Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Cruel and Unusual

Hilzoy has a very important piece on the psychological ravages of prolonged, acute solitary confinement and how the Bush administration is imposing this form of punishment on certain prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. These prisoners are not the "baddest of the bad" or the upper echelon of al-Qaeda mind you, at least not in the present example. Rather, they are a group of Chinese Uighurs that were turned in by Pakistani bounty hunters during the initial stages of the Afghan campaign.

Then again, the Bush administration instituted the same form of punishment on an American citizen who wasn't even convicted of a crime, Jose Padilla, so arbitrary application of cruel punishment might not be as remarkable as it should be. The effects on Padilla's mental health were consistent with clinical data on such extreme applications of solitary confinement, and consistent with the symptoms exhibited by the the Uighur prisoners.

In layman's terms, they are being driven insane. Please go read about the pathologies and anguish created by such depravation of human contact at Obsideian Wings and elsewhere, and then try to tell me that this is somehow justifiable, moral or in our interest as a nation.

Hilzoy provides an excerpt from a clinical assessment of the effects of prolonged solitary confinement of this nature:

"In my opinion, solitary confinement - that is confinement of a prisoner alone in a cell for all or nearly all of the day, with minimal environmental stimulation and minimal opportunity for social interaction - can can cause severe psychiatric harm. This harm includes a specific syndrome which has been reported by many clinicians in a variety of settings, all of which have in common features of inadequate, noxious and/or restricted environmental and social stimulation. In more severe cases, this syndrome is associated with agitation, self-destructive behavior, and overt psychotic disorganization.

In addition, solitary confinement often results in severe exacerbation of a previously existing mental condition, or in the appearance of a mental illness where none had been observed before. Even among inmates who do not develop overt psychiatric illness as a result of confinement in in solitary, such confinement almost inevitably imposes significant psychological pain during the period of isolated confinement and often significantly impairs the inmate's capacity to adapt successfully to the broader prison environment."

While that excerpt is couched in the somewhat sanitized language of a clinician, she provides balance to the detached tone of the scientist by giving Charles Dickens a platform:

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. I hesitated once, debating with myself, whether, if I had the power of saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ I would allow it to be tried in certain cases, where the terms of imprisonment were short; but now, I solemnly declare, that with no rewards or honours could I walk a happy man beneath the open sky by day, or lie me down upon my bed at night, with the consciousness that one human creature, for any length of time, no matter what, lay suffering this unknown punishment in his silent cell, and I the cause, or I consenting to it in the least degree.

While she is, herself, self deprecating, Hilzoy was also rather eloquent in summing up the central issues involved.

These men were captured by bounty hunters nearly five years ago. They are in all likelihood innocent of any crime, and of any act against the United States; they have certainly never been tried and convicted of any. We have held them in captivity since then, away from their wives and families. If they returned home now, their children probably wouldn't recognize them -- and as those of you who have kids will surely recognize, those are some of the saddest words there are.

And now, for some unfathomable reason, we have decided to lock them up in solitary, where we are driving them insane. Even if they were guilty, this would be wrong: having your mind and your spirit broken apart should not be the penalty for any crime. Our government is doing it to the innocent.

This is torture, plain and simple - no need to parse, dissemble or obfuscate. Call it what it is. And it is torture of the innocent, or at the very least, those that have been accused, but denied a hearing to determine their innocence or guilt. And it is official Bush administration policy - from American citizens, to foreign nationals. You can't attribute this to "a few bad apples" at Abu Ghraib.

I am deeply repulsed.

Greed: Not Always Good

Two weeks ago, I posted a story about the Pentagon's policy of selling surplus military parts on what amounts to a frighteningly open market with lax oversight and a shoddy track-record for safeguarding sensitive materials. As a result of the dysfunctional process, sensitive equipment was passing through buyers and brokers with questionable ethical standards and ending up in the warehouses of non-allies and adversaries such as China and Iran.

Of particular concern was the pending sale of parts for the recently decommissioned F-14 Tomcat fighter jet. You see, Iran has an aging and dilapidated fleet of F-14s and is in desperate need of such parts. Worse still, Iran is the only nation still flying the F-14, which would seem to narrow down the field of interested buyers to a country that is at the moment one of our biggest rivals (with the acknowledgment that there are certain parts from a stripped down F-14 that can be used in other aircraft and vehicles, and could potentially be of interest to broader field of buyers).

With this in mind, it is refreshing to see that the Pentagon has come to its senses...sort of:

The Pentagon said Tuesday it had halted sales of spare parts from its recently retired F-14 fighter jet fleet, even as lawmakers pledged tougher oversight of the military's surplus sales.

Sales of F-14 parts were suspended Friday pending a comprehensive review, Defense Logistics Agency spokesman Jack Hooper said. [...]

The review will examine Pentagon policy for handling the spare parts and determine what should be done with them "in light of the current situation with Iran," Hooper said.

Note that the sales were only "suspended" pending a review. That's a good first step, but I think Senator Wyden has the right idea:

Sen. Ron Wyden has introduced legislation to permanently end all Pentagon sales of surplus F-14 parts, saying the military's marketing of the spares "defies common sense" in light of their importance to Iran. [...]

The Oregon Democrat's legislation would bar the Defense Department from selling surplus F-14 parts and ban buyers who have acquired surplus Tomcat parts from exporting them.

Even if the Pentagon thinks it can parse the non-sensitive F-14 parts from the more crucial ones, or provide safeguards to better monitor the activities of would-be buyers, why risk error, misjudgement or malfeasance? What's the down side if you take the more cautious approach endorsed by Senator Wyden? As far as I can tell, it would merely require that the Pentagon forgo the proceeds from such sales.

But what's a couple hundred thousand dollars compared to the prospect of allowing Iran to refurbish even one of their broken-down F-14s? Penny wise, pound of flesh foolish.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Bully in a China Shop

My gut reaction when I first heard the "breaking news" on Sunday of a pitched battle between US/Iraqi forces and Sunni insurgents that had gathered near Najaf as part of a plan to assassinate several high ranking Shiite clerics (including Sistani) was that something didn't sound quite right. You'll have to take my roommates' word for it as, in typical fashion, I directed my initial skepticism at the unresponsive television set.

It just seemed like an unduly risky gambit for so many Sunni combatants to converge in one place, as this would render them uniquely vulnerable to US air power and armor - which are still unmatched in such a setting. After conducting insurgent operations for years during which much more care was shown in terms of offering such a target rich environment, why cede the advantage to your adversary now? For what grand objective?

Along those lines, would most Sunni insurgent groups (enough to muster this number of fighters - in the 300-600 range) really view the killing of Sistani as a strategic boon? Wouldn't the likely result be a unified, highly motivated, unrestrained Shiite force bent on disproportionate retaliation?

True to form, the battle in Najaf was not as initially advertised. Rather than Sunni insurgents, the "fighters" appear to be one of a variety of Shiite breakaway sects that many have come to label "cults." Jim Henley has been doing his best to try to wade through the reeds, machete in hand (there are other entries before and after the linked one on Henley's site, for the curious), and Juan Cole is, as usual, on the spot with translations from the Arab media and government sources. At best, the picture is murky, with various Iraqi governmental organizations giving competing and contradictory accounts of the nature of the fight and the identity of those on the other side.

A few common themes do seem to be emerging, though: this was a case of Shiite on Shiite violence, not a confrontation between US/Iraqi forces and Sunni insurgents. The various Shiite sects that were on the receiving end of US/Iraqi fire are rivals to SCIRI, Dawa and much of the rest of the Shiite power establishment. Also, ironically enough, the targeted sects were known to be overtly hostile to Iran.

In other words, the dead are comprised of groups considered irritants that many in positions of power in Iraq would prefer to have "neutralized." The question is, were these Shiite sect-members really planning an attack on Najaf, or is that merely a convenient after the fact narrative used to justify such a slaughter? As now appears, the earlier allegations of al-Qaeda's presence on the battlefield seem to be at the very least overhyped. It's possible that some al-Qaeda elements were involved, as their motive for killing Sistani is more compelling, but questions remain about the presence of a plot to actually conduct an attack on Najaf in the first place. Without that ingredient, al-Qaeda would have little reason to be present.

Nor can we discount the possibly that the specter of al-Qaeda was used by Iraqi forces as a means to induce the US to enter the battle on the preferred side. Iraqi forces know which buzz-words to use by now, even if they don't always accurately describe a given situation. Zeyad at Healing Iraq has been providing some extremely informative, if speculative, commentary (see, also, here for a more chilling account from Zeyad):

I suspect this whole campaign is a result of Al-Hassan’s strange, unorthodox teachings and his defiance of the mainstream Shi’ite religious and political institution, including, most importantly, Iran. [...]

