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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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Wednesday, 29 November 2006
Diplomacy 101 - Trying New Things Is Always Awkward
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Diplomacy 101 - Trying New Things Is Always Awkward

Maybe there's a reason the administration doesn't do diplomacy, as it is normally defined (as mentioned in these pages in early September 2003 and just about everywhere else). They just don't get the concept. It's hard work. And why do something you just don't know how to do?

It was the memo, or it wasn't. You didn't get the memo? The president got the memo - National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley advising the president on his upcoming meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, where the two of them will sit down and fix everything that's wrong in Iraq. Hadley says, basically, that the Iraqi prime minister seems to be either ignorant, deceitful or just incapable of doing what it takes to get his country under control. Michael Gordon of the New York Times had it leaked to him, kind of on purpose. And as Gordon explains, the White House has "sought to avoid public criticism of Mr. Maliki." But Gordon didn't have to work very hard to get a copy of the November 8 memo. It was practically handed to him. An "administration official" made the document available to him, "aides to President Bush" did their spin on it, and "two senior administration officials" talked about the memo on the condition that they not be quoted by name because they didn't want to be named as the ones talking about the memo. What's up with that?

Everyone knows the new line is to start laying the blame on the Iraqis for not dealing very well with our generous gift of democracy, and to blame Maliki in particular. Things aren't going well and it must be someone's fault after all. And it cannot be us. See the Washington Post with a review of who is saying such things - from Condoleezza Rice to Carl Levin. It's the new "explanation of everything" - we did the right things and those ingrates and incompetents are just ruining everything. Of course such thinking does make leaving easier. We did our part. And this memo is just more of the same.

And the president said he was going to Jordan to meet with Maliki to basically find out how Maliki was going to fix everything, and offer support for whatever he thought was best. But just as "Yee-haw!" is not foreign policy - we tried that and it didn't work out - it is likely passive-aggressive blame shifting is not diplomacy. It does tend to piss off people.

Hadley - "His intentions seem good when he talks with Americans, and sensitive reporting suggests he is trying to stand up to the Shia hierarchy and force positive change, but the reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."

Yep, that makes him look like a fool. This is diplomacy?

And, late in the day on Wednesday, November 29, what was entirely predictable -
President Bush's high-profile meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday was canceled in a stunning turn of events after disclosure of U.S. doubts about the Iraqi leader's capabilities and a political boycott in Baghdad protesting his attendance.

Instead of two days of talks, Bush and al-Maliki will have breakfast and a single meeting followed by a news conference on Thursday morning, the White House said.
The president had been scheduled to meet in a three-way session with Maliki and Jordan's King Abdullah II on Wednesday night, and had even rearranged his schedule to be in Amman for both days for talks. This was the big meeting to fix everything. The Associated Press item in this case calls it "an almost unheard-of development in the high-level diplomatic circles of a U.S. president, a king and a prime minister."

Yep, and there was the obvious confusion and conflicting explanations - the last-minute cancellation was not announced until after the president had already arrived at Raghadan Palace and posed for photographs alone with the king. Maliki was missing. People noticed. White House counselor Dan Bartlett then got to publicly deny that the "no show" was caused by any "snub" by Maliki directed at President Bush - and it certainly wasn't related to the Hadley memo. "Absolutely not" - he said the king and Maliki had already met before President Bush arrived from that NATO summit in Latvia. It was very simple - "That negated the purpose to meet tonight together in a trilateral setting." You see, the Jordanians and the Iraqis jointly decided it was not "the best use of time" to have a three-way meeting, because they both would be seeing the president separately. They just didn't tell George - it seems members of the Jordanian and Iraqi delegations contacted our ambassador in Iraq, Khalilzad, and he called Air Force One and spoke with President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, giving them a heads-up.

That hurts. When you're in the last two years of a lame duck presidency and have just lost both houses of congress to the opposition party, you do want to look like a take-charge guy who is in control of everything. This doesn't help. As Maliki proved, two can play at this game. And with Maliki already gone from the palace, the president had "an abbreviated meeting and dinner" with the king before heading, much earlier than scheduled, to his hotel. It was a farce, and the theatrics were devastating.

And the requisite spin was offered - that memo Hadley wrote was authentic, but really, on balance "the document was supportive of the Iraqi leader and generally portrayed him as well-meaning." Tony Snow said the president "has confidence in Prime Minister Maliki" - and he added that Maliki "has been very aggressive in recent weeks in taking on some of the key challenges."

You see, he's really a fine fellow. Of course, thirty Iraqi members of parliament along with five cabinet ministers - the folks loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr - said they were boycotting parliament and the government to protest Maliki meeting with Bush at all. They pretty much put Maliki in power, or least hold the key seats that keep him in office, and were not happy. And that's why AP notes that some analysts suggested that the memo might actually help more than damage Maliki, by showing distance between him and Bush. It's complicated.

