Friday, June 29, 2007

No Blog For You!

Although it saddens me deeply to disappoint my hundreds vast legions of readers, especially now that TIA is enjoying a Poor Manalanche, the day job has me pinned to the desk like a deftly applied figure four leg lock of briefs and contracts.

That and my good friend C---- is back from Iraq for a brief two week respite - sandwiched in between the two halves of his 12 month stint. So it is with blood-shot eyes and pickled liver that I've been dragging myself through these past few days. The weekend offers no quarter.

If I make it, I'll see you on Monday. With a little less brain power at my disposal, and a little closer to cirrhosis. Cheers.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Stop Dreaming of the Quiet Life, Cause It's the One You'll Never Know

Andrew McGregor has another informative piece, with updates on the ongoing conflict in Somalia. The entire article is well worth the read, and concise enough to invite consumption. Here are some excerpts that track with the themes that I have been focusing on with respect to my ongoing discussion.

First, the familiar use of the terrorism bogeyman to induce the US to provide money, arms and tactical support for otherwise unsavory characters (a pattern that is usually accompanied by subsequent blowback):
For external consumption, Somalia's new Transitional Federal Government (TFG) describes the Somali conflict as a struggle against international terrorism; in reality, much of the fighting is due to historic animosity between some of Somalia's largest clans. In Mogadishu, the Darod-dominated TFG is engaged in a running battle against the Hawiye clan, which were the largest backers of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), the Islamist government expelled from power by last December's Ethiopian invasion.
Not only have we inserted ourselves in the middle clan-based fighting in Somalia under a dubious anti-terrorism rationale, but we have aligned ourselves with a despotic-leaning Ethiopian regime that has divergent ulterior motives:
The Ethiopian army is preparing new operations against ethnic Somali rebels and their Oromo allies in the Ogaden region, where oil exploration efforts are already underway (Terrorism Focus, June 5). Zenawi describes these groups as tools of the Eritreans in their efforts to destabilize the Ethiopian regime. In response to retaliatory strikes on ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) has promised to "become more vicious" in its attacks. There is always the possibility that Ethiopia may decide the best way to keep a lid on the resistance is to continue occupying Somalia until the Ogaden and its natural resources are secured, but Ethiopian troops targeted daily by roadside bombs and grenade attacks will have little appetite to stay put.
It's not just Ogaden - and its oil. Ethiopia prefers a weak and divided Somalia for other reasons as well. So enlisting Ethiopia's support to bring peace and stability to Somalia seems like a foolish choice. Even if we don't comprehend the folly, the Somalis do:
The U.S. hunt for largely inactive al-Qaeda suspects in Somalia is proceeding at great risk to its reputation in the area. Its open alliance with Ethiopia and support for the Ethiopian occupation force have created an atmosphere of mistrust in fiercely independent Somalia. Despite enormous material and political costs, not one of the three foreign al-Qaeda suspects alleged to be taking refuge in Somalia (and wanted by Washington for their roles in the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania) has been killed or captured.
Let's look at the scorecard regarding this foreign policy endeavor, so far:

Low-to-non-existent benefits in terms of neutralizing known al-Qaeda operatives, while radicalizing the region and increasing support for al-Qaeda locally. Increased instability and violence. Increases in deaths, refugees and human suffering. Our overt support for anti-democratic and belligerent elements. Sharp upswing in anti-Americanism and radicalism.

I believe this is what the Bush administration terms: Mission Accomplished.

I Want to Have a Beer With That Guy

Many on the Right are engaging in the subtle arts of innuendo and insinuation - laying the rhetorical groundwork for a replay of Der Dolchstoss whereby they can avoid responsibility for the catastrophic failure of their Iraq policies and salvage their political standing by blaming anyone to the left of Dick Lugar (or not) for defeat. Innuendo and insinuation, however, are so effete, so elitist, so very French. So it is refreshing when a straight talking, authentic, everyman comes along with the gumption to just come out and say, "stabbed in the back" like the Nazis used to do.

In this regard, Ralph Peters proves to be Glenn Reynolds' better. Here's Glenn:

IN THE MAIL: Col. Buzz Patterson's War Crimes: The Left's Campaign to Destroy Our Military and Lose the War on Terror.

I don't think that the left wants to lose the war on terror, exactly — they just want Bush to lose the war on terror. I suspect, however, that Patterson's theme is one that we'll hear more in the future, especially if things go badly in Iraq.

So passive Glenn. So timid. There's even a faint aroma of nuance. Peters, on the other hand, likes his Nazi slogans verbatim. Hey Ralph, be you:

Which brings us to the home front, where the war just might be lost, no matter what progress we make on the ground.

Political hucksterism and poll-pandering on Capitol Hill amount to stabbing our troops in the back. Period.

Straight, no chaser.

All snark aside, this is going to get ugly.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Put on a Happy Face

Brendan Nyhan takes note of Joshua Muravchik's specious argument that opposition to the Iraq War is making war with Iran more likely, and then adds this at the end:

PS The sad thing is that the "next war" may be different than Iraq (ie actually necessary), but every indication is that it will play out as a referendum on the current war. It's yet another way the Bush administration has poisoned the well for its successor.

I'm not so sure why Nyhan sees future circumspection as "sad" (but then, I disagree with the notion of reluctance in connection with a truly "necessary" war and that might be Nyhan's out). The numerous predictions that we will soon be hampered by some stultifying "Iraq Syndrome" are every bit as overstated as the dread "Vietnam Syndrome" of years past.

For example, according to the Vietnam Syndrome narrative, the public's negative reaction to the Vietnam war supposedly cut short America's willingness to use force going forward. And this was a bad thing.

First of all, it should be noted that America continued to use its military forces abroad throughout the remainder of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s - Vietnam Syndrome be damned. Just ask the Grenadans, Panamanians, the Iraqis, various peoples that call the Balkans home - not to mention many of Central and South America's citizens who might have dealt more with proxies, but proxies that were frequently trained and assisted by our own soldiers in the field.

Second, can anyone fill in this blank:

The world would be a better place if only America had gone to war with [Country X] in the period between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. However, because America was unduly reluctant to commit troops overseas, we failed to wage war against [Country X] and the world has suffered for it.

Now, as I mentioned above, Nyhan could be relying on the notion that the next war would actually be "necessary," and thus hesitation would be a bad thing. However, coming to a consensus on what such necessity would entail seems important. Would war with Iran ever be a necessity? If so, under what circumstances. What other countries do we foresee potential "necessary" wars with?

After all, America's reluctance to use military force abroad has not been a recurring shortcoming throughout this nation's history. Quite the opposite. We tend to err on the side of employing bellicose options when we should be searching for more pragmatic, long-lasting, effective and humane solutions - to a fault. Thus, the notion that a conflict that truly required war would arise, but that the American people would decline to meet it in such a manner, seems rather far-fetched.

What saddens me is the prospect that even after the Iraq War's tragedy plays out to its conclusion, the American people will not have sufficiently disabused themselves of their misplaced faith in the power of war to achieve various and sundry objectives. After all, the Vietnam Syndrome failed to cure the patient of such maladies despite it's much-hyped potential to provoke a pathological overreaction.

Live From Jordan....It's Saturday Night!

Benjamin Orbach has written a modest, yet profound book. Live From Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East is a tale pieced together from correspondence that Orbach wrote during his time spent studying Arabic while living and traveling through Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco and Syria. The narrative is a captivating blend of travelogue, diplomatic outreach, political treatise and tale of personal transformation. The multifaceted, and at times divergent, themes permeating this work make it an appropriate analogue to the subject matter itself.

Despite his background in economics and work on a related research fellowship while "in country," he mercifully spares the reader such technical minutia. As Orbach might say, he's a "color commentator, not a stat man." This, let me assure you, is to the reader's benefit. His narrative palette is rich and varied - evoking a sensual array of sights, sounds and smells (enough to trigger a persistent craving for falafel and humus - I'm billing Ben for my take-out bill). The canvas that takes shape from his brush strokes is a vibrant portrait of life in the Middle East, and the lives of its inahabitants - invaluable to readers, like me, who have yet to travel to that part of the world.

Such a first person vantage point - even if vicarious - exposes essential, ground-level truths regarding the people and ideas in the Arab/Muslim world. Far from being the monolithic caricature frequently depicted in Western media, where "Arabs" and "Muslims" act as an imprecise short hand for politicians and pundits selling a particular approach, there are crucial differences in outlook, customs, political views and cultural norms present in inhabitants within the same country, and between the populations inhabiting the various nations in a larger sense. While it may seem cliche to make such a point, our policymakers have been ignoring the obvious for some time now.

Whether it be the interplay of status and wealth between "ketchup eaters" (those that can afford the ridiculously overpriced import) and "bus riders" (those that must rely on public transportation) in Jordan, the political tensions between "Jordanian-Jordanians" and "Palestinian-Jordanians" (with the former known to chant pro-Ariel Sharon slogans at rallies), or the contradictions inherent in the spectacle of Westernized club-goers immersed in a deeply conservative culture - it becomes clear that the fluid sturm and drang in the Arab East belies static generalizations. Consider that at various times, and in different locations, Orbach had to alternately hide his nationality and religion (claiming he was Canadian and Christian - not Jewish), and fend off those that viewed him as some mythic, rock star persona simply because he was American (though the Jewish part never did seem to catch on as a source of adulation).

