Wednesday, February 28, 2007

She Bangs the Drums

Back in December, I wrote this of one of my favorite bloggers:

Sometimes you come across a piece that succinctly, and neatly, expresses otherwise amorphous ideas that have been circulating in your muddled consciousness. It's like reading what the resolution of your inner debate would look like if you had been able to achieve such clarity yourself. Or how you would have liked to have formulated a hodgepodge of thoughts if you could have only organized them in such an eloquent, plainspoken manner.

But when it all comes together, reading such a work can be like reading yourself - only better. Even if it's nothing ambitious or grandiose, it resonates.

Many times, those pieces are written by someone named Hilzoy.

Yesterday, her contribution - which addressed Peter Beinart's recent mea culpa regarding his support for the Iraq war - tilted toward ambitious, with her usual mixture of eloquence, common sense and thoughtful insight. Since every electrical device I own (from blackberry, to cell phone to PC) is acting up today (is Mercury retrograde or is some other cosmological conspiracy afoot?), and I fear that anything I write will be swallowed by the avaricious ether, I'll just let her do the talking:

I admire Peter Beinart's willingness to think about what he got wrong, and why. But while I think that he's right to say that we can't be the country the Iraqis and South Africans wanted us to be -- a country wise enough to liberate other countries by force -- there's another mistake lurking in the train of thought he describes. Namely:

It's not just that we aren't the country Beinart wanted to think we were; it's that war is not the instrument he thought it was. [...]

Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination. If you use it, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to. [...]

This is why, when I read Beinart's piece, I thought: the South African he quotes -- the one who said that "if the United States were a different country, it would help the African National Congress liberate South Africa by force" -- was wrong. Force is not just an alternate way of getting to liberation; it changes everything. And liberation is not just a matter of removing an oppressive regime; it is a matter of creating a country populated by citizens who are, by and large, willing to set aside the idea of resolving conflicts by force and to respect the laws, even when they are imperfectly applied.

For this reason, the problem with that South African's vision is not just that "we lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war." That's true, but it doesn't get to the heart of the problem, namely: that preventive war is not a way of remaking the world in the ways the South African and Beinart imagine.

Saying that the problem is that we lack the wisdom and virtue to do this is like saying that the problem with the USSR in the 30s was that Stalin was not sufficiently wise and virtuous to really make totalitarianism work for the people of Russia. That Stalin was neither good nor wise is beyond question. But to focus on his personal failings is to miss a broader point: that totalitarianism itself is bound to fail to do right by those who live under it.

More than most times this is said, you should read the rest.

[UPDATE: James Joyner offers some criticisms of Hilzoy's piece that mostly miss the mark. For one, Joyner claims that Hilzoy's piece "reads remarkably like an argument against war, period." On the contrary, she specifically describes her non-pacificism - highlighting those instances in which she favored military action in the past, and would so in the future. Then there's this from Joyner:

Indeed, with rare exceptions, [war] is almost always worse in the near term. Surely, life in the American colonies was worse during the War for Independence than under the very modest tyranny of George III; just as surely, the generations that followed are far better off for having won our independence. The French Revolution changed the course not only French but European history; it likely took three generations, though, before the French people were better off than under Louis XVI. The American Civil War sped the end of slavery but at the cost of more than half a million dead; was it worth it? World War II freed the world from fascism but at an incredible price.

Are the Iraqi people better off now than under Saddam? Doubtless, many of them are. At the same time, though, the streets of Baghdad are now undeniably more violent and less safe than ever before with no end in sight. Many would surely vote to turn the clock back if it could end the bloodshed, let alone bring back loved ones who have been murdered by terrorists [ed note: just a guess, but I'd bet many whose loved ones died at the hands of the coalition - not "terrorists" - might also vote to turn back the clock]. The hope is that a free, stable, democratic society will emerge from this mess and that the improved lives of generations to come will compensate for the short-term tragedy.

That such trade-offs are worthwhile apparently has less support than it once did.

There are numerous issues that one could point to in challenging the contentions in these paragraphs. For one, Joyner compares apples to oranges in order to come to a conclusion that is, unfortunately, steeped in a noxious blend of arrogance and paternalism. Joyner uses the American and French Revolutions (and the American Civil War) to argue that in certain situations where an an indigenous group rises up in insurrection, the long term gains can outweigh the negatives that went along with the insurrection itself.

The problem with using these examples to illustrate the point is that there is one obvious way in which those scenarios differ from the experience in Iraq: the Iraqis didn't rise up in revolution, or civil war (a priori), it was America that invaded and imposed regime change from the outside. This rather crucial difference changes the decision making process for determining whether or not the "trade-offs are worthwhile." Namely, shouldn't the Iraqi people get a vote as to whether or not they want to partake in such an experiment? Since it's their lives that are the commodity being exchanged on the trading block, shouldn't they at least be consulted about the going rate?

Further, not only does such an outside-imposed model for "liberation" ignore, rather contemptuously, the population on the receiving end of the foreign power's magnanimity, but it greatly reduces the likelihood that "a free, stable, democratic society will emerge" in the end. Which is the hoped for denouement that is supposed to, at least arguably, justify traveling on the trail of tears. As Michael Lind observed:

The record is clear--most of the democratic transitions that have taken place in the world in the past two centuries have had nothing to do with foreign military intervention or military pressure, while most US military interventions abroad have left dictatorship, not democracy, in their wake....The Soviet bloc democratized itself from within in the 1990s, even though the United States did not bomb Moscow, impose a martial-law governor on the Poles or imprison former Hungarian Communist officials without charges in barbed-wire camps. In Latin America, Mexico became a multiparty democracy instead of a one-party dictatorship without US Marines posing for photos in the presidential mansion in Mexico City, and it was not necessary for American soldiers to kill tens of thousands of Argentines, Chileans and Brazilians for democracy to take root in those countries.

...[It] is likely that, if and when liberal democracy comes to the Muslim world in general and to the Arab world in particular, the gradual, largely bloodless transition will resemble those in Soviet Europe and Latin America and will not be the result of US military action or intimidation. The neocons--and the humanitarian hawks on the left--are simply wrong about how best to spread democracy.

Even if democracy in a given nation/region can only come via bloody revolution, the value of such a "trade-off" would best be judged by the people laying their lives on the line. It is not an outsider's call to make. Especially given the fact that, as history informs us, the people most familiar with the particular culture, history and institutional framework at hand are the most adept at successfully ushering in these paradigmatic transitions.]

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Charade You Are

Although I'm a bit reluctant to get too caught up in the debate about whether or not Iran is providing arms and other assistance to various groups in Iraq, Rob Farley has a nice compilation of links to stories that chase down some of the emerging details surrounding the IED (and EFP) saga. More at TPM.

Many claims demonstrated by the Bush administration's "evidence" are proving to be less than persuasive.

Despite the fact that there is an obvious value in knocking down the hype and exaggeration associated with the brief against Iran, my reticence is based on suspicions surrounding the framing of the issue itself. The fear is that the larger question of whether or not we should attack Iran will be subsumed by the narrower question of whether or not Iran is providing IEDs and EFPs to Iraqi militants. If this were to happen, and the answer to the latter question is at least a plausible "yes," then the answer to the former question will be "yes" as well.

Or so the argument will go, as it often does. This restriction of the dialogue can effectively halt the crucial, in-depth analysis of long term effects and larger repercussions - as was the case with the Iraq war. Even to this day, many Iraq war supporters fall back on the excuse that "everybody" thought Saddam had WMD - as if a good faith belief that Saddam had WMD was justification enough for war. A debate ender so to speak.

It should not have been though (leaving aside the fact that the inspectors on the ground weren't finding any prior to the war). Invading Iraq was a terrible idea regardless of whether or not Saddam had some chem or biological weapon capacity - and for reasons that had nothing to do with that question.

While discovering WMD in Iraq may have lessened some of the suspicions and cynicism concerning our motives for the invasion, in the long run, almost nothing would be different. Iraq would still be the same war-torn mess of rival sects and ethnic groups that it is today. The region would still be teetering on the brink of all out conflagration. The occupation would still be costing us trillions of dollars, thousands of coalition lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives. The image of America would still be suffering immensely worldwide. And there would still be no doubt that the invasion was one of the biggest strategic blunders in the history of US foreign policy.

Similarly, if the question of military confrontation with Iran becomes centered around the question of whether or not Iran is funneling IEDs to militant Iraqi groups, the debate about the merits of such confrontation could get lost in the shuffle. That would be a tremendous shame - because there is a good chance that Iran is providing at least some level of military assistance to certain Shiite groups.

SCIRI's militia, the Badr Corp., was formed in Iran during the preceding decade for starters. I don't think that level of patronage just disappears overnight without good cause. Further, there are many smaller roguish elements in the Iranian government that could be providing arms to favored proxies and other aligned factions.

