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Photos and text, unless otherwise noted, Copyright 2003,2004,2005,2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Thursday, 14 December 2006
On Losing: What Is Acceptable and What Is Not
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

On Losing: What Is Acceptable and What Is Not

Kevin Drum, at the Washington Monthly wonders what happened -
Question: has a hotly anticipated blue ribbon report ever fallen into irrelevance so quickly? The Baker-Hamilton report was released only a week ago, and as near as I can tell it's now a dead letter. Within days, both left and right slagged it viciously, President Bush made it clear that he didn't think much of it, and virtually no one other than David Broder had anything nice to say about it.

(I mean that literally. Has anyone stood up for the report? I can't really think of anyone who's had any sustained praise for it.)

And now? The worst fate of all: it's completely off the radar screen. Its language was so vague as to be meaningless, and within a few days its insignificance was so obvious that no one was even giving it the dignity of arguing about how misguided it was. Chattering classes-wise, it's disappeared down a black hole.

Sic transit gloria mundi.
People did have high hopes this would be a big turning point. Policy would change, or our strategy, or at least our tactics. But it turned out there were two parts to the report - an assessment of where we stand and recommendations as to what we should now do, seventy-nine of them. The first part was devastating assessment - we are not winning and cannot win, or even define what winning is, if we continue doing what we're doing. The second part was suggested actions, many of which were "it would be nice if" speculations that had little to do with what other nations might actually be willing to do, and many of which the president flat-out says he will not do (like agree to talks with Syria, much less any talks about anything with Iran). The report wasn't exactly dead on arrival - it just expired in the emergency room. No one wanted it to live. The problem is that neither the brutal assessment nor the pie-in-the-sky recommendations served anyone's interests. It was designed to please no one, and there was no "saving face" anywhere in it. We may have a big problem, but no party saw anything in it for them. Maybe it had to be that way.

So the president, who was apparently going to announce a major change in our approach in an address to the American people before Christmas, decided January would do. He doesn't want to be rushed, and he began a "listening tour" - meetings at the Pentagon, at the State Department, with retired generals, with "experts." He was looking for someone to agree with him - winning it all was the only alternative - and has been swamped with views as to how to define winning and how to get there. Of course, more and more it appears he will opt for a big bump in troop levels, to get things in Baghdad under control. But that too may just be buying time. One way or another we will leave, sooner or later.

Richard Cohen at the Post puts it bluntly -
[T]he ending is inevitable. We will get out, and the only question that remains is whether we get out with 3,000 dead or 4,000 or 5,000. At some point the American people will not countenance, and Congress will not support, a war that cannot be won. Just how many lives will be wasted in what we all know is a wasted effort is about the only question still left on the table.
And maybe that is why the Baker-Hamilton report slipped into irrelevancy so quickly. It really didn't matter much. What's done is done.

Mark Morford in the San Francisco Chronicle sees it this way -
The good news is, we're all back in harmony. All back on the same page. No more divisiveness and no more silly bickering and no more nasty and indignant red state/blue state rock throwing because we're finally all back in cozy let's-hug-it-out agreement: The "war" in Iraq is over. And what's more, we lost. Very, very badly.

Sure, you sort of sensed from the beginning that we couldn't possibly win a bogus war launched by a nasty slew of corrupt pseudo cowboys against both a bitterly contorted Islamic nation and a vague and ill-defined concept that has no center and no boundaries and that feeds on the very thing that tries to destroy it. It was sort of obvious, even if half the nation was terrifically blinded by Bush administration lies and false shrieks of impending terror.

But now it's official. Or rather, more official. Now it's pretty much agreed upon on both sides of the aisle and in every Iraq Study Group and by every top-ranking general and newly minted defense secretary-designate and in every facet of American culture save some of the gun-totin' flag-lickin' South. We lost. And what's more, we have no real clue what to do about it.
We're not supposed to lose. We cannot accept that. That's not how things are supposed to be. We are strong, and righteous, and good. And no one can question our intentions - rid the Middle East of a brutal dictator and introduce the only system of government that really works - a secular free-market democracy - and see it spread an the dominos fall (the dominos being the autorotation governments in all the nations in the region). Of course these were not precisely what we had originally said were the reasons we chose to wage this particular war. But when, in the end, there were no weapons of mass destruction, and no connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, they would do.

And who could question the second wave of reasons for what we did and what we are doing, whatever it is? Ask what we are doing and you know what you'll have thrown back in you face. So you think Saddam was a good man, do you? So tell me, why do you hate democracy so much? There's not much to say to that.

