Friday, August 31, 2007

The Family Values Family Tree

Matt Yglesias is right about this:
A reasonable politics of "family values" needs to contain some penalties for heterosexuals with anti-family behavior (see, e.g., Dick Vitter, Rudy Giuliani) and support for gays with pro-family behavior. What they have right now is just loathing of gay people masquerading as defense of the traditional family.
But the underlying pathology goes beyond that. Scott Lemieux does a good job of moving the ball forward:
This is true, but there's another angle to it as well. Republican social conservatism, at least as instantiated as state policy, is about imposing burdens on other people to make oneself feel virtuous....

And this is why gay-baiting is such a useful Republican tactic, even for the many closet tolerants among GOP elites.
But this is a dangerous and destructive game to be playing for at least two reasons: First, it is shortsighted, and destined to back-fire eventually. Attitudes toward homosexuality are progressing quite rapidly in this country, and the population will soon outpace the GOP's increasingly anachronistic, bigoted posture. The evolution of consciousness on the subject of homosexuality will transform this temporary asset into a long-term liability (if the scales haven't tipped already). This is not the first time, in recent memory, that the Republicans have been forced to reckon with an electoral boomerang of this sort. The chickens have been returning home to roost in connection with the immigration issue as well.

After stoking and courting nativist ideas and bigoted elements in the name of electoral politics since at least as far back as Nixon's Southern Strategy, Republican legislators have found it difficult to convince large portions of their constituency that a softer form of immigration reform is necessary. In the process, a certain level of intolerance and xenophobia has been exposed, directed mainly against a key demographic (Hispanics) that Republican Party operatives like Karl Rove had planned on tapping as a necessary future reservoir of voters. Now, the prospects of wooing socially conservative Hispanics have largely evaporated, with such would-be supporters alienated by the thinly veiled racism pervasive in much of the Right's opposition to immigration (of certain people (non European) from, er, certain places (Mexico/Latin America)).

The other reason that gay baiting is bad policy has more to do with ethical and moral questions than pragmatic political concerns. Fostering intolerance and hatred of fellow humans based on normal human sexuality creates an excess of unnecessary anxiety, suffering and repression - which in turn leads to deviant behavior, and unsafe and/or dishonest clandestine activity. Rather than fan the flames of persecution, this country would be far better served by a more mature, humane appreciation of human sexuality in all its varied splendor - a key component of our make-up since humans first made their appearance on the grand stage.

It's not as if this narrow view of sexuality is serving any valuable purpose, or achieving any beneficial results. In many ways, it is being sustained for reasons entirely separate from such aims. In addition to "making oneself feel virtuous," as Lemieux noted, and aside from the cynical electoral maneuvering mentioned above, the advocacy of rigid sexual mores frequently appeals to people who feel they lack the self control necessary to comply with what they perceive as society's norms. Lacking this internal discipline (or misconstruing the need to "discipline" healthy desires), many strive to fortify an external enforcer - which then gets applied across the board to others as well (lest any deviation open the flood gates). Immersion in a group that espouses, at least in theory, such faux-chastity is also a means to hide one's shame - a way to conceal aspects of one's nature that cause discomfort under layers of contrary rhetorical trappings. The last place you'd look for a homosexual would be in a group dedicated to anti-gay causes.

It would be benefit society, however, if we could relax, ever so slightly, some of that rigidity such that the vast majority of humans would feel comfortable enough about their own sexuality that they didn't feel the need to erect such strict, repressive models and/or join in with groups that had already done so. That is an unhealthy way to force humans to live, and it has never succeeded in controlling sexuality, and it never will. While such repression will not eradicate sexual desires, it will twist and contort them into unhealthy manifestations.

As if in a tireless effort to prove this thesis, it is the Republican Party itself which has come to exemplify this very phenomena. Below is a brief sketch of some of the recent episodes that should serve as wake up calls to the GOP and the rest of America. There's a better way to do this.

Larry Craig: The topic du jour, Senator Craig has pled guilty to soliciting sex from an undercover cop in a public restroom. There have been numerous allegations of Craig partaking in this type of behavior in the past. Craig was a vocal opponent of gay rights causes.

Mark Foley: Last year's Larry Craig, Congressman Foley was embroiled in a sex scandal involving teenage boys participating in the Congressional page program. Apparently, Foley had a reputation for such behavior on the Hill. Foley was a vocal opponent of gay rights causes.

Ted Haggard: A key conservative Evangelical leader, who frequently railed against the evils of homosexuality, Haggard was revealed to have had a three year relationship with a male prostitute, as well as a nasty little crystal meth habit on the side.

Bob Allen: A Florida State legislator, Bob Allen was arrested recently for offering an undercover cop $20 for Allen to perform fellatio on the cop. As part of his defense, Allen argued that he was so scared by the fact that the police officer was black that he panicked and...offered him $20 to, er, you know. Allen was not only opposed to gay rights, but he was also particularly focused on laws addressing public acts of lewdness. Nice touch Bob.

Ed Schrock: Despite being an opponent of gay marriage, gays in the military and a host of other gay rights issues, Congressman Schrock was caught soliciting gay sex on the phone, and had a reported history of cruising for male prostitutes in certain areas of Virginia. He resigned as a result of these allegations.

Jim West: An avid anti-gay crusader, this former Mayor of Spokane, Washington was forced to resign after he admitted to offering "gifts, favors and a City Hall internship during Internet chats with a man he believed was 18." West denies allegations by two men that West molested them when they were in the Boy Scouts some 20 years earlier.

Glenn Murphy: Recently elected leader of the Young Republican National Federation, and rising star in the Indiana GOP, was forced to step down amid sexual assault allegations. A police report filed by the alleged victim, claims that he awoke to find Murphy performing fellatio on him after he had passed out subsequent to a Young Republican function. A similar police report had been filed against Murphy back in 1998 (again, the alleged victim awoke to find Murphy performing fellatio on him).

Jeff Gannon: Who could forget the lovable, fake journalist who was granted a press pass and access to the White House (he logged over 200 visits). Oh yeah, and he also worked as a male prostitute in the recent past.

Matt Sanchez: A darling of gay slur hurling Ann Coulter, and other gay-baiters in the conservative punditry, Sanchez had worked as a gay porn star as well as offering his "massage services" to male clientele as recently as 2004.

And that's just exposing one side of the sexual coin - from the recent past! I didn't even have to mention the heterosexual scandals and criminal conduct of recent months, as perpetrated by family values crusaders and anti-gay champions such as David Vitter, Randall Tobias, Michael Flory, Don Sherwood, Jack Ryan or Steve LaTourette, for example.

Nor did I have to scour through the golden oldies, like Henry Hyde, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Bob Barr and Bob Livingston.

Understand that, aside from the criminal (and abuse of power) aspects to some of these stories, I am a firm believer in live and let live. And I acknowledge that the Democrats have their own sex scandals (though quite a bit fewer than the GOP if you check the master list). This isn't about scoring partisan points though. This post is an attempt to point out the folly of trying to repress basic human sexuality, and how that endeavor leads to unhealthy outcomes and undue anguish.

Life would be better for us all - including and especially those pols - if we just accepted the fact that homosexuality is nothing to be scared of and that human sexuality in general should not be so closely proscribed, monitored, outlawed and controlled by others. We could make some of that scandalous behavior less, well, scandalous.

[UPDATE: See, also, the inimitable publius at Obsidian Wings.]

[UPDATE: More GOP scandals:

Brown County GOP Chairman Donald Fleischman has resigned his post, says a
spokesperson, after being accused of enticement and fondling of an underage

They just keep coming.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The War on Terror Is Over! (if you want it)

"No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear ... To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye."

- Edmund Burke, "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful."

Jamie Kirchik needs to read him some Eddie Burke. Perhaps a bit more Burke would help to illuminate for Kirchik some of the ways in which the "War on Terror" is such a misconceived rhetorical frame - a frame that, tragically, continues to inform actual policies. Read this James Fallows piece for a point by point explanation of how badly we are mismanaging and misconstruing the current challenges posed by radical al-Qaeda-ist terrorism.

With Fallows as a backdrop, consider these passages from Kirchik who writes in response to an essay by Hilzoy on the nature of "grit" and the like:

In other words, one can oppose the incompetent managing of the Iraq War and still believe that the West lacks "grit" in terms of the greater war against Islamic extremism.

What, exactly, are the parameters of the "greater war against Islamic extremism"? Should we be fighting a war that is defined in such a way? Is it necessary? Do our adversaries in this "greater war" extend beyond al-Qaeda? One would assume so (hence the "greater war"), but why?

Back to Kirchik:

Also, keep in mind that Hilzoy wrote her essay two years ago, before a leading Democratic presidential candidate declared that the War on Terror is just a "bumper sticker" slogan, a line he repeats to rapturous applause at rallies. I fear that this sort of sentiment--that the war against Islamic militancy is not really a war at all, and not nearly as potentially lethal as we've been made to believe--is gaining currency in America and certainly already has in Britain. Downplaying the threat that the enemy poses is, yes, a loss of grit.

