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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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Saturday, 18 November 2006
Things Change
Topic: Perspective
Things Change
Looking back on the week, some things people have said about change -

"In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." - Al Rogers

"The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance." - Alan Watts

"'One and one make two' assumes that the changes in the shift of circumstance are unimportant. But it is impossible for us to analyze this notion of unimportant change. - Alfred North Whitehead

"Change lays not her hand upon truth." - Algernon Swinburne

"The things that have come into being change continually. The man with a good memory remembers nothing because he forgets nothing. - Augusto Roa Bastos

"Change is one thing, progress is another. 'Change' is scientific, 'progress' is ethical; change is indubitable, whereas progress is a matter of controversy. - Bertrand Russell

"Change begets change. Nothing propagates so fast. If a man habituated to a narrow circle of cares and pleasures, out of which he seldom travels, step beyond it, though for never so brief a space, his departure from the monotonous scene on which he has been an actor of importance would seem to be the signal for instant confusion. ... The mine which Time has slowly dug beneath familiar objects is sprung in an instant; and what was rock before, becomes but sand and dust." - Charles Dickens

"If you don't pay attention to the periphery, the periphery changes and the first thing you know the periphery is the center." - Dean Rusk

"Instead of giving a politician the keys to the city, it might be better to change the locks." - Doug Larson

"If you don't change your beliefs, your life will be like this forever. Is that good news?" - Robert Anthony

"All change is not growth; all movement is not forward. - Ellen Glasgow

"Men make the mistake of thinking that because women can't see the sense in violence, they must be passive creatures. It's just not true. In one important way, at least, men are the passive sex. Given a choice, they will always opt for the status quo. They hate change of any kind, and they fight against it constantly. On the other hand, what women want is stability, which when you stop to think about it is a very different animal." - Eric Lustbader, The Kaisho

"Money is always there but the pockets change." - Gertrude Stein

"He who rejects change is the architect of decay." - Harold Wilson

"I soon found out you can't change the world. The best you can do is to learn to live with it." - Henry Miller

"What I possess I would gladly retain. Change amuses the mind, yet scarcely profits." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"Men may change their climate, but they cannot change their nature. A man that goes out a fool cannot ride or sail himself into common sense." - Joseph Addison

"People change and forget to tell each other." - Lillian Hellman

"We are restless because of incessant change, but we would be frightened if change were stopped." - Lyman L. Bryson

"I don't think that a leader can control to any great extent his destiny. Very seldom can he step in and change the situation if the forces of history are running in another direction." - Richard Nixon "A man will never change his mind if he have no mind to change.' - Richard Whately

"Why abandon a belief merely because it ceases to be true? Cling to it long enough and it will turn true again, for so it goes. Most of the change we think we see in life is due to truths being in and out of favor." - Robert Frost

"Such is the state of life, that none are happy but by the anticipation of change: the change itself is nothing; when we have made it, the next wish is to change again. The world is not yet exhausted; let me see something tomorrow which I never saw before." - Samuel Johnson

"Men are always sincere. They change sincerities, that's all." - Tristan Bernard

"People who are easily shocked should be shocked more often." - Mae West

"What's the use of a good quotation if you can't change it?" - Doctor Who

Posted by Alan at 14:14 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
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Friday, 17 November 2006
Notes from All Over
Topic: Perspective
Notes from All Over
Just some end of the week notes from various places - Tennessee, Binghamton in south central New York, from a Brit correspondent in Washington, what the Miami Herald reports is planned at Guantanamo, and a reaction from Berlin citing what the attorneys from Seaton Hall in central New Jersey think about such things. Friday, November 17, 2006 - it's a small world after all (don't think of the song).

The Tennessee item is very odd. That would be Deep-Fried American Flags Ruled Bad Taste -
CLARKSVILLE, Tennessee (AP) - A museum director in this military town removed an art exhibit that featured several deep-fried American flags.

Art student William Gentry said his piece, "The Fat Is in the Fire," was a commentary on obesity in America. "I deep-fried the flag because I'm concerned about America and about America's health," Gentry said.

Customs House Museum executive director Ned Crouch took down the artwork Wednesday, less than 18 hours after it went up in this community next to Fort Campbell.

"It's about what the community values," Crouch said. "I'm representing 99 percent of our membership - educators, doctors, lawyers, military families."

He also said the timing of the piece could cause "incendiary reactions."
Of course you can click on the link and read on, if you wish. You'll find a description of the works and a few reactions.

The symbolism is delicious, so to speak. But it is too bad the items in question are only about obesity. In so many ways right now, regarding America, the fat really is in the fryer, what with Iraq in chaos, the Democrats about to take control of Congress and change everything, the president in Vietnam saying the war there decades ago has taught us all a valuable lesson regarding the war now in Iraq - you can't win if you quit (obviously he's unaware of the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions). The South Koreans then announced they'd not join us interdicting all shipping in and out of North Korea - they'd listened politely to what Bush had to say about really isolating and punishing their northern cousins, and decided he was on what they think is the wrong tract. They're more into diplomacy. So the Asian summit was not going well. Ah well, at least the food was great.

But they didn't serve deep-fried American flags. In the months before the midterm elections the Republican House and Senate had of course decided the war and the economy and immigration reform and what some call the healthcare crisis were really not the issues we should worry about. The summer brought us what they said the real threat to America, and proposed starting the process of changing the Constitution of the United States to ban gay marriage and ban flag burning - making that a carve-out to that freedom of speech business that pesky people like to claim. Both efforts failed, and the clumsy attempt to "change the subject" probably wasn't the best way to tee up for the November elections. Some someone thought it was worth a try. No one at the time even mentioned banning deep-frying the flag. It might have made the long speeches a bit more interesting, but it probably wouldn't have helped. And, wouldn't you know, someone actually did it. Amazing.