The “preemptive” crackdown against Al-Hassan – like that against Mahmoud Al-Sarkhi months ago, which I wrote about here – bears all the signs of U.S. Shi’ite allies (SCIRI and Da’wa) fooling the U.S. into supporting them in their intra-Shi’ite struggle to control the south....This might actually turn out to be a massacre against some harmless cultists. If true, then congratulations to the U.S. for carrying out Iran’s dirty deeds in Iraq yet again.

For these reasons, I am less concerned than Kevin Drum about David Schuler's observation (and side with Henley on the notion that Bill Roggio's sources that tell of al-Qaeda's involvement might be missing something):

Aren't large pitched battles like this characteristic of insurgencies that believe they are on the upswing? Not particularly good news.

Unless we've taken to describing Shiite militias and breakaway religious sects as insurgents. In which case, "not particularly good news" is a breathtaking understatement. In defense of David Schuler, who is generally speaking a sharp commentator and observer, the information flowing from this incident has been so confusing that it has not been easy to keep the story straight for anyone.

This post itself is still predominately based in conjecture, and I acknowledge that I could have many of the facts wrong. But this level of uncertainty only makes Zeyad's admonition that much more profound:

Hint for the U.S.: There are no "bad guys" and "good guys" in Iraq. Everyone has dirty hands. It makes no sense for you, nor is it going to improve anything in Iraq, to side with one bad guy against another, just because you're so confused that you can't differentiate between friend and foe. Just please remember that.

Well, at least Iran's happy at the outcome. That should win us some Persian hearts and minds.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Into the Great Unknown Unknowns we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know.

Donald Rumsfeld, February 12, 2002

In the run-up to the Iraq war, the Bush administration's civilian leadership in the Pentagon, as well as their innumerable supporters in the commentariat, ridiculed any pundit, politician or four star general (in the case of Eric Shinseki) who dared to cast doubt on the ease with which our military could invade, pacify and exert effective control over the nation of Iraq and its expansive territory.

Those that doubted the war plan were denigrated as naive, ignorant, defeatist and, to quote Paul Wolfowitz, "wildly off the mark" in their overly cautious assessments. These Cassandras just didn't grasp the situation with the same acuity as the Vulcans, headed by the grand vizier, and sagacious balance to Bush's inexperience in foreign affairs, Dick Cheney. Yet without the slightest bit of self consciousness or chagrin, many of these same people chastised those that later went on to accurately describe the difficulties we were facing from multiple insurgencies and ever-increasing sectarian bloodshed post-invasion as...get this: naive, ignorant and defeatist.

These "naysayers" were now being criticized for stating the obvious, and in so doing, failing to grasp an elementary feature of warfare: that, to paraphrase Clausewitz (as many took to doing), "No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy." You see, it was unrealistic to expect things to go as well as advertised. Wars never work out as planned - remember World War II, Normandy, etc. Silly malcontents, there are known unknowns. Everybody knows that.

More recently (back in early August for some), war supporters have sought refuge in the argument that war opponents failed to predict, with exacting specificity, the precise ways in which the campaign would unravel. It wasn't enough to argue in general terms about the weakness of the overall strategy, because absent 20/20 foresight, such admonitions were worthless. Future "Deciders" should pay no heed. Opponents to subsequent wars should not be considered prescient when suggesting that there are unknown unknowns, that unintended consequences and hardships are inevitable, and that these should be factored into the decision making progress. Clausewitz who?

I describe the meandering contradictions punctuating this evolving narrative in order to suggest a more rigorous, measured approach to analyzing some recent wildly optimistic predictions about what might ensue should we opt to militarily confront Iran in the near future. Arthur Herman's op-ed in the New York Post offers a useful instructive:

The conventional wisdom is that there are "no good [military] options" in dealing with Iran. Most commentators see one of two scenarios, both nightmares: a large, bloody and expensive ground invasion and occupation that would cause oil to spike through the roof or a months long aerial bombardment of Iran's estimated 1,500 nuclear-related targets that would trigger a worldwide terrorist backlash. (Alternately, the Israelis could do it for us and set the Middle East ablaze.)

Yet there is a third option, of which our show of force with two carrier groups could be the opening move: a naval and air campaign to topple the ayatollahs without a single U.S. soldier's setting foot on Iranian soil.

This is not unprecedented. Although the public never noticed, the U.S. Navy accomplished much the same thing during the Iran-Iraq war, when Iran tried to fire on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in 1987-8. The Navy managed both to destroy the Iranian navy and to protect shipping in the Gulf to keep the world economy stable. This time, we can finish the job we started during the so-called Tanker War.
Ah yes, when Iran was embroiled in the final year an immensely destructive and draining war that lasted almost a decade (a conflict that cost Iran over half a million people) we were able to neutralize Iran's naval aggression. So, therefore, we should be able to repeat that feat now - actually, build on it in order to "finish the job." The context and prevailing dynamic aren't any different are they?

Along those lines, there is no mention from Herman of the vulnerability of our long, overexposed supply lines stretching through southern, Iran-friendly Iraq that over 150,000 US troops now rely upon for their well being. No regard for the proximity of US forces in Iraq and the attractiveness such a target provides - especially in a country in which Iran has many allies and militia elements sworn to retaliate on behalf of any attack on their Shiite "brethren." And that's just counting members of the current Iraqi government. In fact, the full panoply of Iran's retaliatory capacity is breezily dismissed with little more than a shrug, wink and a little pollyanish bravado. Reminds me of the type of pre-Iraq war-gaming that so confounded Marine General Paul Van Riper: a mixture of best case scenario planning and disregard of the enemy's ability to strike back.

Herman goes on to describe some specific military actions that would form part of a carefully orchestrated operation that culminates in a rather audacious crescendo:

The second step would be what military analysts call an "Effects-Based Operation," as Air Force and Navy planes target Iran's extremely vulnerable military and economic infrastructure, including electrical grid, transportation links, gasoline refineries, port facilities and suspected nuclear sites.

Next would come Special Ops and airborne attacks to seize Iran's main oil-pumping station at Kargh Island and capture or neutralize its offshore oil facilities. This would be an enhanced version of what Navy Seal teams pulled off in the 1988 Tanker War with no more than an airborne and a Marine brigade - fewer troops than in the surge planned for Iraq.

In a matter of days or weeks, the key components of the Iranian oil industry could be in American hands as Iran ground to a halt.

This would not only keep Iranian crude oil flowing to the world's economy. It would also safeguard Russia's and China's investments in Iran's energy industry, which would help line them up in our corner.

Is such a plan farfetched? Would it cause a Middle East meltdown?

No, Iran is uniquely vulnerable to this kind of campaign, as Iraq was during the first Gulf War...

Here we see that Herman's "battle plan" didn't even survive contact with the seventh paragraph of a brief op-ed. His claim that success would be attainable "without a single U.S. soldier's setting foot on Iranian soil" is refuted by Herman himself urging, instead, the deployment of "an airborne and Marine brigade." That was fast. And unrealistic. Keep in mind, in Herman's rose tinted world, we could seize and hold the vital assets of Iran's oil industry with little more than two brigades. Until, of course, we need a surge to guarantee victory. Sound familiar?

To his credit, Herman doesn't equate the ruling Iranian regime to Hitler's Germany as many urging war with Iran are wont to do. Unfortunately, we get the considerably less emotionally charged, though still regrettable, comparison to Mussolini's Italy. As in the case of its more venomous cousin on the Godwin side of the family tree, this analogy is enlisted to support rather fantastical conclusions:

Their regime is often compared to Hitler's Germany, but a more accurate comparison is to Mussolini's Italy. Beneath the bluster and bravado, the goose-stepping Revolutionary Guards, the threats of apocalypse and the coming of the Twelfth Imam, Iran is a weak and deeply divided regime. [...]

The mullahs know their collapse means opportunity for their Iranian democratic opponents - who, unlike Iraqis, are not divided along ethnic or religious lines. When the Allies invaded Italy in 1943, instead of rallying around Mussolini, Italians took the first opportunity to topple him. Iranians may well do the same. [emphasis mine throughout]

Despite the weakness and division in Iranian political and cultural spheres, documented recently in Laura Secor's must read article, an attack is somehow the best means to deal with an...ascendant Iran, intent on acting the part of regional hegemon? Not exactly a consistent forecast. Further, regardless of the overwhelming tendency of people to rally around the flag when attacked by outsiders, and despite Herman's call to essentially starve Iranians of their economic lifeblood and target civilian infrastructure such as the electrical grid, the people will somehow rise up and depose the ruling regime. Candies and flowers to follow, no doubt.