Despite the casual tone and humorous anecdotes sprinkled in, there is a seriousness, if not urgency, to one of Orbach's main themes: improving dialogue between the West and Arab East (figuratively, and literally, for a student of Arabic). This endeavor is perhaps made more pressing by the time period of his travels which span from soon after the attacks of 9/11 through the invasion of Iraq and its immediate aftermath. At a time when dehumanization and demonization were (and still are) being employed to facilitate belligerence and other punitive policies aimed at entire swathes of related and unrelated people, developing a granular understanding of the people whose differences we mostly ignore, and fostering a personal dialogue based on mutual respect and understanding, is all the more important.

One of the most obvious ways to establish a productive rapport with people that populate such diverse terrain is to acknowledge their differences. This indicates that we're really paying attention, and putting thought into their actual goals, fears and concerns. To state a tautology: acting dismissive will make us appear dismissive.

Orbach takes it upon himself to try to put a human face to America, and in turn extract a human face from "Arabs" and "Muslims" (through his role as foil in countless, and often repetitive, policy debates). The benefits of such an approach are quickly apparent in the friendships and connections he makes. In fact, these human interactions, which he approaches with an open mind and empathetic leanings, lead to something of a revelation for Orbach. After spending many months living in Jordan and traveling elsewhere, he enters Israel(which he calls "Palestine" at the border crossing) as an Arab would from the Jordanian side of the border - attempting to literally walk a mile in the shoes of the "other" side of such a bitter conflict. This symbolic journey speaks of Orbach's own intellectual evolution on issues related to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, with his views becoming more nuanced and balanced. Such growth is instructive of the fundamental commonality of interests, and subjectivity of hostility, that reveal themselves through human interaction.

Of his time in Jordan, he had this to say:

The more I see and learn here, the more it becomes clear how important matters of religion and nationalisty are within Jordan. There is a tension between East Banker Jordanians and Palestinian-Jordanians that can approach hatred. While Christians and Muslims certainly co-exist here, I believe that each have their own worlds too, worlds that are separate. It's startling how many differences there are beneath the surface and within everyday life among the people who we wholly refer to as the "Arabs" back home.

The contradictions reach further down the sociological ladder to split individual psyches themselves, not just those shared by larger groups and nations. This is revealed mostly in the mixture of admiration and hostility for "America" and all things "American" frequently housed in the same person.
Some U.S. leaders and government spokespersons say that we are hated because of our freedonm, but the picture is really much more complicated....I've reached the conclusion that there are two main strands of anti-Americanism: There are American policy critics and America haters. Many people in Jordan fall into the first category; they like Americans but do not like the U.S. government's policies. [...]

Our policy options concerning the American haters are limited. We are at war with bin Laden and the haters, and we have to deal with them accordingly. At the same time, military options alone won't protect Americans and U.S. interests. There is no substitute for waging a complementary war against the root causes andd conditions that transformed these disaffected drifters into basement bomb-makers. In particular, we need to address the lack of political and economic opportunities that characterize life in the Arab East for young people and women. And this is where we need the American policy critics on our side. [...]

President Bush said, "You're either with us or against us in the fight against "terror." We might feel that way, but such a public statement isn't helpful. Ironically, that is just how bin Laden has divided the world - into two. Not allowing for ambiguities, bin Laden defines Al Qaeda as the representative of Islam and America as the crusaders bent on religious war. For obvious reasons the American policy critics here don't necessarily want to be with us. But they don't want to be with the terrorists either....The haters would love for us to lumpt the Muslim world's American policy critics in with them, for the policy critics to have nowhere to turn, and for us to see the haters as representative of the masses. Our goal must be to isolate the haters, not all them to isolate us....

Our actions and behavior [can] increase the number of American policy critics who remain silent in the safety of their homes, rather than increase the number of religious and secular leaders and citizens who, though they may still disagree with U.S. policies, may at least feel compelled to step out into the streets and foster an environment that rejects the haters. These leaders can't and won't come forward if they are going to be publicly labeled as being politicall associated with American, and that tag carries connotations that are only negative.
This is precisely the way to combat the spread and appeal of extremist terrorism - and to better construct a broad level of peaceful cooperation with potential partners. Terrorists rely on the populations in which they operate. We must begin to marginalize the extremists by engaging and empowering other elements - even those that we do not agree with 100%. Of course, it's hard to achieve this through "shock and awe" entreaties, and "Islamofascist" labels applied to groups as far apart as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian mullahs.

While in many ways, our foreign policy vis-a-vis this region has created enormous obstacles that will prove difficult to overcome, our culture and ideals provide us with a certain level of access and advantage that is waiting to be put to better use. One thing that comes through in this book is the extent to which our pop culture - the product of the dreaded liberal "Hollywood" - has served as our most able ambassador.
This same cultural output is America's most successful means to gain favor among the people of the Arab East and beyond. It is through Mark Twain stories, Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington, and movies like the Matrix that Amefica has created attractive American magnetism, American dreams, and the personal stories of hope that seem otherworldly.

When people who have never traveled to the United States say that they hate America but love the American people, it is because of our cultural output. They don't personally know us. Cabbies sing along with Mariah Carey, I watched the Fugitive with a spellbound Fadi, and there is a guy at the university with a Nike Swoosh shaved into the back of his head. These are all symbols, and people take their symbols of America from the entertainment and creative ideas we provide.
Contrary to what cynical or, at best, ignorant politicians have suggested, "they" actually love us for our freedom, our culture and our principles. This sentiment is captured quite well in this excerpt from a conversation Orbach has with a pair of Jordanian citizens after the launch of the Iraq war (an even that Orbach proves quite prescient about):
"Why do I like America?" [the Jordanian woman] asked.

"Why?" I answered, stumped.

"Because the American people have freedom - the government wne to war, but the people had protests in the streets, real protests. We saw it on al Jazeera, in New York and in San Francisco - hundredds of thousnads ofpeople. Here, no one agreed with the war, but we couldn't protest. We have no voice"...

The point about Americans' freedom of speech was made by others, too. People fundamentally disagreed with the war but had no way to express themselves. They greatly admired how Americans voiced their opinions against government policies. It is ironic that we were supposed to win respect in the Arab East through our display of force but, in fact, we gained respect as a democracy by the activities of those who were derided as "unpatriotic."
In my email correspondence with Ben Orbach, he confided in me that his three primary goals in writing this book were (to paraphrase): to inspire Americans to engage the rest of the world (particularly the Middle East), to offer his first-person insights on the Middle East (from the roots and contours of anti-Americanism, to the diversity of its people) and to bring to life some of the colorful places that he had visited. In all of these undertakings, Orbach has succeeded masterfully.

There is one brief encounter with a Syrian woman that captures the essence of Orbach's purpose quite nicely.
As we said goodbye, Rania reached her hand out, looked me directly in the eye as we shook hands, and told me that she was glad to have met me and that we - meaning Syrians and Americans - needed to keep talking.
In writing this book, Orbach has greatly expanded the number of participants in that conversation. It is an invaluable contribution from an erstwhile "unofficial ambassador," and it's worth a thousand Karen Hughes heart-to-hearts.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Just Like Witches at Black Masses

Self-described Iraq war opponent Michael Ledeen had a funny way of letting people know about his opposition to the war back in August 2002:

It's always reassuring to hear Brent Scowcroft attack one's cherished convictions; it makes one cherish them all the more. So it's good news when Scowcroft comes out against the desperately-needed and long overdue war against Saddam Hussein and the rest of the terror masters. [...]

However, nobody is perfect, and Scowcroft has managed to get one thing half right, even though he misdescribes it. He fears that if we attack Iraq "I think we could have an explosion in the Middle East. It could turn the whole region into a caldron and destroy the War on Terror."

One can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please. If ever there were a region that richly deserved being cauldronized, it is the Middle East today.

There is disturbing news from the Iraqi-Turkish border that suggests that Ledeen's exhortations of "faster, please" may be getting results:

Hundreds of Iraqi Kurds have been forced to flee their homes after up to 30,000 Turkish soldiers massed on the Iraqi-Turkish border and launched attacks against Kurdish fighters, Iraqi border police say.

Local aid agencies said Kurdish fighters had prevented them from entering the villages, which were being targeted.

“The bombardments have forced hundreds to abandon their homes and leave for safer areas. Some houses were looted by Kurdish fighters, according to witnesses in the area,” said Rastgo Muhammad Barsaz, spokesman for the non-governmental organisation Kurdistan Campaign to Help Victims of War.

“Dashati Takhe village, on the border near Zakho, is one of the most affected areas. We have been informed of civilian causalities but we don’t know how many, as we are being denied access to the area. But by telephone, civilians have told us they are short of food and water,” Barsaz said. [...]