And then, by way of James Wolcott at Vanity Fair, we have some distressing observations from SUNY-Binghamton, actually from Immanuel Wallerstein at the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Gee, the last time I was in Binghamton was back in the late seventies. I was recording with an "alternative" band - a reggae version of the Stone's "I Can't Get No Satisfaction," the unchanged lyrics sung by a chubby lesbian. My job was to do the bass line on tenor saxophone - overdubbed three times so there was three of me. Actually, the thing worked well - Bob Marley meets an inside-out version of Mick Jagger. Maybe you had to be there. A tape is available upon request.

But serious things also happen there in Binghamton, it seems. Wallerstein, at the center with the long name, observed we're in for some trouble -
On November 7, the Republican Party lost the midterm elections. As Bush himself said, in all the close races, the margin was very slight, but overall it was a "thumping." The degree of thumping is underlined by the fact that, after the elections, Bush's poll ratings went down still further.

This will box in Bush's options and range of movement, particularly abroad.

The one thing that is sure is that there will be no U.S. troops in Iraq as we approach the 2008 elections. The voters and the military made that clear in the 2006 election. Of course there will be a massive blame game - among Republicans as to who lost the 2006 elections, and between Democrats and Republicans as to who lost Iraq. But the word on everyone's mind is "lost."

We can also be sure that bombing either North Korea or Iran is off the real agenda (including for Israel). The U.S. armed forces and the U.S. electorate will not tolerate it (not to speak of the rest of the world). Where will this leave the United States as a world power? It will probably result in a big push towards drawing inward. Already, in the 2006 elections, many candidates won by opposing "free trade" and Iraq was a dirty word. The political temptation will be to go local in emphasis. One of the major side effects will be a notable reduction in U.S. support for Israeli foreign policy, which will be wrenching for Israel.

The Democrats are united on internal economic legislation - higher minimum wages, better and more affordable health care, financial aid to college students. They are also going to push ecology issues and medical advances (stem cell research, for example). If the Republicans hope to recuperate strength, they will have to move their economic program as well as their program on social issues somewhat in a centrist direction.

The result, as is already obvious, is to create major turmoil in the Republican Party, while reducing it in the Democratic Party - the exact opposite of what has been the case in the last decade. And in early 2009, George W. Bush will fade into the wilderness, remembered (if we bother) for being the front man for the mother of all defeats - in Iraq, in the world-system, and at home for the Republican Party.
The midterm elections did all that? That's pretty grim. Everything has indeed changed.

And Wolcott is worried - "But will Bush recede into the night? Bush-in-a-box - contents under pressure - could become an explosive property if not properly handled."

And that leads to even more distressing news from Andrew Stephen, Washington correspondent for the New Statesman (UK, which explains the spelling). Maybe it's not really news, just hints at trouble ahead -
I was asked on BBC radio a couple of days ago whether Democratic victories would temper Bush's recklessness. I replied that I could answer that only if I could peer into the strange mind of a 60-year-old recovering alcoholic named George W Bush

Rumours persist here (and I have heard them repeated at a very senior level in the UK, too) that Bush has actually resumed drinking; I throw this into the mix not to sensationalise, but because I have now heard the rumour repeated at a sufficiently high level that I believe we must face the possibility that it might be true.

Bush was huddled inside the White House eating beef and ice cream on election night with Rove, my friend Josh Bolten, and four other trusted aides who will stick with him to the end. He was not drinking on this occasion, I'm assured - but, more than ever, my depiction of an unstable man living out his final days in office inside his bunker seem no longer to be fanciful. Hemmed in by Democratic foes wherever he looks, determined to be remembered in history as an unwaveringly strong leader, and increasingly detached from reality: now that suddenly becomes a very frightening vision indeed.
Damn. It's that Nixon thing, again. And we get Kissinger in the mix too. As is often said - History always repeats itself, and that's the trouble with history. Maybe it had to be this way. Bummer. Here we go again.

As for things elsewhere, like Cuba, the end of the week news brought this -
The U.S. military on Friday said it plans to build a $125 million compound at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base where it hopes to hold war-crimes trials for terror suspects by the middle of next year.

The compound, designed to accommodate as many as 1,200 people, would include dining areas, work spaces and sleeping accommodations for administrative personnel, lawyers, journalists and others involved in trials at the isolated detention center in southeast Cuba.

It would create a total of three courtrooms on the base to allow for simultaneous trials, and a separate high-security area to house the detainees on trial.

"We need to build more courtrooms, and we want to do multiple trials," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Chito Peppler, a Pentagon spokesman. He said the government hopes to begin construction as soon as possible to be ready for trials no later than July 1.
It's a Halliburton contract of course, or will be - plans for this compound are provided in a "presolicitation notice," dated November 3 and posted on the Internet for potential government contractors. You might want to bid, if you're handy at building things around the house. This whole business was first reported by the Miami Herald, but only widely reported later.

It may not be built. Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents several hundred of Guantanamo detainees quotes as saying this - "This is a huge waste of taxpayer money. They've been trying to try people for five years, and until they try somebody according to the Constitution, nothing's going to happen there."

Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, says this compound proposed by the Pentagon is basically "a permanent homage to its failed experiment in second class justice."

We'll see. If you do bid, know that the contractor will be required to complete work by next July - including "a secure perimeter," a garage for one hundred government vehicles and a closed-circuit video transmission center. And know that the government is drafting new rules for the trials under the Military Commissions Act, which the president signed last month. The Supreme Court had declared that previous efforts to try Guantanamo detainees were unconstitutional, and might do so with whatever the administration comes up with now. It's all a bit iffy.

And that takes us to Berlin, to the November 17 meeting of the Club de Madrid, Berlin, Germany. That's where Scott Horton has a few things to say about the work of the faculty and students at Seton Hall Law School, who have examined what is happening at Guantanamo and issued that report.