As such, it is likely that some portion of Iranian provided arms would be resold on the black market, or otherwise end up in use against some US forces on the battlefield. Thus, it will be all too easy for those seeking to attack Iran to cite some plausible evidence of Iranian involvement - just as they were able to make a plausible argument that Saddam had some WMD (while eliding the enormous difference between chem, bio and nuclear weapons, the fact that Saddam had no delivery system even if he had WMD and the fact that inspectors weren't finding evidence of any of the aforementioned capacity).

It would be a grave error if we let such evidence determine our actions though. Along these lines, it is important to remember that the warmongering factions in the Bush administration, and elsewhere, are pushing for confrontation with Iran regardless of the IED/EFP connection. The IED/EFP brouhaha is mostly just a cover story to sell the concept to a reluctant public. In that sense, dismantling the cover story is worthwhile -but in the proper context. The more important argument is that attacking Iran would be a strategic disaster regardless. We shouldn't lose the forest for the trees.

That should be emphasized each and every time.

Monday, February 26, 2007

But Silence, Is A Dangerous Sound

The last time I posted an excerpt from one of McClatchy's Iraqi bloggers, I was accused by one of my American Footprints co-bloggers of cynically exploiting the pain and suffering of the Iraqi author in question just to score cheap political points. All this because I actually linked the effects of the war to its instigators (the Bush administration). According to this critique, we shouldn't blame the war-makers for what has followed because...who could have predicted that the war would turn out like this? It's not like history is any indicator - at least if you read Victor Davis Hanson. Or something.

While I found the accusation to be as spurious as it was insulting, it is understandable that a war supporter would be made uncomfortable by the gruesome details in that Iraqi blogger's story. War is much more palatable in the sanitized abstraction of euphemism and meta-narrative. When citizens who are otherwise at a safe distance geographically speaking are forced to contend with unvarnished depictions of the sights, smells and sounds attendant to war's relentless carnage, there is a resonant impact.

While there is more than one reason that the Pentagon is preoccupied with controlling the media's access to the battlefield - one of the primary concerns has to do with "protecting" the public from the sheer horror of war, and the impact such exposure can have on support levels. The Vietnam War was instructive in this regard.

Generally speaking, when the American people get a glimpse of what war really looks like with all the bunting and pomp peeled away, the enthusiasm tends to die down a little. There's something about the image of a child's lifeless, bloodied corpse, or the wailing of a newly bereaved mother, that kind of kills the mood. Or at least it should.

Yet, despite the military's valid concerns, it is vital that we acknowledge the actual effects of war on the people that we have so targeted - on both a moral and strategic level. Attaining this level of understanding can be of strategic value in terms of informing our interactions with the external world. Whether or not our military, aided by a largely complicit media, has been able to hide the gory details from the American public, this is not necessarily the case outside of our borders.

Large swathes of the world's population - especially in the war zones themselves - are privy to depictions of war's unmitigated barbarity, including images of the dead and survivors alike whose ravaged bodies expose the internal organs, muscle, tendon and bone that have breached their rightful boundaries. While much of the world is witness to this degree of grisly detail, our tightly controlled coverage offers little more than the detached and digitized cockpit-eye view, or the neutral scenes of planes departing from the decks of aircraft carriers.

This disparate exposure to information creates a disconnect between our perception and experience of these conflicts, with that of those inhabiting the particular conflict zone and beyond. Suffice it to say, perpetrating such violence doesn't cast us in an overly sympathetic light. Further compounding the issue, we are mostly unaware of the true causes for this divergence.

We can scratch our heads and pretend that America's tarnished image as evidenced by plummeting poll numbers and other indicia of burgeoning anti-American sentiment stems from our decadent, progressive agenda, jealousy on the part of the have-nots, or that its roots can be found in some intractable ethno-religiously motivated hatred for our way of life. There are, however, more plausible - if mundane - explanations. It comes down to this: people tend not to react well to bombardment, and outsiders tend to empathize with the victims. We are no different, and it's nothing personal, or anti-American per se. That's why in the days following 9/11, so much of the world was overtly sympathetic to our plight.

These factors should be considered when weighing the costs and benefits of military confrontation. Not only does combat and occupation have an inevitable negative impact on the target population, but these harsh methods and their gruesome human toll, also influence populations not directly affected by the violence.

As both a blessing and a curse, the Internet has allowed stories and images from Iraq to escape the war zone to reach observers in America. In some instances, media organizations such as McClatchy have aided that process. It is better this way - better that we gain a more vivid understanding of the ordeal of the Iraqi people; better that we learn how the rest of the world will come to know us through the results of our actions; better that we assess the next ostensible "casus belli" with the full knowledge of the stakes:

For the last three years we had to read, listen and report daily news. The problem lies in this news because it is sad and full with grief. One of the days that I can not forget was when a car bomb exploded near New Baghdad and I had to go. More than 30 children were killed. I had to talk to the families and look to the limbs of angels all over the place hanged on the power lines, blood covering the place, their shoes and that smell.

A father tears can easily tear your heart and a mother sobbing sound will never and ever leave your ears. The echo of that kid who came to his father crying and a river of tears was covering his face … his words still torturing me. Here I am alone at dawn in Baghdad, and here is he in front of me saying to his father “I want my brother back”… he couldn’t understand that his brother is not coming back again.

The other kid that i can not forget was in Fallujah, he is laying down suffering bullets injuries and his father, mother and aunt were killed in the car behind him and he can not see them… he refused to let the ambulance take him to the hospital only if I swear to him that his family are alive… he pulled my shirt and said “don’t lie to me”...I was looking at them all killed in front of me and he is laying down, an American sobbing soldier beside him was treating him till the ambulance arrived, and I had to swear to him that they were alive and he will find them in the hospital if he allowed the ambulance to take him, he and his one year old sister who were covered with her mother’s blood all over her body…

I am sorry but I had to write this down...

No need to apologize to us - that would only add injustice to injury. Because we have to read this. It is imperative now more than ever, as influential voices in pundit and political circles are urging us to expand the war and widen the range of suffering. With salesmanship and obfuscation in full swing, we are told to embrace our knack for "creative destruction," that there is something to be gained by encouraging a region-wide sectarian civil war and that we need to further "cauldronize" the region - always "faster, please." These are the meaningless phrases that bounce around the halls of reputable think tanks, while on the ground the clinician's impersonal lexicon is translated into the less elegant reality of severed limbs hanging from power lines.

Yet, oddly enough, in the grand debate about whether or not "the Left" was prescient with sufficient specificity in its opposition to the Iraq war, rarely is it mentioned that wars inevitably lead to such butchery. As if the death and anguish alone were not good enough reasons to oppose the war - that, rather, the burden was somehow on those that counseled against war to lay out in exacting detail how the corpses would pile up this time, and which actors would be playing which parts in this rendition. Because that's the important thing.

This is not to say that war is never necessary. That is what tragedy is all about, and as of yet, the human race doesn't appear to have tired of that particular plot device. But it does suggest that the burden is on the war-makers to convince us that war is the only option in each and every instance; that somehow turning some foreign hospital morgue into a human spare parts sorting bin for terrorized widows and mothers to sift through is going to serve our long term moral and strategic interests. And in so doing, we must be ever wary of cheap emotionalism, jingoistic propaganda, fabricated evidence and other artifice used by the war boosters.

Even if the scales tilt in favor of war at some point in the future, we must not delude ourselves such that the eventual deadly results are later decried as unforeseeable, unexpected and not our responsibility. We must strive to react with maturity when our idyllic world is rudely interrupted by some foreigner with the bad taste to complain about the real world effects of operation [insert noble sounding euphemism here].

Nor should we accuse those trying to prevent the next war of exploiting the situation by pointing out the obvious.

Is Purple Dye Thicker Than Water?

Our close allies in the democratically elected Iraqi government have made an announcement of considerable importance. Ladies and gentlemen, we have first hand confirmation that the era of Iranian influence and involvement in Iraq has come to a close:

Iranians have stopped training and providing weapons to Iraqi militants in Iraq in the last few weeks to allow a U.S.-backed security plan in Baghdad to succeed, a senior Iraqi official said on Sunday.

National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie told CNN there was some evidence that Iranians had been supporting some Shi'ite militia groups fighting U.S. troops in Iraq.

"There is no doubt in my mind that recently in the last few weeks they have changed their position and stopped a lot of their tactics and interference in Iraq's internal affairs," Rubaie said in an interview. [...]

"Recently the Iranians have changed their positions and we have some evidence that they have stopped supplying arms or creating any of these shaped mines in the streets of Baghdad," Rubaie said.

He said the Iranians had also advised some of their Shi'ite allies in Iraq to "change their position and support the government to give the Baghdad security plan a good chance of success."