“The last time [Turkey invaded] hundreds of innocent people died and we hope that won’t happen again. This time, we had to flee our house and are taking refuge with some relatives near Zakho, but we cannot stay there long. We really don’t know what to do as we’ve left everything behind. We’re scared that our home will be destroyed, as has happened to some of our neighbours,” said Ezdin Destan, 47, a resident of Dashati village, near the Turkish border.

It was entirely predictable, and predicted, by those truly opposed to the Iraq war that the Kurdish-Turkish cauldron, already at a simmer, would boil over as a result of the invasion. Also worth noting: we currently have over 160,000 troops in Iraq, and we have not been able to cool down the recent tensions between Turkey and Kurdistan. A larger conflict is poised to erupt.

Yet one of the rationales given by those who support maintaining a residual force of some 50,000 soldiers in Iraq for several decades is that such a vastly reduced contingent could prevent a larger regional conflict (in addition to performing its training and al-Qaeda hunting duties). Someone has to explain to me how 50,000 troops are going to be able to accomplish this rather prodigious feat(s) when 160,000 appear unable to greatly alter the tragic arc of events.

(h/t This Old Brit)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career

Rob Farley takes a look at the recent joint US/Iraqi military operations (involving giant "sweeps"), and comes away unimpressed. Such sweeps, like airstrikes, are actually anathema to sound counterinsurgency practices.

Part of the point of the Surge was to allow the possibility for traditional counter-insurgency operations, in which insurgents were forced to launch their own offensives against American forces, and consequently be destroyed. This was, given the trivial size of the Surge compared to what Petraeus own counter-insurgency manual demanded, a forlorn hope. That the US has apparently returned to pointless and destructive sweep operations may be a recognition of that within the command structure. These operations are emotionally satisfying, but by and large have never worked, and almost inevitably cause more damage than they prevent.

Farley is right that the Surge was doomed from the get-go due to the logistical shortcomings (not enough troops, too late in the game) and the fact that the violence was a symptom, not the cause, of the various civil wars and insurgencies (especially now that they have become an entrenched and self-sustaining phenomena).

As is the case with most other issues surrounding the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the proponents of The Surge mostly fall into two categories: (1) Those that are well-intentioned, yet unduly optimistic and ignorant of the scope of the problems and tools available to address them; or (2) Those that are cynically willing to support, re-brand and re-package the same set of bankrupt policies in the desire to ride out the wave of opposition so that they can either pass off the mess to the next (likely Democratic) administration, or get to the point where long-term, residual military presence in Iraq is tolerated and seen as a compromise position (beneficial oil laws, also a priority).

The entire concept of The Surge was based on the Tal Afar model, but any halfway astute observer should have noticed that the "clear, hold and build" operation in Tal Afar would require many times the number of troops available if it were to be replicated throughout Iraq (even in all of Baghdad). As Farley notes, it's what the Petraeus counterinsurgency manual says! But we got The Surge anyway - at least in the form of a full-court press PR campaign and the dribbling into Baghdad of a too-small contingent of forces.

That our military is changing postures should come as no surprise. That we should wait until September - or later - for Petraeus to inform us of the obvious is entirely unnecessary. The Surge was DOA.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

You're Not Obliged to Swallow Anything You Despise

Via my AmFoot colleague Brian Ulrich, this Joshua Foust piece on the likelihood (or lack thereof) of official cooperation between the Iranian government and Taliban militants in Afghanistan covers all of the relevant bases. An excerpt:
One thing I’ve become pretty frustrated by is the U.S.’s insistence that Iran is directly aiding the Taliban. Those accusations, at least by officials in speeches, have been little but: just a throwaway line like “Iran is funding the Taliban” then a quick segue into something about Iraq or Pakistan or Karzai or something. But from what I can tell (and this NYT background piece offers a good overview), it amounts to weak physical evidence and a lot of guess work.

I’m not saying it’s impossible Tehran is actively helping the very people that almost sparked an invasion and outright war between the two countries last decade; I’m saying their differences run deeper, and the consequences of a Taliban win are so much stronger, that I find it difficult to accept without actual evidence that Iran is involved in the weapons trade in western Afghanistan. This is for reasons that vary from religious differences (fanatical Shiism vs. fanatical deobandism) to geopolitical ones—Iran first of all likes Karzai as a friendly leader, and second of all, does not want an emboldened Taliban taking over vast swaths of the country and posing the same threat it did last [decade]. It makes intuitive sense for Iran to fund the Shiite militias in Iraq; it does not make intuitive sense to fund the Sunni militia in Afghanistan.

Iran, however, is not above funding Sunnis when it suits their purposes—its support of Hamas has been incredibly successful as a proxy against Israel, and during the Afghan civil war Tehran backed Sunni factions that resisted Taliban rule.

Funding the Taliban just enough to keep the U.S. and NATO off balance and occupied with cooling a simmering countryside seems the most logical guess of the bunch. But even this is fraught with such risk, I would be surprised to see a normally risk-adverse leadership council tempt fate in this way. If Iran gets successfully blamed for American failure in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the temporary ego boost they feel will be quickly tempered by American bombs raining down on every nuclear facility the DoD [and] CIA can find. Furthermore, if Iran does successfully support insurgents in both wars just enough to force an American withdrawal from Iraq and a refocus on Afghanistan, they’re in trouble, as the tables will suddenly turn as Iran must try as hard as it can to keep Iraq from spilling over while not being able to fight a pissed off and determined U.S. by proxy to the east.

In other words, unless an extremely delicate balance is struck between support and neutrality, it is a big time loser strategy for Tehran. If Kabul’s legitimacy is permanently weakened or destroyed, the Taliban go back to having every advantage they had on their first sweep through in 1994.
That's a pretty lucid, and balanced, assessment. Unfortunately, when its war that's being sold, the appetite for such nuanced dishes is all-too-often in short supply. Instead, we're likely to get the hyper emotional and fear-based fare that helped to seat us at that glorious banquet table in Baghdad. In this regard, Joe Lieberman, the Republican presidential candidates and their cohorts at the Weekly Standard are already serving up the appetizers.

Monday, June 18, 2007

He's a Uniter, Not a Divider

Amazing. It's as if Moqtada al-Sadr's actions aren't matching up with his Sunni outreach rhetoric (via the ever vigilant Swopa):

Another Sunni mosque in the Basra area of southern Iraq was destroyed Saturday, as a leading Shiite cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, called on his followers to march to the Sunni town of Samarra next month to a revered Shiite shrine that was attacked Wednesday.

The call for a pilgrimage to the Askariya shrine, also known as the Golden Mosque, could draw tens of thousands of Shiites into an area north of Baghdad that is a stronghold of the Sunni extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Since the bombing of Askariya's twin minarets Wednesday, 14 Sunni mosques have been reported damaged or destroyed. In the attack Saturday in Basra, extremists detonated bombs that leveled the al-Ashra al-Mubashra mosque, a day after another was flattened in the area....

Al-Qaeda in Iraq was also blamed for Wednesday's attack, but analysts said that this time, Iraq's political and religious leaders -- including Sadr -- quickly issued a near-unanimous call for their countrymen to avoid being pulled into a cycle of sectarian revenge.

On Saturday, Sadr's voice seemed to break from the chorus. The anti-U.S. cleric and leader of the Mahdi Army militia framed the proposed pilgrimage, which is to climax in Samarra on July 6 or 7, as "a duty" to defend "our sacred shrines."

"Here is your sect calling on you," Sadr told his followers in a written statement, adding that the march should "be one of love, peace, security and construction. Go raising olive branches and wearing shrouds."

The pilgrimage also was seen as a dangerous provocation that would present the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Iraqi security forces with a major challenge: protecting the pilgrims as they walk and drive through Sunni-dominated territory to Samarra. Any attack on the marchers could spark a response by the Mahdi Army, which is feared for its reputed willingness to exact quick and indiscriminate revenge on Sunnis.

Zuhair al-Hakim, a senior official with the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq, the chief Shiite rival to Sadr's group, said in a statement that logistics for the pilgrimage needed to be studied. "As you know, the tribesmen in those areas had threatened that if visitors came, there would be provocations, and that could lead to violence," he said.

Yeah, but Sadr doesn't want any violence or provocation. I know because he said so.

I'm sure he'd be rather receptive to a similar march of thousands of Sunnis into Basra and other parts of the Shiite south in order to protect their mosques. Because he said he's a "nationalist" first and foremost, and does not see things in sectarian terms.

One of his priorities is broaching the divide between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis. And what better way to accomplish that than a festive parade in honor of unity!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Perception Is Perception, but Facts Are Reality, Part II

In the first part of this series, I discussed Ralph Peters' bizarre contention that the insurgents in Iraq have thus far succeeded primarily through the effective use of a compliant media. According to Peters, if only the media reported positively on conditions and progress Iraq, and the public accepted this reporting as the true rendition of events, then we would be enjoying military success. Contra Peters, the most effective insurgent strategy developed to date has been: to actually frustrate our purposes by laying siege to Iraq, denying us control and draining our resources - whether or not the media is there to report it as such.