Horton has this to say -
Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to read your newspaper today very carefully. In it you will find another - now the third - report prepared by faculty and students at Seton Hall Law School examining the Combat Status Review Tribunal, a board composed to confirm the status of detainees in Guantanamo. Based on its determinations, detainees may be held for indefinite periods - potentially forever. Yet, as this study reveals, most proceedings occupy only a few hours, involve no witnesses and generally little meaningful evidence of any sort. The detainees are not confronted with the accusations or evidence against them, given an opportunity to ask questions or conduct a case. Once more, the model that is adhered to is not the rich criminal or military justice system of the United States, but the model of Franz Kafka's Penal Colony. What attitude towards justice does this reveal?

I am not here to argue for release or freedom for those detained in the campaign against terror. I am arguing for justice. That is something quite different. It may well be that Majid Khan is a serious criminal responsible for crimes against humanity. It may well be that he used or promoted the use of terror as a device. If that is so, he should be charged and given a fair chance to defend himself. This trial, fairly run, will vindicate my nation's counterterrorism efforts. It will show those who are held for heinous criminals, if they are heinous criminals. It would promote the view in the world that my nation has and pursues a just cause, and treats those in its power with justice, though the justice be severe.

In the end justice is a glorious thing and the evasion of justice is shameful. But we must remember, as both Robert H. Jackson and Hannah Arendt have taught us, that this process is not simply about justice. It is also about the appearance of justice. Failing that, we run a severe risk. The penal colony may now be an island. But soon it may become the world.
Okay then, you have your American attorney in Berlin, citing the work done in a top tier New Jersey law school, referencing the work of a dead Czech Jew, regarding what we're up to in Cuba. It is a small world - and do you really want to bid on that contract?

Not up on your Kafka? Never read the Penal Colony? Horton's summary -
In the Penal Colony, a visitor - on a voyage of exploration, he says - arrives on a tropical island which serves as a penal colony. Shortly he receives an invitation from the island's military commander to witness an execution. In a drawn-out discussion, the visitor learns from an officer sent to greet him that the prisoner who is to be executed has no idea that he has been accused or charged of anything; nor of the penalty that awaits him. The penalty, in fact, is horrific - before he is executed, the prisoner is to be mutilated by a great machine designed to carve his offense in florid letters into his body. The process is a simple one, says the officer: he handles every stage of it, and there is no need for a defense - after all, says the officer, who is accuser and judge, he always starts from the premise that the accused is guilty. Indeed, are we not all guilty?

This presents a moral dilemma to the visitor. He recognizes the injustice and inhumanity of what is about to transpire. But he is after all just a visitor; moreover, a foreigner. What does all of this mean to him? Isn't it easier for him just to hold his peace and get off this island hell as quickly as he can?
Well, we're all in that position, What do Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Baghram and the Salt Pit, for instance, mean to us, after all?

But we cannot get off the island, even if more than half of us have had more than enough of this particular "military commander" and his crew and elected folks to rein things in, even if they probably cannot.

And now we cannot even deep-fry a flag in protest. What a world.

Posted by Alan at 21:28 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 18 November 2006 06:24 PST home

Thursday, 16 November 2006
The Day We Chose Sides
Topic: Iraq
The Day We Chose Sides
Finding some way to make the war in Iraq turn out in some marginally acceptable way seems to be the issue consuming Washington, and to some degree our allies in the UK - which would be the Blair government there, not the people. Blair never quite got the people of the United Kingdom to buy into the war, but he had the levers of power so that didn't matter much. What are you going to do? He had been given the decision-making power, and he decided to throw his lot in with us.

Enough people here were for the war initially. Enough of the people were convinced Saddam had nukes and deadly chemicals and nasty biological stuff - and somehow had something to with 9/11 - that the substantial numbers of those who wondered about all that were drowned out. We were told his little drone airplanes could blanket Miami or Philadelphia with anthrax or whatever. We were told about mushroom clouds. And anyway, we had to hit back at someone - we had to make a statement, and Iraq was as good a someone as any you could find. Saddam Hussein was one nasty piece of work, a mass murderer and all. It would be good to take him out, in any event. And the bad guys around the world would discover we really did hit back, and as Thomas Freidman said at the time, we needed them to know that. So we made our statement, and everything that followed turned sour.

When the original reasons for this adventure turned out to be what the software folks call vaporware, the neoconservative theory about the "New American Century" remained standing. The "making a statement" argument stood - we were the sole remaining superpower after the end of the Cold War and bad guys everywhere had to be reminded of that, dramatically, and of their own impotence, even more dramatically. Rubbing their noses in their impotence would make us safe as they slinked off with their tails between their legs and everyone laughed at them. This was an odd reading of human nature, not allowing that they might dispute our assessment of their impotence and try to prove us wrong. When they did, we applied more and more force, and continue to do so. The problem is they have done the same, in their quite irritating asymmetrical way. So we apply more force. It didn't work before - so it must be going to work in the future.

Then too, when all the other rationales evaporated, we were reminded of our role in building the "New American Century" - it was our destiny or burden, or whatever you will, to build free-market Jeffersonian democracies where there had been none before. The basic idea informing the neoconservative movement was that when the Soviet Union self-destructed and communism turned out to be a dreadful joke, it was obvious our way of running things had prevailed. It was the one system left standing, so it must be, by default, the only way to manage a society. This was The End of History and all that - "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

Francis Fukuyama said that, in 1989 and then in 1992. That was the whole idea. Iraq was to be taking that idea out for a spin - applying it. We'd plant the send of the manifestly best system of government there, and the whole region would be transformed, as everyone learned the lesson of the Cold War - only one system works, and history, which had just ended, proved it. That's now what we say we're up to.

Fukuyama has since left the neoconservative movement and decided he had been wrong. Some things that are universal and obvious are also things that are hard to set up, and may take decades of building the institutions and customs that underlie Western liberal democracy - a free press and a sense of compromise and codified basic individual rights and assured public safety and shared-cost basic services. Unlike the Manifest Destiny we proclaimed in the nineteenth century, our new mandate, our new destiny, turned out to be hard work - it wasn't just grabbing every acre out to the Pacific, killing off the Indians, and James Monroe telling the rest of the world to keep their hand off anything in the western hemisphere. This was building from scratch, in a year or two, what had evolved over centuries elsewhere.