This is remarkable news. The surge is nothing short of a rampaging juggernaut of bountiful success. On a related note, this dramatic breakthrough should greatly defuse mounting tensions between the US and Iran. Victory looms.

In response to the skeptics and defeatniks ready to pour cold water on this good news, it should be emphasized that since this information comes from the same Iraqi government that we helped to midwife - which our soldiers continue to defend with life and limb - we have no reason to doubt its veracity one iota. After all, when push comes to shove, we know they'll side with us over Iran. For nationalistic reasons of course.

(h/t Juan Cole)

Friday, February 23, 2007

Of How We Calmed the Tides of War

As I have been arguing, there are certain hawkish factions in the United States and Israel that view peaceful, negotiated settlements with Iran, Syria and the Palestinians as equivalent to defeat. In order to achieve a negotiated, region-wide modus vivendi, Israel (and the United States to a lesser degree) would have to make many costly concessions. For the hawks, that represents a price too high - at least while they believe that the US and Israel are capable of imposing their respective wills on the region via superior military capabilities. These are the supposed spoils of unipolarity. War is the means to achieve the maximum benefit. Better to make a "clean break."

In order to achieve these aims, the hawks must remain ever vigilant in order to prevent complications - such as fruitful negotiations - from interfering with the program. Unfortunately for the world, many of those hawks occupy influential policy-shaping roles in the George W. Bush White House. This will be part of his ignominious legacy.

The United States demanded that Israel desist from even exploratory contacts with Syria, of the sort that would test whether Damascus is serious in its declared intentions to hold peace talks with Israel.

In meetings with Israeli officials recently, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was forceful in expressing Washington's view on the matter.

The American argument is that even 'exploratory talks' would be considered a prize in Damascus, whose policy and actions continue to undermine Lebanon's sovereignty and the functioning of its government, while it also continues to stir unrest in Iraq, to the detriment of the U.S. presence there. [...]

When Israeli officials asked Secretary Rice about the possibility of exploring the seriousness of Syria in its calls for peace talks, her response was unequivocal: Don't even think about it.

....Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has so far adopted the strict American position not to respond to the Syrian feelers.

On the other hand, at the Foreign Ministry and within the defense establishment, there is a greater degree of openness to the offers, and the overall view is that the door should not be closed entirely to the Syrians. Similarly, many believe that the Syrian offers should be tested for their sincerity.

Not even exploratory talks. Amazing. M.J. Rosenberg highglights the historical significance:

This may be a first in the history of US foreign policy. The Bush administration is demanding that the Israeli government not explore peace feelers emanating from Damascus.

Here is a list of administrations that encouraged Israel to negotiate with its Arab neighbors (to greater or lesser degrees of success).

Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton.

But now, for the first time ever, the United States is telling Israel not to negotiate or even communicate with Syria.

It simply takes your breath away.

Yeah. It does. (hat tip to my AmFoot co-blogger Brian Ulrich)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Stealing Bread From the Mouths of Decadence

I have a few thoughts as a follow up to my previous post on the state of our image in the Muslim world. I neglected to point out that the main reason people put forth the spurious claim that, "We weren't popular in Muslim world to begin with, and no matter what we do they're not going to like us anyway," is as a rebuttal to suggestions that our foreign policy, and rhetorical posturing, need adjustment.

The Iraq war hasn't hurt us and there is no need to change any of our bellicose actions, our lack of even-handedness in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, or other exploitative policies, because it wouldn't matter anyway. This is wrong, of course, since our actions and policies do actually have consequences (imagine that), but the motive behind the argument should be understood.

There is an interesting analogue to this argument that has recently been put forth by the likes of Dinesh D'Souza who, in his most recent book, argues that the root of jihadist extremism lies in the Muslim world's anger at...liberals. Again, it's not our foreign policy, it's not the scenes of death and destruction attributed to us that are beamed to Muslim homes by an admittedly hostile media, but rather our embrace of various moral failings wrought by the liberal/progressive movement.

As J. Goodrich at Tapped points out, D'Souza found a willing accomplice in the odious Glenn Beck:

BECK: You know, there`s a new poll out that Muslims, the higher educated Muslims in the Middle East are more likely to be extremists? More and more Muslims now hate us all across the world, and it really has not a lot to do with anything other than our morals.

The things that they were saying about us were true. Our morals are just out the window. We`re a society on the verge of moral collapse. And our promiscuity is off the charts.

Now I don`t think that we should fly airplanes into buildings or behead people because of it, but that's the prevailing feeling of Muslims in the Middle East. And you know what? They`re right. [emphasis added]

This is actually a three-fer. Not only do we not need to change anything we're doing on the foreign policy front - no, that's all peachy-keen - but we might want to consider rolling back some of the progressive advances made in certain areas such as women's empowerment, and give religious conservatives a larger say in how this country is run. Oh yeah, and it also stokes more domestic anger at the dreaded, treasonous libruhls.

And for that level of "expertise," supposedly liberal CNN is giving Beck an expanded role on the network. Brilliant!

Nobody Loves Me, It's True

One of the reasons that I opposed the invasion of Iraq was that I believed, like the editors of The American Prospect, that it would increase the hostility and animosity directed at the United States that terrorist propagandists like Osama bin Laden rely on. On occasion, when I raise this point, war supporters well say something along the lines of, "We weren't popular in that region to begin with, and no matter what we do they're not going to like us anyway."

This is true in a limited sense: no, we weren't terribly popular in the Muslim world before we invaded Iraq, and yes, there is a dedicated core of militants that will never like us. But this misses the point. As I have argued before:

For terrorists to be successful, they must have a certain level of cooperation and support from the underlying population. While we might not be able to adopt policies that are going to ingratiate ourselves to everyone everywhere, or completely eliminate anti-Americanism, that doesn't mean that we have nothing to gain by employing best practices in this regard. Even incremental shifts in the intensity of the anti-American feelings espoused by our detractors, and the size of that very detractor pool, can have a significant impact on the ability of terrorists to act - and the levels of anti-terrorist support that we receive from foreign governments and populations alike.

As David Ignatius' column highlights today, the invasion of Iraq has made things substantially worse along all of these vital fronts. As predicted by the anti-war crowd:

Let's start with some poll numbers presented at the Doha conference by Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor and a fellow of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, which co-sponsored the conference with the Qatari foreign ministry. The polling was done last year by Zogby International in six countries that are usually regarded as pro-American: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In these six "friendly" countries, only 12 percent of those surveyed expressed favorable attitudes toward the United States. America's leaders have surpassed Israel's as objects of anger. Asked which foreign leader they disliked most, 38 percent named George Bush; Ariel Sharon was a distant second at 11 percent; and Ehud Olmert was third with 7 percent.

The poll data show a deep suspicion of American motives: 65 percent of those surveyed said they didn't think democracy was a real U.S. objective in the Middle East. Asked to name two countries that had the most freedom and democracy, only 14 percent said America, putting it far behind France and Germany. And remember, folks, this is coming from our friends. [...]

And my friend Rami Khouri, who is one of most balanced journalists in the Arab world, warned that a broad popular front is emerging to challenge American hegemony. Iraq "discredits what America tries to do in the Mideast," he said. Khouri explained that Arabs admire Hezbollah because it represents "the end of docility, the end of acquiescence."

You don't have to agree with these Muslim critics to recognize that the anger they express represents a serious national security problem for the United States. That's what President Bush seems not to understand in his surge of troops into Iraq, his bromides about democracy and his strategy of confrontation with Iran. It isn't a tiny handful of people in the Arab world who oppose what America is doing. It's nearly everyone. [emphasis added]

So let me state for the record now: one of the reasons that I oppose a military confrontation with Iran (though there are many), is that such a move will further tarnish our image in the region, and further fan the flames of radicalization. Which is the exact opposite of what we need to be doing.

Safe European Homes

Yesterday at The Road to Surfdom (where I like to put on a fake Australian accent, use the letter "s" instead of the new-fangled "z" and add an extra "u" to words like "colour"), my co-blogger Ken Lovell made an interesting observation after highlighting this quote from Dick Cheney:

"We know that if we leave Iraq before the mission is completed, the enemy is going to come after us," Cheney said.

"We want to complete the mission, we want to get it done right, and we want to return with honor," said Cheney....

The problem raised by Lovell is one of potential "catastrophic success." To paraphrase Lovell: If we assume that the enemy is poised and ready for a road trip to these shores, what would "the enemy" do if we actually completed the mission as Cheney suggests?

Expanding the hypothetical: Let's say that the surge succeeds in ways that not even the big dreamers comprising the Victory Caucus could imagine - such that Iraqi forces are soon able to police Iraq's territory, seal the borders and prevent an influx of jihadis. Further, that a political solution is reached, violence abated, normalcy returned to Iraq and American forces can withdraw - safe in the knowledge that the mission is complete, and with all the confetti and tri-color bunting that goes along with unmitigated victory and honour.