But Edwards was right. The "war" part of the "War on Terror" does not apply in almost every setting of this struggle - which renders it a flawed and imprecise guiding principle. Most of our successes against the radical terrorist forces that threaten us have come via traditional law enforcement and other non-military means (better and more focused intelligence operations, hardening of targets, etc). When dealing with transnational, non-state actors like al-Qaeda, waging war - in almost every setting - is enormously inefficient at best, but more likely counterproductive and, quite simply, a terrible vehicle to win over the hearts and minds of the target population (the non-extremists that we must sway in order to prevail in the larger - and more crucial - ideological battle).

Afghanistan was the exception, not the rule, due to the truly unique circumstances. For example, invading Iraq on the basis of countering al-Qaeda/radicalism was beyond folly. It was an enormous boon for our stated adversaries. However, one gets the impression that Kirchik doesn't agree about the wisdom of the "war" itself judging by his carve out for those opposed to the "incompetent managing of the Iraq War" - a familiar dodge.

Attacking Iran and/or Syria would be equally, if not more, counterproductive. Yet, again, one gets the impression that this is what Kirchik has in mind when he calls for a "greater" war, and when he bristles at the suggestion that "war" is the wrong strategic framework to be using when addressing the problem of al-Qaeda-ist radicalism.

If Kirchik is worried that Americans lack the appetite to wage war against a broad range of Muslim nations with different ideologies, outlooks, aspirations, objectives, tactics and threat levels, I am worried of exactly the opposite. We must, instead, adopt smart policies tailored to each particular scenario. All forms of Islamist ideologies/organizations are not the same. Some are very dangerous, others moderately pernicious, and still others (the Muslim Brotherhood), non-violent and potentially constructive.

Grouping all under a unified, undistinguishing "Islamofascist" heading and opting for a one-size-fits-all war footing is not conducive to developing the flexibility needed - nor is it a formula for success in the context of our current struggle. I leave you with some excerpts from the Fallows article cited above that speak directly to this controversy. As usual, though, you should read the whole thing.

“Does al-Qaeda still constitute an ‘existential’ threat?” asks David Kilcullen, who has written several influential papers on the need for a new strategy against Islamic insurgents....

“I think it does, but not for the obvious reasons,” Kilcullen told me. He said the most useful analogy was the menace posed by European anarchists in the nineteenth century. “If you add up everyone they personally killed, it came to maybe 2,000 people, which is not an existential threat.” But one of their number assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The act itself took the lives of two people. The unthinking response of European governments in effect started World War I. “So because of the reaction they provoked, they were able to kill millions of people and destroy a civilization.

“It is not the people al-Qaeda might kill that is the threat,” he concluded. "Our reaction is what can cause the damage. It’s al-Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger.”

Since 9/11, this equation has worked in al-Qaeda’s favor. That can be reversed. [...]

The United States is immeasurably stronger than al-Qaeda, but against jujitsu forms of attack its strength has been its disadvantage. The predictability of the U.S. response has allowed opponents to turn our bulk and momentum against us. Al-Qaeda can do more harm to the United States than to, say, Italy because the self-damaging potential of an uncontrolled American reaction is so vast.

How can the United States escape this trap? Very simply: by declaring that the “global war on terror” is over, and that we have won. “The wartime approach made sense for a while,” Dearlove says. “But as time passes and the situation changes, so must the strategy.”

As a general principle, a standing state of war can be justified for several reasons. It might be the only way to concentrate the nation’s resources where they are needed. It might explain why people are being inconvenienced or asked to sacrifice. It might symbolize that the entire nation’s effort is directed toward one goal.

But none of those applies to modern America in its effort to defend itself against terrorist attack. The federal budget reveals no discipline at all about resources: the spending for antiterrorism activities has gone up, but so has the spending for nearly everything else. There is no expectation that Americans in general will share the inconveniences and sacrifice of the 1 percent of the population in uniform (going through airport screening lines does not count). Occasional speeches about the transcendent importance of the “long war” can’t conceal the many other goals that day by day take political precedence.

And while a standing state of war no longer offers any advantages for the United States, it creates several problems. It cheapens the concept of war, making the word a synonym for effort or goal. It predisposes us toward overreactions, of the kind that have already proved so harmful. The detentions at Guantánamo Bay were justified as a wartime emergency. But unlike Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of martial law, they have no natural end point.

A state of war also predisposes the United States to think about using its assets in a strictly warlike way—and to give short shrift to the vast range of their other possibilities. The U.S. military has been responsible for the most dramatic recent improvement in American standing in the Islamic world. Immediately after the invasion of Iraq, the proportion of Indonesians with a favorable view of the United States had fallen to 15 percent, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey. After American troops brought ships, cargo planes, and helicopters loaded with supplies for tsunami victims, the overall Indonesian attitude toward the United States was still negative, but some 79 percent of Indonesians said that their opinion of America had improved because of the relief effort. There was a similar turnaround in Pakistan after U.S. troops helped feed and rescue villagers affected by a major earthquake. But in most of the Muslim world, the image of American troops is that of soldiers or marines manning counterinsurgency patrols, not delivering food and water. “The diplomatic component of the war on terror has been neglected so long, it’s practically vestigial,” a Marine officer told me. “It needs to be regrown.” But in time of war, the balance is harder to correct.

Three Card Monger

Jamie Kirchick inserts himself in the middle of a Greg Djerejian-Max Boot skirmish and...well, makes a rather nonsensical point (reminiscent of his faux gotcha moment whereby Kirchick slammed Max Blumenthal for the latter's claim that The Nation and the Huffington Post weren't liberal outlets. Which would have been a good point, except Max said the opposite!).

This time, Kirchik applies the same dubious interpretation to Djerejian's piece on Syria-related warmongering:

Greg then notes that Syria is providing aid to "non al-Qaeda groups." But since when was supporting non al-Qaeda terrorist groups mutually exclusive from supporting al-Qaeda?
The simple answer: When it is!

See, Greg never suggested that it would be impossible for Syria to, in some conceivable universe, support al-Qaeda. He just said that Syria isn't doing so at this time - and presented some historical background as to why such a move would be risky and costly for Syria, making such support unlikely in the future. Thus, such support is not "mutually exclusive" but the absence of evidence of actual support for al-Qaeda is not evidence that such support exists (even if it is a technical possibility). As a rebuttal to Djerejian's description of the current state of play, Kirchick goes for a familiar - if tendentious - refrain:

Syria has had no problems providing aid to both Hamas (Sunni) and Hizbollah (Shi'a).
So therefore...Syria is aiding al-Qaeda? Or will in the near future?

The focus on sect (Sunni/Shiite) is misleading. The key difference between Syria and al-Qaeda is not simply the Shiite/Sunni split (Syria's leadership is Shiite - though the population is overwhelmingly Sunni). The crucial difference lies in strategic objectives. In simplified terms: Syria and Israel are regional rivals, with the Israelis currently occupying a portion of Syrian territory - the Golan Heights. Syria, in turn, aids anti-Israeli groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. But supporting Palestinian nationalist groups and Lebanese political/paramilitary organizations that target Israel is not akin to supporting al-Qaeda (a Salafist group that wants to overthrow apostate regimes such as Syria's and bring about a pan-Muslim Caliphate run by strict Sharia law).

This is true even if those anti-Israeli groups employ terrorism as a tactic in pursuit of their objectives. al-Qaeda has no monopoly on the use of terrorism, which is why the "War on Terror" is such a recklessly imprecise term. It's not as if we're going to wage war on the groups that support the Tamil Tigers or ETA in Spain because those groups use terrorism - and, further, because support for these terrorist groups is not "mutually exclusive" of supporting al-Qaeda.

Yet in the run-up to the Iraq war, the same vague charge of "ties to terrorism" was leveled against Saddam Hussein in order to suggest that he was then-currently, or would be in the near future, working with al-Qaeda. This sleight of hand played an enormous role in the selling of the war to the American people by weaving "terrorist" and "al-Qaeda" in a convoluted narrative that left most Americans confused about Saddam's participation in 9/11 and his relationship with Osama bin Laden. Vice President Cheney himself was particularly fond of recalling fictitious meetings between Iraqi intelligence and Mohammed Atta - though he was not alone.

Like Syria, though, Saddam supported Palestinian groups, and viewed al-Qaeda as a potential threat and destabilizing element. al-Qaeda, for its part, viewed Saddam as but one of the many apostate, secularized leaders that would need to be toppled in order to form the true, Salafist Caliphate. So while it was technically correct to say that Saddam supported terrorists, it did not mean that Saddam was supporting the perpetrators of 9/11, or other groups targeting the US. But that didn't deter those clamoring for war from blurring distinctions between Saddam's support for groups that were concerned with local, regional conflicts (Palestine/Israel) with support for our enemies (al-Qaeda).

Again, this doesn't mean that it was impossible for Saddam to ever, under any circumstances, work with al-Qaeda. It's just that such cooperation wasn't actually, you know, happening. Nor was it particularly likely considering the risks involved. Citing Saddam's support for Palestinian groups did not make it any more likely - even if it provided for a useful opening to inject the word "terrorism" into the conversation, thus evoking the fear and emotionalism surrounding the attacks of 9/11. This was done to great effect, and so you see a return to the same playbook.