In Part II, I want to look at how pervasive this emphasis on perception over fact is, and how it has infected the Bush administration's approach to foreign policy - both in terms of analysis and implementation. Fred Kaplan provides a useful starting point:

You've probably never heard of a State Department official named Price Floyd (I hadn't until a few days ago), but his resignation-in-protest, late last March, is as damning a commentary on President George W. Bush's foreign policies as any of the critiques from retired military officers. [...]

[Floyd] explained his reason for quitting in a little-read op-ed piece in the May 25 edition of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (his former hometown newspaper): Basically, he was tired of trying to convince journalists, here and abroad, "that we should not be judged by our actions, only our words." [...]

But the problem wasn't our words; as he put it, "What we don't have here is a failure to communicate." Rather, it was our actions, "which speak the loudest of all."

I am of two minds on this because improving our avenues of communication has a value. Making appearances in international media, paying attention to various opinions and sensibilities outside of our borders and treating disagreements with foreign populations/leaders in a respectful manner can smooth over some level of friction. These are the "gimmes" of public diplomacy, and while the points scored may not represent a winning margin in and of themselves, they come at such low costs and can be scored so easily that failing to execute would be an egregious squander.

Unfortunately, our foreign policy over the past six years has created a level of tension that no amount of dialog alone is going to rectify. The limits of improved communications are exposed rather starkly when the underlying policies themselves are so detested that they drown out the outreach efforts.

Rejecting the Kyoto treaty, dissing the International Criminal Court, revoking the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo—"these actions," Floyd wrote, "have sent an unequivocal message: The U.S. does not want to be a collaborative partner. This is the policy we have been 'selling' through our actions." As a result, our words are ignored or dismissed as "meaningless U.S. propaganda." [...]

He recounted a phone conversation with a press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad who wanted Floyd and his colleagues to sell the media more "good-news stories" about the war in Iraq. "I said, 'Fine, tell me a good-news story, I want good-news stories, too.' There was a silence on the other end of the line," he recalled. "It was like you could hear crickets chirping." [...]

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

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

In a sense, this was a learned behavior for the Bush administration. The PR-over-substance model had thus far worked quite well in terms of delivering successive elections to the GOP. Rather than grapple with big issues, the GOP, aided by wordsmiths like Frank Luntz, has been more interested in grappling with big adjectives.

All that was needed, according to the playbook, was a pleasant marketing message in order to complete a sale of otherwise unpopular policies: be it "Clear Skies" (which increased air pollution) "Healthy Forests" (which reduced the number of trees therein) or "The Patriot Act" (which could have powered Boston with the number of founding "patriots" whirling in their graves like some matrix of human turbines).

What the Bush administration has discovered, the hard way, is that international audiences are not so easily duped (though it's beginning to lose its luster domestically as well). For one, the international media is not as cooperative or deferential as the domestic version. If anything, there is a predisposition to cynicism and mistrust. Further, the actions themselves are often experienced on a more visceral level, such that slick marketing fails to persuade - for example, "shock and awe" elicited far less glee on the part of viewers in Baghdad than in, say, Peoria.

What seems most peculiar to me, though, is the tendency on the part of the Bush administration to fall prey to the same type of messaging tactics when employed by foreign elements. It's akin to the phenomenon whereby advocates of a cause begin believing their own propaganda, but not quite the same because this is structural. It is as if key Bush administration officials have come to endorse an entire method of salesmanship - the "words over actions" model - regardless of who is doing the selling.

At times this credulity is merely a self-serving feint (when we are promoting foreign-generated spin that we don't necessarily believe, but which is convenient nonetheless). Still, there are instances when our leaders become entranced by the public statements of certain actors such that we ignore those parties' actual behavior and underlying motives. We are dupes to their publicized narrative, as if lost in admiration for the handiwork of another talented salesman.

For example, while we have certainly promoted the spin of various Iraqi factions when doing so has suited our purposes, we have also shown a rather embarrassing proclivity to get tripped up by the public relations blitzes of other Iraqi camps, and goaded into acting against our long-term interests. It is hard to know where along that spectrum to place the belief in stories spun by the con-men who sold us the Iraq war, such as Ahmed Chalabi (from cynical promotion of spin - to well intentioned dupes). Most likely, there were different motives for "believing" Chalabi for different war advocates. In fact, delineating between good faith misreads and cynical exploitation of duplicitous spin is a pretty tricky task since it must probe intentionality. Thus, let's look at a few examples, and let the reader decide.

Primary amongst the post-invasion misreads, has been the Bush administration's willingness to accept, as fact, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's autobiography as a quietest, apolitical, nationalist agent of reconciliation. Edward Wong, reviewing Ali Allawi's book, gives a good breakdown:

One exception is [Allawi's] fascinating analysis of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the enigmatic, reclusive cleric who rarely emerges from his home in the holy city of Najaf. The Americans fooled themselves, Allawi says, into thinking Ayatollah Sistani would distance himself from politics. For unlike his clerical mentor, who promoted a quietist school of Shiite Islam, Sistani is "vitally concerned with the role of Islam in state and society." He "does not advocate a benign negligence or avoidance of all things to do with the state or government," Allawi writes. Therefore, by fashioning a political process endorsed by the ayatollah that ultimately put religious Shiites beholden to Iran in power, the Americans undermined their goal of creating a secular, pro-Western nation.

The key, in this and all other such attempts to glean the true motivations of the various actors, is to pay more attention to actions than the rhetoric.

A cleric who sold himself as "hands off", and a proponent of non-interference from the religious community in political matters generally speaking, has been intensely involved in the political process in Iraq from Sistani's early insistence on elections ahead of the Bush team's schedule, to his role in forming and maintaining unity in the UIA, to his recent efforts to block laws aimed at reconciliation (odd, that, if one believes he is a true "nationalist" interested in reconciliation).

Swopa breaks this dynamic down in the context of the recently stalled legislation aimed at easing the de-Baathification laws. Actually, Swopa scores a bank-shot off of Prime Minister Maliki's own, thus far successful, efforts to convince the Bush administration to ignore the actual results of his tenure in favor of his heartfelt assurances.

What's really going on here, I think, is a bit of a Kabuki dance -- I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that prime minister Nouri al-Maliki was beginning to rebel publicly against U.S. pressure on key issues (an oil distribution law and cracking down on militias, in addition to de-Baathification), and that Grand Ayatollah Sistani would probably not let the Shiite government he put into power back down on those points.

So, it seems that Team Shiite has fallen back on a trick they've used before: they make nice with the American occupiers and cut a deal, only to have Sistani -- surprise! -- announce that it doesn't pass muster with him. And then the Shiite pols go sheepishly back to the Green Zone and say, "Aww, shucks, we'd love to help you out, but you know we can't buck Sistani on this." Even if the Bushites have caught on to this game, I'm not sure what they can do about it.

The divergence is similarly stark in the case of Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr who, through the power of repetition, has convinced many that he is truly interested in Sunni outreach and a spirit of national unity. He brandishes these big-tent credentials despite his adamant opposition to that same de-Baathification law mentioned above, as well as his organization's continued ethnic cleansing of his Sunni "brethren" from Baghdad.

Speaking of PR moves, the artists formerly known as SCIRI recently underwent a name change - and a public declaration of support for the authority of Sistani. "See, we took the 'Revolution' out of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq moniker, so we can't possibly be close to Iran - wink, wink." While these cosmetic changes and shifts in tone were primarily aimed at the domestic Iraqi audience, creating the impression of distance between SIIC and Iran serves the interests of SIIC's leaders who are looking to build on the momentum of improving ties with the Bush administration signified by Hakim's recent trip to the White House. All indications are that the Bush team is, in fact, getting cozier with SIIC - an alliance no doubt made more palatable by SIIC's recent "break" with Iran. At the very least, these superficial changes have some pundits convinced.

The most recent example of the Bush administration falling for the seductive sound of those sweet little lies has been our military's dalliance with certain Sunni insurgent groups in Anbar province. These "former" insurgent groups have coaxed arms, money and other support from us based on a pledge to fight al-Qaeda. The problem is, some have already decided that repairing relations with al-Qaeda is more in their interests. Something tells me they won't be returning those guns though.

Even the Sunni insurgent groups that haven't forsaken their temporary alliance of convenience with the US most likely will after their common enemy is neutralized. Then, despite their assurances to the contrary, we will once again become their primary target (along with the Shiite government we currently defend - the one that really, really wants to offer power, money and access to their Sunni countrymen but just can't seem to muster enough votes!).

While the political and military situation in Iraq is already intricately complex, and shifting, the rhetorical smokescreens make getting a read on the situation near impossible. In that sense, there is a lesson to be learned from the hardships the Bush administration is encountering in selling its message on the world stage: Don't believe the hype, let the actions bring the noise.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Teh Stupid: Now With 50% More Burning Power!!!