What would the enemy do next? Would they throw in the towel, completely disemboldened by the overwhelming force of our victory?

I think that's unlikely. Rather, wouldn't "the enemy" then come after us "over here" in the United States since we were no longer providing an attractive target in the more conveniently located Middle East? In that sense, isn't Cheney's warning actually the inverse: Beware American people, the faster we succeed in Iraq, the sooner we'll have to deal with an enemy that is no longer distracted by that shiny ball...of fire.

Fred Kaplan catches Bush and other high ranking officials touting the same contradictory storyline:

If we leave [Iraq] before the mission is complete, if we withdraw, the enemy will follow us home."

This was from a speech by George W. Bush in Lancaster, Pa., last Aug. 16. That's not so recent, but the comment was repeated just this month by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and by Ohio Republican Rep. John Boehner; so someone up high still seems to think it's true or at least catchy.

Kaplan observes the obvious:

In fact, it makes no sense whatever. First, it assumes that "the enemy" in Iraq consists entirely of al-Qaida terrorists, when they comprise only a small segment of the forces attacking U.S. troops. Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias are not likely to "follow us home."

Second, if terrorists wanted to attack American territory again (and maybe they do), their ability to do so is unaffected by whether we stay in or pull out of Iraq. It's not as if they're all holed up in Baghdad and Anbar province, just waiting for the fighting to stop so they can climb out of their foxholes and go blow up New York. If al-Qaida is a global network, its agents can fight in both places.

True. But even assuming, ex arguendo, that al-Qaeda is distracted in Iraq (not altogether outlandish, if overly simplistic), their attention would be freed up regardless of the manner of our withdrawal: be it in victory or stalemate. What's worse, when those al-Qaeda types do eventually depart from Iraq (actually, some already have), they will have mastered a rather pernicious skill-set including, but certainly not limited to, the preparation and use of various explosive devices, as well as the formation and maintenance of networking groups from the ranks of Jihad University's alumni.

It should be pointed out that, regardless of our irresistibly alluring presence in Iraq, some of the faculty from the Baghdad branch of Jihad University have been known to visit other locales to teach their courses:

[American intelligence and counterterrorism officials] said dozens of seasoned fighters were moving between Pakistan and Iraq, apparently engaging in an “exchange of best practices” for attacking American forces.

Over the past year, insurgent tactics from Iraq have migrated to Afghanistan, where suicide bombings have increased fivefold and roadside bomb attacks have doubled.

Back to Kaplan, who comments on the morally dubious intersection of this opportunism and fearmongering:

Third, this is a hell of a thing [for Bush] say in front of the allies. It's a crudely selfish message, suggesting that we're getting a lot of people killed over there in order that nobody gets killed back here. What leader of a beleaguered nation, reading this remark, would seek America's protection?

While it's true that some leaders in allied, or potentially allied, nations might be put off by this message, I can think of one audience for which it would have a more visceral impact. You know, the actual Iraqis whose nation we continue to turn into a nightmarish landscape of Hieronymus Bosch-like carnage and bedlam all so that al-Qaeda could be distracted for a little while. This Iraqi blogger's words are haunting (h/t TCR):

Back to Bush. There was one sentence in what he said that really provoked me and made me feel disgusted. I was about to throw the ash tray at the TV when he said "to win the war on terror we must take the fight to the enemy." how dare he say that? He brought these enemies to our country and now he wants to fight them there? to keep Americans safe?!! Is it on the expense of innocent people?! Is it on the expense of destroying and dividing an entire country to make Americans safe?! I consider every American supporting him in that is selfish and mean and blood thirsty. Think of the bread you are eating and compare it to the blood-mixed bread Iraqis are eating. Think of the children crying when they hear an explosion. Think of the pregnant who lost their babies because they were unable to reach the hospital. Think of those deprived from their education. All of this is happening because his majesty believes in "taking the fight to the enemy" so that you become safe and we become the bait in which he could catch "terrorists" with.

Given the uncomfortable feelings this account invokes, I'd say it's a case for Mark Kilmer and those enterprising detectives over at RedState. Because, as Kilmer might say:

To accept that these are the words of an actual anonymous Iraqi blogger, requires a profound leap a faith. You must believe that every lefty preconception about the war and its aftermath turned out to be true. You must believe that despite the appreciation of such Iraqis as Omar and Mohammed Fahdil of Iraq the Model, some Iraqis might actually resent the honor of becoming bait to lure the terrorists away from the homeland.

It has to be.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Living with Proof

I can understand how the absolutely heart-wrenching tale of this Iraqi blogger's ordeal was difficult to read - the recounting of how she was forced to sift through piles of body parts to locate the upper half of her nephew's badly mangled corpse. It deeply affected me. It was disarming and jarring in a way that the daily trade in euphemism and detached strategic intellectualization is not.

I can also understand how such a visceral description of the true nature of war could force many war supporters to confront the heinous results of their advocacy. Even as an opponent of the war, I felt an enormous sense of shame and responsibility. We humans aren't generally well suited to process intense feelings of guilt and shame. They create a potent and relentless cognitive dissonance. Many soldiers who have fought in wars could tell you this.

All too often, when forced to reckon with such a formidable challenge, humans will seek to quiet the source of pain. There are many ways to attempt this. The most difficult one is also the responsible one: that is to take an unvarnished look at one's actions, recognize the error and show contrition. Embark on the slow road to redemption, which is also the path to maturity.

Another way, a less productive though seductively "easy" course, is to simply deny the facts before your eyes. A somewhat more elegant form of denial involves attacking the messenger who delivered the depiction of harsh reality. In focusing on the means or agent of delivery, it is possible to delegitimize the substance of the story that is causing the adverse mental reaction.

Denial becomes such an attractive option because to acknowledge the story's veracity is to either admit error and take responsibility or, in the alternative, adjust one's moral and ethical compass such that the painful stimulus becomes normalized, rationalized and justified.

The latter step necessarily leads to a desensitizing of sorts - the cauterization of the moral function. Such a move tends to truncate empathy and compassion, and can have wider repercussions throughout one's psyche. It is a dangerous step to take - and a path toward the psychosis and sociopathy.

This brand of mental gymnastics was on display in this post by Mark Kilmer at RedState. In that post, Kilmer makes some rather remarkable allegations about the Iraqi blogger whose story I linked to above, and goes on to launch a series of baseless attacks against the entire Iraqi blogger contingent assembled under the masthead of McClatchy's Baghdad Bureau. Suffice it to say that all of Kilmer's allegations are unsupported by anything more than a suspicion of bias, an argument that the media has made errors in the past and the plaintive subtext that these claims simply must be false. To fathom the opposite is unthinkable.

Bush must be stopped, the reasoning seems to go, by any means necessary. Subjecting the undiscerning to first order fraud is a small price to pay.[...]

To accept that these are anonymous Iraqis blogging for McClatchy, a notoriously anti-Bushie news service, requires a profound leap a faith. You must believe that every lefty preconception about the war and its aftermath turned out to be true. You must believe that despite the erudition of such Iraqis as Omar and Mohammed Fahdil of Iraq the Model, the best McClatchy could find were a few folks who were semi-articulate with English, who more resemble anAmerican pretending to use broken English.

This is "remarkably revealing commentary" to the anti-Bushies. The Congressional Cheese Eating Surrender Monkey Caucus needs its collaborators. (What are surrender monkeys without a Vichy regime?)

Why would one need to believe every "lefty preconception about the war and its aftermath" in order to believe that things have turned out horribly for so many of Baghdad's residents? Even the Bush administration acknowledges this tragic state of affairs - and my guess is, they haven't thrown in with the dreaded "lefties." In fact, legions of other Iraqi bloggers have written first hand accounts of horrendous conditions in Baghdad - including, alas, the "erudite" Omar at Iraq the Model.

Kilmer goes on to defame these Iraqi bloggers by insinuation and innuendo - again, without a shred of evidence to support his rather bold allegations:

If it is true, that [Dulaimy] lost a friend, it is very sad. On the other hand, it's a simple thing to invent and type if your goal is to slander the United States, its soldiers, and its mission. That's what McClatchy is doing, and their propagandizing shows no real knack for bending any but the most malleable (or already twisted) minds.

Kilmer concludes that the entire Iraqi blog is but a fabricated, calculated propaganda vehicle assembled by McClatchy in its effort to score political points. Do I need to repeat the fact that, again, despite the audacity of the accusations being made, there is no evidence presented to support them?

Greg Mitchell calls this journalism, and he credits McClatchy with "some of the best reporting on the war." We don't know if this even exists. When America's media invents, distorts, and manipulates the truth to harm our country, its leaders, and its soldiers and one calls it a great thing, there is no removing the neo-Nam slop from his eyes; he's imagining retrograde nostalgia, trying to relive a contrived and craven aspect of a dead era. [...]