But something went wrong. Morford works on that -
It's not like we were overpowered. We weren't outmanned or outgunned or outstrategized, hence we weren't defeated in any "traditional," kick-ass, take-names, sign-the-peace-accord way.

It wasn't because our can't-lose military didn't have the latest and greatest killing tools of all time, the biggest budget, the most heroic of baffled and misled young soldiers sort of but not really willing to go off and fight and die for a cause no one could adequately explain or justify to them.

We still have the coolest, fastest planes. We still have the meanest billion-dollar technology. We still have the most imposing tanks and the most incredible weaponry and the badass night-vision goggles with the laser sights and the thermal heat-seeking readouts and the ability to track targets from 2 miles away in a dust storm.
It doesn't matter, really, as the contention here is we no longer have any idea what we're doing on the global stage, as they say. We lost this "war" before we even began. We went in "for all the wrong reasons and with all the wrong planning and with all the wrong leadership who had all the wrong motives based on all the wrong greedy self-serving insular faux cowboy BS that your kids and your grandkids will be paying for until about the year 2056."

Yeah. This is a left-wing rant, but it has its moments -
Maybe you don't agree. Maybe you say, "Wait, wait, wait, it's not over at all, and we haven't lost yet. Isn't the fighting still raging? Can't we still 'win' even though we're still losing soldiers by the truckload and thousands of innocent Iraqis are being brutally slaughtered every month and isn't Dubya still standing there, brow scrunched and confounded as a monkey clinging onto a shiny razor blade, refusing to let go and free us from the deadly trap, ignoring the Iraq Study Group and trying to figure out a way to stay the course and never give in and "mission accomplished" even as every single human around him, from the top generals to crusty old James Baker to the new and shockingly honest secretary of defense, says we are royally screwed and Iraq is now a vicious and chaotic civil war and it's officially one of the worst disasters in American history?" Oh wait, you just answered your own question.

Yes, technically, the war is still on. The fighting is not over.

… But the nasty us-versus-them, good-versus-evil ideology is over. Ditto the numb sense of Bush's brutally simpleminded American "justice." Any lingering hint of anything resembling a truly valid and lucid and deeply patriotic reason for wasting a trillion dollars and thousands of lives and roughly an entire generation's worth of international respect? Gone.

What's left is one lingering, looming question: How do we accept defeat? How do we deal with the awkward, identity-mauling, ego-stomping idea that, once again, America didn't "win" a war it really had no right to launch in the first place? After all, isn't this the American slogan: "We may not always be right, but we are never wrong"?

It's still our most favorite idea, the thing our own childlike president loves to talk most about, burned into our national consciousness like a bad tattoo: We always win. We're the good guys. We're the chosen ones. We're the goddamn cavalry, flying the flag of truth, wrapped in strip malls and Ford pickups and McDonald's franchises. Right?

Wrong. If Vietnam's aftermath proved anything, it's that we are incredibly crappy losers.
There's more of this, but you get the idea. It's not exactly measured analysis. But we are crappy losers.

So we won't lose. In January the president is set to announce "The New Way Forward" - which may be the "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" with a new cover, the National Strategy from November 30, 2005, the day the president explained it all at Naval Academy in Annapolis. At least the new name has been chosen, even if it sounds a bit like a name Mao would have chosen. And it will surely be a double-down. We send in fifty thousand more troops. We give it one last shot (before the next "one last shot" and the one after that). We have to try. We will not accept defeat. No desperate scenes of helicopters on the rooftops this time, ferrying our last folks out and kicking the locals off the skids.

The problem, as Glenn Greenwald points out, is the usual. The devil is in the details -
The only specific plan one ever hears from them is that we can go and kill Moqtada al-Sadr, but that is certainly something we can accomplish without more troops. Independently, is killing one of the most popular and powerful Shiite leaders really going to help stabilize Iraq and help us achieve our goals? While that would be very emotionally and psychologically fulfilling to some, doesn't that choice seem far more likely to have the opposite effect - which is almost certainly the reason we haven't done it since 2003?

The problem with fighting insurgencies, of course, is that they are blended into the population itself. They aren't sitting in a field somewhere waiting to be engaged by more brigades. The problem we've had isn't a lack of desire and attempt to kill insurgents. That's what our soldiers have been doing in Iraq for almost four years now. The problem is that you can't actually end insurgencies using military force without using extremely indiscriminate force that slaughters enormous numbers of civilians, and flattening whole neighborhoods wholesale is one of the few things we haven't done during the Bush presidency.