And they thought this would work? That seems absurd. But then there were no nukes nor any deadly chemicals nor any nasty biological stuff, and Saddam Hussein seems to have had nothing to do with 9/11, and he had actually loathed and feared al Qaeda (the feeling was mutual). This would have to do for an objective - victory will be achieved when we have established, or helped establish, a Western liberal democracy in Iraq.

That's not working. We find ourselves pretty much responsible for a failed government in a nation in the middle of what looks like a brutal sectarian civil war, and now screw the Western liberal democracy thing - we'll settle for a stable government of almost any sort.

And that's the problem. What would a stable government of almost any sort look like? Do we choose sides in the civil war - supporting the folks who have the best chance of getting things under control - or do we try to get the three sides - Sunni, Shiite and Kurd - to play nice with each other?

We need to think that one through.

And we don't have much time. Consider the news the Associated Press reported Thursday, November 16 - a double-dose of grim -
The Pentagon said a convoy of civilians traveling near Nasiriyah was hijacked on Thursday, while earlier in the day the Shiite-led Interior Ministry issued an arrest warrant for the top leader of the country's Sunni minority. The move was certain to inflame already raging sectarian violence.

… An official familiar with the incident said preliminary reports being checked by the military indicated that the attack occurred at a checkpoint near Nasiriyah and that four Americans were believed to have been taken captive.
So we had the second hijack-kidnap incident of the week - and four American contactors taken - while the Shiite head of the Interior Ministry orders the arrest of the top Sunni in the country. How do we deal with this?

Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, a Shiite, announced Thursday on state television that Harith al-Dhari was wanted for "inciting terrorism and violence among the Iraqi people." And Al-Dhari is head of the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars - the biggest of big guns on that side. The idea may be to drive any moderate Sunnis out of the political system, bringing things to a head. AP notes that moderate Sunnis have been threatening for weeks to leave the government and take up arms. This may turn them, leading to an all out civil war - not just reprisal killings and cleansing neighborhood - and making it impossible for us to leave. Someone has to keep a lid on things.

Hell, the Sunnis and Shiites couldn't agree on whether all hostages had been released from a mass abduction in Baghdad two days earlier. And there was the expected reaction -
Mohammed Bashar al-Faidi, spokesman for the Sunni association, condemned the warrant for al-Dhari's arrest.

"This government should resign before the Iraqi people force it to resign," al-Faidi told Al-Jazeera television from Jordan. "The association calls on its people to be calm."

Al-Faidi accused the interior minister "of supporting terrorism by covering for (Shiite) militias that are killing the Iraqi people."
Yep, he's a bit ticked - earlier this year, the Sunni association blamed the Interior Ministry for the killing of a nephew and cousin of al-Dhari. Their bodies had turned up in a bullet-riddled van in Baghdad. These guys play for keeps.

And don't forget the Kurds. On Tuesday, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, called al-Dhari a hard-liner with "nothing to do but incite sectarian and ethnic sedition."

How did we get in the middle of this? And the arrest warrant thing has always been a problem - in April 2004 we issued an arrest warrant against Muqtada al-Sadr and got ourselves a two-week uprising by his Mahdi Army militia. Hundreds were killed. And the Shiite who runs the country and visistes the White House, Al-Maliki, will do nothing to wipe out the Mahdi Army. Al-Sadr, is a key backer of the prime minister.

And it seems this Mahdi Army is responsible for kidnapping all those people from a Higher Education Ministry office building in Baghdad on Tuesday of the week. On Thursday, the Sunni higher education minister called the Interior Ministry "a farce" for not preventing that and claimed more than half the one hundred fifty that were grabbed were still in the hands of the Shiite vigilantes. National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie, a Shiite, said everyone had been freed and said everyone was making trouble when there was none now.

Sunni guys who had been abducted and released said most of the other Sunnis had been tortured and killed -
I was lucky. They only beat me with a wooden club. Others were handcuffed and hanged from the ceiling by their wrists. They were beaten with iron bars. Others, building guards, had cotton shoved in their mouths and tape wound around their heads. They suffocated. One was shot in the back. The managers in the building and people with higher degrees, masters and doctorates, were in a different room. I could hear them screaming like women. Then it was quiet. I think they died.
And we're in the middle of this. Hanging Saddam Hussein and televising it around the world close-up for all the gory details, isn't going to make this all better. William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard and chief spokesman for the whole neoconservative movement, famously said that people know nothing and always engage in cheap pop psychology, but really, there has never been any history of conflict and strife between Sunni and Shiite in Iraq - folks were just wrong about that. Wrong - but even if he had been right, there is conflict and strife now. And we have to deal with it.

That same day in Baghdad gunmen fired on a bakery, killing nine people. It's a Sunni thing - most bakeries in the capital are run by Shiites. And we lost four more of ours that day - 2,862 at that point, and 44 through November 16. Now what? The president picked a hell of a day to finally make it to Vietnam, about forty years late. All the levels of irony are just too obvious.

But there may be a plan. Laura Rozen in the still functioning, for now, Los Angeles Times, reported that same day that the Bush national security team met over the Veterans Day weekend, quite secretly, to discuss options for Iraq. National security advisor Stephen Hadley seems to have set the agenda for the meeting, and it was all about choosing sides -
Numerous policy options were put forward at the meeting, which revolved around a strategy paper prepared by Hadley and drawn from his recent trip to Baghdad. One was the Shiite option. Participants were asked to consider whether the U.S. could really afford to keep fighting both the Sunni insurgency and Shiite militias - or whether it should instead focus its efforts on combating the Sunni insurgency exclusively, and even help empower the Shiites against the Sunnis.