Then again, we can look at the larger picture. I mean, what harm is caused by a few little inventions and fabrications if they help to secure for this country a President Hillary, Obama, Edwards, or LaRouche? (Situational ethics were never my forte.)

Mark Seibel, who oversees McClatchy's Baghdad Bureau, valiantly attempts to set the record straight in the comments section over at RedState. Although he takes pains to rein in Kilmer's wild speculation by providing specific responses and correctives, his struggle is in vain. Without the slightest sense of irony, the first commenter to respond to Seibel begins his response with this intro:

...if anyone ever needed more evidence of the abject stupidity of the American news media they need look no further.

Sifting through this diatribe I struggled to find facts. Any facts. But alas and alack, like "McClatchy's" (a name better suited to a cheap scotch than a newspaper chain) reporting they were few and far between. [emphasis mine throughout]

Yeah, if only Seibel could have provided a fact-laden, evidence-based response to Kilmer's post. Then...what exactly? It's not fact or evidence or proof that the RedState gang is searching for. It is some suitable anesthetic to quiet the racket in their heads. Facts are biased. Evidence is the enemy. Proof? Why that's just an evil plot hatched in the minds of traitorous liberals.

(hat tip cleek Ugh commenting at ObWi)

When I Am Numbering My Foes, Just Hope That You Are On My Side My Dear

In a previous post, I cited an Iraqi blogger who wondered whether the US government had ever considered the likely answer to the following question:

If the war started between U.S. and Iran, on which side the Iraqi government will be?

There have been numerous responses offered to this question with varying degrees of plausibility. Many commenters have pointed out that the Iraqi government would side with what it perceived as the eventual victor, as a sort of cautious weather vane. Others, that allegiance to their Iranian co-religionists amongst Iraq's Shiites would dominate the decision making progress for that group. And still others point to Iraq's nationalistic streak - as well as the Arab/Persian mistrust - as the controlling factors.

While the actual answer is at best speculative at this point, there are some things we do know, and some strong indicators that should inform our assumptions.

First, we should unpack the term "Iraqi government" since that entity is comprised of disparate ethnic/sectarian/ideological groups. Having done so, it would be a safe bet that the Sunni elements of the Iraqi government would go along with any US military action against Iran - or at least tolerate it without interference. The Kurds would also likely accept such an action with only mild protest - if that - put forth to maintain its ties with Iran.

How the Shiite factions within the Iraqi government would react is something altogether different. Hardest to predict would be the secular factions, such as Allawi's organization. These groups are relatively small, but they would be the most likely to remain neutral if the fighting started.

Sadr's organization is probably the easiest to predict because, well, he has already told us. A little over a year ago, Sadr pledged to respond to any attack on Iran by unleashing his Mahdi Army on US forces. So we should be operating under the assumption that at least one major component of the Iraqi government would side with Iran.

Here's the upshot though, of the big three Shiite political blocs - SCIRI, Dawa and the Sadrsts - Sadr's gang is the most independent of Iranian influence, and consistently stakes out the most anti-Iranian rhetorical position. So whither SCIRI, Dawa and the top Shiite cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah al-Sistani (himself born in Iran) - all of which have closer ties to Iran than Sadr? Peter Beinart (via Sisyphus) offers one interpretation:

...Though many Sunnis won't admit it, Iraqi nationalism runs deep among their long-repressed [Shiite] countrymen. As historian Reidar Visser has observed, Iraq's Shi'ites have never launched a broad-based movement to secede. When Baghdad and Tehran went to war in the 1980s, Iraq's Shi'ite soldiers fought fiercely, especially after Iranian forces crossed onto Iraqi soil. It's true that one major Shi'ite party, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa, took refuge in Iran during Saddam's rule. Another, SCIRI, was actually born there. But since entering government, leaders of both parties have carefully displayed their independence from Tehran.

I think Beinart is soft pedaling the effects of the decade Dawa spent in exile in Iran, and the fact that SCIRI (and its Badr Corp militia) was "born there." Further, pointing to the fact that Iraqi Shiites fought Iranians when those two countries were at war as evidence that should the United States attack Iran, Iraqi Shiites would support the United States in such a conflict assumes too much.

Iraqi nationalism would be a powerful force in determining allegiance should Iraqi Shiites be forced to choose between Iraq and Iran in a replay of the 1980's war (though the Dawa/SCIRI Iranian ties did not exist back then, and so might be a complicating factor even still), but the US would not enjoy the benefits of Iraqi nationalism vicariously. As a matter of fact, most Iraqi Shiites consider attacks on US forces by insurgent/militia groups to be justified as is.

That the US would lose a popularity contest with Iran amongst Iraqi Shiites is further supported by the record of the Israeli conflict with Lebanon last summer. At the time, even mild-mannered Sistani had stern warnings for the US - and the US wasn't even directly involved in the fighting!

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." [...]

"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.

So tallying up the ledger of the Iraqi government's allegiance: I'd put the Kurds and Iraqi Sunni factions on our side - or at least neutral - along with Shiite secularists in the Allawi camp (though with less confidence here). Sadr would be a determined ally of Iran. Dawa and SCIRI would also be working against us, even if they attempted to do so in a surreptitious manner so as to avoid being directly targeted by the US military (though I'm not sure how long they would be able, or willing, to maintain this pretense).

Even Sistani - who is not an Iranian stooge, and does not want to replicate the Iranian mullahocracy in Iran - would likely side with Iran given the options. He was almost willing to take that step on behalf of Lebanon's Hezbollah.

While "optimists" might point to the nationalistic streak of Iraq's Shiites, and that group's history of fighting the Iranians when Iraq and Iran were at war, it would be a rather audacious leap to assume that Iraqi nationalism, and the instinct to defend one's countrymen in a time of war, would extend some deference to US forces confronting Iran.

In fact, that same legendary Iraqi nationalism could just as easily lead a plurality of Iraqi Shiites to appreciate the opportunity to finally rid their nation of the occupier that would be presented by a military confrontation between Iran and the United States. That's how nationalism works. It puts the nation first, and contrary to the pervasive "narcissism" afflicting so many Americans, Iraqis would consider the interests of Iraq ahead of the United States.

Roll Rastafari Chariot Along - Part III: What Is It Good For?

At the end of Part II of this series (Part I is here), I mentioned that I would seek to analyze the wisdom of our support for Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia as a part of our counterterrorism strategy generally speaking. In the meantime, I got sidetracked with a Part 2.5, and some related follow up posts. At long last I'll turn to this aspect of the story, and in doing so, there are a few issues at play that I want to discuss.

First, I want to be clear that I am not opposed to the use of air strikes - as with the AC-130 gun ships used in Somalia - or other limited military deployments, provided that the intel on the ground is solid, and the risks of large numbers of civilian casualties is not inordinately high. Using the military as the primary tool in counterterrorism operations is a strategic mistake because of the alienation, anger and resistance it engenders in the non-target indigenous population. However, it should be considered as one tool that can be used relatively effective in certain situations.

Ideally, a mixture of intelligence work and law enforcement can be applied - as in the case of the capture of al-Qaeda operatives like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. These have the lowest risk of creating negative blowback, and a live captive is a potential source of valuable intelligence (although under the Bush administration, even our detainee policy is creating considerable negative backlash). But where such avenues are not open, and a target of opportunity presents itself, then the anvil should be struck.

Also, as in the case of Afghanistan, where a pernicious presence such as al-Qaeda has become ingrained with the sovereign, then full on invasion may be necessary - but only after analyzing the costs, benefits and likelihood of realizing the desired outcomes. So there should be a presumption against the use of military force, but not a blanket refusal to use such options under optimal conditions.

The problem with the Somalia episode is that the military was used like an elephant gun to swat a fly. This is anathema to best practices in counterinsurgency - which is really what counterterrorism is all about - because such approaches tend to maximize the negative blowback inherent in military operations, with minimal payoff.

With respect to the Somali campaign, in an effort to get at a small number of al-Qaeda operatives that had been taking sanctuary in Somalia long before the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) government ever took power, the US armed, encouraged and eventually supported with ground troops and air power, the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia designed to topple that same ICU government.

One of the problems, as pointed out in Parts 2 and 2.5 of this series, is that the Ethiopian government was not particularly interested in targeting al-Qaeda, but rather was motivated by a desire to weaken its neighbor and regional rival, Somalia. For Ethiopia, a Somalia wracked by chaos, disorder and instability is a desired outcome. Official policy papers have said as much. But for the US, such conditions existing in Somalia - especially when seen as the design of the US government - create fertile soil for the growth of radical, anti-American extremism.