Nothing like a ravaged infrastructure to endear you to the people. Forget Italy circa World War II, how did that type of magical thinking serve Israel in its confrontation with Hezbollah this past summer? For those keeping score, that is now a known known.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert

Jim Henley is throwing haymakers at the Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball piece that probes intelligence reports related to Iran's involvement in the Iraqi IED business. In particular, Henley focuses on the evidence that supposedly connects Iran to Iraq's IED trade: the use of infrared radio sensors as a triggering device for IEDs, and Iran's reported purchase of large quantities of the same.

Are you kidding me? Dollar doodads that anyone can buy show up in (a minority of) IEDs in Iraq, often in combination with shaped charges, a technology that goes back to World War II, and it’s supposed to prove that the Persian superrace is behind it all? Are we supposed to believe that Iraqis and “foreign fighters” are like the hominid tribe at the beginning of 2001, incapable of doing more than bashing heads with heavy bones without alien guidance? These things are used “to turn on lights or burglar alarms,” and we’re supposed to believe that Iraqis have never seen these things? That Iraq lacks electronics technicians who could understand them and figure out how to use them for harm? That Iraq lacks former army demolitions experts who could figure out how to fashion their own shaped charges? And on alternate Thursdays hawks tell doves that we’re selling the Iraqis short, that we’re a bunch of racists?

I was equally underwhelmed by this tenuous link. John Robb summed it up best back in August of 2005 (about a year and a half ago!):

This innovation may be due to Iranian involvement, but a more probable explanation is that the insurgency itself is finding low-tech solutions to difficult problems through an open source development process.

It ain't exactly, er, rocket science after all. Furthermore, even if this cutting edge technological breakthrough was passed on to certain Shiite factions from Iran, due to the "open source" nature of modern guerrilla warfare, it could have likely spread to Sunni elements without Iran directly collaborating with them - despite some of the more breathless claims popping up in some neocon periodicals.

One of Henley's commenters (he attracts a fine crop), Bill Woolsey, offers a few more plausible scenarios by which tactics and technology can be transferred via osmosis, cross pollination and other similar diffusion-of-knowledge mechanisms.

Many pundits here in America claim that if the U.S. goes to war with Iran, Shia forces in Iraq will retaliate. If this is true, isn’t it likely that Iran is doing something now to prepare for this possibility? Or more likely, has been doing this for some time?

Actually, now would be a good time to interrupt Mr. Woolsey with a supporting anecdote from Spencer Ackerman via the notorious E.L.I.:

Eli Lake has a story I wish appeared under my byline, about how the intelligence community, though divided, assesses Iran's penetration of the Iraqi Shiites as thorough and near-complete. How deep? To give just one example, in 2004, for the low-low price of $140,000 up front, Iran recruited 70,000 conscripts for one Shiite militia alone. (Badr? Probably.) According to a paper written by a Fort Leavenworth-based Army Reserve sergeant, all of the Shiite and Kurdish allies America relies on in Iraq are also Iranian allies. Indeed, Iran started reaching out to Shiite proxies like SCIRI as early as November 2001 to prepare for what Teheran accurately forecast as an inevitable U.S. invasion. Unlike us, Iran had a Phase IV in place for what came next.

So Iran has definitely been preparing, hedging and attempting to cover all bases. It's involvement with Shiites in Iraq is evident and, for that matter, such influence isn't going anywhere any time soon either. As Spencer points out later in that same post:

So let's review administration strategy here. In Iraq, the plan is to escalate the war in order to buy time for Iraqi politics... which is thoroughly dominated, according to U.S. intelligence, by Iran. The best case scenario for us in Iraq is handing Iraq to Iran even more than we already have.

So whither the Iranian/Sunni ties, and evidence of Iranian expertise supporting attacks on US and Iraqi government forces via Sunni insurgents? Back to Woolsey:

While the dominant Shia factions in Iraq appear willing to let the U.S. kill Sunnis and wait for the U.S. to leave them the country, surely some of them must be preparing for the possibility that the U.S. will refuse to leave them in control. Such preparations would involve preparing to fight a guerrilla war against the U.S. With, of course, Iranian help. Shouldn’t we expect such preparations today? [ed note: easy answer - yes]

Even if Iran is supporting the watch and wait strategy of their friends in SCIRI and Dawa...various loose cannon Shia groups may well get so mad at coalition forces that abilities and materials that are supposed to be held in reserve get used now against U.S. forces. [...]

And, of course, the efforts of Shia forces (whether they are officially in the government or not) to clear out Sunni “traitors” from the government, would naturally involve Iranian supported forces killing Iraqi government forces (that are Sunni.)

While helping the Sunni forces a bit to bleed the U.S. might make some sense from Iran’s point of view, the fact that the Sunni forces are mostly targeting Shia elements of the Iraqi government as well as Shia civilians makes this very unlikely. It is hard to believe that some Shia Persians wouldn’t tell some Shia Arabs ruining the hoped for alliance. I can’t believe that “our” allies in SCIRI and Dawa are that beholden to Iran that they would agree to accept mass murder of their people in order to bleed their purported U.S. allies.

I don’t see a lot of claims by the U.S. that Iran is helping the Sunni guerrillas. It is all a bit vague. The Sunnis are doing nearly all of the attacks on the U.S. There are claims that Iran is helping some body or other in Iraq. This help might be used against U.S. forces (maybe in the future) or Iraqi government forces (like the Sunni VP or Sunni defense minister?) And we know that some Shia do attack some coalition forces from time to time. That is a big part of the limited attacks against the British in the south.

To sum up, it seems likely that Iran is helping the Shia forces (which mostly are the government of Iraq) and some of their efforts spill over into minor attacks on U.S. forces, the “tough” tactics against Sunnis, and internecine Shia battles.

This allows me the opportunity to clarify some of the things I have been suggesting with respect to Iran's involvement in Iraq for some time. While I do believe that Iran has been trying to frustrate our efforts in Iraq by creating a certain level of controlled chaos, and outflanking our attempts to forge alliances with regional players that Iran understands better and to which Iran shares more in common, I think that Iranian support of Sunni elements has been greatly exaggerated. This doesn't mean that we don't stand to gain by fruitful negotiations with Iran since their influence in Shiite (and Kurdish) circles is significant.

It is quite possible that very early on in the game Iran was helping Sunni insurgents in order to bleed our resources and restrict our ability to attack Iran in short order - especially because at the time, those insurgents were mostly targeting coalition forces and not Shiite factions as such. On the contrary, most of the sectarian inspired violence targeting Shiites in the early days was spearheaded by Zarqawi and his cohorts. But when the insurgency morphed into a broader sectarian conflict with regional Sunni powers (ie, Saudi Arabia, Egypt) getting sucked in closer and closer to Sunni insurgents as a means to counterbalance burgeoning Iranian influence, it becomes less and less likely that Iran would be arming and training this rival faction that could soon become its major battlefield opponent.

For the above reasons, using Iran's involvement in sharing weapons and technology with Iraqi militants as a cassus belli becomes more and more questionable.

Also, instructing our soldiers to start shooting at the Iranians in their midst probably runs afoul of the alliances and ties nurtured by the very Iraqi government we are supposedly trying to protect and enable. It is that same government that is closest to Iran out of all of Iraq's many players. They may not appreciate that.

It would be generous to label this strategy as merely contradictory and incoherent, yet it is quintessential Bush administration fare.

How Can You Consciously Contemplate, When There's No Debate?

The Washington Post is passing along a deeply disturbing story concerning the change of posture that US forces in Iraq will assume vis-a-vis Iranian operatives in that country. The headline says it all: "US Force Authorized to Kill Iranian Operatives In Iraq."

Previously, US forces operated under rules of engagement that only permitted capture and release of Iranian elements. Since many of these Iranians are in Iraq at the behest of elements of the "sovereign" Iraqi government, and since there is no evidence of Iranian agents directly attacking US forces, or vice versa, this was deemed sufficient. Now, however, there is a potential for US forces to commence unprovoked, offensive operations against Iranian operatives.

It's hard to predict how this will play out on the ground, but this is a very dangerous game to be playing. For instance, would the two recent raids that resulted in the capture and detention of Iranians (one on a SCIRI compound in the south and one on a quasi-consular outpost in Erbil in the north) have been conducted differently under the auspices of this new policy? Would our forces have barged in guns blazing, without restraint, resulting in a body count?