And views AP provides are these -
Jon Alterman, former special assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said the memo's doubts about al-Maliki "seemed calculated to steel his spine."

"This memo reads to me more like a memo to Prime Minister al-Maliki than to President Bush," said Alterman, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It has his entire to-do list as well as a list of what he'll get if he agrees."

In Washington, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., called on Bush to appoint a high-ranking special envoy to work with the Iraqi government on disbanding militias, including all Iraq's factions in the nation's political process and equitably distributing resources such as oil revenue. "Steps have to be taken now," he said.
And the steps are in the memo. Take them or you're toast.

The steps are analyzed here -
It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to implement most of the key ideas for quelling the Iraqi civil war that are outlined in a classified Nov. 8 memo to President Bush from National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, experts said Wednesday.

Trying to push anti-U.S. Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr out of the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as the memo suggests, would be throwing gasoline on a fire, they said.

Sadr's party is the largest in parliament, with 32 seats, and Maliki became prime minister only with his support. Sadr's Mahdi Army militia controls large parts of Baghdad and southern Iraq, and many Iraqi Shiites hail him as their only protection from attacks by rival Sunni Muslims, which American and Iraqi forces have failed to stop.
And that's just the start of it. It's a depressing read.

But just what happened here? Tim Grieve takes a stab at that -
Maliki snubbed Bush either in retaliation for the seemingly orchestrated leak of Stephen Hadley's memo or in response to protests from Muqtada al-Sadr loyalists who have walked away from Maliki's government to show their displeasure over his meeting with Bush.

The White House says Bush still expects to have a "robust" discussion with Maliki on Thursday and that no one should read too much into tonight's cancellation. "Look, they were not going to be doing a full detail discussion in a trilateral setting about Iraq and the future of Iraq and the strategy anyway, that just wouldn't be appropriate," Bartlett told reporters in Amman. He said the "three-way" meeting was really going to be more of a "social" thing anyway.

Maybe that's right, but it's hard to escape the feeling that there's a bit of left-at-the-altar embarrassment here. And it's not the first bout of who-wears-the-pants humiliation for the White House this week. Dick Cheney made the trek to Saudi Arabia over the weekend to talk about Iraq. The White House portrayed the trip as a matter of reaching out to its Arab ally. In fact, the Washington Post reported earlier this week, the Saudis had "basically summoned" the American vice president out of concern for the damage the Iraq war is causing.
None of this inspires confidence in our leaders. They're getting jerked around.

Then there's the view from Iraq -
Senior Iraqi lawmaker Redha Jawad Taqi said the meeting was canceled at the request of the Iraqis after al-Maliki learned that the Jordanian monarch planned to broaden the discussion to include the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Two senior officials traveling with al-Maliki, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said the prime minister had been reluctant to travel to Jordan in the first place and decided, once in Amman, that he did not want "a third party" involved in talks about subjects specific to the U.S.-Iraqi relationship.

… The Sadrists had threatened to quit the government and parliament if al-Maliki went ahead with the Amman summit. But by downgrading their protest to a suspension of membership, they left open a return to their jobs. One of the 30 lawmakers, Falih Hassan, called Bush "a criminal who killed a lot of Iraqis" and said the American president has no business meddling in Iraq's affairs.
Maybe it was just a bad day there - another one hundred five people killed or found dead across the country (and we lost two more soldiers) and there was the heavy fighting in Baqouba, and our guys, backed by aircraft, killed eight "al Qaeda in Iraq insurgents" up that way but left two Iraqi women dead, of the eight who were unluckily killed in the aerial bombing. The day before in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, it was one man and five girls, aged seven months, 12, 14, 15 and 17, according to our command office. Oops.

And there the UN business -
Meanwhile, a statement issued by the Sadrist lawmakers criticized al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government for its decision to request from the United Nations a one-year extension of the stay in Iraq of the U.S.-led multinational force numbering around 160,000. The request was granted on Tuesday.

The Sadr politicians argued that the multinational force played a "suspicious" role in Iraq and accused al-Maliki of ignoring the views of parliament's 275 lawmakers when it sought a renewal of its deployment.

The statement also mirrored the animosity felt by the movement toward the United States and Bush, using a language that harked back to the days in 2004 when the Mahdi Army fought U.S. troops in two major revolts in Baghdad and much of central and southern Iraq.

"This visit hijacked the will of the people during days when the sons of Iraq write their destiny with blood and not ink," said the statement, which referred to Bush as "cursed," the "world's biggest evil" and a "criminal."
And the folks on our side over there, who want us to help Maliki fix things - where are they? Even in Vietnam back in the late sixties we had at least a few folks who wanted us there, to keep Uncle Ho away. In this thirty-sided civil war, not one side wants us there at all. And we're doing what, exactly? What is the mission now?