In this sense, using a heavy-handed military approach in order to ferret out a small number of al-Qaeda operatives in Somalia (where they had been long before there was an ICU government), by upending the first government capable of instituting relative calm to Somalia in over fifteen years, is a case of significant short-sightedness. It is a myopia informed by a strategic overview that focuses, unduly, on attacking symptoms while ignoring and even exacerbating the underlying pathologies. For example:

Gayle Smith, a long-time observer of Somalia now with the Center for American Progress, cautioned against a US approach that focuses more on combating terrorism than dealing with the underlying frailty of Somalia which allowed the radicalism to take root in the first place.

"The crisis we're seeing is an outgrowth of a war on terror that we've defined pretty much as a global game of 'gotcha' -- of trying to capture a lot of terrorists, which is important, but without also doing the much harder long term work of dealing with weak and failing states," she said.

Further weakening the strategic case for our involvement in Somalia is the fact that, according to US government officials, we haven't actually killed or captured any of those high value al-Qaeda targets that led us to tag along on Ethiopia's excellent adventure, and chip in for the gas money. If our operations had at least yielded those returns, an argument about the wisdom of our policy choices would have had a more solid foundation. Even then, though, such a stance would have to contend with the long term consequences. As Matt Yglesias mentions, those are starting to manifest:

As we see the anti-Ethiopian Islamist insurgency in Somalia continue to pick up steam, even prompting Ethiopian troops to deploy the legendarily successful counterinsurgency tactic of "return[ing] fire with artillery and heavy machine-gun fire throughout the night," can we ask once again what the United States policy in the Horn of Africa has accomplished. None of the terrorists allegedly being harbored by the Islamic Courts Movement have been captured. The Ethiopians cannot (of course) effectively control the country. It seems that hundreds of Somali civilians have died in various kinds of fighting. And we've effectively opened up another branch campus of Jihad University.

Despite the breathless praise heaped on Ethiopia's military prowess by conservative commentators - mostly an ode to Ethiopia's unrestrained brutality as an effective means to wage counterinsurgency warfare - the reality is that an insurgency is beginning to blossom regardless. As a result, Somali refugees are fleeing the fighting in large numbers - which will likely create strain on its neighbors. Ethiopia will not likely stick around for too long after the costs of occupation and counterinsurgency begin to run prohibitively high, so the instability should grow in time. This, despite the fact that the US government has been, and will be, subsidizing large portions of Ethiopia's effort in this regard. In the aftermath of continuing bloodshed and brutality in a Somalia led by a weak and ineffectual sovereign, anti-American extremism will flourish.

With this in mind, it's fair to ask: what was any of this good for? Forgive me if I conclude: worse than nothing.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Coyness Is Nice, and Coyness Can Stop You

One of McClatchey's Iraqi bloggers, Dulai, raises an interesting point that I seriously doubt has made much of an impact on the Kristol's and Ledeen's of the world - those who are doing their best to steer the US into military confrontation with Iran:

I wonder if the U.S. government has ever asked the Iraqi government the following question:

If the war started between U.S. and Iran, on which side the Iraqi government will be?

Please notice that the prime minister and the majority of the current Iraqi government were exiles before the U.S. led invasion in 2003 and if it wasn’t the U.S. these guys will be outside the country.

What do you think their answer will be?

Please remember the Iraqi government is an Islamic government led by Islamist[s]. Many of them were living in Iran for more than 25 years.

Many members of the current Iraqi government prefer to speak to you in Persian rather than Arabic.

Now can you imagine on which side they will prefer to be.

I know it sounds glib, but I can't help but get the image of those two animated Guinness ad campaign spokesmen out of my head: "Ask the predominately Shiite Iraqi government - whose officials spent years in exile in Iran - which side it would be on before attacking Iran"...Brilliant!"

Maybe we should ask TFSGOTFOTE to look into it for us?

By the way, Ken Silverstein at Harpers is putting together a three part series on the brewing confrontation with Iran. Parts One and Two are already available (highly recommended). In Part One, Bahman Baktiari provides some clues as to what kind of answer the Bush administration might get from the Iraqi government:

If the United States attacks Iran, the consequences would be disastrous. It would produce a wave of patriotic solidarity with the theocratic regime in Iran, even among those young Iranians who are fiercely critical of the mullahs, and another tidal wave of reaction around the world, especially among Muslims. Within Iraq, Bush's policy has led to an increase in sectarian fighting, so an attack on Iran would be seen as anti-Shiite as well as anti-Iranian. As of last year, for the first time, a majority of Iraqi Shiites support armed attacks on U.S.-led forces, and if the United States attacks Iran, Iraqi Shiite militias will direct their anger at American soldiers and military personnel...

Yet there is a real possibility that George Bush will order a military strike on Iran before he leaves the White House. [emphasis added throughout]

What's the word I'm looking for...oh yeah, Brilliant!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Morgue

This post from yesterday on the plight of Baghdad resident Sahar, and her recently murdered nephew, deserves a follow up:

At the Morgue.

We were asked to send the next of kin to whom the remains of my nephew, killed on Monday in a horrific explosion downtown, can be handed over. The young men of the family, as was customary, rose to go.

“NO!” cried his mother. “Isn’t my son enough?? Must we lose more of our youth?? You know there are unknowns who wait at the Morgue to either kill or kidnap the men who dare reach its doors. I will go.”

So we went, his mum, his other aunt and I.

I was praying all the way there.

I never thought a day would come when it was the women of the family, who would be safer on the roads. All the men are potential terrorists it seems, and are therefore to be cut down on sight. This is the logic of today, is it not? To kill evil before it even has a chance to take root.

When we got there, we were given his remains. And remains they were. From the waist down was all they could give us. “We identified him by the cell phone in his pants’ pocket. If you want the rest, you will just have to look for yourselves. We don’t know what he looks like.”

Now begins a horror that surpasses anything I could have possibly envisioned .We were led away, and before long a foul stench clogged my nose and I retched. With no more warning we came to a clearing that was probably an inside garden at one time; all round it were patios and rooms with large-pane windows to catch the evening breeze Baghdad is renowned for. But now it had become a slaughterhouse, only instead of cattle, all around were human bodies. On this side; complete bodies; on that side halves; and EVERYWHERE body parts.

We were asked what we were looking for, “ upper half” replied my companion, for I was rendered speechless. “Over there”. We looked for our boy’s broken body between tens of other boys’ remains’; with our bare hands sifting them and turning them.

We found him millennia later, took both parts home, and began the mourning ceremony.

Can Hollywood match our reality?? I doubt it.

Should we liberate Iran next then? Musn't take that option off the table now, right?

Thank you George Bush, Dick Cheney and your legion of enablers. Well done my friends. Well done. By the way, if David Brooks is really so dumfounded about who would possibly deserve an apology from the warmakers, I can think of a certain morgue he can stop by for inspiration.

Will You Remember My Reply, When Your High Horse Dies?

One of the most curious spectacles surrounding the pre-surge debate - especially with respect to the differing proposals for the number of troops needed as put forth by the various proponents - was the magical goldilocks effect of Bush's final pronouncement. As soon as Bush's version of the surge was unveiled, most pro-war analysts, pundits and politicians whose plans had differed from Bush's in crucial respects treated his relatively limited surge as just right.

For those trying to follow the convoluted tale, it went a little something like this: First, the Joint Chiefs opposed the plan, but then later rolled over and played dead. The military brass then acted like the surge came at the request of the generals on the ground. It wasn't a political decision, but a military one. And the precise number that Bush called for was actually what the generals asked for. Except it wasn't.

The surge's most frequently cited masterminds, General Jack Keane and Frederick Kagan, initially called for a surge in the 80,000 troop range, but then when Bush announced a modified plan for roughly 20,000, they soft pedaled the differences and muted any criticisms (although that changed a little after the initial uproar died down and no one was really paying attention).

In the meantime, Bush administration water carriers like Rich Lowry tried, unsuccessfully, to convince us that Bush's 20,000 was basically the same thing as Kagan/Keane's 80,000. The same, only different. Others, like William Kristol who had called for hundreds of thousands more troops from the get go, were suddenly convinced that 20,000, deployed now, would get the job done.

All along, presidential hopeful, and notorious straight talker, John McCain, spun himself into a pretzel adjusting his recommended troop increases with the fickleness of a teenager in love. It depended on the day, the audience, his mood and the weather. That's what straight talk is all about.

But one thing was sure, Bush found the sweet spot - the winning formula. Right? Well, that depends. Surprisingly, or not, Bush's recommended surge of 20,000 troops is considerably lower than any of the other recommendations made by the "experts" who were relied on in arriving at this policy choice. Most "surge" proponents and "large footprint" military tacticians argue that several times the number envisioned by Bush's plan would be required. And even then, there's no guarantee of success at this late stage of the game.