Regardless, such an aggressive mandate serves to greatly increase the odds that tensions between the US and Iran escalate to critical mass through some bloody confrontation - or a series thereof. This would be one way to provoke a war with Iraq without the need to engage Congress or the American people on the merits. Unsurprisingly, the usual cast of characters in the Bush administration are pushing hard for the adoption of the most unrestrained version of this policy shift. From the article:

In Iraq, U.S. troops now have the authority to target any member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, as well as officers of its intelligence services believed to be working with Iraqi militias. The policy does not extend to Iranian civilians or diplomats. Though U.S. forces are not known to have used lethal force against any Iranian to date, Bush administration officials have been urging top military commanders to exercise the authority.

The wide-ranging plan has several influential skeptics in the intelligence community, at the State Department and at the Defense Department who said that they worry it could push the growing conflict between Tehran and Washington into the center of a chaotic Iraq war.

Senior administration officials said the policy is based on the theory that Tehran will back down from its nuclear ambitions if the United States hits it hard in Iraq and elsewhere, creating a sense of vulnerability among Iranian leaders. But if Iran responds with escalation, it has the means to put U.S. citizens and national interests at greater risk in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Two officials said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, though a supporter of the strategy, is concerned about the potential for errors, as well as the ramifications of a military confrontation between U.S. and Iranian troops on the Iraqi battlefield.

Officials said U.S. and British special forces in Iraq, which will work together in some operations, are developing the program's rules of engagement to define the exact circumstances for using force. In his last few weeks as the top commander in Iraq, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. sought to help coordinate the program on the ground. One official said Casey had planned to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a "hostile entity," a distinction within the military that would permit offensive action. [...]

Advocates of the new policy -- some of whom are in the NSC, the vice president's office, the Pentagon and the State Department -- said that only direct and aggressive efforts can shatter Iran's growing influence.

With aspects of the plan also targeting Iran's influence in Lebanon, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories, the policy goes beyond the threats Bush issued earlier this month to "interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria" into Iraq....

A senior intelligence officer was more wary of the ambitions of the strategy.

"This has little to do with Iraq. It's all about pushing Iran's buttons. It is purely political," the official said. The official expressed similar views about other new efforts aimed at Iran, suggesting that the United States is escalating toward an unnecessary conflict to shift attention away from Iraq and to blame Iran for the United States' increasing inability to stanch the violence there. [emphasis mine throughout]

Facing an increasingly hostile Congress - with members of his own Party breaking ranks - and staring down steadily plummeting approval ratings, President Bush surely appreciates that should he desire war with Iran, he will not be able to achieve it through a factually challenged PR campaign and fortuitously timed Congressional resolutions, as was the case with Iraq.

That doesn't mean that those clamoring for more war won't be trying to sell this one to the American people. Literally in some instances (via Laura Rozen). Further, to our nation's detriment, there is more than one way to achieve war with Iran if that is the desired outcome of the Commander-in-Chief - or at least if he is foolish enough to take the advice of those close advisers seeking such an outcome.

Along those lines, there is an unsettling parallel between the current approach and the run-up to the Iraq war (and the Bush administration's policy apparatus more generally speaking). As insiders and those with access to the White House have observed repeatedly, the Bush adminsitration doesn't work like its predecessors in that the policy process does not operate through a legitimate debate about options, with the strongest emerging from the rigors of the dialectic. Instead, a policy is chosen a priori, and then the arguments are "fixed" around that policy.

It is the marketplace of ideas turned on its head - and the results have been consistently disastrous.

The current ratcheting up of tensions with Iran is yet another way to cut off the debate, and render dissenting views moot. If the present policy is employed as aggressively as some in the Bush White House would like, then the hawks can just stretch out, wait and let nature take its course.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The SOTU Wants to Eat Your Brain

I agree with Hilzoy's general point that, compared to Bush's prior speeches, last night's was among the better in terms of performance. This is admittedly faint praise, especially when factoring in the low expectations going in. But it's a relative grading scale. The speech was underwhelming in terms of impact and inspiration, yet delivered with a certain level of workmanlike competence, if lacking in oratory flourish. Mere rote competence is something of an accomplishment for the notoriously tongue tied Bush, however.

Sadly, though, Bush managed to re-animate some of the familiar, zombie-like memes about Iraq that simply refuse to die despite their lack of correlation to reality. One such hard-to-kill counterfactual lurks in the following excerpt:

Despite endless threats from the killers in their midst, nearly 12 million Iraqi citizens came out to vote in a show of hope and solidarity we should never forget. [emphasis added]
Solidarity? I hate to get hung up on one word in a long speech, but this one stands out for being not just a simple exaggeration or useful embellishment. The concept is diametrically opposed to the actual event described.

12 million Iraqis came out to vote along remarkably strict ethnic/sectarian lines in a show of communalism and zero-sum factionalist thinking. Shiites voted only for Shiites, Kurds for Kurds and Sunnis for Sunnis. This ballot box discipline was driven by the twin engines of tribalism and fear. Fear of what fate might befall the voters should rival factions gain in power at their expense. In this sense, the elections did not serve as an event fostering a sense of national unity or "solidarity," but rather an expression of the ever-increasing divisions and distrust plaguing Iraqi society post-regime change.

I predicted as much back in December 2004, before the first of Iraq's three electoral events in 2005:
It is dangerous to conflate one election with democracy, and it is even more perilous to assume that the problems that plague Iraq will disappear like so many ballots descending into boxes.

Iraq is uniquely problematic in some respects in that the elections themselves will bring to a head many of the simmering ethnic tensions that have thus far remained under wraps - while the insurgency has raged on in its stead. In an inversion of conventional wisdom, elections could be the precursor to civil war between the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds who will each be vying for the mantle of power that elections will bestow.

...The problem is, if the Shiite leadership does not take an enlightened approach to power sharing, the Kurds won't accept the legitimacy of the newly formed government and may act on long held nationalistic desires to secede and form their own state. So too, the Sunnis will reject Shiite dominance and continue to fight in some form or another, continuing to destabilize Iraq.

The quandary presented by modern day Iraq is that there are bitter and historical grievances to settle on the one side of the ethnic divide, and a loss of long held political power on the other....In order for peace and cooperation to triumph over sectarian violence, not only must [the Shiites] agree to some form of power sharing that respects minority rights and sensibilities, [Shiite leaders] must continue to command the obedience of the vast Shiite population who might be tempted by voices calling for reprisals and total control - voices made more alluring by centuries of violence and frustration. Even if successful in [their] own internal balancing act, [Shiite leaders] would also need cooperative moderate Sunni and Kurdish counterparts who can maintain the support of their respective populations as they attempt to follow [the Shiite] lead, assuming [the Shiites] chart such a course in the first place which is not guaranteed. A precarious situation indeed.
These observations and admonitions were repeated prior to the constitutional referendum (guest stint at Belgravia Dispatch) and December 2005 election as well. Yet Bush would have us believe that these troubling expressions of the communal aspirations run amok in a deeply fractured society were some moment of "solidarity."

Speaking of that democratically elected, unity government, the New York Times reports on the level of dysfunction:

Parliament in recent months has been at a standstill. Nearly every session since November has been adjourned because as few as 65 members made it to work, even as they and the absentees earned salaries and benefits worth about $120,000.

Part of the problem is security, but Iraqi officials also said they feared that members were losing confidence in the institution and in the country’s fragile democracy. As chaos has deepened, Parliament’s relevance has gradually receded.

Deals on important legislation, most recently the oil law, now take place largely out of public view, with Parliament — when it meets — rubber-stamping the final decisions. As a result, officials said, vital legislation involving the budget, provincial elections and amendments to the Constitution remain trapped in a legislative process that processes nearly nothing. American officials long hoped that Parliament could help foster dialogue between Iraq’s increasingly fractured ethnic and religious groups, but that has not happened, either.[...]

Some of Iraq’s more seasoned leaders say attendance has been undermined by a widening sense of disillusionment about Parliament’s ability to improve Iraqis’ daily life. The country’s dominant issue, security, is almost exclusively the policy realm of the American military and the office of the prime minister.
The question is, how much more of this solidarity and democracy can Iraq take?

Beware of Ethiopians Bearing Gifts

Via Blake Hounshell comes news that US forces launched another AC-130 air strike in Somalia today. As with the previous effort launched earlier this month, this strike was ostensibly aimed at suspected al-Qaeda operatives. Despite claims made in the aftermath by Somali government spokesmen to the contrary, that earlier attack did not result in the death of any of the al-Qaeda targets.

It is not known whether we hit any of the desired targets this time either. The article also reports on the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from Mogadishu, and eventually all of Somalia, as mentioned on this site yesterday.

There was one additional bit from the article that stood out to me because of its significance in terms of appreciating Ethiopia's motives for invading neighboring Somalia.