... So what's the logic behind the idea of "unleashing the Shiites"? It's the path of least resistance, according to its supporters, and it could help accelerate one side actually winning Iraq's sectarian conflict, thereby shortening the conflict, while reducing some of the critical security concerns driving Shiites to mobilize their own militias in the first place.
Ah, so that's why the Shiite head of the Interior Ministry ordered the arrest of the top Sunni. We may have stepped back and said fine, do it, knock yourself out. If we let the Sunnis go - hell, let them use gas chambers - we'll get some stability and find a way to finally step back and fade away, little by little. Someone's got to pay the price to get us out of this mess. They'll do.

Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly understands -
Would this be an appalling strategy to follow? Of course it would. Appalling options are all that's left to us in Iraq.

More to the point: is it worse than the other options at our disposal? Or, alternatively, is it slightly less bad? I'd guess the former. There's not much question that Shiite forces are eventually going to wipe out the Sunni insurgency, but it's probably slightly better for them to do it on their own instead of doing it with our active help, something that would alienate every Sunni in the Middle East. And don't think that we might be able to keep this a secret. Even if our support for this strategy were never publicly acknowledged, there's not much question that everyone in the region would understand perfectly well what was going on.

Such is the moral calculus we're left with in Iraq. It's not a battle between good and bad, it's a battle between bad and worse.
So we piss off our Sunni allies over there - the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Gulf States. They'll get over it. We're in a jam.

David Kurtz says this -
There are other policy options on the table, but so far "the last big push" and "the tilt" are the two we've seen most publicly articulated.

Are the lame names for these strategies indicative of how poor the policy options are?
Yes. That was easy. (The "the last big push" idea was discussed here.)

Matthew Yglesias just offers common sense -
Let me merely point out that our occupation of Iraq has now gone on for so long that this, like essentially every other idea, has already had its moment in the sun. After the heady days of the Early Bremer period, we attempted a Sunni Placation Strategy during Iyad Allawi's administration. Then, at some point during the Ibrahim Jafari Era the decision was made that we needed to be backing the forces of "democracy" in Iraq (i.e., the Shiites) against their adversaries. We eventually wound up backtracking on that, and have spent much of Nouri al-Maliki's administration attempting a return to the Sunni Placation Strategy, complete with the resumption of on-again, off-again warfare against Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers.

And so, sure, why not tilt back again? Then again, why not leave?
That's a thought. But we can't do that.

Posted by Alan at 21:53 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 16 November 2006 21:57 PST home

Wednesday, 15 November 2006
Echoes of the Past
Topic: Making Use of History
Echoes of the Past
Wednesday, November 15, 2006, General John Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States needs to maintain - or possibly increase - current troop levels in Iraq because it has only "four to six months" left to stop sectarian violence from spiraling completely out of control.

For those of us of a certain age this sounds awfully familiar. Iraq is not Vietnam, of course. There was support for the French (pretty much secret), then when they were gone, advisors, then a few troops, then a few more, then a few more. As the numbers got really large, the explanation was always the same - a jump in troop levels will settle this thing once and for all, and rather quickly, so trust us on that. We topped out at six hundred fifty thousand, and that Vietnam business didn't work out well. And they didn't even have oil reserves.

Here we go again. The twist this time is the timeline involved isn't ambiguous at all. We have six months. It's always six months.

Tim Grieve does the heavy lifting, with Stop Us If You've Heard This One Before. The "next six months" are always critical in Iraq. And it's getting a bit absurd - in that Samuel Beckett way. Those two fellows may be waiting, but Godot never shows up.

Grieve notes that Tony Blair told reporters in January 2004 that Iraq was about to enter "a very critical six months." (That's here.) Republican Senator Hagel said "the next six months will be very critical" in August 2005, and Joseph Biden, the Democratic Senator, said "the next six months are going to tell the story" in December 2005. Who are you going to believe? Our ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said in July that "the next six months will be critical in terms of reining in the danger of civil war." (That's here.) Last month General Casey said that "the next six months will determine the future of Iraq." (That's here.)

And the left on the web, led by Duncan Black, has a great deal of fun with Thomas Freidman of the New York Times. Freidman has a record of, for years, saying "the next six months in Iraq are critical." It's all documented. Many now sarcastically talk about progress in Iraq in a new time unit - a Freidman. Abizaid is saying with have one Freidman or less to get this fixed. The intended effect of such a die warning gets blunted. Your eyes glaze over and you silently mutter, been there, done that.

You just can't keep saying that, twice a year, year after year. "No, no - really - this time it's true!" Whatever.

Tim Grieve suggests a reframing -
Maybe the next six months in Iraq really will be the critical ones. Maybe they won't be. But here's a modest proposal either way. Instead of talking about the future of Iraq in terms of months - hey, we'd all like a little more time! - let's quantify it a different way. At the current rate of things, six additional months in Iraq means that 416 more U.S. soldiers will die. Are we willing to bet their lives on the odds that the six monthers are finally right this time?
That may be the essential question. A Freidman is actually four hundred sixteen deal soldiers - our guys. In May tell us again this will only take another four hundred sixteen. Tell their families.

But the pressure is on for more troops. Robert Kagan and William Kristol in the Sunday, November 12, Financial Times, say Bush Must Call for Reinforcements in Iraq. They suggest fifty thousand more - minimum. Senator McCain, who badly wants to be the next president, has said he thinks twenty thousand more would fix things right up - "We're either going to lose this thing or win this thing within the next several months." We've only got one Freidman after all.

He's on the Senate Armed Services Committee and tried to get General Abizaid to admit the he, John McCain, was right after all. That didn't go so well -
MCCAIN: Did you note that General Zinny who opposed of the invasion now thinks that we should have more troops? Did you notice that General Batise, who was opposed to the conduct of this conflict also says that we may need tens and thousands of additional troops. I don't understand General. When you have a part of Iraq that is not under our control and yet we still - as Al Anbar province is - I don't know how many American lives have been sacrificed in Al Anbar province - but we still have enough and we will rely on the ability to train the Iraqi military when the Iraqi army hasn't send the requested number of battalions into Baghdad.