The key difference is, though, that a bigger surge (or a larger deployment at the time of the invasion) would require significant sacrifice and commitment of the sort that the Bush administration has been loathe to undertake. Yet lock-step supporters of Bush's rather meager surge feel entitled to strike a sanctimonious pose as the only side with a plan for victory, and the only side with a plan that takes the suffering Iraqis into account.

Garance Franke-Ruta has a devastating rebuttal:

If our future were truly at stake -- if we really, really had to win in Iraq -- we would never stand for the president's piddling surge proposal, because it's just not going to be enough to fix the situation. To really stabilize the situation on the ground in Iraq would require a military draft and sending several hundred thousand more troops to Iraq for a period of years. After four years of botched plans and incompetent leadership, no one, left or right, wants to entertain such an idea. Heck, we did not want to entertain a commitment of that scope before we went to Iraq in the first place, because it was a war of choice, not of survival. Another radical proposal that's been floated calls for dissolving the military war colleges for a few years and putting all those strategic minds into the war effort, instead of teaching. We will never do that, either.

Why? Because America's failure in Iraq is not an existential threat to the United States. It is a horrible outcome for U.S. power, prestige, and authority, and it is a disastrous outcome for the Iraqis, to say the least, as well as a destabilizing outcome for the region, and for America's regional allies.

But America will go on. No one wants to say this. To say it sounds callous, and awful, and morally bankrupt. And yet it is true.

Sometimes I think I agree with the conservative critique that Americans don't have the will to win this fight. But we never did -- not from the start -- and I place conservative politicians first among the ranks of the unwilling. They wanted victory on the cheap, with neither unity nor sacrifice -- and managed to pour out our nation's coffers, anyway. Where were the conservative lawmakers working to resurrect the draft, to relieve the pressure on our citizen soldiers? Where were the conservative legislative advocates of deployments of an additional 150,000, 200,000, or 300,000 troops -- and for up to ten years? The conservative creators of a Manhattan Project-like intensive search for alternative fuels? The conservative attacks on war profiteering by military contractors? The conservative advocates for major tax increases and belt-tightening and yes, once again growing our own food in backyard Victory Gardens, or rationing fuel, if it came to that? That's the level of commitment existential wars require...

...Instead, Bush will fight hard for his unhelpful surge, more Americans will die, Iraq will grow ever more disrupted, and the inevitable day of reckoning will be delayed. But it will come. The disaster is foretold. It will be awful, a humiliation to be followed by an agony. But not for us the painful reckoning -- for the Iraqis. We will assuage our guilt with recriminations and hearings, and the sneering of the world. [emphasis added]

It is for these reasons that I am mostly unimpressed with the smug and self-satisfied who act as if they occupy some moral or strategic high ground because they support the surge. John Boehner may weep for the camera, but if the stakes are so high that even discussing a resolution condemning the surge leads to an emotional breakdown, why on Earth isn't he proposing to do more? Because more could be done. So put up, or stop the crocodile tears.

If you want to mount and ride the high horse, then you have to be willing to pay for the stable and upkeep. Real ponies aren't cheap, but rocking horses are.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

On the Streets of Philadelphia

Sounds like Philadelphia to me. Or is it Baghdad?:

At work I try not to react to jungle outside, even if for a few minutes a day. Sometimes I succeed. But today the events came rushing in and rudely intruded upon my precariously sustained neutrality.

I was called from home to be told that a nephew of mine was killed in the explosion in the city center....Then they called me to say it may not be him after all because there was no way to identify what was left ... only his cell phone in the pants' pocket.

Now I'm waiting, fearfully, for confirmation either way.

The problem doesn't end there.

If it isn't him, it's someone's son anyway. But if it is him ... whom are we willing to risk going to the Morgue to receive the remains?? If and when we receive him ... where do we bury him?? Almost none who take the path to Abu Ghraib Cemetary return unscathed.

Perhaps we should revive the tradition of burying our dead in our gardens. It's certainly a lot better that losing other members of our family on the way to the cemetery or on the way back.

According to Glenn Reynolds and the boys, it's hard to tell the difference. Or at least it would be if the treasonous press would just tell the whole story. Like how that school just got painted in Baghdad - you, know, the one that no parents send their kids to for fear that they will be killed, and then the parents would have to face the dilemma of the morgue, the cemetery and the home garden.

Like they do in Philly.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Never Let 'Em See Ya Sweat

Ken Lovell at Road to Surfdom flags a particularly odious bit of rhetoric from John Hawkins. Hawkins not only defends Australian Prime Minister John Howard's recent demagoguery aimed at Barack Obama, and the Democratic Party in general, he takes it many steps deeper into the "sewer." I'll leave it to the reader's discretion whether you wish to click through to Hawkins' vitriolic tantrum, or not. There is one aspect of his rant that I did want to address, though, due to its increasing popularity of late, and its dubious basis in history and fact.

Osama Bin Laden thought the United States was a paper tiger that had no appetite for a protracted battle against terrorism, even if we were winning. So, he hoped to draw us into a long battle and win after we quit.

Similar variations of this contention can be heard from various pro-war pundits and politicians, who warn us that leaving Iraq before...well, before some as of yet undetermined milestone or date would only confirm Bin Laden's suspicions of our lack of resolve.

According to the more popular variation of this argument, bin Laden was motivated to launch the 9/11 attacks because of what he perceived as our weakness. He thought he could "defeat" us - whatever that means - because we retreated in Vietnam, Somalia and Beirut, so al-Qaeda struck. Therefore, a confirmation of this belief as manifested by our (premature?) withdrawal from Iraq would only lead to more attacks. He would think he was winning - whereas our unflinching refusal to leave Iraq no matter the costs would communicate to him in no uncertain terms that he was losing.

Like most good propaganda, this narrative weaves in and out of fact and plausibility but, also like most good propaganda, the underlying assertions are tendentious and premised on half-truths and outright fabrications.

To understand why this argument fails to line up logically, it is important to analyze what bin Laden's goals are/were, and how the perception of America's relative aversion to conflict interacted with these designs. Here is a slightly oversimplified version useful to this conversation, but my preemptive apologies for some of the heuristics employed and shortcuts taken for the sake of brevity. Even then, some might question my use of the term "brevity."

Zawahiri and bin Laden are motivated in their cause largely by the desire to see the Muslim world return to the position of global prominence that it enjoyed centuries ago. They are profoundly disturbed by what they perceive as the humiliation of the Muslim world at the hands of the West, in terms of the disproportionate distribution of wealth, power and influence and how these disparaties translate into conquest and imperialism (of all sorts). This is part of why bin Laden was so offended by US troops being stationed in Saudi Arabia circa Gulf War I.

This shameful posture of powerlessness only reminded him of the feckless nature of the Saudi ruling faction, as well as what he deemed its obsequious submission to American hegemony. Recall, bin Laden himself offered his cadres of Afghan mujahadeen to the Saudi leadership as an alternative to the Americans defending Saudi Arabia's border at this time. He was rebuffed and this wounded his pride deeply.

These events and related circumstances, as well as a zealous, if misguided, religiosity, inform the beliefs of violent Salafists like bin Laden and Zawahiri. For them, the only way for the Muslim world to regain its past glory, and surpass the West in all significant respects, would be for the larger Muslim world to adopt the true and pious interpretation of Islam (akin to the Taliban's rendition) as implemented by a far-reaching, unifying and powerful Caliphate. Having "purified" the Muslim world through the adoption of this truly devout version of the faith, Allah would once again bestow his blessings on the Muslim world and glory would return.

Thus, the ruling regimes in the Muslim world were seen as obstacles since they were corrupt, secular and/or Western leaning, and not pious enough or exacting enough on the underlying populations, to inspire Allah to usher in the era of Muslim renaissance (Saddam, being particularly secular for the region, was considered a prominent target by al-Qaeda).

Initially, al-Qaeda and their ideological forebears/brethren targeted these "apostate" regimes in an effort to topple them and rally more Muslim brothers to the cause. The tool they used was the one that most maximalist, uncompromising political/religious groups employ when they lack the capacity for success in full on conventional military confrontations: terrorism and guerrilla warfare.

What al-Qaeda soon learned, however, was that killing fellow Muslims in an attempt to usher in regime change was alienating too many of the victims and their countrymen to yield the desired results. Besides, such piecemeal attempts at destabilization through sabotage were futile while America was propping up these "puppet" governments with military, diplomatic and economic aid.

Thus, the US became a logical target. A two-fer actually: by targeting the US, al-Qaeda could win supporters, not create local enemies. Also, once the US withdrew its support for these "apostate" regimes (retreating from the al-Qaeda onslaught), the corrupt governments would be easier to topple with the suddenly more popular movement.

That is where bin Laden's estimation of American resolve as informed by events in Vietnam, Beirut and Somalia comes in. Osama believed that the US had no appetite for high rates of casualties, and that therefore once enough pain were inflicted, the US would simply accede to the demands of al-Qaeda by removing itself physically, and withdrawing its support economically and politically, from the region. Thus weakened and isolated, these regimes would be ripe for overthrow.