Keep in mind that most observers expect Mogadishu - and Somalia generally speaking - to fall prey to anarchy and widespread clan violence when Ethiopian complete their withdrawal, now that the stabilizing ICU government has been toppled. That is, unless those departing Ethiopian troops are replaced by sufficient numbers of international peacekeepers. The deployment of such peacekeeping forces remains dubious at best, and even if they are provided as planned, they are no guarantee against a return to chaos. So the prospects for Somalia going forward are not bright.

If Mogadishu descends into another period of clan warfare, some regional analysts say, that is precisely what Ethiopian Prime Minister Zenawi Meles wanted all along. As evidence, they point to an Ethiopian government foreign policy report submitted to that country's Parliament two years ago.

According to an English translation, Ethiopian security officials wrote that Somalia was so divided that it "no longer posed a threat" to Ethiopia. [emphasis added]

As I've been suggesting all along, this eventualilty is a feature, not a bug. Although the cited report is not exactly smoking gun evidence of such motives, common sense dictates that longtime, bitter rivals generally don't expend blood and treasure to better the cause of their adversaries. The fact that such concepts appear in official Ethiopian strategy papers should come as no surprise. When the facts on the ground and previous policy match up with common sense, let Occam's razor cut to the chase.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Mission Accomplished?

Reuters is reporting that Ethiopian troops will begin withdrawing from the Somali capital of Mogadishu today. While the current Somali government has maintained, repeatedly, that the Ethiopian soldiers will be replaced with a contingent of peacekeepers from the African Union (made up of troops from several African nations), the willingness and ability of the African Union to muster and deploy such a force remains in doubt given its current commitments in Darfur and general logistical difficulties.

Further complicating the matter, playing referee to warring factions in Mogadishu is not exactly a plum assignment conducive to peacekeeping success, or light-footprinted deployments. Somalia's notorious clan-based conflicts are not only limited to the current Somali government's (TFG) battles with factions loyal to the ousted Islamic Courts Union (ICU). Even the TFG coalition has begun to splinter and fall prey to infighting.

Tim Lister explains the scope of the challenge:

Occupying Mogadishu, as U.S. and other forces found in the 1990s, is a perilous undertaking. A city of narrow streets and alleys and hundreds of wrecked buildings, it is perfect territory for snipers and suicide bombers. The Ethiopians say they want to withdraw from Somalia within weeks, aware of the potential quagmire it might otherwise become. Even on the day they entered Mogadishu, some Ethiopian convoys were attacked by crowds throwing stones. Two weeks later, an ambush of a Somali/Ethiopian convoy in the south of the city, where the Islamic Courts were strongest, left two people dead. The transitional government has declared martial law to try to bring order to the city.

Besides the Islamist threat, there is the task of subduing various clans that use checkpoints as a license for extortion and harass businesses. There is no police presence in Mogadishu, so that task will fall to soldiers of the transitional government and the Ethiopians....Within two weeks of the Islamists' expulsion, there were signs of a resurgence in clan warfare. Several were killed in a firefight between TFG troops and militia of clan leader Mohamed Qanyare Afrah outside the Villa Somalia, the presidential residence. "Another Iraq is not going to happen in Somalia," declared Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, but the Ethiopians are facing overlapping conflicts and rivalries that would be familiar to U.S. commanders in Baghdad.

Well, Prime Minister Meles may be able to make good on the vow that Somalia will not turn into another Iraq - for Ethiopian forces at least. Rather than opting to stick around, attending to the difficult task of establishing security and stability, the Ethiopians have one foot out the door. In that same article from just a few days ago, Tim Lister asked:

Will the Ethiopians now stay in Somalia to provide order or withdraw quickly and hope that the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) can establish its authority?

The answer to the first part of the question seems to be coming together already. As to Ethiopia's intentions to support the long term success of the TFG, as I suggested earlier, for Ethiopia: "[d]estabilizing Somalia, and leaving it wracked with violence and disorder, is a feature not a bug." At the very least, it isn't worth the trouble to try to prevent (albeit, a cynical perspective).

Somalia is a regional rival with a long history of conflict with Ethiopia. The two nations have been feuding over contested borders, and the inclination of separatist ethnic/religious movements residing across those disputed borders, for decades. The notion that Ethiopia's recent intervention in Somalia was born out of altruistic concern for the well being of the Somalis is beyond naive.

While the Ethiopian government had some legitimate gripes with the ICU, it is difficult to see any of these as a legitimate cassus belli. Instead, the invasion looks more and more like a regional powerplay designed to knock its rival off balance - while creating a domestic political windfall for the unpopular Ethiopian regime (and giving it license to further repress internal political rivals).

With that in mind, it becomes easier to appreciate the fact that for Ethiopia, the current state of play in Somalia - despite the likelihood of a descent into lawless violence - looks like Mission Accomplished.

Kind of makes all those conservative pundits who were breathlessly heaping praise on the prowess of Ethiopia's military look a little silly. For these pundits, Ethiopia had unlocked the secret to military success that had thus far eluded us in Iraq: a combination of extreme indifference to civilian life, and relative non-attention from the meddlesome media. Cliff May, in a pique of infatuation, asked:

Maybe we can learn something from the Ethiopians in Somalia?

John Miller followed this up with even more over the top adulation:

…I can’t read the news today and keep from wondering whether we should airlift a few Ethiopian battalions into Baghdad.

Come to think of it, Miller and May might just have a point - even if not the one intended. If we could airlift a few Ethiopian battalions into Baghdad, maybe they could show us how to head for the exits.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Cuffed and Stuffed

Chained to the desk for the time being, as all of my clients seem to have fully recovered and returned from holiday vacations and related daydreaming. Now they want nothing but Protestant-ethic fueled, 24 hour workdays. So in the feast or famine world of the legal profession, I'm feasting. Which, despite its gluttonous connotations, leads to its own deprivations - mostly of the bloggy variety.

My normal, long-winded way of saying, bear with me. I should be able to return to the serious issues of the world when this silly day job decides to recede back into its proper, secondary role. Until then, I'll have to content myself with composing elegant (if overly structured, emotionless and predictable) legal poems. The Wordsworth of Whereas.

You, the reader, on the other hand, could go check out this anthology of science-related blog writings put together by long time friend of TIA Bora Zivkovic (aka Coturnix). You might even want to plunk down the spare change to support a worthy project - one designed to help us moonlighting bloggers play Houdini and slip these cuffs from around our wrists...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Roll Rastafari Chariot Along - Part 2.5: Ridin' Dirty

In Part II of this series, I raised questions about Ethiopia's regional ambitions vis-a-vis Somalia and Eritrea, and how those aspirations might create a conflict of interest whereby Ethiopia would be tempted to exaggerate the threat of the Somali Islamist government (ICU) in order to garner US assistance. Such ulterior interests also create the possibility for the emergence of some tension down the road between Ethiopia's long term designs and those of the United States.

Whereas, ideally, it would be in the interest of the US to help create a peaceful, stable Somalia whose population would not be drawn to radicalism like that preached by al-Qaeda, Ethiopia might be better served by a weak, divided, chaotic Somalia that would remain unable to effectively challenge Ethiopia in the arena of the two nations' border disputes and other competing territorial claims (regardless of al-Qaeda's good fortunes as a result).

In this addendum to Part II, I wanted to further shine a spotlight on the party that's riding shotgun with us in this dubious military endeavor. Matt Yglesias provides a useful segue:

[O]ne of the costs of these kind of proxy wars is that Bush has married us not just to Ethiopia, but to a particular Ethiopian faction and thereby gotten us involved in all manner of issues and controversies your average American -- even your average American foreign policy professional -- doesn't really understand or care about.
This point should not be underestimated. Ethiopia itself is a nation of diverse ethnic, religious and political affiliations. The government and policies of the current leader, Meles Zenawi, do not represent a strong consensus of Ethiopians - despite the way the Ethiopian/Somali conflict is framed in the Western media. From Mik Awake:

Although every story about this East African Fiasco ends by punctuating the "historically Christian" Ethiopia, they fail to mention that Ethiopia is as historically Muslim as it is historically Jewish as it is historically Christian. They fail to cite the facts: that Ethiopia is more than 50% Muslim. That certain tribes on the border share a Somalian and an Ethiopian identity, passports, family members, etc.
Consistent with this myopic view of Ethiopian society, Mik Awake takes note of a recent World Bank decision that seems to take the lesson learned from generous US aid delivered to tsunami victims in Muslim Indonesia (hint: our approval ratings increased dramatically), and turn it on its head:

This all leads up to what I just read in today's headlines. In a shocking move, the World Bank has approved of $175 million in aid to be given to the Ethiopian government. Though aid has its problems, that's not the disgusting part. This is:

"The program is focused on the very poorest of the poor in Ethiopia and on its own merits it needs to continue," [Trina Hague of the World Bank] said, "It doesn't cover the Somali region of Ethiopia and we will under the program be starting some piloting under the safety net. It won't be financed by the World Bank, but will have some bilateral food aid contributions," she added.
In essence, the World Bank has promised this money to Ethiopia, with the express stipulation that the Somali region of Ethiopia (which is a legitimate part of the country and has been for centuries, and which is also one of the neediest) not see any of it.
Perhaps there are legitimate safety concerns that are driving the regional application of the aid, but this seems like a tremendous opportunity to squander. $175 million could buy a lot of hearts and minds. Or at least rent them for a while. More than the Vulcan Cannons firing out of AC-130 gun ships.