ABIZAID: Senator McCain, I met with every divisional commander, General Casey, the core commander, General Dempsey, we all talked together. And I said, in your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American Troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq? And they all said no. And the reason is because we want the Iraqis to do more. It is easy for the Iraqis to rely upon to us do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.
Abizaid might just as well have called him a fool. Or maybe he was just being realistic -
Abizaid added that, even if it were in Iraq's best interest to increase the presence of U.S. forces, it would be difficult for the Pentagon to find additional combat troops without increasing the size of the active-duty military.
We don't have the troops. But then McCain is positioning himself for a presidential run. Cut him some slack. If things are going the way they seem to be going, McCain needs to be able to say, in September 2007, somewhere in Ohio or Colorado, that he SAID we needed more troops, and look what happened. He'll seem very wise and patriotic.

Abizaid probably understood quite clearly what was going on. It's a civilian thing. And Abizaid was reasonably polite.

But McCain needn't work on his positioning. The convention wisdom is that the Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton Iraq Study Group, in combination with Robert Gates taking Rumsfeld's job at the Pentagon, will save the day in Iraq. Baker and Gates are daddy's guys - sent in to save Junior. They'll fix things.

Apparently Junior isn't too happy. Robin Wright in the Washington Post broke the story that the administration has suddenly stared up its own study group, a parallel organization to offer better recommendations than daddy's guys. Or maybe not -
The two reviews are not competitive, administration officials said, although the White House wants to complete the process before mid-December, about the time the Iraq Study Group's final report is expected.

The White House's decision changes the dynamics of what happens next to U.S. policy deliberations. The administration will have its own working document as well as recommendations from an independent bipartisan commission to consider as it struggles to prevent further deterioration in Iraq.
Right. See Stephen Colbert's take on that in this video clip - and Colbert aired that before anyone know about "the alternative" Iraq Study Group. It's not so funny a day later.

David Kurtz adds some realism by checking everyone's odd assumptions -
(1) That the ISG recommendations will be substantive, well-founded, and more than mere political cover for a change of strategy yet to be unveiled. Perhaps they will be prudent recommendations, but I don't know why anyone would assume that yet.

(2) That the Administration will first embrace and then effectively implement the ISG recommendations. This assumption seems wildly at odds with this Administration's track record in both respects….

(3) That Bob Gates is going to make a dramatic difference over the next two years. First, I remember the last time we were promised wisdom, experience, and a steady hand from a member of Bush 41's old team. That was Dick Cheney. Second, the options available to the U.S. for proceeding in the Middle East range from very bad to horrendous. Neither Gates nor anyone else is going to be able to clean up this mess in the next two years.

(4) That things can't get any worse. Things can always get worse. We could see Turkey and Iran militarily staking claims to parts of Iraqi territory. We could have terrorist brigades from Iraq running missions into Saudi Arabia and Jordan to destabilize the regimes there. Iran could assert itself militarily in the Gulf. The Middle East is Murphy's Law squared.

(5) That the sooner we start implementing the ISG recommendations, the sooner our troops come home and the more American lives will be saved. First, see (1) through (4) above. Second, I still have a hard time envisioning a Republican Administration bringing home all the troops in short order and leaving oil-rich Iraq in chaos in the midst of a vital oil-producing region. We may very well witness a spike in the number of American troop causalities in the process of trying to extricate ourselves or in the process of trying to prevent a larger regional conflict.
And the assumptions don't matter. Late in the evening there was breaking news. The president will preempt Senator McCain. The decision has been made. It's escalation -
President George Bush has told senior advisers that the US and its allies must make "a last big push" to win the war in Iraq and that instead of beginning a troop withdrawal next year, he may increase US forces by up to 20,000 soldiers, according to sources familiar with the administration's internal deliberations.

Mr Bush's refusal to give ground, coming in the teeth of growing calls in the US and Britain for a radical rethink or a swift exit, is having a decisive impact on the policy review being conducted by the Iraq Study Group chaired by Bush family loyalist James Baker, the sources said.
Yeah, it will have a decisive impact - Baker's group will be left flat-footed. The president has decided. He's the decider.

So the word is - if you read this carefully - that Vice President Cheney has sat down with Baker and told him what's really going to happen. We're sending in twenty thousand more troops. Go tell the former president, daddy, to go hang around with his new buddy Bill Clinton and play golf or whatever he wants.

What we find out is that it now goes like this -
  • Increase US troop levels by up to 20,000 to secure Baghdad and allow redeployments elsewhere in Iraq
  • Focus on regional cooperation with international conference and/or direct diplomatic involvement of countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia
  • Revive reconciliation process between Sunni, Shia and others
  • Increased resources from Congress to fund training and equipment of Iraqi security forces
No talks with Iran or Syria, only with the good guys, and it's time "to draw a line in the sand and defy Democratic pressure for a swift drawdown." No one tells this guy what to do.

And the president takes no crap from anyone -
To the certain dismay of US neo-cons, initial post-invasion ideas about imposing fully-fledged western democratic standards will be set aside. And the report is expected to warn that de facto tripartite partition within a loose federal system, as advocated by Democratic senator Joe Biden and others would lead not to peaceful power-sharing but a large-scale humanitarian crisis.
So no "democracy" talk any more, and no partitions - just brute force.

And there's the force of will -
"You've got to remember, whatever the Democrats say, it's Bush still calling the shots. He believes it's a matter of political will. That's what [Henry] Kissinger told him. And he's going to stick with it," a former senior administration official said. "He [Bush] is in a state of denial about Iraq. Nobody else is any more. But he is. But he knows he's got less than a year, maybe six months, to make it work. If it fails, I expect the withdrawal process to begin next fall."
So everyone is wrong, and their ideas evil, and Henry Kissinger is whispering in his ear. It's like old times. Maybe he'll bomb Cambodia while he's at it. Oliver Stone can make a film about it later. Can Anthony Hopkins play a Texan?