Max Boot, in response to Djerejian, performs an advanced form of this three card monger:

Djerejian naively imagines that the Damascus regime would have nothing to do with such Islamic radicals, since in 1982 Bashar’s father crushed an Islamist uprising in the Syrian city of Hama.
No. Djerejian states that Damascus is not currently working with al-Qaeda. Also, that working with al-Qaeda would be extremely problematic for Syria, because in forming such a relationship, Syria would likely incur the wrath of the US military. Further, giving succor to al-Qaeda could lead to pernicious blowback and increase the size and strength of destabilizing elements at home.

Boot goes on:

This is, of course, the same mistake made by those who imagine that, evidence to the contrary, Saddam Hussein would never have made common cause with Islamic radicals. In fact, both the Baathist regime in Baghdad in its later years, and now the Baathist regime in Damascus increasingly rely on Islamic imagery to cement their authority. [emphasis added]

This is really an amazing statement. According to Boot, the mistake made in the run-up to the Iraq war (and still) was not the hyping of the non-existent relationship between Saddam and al-Qaeda but - get this - the refusal to see that Saddam had actually forged a relationship that he hadn't yet forged, or that he was likely to do so even though he showed no indication of establishing such ties. The first piece of evidence marshaled by Boot to support this contention: that Saddam and Assad have both relied, opportunistically, on Islamist "imagery" to bolster their religious credentials and popularity at home. He confuses a willingness to employ self-serving propaganda for an actual indication of intent to pursue dangerous policies, an interpretation that cuts against far more persuasive evidence (including that trusty old empiricism).

Predictably, Boot goes back to the same quarry mined by Kirchik for more "evidence":

For all Assad’s claims that he doesn’t want to allow an Islamic takeover of Syria, the evidence is overwhelming that he is deeply complicit with Islamic radicals operating against neighboring states. Damascus, after all, is the headquarters of Hamas, led by Sunni radical Khalid Meshal. Damascus has also established a very close alliance with the Shiite radical regime in Tehran. Syria, in fact, acts as principal middleman between Iran and the Shiite radicals of Hizballah in Lebanon. Imagine that—a supposedly secular Baathist regime led by Alawites (a Shiite sect) making common cause with both Sunni and Shiite radicals. Since all of this is common knowledge, the only surprise here is that Djerejian is surprised.
Once again, support for proxy groups targeting Israel (Syria's regional rival and current occupier of portions of Syrian territory) does not equal support for al-Qaeda or make support for al-Qaeda more likely. This is a specious argument that relies on the emotionally charged terms "radicals" and "terrorists" to bridge the considerable gaps in the logic. Sound familiar?

Back to Kirchick one last time:

And, more importantly, if Syria is supporting groups undermining American efforts in Iraq, why should it matter if those groups are formally al-Qaeda affiliated?
Well, for one, the United States' current strategy is to support the non al-Qaeda Sunni insurgents. Should we bomb ourselves for undermining our efforts? Saudi Arabia, too, is backing those same groups, and we're not talking about bombing them (haven't they, however, declared war on us according to the Boot/Kirchick doctrine?). Further, there is an easy way to avoid being targeted by non al-Qaeda Sunni insurgents: leave Iraq. They don't want to follow us home, they just want us to end the military occupation of their country (or Muslim lands for the foreign elements). al-Qaeda, on the other hand, is more committed to striking the US for a host of other reasons that would be more difficult to resolve, and would certainly not end with the end of the occupation.

That's kind of a big difference that should "matter." But then, I'm not surprised that someone who fails to distinguish between support for Hezbollah and al-Qaeda doesn't appreciate the distinction.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Who Lost the Plot?

James Dobbins has a pretty good article entitled, Who Lost Iraq? in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs. In this piece, Dobbins seeks to sift through the rubble in order to separate the salient lessons from the Iraq war fiasco from the overreactions and false positives. At times, Dobbins is right on the money, such as here:

The Bush administration's rhetoric since 9/11 has accentuated the warlike character of the terrorist threat and the martial nature of the required response. Yet most of the tangible successes in the "war on terror" have come as a result of police, intelligence, and diplomatic activity. Not until U.S. leaders rebalance their rhetoric will it be possible to redirect the government's funding priorities toward the nonmilitary instruments on which the suppression of violent extremist movements is most likely to depend.

And here:

It may well have been a mistake to exempt the Middle East from over 60 years of largely successful U.S. efforts to promote democracy, but it is unrealistic to expect this deficiency to be remedied within a few years. Recent efforts to accelerate political reform in the region have already backfired. Elections are polarizing events, particularly in societies already marked by sectarian conflict, as has been demonstrated recently in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. Rather than seeking dramatic electoral breakthroughs, let alone imposing reforms, U.S. efforts to advance democracy in the Middle East should focus on building its foundations, including the rule of law, civil society, larger middle classes, and more effective and less corrupt governments.

At other times, however, he gets it quite wrong:

If it is not the military's role to challenge lawful orders, still less is it the role of the press to manufacture controversy where none exists. In a democracy, the primary responsibility for opposing or at least critically examining the case for war falls on the opposition party. If the opposition chooses to duck that responsibility, as the Democrats largely did when the issue was put to them in late 2002, it is hard to fault the press for not stepping in to fill the void. [emphasis added]

No. In a democracy, the primary responsibility for critically examining the claims made by those in power, and the concomitant responsibility to speak truth in response to those claims, falls on the press. Relying on political parties that alternate roles in power to provide a check on power cuts against everything we know about human nature and the ability of power to corrupt even the most noble of spirits (with politicians and party aparatchiks usually starting many degrees away from "most noble" to begin with). Sure, sometimes they will be effective advocates against each other, but other times, there will be an unseemly pact of silence.

Thus, the media's duty is absolutely vital when matters of war and peace are concerned, even when - no especially when - there is two-party agreement to go to war. In fairness, it is perfectly acceptable for the press to, on occasion, enlist or receive assistance from the opposition party when in pursuit of its overriding mandate of locating truth and challenging the government's assertions. But to argue that the press should be beholden to the whims of only two political parties, and that any two-party consensus should effectively cut off debate, is an overly restrictive view of the role our press must play in order to insure the strength of our democracy.

This is especially true in a two party system in which both parties are generally pulled toward the center in order to appeal to the median voter. There is far less political diversity in America than in many, if not most, other liberal democracies. Thus, there is far less formal, party-level political "opposition" to a wide range of policies. Despite this, Dobbins would contend that the press has no obligation to examine the vast expanse of ideas, facts and policies that exists beyond this narrow sliver of political controversy.

At root, the two political parties are, to state a tautology, political parties. That is, each has narrow concerns and self-serving motivations that at times conflict with the best interest of the nation. The Iraq war vote was a prime example: carefully timed by the GOP to coincide with key dates on the electoral calendar, many Democrats recognized the political cudgel being forged by the Republican blacksmiths and decided to erect a shield by voting for war instead of standing by conviction.

In this, Dobbins is correct that the opposition party had a responsibility, and that many Democrats abdicated that responsibility in a shameful manner. But that does not exonerate the media for its similarly ignominious complicity at a time when it should have been even more critical, extra skeptical and relentlessly probing. It should also be acknowledged, however, that in some ways the electoral fears that motivated many Democrats to go along with the war vote have been reinforced by the media's pattern of coverage of national security issues in general - and the highly prejudicial framing of "strong vs. weak," "hawk vs. dove" and "serious vs. unserious" in particular. In each such pairing, the less desirable adjective is ascribed to any politician that approaches war with circumspection, and the more recklessly bellicose one is, the "stronger" and more "hawkish."

The press should - at least in theory - be freer to seek out the truth since it is aloof from the electoral optics of a certain legislative vote and its potential to be used as campaign fodder. Despite this, in many ways the press is operating under its own set of conflicts that has led to a breakdown of its efficacy and ability. For example, the mainstream media is all-too-frequently beholden to cozy relationships with Washington insiders, major editorial decisions are influenced by profit seeking models and the ulterior interests of a dwindling field of like-minded corporate parents, and there is a desire amongst journalists to cultivate and maintain high level access to sources in the government - which results in a supine recitation of the self-serving version of the truth that is told by power. Here is a fitting anecdote from NBC journalist John Hockenberry:

...[W]e had a lot of meetings at NBC about, you know, if you're doing a story and the person you're doing the story about offers to buy you a drink, you've gotta say no. If you're doing a story and they send you, after they see the story, some napkin rings -- silver napkin rings that are monogrammed "Thank you, Jon, for the story," you've got not only to return those, you've got to report those to the standards people at NBC because there's a whole ethics and conflict-of-interest thing.

So at one of these ethics meetings -- I called them the return-the-napkin-ring kinds of meetings -- I raised my hand and said "You know, isn't it a problem that the contract that [NBC's corporate parent] GE has with the Coalition Provisional Authority [...] to rebuild the power generation system in Iraq [is] about the size of the entire budget of NBC? Is that kind of like the napkin rings thing?" And the standards people said "Huh. That's interesting. No one's brought that up before." Now I'm not saying that I'm smart or that I'm advanced or that I'm ahead of my colleagues or maybe I had a lot of free time to think about this or maybe I'm some pinko-proto-lefty like Richard Nixon. I don't know! But the fact that it drew a complete blank among the NBC standards people was interesting to me.