Joan Walsh notes we just look dazed and confused.

And she opens with Dan Bartlett's spin session -
Bartlett: The President is going to have a bilateral and dinner with the King of Jordan. Since the King of Jordan and Prime Minister Maliki had a bilateral themselves, earlier today, everybody believed that negated the purpose for the three of them to meet tonight, together, in a trilateral setting. So the plan, according to - since they had such a good, productive bilateral discussion, was just for the President to deal with bilateral issues and other issues with the King this evening in a dinner setting, and then the meetings set for tomorrow will still take place as scheduled.

Reporter: So the dinner is off, the three-way.

Bartlett: Right.

Reporter: Well, if Maliki - he was never going to the dinner anyway, right? It was just supposed to be a meeting.

Bartlett: There was going to be a trilateral meeting, and then the dinner with the King. Now, since they already had a bilateral themselves, the King of Jordan and the Prime Minister, everybody felt, well, there's no reason for them to do a trilateral meeting beforehand, because matters had been discussed.

Reporter: So the scheduled trilateral is scrapped.

Bartlett: Right.

Reporter: But the dinner - all three of them are still going to be at the dinner?

Bartlett: No.

Reporter: OK, so Maliki is not doing anything?

Bartlett: The President will see Prime Minister Maliki in the morning...

Reporter: But don't you risk sending a political message that the three were supposed to get together tonight and now they're not, after the memo by Hadley and all? This wasn't a snub, or anything like that.

Bartlett: Absolutely not. And I think that will be demonstrated tomorrow, as well as the fact that the King and the Prime Minister had a good meeting themselves, today. The King is being a gracious host, allowing for the two leaders to meet tomorrow morning. No one should read too much into this, except for the fact that they had a good meeting. This gives an opportunity for the King and the President to catch up on issues that are in the interests of Jordan and the United States, as well as the broader region. The issue - a discussion specifically about Iraq will be had tomorrow by the two leaders, by themselves.

Reporter: No connection to the memo, whatsoever?

Bartlett: No.
Walsh says it would be funny if it wasn't tragic -
The last two supposed virtues of the Bush administration have crumbled since the election three weeks ago: its strict internal discipline and message control - leaks are for Democrats! - and the president's loyalty to his supporters. Now the White House is leaking like a sinking ship. And Bush's loyalty? It's vanished along with his majority in Congress.

First to take the hit was Donald Rumsfeld - a man who richly deserved his shove under the bus, but still, someone Bush had promised to keep until the end of his term. This week, it's al-Maliki. The president himself began to set up al-Maliki on Tuesday, when he told reporters he'd be asking the besieged Iraqi prime minister for his plans to stop the violence that the U.S. invasion of his country ignited.

"My questions to him will be: 'What do we need to do to succeed? What is your strategy in dealing with the sectarian violence?'" It felt like a burglar asking how you're going to replace the goods he just stole, or an arsonist asking how you'll rebuild the house he just burned to the ground. Not surprisingly, on the heels of the disparaging Hadley memo, al-Maliki passed up his chance to answer those questions. But the mess also insults King Abdullah, one of the administration's last allies in the region.
Yep, this diplomacy stuff is really hard. Bombing the crap out of folks is a lot easier. And this was supposed to be the week "the president got religion and began reaching out to world leaders to find a solution to the mess he's made in Iraq," and as Walsh notes - "His Jordan summit was part of an effort to preempt the work of the Iraq Study Group, to show that Jim Baker isn't the only one who can globe-trot and glad-hand with world leaders."

They don't have a clue -
The only thing worse than Bush's failure to practice diplomacy is what apparently happens when he tries. Maybe it's a use-it-or-lose-it thing. After six years of unilateralism, this administration can't defeat its enemies, but doesn't remember how to treat its friends. For Americans, it's going to be a long two years under an increasingly lame duck administration. But it's going to be much, much worse for Iraqis.
But maybe they'll get the hang of it. Trying new things is often embarrassing, until you get it right. Too bad about the dead people, though.

And of course, when it rains it pours. The Forgotten Man, Al Gore, has a few things to say in the magazine GQ, of all places. They ask him about the summer of 2001, and he says it is "almost too easy to say, 'I would have heeded the warnings.'"

What warnings? He offers a reminder -
"It is inconceivable to me that Bush would read a warning as stark and as clear as the one he received on August 6th of 2001, and, according to some of the new histories, he turned to the briefer and said, 'Well, you've covered your ass.' And never called a follow up meeting. Never made an inquiry. Never asked a single question. To this day, I don't understand it. And, I think it's fair to say that he personally does in fact bear a measure of blame for not doing his job at a time when we really needed him to do his job."
So, is there something this crew is good at, besides the bombing stuff? Suggestions are welcome.