Last week when I commented on the vacuous musings of Joe Scarborough on his Scarborough Country show, I had to rely on my memory of his argument alone, as the transcripts were not yet available. Looking over the actual record makes me think that I went easy on Clueless Joe. Look at the excitement he shows as if he really just stumbled upon some bit of wisdom that will awe the world:

SCARBOROUGH: Well, you know, Pat Buchanan, we've been hearing for some time that George W. Bush's policies in Iraq would inspire Islamic terrorism against the United States of America. And my gosh, that makes perfectly good sense because we all know George W. Bush's war in Iraq is what caused Osama bin Laden to attack us on September 11, 2001, right?

... the point is, September 11 happened before we attacked Iraq!...And that‘s why these type of arguments seem so stupid!
Ugh. No, seriously: ugh. Buchanan, to his credit, tries to guide Joe through the complex world of, well, phenomena that extend beyond the number "1" - as in more than one potential terrorist, more than one potential motivation, more than one radicalizing agent, etc.:

BUCHANAN: Well, wait a minute, now. September 11 was the mass murder of 3,000 Americans, unforgivable, unpardonable, unjustified. However, it was not simple terror, it was political terror. What was the terror motivation of Osama bin Laden's terror? If you read his declaration of war against the West in 1998, Joe, there were three motivations. The most important was the presence of American troops on the sacred soil of Saudi-Arabia, and expel them. The second was the persecution, in his judgment, of the people of Iraq, with all these sanctions that he said were killing hundreds of thousands. And third was the occupation or the Israeli occupation, which we support.

....But there‘s no doubt U.S. occupation and invasion of Iraq has inflamed the whole region, expanded the swamp of hatred of the United States from which these recruits come. That is undeniable.
Undeterred by Buchanan's recitation of fact and history, Scarborough goes in for the kill with one of the strangest arguments I have seen yet:

SCARBOROUGH: I think we are safer today than we were on September 11, 2001, because we‘ve sent a very strong message, whether it is a mess and whether Americans are against it and whether they want us out or not, the bottom line is Osama bin Laden figured out that when you knock down two American buildings, chances are good that if the president‘s George W. Bush, he‘s going to take over two Muslim countries.

Now, that inflames a lot of people, but at the same time, it is a cold, nasty calculus that Osama bin Laden has to understand! [emphasis added]

This man has a show. On MSNBC. I suppose I should point out how ridiculous this theory is, how Osama actually tried to goad us into the very overreaction that Scarborough lauds. Or that we're still having sort of a tough time with that whole "take over" part of the equation. But, you know, you don't really need me for that. For this kind of dumb, res ipsa loquitur.

The Empire Strikes Out

Andrew Sullivan detects the odor of rot wafting from the neoconservative camp:

The raging and chaotic civil war in Gaza (and incipiently in the West Bank) is hard to deny. Marty Peretz sees the same pattern as Iraq. So here's a question for Marty: if Arab cultures are completely immune to democratic life, as he has long argued, why does he support the coercive democratization of Iraq with the blood of young Americans? By his own logic, isn't it doomed to abject failure? And isn't staying there therefore a fool's errand?...By neoconservative logic, the U.S. has undertaken about the least viable, most intractable, self-defeating task on Planet Earth. Why? Once the WMD rationale was exposed as a delusion, why haven't neoconservatives cited the pathologies of Arab culture to argue for withdrawal?

While I don't agree with the neoconservative diagnosis of Arab pathologies, the contradiction is nevertheless hard to miss. Sullivan posits an explanation for the apparent inconsistency: the primary motivation is not democratization per se, but rather the pursuit of empire, or quasi-empire - to be distinguished, somewhat, from prior British imperial expansions. Alas, empire just ain't what it used to be:

If the occupation had gone swimmingly in Iraq, then envisaging a few thousand residual troops for the indefinite future as a geo-strategic act of support, is a fine idea. But after this occupation and in this global struggle, what we're envisaging is an imperial outpost for decades ahead - a permanent casus belli between us and every Islamist on the planet. I think we have to be firm on this point: no. Unless we want to become Israel. And please don't give me that crap that somehow if we leave there, they'll follow us home. They've already followed us home. They can now. They always will be able to target us in the modern world. The question is simply whether ineptly occupying a country that even the Brits couldn't pacify makes us less or more safe. I don't see how any sentient observer of the last five years can believe it has made us more safe. It has certainly made us less free.

Right. A firm "no" to prolonged occupation, regardless of what brand of wool sweater that particular wolf is draped in - that goes for mega-embassies, permanent bases, training Iraqi troops, al-Qaeda hunting units, etc.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Mind of Mendacity

Rob Farley so thoroughly eviscerates this New York Times op-ed by Peter Rodman and William Shawcross, that the entire effort is worthy of Quote of the Day honors. In lieu of reprinting the whole thing (and because you really should read the rest at LGM), I'll leave you with two of my personal favorites (with Rob quoting the op-ed, then adding his own commentary):

The [US] defeat [in Vietnam] had a lasting and significant strategic impact. Leonid Brezhnev trumpeted that the global "correlation of forces" had shifted in favor of "socialism," and the Soviets went on a geopolitical offensive in the third world for a decade. Their invasion of Afghanistan was one result. Demoralized European leaders publicly lamented Soviet aggressiveness and American paralysis.
I'm almost impressed with this. You'd think, given that the Eastern Bloc collapsed in 1989, that Rodman and Shawcross would be embarrassed to make the "but we'll lose the Cold War if we leave Vietnam" argument.
You'd be wrong...


Today, in Iraq, there should be no illusion that defeat would come at an acceptable price. George Orwell wrote that the quickest way of ending a war is to lose it....

What is it with right-wing hackery and Orwell? Am I wrong in thinking that Orwell would be spinning in his grave if he knew he were being used, so consistently, in such a fashion (Christopher Hitchens is an entirely separate problem)? Anyway, it would have been helpful if Shawcross and Rodman had grappled with the fact that countries don't just "choose" defeat; defeat often chooses them. It's not enough simply to say that we have to win; in 1918, Germany "had to win", just as in 1945 Japan "had to win". If we can't win, then we do nothing but exacerbate the "likely human and strategic costs [that] are appalling to contemplate".


Friday, June 08, 2007

Scoff Flaws

Kevin Drum looks at the surprisingly frank assessment on the state of The Surge from our deus ex Czarina, Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, and wonders what such a stance might portend:

Question: Is the promotion of Lute a sign that the administration is making moves in the direction of abandoning the Maliki government and hitching its star to someone else?

Interesting question, though the options in terms of alternatives are limited: (1) a straight up coup would lead to a massive revolt on the part of the Shiites - who happen to make up 60% of the population (hint: the Sunnis are only 20%, and the Sunni-based insurgency has thus far proven insurmountable); (2) simply sacking Maliki and forcing the parliament as currently configured to choose a successor will likely result in a Maliki clone (as the replacement of the "unacceptably partisan" Jaafari chosen by the UIA/Kurds was....Maliki who is now "unacceptably partisan"); and (3) pushing for an alternative bloc made up of a heterodox coalition of Iraqi factions would likely result in a leader whose platform was harder for us to swallow than Maliki's Shiite chauvanism.

Let me explain by responding to Kevin's point and clarifying my levels of scoffery:

But while we're on the subject, it's worth mentioning that both Swopa and Eric Martin have scoffed at my suggestion that there's an emerging new political alliance that might manage to wrest control of the government from Maliki sometime in the next few months. After all, factional fighting in Iraq is Byzantine; it's hard to believe that any alliance could survive if it excluded the party formerly known as SCIRI; it seems unlikely that Sistani would countenance any alliance that increased the power of the Sunnis, and equally unlikely that Sadr would join such an alliance without Sistani's blessing...

...Still....I can't help but think that something has to happen. Maliki seems like a dead man walking, and eventually someone's going to make a deal that would have seemed unlikely on its face a week before — and I wouldn't be surprised if this includes some kind of weird volte-face from Sadr. I wonder if Lute is sending a signal that the Bush administration won't be too crushed if this happens?

It's true that I haven't been bullish on the prospect of an alliance forming between ex-Baathists, Moqtada al-Sadr and ex-CIA asset Ayad Allawi, for reasons that I have discussed ad nauseum. Still, it's possible. Maybe Sadr truly wants the US out of Iraq first and foremost, and is willing to take extreme measures such as forging bonds with Sunni insurgent groups to achieve this.

Alternatively, SIIC and Dawa could be pushing Sadr into a corner such that he feels forced to bolt. Despite this possibility, Sadr was singing a different tune earlier this week:

Sadr claimed that recent fighting between the Mahdi Army and the military wing of SIIC, the Badr Organization, was based on a misunderstanding.

"What happened with the Badr organization and the Mahdi Army in many parts of Iraq is the result of a sad misunderstanding," he said. " We have held discussions to stop this being repeated."

Additionally, Sistani himself could tire of this petulant youngster, or Sadr could feel constrained and overshadowed by his clerical superior such that he might decide it's time for a solo career. According to some reports, there has been some serious tensions - turning violent at times - between forces loyal to each cleric.