Further, I'm not exactly sure what Dobbins means when he says that it is not the "role of the press to manufacture a controversy." Such creativity was not required in locating dissenting opinions, let alone a need to manufacture them out of whole cloth. There were many well-informed, well-respected experts who were opposed to the Iraq war and willing and able to give their opinions. Unfortunately, the media frequently ignored them. Many others in the media and professional think tank universe, though, were intimidated and likely felt pressured into silence. But the press itself played some part in creating and fostering the national mood that rejected dissent with a jingoistic fervor. From the Bill Moyers special that Dobbins cites in this article:

Bob Simon, who had strong doubts about evidence for war, was asked by Moyers if he pushed any of the top brass at CBS to "dig deeper," and he replies, "No, in all honesty, with a thousand mea culpas….nope, I don't think we followed up on this." Instead he covered the marketing of the war in a "softer" way, explaining to Moyers: "I think we all felt from the beginning that to deal with a subject as explosive as this, we should keep it, in a way, almost light – if that doesn't seem ridiculous.""
In fact, that does seem ridiculous. What it is not, however, is blameless.

Or Maybe His Dudeness, or Duder or El Duderino, if Your Not Into the Whole Brevity Thing

Jim Henley points the way to a millblog entitled, Army of Dude, whose young author (only 22) is both eloquent and insightful beyond his years. Check out this post for a taste. Like Henley, though, I want to focus on this passage from another post in which the author discusses some of his experiences as an Iraq war veteran:
Despite being in a meaningless situation, my life has never had this much meaning. I watch the backs of my friends and they do the same for me. I’ve killed to protect them, and they’ve killed to protect me. For friends and family, being deployed is like being pregnant or surviving a car wreck; everyone is nice to you all of a sudden. People I don’t even know send me kind words and packages from all over. They came out of the woodwork knowing my plight and shared with me heartfelt hope and luck.

The fact that you’re reading this now, dear reader, is a testament to that. Would you have cared about what I thought, felt or did two years ago? This position I’m in, shared by less than one percent of the U.S. population, has given me the distinct privilege of sharing my experiences and ruminations of this war, observations undiluted by perpetually delirious officials like General Petreaus and mainstream media sirens.
In response, Henley observes:
In his narrative poem, Genesis, Frederick Turner includes the passage:
Those who say war is hell tell only half the story - the other half is joy.
There’s something to this. The point is, it’s a problem. War is beguiling. Even those of us who have spent years opposing this war, and the next one, are testament to this. We could be writing every day about tax policy or drug laws or health care policy or Lindsay Lohan. We write about war because it’s important, but also because it’s fascinating. Even as we abhor it we are mesmerized.
While pointing out that humanity has had a long obsession with war, and that many humans actually feel an exhilarating and intense form of elation when in the midst of combat (or vicariously), may not be a novel observation, it is one that is not as widely discussed or acknowledged as it should be. The more we, as a society, are able to recognize the existence of this latent urge to fight wars, the better we might be at applying a corrective layer of analysis that can neutralize this tendency to the extent that it adds extra weight to one side of the debate surrounding questions of war. If we know that there is a part of us all that feels an instinctive pull toward choosing war as a policy option, perhaps we can better police our own emotional/psychological predilections in order to avoid gratuitous error.

I have tried to scratch the surface of this phenomena in the past both here and here. I'll re-post some excerpts from those pieces that are relevant to the topics discussed by Henley. First, something I wrote while discussing the statement by Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis whereby he admitted that it was "fun to shoot some people" in the context of combat:
We as a society, and humanity in general, also share Mattis's views to some extent. Our collective dirty little secret. I remember as a young student being shocked to learn that non-combatant citizens used to attend Civil War battles with picnic baskets, decked out in their Sunday finery. But there I was, fascinated in my own right with that bloodiest of our martial history's chapters. On a more basic level, as a young child I was eager to play games of war with toy soldiers and weapons, and I was certainly not alone in this. It is second nature for young boys across many cultures. Like it or not, there is a flip side to the hard wired morality that instructs humans not to kill - a duality that might make us uncomfortable to acknowledge. From the beginning of the human condition, humanity has been drawn to war with a zeal that surpasses mere curiosity. In the modern setting, picnic baskets have been replaced with remote controls and plasma screens. War is good for the ratings of the major networks. Psychologists noted a certain malaise after Gulf War I that was attributed to the absence of the war and its 24 hour coverage. On some level, shooting people is "fun" for us all.
This, from novelist Doris Lessing:
In times of war, as everyone knows who has lived through one, or talked to soldiers when they are allowing themselves to remember the truth, and not the sentimentalities with which we all shield ourselves from the horrors of which we are times of war we revert, as a species, to the past, and are permitted to be brutal and cruel.

It is for this reason, and of course others, that a great many people enjoy war. But this is one of the facts about war that is not often talked about.

I think it is sentimental to discuss the subject of war, or peace, without acknowledging that a great many people enjoy war - not only the idea of it, but the fighting itself. In my time I have sat through many hours listening to people talking about war, the prevention of war, the awfulness of war, with it never once being mentioned that for large numbers of people the idea of war is exciting, and that when a war is over they may say it was the best time of their lives....People who have lived through a war know that as it approaches, an at first secret, unacknowledged, elation begins, as if an almost inaudible drum is awful, illicit, violent excitement is abroad. Then the elation becomes too strong to be ignored or overlooked: then everyone is possessed by it. [...]

When I was in Zimbabwe in 1982, two years after Independence, and the end of that appalling war that was very much uglier and more savage than we were ever told, I met soldiers from both sides, whites and blacks. The first obvious fact - obvious to an outsider, if not to themselves - was that they were in a state of shock. Seven years of war had left them in a stunned, curiously blank state, and I think it was because whenever people are actually forced to recognize from real experience, what we are capable of, it is so shocking that we can't take it in easily. Or take it in at all; we want to forget it. But there was another fact and for the purposes of this discussion perhaps a more interesting one. It was evident that the actual combatants on both sides, both blacks and whites, had thoroughly enjoyed the war. It was a fighting that demanded great skill, individual bravery, initiative and resourcefulness - the skills of a guerrilla, talents that through a long peace-time life may never have been called into use. Yet people may suspect that they have them, and secretly long for an opportunity to show them. This is not the least of the reasons, I believe, that wars happen.

These people, black and white, men and women, had been living in that extreme of tension, alertness, danger, with all their capacities in full use. I heard people say that nothing could ever come up to that experience. The dreadfulness of war was too near for them to be saying, "The best time of our lives," but they were, I am sure, beginning to think that.
And so it goes that there is this same illicit, violent excitement in the air as many pundits and politicians push us forward on the quest to "cauldronize" the Middle East by starting yet another war - this time with Iran (the newest in a long line of Hitler-Nazi-evil personified-irrational- existential threats). The case is as weak or weaker than it was the last time this country was swept away by war fever (see, Iraq) - if not for lack of valid casus belli, then at least for risks and costs involved. It is up to us to resist the siren's call.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Showed Me Everybody, Naked and Disfigured

Erik Loomis pens an open letter to film director Ang Lee.
Dear Mr. Lee,

I see that your new film, "Lust, Caution" has received an NC-17 ruling from the MPAA. Evidently it has too many "pelvic thrusts" for the board, among other things.

By now you should know how the MPAA and the United States works. The fact that the female characters might enjoy sex or, God forbid!, have an orgasm, is deeply offensive to this nation. More offensive is the idea that a man would perform oral sex on a woman. That clearly violates the nation's values.

What you need to learn is what Americans find acceptable. Sawing a woman in two for instance. Totally acceptable. Other things you might do is torture a woman to death, have a woman thrown to her death from a tall building, or otherwise see women humiliated. That is OK.

If you follow my advice, you will at least get an R rating. If you can get a BIG STAR in your film, you'll even get a PG-13.
To which I would add, this is a deeply, deeply unhealthy standard by which this nation rates art and other cultural outputs. The tolerance for ultragraphic violence is near limitless, but healthy sexual expression is a highly regulated taboo subject matter.

Robert Blackwill Hearts Ayad Allawi

David Ignatius offers up this head scratcher:

In "back to the future" mode, the name being mentioned these days is Ayad Allawi, a former Baathist who was interim prime minister and has strong support among Sunnis, even though he's a secular Shiite. Allawi has bundles of money to help buy political support, but it comes from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, rather than the United States.

Strong support among the Sunnis? Really? I wonder where Ignatius is getting that information. Actually, I know of one potential source. As Spencer Ackerman reported about the public relations/lobbying firm recently retained by Allawi for the tidy sum of $600,000 $300,000:

But [Barbour Griffith & Rogers'] ties with Allawi perhaps shouldn't be so surprising. Among BGR's executives is Ambassador Bob Blackwill, who in 2004 served as the White House's Iraq coordinator. In that role, Blackwill was an enthusiastic booster of Allawi, helping manage the process that led to Allawi's selection by the U.S. and the U.N. as interim prime minister in advance of the dissolution of the Coalition Provisional Authority. After the 2005 elections in Iraq, Blackwill wrote a laudatory op-ed in The Wall Street Journal praising Allawi's strategy for crushing the insurgency: "Mr. Allawi's message is simple: Join us in building the new Iraq and accept its benefits or, if you support the insurgency, get ready to die."