Unfortunately, all indications are that the Ethiopian government will use the recent US/World Bank generosity to further its own anti-democratic faction at the expense of its Ethiopian rivals. At least if the pattern holds. This Washington Post article provides a glimpse into the political life in Ethiopia. It also raises additional questions about the motivations driving our putative ally:

Last year's [Ethopian] elections began with high hopes and degenerated into a bloodbath. Opposition groups, who made significant gains but did not win a majority according to the national election board, accused the government of rigging the tally and flooded the streets to challenge the results. During the rallies in May and November last year, unarmed protesters were sprayed with bullets while others were hunted down, killed inside their homes and in their gardens, in front of children and neighbors.

Though the official government report released in October listed 197 demonstrators killed, some members of the government's own commission and human rights groups have estimated that the number could be as high as 600. Seven police officers were killed.

While most of the 30,000 prisoners taken after the election have been released, several hundred opposition leaders remain in jail, including the elected mayor of Addis Ababa, Birhanu Nega, who was a professor in the United States, and Haile Miriam Yacob, who served on the U.N. commission settling a border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea. [...]

As Ethiopia and Somalia's Islamic Courts movement inch closer each day to all-out conflict, a widespread view among people here in the capital is that Meles is using the conflict to distract people from a vast array of internal problems and to justify further repression of opposition groups, including ethnic Somalis in Ethiopia.

In particular, opponents of war say he is playing up the claim that there are al-Qaeda operatives within the Islamic Courts in order to maintain the support of the U.S. government, which relies on a steady flow of Ethiopian intelligence that some regional analysts say is of dubious value. [...]

..."This regime is democratic only in words. They kill people without any law, and they arrest people without a reason. This government is trying to stay in power by using different mechanisms, like claiming the Somalis are invading. But this is not the case. Meles is trying to externalize his problems."

And those problems are vast.

After 12 years in power, Meles presides over a nation that still does not produce enough food to feed its own people, relying on the U.N. World Food Program to supplement struggling farmers. The number of people infected with HIV is rising every year: At least 500,000 Ethiopians are living with the virus now, according to government figures. At least half of the population lives on less than $1 a day, which is not enough to buy a single meal. [...]

...Meles said the Islamic Courts have already attacked Ethiopia by arming secessionist Ethiopian Somali groups in the Ogaden region along the Somali border, a claim opposition leaders believe is both exaggerated and hardly a justification for war.

"Our argument is that all the governments we've known since 1960 say they want the Ogaden," said Beyene Petros, leader of the main opposition group, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, referring to Somalia.

In an effort to rehabiliate the Ethiopian regime's image (or provide a preemptive whitewash, depending on the audience), many cite the fact that the Meles government is backing the UN-recognized Somali government in its battle with the ICU. Given Ethiopia's track record in terms of human rights abuses internally, as well as its lack of regard for the UN generally speaking, this reeks more of opportunism than an enlightened approach to issues of sovereignty. As a commenter over at the Armchair Generalist's solo digs observed:

Ethiopia is in violation of a UN-brokered peace treaty with Eritrea, which is something else that isn't often reported. A UN commission drew a new border after hearing both sides of the dispute, which Ethipoia promptly disregarded, touching off the last couple of rounds of fighting between the two countries.
No worries. There's an explanation for that as well. You see, Eritrea is now a state sponsor of terrorism, so Ethiopia is just doing us all a little favor. This new designation comes regardless of the fact that that same Eritrean government happened to be a member of the "Coalition of the Willing" during the Iraq invasion. Yeah, but what have you done for me lately Eritrea?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

There Should be a Mastercard Ad

David Leonhardt has some fun with numbers:

The human mind isn’t very well equipped to make sense of a figure like $1.2 trillion. We don’t deal with a trillion of anything in our daily lives, and so when we come across such a big number, it is hard to distinguish it from any other big number. Millions, billions, a trillion — they all start to sound the same.

The way to come to grips with $1.2 trillion is to forget about the number itself and think instead about what you could buy with the money. When you do that, a trillion stops sounding anything like millions or billions.

For starters, $1.2 trillion would pay for an unprecedented public health campaign — a doubling of cancer research funding, treatment for every American whose diabetes or heart disease is now going unmanaged and a global immunization campaign to save millions of children’s lives.

Combined, the cost of running those programs for a decade wouldn’t use up even half our money pot. So we could then turn to poverty and education, starting with universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old child across the country. The city of New Orleans could also receive a huge increase in reconstruction funds.

The final big chunk of the money could go to national security. The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission that have not been put in place — better baggage and cargo screening, stronger measures against nuclear proliferation — could be enacted. Financing for the war in Afghanistan could be increased to beat back the Taliban’s recent gains, and a peacekeeping force could put a stop to the genocide in Darfur.

All that would be one way to spend $1.2 trillion. Here would be another:

The war in Iraq.


Obviously, there's no guarantee that had this war been averted, the savings on hypothetical war-related costs would be diverted to such worthy causes. Actually, given the fact that Bush was/is President, most of the windfall would probably have been squandered on more tax cuts for the wealthiest among us.

Still, what struck me about Leonhardt's piece was the stark elucidation of the willingness of humans to consume vast amounts of resources in the name of "war" - exorbitant expenditures that we would otherwise bristle at as constituting the wastefulness of "big government" had the largesse been aimed at something more humanitarian in nature. This is how I put it in a previous post on the subject:

In service of the exalted task of war, we agree to spend otherwise unthinkable amounts of money without a commensurate level of consideration. Once a war begins, it is as if the blank check is signed and there is no real, substantive debate about costs and benefits. Quite the contrary, oversight is anathema and such discussions are often deemed to be improper - in bad taste if you will. Instead, most discourse surrounding the war is relegated to abstractions about morality, grand strategy, jingoistic accusations and defenses, as well as other "enlightened" subjects. [...]

Due to the humanitarian component included in the sales pitch, war supporters often strike a pious and self righteous posture that sucks the air out of any debate or possibility of dissent. Yet many of those same "morally superior" war proponents seem willing to tolerate much human suffering that doesn't require enormously expensive, destructive and murderous wars to relieve. A commenter over at Jim Henley's place summarized this phenomenon rather succinctly:

...[T]here is no one more contemptible than the people who are filled with sympathy for residents of poor countries only when it’s an occasion for dropping bombs on them.

Yes, it’s terrible that people were killed by Saddam, or the government of Sudan, or Milosevic, or whoever. It really is bad.

But it’s also bad that people are dying of water-borne illnesses, malaria, and many other problems that can be dealt with much more cheaply and reliably and without killing anybody. Someone whose empathy for the poor expresses itself only through advocacy for violence is much worse than someone with no empathy at all, who at least will leave them alone.

The War Nerd actually takes it one step further in explaining the utility of bribery vs. "shock and awe" ballistics in terms of achieving victory in complicated, counterinsurgency type conflicts:

Simplest and safest [way to win CI conflicts] is bribery. I don't know why we don't do it more often. Almost makes me believe the guys running things are secret war nerds themselves, because otherwise they'd do bribery as a way of bringing down "rogue states" all the time. Just do the math. Right now, November 12, 2006, the official cost of Iraq is around $340 billion. Suppose we'd just bombed Iraq with dollars; we'd be the heroes of the world, and every family in Iraq would be - are you ready for this?-$70,000 richer [ed. note: make that $275,000 richer by Leonhardt's count]. That would make Iraq one of the richest countries in the world. I guarantee you those greedy bastards would find better things to do with their time than drill holes in each others' heads with power drills. Everybody'd thank us. Not just the Iraqis but every gold chain manufacturer in Egypt, every brothel manager in Amsterdam, every Mercedes dealer in Baghdad. They'd be wheeling and stealing, cheatin' and greetin', till they OD'd on haggling.

Which would be just fine. Along the way, Saddam would have been overthrown in a few seconds, like the first time he tried to tell a young Baghdad blood he couldn't drive his new convertible into the country.

