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November 16, 2003 Sidebars

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Sidebar, November 14, 2003 - "Cut and Run?"
In last week's mail, Nico in Montreal, Phillip in Atlanta, and Steph in London (Canada) discussed our options in Iraq.  Do we "cut and run" - or anything like that?  See November 9, 2003 Mail for that.
It seems here that Molly Ivins has a view a bit different than that of Nico regarding the "cut and run" business.
Now one might argue that this assertion is flat-out untrue: "Here's what I think is the real problem. It's not so much that the number of attacks on Americans per day in Iraq has been creeping up. It's that after these successful attacks on convoys, choppers or patrols, hundreds of Iraqis gather around the smoking results and cheer. Call me alarmist, but I think that's a bad sign. I suspect they do not like being occupied by a foreign power. They do not seem to think our intentions are benevolent."
Well, yeah.  But perhaps Molly is a victim of the media filter Bush says is giving us all the wrong impression.
She argues that cut-and-run, which may actually now be underway as Bremer returned to Baghdad this to tell the locals to hurry up and start running things on their own soon, is fine by her: "If you think I am going to disagree or make fun of them for doing such a 180, you are sadly mistaken. We have seen the 180 many times before with Bush, usually when reality intrudes on ideology.  Bug out before the election next year, that's fine by me. I don't like seeing Americans killed by people we thought we had gone to help. I suspect this is the ultimate no-win situation - the sooner we're out, the better.  I do hold a grudge against all those folks in the administration who convinced most Americans that his war was a dandy idea.  There was no nuclear weapons program.  There were no weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein had no ties to Al Qaeda, and if anyone sees an outbreak of peace and democracy in Middle East, let me know." 
I suspect Nico would call this irresponsible.
Her comments on how we got here are clear:
"I don't think the Bush administration lied to us about Iraq. I think it's worse than that. I think they fooled themselves. I think they were conned by Ahmad Chalabi. I think they indulged in wishful thinking to a point of near criminality. I think they decided anyone who didn't agree with them was an enemy, anti-American, disloyal. In other words, I think they're criminally stupid.  Since I keep trying to find helpful suggestions from any source, let's see if a fast political handover will help any...."
Her discussion of the whole business (click link to see) is an interesting read.