So on the Scoffery Scale, I'd give it 7 Jeers out of a possible 10 (it would have been more Jeers, but Cernig makes a compelling case, and there sure has been a lot of related activity lately).

But there is something else that Kevin alluded to in these two posts that's worth addressing: that the Bush administration might work to actively bring about the formation of the Allawi-Sadr-Sunni political bloc, and/or support it when it gained power. This, I'd give 9 Jeers.

As Kevin himself noted, the animating principle of this new coalition would be "anti-Americanism" - specifically, setting a timetable for withdrawal of all occupation forces. So for the Bush administration to support such a political animal would mean that the Bush administration was planning to head for the exits and thus could live with such a demand. Predicting the Bush administration's acceptance of withdrawal (or forced retreat) brings us to 9 Jeer territory (unless somehow the lure of power could lead Sadr and the Sunnis to table their withdrawal demands - but this is exceedingly doubtful and probably 9 Jeer territory in its own right).

The only reason I leave the possibility open is the remote chance that the Bush team views the Allawi-Sadr-Sunni political bloc as a vehicle to leave behind an Iraq that is not beholden to, or under the thumb of, Iran - which would give them one last fleeting go at relevancy. Still, the more likely read is that the Bush administration has no intention of leaving, and thus will be working against the formation of a strong political current dedicated to its departure.

They're shockingly incompetent, but they're not that incompetent. I think.

Claque Louder

Edmund Burke (Via Los Editores Fabulosos) mixes it up posthumously with the Iraq war's authors, and those that, today, would call others "immoral" for advocating an end to the Iraq occupation - an occupation rendered futile by, among other things, the drastic shortage of troops necessary to even give the mission a fighting chance:

The poorest being that crawls on earth, contending to save itself from injustice and oppression, is an object respectable in the eyes of God and man. But I cannot conceive any existence under heaven (which in the depths of its wisdom tolerates all sorts of things) that is more truly odious and disgusting than an impotent, helpless creature, without civil wisdom or military skill, without a consciousness of any other qualification for power but his servility to it, bloated with pride and arrogance, calling for battles which he is not to fight, contending for a violent dominion which he can never exercise, and satisfied to be himself mean and miserable, in order to render others contemptible and wretched.

This abdication of responsibility masquerading as sanctimoniousness is also on display in this Journal Op-Ed flagged by Mona (Scott Lemiuex too):

In “The Soldier’s Creed,” there is a particularly compelling principle: “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” This is a cherished belief, and it has been so since soldiers and chroniclers and philosophers thought about wars and great, common endeavors. Across time and space, cultures, each in its own way, have given voice to this most basic of beliefs. They have done it, we know, to give heart to those who embark on a common mission, to give them confidence that they will not be given up under duress. A process that yields up Scooter Libby to a zealous prosecutor is justice gone awry….

He can’t be left behind as a casualty of a war our country had once proudly claimed as its own. [her emphasis]

Her reaction is warranted:

These people are sheerly repulsive. There are some photographs available online of hideously maimed Iraq war vets. Then there are the dead ones. I’m not going to include such a graphic because I am not comfortable with the morality of using such depictions in a political rant. But use your imagination, and ponder they who rhapsodize about “Soldier’s Creeds” and etc. for Scooter effing Libby in the context of the Iraq war, with its actual dead and disabled.

Interesting way to support the troops - by cheapening the breadth and scope of their sacrifice and courage. Only a claque of draft dodging, silver spooners who fought tooth and nail to avoid fighting tooth and nail would thus attempt to harvest the reflected glory of actual soldiers.

Using this standard, Cheney would be Audie Murphy. After all, unlike the rest, he's actually shot a man.

It's All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets Hurt

In his lengthy legislative career, Trent Lott has been an infamous crusader against lawsuits filed on behalf of aggrieved citizens for wrongs committed by large corporations and other commercial entities. Statements of conviction like these from Lott have not been uncommon:
"The Democrats seem to think that the answer is a lawsuit. Sue everybody." July 20, 2001

"I'm among many Mississippi citizens who believe tort reform is needed." May 8, 2002

"If their answer to everything is more lawsuits, then yes, that's a problem, because I certainly don't support that." August 2, 2002

"It's sue, sue, sue...That's not the answer." August 4, 2001
Yet, oddly enough, Senator Lott's view of the plaintiff's bar, and lawsuits in general, underwent a radical transformation after his insurance company denied him relief for certain claims made for Katrina-related damage to his home. Once he found himself in a position of powerlessness and frustration familiar to far too many Americans with considerably less clout than a US Senator, he availed himself of the only recourse available: he filed a lawsuit alleging breach of contract, as well as a dreaded....tort!

As stark as Lott's hypocrisy is, there is an even more egregious case recently making headlines. This time, former Supreme Court nominee and Yale University Professor Robert Bork (an ardent supporter of eliminating and reducing lawsuit damages across the board) filed a $1 million lawsuit against the Yale Club because he....slipped and fell. The man fell down and wants the Yale Club to pay him $1 million for his troubles. Yet, somehow, this wouldn't be included on the list of "frivolous lawsuits" so bemoaned by conservative pundits like Bork and Lott. Because it's different when it happens to you. Some details:
The 80-year-old legal scholar is suing the Yale Club after he fell off a raised platform as he prepared to deliver a speech on June 6, 2006, hitting his head and suffering injuries to his leg that required surgery.

"Because of the unreasonable height of the dais, without stairs or a handrail, Mr. Bork fell backwards . . . striking his left leg on the side of the dais and striking his head on a heat register," states the lawsuit, filed yesterday in Manhattan federal court. [...]

According to the lawsuit, the Yale Club usually has stairs and railings on its speaking platforms, but failed to provide them at the New Criterion event.
Oh, well then, the lawsuit and damages sought are totally justifiable. If it were medical malpractice or something meaningless like that, we shouldn't let the greedy injured patients and lawyers shake down a hospital. But failure to provide stairs on a dais? An unthinkable injustice that can barely be remedied by a cool million.

These episodes in hypocrisy reveal more than the individual failings of a few movement conservatives. Rather, they are indicative of the disingenuous, and unjust, motives behind the effort to close courts to lawsuits by citizens that have otherwise been left with no avenue to repair the damage suffered. This is the way I described the dynamic in a previous post [with some slight edits]:

[George] Lakoff discusses some of the rationale behind the facade of tort reform:
Tort Reform is an example of an indirect, misleading type of Multiple Issue Strategic Initiative - indirect because the stated reason for the initiative is not the only goal, or even the most important one. For instance, supporters say they want "tort reform" to cap awards to prevent "frivolous lawsuits", but what they really care most about is other effects that follow from this: to allow corporations to weaken public protection laws which guard the public's health and safety, to weaken environmental regulations that restrict their business operations, and to eliminate an important fund-raising base for Democratic candidates by limiting the income of public protection attorneys who overwhelmingly donate to Democratic candidates. Although "frivolous lawsuits" is the catchphrase, it's about many other goals that go unstated in the public debate.
Lakoff is right to note how the "frivolous lawsuits" have been highlighted and used to create the impression that the entire legal system has run amok. The truth is that some such ridiculous cases exist. There are some well known examples of exorbinant payouts for slight wrongs, like the suit against McDonalds for the coffee that was too hot, and the suit against the car manufacturer for not disclosing an extra paint job to smooth over wear and tear on a supposedly new car. But what system does not produce such spectacular wrongs on the margins? Certainly corporate America has been behind some of the most grievous injuries suffered by masses of ordinary Americans, yet we should not propose to regulate business in too extreme a manner so as to stifle the economy. Over-reacting to a problem is not an acceptable solution.

While these examples are real, and should be addressed, that is not what the Right-wing wants to accomplish with the dubiously titled "tort reform." Instead, they are using these most extreme examples to garner support for an overly broad legislative regime that would, in effect, release corporations from responsibility for the safety of their products, and the impact their businesses have on the health and environment of ordinary Americans.

The [nefarious power] behind the "frivolous lawsuits," according to this meme, is the dreaded "trial lawyers." This unscrupulous pack are labeled as ambulance chasers, legal extortionists and slick performers who unfairly assault business owners regularly. But such characterization is mostly undeserved. In truth, the plaintiff's bar is composed of very hard working, dedicated, professionals who take on big monied interests in defense of ordinary people who have been harmed by businesses that often deem the cost of injuries as acceptable if they fit within the budget.

That is the point behind so many of the biggest payouts. The reason the awards get so large is because they contain punitive damage awards - which is a large amount added to the actual financial damages suffered by the victim. This large punitive damages sum is meant to increase the financial incentive of big corporations to cease conducting business in a way that threatens public safety - especially when they had knowledge of the risks they were exposing the public to beforehand. What happens, in the absence of punitive damages, is that when a corporation produces a flawed product, or pollutes the environment, the costs associated with litigating these claims gets calculated into the cost of doing business. A certain amount of death and injury is, thus, an acceptable cost if that dollar amount is lower than the cost of conducting business in a way that would eliminate, or substantially curtail, such harms.