Isn't all this talk about "more resolve" and "doing what needs to be done" - while it is masquerading around as a strategic call for "more troops" - really about demanding that we step up the indiscriminate bombing, violence and killing, including - especially - of civilians, based on the theory, as immoral as it is misguided, that that is the real way we will "win the war" and drive "our enemies into submission"?

As bad as this war is being managed now, the only thing that's certain is that whatever "new way forward" the President is about to embrace is only going to make things much, much worse.
But then that is not losing. And that seems to be the new definition of winning. It will have to do. The president has bet everything he is on this war. And he's about to ask for one hundred twenty billion dollars - extra, supplemental, off-budget - to continue. There's no way congress can turn this down. Our kids are over there, fighting, and we cannot abandon them. And if you don't agree to fighting, you agree to losing. That's the simple-minded dialectic. The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group tried to uncouple that dialectic, suggesting third or fourth or fifth alternatives. But the thing cannot be uncoupled - if you're not fighting you accept losing. Said over and over again, it is a bit hypnotic. We don't like complexity. Keep it simple.

So we must keep on fighting. If we don't, we accept losing. Heck, it worked in Vietnam.

No, wait, it didn't. Could there be a basic logical fallacy here? Not many Americans studied symbolic logic in college, and few who did enjoyed it. But sometimes the oddest of subjects is surprisingly useful. A is not necessarily the opposite of B, even if the words for each seem to imply that. You have to think these things through. The opposite of "fighting" is not necessarily "losing." Many other words could be the opposite of "fighting" - peace, cooperation, even scheming and trickery. One link is as valid as any other. You'd be a fool to not see you're being duped when you're told the "one alternative" is the only alternative.

But the president has bet everything he is on this war, and now on this limited dialectic. We're just along for the ride, and no one is going to impeach him for getting us into this mess, and for our twenty-five thousand casualties, including nearly three thousand dead, and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead (depending on who is keeping count). So we bear no responsibility, or, perhaps we do -
What should we say about the political system? Does America have a collective conscience, or are we absolved, as individuals, of any responsibility as long as we can say we didn't vote for George W. Bush? I'll call the question one more time: If he as the head of our national entity committed crimes against the nation and humanity, and the crimes become known, is he allowed to ride out his term in office, or do we act to remove him? … the founders put a safeguard in the Constitution to protect against elected "despots and tyrants." The safeguard, mentioned six times, is the impeachment option.

As to the question of a collective national conscience, I received an email from a reader who I think eloquently expresses the importance of collective responsibility for Iraq, but who perhaps disagrees with me about the need to impeach.

"… Everyone focuses on Bush's refusal to accept responsibility for what he's done, and that's really important. But the same thing is necessary for the country as a whole.

"This isn't some abstract thing, or just a desire to see the nation do penance for its crimes. It affects the way we see the conflict now and our options.

"This whole mess was caused by problems over here, in this country - our own inability to understand other culture, things that are broken in our political system, problems with our own press, the ease with which such an ugly war was sold to the public as a whole, etc.

"But when we talk about what to do next, we take this patronizing attitude - the Iraqis have to learn this, or isn't it unfortunate that they didn't go through the enlightenment, or the Iraqi government has to learn that we can't do it forever, they'll have to step up and 'take responsibility.' Like a suburban dad teaching a kid how to ride a bike, we'll have to take off the training wheels.

"As far as I'm concerned, we need to do two things. We need to internalize the reality of what's happened - that our aggression caused these deaths, and that it caused the ongoing chaos.

"And we need to take our obligation to our victims seriously. Right now, that means trying to structure policies so that as few Iraqis die every day as possible. The civilian death toll has to be the dominant metric.

"A while back, I was thinking about whether or not Bush lied to get us in to this war, or if he was just spinning very hard and went right up to the line. I think he lied, but I decided that it doesn't really matter.

"When 665,000+ people have been killed, what difference does a lie make, one way or another? To put it another way, if he didn't lie, would things be better? The body count dwarfs conventional morality, and the ideas we have about right and wrong in our personal spheres don't necessarily make much sense on the level where Bush is operating.

"When this is over, Bush will probably have been responsible for more than a million deaths. Probably a lot more than a million. Does it matter if he lied, or if he's censured or impeached? If he's forced out of office six months early, and Cheney runs out the clock, will the dead come back? It would be a farce to say that justice had been done - what kind of justice can balance the books on a million deaths?

"It doesn't address the core problems - one of which is that people are still dying. The other core problem is that we are a paranoid, warlike country, and our public was willing to follow Bush down this path.