The Iraqis were never going to revolt for democracy - I mean, be honest, who would? But a new car? Boom, ol' Soddom is a hood emblem, and Uday and Qusay are seat covers. Then, when every Iraqi had a car, all we'd have to do is let them run out of gas and say, with our feet up on the table, "So...y'say you need some oil refined, huh? Let's make a deal." Piece of low-sulfur hi-octane cake.

Yeah, but where are the fireworks? What about the chest thumping? The vicarious titillation of the armchair warriors? The sense of purpose to our otherwise mundane existence? Can you really put a price tag on that?

Actually, you can.And some people are more than willing to cash in

(hat tip to Blake's own Passport)

Cameron Crazy and Gitmo Lazy

Reading up on the shocking misconduct of Mike Nifong, the prosecutor leading the case against the accused Duke University lacrosse players, I was struck by the similarities between that case, and the legal issues facing detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The two controversies share something in common in that both represent a failure on the part of government officials and citizens to appreciate and respect one of the most integral foundations of our legal system: the notion that the accused should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise.

Although Nifong acted with galling malfeasance, he was not the only party that bears responsibility for what is beginning to look more and more like a nightmare ordeal for the wrongly accused. There were faculty at Duke University that irresponsibly rushed to publicly denounce the accused, protesters immediately began hounding the students outside dorm rooms and traveling from class to class, and the University itself suspended the entire lacrosse season and the academic careers of the accused (only inviting them back to the University last week as the case against them disintegrated).

The fault lies with the rush to judgment - or better yet, pre-judgment. For too many, the accusations became synonymous with the crimes themselves. Why wait for a trial when the facts were so damning: these were white, privileged, athletes at an elite private university partying it up in a frat house with alcohol and strippers. Nuff said, right? Further, as a result of the shameful history of persecuting and vilifying rape victims in this country (and every other country for that matter), and dismissing their accusations as spurious, some on the Left (properly concerned with these issues), have developed a trigger happy reaction to such accusations. There has been an overcompensation of sorts.

Predictably, the case became a cause celebre for the Right wing punditry and blogosphere, who tend to show more agnosticism in such matters (perhaps reacting to what they perceive as a knee-jerk jettisoning of "presumed innocent" when a charge of rape has been leveled, perhaps more cynical reasons). Their skepticism, if overly reflexive in some instances, has been vindicated.

Interestingly, there is an inverse relationship between Right and Left with respect to the treatment and classification of those accused of terrorism - both foreign citizens detained at Gitmo, and US citizens like Jose Padilla who have been brutalized by a detention policy run amok. The roles are reversed.

For too many on the Right side of the spectrum, the accusations become synonymous with the crimes themselves. Why wait for a trial when the facts are so damning: these are Muslim men, picked up in Afghanistan and other parts of the globe where terrorists are known to reside and they have been accused by the US government of dangerous affiliations at a time of heightened tensions. Further, as a result of the psychic impact of 9/11, and the raw fear of future terrorist attacks, some on the Right (properly concerned with these issues), have developed a trigger happy reaction to such accusations. There has been an overcompensation of sorts.

Publius hones in on the conceptual breakdown that, in different contexts, is affecting Americans across political spectrum:

Other than its obnoxiousness, the thing that really stands out about Stimson’s critique is the basic conceptual error that we've seen again and again in the anti-terrorism debates — equating “terrorists” with “those accused of being terrorists.” People make the same error when they equate efforts to ensure accused people actually are terrorists with efforts to “protect terrorists.” I’m fully confident that most administration officials understand this distinction perfectly well, but consciously choose to ignore it...

In this sense, LawFirmGate is intertwined at the conceptual root with the broader debates over habeas corpus, torture, etc. In all these debates, one side (including the administration) assumes that detainees are terrorists and operates on that assumption. The other side, however, starts from a position of doubt and skepticism — i.e., they believe that accusations alone do not a terrorist make.

You see this basic conceptual divide play out in a number of different contexts. Take habeas. It really can’t be stressed enough, but the point of habeas is not to let terrorists go free, but to ensure that the people you have detained are in fact terrorists. Habeas forces the executive branch to justify its detention — it is, in this sense, an information-generating tool.
In that sense, I would hope that the Right and Left could teach each other a lesson about the presumption of innocence - one that should be embraced with respect to all accused parties, regardless of the underlying crime and extenuating circumstances that contribute to the impression of guilt.

This is not about terrorists' rights or criminals' rights. This about maintaining a process to insure that everyone gets their day in court, and that the rest of us refrain from judgment. At least until the judge gets around to it first.

Ram Tough

I'm proud to say that the Dean of my law school alma mater, Fordham, signed this letter. His name is William Treanor, and I had the good fortune of being assigned his criminal law class in my first year back when he was a professor, not a Dean (actually, rumor has it he still teaches despite his role as Dean).

He was a straight shooter as a professor, very accessible to students and always willing to stick around and chat after class. Fordham made a good choice in advancing him - as vindicated by his decision to publicly denounce the shameful attack on the legal profession, and the rule of law, as leveled by the Bush White House. No surprise there I guess.

The Bush administration has consistently shown more reverence for the concepts of "freedom," "justice" and "democracy" in the abstract, rather than the real world where such quaintisms have been treated contemptuously as nuisances and unwelcomed constraints on the Unitary Executive. If only governing were as easy as giving speeches.

For those not following the controversey, publius at Legal FictionObsidian Wings has the details.

(via Belgravia Dispatch)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

They Say It's Good for Business, From Singapore to Widnes

I don't care how much extra money is generated by the Pentagon's "surplus sales" ($57 million in fiscal 2005), something tells me the costs might exceed the benefits in certain situations [emphasis added throughout]:

The U.S. military has sold forbidden equipment at least a half-dozen times to middlemen for countries — including Iran and China — who exploited security flaws in the Defense Department's surplus auctions. The sales include fighter jet parts and missile components. [...]

Sensitive military surplus items are supposed to be demilitarized or "de-milled" — rendered useless for military purposes — or, if auctioned, sold only to buyers who promise to obey U.S. arms embargoes, export controls and other laws.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, found it alarmingly easy to acquire sensitive surplus. Last year, its agents bought $1.1 million worth — including rocket launchers, body armor and surveillance antennas — by driving onto a base and posing as defense contractors.

"They helped us load our van," Kutz said.

Of particular concern is the ability of Iran to refurbish and repair its aging fleet of US fighter jets, acquired during the rule of the Shah. At least, it should be a concern:

Federal investigators are increasingly anxious that Iran is within easy reach of a top priority on its shopping list: parts for the precious fleet of F-14 "Tomcat" fighter jets the United States let Iran buy in the 1970s when it was an ally.

In one case, convicted middlemen for Iran bought Tomcat parts from the Defense Department's surplus division. Customs agents confiscated them and returned them to the Pentagon, which sold them again — customs evidence tags still attached — to another buyer, a suspected broker for Iran.

As bad as that sounds, the scenario veers farther toward the surreal as revealed in this excerpt:

The Pentagon recently retired its Tomcats and is shipping tens of thousands of spare parts to its surplus office — the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service — where they could be sold in public auctions. Iran is the only other country flying F-14s.

"It stands to reason Iran will be even more aggressive in seeking F-14 parts," said Stephen Bogni, head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's arms export investigations. Iran can only produce about 15 percent of the parts itself, he said.

Did you get that? Let me reiterate the highlights:

Iran is the only country flying F-14s, but their fleet is old and in disrepair. Logically, the Pentagon and other relevant federal agencies are concerned that Iran will be aggressively stepping up its efforts to acquire F-14 parts given its pressing need and the recent heightened tensions between the US and Iran. Yet, despite the fact that our putative adversary Iran is the only logical buyer of F-14 parts (or, at least, the most motivated), the Pentagon will soon be auctioning such parts off to a gaggle of buyers with dubious ethical standards and a shoddy track record for adhering to export controls. Including with respect to Iran.

As overseen by the Ministry of Silly Walks.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Dick in a Box?

Some of the reshuffling of personnel in the Bush administration (Rummy, Cambone, Bolton out), and the drubbing the GOP took in November largely as a result of failed Iraq policy, had many predicting a decline in the influence that Dick Cheney has over White House policy for the remainder of Bush's term.

But, as Kevin points out, the recently heightened tension with Iran and Syria, and hte wholesale rejection of Baker-Hamilton, seems to indicate that Cheney is as influential as ever - much to the country's detriment.

The truth most likely lies somewhere in between. Cheney's star has dimmed a notch or two, but his tenacity and knowledge of the bureacratic battlefield may enable him to weather the storm, with his clout emerging mostly in tact.