Sidebars, November 9, 2003
Item 1: On the uses of humiliation as a tool for foreign policy, and a teaching method, and as a management tool...
Thomas Friedman had some interesting comments in the November 9th New York Times.  His topic was "humiliation" as a policy aim of our government, and an operating methodology, in international affairs. 
He says folks don't like being humiliated and do nasty things when they are.  No kidding, Tom.
I suspect our government, and most of the American people, see this business with the Islamic radicals warring on us in the West as a zero-sum game - one side or the other side is going to be humiliated, and, no matter what, it's not going to be our side that is humiliated, damn it!  Freidman seems to see the world the other way - as a place where you may not get everything you want, but where no one has to walk away totally humiliated, where each side can get some of what it wants.  Two ways of viewing things. 
What I saw in the seventies when I was an English teacher?  This would describe two ways of teaching, and back then I worked for a guy who thought it was his job to humiliate his students and to maintain his own dignity.  This, he argued, at great length in the faculty room two or three times each week, taught the students about the real world, and about "consequences" - whatever that meant.  His favorite line had something to do with reminding the kids that they were just kids and didn't know jack about much of anything, while reminding them he was the adult who knew things, and they didn't, so they'd better listen.  I don't remember the exact words.  But I do remember his favorite quotation from Ring Lardner - "Shut up," he explained. 
What I saw in the eighties and nineties when I was managing systems analysts and programmers and, finally, project managers?  This would describe two ways of managing people in large business organizations.  Do you make them know their place and just what is their proper sphere, allowing nothing that hints of insubordination, or do you try to tap their potential by assuming they're pretty smart with good ideas, and maybe even smarter than you are, even if you are their manager?  Do you keep things loose, open and flexible?  This second alternative can lead to a bit of chaos and some flaky efforts, but can return goodies that are obvious - new ideas, enthusiasm, loyalty and commitment.  The first alternative, while it results in a sort resentful order, also comes with diamond clear focus on the task at hand, with meeting deadlines precisely, and precise and efficient division of labor.  Good and bad each way.  Take your pick.  Most managers leaned one way or the other, while some tried to find a middle ground.
But Freidman speaks of Iraq.  Key comments:
  • "Why have the U.S. forces never gotten the ovation they expected for liberating Iraq from Saddam's tyranny? In part, it is because many Iraqis feel humiliated that they didn't liberate themselves, and America's presence, even its aid, reminds them of that. Add the daily slights and miscommunications that come with any occupation, and even the best-intended liberators will wear out their welcome over time."
  • "Never, ever underestimate a people's pride, no matter how broken they might be. It is very easy for Iraqis to hate Saddam and resent America for overstaying. Tap into people's dignity and they will do anything for you. Ignore it, and they won't lift a finger. Which is why a Pakistani friend tells me that what the U.S. needs most in Iraq is a strategy of "dehumiliation and re-dignification."
Freidman has some good stories to illustrate this.  You could check it out.
The Humiliation Factor
http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/09/opinion/09FRIE.html  (registration required)
Item 2: A retired "hawk" has a problem with the current war...
Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser in the Carter adminitration, gave a speech on the 28th to a conference for the group New American Strategies for Security and Peace in Washington and wrote a condensed version for the Washington Post that appeared this weekend.  Zbigniew may have once been a big gun in international diplomacy but, some would argue, he's out of touch now. 
He opens with a story about Charles de Gaulle and Dean Acheson that one assumes Ann Coulter has already said is simply not true - because "everyone knows how the French are."  I'd like to believe it is true as told, but of course, who are you going to believe?  She will say Zbigniew is a liar.  Case closed?  Depends on who you believe.
Forty years ago, an important emissary was sent to France by a beleaguered president of the United States.  It was during the Cuban missile crisis and the emissary was a tough-minded former secretary of state, Dean Acheson. His mission was to brief French President Charles de Gaulle and solicit his support in what could become a nuclear war involving not just the United States and the Soviet Union but the entire NATO alliance and the Warsaw Pact.
At the end of the briefing, Acheson said to de Gaulle, "I would now like to show you the evidence, the photographs that we have of Soviet missiles armed with nuclear weapons." The French president responded, "I do not wish to see the photographs. The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me. Please tell him that France stands with America."
Ah, those were the days....
And then Zbigniew compares the Bush line, "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists," to Lenin's approach to things.  Yipes!  "I suspect that officials who have adopted the 'with us or against us' formulation don't know its historical origins. It was used by Lenin to attack the social democrats as anti-Bolshevik and to justify handling them accordingly."  Jesus, and Mary, Mother of Jesus does this Brzezinski guy want to die?
And then this Brzezinski fellow tries to undercut our brave soldiers with this - "In Iraq we must succeed. Failure is not an option. But we have to ask ourselves what is the definition of success. More killing, more repression, more effective counterinsurgency? The introduction of new technologies to crush the resistance? Or is success an effort to promote, by using force, a political solution?"  Surely he knows that's the whole point.  As Cheney said, these people only respect strength.  Yeah, right. 

And I suppose he shows he's soft on why all this is happening when he says "We need to ask who is the enemy. They are not, to quote the president again, people who 'hate things,' whereas 'we love things.' Or people who simply hate freedom. I think they do hate, but I don't think they sit there abstractly hating freedom. They hate some of us. They hate some countries. They hate some particular targets. But it's a lot more concrete than these vague quasi-theological formulations."  Hey, General Jerry Boykin said we're fighting the great Satan, because our God is the real God and theirs is not.  (Well, a minor investigation of a small bit of theological history would show, actually, that it's the very same God - but no matter.)  Would you rather side with Boykin or this Brzezinski guy?  Bush and Rumsfeld sided with Boykin.  He kept his job.  This Brzezinski guy is unemployed, isn't he?  And isn't he also Polish, for God's sake? 

And this guy was the "hawk" in the Carter administration everyone hated because he was so dangerous and ready for war(s).
It's an interesting read. 
Another American Casualty: Credibility
By Zbigniew Brzezinski   Sunday, November 9, 2003; Page B01 The Washington Post
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A14360-2003Nov7.html  (registration required)