As an aside, bin Laden also thought that the US might at some point lash out wildly against him in Afghanistan. He believed, however, that this US aggression would rally the Muslim world, that he could defeat the Americans there like he did the Soviets, and that in the process the US would bleed enormous amounts of blood, treasure and prestige, while al-Qaeda's popularity and prominence would surge.

But here's the catch: after the attacks in Yemen, Kenya Tanzania (Saudi Arabia?) and the US on 9/11, the US did not decide to cut off aid to the region's "apostate" regimes or withdraw its military/diplomatic/NGO presence. Osama had miscalculated. Also, the invasion of Afghanistan did not yield any of the benefits he expected along the alternate path. Unfortunately, though, the subsequent invasion of Iraq gave him an all too adequate consolation prize.

But if one understands that bin Laden's ultimate goal was to force us to withdraw from the region, and eliminate the flow of support and aid to the regimes that al-Qaeda was targeting for overthrow, it is hard to see how leaving Iraq would make him any more likely to strike the US in order to achieve this. To the extent that he drew hope that we would shrink away from al-Qaeda's attacks based on what he perceived as our lack of resolve, this was proven to be wrong. Our presence in the region has not significantly waned - if anything, our support for, and reliance on, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is stronger due to Iran's ascendancy.

On the other hand, our continued presence in Iraq is helping to destabilize the region, ramp up radicalization, win recruits and generally create conditions whereby al-Qaeda must consider its prospects somewhat brighter for realizing its ultimate end game: motivating enough fellow Muslims to join in a region wide ideological battle against the corrupt regimes, on the side of "righteousness" and anti-Western chauvinism.

Although dubious, the claim that our disengagement from Iraq will lead to the emboldening of terrorist groups that would now attack us out of a misinformed sense of our weakness makes for frightening rhetoric. And we all know that the manipulation of fear is a potent political tool. But it doesn't always succeed.

Just ask bin Laden.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Causes Belie

Josh Marshall makes a few salient points that track well with my previous post regarding a potential military confrontation with Iran:

Assume the best possible outcome to the sort of action that the Vice President and his clique appear to be angling for. We attack Iran -- either in crossborder raids or aerial bombing campaigns. The Iranians are duly chastened and stop all assistance, financial and military, to paramilitaries in Iraq. And this accomplishes? For our situation in Iraq, not much. We go from the IEDs of early 2007 back to the old style IEDs of 2006. In other words, for the outside chance of a temporary and marginal degradation of the quality of the IEDs used in Iraq we run all the risks of digging ourselves deeper into the current quagmire getting still more American soldiers killed and further stoking anti-American animus in the region with the likely outcome of solidifying the regime in Tehran for decades to come. And after all that fun is done with we're back to the same situation in Iraq that we can't figure out a way to resolve today.

Actually, the best case scenario probably isn't even as rosy as Josh's considerably pessimistic take. Consider this: even if Iran were to cut off the putative flow of high end IEDs (EFPs), the technology and know-how is already in the hands of the groups that received the assistance prior to Iran's "change of heart."

So the only real hardship for the militant groups in question would be the necessity to build, in-house, the small number of EFPs that they had been previously receiving via import. So we should risk a catastrophe of enormous and far-reaching proportions for all that?

Well there ain't no time to wonder why, Whoopee we're all gonna die!

This Is How You Get Got

Kevin Drum surveys the evidence on Iranian involvement in Iraq unveiled by the White House on Sunday and comes away a bit underwhelmed:

Still, everyone is skeptical, and who can blame them? The current gang in the White House would have to provide videotape of the Ayatollah Khamenei himself attaching tailfins to one of these things and putting it in a box labeled "Baghdad -- ASAP" before I'd be willing to take any action based on this latest dog and pony show. With any luck, in a couple of years we'll have a president I don't have to feel that way about.

Actually, I think Kevin is falling into a trap here by suggesting that with sufficient evidence pointing to high level Iranian involvement in funneling arms to allies in Iraq (most of whom are actually key members of the Iraqi government that Coalition forces are dying at a steady clip in order to protect), he would be willing to endorse "action" against Iran (presumably of the military variety).

Thoreau, over at Chez Henley, makes a very compelling argument (recently supported rather thoughtfully by Andrew Olmsted as well) that even if we learn of Iran's clear involvement in Iraq along the lines of what Drum sets out as his litmus test, it would be foolish to let such evidence dictate our actions in mindless fashion. This should be the case even if it were proven that some of these armaments were used against American forces. From Thoreau:

Now, those who want to could take a “principled” stand and say that if Iran is sponsoring proxies then they are just as much an enemy as the proxies, and hence they are a legitimate target. On one level that analysis would be entirely correct. However, there’s a big difference between what would be “justified” (to the extent that anything in war is really “justified”) and what would be smart. Strategy should be set by the brain, not the emotions, presuming that your goal is to bring the conflict to some satisfactory conclusion. We fought various proxy wars during the Cold War. Now, whatever one might think about those wars (I, for one, think they were at best a waste of time and at worst a crime), surely we can all agree that a direct war against the Soviets would have been a catastrophe.

Granted, Iran is not the Soviet Union. They can’t inflict as much damage as the Soviets could. So a war against Iran would be a smaller catastrophe, but a small catastrophe is still a catastrophe. A lot of US troops would die, a lot of innocent civilians would die in Iran and neighboring countries, chaos would be unleashed, millions would be displaced, infrastructure would be ruined, millions would be impoverished, people around the world would be radicalized, terrorists would undoubtedly retaliate inside the US (immediately and for years to come as a result of the radicalization), and any hope for peace, stability, and liberal reform in the Middle East and neighboring regions would be lost.

All for what? Showing that we’re not afraid to fight? The satisfaction of hitting those who sponsored a proxy?

Another facet of the story that those who become preoccupied with evidentiary standards for proving Iranian involvement can unintentionally elide is the fact that the Bush administration's desire to confront Iran militarily was in existence prior to the invasion of Iraq itself, and exists entirely separate from any such meddling by Iran. In fact, Iran's involvement itself is fueled in part by a desire to hamstring the Bush administration's capacity to follow through on its desire to topple the regime in Tehran.

As Paul Pillar notes, arguing from the reverse angle (via Laura Rozen and Swopa):

Even if Iranian assistance to an Iraqi group is proven to everyone's satisfaction, the [Bush administration's] policy never rested on that. The policy [is being driven by a] much larger sense of Iran as the prime bete noire in the region, and that is why the administration is trying to put together these coalitions with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the Sunni states, that we've been reading about. None of this hinges [on the Iran dossier]. We are not going to call this off if we can't prove that Iran is furnishing munitions to Iraqi groups.

Spencer Ackerman makes a similar argument:

The reasons why tensions are mounting against Iran have exactly nothing with Explosively Formed Penetrators and everything to do with much, much larger strategic concerns. But the Bush administration isn't making the case it believes, which, according to Condoleezza Rice, is that Iran is the source of instability in the region and must be confronted and made to stop. Instead, it's presenting the proposition that Iran has already attacked us -- precisely in order to put its opponents in the trap of arguing against what one official at today's briefing termed This isn't a rationale the administration isn't presenting; it is a casus belli. It's the new WMD argument -- the proximate cause that, in Paul Wolfowitz's words, the bureaucracy can agree upon for public consumption, rather than the substantive rationale for war.

This doesn't mean that we should not subject the putative evidence of Iranian trouble making presented by the Bush administraiton to the rigorous tests suggested by Jim Henley. We absolutely should. And we should continue to point to the holes in the overall narrative that can exaggerate Iran's actions and motives. But as Thoreau cautions, we should be prepared to argue that military confrontation with Iran would be a disaster, one that would greatly radicalize Iranian citizens and marginalize moderates throughout the region, regardless of the perceived adequacy of provocation as embodied by the chosen public selling point.

The calamitous outcome of military confrontation is both a known known, and unknown unknown to put it in the parlance of the Finest Secretary of Defense in the history of the United States. But rest assured, it would be undertaken for reasons entirely separate from IEDs, EFPs and Iran's ties to SCIRI and Sadr - even if those talking points are used to stoke the requisite war frenzy in the public mind. It would be about pre-existing, and long held desires to remake the Middle East according to some solipsistic fantasy gone awry. But as Big Media Swopa aptly observed (See Swopa mugging for the camera!):

You'd think [the Bush administration and its regional allies] would be aware that relying on deft applications of American military force to reshape the Middle East to their liking is how they got into this mess.

True. But to quote the author of this post title: "Now, this would seem to be clear common sense, but cats be livin' off sheer confidence...But acting invincible, just ain't sensible."

And that's how you get got.

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