Though I wish it weren't so, his acumen in this regard is impressive. Laura Rozen gets at some of the reasons why this is the case in this insightful, yet concise, piece in the Washington Monthly.

Read it, and weep.

It's One Thing to Flirt With Madness, but When Madness Starts Flirting Back?

"I call it the madman theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I've reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war. We'll just slip the word to them that, 'for God's sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can't restrain him when he's angry -- and he has his hand on the nuclear button' -- and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace."

Richard Nixon to H.R. Haldeman, 1969 (via TCR)

It's long been my contention that the vast majority of the Iran/Syria related bellicosity emanating from the White House over the past three years has been hollow saber rattling of one form or another. Roughly a year into the invasion of Iraq it became apparent to most observers (even in the White House) that our military options vis-a-vis Iran (and Syria to a lesser extent) were severely limited.

For one, our sizable and enduring military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan have limited our ability to take similar action against Iran/Syria. Not to mention the fact that Iran has a wide range of retaliatory options available - a menu made broader by the convenient proximity of so many American personnel right next door in Iraq (as well as a largely sympathetic Shiite faction in a hegemonic position in Iraq). Taking action against Syria, though perhaps less problematic than with respect to Iran, would nevertheless open a pandora's box of potential regional destabilizations that we might not be able to contain (the usurpers of Assad, for example, would be far more hostile to our interests).

With those limitations in mind, the repeated threats (both veiled and overt), and consistent maintenance of a generally hostile posture, can mostly be interpreted in two ways (with various power nodes within the administration probably pursuing varying strategies in this regard):

First, the bluster can be seen as an attempt to augment the perception in Iranian/Syrian eyes that we still have a military capability to be reckoned with. This would be useful in order to compel Iran/Syria to offer better terms and concessions at the negotiating table. The problem with this reading is that those in favor of opening talks with Iran/Syria have thus far been unable to convince the President of the wisdom of this course. So to the extent that some Bush administration officials have been seeking to bolster our hand in negotiations by assuming a - somewhat hollow - threatening posture, the next step in this two-part strategy remains elusive. This renders phase one utterly counterproductive.

Second, there are elements (prominent ones, supported by forces like Cheney) that actually want military confrontation with Iran/Syria. So some of the heated rhetoric and associated provocations are indicative of a legitimate strategy to spark a war. Still, despite these belligerent intentions, Bush has thus far resisted commencing the final countdown, so to speak. At the end of the day, most high ranking military officials (including new Defense Secretary Gates) counseling Bush are most likely reminding him, repeatedly, that such an widening of the conflict could lead to an unprecedented catastrophe.

Due to the simultaneous pursuit of these diverging strategies, all we have been left with is an incoherent and muddled policy that juts out in various directions in fits and spurts: full of hostile rhetoric and provocation, yet without any discernible means or will to follow either course to fruition or productive resolution. All bad cop, no good cop. All preparation, no realization.

That being said, the flirtation with madness has taken on some truly ominous shades as of late. This is either the result of masterful subterfuge undertaken as a prelude to negotiations (now, from a position of perceived strength), the actual build up to war or, in the alternative, still more outward manifestations of the near-paralytic internal divisions in the White House's policy making apparatus.

Steve Clemons yesterday offered a chilling bit of information:

Washington intelligence, military and foreign policy circles are abuzz today with speculation that the President, yesterday or in recent days, sent a secret Executive Order to the Secretary of Defense and to the Director of the CIA to launch military operations against Syria and Iran.

The President may have started a new secret, informal war against Syria and Iran without the consent of Congress or any broad discussion with the country.
That rather bold prediction comes in the context of several other actions, warnings and rhetorical escalations that seem to lend support to the most dire reading of events. There was the seizure of Iranian officials in Southern Iraq weeks ago, the storming of the Iranian consulate (lesser diplomatic outpost?) and capture of five Iranian citizens in Kurdistan, an inflammatory speech by President Bush on Wednesday, the appointment of a Navy man (well versed in the use of air power) to head CENTCOM, and some other military moves that would normally complement the preparation for war. Steve Clemons, again, this time quoting Flynt Leverett:

The deployment of a second carrier strike group to the theater -- confirmed in the speech -- is clearly directed against Iran. Since, in contrast to previous U.S. air campaigns in the Gulf, military planners developing contingencies for striking target sets in Iran must assume that the United States would not be able to use land-based air assets in theater (because of political opposition in the region), they are surely positing a force posture of at least two, and possible three carrier strike groups to provide the necessary numbers and variety of tactical aircraft.

Similarly, the President's announcement that additional Patriot batteries would go to the Gulf is clearly directed against Iran. We have previously deployed Patriot batteries to the region to deal with the Iraqi SCUD threat. Today, the only missile threat in the region for the Patriot to address is posed, at least theoretically, by Iran's Shihab-3.
On top of that, Garanace Franke-Ruta passes along some unsettling rumors that argue that the extra troops in Iraq resulting from the surge will be tasked with the mission of protecting the vulnerable military supply lines that stretch through southern Iraq that would be targeted pursuant an eventual strike on Iran. More preparations for war?

I readily admit that at least part of my assessment of the situation, and conclusion that confrontation with Iran/Syria is not in the cards, is born out of hope and necessity: the results from such a widening of the conflict could be near-cataclysmic. As such, I have put faith in the notion that even President Bush must appreciate this fact and thus avoid launching such attacks - even if, at times, his state of indecisiveness and desire to confront Syria and Iran lead to a schizophrenic translation into policy.

Still, I am growing increasingly worried that Bush might just be foolish and desperate enough to do the unthinkable. There are certainly enough committed zealots in his inner circle that would counsel him to act so rashly. Or at the very least, blunder his way into a regional war.

Doing so under any circumstances, however, would truly signify the all out madness of King George.

Oh Lord, Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood

Josh Trevino cries foul about the consensus "leftist" interpretation of his recent homage to the efficacy of the concentration camp, free-fire zone and barbed wire approach to spreading freedom and democracy. In the comments section over at TAPPED, he praises commenter Craig's charitable reading of Trevino's piece (a defense that earned Craig the coveted title of "the sole remaining member of the leftist commentariat who can read" ).

According to Craig, as endorsed by Trevino, Trevino wasn't actually "advocating a Boer War strategy," he was merely attempting a thought experiment - a roundabout way of showing that even if we adopted the most troop-efficient model for freedom and democracy promotion (read: the model the Brits used to liberate the Boers), we still wouldn't have the number of troops required.

The problem with this reading is that Trevino makes clear up front that he does not rule out the Boer War approach on moral grounds. In fact, to remove the Boer War strategy from our arsenal would be, in his words, "folly."

Make no mistake: those means were cruel. I have stated previously that I endorse cruel things in war — to eschew them is folly.

Thus, even if we grant the claim that Trevino is primarily arguing that we don't have enough troops to properly execute the Boer War approach, his would be a remorseful assessment of such matters. In other words, if only we had enough troops, we could properly implement the Boer War approach which Trevino endorses.

More perplexing still is the following passage from the same piece. Confusing, that is, if one is to view Trevino's piece as a reality check regarding the inadequacy of the number of troops available for the surge, and the impact such a shortfall will have on our ability to successfully carry out Bush's plan or, in the alternative, the more efficient Boer War approach:

The President also spoke openly of what has been obvious to observers of this war for years: that Iran and Syria are actively engaged on the battlefield against us. One wishes he had been this forthright when United States Marines were grappling with Iranian jihadis in Najaf in April 2004, but better late than never. The warning to these enemy states — coupled with the odd and portentous mention of Patriot batteries and a carrier battle group — is a step in the right direction. This war is bigger than Iraq: and it may have to get bigger still before it is won. [emphasis added]

So let me see if I have this straight: Bush's plan won't work because it would require hundreds of thousands more troops, in line with former General Eric Shinseki's recommendations (400,000-500,000 troops). Even if Bush adopted the Boer War approach, we would still need roughly 300,000 troops which, though less than a Shinseki-type approach would require, is still not in the works. Even post-surge, we're in the 160,000-175,000 range.

Yet, with those constraints in mind, Trevino argues that we might have to expand the war to Iran and/or Syria in order to win in Iraq - where winning is not possible due to the paucity of available combat troops.

Where, exactly, are we supposed to come up with the troops needed to go all Boer War on Iran and/or Syria exactly? So, according to Trevino, we lack the number required to succeed in Iraq (and Afghanistan), but maybe we should start a couple more wars, which will improve our chances in the ones that we are backsliding in already due inadequate number of troops!!!

Thanks for clearing that up there Josh.

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