Punitive damages are a means to make the corporations pay so much in litigation costs, that the cost benefit analysis tilts in favor of public interest: safe, healthy products, safe workplace conditions, less pollution, equal employment, non-discrimination, and better business practices all around.

Yet it is punitive damages that the conservatives have targeted - although many have recommended far more radical changes such as non-punitive damage caps, exclusion of entire classes of lawsuits and other restrictions that make bringing suits more difficult and prohibitively costly.

It is better to leave courts open and to let courts serve their valuable role in this society, though. In an age where governmental regulation and oversight of industry is being coopted by the very industries themselves, the courts are the last refuge for ordinary, hard working Americans. I hope that none of you will ever need one, but if you are so unfortunate as to suffer a grievous injury that could have been prevented, you will fully understand how worthy public protection lawyers really are.

Just ask Trent Lott and Robert Bork.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Killer Joe

I know Joe Klein takes his fair share of criticism from the liberal blogoshere - a good deal of it well-deserved - but the man deserves credit for this.

Stick and move Joe.

Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani

In March of 2006, in response to a Reason Magazine survey of various pundits on the status of the Iraq war, Glenn Reynolds passed along perhaps the most brilliant, penetrating and elaborate strategy for victory ever enunciated:

3. What should the U.S. do in Iraq now?


Now why didn't Rumsfeld think of that? Regardless of Rummy's failures (he was fired ya know), one can only hope that Petraeus has been briefed on the Reynolds Doctrine. If so, we should be wrapping things up any day now.

Reynolds deserves eternal credit for this revelation. We should all be thanking our lucky stars that Hitler wasn't able to unlock the secret of the Reynolds Doctrine earlier (and need I mention that we should all keep this a secret from Osama and the boys). Had the Nazi's uncovered this eternal truth first, it would have made winning the Manhattan Project race a moot point. I can think of only one answer for this good fortune: divine providence.

Speaking of divine intervention, Reynolds' spark of rare genius appeared at least as far back as 2005, as our modern day Clausewitz first started trying to get the attention of our generals and other policymakers who were stubbornly refusing to...well, win.

It's a war. The way to win it is, well, to win it. Deadlines are for people who care more about other things than they do about winning.

No doubt recognizing the responsibility that comes along with being privy to such remarkable insight, Glenn continues to soldier on tirelessly. More recently, he helped found a website dedicated to explaining the nuance of conventional war strategy, counterinsurgency doctrine, and geopolitical power, amongst other topics. Despite the breadth of the subject matter covered, the Grand Strategy developed has been distilled down to its essential elements: We win, they lose. It is as inspiring as it is instructive.

And the Reynolds Doctrine seems to be taking root in some curious places. Here's Eli Lake waxing Reynoldsian:

What if the netleft, that has created the impression that there is a rising plurality that would like to abandon Iraqis to Qaeda, Quds and the Ba'ath, are just a few thousand committed Marxists in their pajamas? What if the Dems have strategically miscalculated? What if their over-compensation is to appease a vocal 1 percent of the electorate that actually draws contempt from the rest of the country?

Leaving aside the fact that opinion poll after opinion poll indicates that the American people are in favor of setting a timetable for withdrawal which directly refutes Lake's thesis of an isolated 1% vanguard driving a wildly unpopular policy (with 99% of the electorate in favor of continuing the occupation), the first part of the statement bears closer reading. Lake suggests that there is a choice: either "abandon" Iraq to continued conflict and violence or....actually, what is the other option? I guess the other option is: Win!!!!

Unfortunately, it's a lot easier to say such a thing, than to show it's likelihood or even possibility. The harsh reality of the situation is that Iraq is currently beset by multiple civil wars, combined with elements of failed statehood - a matrix of conflicts that will likely play out until the various factions are exhausted from the fighting. No one side is powerful enough to dominate the others, yet each believes that it has a good chance to do just that. This is a recipe for a protracted and bloody affair. The conflicts have a self-sustaining animating principle that exists beyond our ability to influence in any constructive way. Even if our intentions were pure, we could not project our will onto the combatants themselves. As James Fearon noted:

In fact, there is a civil war in progress in Iraq, one comparable in important respects to other civil wars that have occurred in postcolonial states with weak political institutions. Those cases suggest that the Bush administration's political objective in Iraq -- creating a stable, peaceful, somewhat democratic regime that can survive the departure of U.S. troops -- is unrealistic. Given this unrealistic political objective, military strategy of any sort is doomed to fail almost regardless of whether the administration goes with the "surge" option, as President George W. Bush has proposed, or shifts toward a pure training mission, as advised by the Iraq Study Group.

Even if an increase in the number of U.S. combat troops reduces violence in Baghdad and so buys time for negotiations on power sharing in the current Iraqi government, there is no good reason to expect that subsequent reductions would not revive the violent power struggle. Civil wars are rarely ended by stable power-sharing agreements. When they are, it typically takes combatants who are not highly factionalized and years of fighting to clarify the balance of power. Neither condition is satisfied by Iraq at present. Factionalism among the Sunnis and the Shiites approaches levels seen in Somalia, and multiple armed groups on both sides appear to believe that they could wrest control of the government if U.S. forces left. Such beliefs will not change quickly while large numbers of U.S. troops remain.

Prolonging a fatally flawed occupation will not substantially change the outcome for the beleaguered Iraqis. The only question now is whether or not we will ask thousands more US soldiers to die and suffer grievous injury in a fruitless occupation that is bleeding our treasury dry and costing us priceless amounts of diplomatic and PR capital - while doing al-Qaeda's work for it.

But Lake doesn't acknowledge this. Instead, he presents the conundrum as a simple, binary choice: either we abandon the Iraqis, or we save the Iraqis. There is not even a nod in the direction of what changes in strategy or tactics need to be made in order to pull off the "salvation," let alone any call to make the sort of commitment that "existential" crises require. Further, he tars a majority of the American people by suggesting that they would "like" to abandon the Iraqis perhaps on a whim, or out of spite or malice. For those opposed to the war, though, this represents a heartbreaking concession to the inevitable - an inescapable outcome set in motion by the invasion itself.

This is not a serious way to discuss such vital policies, rather it is war-fighting by slogan. It is as cheap and easy for its proponents, as the non-existent sacrifices they make to the war effort itself. And this simplistic rhetorical flourish grants the sloganeers a sense of sanctimony because they, unlike the defeatist liberals, are choosing to win.

Because it's really that easy. If we decide that we want to win, we win! At least in Magic America. Somewhere, Glenn Reynolds is wiping away the tears of a proud father.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Perception Is Perception, but Facts Are Reality, Part I

Ralph Peters has written yet another in what is a series of pieces arguing for more unrestrained brutality on the part of our armed forces. To Peters:

We restrict ourselves to supposedly humane theories of counterinsurgency warfare that have failed us for 60 years; our enemies simply do whatever works.

As usual, Peters allocates a lion's share of the blame for the media, both as a tool of our enemies, and as the nettlesome exposer of war crimes. The press is seen as a truth-speaking presence that restricts our leaders from employing the full panoply of military tactics. Would that our press simply march in lockstep like some state-run media, then we could let our martial imaginations soar, pondering all manner of tactics that result in mass civilian casualties, tactics that have been rendered off-limits by our cumbersome moral values. Sigh.

Peters describes our current disadvantages vis-a-vis our modern day adversaries in Iraq and beyond.

* At the tactical level, [our opponents in Iraq] concentrate on killing and wounding our soldiers and on restricting our movements. Their weapons, such as roadside bombs, contribute to both objectives, while suicide bombings against civilians make the streets we can't drive ungovernable.

* At the operational level - the hinge between tactics and strategy - they exploit the media's appetite for sensational images and anti-Americanism to get out a message that amplifies their power. Their tactics directly support this operational effort.

* At the strategic level, they leap over our forces to influence our population and, through them, our government. The operational-level focus on the media directly supports the strategy. [emphasis added]

Here's the catch though: Peters puts undue focus on the second and third prong of his analysis without giving the first proper credit. Put another way, the most effective "strategy" that the insurgents, foreign fighters, Shiite powers, etc, in Iraq have adopted is making that occupation untenable. They have tilted the cost-benefit analysis in their favor in terms of the strain on our military (both personnel and equipment), the skyrocketing economic costs incurred and the all-consuming demands on our focus, attention and valuable assets of various kinds (intelligence, diplomatic, counterterrorism, etc.). All these expenditures on our part are exchanged for little or no gain, and with little prospect for an improvement going forward. In other words, to state a tautology, the smartest thing our opponents did

Think about it. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the media is currently as Peters describes it - with all its biases and such. Then, let's ponder a hypothetical whereby we had a uniformly compliant media that was openly pro-invasion across the board and would stay supportive throughout the occupation no matter the facts on the ground. An entire press corps of Pravdas. Consequently, with the "biased" media so neutered, the American people would be overwhelmingly supportive of the occupation - with our adversaries losing their ability to influence our resolve (let's assume again ex arguendo a causal relationship as Peters describes it).