The official quoted in the item isn't happy -
Bush has said "no" to withdrawal, so what else do you have? The Baker report will be a set of ideas, more realistic than in the past, that can be used as political tools. What they're going to say is: lower the goals, forget about the democracy crap, put more resources in, do it.
Well, it is decisive. And it makes the Iraq Study group look like cowards and fools, or so the thinking goes. And whatever General Abizaid was saying - that more troops don't help, and in fact would just keep things from moving forward, and no general on the ground wants them for that reason - also looks foolish and cowardly.

Damn, the man has turned into Richard Nixon and it's late 1973 all over again. For those of us of a certain age this sounds awfully familiar. Iraq is not Vietnam, of course.

Posted by Alan at 21:31 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 15 November 2006 21:44 PST home

Tuesday, 14 November 2006
Voices of Reasonable Despair
Topic: Perspective
Voices of Reasonable Despair
Everyone seemed to agree the big story of Tuesday, November 14, was this -
Suspected Shiite militiamen dressed as Interior Ministry commandos stormed a Higher Education Ministry office Tuesday and kidnapped dozens of people after clearing the area under the guise of providing security for what they claimed would be a visit by the U.S. ambassador.

Witnesses and authorities said the gunmen raced through all four stories of the building, forced men and women into separate rooms, handcuffed the men and loaded them aboard about 20 pickup trucks.

Shortly afterward, authorities arrested six senior police officers in connection with the abductions - the police chief and five top subordinates in the Karradah district, the central Baghdad region where the kidnappers struck, Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf said.
Things aren't going well, and the newly elected Democratic Senate and House have no plan to fix it all. The election had been seven days before, and people were getting upset. Of course the new Congress doesn't get sworn in until January 20 - more than two months from the first Tuesday after the election - but no matter. They're not doing their job, damn it. Did the nation make a mistake? Why have the Democrats trapped us in this quagmire in Iraq, with no plan to fix things?

Yep, that's a little absurd - but no one seems happy with the idea there are no solutions to tough problems. We don't like having no solutions. We just don't think that way. Unlike the dour French existentialists of the fifties, we know there's always a solution, no matter what the problem. Otherwise, life would be as absurd at Sartre and Camus said, and that's an absurd idea to us. We're Americans, and we, not those long-dead Frenchmen, know what absurd really is. Absurd is thinking that some problems just cannot be fixed. Thomas Edison didn't think that way, nor did the Wright brothers, nor did Robert E. Lee (even if George Allen went down to defeat in the recent election, the South will rise again, and all that).

But even if the war is no longer the responsibility of the current administration, or something like that, they are looking for the solution, that magic bullet, that rabbit they can pull from the hat. That's what the Baker-Hamilton commission is all about, the Iraq Study group the will fix everything. Yeah, the commission is five Republicans and five Democrats, all retired politicians and not one Middle East expert in the mix at all, but they will find the solution to everything, or set of solutions. It has, of course, occurred to more than a few people that having no one on the commission who know jack about the region speaks volumes. They're looking for a domestic political solution - something the American people will accept and won't make the president go ballistic (literally).

No one knows what they will recommend. The dynamics of "the acceptable" is a puzzle, and everyone is waiting for the report, in what Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly calls a kabuki dance -
What will they recommend? The betting favorite is talks with Syria and Iran, which is a fine idea with one wee drawback: talks would likely have almost no effect on the violence in Iraq even if they were successful. Iran may be causing trouble in Iraq, but at this point the vast bulk of Iraq's trouble is homegrown. Iran could help in only a limited way even if it wanted to.

The other crowd-pleaser getting airtime these days is "One Last Push," the idea that we can surge in another 20,000 troops or so and end the Iraqi violence once and for all. John McCain is one of many running this idea up the flagpole, but it's a suggestion so puerile and reckless it boggles the mind. It's unlikely that 20,000 troops would have made a difference three years ago, let alone now, and he knows it.
And everyone really knows that this commission won't come up with any magic solution. Drum contend that liberals play along with this game anyway - it helps them avoid the real truth, that the conservatives are pretty much correct when they say that a pullout would be a disaster for Iraq. But then -
War supporters may have only themselves to blame for this state of affairs, but that doesn't make them any less right: A pullout now would almost certainly touch off a full-scale civil war, the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and the eventual establishment of a Shiite theocracy.
So no one wants to face up to the fact - there is no solution. We're not French, after all. But Drum seems to think "that our continued denial only makes the situation worse with every passing day, virtually guaranteeing a higher body count and an even more brutal end game."

It seems the choice is stay, and things get worse and worse, or leave, and things get worse and worse. If that is so, we might want to choose the latter. Either option being dismally equal, in producing the same net result, the latter saves American lives. But we pretend there's some third option. It's the pretending that's killing us - and our troops, and the Iraqis.

The logic here is clear, if you accept the premise that some problems - and this one in particular - admit no solutions. The nation is still working on that concept. It's a new one for us.

But what about talking with Iran and Syria?

Simon Jenkins argues, in the November 15th Guardian, that this is absurd. Look at it from Iran's point of view - "Why stop the Great Satan? He's driving himself to hell. Tehran can sit back and watch its tormentors sweat."

First there's the irony -
Help from Syria and Iran? Surely these were the monsters that George Bush and Tony Blair were going to crush, back in 2003? Surely the purpose of the Iraq adventure was to topple these terrorism-sponsoring, women-suppressing, militia-funding fundamentalists in favour of stability, prosperity and western democracy? Can the exit from Iraq really be through Tehran and Damascus? Was that in the plan?