Robert Blackwill, who famously offered up this up-is-down critique of Bush administration critics, has long been a supporter of Ayad Allawi (as Spencer noted):

....the critics have been pessimistic and wrong for well over a year with regard to the evolution of the Iraqi political process. And they've been wrong on every single important pivotal event. They were wrong on the elections. And they will probably go on being pessimistic and go on being wrong.

Hyping up the actual levels of indigenous support for Allawi has been a tendency for Blackwill. Back in December of 2005, in an interview at the Council on Foreign Relations conducted by none other than David Ignatius himself, Blackwill made the following prediction about the number of seats Allawi would win in the then-upcoming elections:

The—Allawi is coming on fast, apparently, in Baghdad, especially. So I don’t know whether it’ll be 40-ish. Could be lower. Could be somewhat higher.

Allawi eventually won 25 seats, about 40% fewer than predicted by Blackwill. Interestingly, in that same interview, Blackwill acknowledged that the participation of Sunnis in the December 2005 election would shift the number of seats held by each group (since the prior Sunni boycott artificially boosted the numbers of the non-Sunni parties that did participate, and a correction would now occur).

Just to remind you, there are 275 seats in the Iraqi parliament. In the last election, January election, the Shi’a Alliance got 140 seats, so an absolute majority in that election. The Kurds were at 75 seats, and Allawi’s party was at 40. And the Sunnis had, if I remember correctly, 16, because, of course, they didn’t participate. And it was a national election, one constituency, so it favored turnout.

If support for Allawi was really strong amongst Sunni groups, however, one would have expected Allawi to benefit (or at least avoid harm) from the inclusion of Sunnis. Instead, his list went from 40 seats to 25 - a steeper percentage drop than either the Shiites or Kurds. The influx of Sunni support (or lack thereof) wasn't even enough for him to tread water - or lose seats at the same pace of the other groups that have almost zero Sunni support (ed note: the Kurds are mostly Sunni, but vote for strictly Kurdish parties, and Sunni Arabs don't vote for Kurdish parties as a general rule).

In Blackwill's defense, his assessment was sober compared so some of the fantastic thinking engaged in by pundits like Michael Rubin and the Wall St Journal editorial board:

On the other hand, the American favorite and secular Shiite, Ayad Allawi, may do better than he did in January. But he also may have trouble forming a government because he is mistrusted by many religious Shiites and some of his associates were tainted by corruption when he was interim prime minister. This could open the way for Ahmed Chalabi--who ran his own candidate list and has demonstrated his competence as energy minister--to form a government. The Kurds, who may carry 25% of the seats, will play a key brokering role.

Chalabi, of course, did much worse than Allawi garnering less than 1% of the vote. Unsurprisingly, he never did quite make it to the prime minister's office.

Back to exaggerated Allawi-boosterism, though. Perhaps the situation has changed since that election, and there is now "strong support" for Allawi in the Sunni community (with Allawi being a tolerable option when faced with the alternative of a Shiite controlled government continuing in power). It is hard to know without seeing actual poll numbers conducted by reputable, non-partisan firms that are not on the payroll of, or influenced by, the many media-manipulating allies that Allawi has, literally, employed. Suffice it to say, there is ample reason to strongly doubt that Allawi has strong support in the Sunni community, and such support - to the extent it exists- would be entirely contingent on Allawi's ability to counter Shiite power (and his usefulness, as such, would expire when the Sunnis believe they can achieve this goal without him).

Which brings me to another item that stuck out from Blackwill's interview with Ignatius - this bit of (mis-?)information:

When I was there with Ambassador Bremer and U.N. Representative Brahimi working on the interim government, we found a way to ask Sistani which of the Shi’a candidates or members, potential prime ministers, he might support, and he came back with three names. Two of them were Abdul Mahdi and Iyad Allawi. So I don’t have any reason to believe that’s changed. [emphasis mine throughout]

Again, it seems quite implausible that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani would have ever offered such explicit support for Allawi (or even implicit). Regardless, one thing is certain beyond a doubt: Sistani would never support Allawi now, especially an Allawi that had significant support in the Sunni community for the above stated reasons. If the Bush administration thinks that Iraq will be any more manageable with Allawi installed as the strong-man leader of a non-democratic state, one opposed by Sistani and the Shiite majority (a theory that is rather en vogue these days), then I would offer this corrected, accurate version of Robert Blackwill's infamous quote:

...the [Bush administration and its supporters] have been [pollyannaish] and wrong for well over a year with regard to the evolution of the Iraqi political process. And they've been wrong on every single important pivotal event. They were wrong on the elections. And they will probably go on being [pollyannaish] and go on being wrong.

(hat tip Matt Y)

Djerejian's In

One of the best and brightest in the right-o-sphere concedes to reality:

Yes, it is time to start coming home, not in a wild panic, but with purposeful deliberativeness. After all, we have other tools in our quiver, apart from bleeding American lives in seeming perpetuity in Iraq, to prevent a full-scale genocide there, or the emergence of a significant al-Qaeda sanctuary, or the regionalization of the conflict. Indeed, cogent arguments can me made that having troops 'over the horizon' or located near the borders might act as better prophylactic to prevent the conflict spreading to neighboring countries, while still affording requisite forces in the neighborhood to pressure al-Qaeda as necessary (indeed, freeing up some forces for Afghanistan). As for preventing a genocide, we've done rather shabbily protecting innocent Iraqi life to date, and it is very likely that population transfers born of 'ethnic cleansing' fears will continue to take place whether we stay or leave. For instance, the rate of internally displaced hasn't slowed since the surge began, indeed reports indicate the contrary. These movements are occuring because Iraqis feel compelled to flee towards areas controlled by sectarian kin. They know, sooner or later, that we will leave, and so are planning for that day. It is high time we start doing the same.

Well said. And no, not in a wild panic, but following a detailed plan tied to a deliberate, yet focused, timeline.

I can understand Greg's reluctance to advocate this position since, inherently, it acknowledges our impotence in staving off the roiling conflict. Not to mention the existence of legitimate concerns for strategic imperatives such as maintaining a robust supply of oil and forestalling the creation of failed state-terrorist redoubts. But good intentions and a desire to shield the Iraqi people from the destruction that we have unleashed are not enough to actually achieve those goals (assuming such benevolent motivations are even operable in senior Bush administration circles). The terrorist haven we fear is already a reality - and is likely made more pernicious, not less, by our very presence. The same goes for disruptions of the oil supply. Still, our withdrawal won't be pretty or neat because there are no "good" options in Iraq - just less disastrous ones. This is, unfortunately, the least bad option - though just because it is not an inspiring or particularly uplifting mission does not mean that we can afford to delay it.

Like Greg, it took me far too long to accept things as they are, not as I hoped we could make them in Iraq (a futile quest for a tourniquet that was not, and would never be, within our reach). Nevertheless, Djerejian is counseling a wise course of action now, and I see no reason to reject his input out of some sanctimonious puritanism.

I do have one minor quibble with Djerejian's formulation, though. He mentions that he is open to the possibility of maintaining troops "near the borders" in Iraq.* Such a policy would likely run into the same problems that all other plans for residual forces inevitably confront: There will either be too few troops with too restrictive a mandate to effectively carry out the mission or, in the alternative, there will be so many troops with such a broad mandate that they will present an ongoing target and potential catalyst for expansion of that same regional war.

Not to mention the costs associated with re-supply and force protection, and the immense strain on our military that would ensue, if even a medium range footprint were required (say 50,000-75,000 troops). Those costs are one of the primary arguments in favor of withdrawal in the first place (with the adjunct being that such costs are incurred for little tangible or lasting gain - essentially an enormous waste of resources and lives for nothing in return).

Consider that the conflict is, already, in many ways regional - at least to the extent that the Saudis and other Sunni states/populations are funding and arming the Sunni insurgent groups (and providing foot soldiers via Syria), and the Iranians are arming funding key elements of the elected Iraqi government (ISCI, Dawa, Sadr). 160,000 troops isn't stopping this now. 50,000-75,000 troops spread across Iraq's expansive borders won't likely stop this in the future.

For example, how will we prevent Iran from providing arms and support to its proxies through better border policing? There is a tremendous amount of Shrine traffic, robust business relations and general human interaction between Iran and the Shiite south. There is no way to police this cross border human exchange with only a small portion of the already vastly reduced residual force - say, 20,000 out of 50,000. Even a full 160,000 would find it a difficult task.

Iran's Shiite allies in Iraq would likely try to make such an occupation exceedingly costly as well, since its primary mission would be to cut off aid flowing from their patron. There is little doubt that Iraq's Shiite militias acting in concert with Iraq's military and security forces (heavily infiltrated by Shiite militias, especially those stationed in this part of Iraq) could easily wage an effective guerrilla campaign against the small garrison of troops that we would have in the area. Especially considering that this eastern garrison would have to be resupplied from the vulnerable route stretching up from the Gulf, through the Shiite south. In addition, the troops involved in border guard activities would have to spend considerable time outside of the fortified bases to actually do the border policing (making for a myriad of prime targets). Also, keeping this many troops on the Iranian border for the purpose of countering Iran presents a highly combustible situation that could easily explode into major conflict between Iranian and US forces (with Iraq's Shiites likely putting the squeeze on our small contingent of troops).