Sidebar, November 1, 2003   
Back in May and June - see below The BBC versus We Report, You Decide, or "Tell Me A Story." - I was saying that what gives a news story "legs," what makes important events into sustainable news stories, is a sense of narrative.  Is there a story - with a conflict, interesting characters, resolution and dénouement?  That is what creates the "reality" of what is happening in the world - not the facts, not what is "news."  It is "the story." 
We ask the news folks to give us the "real story," not just the facts.  And the news folks respond.  O'Reilly at Fox: "Here's the real story - behind the facts."   Scarborough at MSNBC: "Here's the real story - behind the facts."  You hear it all the time.
William Pfaff in the International Herald Tribune - the dullest, most drab English-language newspaper in Paris - extends that idea in an analysis dated November 1st.  Pfaff contends that nations too have a "story" that makes them important nations.  He argues that the United States had worked up a fine narrative of what we were and what we were doing in the world, a "story" that kept the world enthralled and pretty much with us. 
Everyone likes a good story.  I guess humans have a need for such "framing" to make sense of the world.
Pfaff examines how since 1942 we had developed a coherent, heroic narrative "to explain our place in the flow of history and to give meaning to our actions" as he puts it.  And he goes on to argue that we have now made it so that most of the world thinks our heroic narrative is pretty much bullshit.
He says this:
The American story since 1942 (and before) is well known, and is considered by Americans and others a story reflecting responsibility and high-mindedness.   Despite aberrations in Vietnam and Latin America, the American story of responsible world leadership has been accepted among democracies as an essentially valid account of the role modern America played during the years leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The problem today is that, in the view of many others, the story has changed. Another one has taken its place, even though most Americans deny that this is so. 
... the American story has always described a confrontation between the Elect and the Evil.  
When the Soviet Union no longer fulfilled the latter role, Washington tried out several possible successors, finally settling on "rogue nations" - those professing radically un-American ideas and that give evidence of wanting to possess nuclear deterrents.  
Their feebleness, however, tended to diminish their credibility when cast in the role of global Evil.  Then came Sept. 11, and the problem was solved. The rogue nations now became the Axis of Evil.
Well, we have spun that story.  Many of us really do believe it, a tale told daily in Washington with more and more insistent fervor. 
The tale?  There is no complexity in the world.  There is no middle ground.  Now is the time, the historical moment, when people and nations must choose between the pretty much absolute good (us), or what most certainly is absolute evil (them).  Any disagreement with even minor points of policy or tactics, or timing, and you are told you obviously have decided to align yourself with the forces of pure evil, that you worship Saddam Hussein, and you probably molest children and push little old ladies into traffic, just for the evil fun of it.
The tale being told does not allow for "the evil other" to have any credible grievance against the good guys.  That cannot be part of the story.  We are told they hate us because we are free.  That's it.  Case closed.
Well, it could be a little more complex that that.  Outside our borders folks suspect things actually may be a little more complex than we tell in this tale. 
Of course each of us decides about that, about complexity.  Some folks are naturally more skeptical than others.  Each of us decides what to believe. 
The most direct question I am asked by my conservative pro-war friends is just why I so oddly persist in making things so complex when things just are not complex at all.  I am told that considering complexity is "evil" in and of itself.  Perhaps so.
All this makes it hard to hold any kind of discussion about what to do, day to day, about what needs to be done in the world. 
The current position of the United States government is that, in this tale, this narrative, the time for discussion has long passed.  Pfaff quotes an Irish politician at that recent meeting in Portugal where the United States had a sort of fund-raiser to get some backing for rebuilding Iraq.  The fellow had thought of himself as one of America's best friends abroad.  And he said, "It's as if they can't hear."   Wrong.  We can hear.  We just know that in this particular story what we might hear is not relevant in the slightest way.  
Pfaffs conclusion?  "...what actually has happened during the past nine months is something Americans have yet to grasp, and that others have yet to say out loud: People outside the United States have stopped believing the American story.  They don't think terrorism is an Evil force the United States is going to defeat. They say instead that terrorism is a way people wage war when they don't have F-16's or armored divisions.  They say that Chechens, Moros, Taliban, Colombian insurgents, Palestinian bombers and Iraqi enemies of the U.S. occupation do not really make up a single global phenomenon that the world must mobilize to defeat.  They say that, actually, they had never really believed the American story in the first place. They had listened to it because Washington said it, and they respected Washington. Now they don't.
It seems we need a new myth, a new narrative.  Or we need to redouble our current international public relations effort, which seems to consist of us saying, in various ways, about our good versus evil story, "It's true, it's true, it's really true!"  - until folks believe us.
Yes, that is what Tweety-Bird keeps saying again and again in those old Warner Brothers cartoons.
The link should you care to read Pfaff, is here:

A fiction shattered by America's aggression...
William Pfaff    The International Herald Tribune   Saturday, November 1, 2003
Syndicated elsewhere by Tribune Media Services International
URL: http://www.iht.com/articles/115911.html

Other Sidebars:

These are a continuation of several "open forum" pages.  I will not add to them myself.  Send your comments to be posted to these topics, or suggest additional topics.