With those favorable conditions secured, would we be succeeding in Iraq? How, in what areas and under what definition? How would the aforementioned costs be lessened?

Would our military suddenly become unburdened because all media outlets assumed the Fox News line? Would our dead soldiers rise from the grave, and wounded troops spontaneously heal? The wrecked and worn-out equipment restore itself? The IEDs defuse themselves? Would the trillion dollar costs entailed in funding this war magically vanish? On a fundamental level, would we be any closer to securing Iraq, to ending the civil wars, to compelling the various factions to adopt a program of national reconciliation or to convincing Sunni groups to stop fighting the occupation?

The answers should be obvious. Whether or not Americans support the war in large numbers, and whether or not the media reports on the state of Iraq accurately or not (with or without an eye to sensationalism and anti-Americanism), it is what it is.

In Iraq, we have lost the ability to affect the outcomes, have been relegated to whack-a-mole type security operations that yield no lasting gains and the civil wars continue to assume a life and purpose of their own that exists regardless of our presence. Chaos and instability reign, and the various parties are becoming increasingly hostile to our presence. The loss of domestic support is a manifestation of the failure of the mission - not the other way around. Peters has the causal relationship inverted.

In Ralph Peters' defense, he likely realizes this. Thus, he is not merely pining for an acquiescent media and a uniformly supportive domestic audience as antidotes to our mission's ailments. He knows that we would need something else to really shift the momentum on the battlefield, and that an uncritical media and supportive public under the current rules of engagement would not be enough to really git-r-done. The root of his frustration reaches a little deeper - to those rules of engagement that he has been railing about for months:

Those who follow military matters have heard plenty of mumbo-jumbo about a "revolution in military affairs" in the last few decades. Most of the rhetoric was a scam to enrich defense contractors, but there was a true revolution in military affairs in the last century. It involved mechanization and wireless communications and even the atomic bomb, but its apotheosis was air power. The advent of military aircraft changed warfare, expanding the battlefield into a third dimension while dramatically deepening the area that could be attacked. Air power alone was rarely decisive (despite the claims of its advocates), but control of the skies became vital.

What's the postmodern equivalent of air power, the new revolutionary development? It's the proliferation of the 24/7 media in all its formats. And the terrorists realize it. They learned to trump air power and all the detritus of the last revolution by refusing to mass together and by submerging themselves in urban seas. Then they went one better by grasping the power of irresistible weapons that came free of charge: the media.

Yes, the media were able to influence a war's outcome back in the Vietnam days. But the Cronkite-era media were the equivalent of World War I biplanes. Today's media are a sky full of B-52s, cruise missiles and stealth fighters - with unlimited ordnance.

The terrorists know they can't beat our forces on the battlefield. Their purpose in engaging our troops is to generate a body count, graphic images and alarmist headlines. They've created a new paradigm of warfare that's cheap, effective and defiantly hard to defeat.

Meanwhile, our own military isn't even allowed to slip stories to the bribe-driven Arab press. And the global media credit every perfunctory claim by the terrorists that the target we just hit was another wedding party.

It may prove impossible to win by today's rules. We, too, need a new warfare paradigm. The bad news is that there isn't any sign of one.

Right. We need a new way of looking at warfare that restores the tactical advantage that air power gave us at its inception - an advantage that our adversaries have unfairly neutralized by their retreat to civilian areas. What we need is some good old fashioned fire bombing of civilian areas - without compunction. Only then can we defeat evil regimes such as Saddam Hussein's and bring a better life to the Iraqi people (those that avoid incineration of course).

We need to stop worrying, and learn to love the bombs. The Iraqis will thank us for it. And any press report stating otherwise would just be a product of anti-Americanism.

This Is Really Happening

After the gratuitous display of chest thumping and galling ignorance on parade during the last GOP debate, I noted (somewhat tongue in cheek) about serial offender Mitt Romney:

Romney, of course, has provided us with multiple examples of his ignorance - and something tells me he's not quite done yet.

Well, Mitt "Double Gitmo" Romney - the man who would be President at a time when our country needs sage leadership to begin unraveling Bush's many blunders - made me look prescient last night:

TOM FAHEY, NEW HAMPSHIRE UNION LEADER: ...Governor Romney, I wanted to start by asking you a question on which every American has formed an opinion.

We have lost 3,400 troops, civilian casualties are even higher, and the Iraqi government does not appear ready to provide for the security of its own country. Knowing everything you know right now, was it a mistake for us to invade Iraq?

MITT ROMNEY, FORMER GOVERNOR OF MASSACHUSETTS: Well, the question is, kind of, a non sequitur, if you will. What I mean by that -- or a null set -- that is that if you're saying let's turn back the clock and Saddam Hussein had open[ed] up his country to IAEA inspectors and they'd come in and they'd found that there were no weapons of mass destruction, had Saddam Hussein therefore not violated United Nations resolutions, we wouldn't be in the conflict we're in. But he didn't do those things, and we knew what we knew at the point we made the decision to get in.

Someone should probably tell Hans Blix that it would have been different if he were allowed into Iraq before the invasion. Then the US and British intelligence services could have given Blix intel about all the "known" WMD sites so Blix's team could unearth the truth that Romney insists we so desperately needed. Though it's highly likely Blix would have ended up saying something like this:

The United Nations chief weapons inspector has criticised the quality of the intelligence given to him by the United States and Britain about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Hans Blix told the BBC that his teams followed up US and British leads at suspected sites across Iraq, but found nothing when they got there. [...]

In a BBC interview on Thursday, Mr Blix said he had been disappointed with the tip-offs provided by British and US intelligence.

"Only in three of those cases did we find anything at all, and in none of these cases were there any weapons of mass destruction, and that shook me a bit, I must say."

He said UN inspectors had been promised the best information available.

"I thought - my God, if this is the best intelligence they have and we find nothing, what about the rest?"

Just in case you thought Romney misspoke, or was relying on a technicality regarding the IAEA [actually, the IAEA was in Iraq before the invasion as well, as Henley points out in the comments], he confirms his stunning lack of knowledge:

FAHEY: Governor, thank you, but the question was, knowing what you know right now -- not what you knew then, what you know right now -- was it a mistake for the United States to invade Iraq?

ROMNEY: Well, I answered the question by saying it's a non- sequitur. It's a non -- null set kind of question, because you can go back and say, "If we knew then what we know now, by virtue of inspectors having been let in and giving us that information, by virtue of if Saddam Hussein had followed the U.N. resolutions, we wouldn't be having this discussion."

So it's a hypothetical that I think is an unreasonable hypothetical.

Can we really afford another incurious novice in the White House - whose gut reflex is to start wars first and ask questions later? Before you answer that, it should be noted that another GOP frontrunner is vying with Romney for that descriptive. Here's Rudy Giuliani - who claims that he understands terrorism better than anyone running for President:

FAHEY: Mayor Giuliani, same question to you. Knowing what you know right now, was it a good decision?

RUDY GIULIANI, FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK CITY: Absolutely the right thing to do. It's unthinkable that you would leave Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq and be able to fight the war on terror.

And the problem is that we see Iraq in a vacuum. Iraq should not be seen in a vacuum. Iraq is part of the overall terrorist war against the United States.

The problem the Democrats make is they're in denial.

Wow. Just wow. Why exactly would it be unthinkable that you could try to weaken al-Qaeda and reduce the appeal of extremist terrorism while NOT invading Iraq? The opposite, of course, is true: our effort to marginalize extremism and lessen the ability, appeal and reach of terrorists would be greatly enhanced had we never invaded Iraq. James Fallows has a solid response to this misguided contention.

The question remains: will the media expose this dangerous thinking - a mindset that has so damaged this country that even Brent Scowcroft and Noam Chomsky agree?

One of the few foreign policy achievements of the Bush administration has been the creation of a near consensus among those who study international affairs, a shared view that stretches, however improbably, from Noam Chomsky to Brent Scowcroft, from the antiwar protesters on the streets of San Francisco to the well-upholstered office of former secretary of state James Baker. This new consensus holds that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a calamity, that the presidency of George W. Bush has reduced America's standing in the world and made the United States less, not more, secure, leaving its enemies emboldened and its friends alienated. Paid-up members of the nation's foreign policy establishment, those who have held some of the most senior offices in the land, speak in a language once confined to the T-shirts of placard-wielding demonstrators. They rail against deception and dishonesty, imperialism and corruption. The only dispute between them is over the size and depth of the hole into which Bush has led the country he pledged to serve. [emphasis mine throughout]

Or will so-called liberal outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times continue to eviscerate what's left of their journalistic credibility by covering the frivolous and the fatuous, while giving equal time and undue respect to bluster and rank stupidity masquerading as steely resolve and leadership.

Despite the enormity of what's involved, I remain skeptical. We non-professionals in the blogosphere are gonna have to work overtime. Just watch your language.

(hat tip Atrios)

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