And what would be the purpose if the goal were not to halt regional participation via proxy? It is extremely unlikely that either Saudi Arabia or Iran (or Jordan or Syria) will actually commit ground troops as some sort of invasion, "defensive" occupation or regional war. None of these nations has the military or economic capacity for prolonged conquest, or the desire to bleed that exorbitant an amount of resources for dubious ends. The US military - vastly superior to all of those regional powers combined - backed by the US economy hasn't been able to establish a sustainable occupation, but somehow Jordan will? Or Saudi Arabia? Or Syria? Or Iran (which is doing well enough via proxy to make such a risky gambit)? In addition, our air-power alone would be an effective weapon against conventional forces moving across open desert (see, ie, Saddam's invasion of Kuwait). As such, our publicized threat against any nation willing to make such an incursion would prove a potent deterrent.

Turkey is the only viable threat in terms of actual military invasion. Putting troops in Kurdistan, however, would put us in an untenable position - caught between a NATO ally with legitimate complaints (suffering attacks from terrorist groups housed in Kurdistan) and our regional military host's expansionist tendencies (Kirkuk, etc). Would we go to war against Turkey if it crossed the border (answer: hell no, and the Turks know it, and we know they know it, and they know...)? Would we stand aside and let the Turks and Kurds fight - and would the Kurds understand our inaction (answer: we would sit idly by, and our inaction wouldn't exactly endear us to our guests, or serve the initial purpose of the garrison - to stave off regional expansion!)? Not to mention the problem of supplying the Kurdish troop contingent: as the only viable routes are through either Iran, Syria or Turkey (who, do you suppose, out of that triumvirate would offer us safe passage?).

Thus, any plan to station troops in Kurdistan must be preceded by a workable, durable modus vivendi between the Kurds and Turkey and an accord on Kirkuk and other regional Kurdish aspirations. I wouldn't hold my breath for that, or begin making plans for the move. And even if such an accord were forged, why would we place troops in Kurdistan to prevent a regional expansion of the conflict that wouldn't occur because of the workable, durable Turkish-Kurdish pact that was just agreed to?

In conclusion, we are currently unable to halt regional influence and fighting via proxy, and will be even less able with a reduced force defending tenuous positions with problematic resupply capacity. An expansion of the conflict from proxy war to full blown conventional confrontation, invasion and/or occupation is highly unlikely and would be, to some extent, deterable via the threat of US air power to be marshaled in response to such attempts at conquest.

*[Greg could mean that he would consider plans to keep US troops near the border in friendlier environs "outside of Iraq" and that such a posture could avoid some of the costs and pitfalls outlined above. If the plan is to put US troops outside of Iraq, however, we would not be able to halt Iran's involvement via proxy because the only place outside of Iraq where our troops could carry out this mission would be...Iran itself. Same with Syria. And would the Saudis want that many US troops in Saudi Arabia tasked with the mission of frustrating the Saudis' attempts to fund and arm their Sunni benefactors? Even if they acquiesced, wouldn't this prove an incredible propaganda victory for al-Qaeda (much more potent than the post-Gulf War I basing)? And in attempting to prevent a regional war by keeping troops in Saudi Arabia and possibly Jordan, we would in essence be cutting off one source, while leaving many others in action. A tacit tilt in favor of Iran. Another reason that the Saudis wouldn't accept such a deal.]

Friday, August 24, 2007

In Defense of Incoherence

A few thoughts on the situation in Iraq - both domestic and imported. First, some pricey imports. Jim Henley on the civil war waiting game:

Most civil wars eventually end, so the Beltway Consensus intends to ride the Iraqi one out. Assuming it concludes, whoever’s in charge can declare victory, as if the whole point of invading Iraq was to eventually “end” the civil war that would break out as a result of the invasion. The whole course of events will have made a mockery of every public justification for the war in the first place. The only way anyone could declare it a “victory” would be if, after all, the aim of being in Iraq was simply to be in Iraq. Which is to say, if we end up with a basing agreement after an eventual armistice, the real purpose of the war will have been served. It just happens that they could never have convinced the country to waste thousands of American and millions of Iraqi lives (counting the refugees) and hundreds of billions of dollars on building some new forts where they’re not wanted. Which is why they didn’t sell the war on that basis. [emphasis added]

Mark Kleiman (via Matt Y) on the futility of waiting out the civil war:

More Iraqis will probably die of violence just after a U.S. withdrawal than are dying violently now....

But that's not a good enough reason to hang around, unless at some point it stops being true: that six months, or a year, or two years, or five years from now we would be able to withdraw and not have civil war and massacre follow. If we're spending blood and treasure only to postpone a catastrophe we can't prevent, the "humanitarian" argument against a fairly rapid withdrawal collapses.

Greg Djerejian on how we are likely amplifying the intensity of the civil war (see also, Matt at the link above):

It's grossly negligent (at best) that American kids are dying for strategic incoherence on such an epic scale. If I were a diplomat at the State Department, I'd probably resign in protest rather than continue to serve an Administration bleeding American lives so irresponsibly. Arming Sunni militias (sorry, Concerned Citizens Programmes) rather than the National Army, as nascent and pitiable as this last is, will almost certainly lead to more intensified Sunni--Shi'a fighting. Meantime, these bolstered Sunni forces (some of them simply ex-Baathists we supposedly went in to topple) will eventually be fighting for primacy against the very Government we've been trying to prop up in Baghdad. I find this mind-boggling in its short-sightedness and lack of overarching strategic direction (unless we've truly become Machiavellian, and are plotting to return the Sunnis to power to contain Iran!) [emphasis added]

That last bit from Greg D has been an increasing concern. At the very least, arming Sunnis is a way of attempting to counter Iranian influence in Iraq itself - even if the Bush team isn't planning on going all the way with Saddam 2 - Baathist Boogaloo. Should the Sunnis prove to be not coup-worthy (or capable) the up-armed insurgents would be more adept at attacking Iran's proxies in Iraq (ISCI, Dawa, Sadr) which could be perceived as a net positive for some in the Bush White House.

The problem with this strategy, of course, is that those targeted groups are also our proxies in Iraq (with the exception of Sadr). So even if there is a purpose or aim here (countering Iran) it is still not a coherent policy, since we are simultaneously aiding and combating Iran's proxies (who are our proxies).

There is one way this contradiction could be resolved (as alluded to by Djerejian): If this recent Sunni tilt is really the opening foray in the effort to lay the groundwork for a wholesale abandonment of the UIA constituent parties as some sort of precursor or adjunct to a war with Iran.

I actually prefer the incoherence.

The Fire Beneath the Cauldron

Steve Clemons has an important piece on the neocons' favorite hawk-in-dove's-feathers, Michael Ledeen. Just as Ledeen claims that he never supported the invasion of Iraq (a claim that is easily refuted), so too does Ledeen insist that he doesn't want military confrontation with Iran. That is, when he's not busy urging the Bush administration to bomb Iran, and send troops across the border.

Clemons on the state of Ledeen's obsession with bringing about a war with Iran:
Michael Ledeen -- who once told me that he only supported the Iraq War because it provided momentum and pre-positioning of American military forces to then go after Iran -- is not going to feel self-actualized until America unleashes a considerable portion of its arsenal against the nation and people of Iran.
It is important to recognize that the total war agenda - the "cauldronization" of the Middle East as Ledeen put it, in eager anticipation - is still being pursued in earnest by some of the most influential pundits and policy makers in and around the Bush administration. They have a sympathetic ear in Vice President Cheney and his coterie (where there is considerable intermingling).

In the article cited by Clemons, Ledeen argues that there are no diplomatic options for dealing with Iran, that there never was and that there never will be (Clemons rather easily debunks the historical claim). Further, argues Ledeen, Iran is at war with the United States - and has been since 1979. [As a side note, it is remarkable how the neocons always seem to start the clock of conflict with Iran circa 1979, totally ignoring that messy chapter in the 1950s when the CIA led a coup to topple Iran's then democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. The US helped to dismantle an active and thriving democracy in the Middle East in order to secure the despotic rule of an unpopular dictator, Shah Reza Pahlavi, almost entirely in the name of oil - with some Cold War flourish thrown in for good measure. But Iran, you see, has been at war with us since the 1970s. No doubt, they hate us for our freedoms.]

While Ledeen doesn't actually come out and advocate for war in this piece (he picks and chooses his spots to preserve his implausible deniability), the thrust of the article is that all options for dealing with Iran short of war are futile. In a bid to further up the rhetorical ante - and make war seem like a necessary step - Ledeen argues that Iran poses an existential threat* to the United States of America. Says Ledeen:
Washington diplomats have steadfastly refused to see the Iranian regime for what it is: a relentless enemy that seeks to dominate or destroy us.
This is scaremongering of the worst variety. Iran is a relatively smallish country (70 million people compared to our 300 million), with a struggling economy and a mediocre military with little capacity for actual conquest. Iran, if you recall, was unable to "dominate or destroy" Iraq despite almost a decade spent fighting (1980-88), and the sacrifice of more than 500,000 Iranian citizens. The same Iraqi military that Iran found so indomitable, we were able to dismantle in a matter of weeks with minimal casualties not once but twice since over the past fifteen years.