"If you listen to the populist right on talk radio now, you'll hear that they're defiant, unbowed, totally delusional, and filled with hatred. And many millions of our fellow citizens listen every day, nod their heads, and say, 'damn straight.' That's what we have to try to fix, although I have to confess I have no idea of how to do it.

"Listen to the debate about what to do now - there is absolutely no sense of shame in any of it. That's what we have to fix. Our actions have lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and we are not ashamed."
Fix that? Fat chance. And, as before, we're not supposed to lose. We cannot accept that. That's not how things are supposed to be. And we certainly don't accept shame. We, it is said, have nothing to be ashamed of, or for, or whatever preposition you'd like. That sort of thing, shame, is for the "hate America" crowd. And the Baker-Hamilton report stank of it. Logic and chauvinistic patriotism seldom meet, of course. Non-chauvinistic patriotism - we can do better - is another matter. But then that is ridiculed these days. Take that off the table, with the logic.

Still, things are as they are. And it all may be just a global clash of emotions, or so says Dominique Moïsi, a senior adviser at the French Institute of International Relations. The link here is to an article in the December 15 issue of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, a cut-down version of what will appear in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs.

The thesis is up front - "The Western world displays a culture of fear, the Arab and Muslim worlds are trapped in a culture of humiliation, and much of Asia displays a culture of hope." The rest is detail.

Some of the detail -
The United States and Europe are divided by a common culture of fear. On both sides, one encounters, in varying degrees, a fear of the other, a fear of the future and a fundamental anxiety about the loss of identity and control over one's destiny in an increasingly complex world.

In the case of Europe, there is the fear of being invaded by the poor, primarily from the south. Europeans also fear being blown up by radical Islamists or being demographically conquered by them as their continent becomes a "Eurabia." Then there is the fear of being left behind economically. Finally, there is the fear of being ruled by an outside power, even a friendly one (such as the United States) or a faceless one (such as the European Commission).

Some of the same sense of loss of control is present in the United States. Demographic fears are mitigated, but they are clearly present. Americans do not fear economic decay the way Europeans do (although they worry about outsourcing). Yet they, too, are thinking of decline - in their bodies, with the plague of obesity; in their budgets, with the huge deficits; and in their spirit, with the loss of appetite for foreign adventures and a growing questioning of national purpose. And of course after 9/11, Americans are obsessed with security.

Whereas Europeans try to protect themselves from the world through a combination of escapism and appeasement, Americans try to do so by dealing with the problem at its source abroad. But behind the Bush administration's forceful and optimistic rhetoric lies the somber reality that the U.S. response to 9/11 has made the United States more unpopular than ever. The U.S. intervention in Iraq, for example, has generated more problems than it has solved.

The Muslim world, meanwhile, has been obsessed with decay for centuries. When Europe was in its Middle Ages, Islam was at its apogee, but when the Western Renaissance started, Islam began its inexorable fall.
And so it goes. It's a new way of looking at things. It may be useful.

There's far more detail. It's an interesting read, but the conclusion is key -
Given the global clash of emotions, the first priority for the West must be to recognize the nature of the threat that the Muslim world's culture of humiliation poses to Europe and the United States. Neither appeasement nor force alone will suffice. The war that is unfolding is one that the culture of humiliation cannot win, but it is a war nonetheless and one that the West can lose by continuing to be divided or by betraying its liberal values and its respect for law and the individual. The challenge is not figuring out how to play moderate Islam against the forces of radicalism. It is figuring out how to encourage a sufficient sense of hope and progress in Muslim societies so that despair and anger do not send the masses into the radicals' arms.

In that regard, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears more than ever as a microcosm of what the world is becoming. Israel is the West, surrounded by the culture of humiliation and dreaming of escape from a dangerous region and of re-entry into a culture of hope. But it must find a solution to the Palestinian problem first, or else the escape will not be possible. So, too, Europe and America seek to permanently banish their fears but will be able to do so only by finding a way to help the Muslim world solve its problems.
So maybe the opposite of "fighting" is not necessarily "losing," nor is it peace, cooperation or even scheming and trickery. Maybe it's helping (if you can do that without being a patronizing asshole with an agenda) - unless "helping" is really "losing." It gets confusing when absolutely everything else is "losing."

Logic traps can be really irritating. But sometimes losing can be winning. Refusing to be goaded into a fight, and then applying logic, and then humor and compassion, and thus gaining a grudging ally, if not a friend, we are told is really losing. And we bought into that for five years? What were we thinking? What are we still thinking?

Posted by Alan at 22:55 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 15 December 2006 07:09 PST home

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