I remember asking a western intelligence officer in Baghdad, six months after the American invasion, what he would advise the Iranians to do. "Wait," he said with a smile. Iran has done just that. If I were Tehran I would still wait. I would sit back, fold my arms and watch my tormentors sweat. I would watch the panic in Washington and London as body bags pile up, generals mutter mutiny, alliances fall apart and electors cut and run.
Reality has not yet replaced denial, of course. For the moment, denial still rules -
In America last week I was shocked at how unaware even anti-war Americans are (like many Britons) of the depth of the predicament in Iraq. They compare it with Vietnam or the Balkans - but it is not the same. It is total anarchy. All sentences beginning, "What we should now do in Iraq…" are devoid of meaning. We are in no position to do anything. We have no potency; that is the definition of anarchy.
This is followed by a status report -
From all available reports, Iraq south of the Kurdistan border is beyond central authority, a patchwork of ganglands, sheikhdoms and lawlessness. Anbar province and most of the Sunni triangle is controlled by independent Sunni militias. The only safe movement for outsiders is by helicopter at night. Baghdad is like Beirut in 1983, with nightly massacres, roadblocks everywhere and mixed neighborhoods emptying into safe ones. As yesterday's awful kidnapping shows, even a uniform is a death certificate. As for the cities of the south, control depends on which Shia militia has been able to seize the local police station.

The Iraqi army, such as it is, cannot be deployed outside its local area and is therefore useless for counter-insurgency. There is no central police force. There is no public administration. The Maliki government barely rules the Green Zone in which it is entombed. American troops guard it as they might an outpost of the French Legion in the Sahara. There is no point in patrolling a landscape one cannot control. It merely alienates the population and turns soldiers into targets.
If this is so, the argument goes, all this talk that Iraq will collapse into civil war if "we leave" is to "completely misread the chaos into which that country has descended under our rule." The reality is that something else is going on there, perhaps worse than civil war. Civil wars have their own logic - and this is just Darwinian "survival of the fittest" - or of the best armed and most ruthless. We had a sensible civil war here in the nineteenth century - with uniforms and massed armies and all the rest. What is happening in Iraq has not "risen to the level" of civil war. They just skipped that step and went for total anarchy. They're far beyond civil war.

And it is hard to see what we can do about it -
It is possible that a shrewd proconsul, such as America's Zelmay Khalilzad, might induce the warring factions to agree a provisional boundary between their spheres of influence and assign militias to protect it. But my impression is that Iraq has passed beyond even the power of the centre to impose partition.
But then our ambassador, Khalilzad, a Sunni born in Kabul, is quitting, leaving at the end of the year. Maybe he's secretly French, one of those who know some problems have no solution, and you need to get out before the "why didn't you fix it" crowd starts circling, looking for someone to blame.

Ah, maybe it's all just a language thing. The word problem is naturally linked to the word solution, in a "clang test" sort of way. I say a word and you say the first word that pops into your head. Problem! Solution! No one usually blurts out - "Oh well." We're kind of hard-wired to think anything can be fixed. We never drove Citroëns.

Jenkins concludes with this -
Bush and Blair are men in a hurry, and such men lose wars. If there is a game plan in Tehran it will be to play Iraq long. Why stop the Great Satan when he is driving himself to hell in a handcart? If London and Washington really want help in this part of the world they must start from diplomatic ground zero. They will have to stop the holier-than-thou name-calling and the pretence that they hold any cards. They will have to realize that this war has lost them all leverage in the region. They can insult and sanction and threaten. But there is nothing left for them to "do" but leave.
But we won't do that. That's no solution. And so it goes.

Then too there are domestic issues that may have no solution, as Garrison Keillor notes here, regarding the recent elections -
… the election is over, so let's all relax and quit irritating each other. OK? Nancy Pelosi, the she-wolf from Sodom, is about to become the madam of the House, so you Republicans just get over it. Cash in your blue chips and invest in gold ingots and maybe real estate in Costa Rica. The black helicopters have landed. Live with it.
And he says Democrats intend to bring reform to Washington, so deal with that too.

And he suggests starting with the United States Senate, sorely in need of reform for a century or so - "Two senators per state is a good idea in theory, assuming they are half smart, but then you look at George Allen, a lumbering frat boy from the state of Madison and Jefferson, and you think, whoa, something is wrong with this picture."

What we are offered is a solution where there is no problem, or there's a problem no one thought about.

He suggest fewer states -
First of all, is there a reason for Wyoming to exist as a state? I have often wondered about this. Why give two Senate seats to a half million dimestore cowboys while California gets two seats for 34 million people? (Wyoming has roughly the population of Sacramento.) It's OK if Wyoming sends somebody with brains and an independent streak, but when they send a couple of Republican hacks, then it makes no sense.

The idea behind the Senate was to create a sheltered body of wise counselors who, because they don't have to shill for money perpetually, can rise above the petty tumult and think noble thoughts and do the right thing in a pinch. Can you think of a time when Wyoming's senators have done this? No, you can't. So let's bite the bullet and make Wyoming a federal protectorate and appoint an overseer. This would be a good assignment for Halliburton. It's done a heck of a job in Iraq, so let's give it Wyoming and, while we're at it, Alaska. A wonderful postcard place, but what have its congresspeople done other than grub for federal largesse for Alaska? Change the name to Denali and put Halliburton in charge of it.
Other solutions -
While we're at it, let's admit that Utah, Texas and Vermont have never been completely comfortable as part of the United States. They've tried to fit in, but it just isn't working, so let's allow them to pull out and find their own path. You could attach Nevada to Utah and make a lovely little desert nation out of that, and let Vermont join Canada, and make Texas a republic. Add Oklahoma to it. They really are part of the same thing. This leaves us with 43 states, which we could reduce to 40 by joining Rhode Island and New Hampshire and making Idaho part of Montana and combining North and South Dakota into one state called West Minnesota. It's called consolidation, folks. It goes on all the time in corporate America and also in local school districts, so let's make it work for America.
Obviously, he should be on the Baker-Hamilton Iraq commission. He thinks outside the box. He didn't even know there was a box.

The Baker-Hamilton Iraq commission isn't like that. Don't expect much. And pretend you're French.

Posted by Alan at 23:19 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 15 November 2006 08:27 PST home

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