Iran's military prowess and capacity has not grown considerably since then. While its regional prominence has improved, this has been largely attributable to Iran's good fortune of having George Bush around to do to Saddam what Iran couldn't, and to unseat the hostile Taliban regime on its western border. Even still, Iran is struggling to forge a sustainable economy, grappling with a restive population that is pushing and pulling in many different directions along social fault lines and dealing with a ring of Sunni Arab dictatorships that are increasingly hostile to Iran's new found gains. Hardly an impressive launching pad for global domination.

Consider, also, the record. Despite being at war with us since 1979, as Ledeen would have it, how many battles has Iran actually won? Under the most charitable (to Ledeen) reading of Iran's nefarious agency over the course of thirty years, Iran has made keeping Marines in Beirut overly costly, they have made staying in Saudi Arabia slightly more costly (Khobar Towers) and have made staying in Iraq prohibitively costly. There has been a loss of American lives, but, although still tragic, not a huge number. If Iran's goal is to dominate or destroy us, they have failed miserably.

But Michael Ledeen would have us believe that Iran is now on the verge of taking over or destroying us. Emboldened by those craven diplomats that favor negotiations, Iranian hordes would travel vast distances across land and ocean in...motorboats and dilapidated fighter jets? Establishing supply lines sufficient to maintain an occupying army in the US while we all stand aside and look, mouth agape, ruing the fact that we didn't take Michael Ledeen seriously enough. This is worse than a ruse because it is mendacity in pursuit of mass carnage.

Ledeen and his neoconservative brethren will not make an honest, good faith case for war with Iran because they know that there isn't a solid one to be made. So instead, they will pull every rhetorical dirty trick from their bag: from relentless Hitler and Chamberlain accusations, to mythical ties to al-Qaeda, to nuclear weapons that don't exist (and if they did, would not be used offensively) to tales of world domination and dhimmitude.

Don't be fooled by the preposterous nature of the arguments, and the utter disregard for history and empiricism (past and present), though. Such glaring ignorance and tendentiousness might matter to me and you, but it's George Bush and Dick Cheney that occupy the White House. Their standards are quite lower.

(* The ostensibly "clever"response here would be to point out that Ledeen isn't actually saying that Iran could destroy or dominate us, but that this is their goal. This rebuttal, however, would be too clever by half. If Iran lacks the capacity to actually dominate or destroy us, Ledeen should make that clear. Instead he invokes the specter of destruction and domination in order to maximize the fear and recklessly hype the threat.

Besides, that rebuttal would be one of the strongest arguments against war with ran. An enormously powerful country does not need to fight wars against relatively impotent countries based on their fantastic and unrealistic goals. We we can and should shrug off Iran's hollow bluster and minor regional maneuvering, and not let them induce us to take the one action whereby Iran could really harm us: start a war with Iran while our troops are in Iraq, or move those troops next door in an attempt to occupy Iran.

Again, for a country intent on our destruction for the past 30 years, what has Iran actually accomplished in terms of damaging our interests? Actually, George Bush has done a lot more to harm the US, and help Iran, through the invasion of Iraq than Iran could have ever achieved.)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Was Blind, But Now...?

Despite the deep sense of anguish and frustration felt as those that were warning of the obvious dangers and inevitable costs of invading Iraq were dismissed snidely while the country lurched toward war back in the winter of 2002/2003, it would be pointless and counterproductive to allow vindication to lure one into the self-satisfying embrace of sanctimony and spite.

Excommunicating pundits, politicians and journalists from the ranks of "the credible" due to an error in judgment belies the uncertain nature of analysis and the imperfections rampant in the human faculty for reason - especially at a time as emotionally charged as the first year following 9/11. If such a standard were imposed uniformly, there would be few if any left that we could point to for sage counsel.

That does not mean, however, that every war proponent deserves a clean slate, or that errors in judgment should be forgiven ad infinitum. There are limits, and it mostly depends on the recovery. The process of rehabilitation - and the restoration of credibility - should have more to do with how the particular war supporter handles the reckoning than the magnanimity of the public. If a war proponent shows no remorse, admits no error and continues to advocate for policies that are philosophically and strategically akin to the invasion of Iraq, then it is not only every citizen's obligation to ignore their advice, but we must actively work to counter such pernicious ideas.

When you hear the same cast of neocon warmongers (Kristol, Krauthammer, Podhoretz(s), Rubin, Ledeen, Bolton) urging on the next conflagration, using the same dubious evidence, fear-mongering and specious arguments at a time when our military is slowly unraveling under the strain of the biggest foreign policy blunder in this nation's history (that they helped bring about), there is no reason to consider the validity of the opinions of those that were spectacularly wrong - and proud of it. They remain defiantly intent on accelerating a host of military confrontations with multiple countries, just one of which has already severely weakened our nation. For them, though, things have just gotten started.

But not all proponents are such dedicated dead enders. In fact, many have long ago recognized their errors and made invaluable contributions to the effort to restore sanity and competence to America's foreign policy establishment and beyond. Given how close we are to actually starting another war (this time, with Iran), there is little room for a puritanical rejection of the wisdom of those that have sinned.

In this vein, I was perusing Andrew Sullivan's site yesterday (yes, Sullivan is fine by me), and came across an excerpt from another erstwhile war booster, George Packer. Packer is one of the infamous band of liberal hawks that lent a bi-partisan ideological cover to the Iraq invasion, but his gift for writing and penchant for valuing the humanitarian has kept my mind pried open. His book-long mea culpa, The Assassins' Gate, is a strong indication of the evolution of Packer's outlook. Much of his writings since have supported the contention that Packer's judgment is more sound than stuck.

This piece, however, raises serious questions and suggests that there may be intractable structural flaws in Packer's vision that render his contributions of limited value:

In the middle of a crisis even more dangerous than Vietnam, President George W. Bush sits isolated in the White House, surrounded by a dwindling band of advisers, and continues to talk about winning in Iraq. His supporters in Congress and the media seize every short-term success, in Washington or Iraq, to flog their opponents as defeatists and lay the groundwork for a stab-in-the-back narrative.

OK, so far, so good. Not much to argue with there - a pretty accurate appraisal of the state of play.

His critics in Congress and the media clamor for him to admit defeat and begin an immediate withdrawal.

Actually, there are few in Congress or the media that have called for an "immediate withdrawal" - certainly not a consensus of critics, or a plurality large enough to justify such a framing. Almost every major plan for withdrawal calls for a roughly two year timeline (not immediate), and many if not most allow for some degree of residual force (incorrectly, in my opinion, but that is another matter). Simply put, Packer is sparring with strawmen here.

Contrary to Packer's characterization of Bush's Congressional critics "clamoring" for action, even Bush's foes in Congress have been quite willing to continue writing blank checks that have allowed, and will allow, the war to continue - absent the imposition of even distant plans for eventual withdrawal. The notion that Congress has been overly aggressive in placing restrictions on Bush's war making prerogatives is just outlandish.

Over the course of 2007, the two sides haven’t begun to negotiate the possibility of a compromise; instead, they are driving each other to increasingly bitter resistance. The national tragedy in Iraq is taking place against a political culture personified by the departed Karl Rove: tactically brilliant, strategically blind, polarized into highly partisan bases and orthodoxies endlessly repeated through the mass media. You don't often hear it mentioned, but this might be one of the most important differences between Vietnam and Iraq. [emphasis added]

This passage is even worse. It's as if Packer hasn't been paying attention to the manner in which the Bush administration has implemented policy over the past 6+ years. Here's a clue George: the Bush administration has been barely willing to compromise with its Republican allies in Congress, let alone the Democratic opposition.

The Bush administration espouses the top-down, unitary executive model that demands loyalty, and is as dismissive of checks, balances and Constitutional separation of powers, as it is of critics (be they Republican or Democrat). Packer seems to acknowledge this reality by invoking the name of one of this strategy's architects (Karl Rove), but then acts as if those targeted by the hyper-polarizing, take-no-prisoners, Rove game-plan are to blame for the very tactics employed to bludgeon them.

What compromise position is the White House even pondering - let alone offering? What would a compromise position even look like? How does one split the baby in Iraq? And shouldn't Packer at least wait for the White House to suggest one, and the Democrats to reject it, before he blames Bush's intransigence on those that have been - when not meekly apathetic - entirely impotent when seeking to rein in Bush's war? Or is that the Democrats are supposed to concoct this elusive compromise themselves, and then woo George Bush to the table with persistent praise and fawning (criticisms make Bush bitterly resistant ya know)?

Here's the thing: Bush has always been bitterly resistant to the facts in Iraq, and to any suggestion that he should alter course to account for the failures. He was as stubborn when he had high approval ratings and a GOP Congress behind him, as he is now when his numbers are in the 30% range and the Democrats hold a razor thin majority. After voters roundly rejected his Iraq policy in 2006, he responded by sending in more troops. When the highly touted, bi-partisan, blue ribbon Baker-Hamilton Commission came forth with the all-important compromise position, the Bush administration savaged it - and its authors. Relentlessly. Packer would have us believe, though, that the reason the Bush administration rejected this proposed compromise was because some of Bush's critics have been too vocal.

