell like...well, victory!

[Elsewhere: Kevin has more good news. Victory is nigh. What a week for the President. Can someone say, "Bush bounce"!]

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