That an observer with an ability for occasional insight such as Packer could look at the 4+ year record of Bush's consistent obstinacy and solipsism with respect to Iraq policy and conclude that his current refusal to accept reality is the result of excessive stridency on the part of a Democratic Party that has done absolutely nothing to end (let alone slowly unwind) this war does nothing to suggest that Packer's judgment on such matters has improved greatly.

Old habits die hard I guess. Keep that in mind if Packer decides to blame those that oppose war with Iran for boxing the Bush administration into a corner, making war the only option, because opponents have not put forth a suitable compromise (half a war?) for an administration that has absolutely no interest in accepting one or even entertaining the possibility.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Withering Heights

Iraq's elected Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, didn't take to kindly to the recent attacks leveled by Senator Carl Levin and President Bush himself. He took the time to remind the relevant parties that there are other suitors on the dance card:

"No one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government. It was elected by its people," he said at a news conference in Damascus at the end of the three-day visit to Syria.

"Those who make such statements are bothered by our visit to Syria. We will pay no attention. We care for our people and our constitution and can find friends elsewhere," al-Maliki said. [emphasis added]

Maliki, you could say, has prospects. I hope Bush isn't the jealous type, though, because love has blinded him to the obvious concerning Maliki's (and the Shiite political leadership's) long dalliance with Iran. One can imagine the broken heart Bush will suffer when he realizes that his might be an unrequited affection - and that the hand he seeks is dipping into other pockets.

Bush needs to realize, at the very least, that Maliki's ardor is not the unconditional variety that he so craves. Not that the others in the pool of potential partners are any more promising for our tragic hero.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Another Pig at the Trough

Cernig has offered me a big stock options package and pay raise the opportunity to do a guest post at Newshoggers and I took him up on the offer. For anyone interested, I subject the Newshoggers readers to my rambling conspiracy theories surrounding the recent spate of assassinations in Najaf, targeting top aides of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Check it out and be sure to make Newshoggers one of your regular reads. I do. According to recent studies, Newshoggers makes you 92% smarter than Fox News*

(*no actual studies conducted - but do you really doubt the math?)

If Only this Leopard Would Grow Stripes

I'm still trying to figure out who, exactly, Senator Levin thinks is occupying all those seats in the Iraqi parliament:

Declaring the government of Iraq "non-functional," the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said yesterday that Iraq's parliament should oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his cabinet if they are unable to forge a political compromise with rival factions in a matter of days.

"I hope the parliament will vote the Maliki government out of office and will have the wisdom to replace it with a less sectarian and more unifying prime minister and government," Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said after a three-day trip to Iraq and Jordan.

We already went through this about a year and a half ago when we decided that the sectarian dynamic in Iraq was mostly the fault of then-Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari (the head of the Islamist Dawa Party that was sharing power with other Shiite religious parties such as SCIRI, Fadhila and the Sadrists as part of the dominant UIA Shiite coalition).

So we pressured, connived and leaned on the Shiites, eventually compelling them to replace Dawa's number one guy (Jaafari) with...Dawa's number two guy (Nuri al-Maliki)! Because that was likely to change the agenda dramatically. It would be like impeaching Bush in the expectation that Cheney would restore sanity to the White House.

The larger point being that Maliki - like Jaafari - is not an aberration or an outlier. He is not a loose cannon, rogue element or unorthodox figure. Nuri al-Maliki is a predictable, unremarkable product of the sectarian, communal mindset that dominates Iraqi political life. He is not acting against the wishes of his colleagues, but in furtherance of them. I'd love to hear what Senator Levin has in mind in terms of parliamentary coalitions that would elect this new, less sectarian prime minister.

As an example of how meager the prospects are, there has been talk about a palace coup involving none other than Ibrahim Jaafari himself acting in a bid to oust his Dawa Party-mate Maliki. I doubt such a reset would achieve what Senator Levin wants though considering Jaafari's track record. Then, of course, is the serial discussion of the Ayad Allawi putsch - which is about as implausible as a new, less sectarian Jaafari. The problem with Allawi is, and has always been, that he is vastly more popular in American circles than Iraqi. Yet by some cruel twist of irony, it's the Iraqis who get to actually vote, what with their purple stained fingers and all.

The bottom line is that If you call on an Iraqi parliament comprised of the same elements to replace Maliki, it is unlikely that the replacement prime minister will be any less "sectarian" or more unifying. If a prime minister attempted to rule in such a manner, he would be promptly sacked. By his very electors.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Drab Four

There is so much wrong with the first paragraph from this article that it would be better if you inverted the key facts asserted:

The Iraqi prime minister and president announced a new alliance of moderate Shiites and Kurds in a push to save the crumbing government Thursday, saying a key Sunni bloc refused to join but the door remained open to them.

This paragraph isn't much better:

The political agreement reached by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was the first step to unblock political stagnation that has gripped his Shiite-led government since it first took power in May 2006. But the announcement after three days of intense negotiations was disappointing because it did not include Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and his moderate Iraqi Islamic Party. Al-Maliki has been criticized for having a Shiite bias and failing to stop Iraq's sectarian violence, which persists despite the presence of tens of thousands of extra U.S. troops.

First of all this "new" alliance (comprised of Maliki's Dawa, ISCI and the two main Kurdish parties) is a lot like the old governing coalition - minus the Sadrists and the Sunni bloc that had been participating. So it's not necessarily a new alliance, just the remnants of the old alliance with a generous application of glitzy lipstick. It won't do anything to alleviate concerns that the Iraqi government is a partisan actor given how limited its representative scope. Quite the opposite.

That is, if this new pact is indeed able to continue as presented: On more than one occasion, a new alliance has been formed only to soon dissolve with much less fanfare than the unveiling (more on this, and Sistani's role, below).

The Kurdish parties, for their part, have always had a cozy relationship with ISCI and Dawa - recognizing early on where the power base of Shiite politics was, and finding the right leverage to insure that the Kurds' forge and maintain and integral role in the new Shiite dominate government (thus securing the key aspects of their agenda). In once again solidifying this position (even strengthening it considering how little slack ISCI and Dawa now have), the Kurds have shown themselves to be amongst the shrewder horsetraders in the game.

Second, there is little justification to label ISCI and Dawa (and even the Kurds who haven't been shy about using dubious means to push ahead with their territorial designs in the area of Kirkuk and elsewhere) as "moderates" as opposed to the "extremist" Sadrists. This is propaganda, pure and simple, and the main determinant in deciding who gets the preferred label is their amenability to the occupation.

As mentioned above, because this new coalition is actually a pared down version of theold "unity" government, these developments do little to actually alleviate the political "deadlock" that has been wrongly identified as the problem. While the pact does provide for a bare parliamentary majority, that plurality is only useful to the extent that the parties can agree on the issues to be presented and voted on. Reaching such an accord has been the problem, not conceiving of alliances that - when so joined - constitute a parliamentary majority. Even this like-minded four-pack won't be able to agree on all such matters.

More important to the big picture, though: the problem is not the actual inability to pass legislation qua legislation, it is the inability to pass legislation that reflects and reinforces some agreed upon and acceptable modus vivendi between all of the major factions. It remains to be seen what type of agenda emerges from this four party pact, but it is unlikely to appeal to a broad base of Iraqis since representation is limited. Thus, where this new pact does facilitate political action, it might exacerbate the intra- and inter- ethnic/sectarian civil wars.

Recall, the political process is viewed as essential in unwinding the various conflicts in so much as it can assuage each parties' concerns and show that the political system would be a suitable way to pursue their respective interests. This new alliance, however, sheds all remnants of "unity" - gone are the Sunnis, as well as the Sadrists, who represented the dissenting voices on issues like partition and centralized control of oil revenues.

So to the extent that this new Shiite/Kurdish alliance does actually pass more legislation, it is likely that the legislation will serve to further alienate the Sunnis and other Shiite groups, rather than create the sense of inclusion necessary to tamp the fighting. It is hard to imagine how such a narrow governing bloc could be considered a vehicle for "political reconciliation" despite the laudatory headlines and ledes.

Then again, with the Bush administration downplaying political deterioration while touting military progress as an indicator of The Surge's success (when the whole point of The Surge was to foster political reconciliation), I fully expect this further balkanization of the political process to be described as a major breakthrough.

Relatedly, this new political arrangement comes at a time of increased pressure on the Sadrist current - with airstrikes and raids on Sadr City, and a wave of arrests of top Sadrist officials. The give and take, push and pull game that the US and its primary Shiite proxies (SIIC and Dawa) have been playing vis-a-vis Sadr has always been a dangerous one (and one that Maliki has not always seemed eager to play). If this new political alliance - to the extent that it lasts - is a manifestation of some underlying decision to put the full court press on Sadr, the levels of violence and conflict in Iraq will spiral ever upward.

Speaking of which, whither that certain Grand Ayatollah Sistani and his famous reluctance to abide by any political proposals that would result in dividing the UIA coalition? In the past, he has emerged from his secluded redoubt in Najaf to scuttle similar attempts to parse the UIA and exclude certain irritants. I wouldn't be surprised if he has a little meeting with officials from Dawa and ISCI in the coming days. At which point, much of this post would be rendered moot - a fate suffered by a long list of former political "breakthroughs" in Iraq.

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