Posted by Alan at 22:02 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 30 November 2006 06:09 PST home

Tuesday, 28 November 2006
Are We At The Bottom Yet?
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Are We At The Bottom Yet?

You want depressing news? No, you don't. But that seemed to be the order of the day on Tuesday, November 28.

Christina Larson, to start off, offered some interesting numbers -
Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, tells me he's been trading emails with folks around town - generals, colonels, Pentagon officials - who have been looking carefully and analytically for the last two years at what it will cost to reconstitute the military after Iraq. In other words, the bill to bring Army and Navy battalions back to the status they were in before the invasion. That includes training, equipment, replacing Apache helicopters, humvees, tanks, rifles (we have burned them up in Iraq faster than life cycle projections), etc. The current estimate: $50 to $100 billion. "The next president will face a staggering bill," Wilkerson says, not even counting the costs of further efforts in Iraq.
No one thought of that before? Ah well, the argument will go that we had to do what we had to do. Or even if this was one of the "greatest blunders" ever made by a US leader, as Jimmy Carter said on CNN, and we didn't have to do it, what's done is done. The basic "hardware" of the military is pretty… basic. And we're talking just getting back to where we were before we did what we did, not new systems and not increasing the size of the military. It's those damned hidden costs again, except these weren't hidden. They were just not mentioned. Now that the whole effort is teetering we're in the "did anyone think of this?" phase, it seems more of this sort of thing will get mentioned. When things go well you smile and say "we'll worry about that later." No smiles now - and later is coming faster than expected.

But we are still in control of things. Well, maybe. A number of people, including Laura Rozen, wondered why the White House was being so cryptic about Vice President Cheney's trip to Riyadh the previous Saturday to meet with Saudi King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan. Tuesday, November 28, Robin Wright and Thomas Ricks in the Washington Post, in a paragraph buried deep in an item on another topic, clear things up -
Saudi Arabia is so concerned about the damage that the conflict in Iraq is doing across the region that it basically summoned Vice President Cheney for talks over the weekend, according to U.S. officials and foreign diplomats. The visit was originally portrayed as U.S. outreach to its oil-rich Arab ally.
Paul Glastris - "Pathetic. The U.S. government is so weak that the Saudis can summon our veep for a stern talking-to."

Well, he won't listen to anyone else. He certainly won't listen to what the majority of American thinks. But there are some people he respects. King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan are actually doing us a favor. Someone had to set him straight. Thanks, guys.

And as for respect, the same Post story carried news of how the administration was debating the merits of throwing its full support behind the Shiite folks in what they won't say is a civil war. That would settle things down -
But in a sign of the discord in Washington, the senior U.S. intelligence official said the situation requires that the administration abandon its long-held goal of national reconciliation and instead "pick a winner" in Iraq. He said he understands that means the Sunnis are likely to bolt from the fragile government. "That's the price you're going to have to pay," he said.
More of those hidden costs. This time the Sunni folks pay.

At least we'll give the Sunni folks their own playground - "The U.S. military is no longer able to defeat a bloody insurgency in western Iraq or counter al-Qaeda's rising popularity there, according to newly disclosed details from a classified Marine Corps intelligence report that set off debate in recent months about the military's mission in Anbar province."

That was the big scoop at the Post the same day - we may have lost the west of Iraq. There's not much we can do.

And ABC News says the internal debate is pretty much over -
ABC News has learned that Pentagon officials are considering a major strategic shift in Iraq, to move U.S. forces out of the dangerous Sunni-dominated al-Anbar province and join the fight to secure Baghdad.

The news comes as President Bush prepares to meet with Iraq's president to discuss the growing sectarian violence.

There are now 30,000 U.S. troops in al-Anbar, mainly Marines, braving some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq. At least 1,055 Americans have been killed in this region, making al-Anbar the deadliest province for American troops.

The region is a Sunni stronghold and the main base of operations for al Qaeda in Iraq and has been a place of increasing frustration to U.S. commanders.

In a recent intelligence assessment, top Marine in al-Anbar, Col. Peter Devlin, concluded that without a massive infusement of more troops, the battle in al-Anbar is unwinnable.

In the memo, first reported by the Washington Post, Devlin writes, "Despite the success of the December elections, nearly all government institutions from the village to provincial levels have disintegrated or have been thoroughly corrupted and infiltrated by al Qaeda in Iraq."

Faced with that situation in al-Anbar, and the desperate need to control Iraq's capital, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace is considering turning al-Anbar over to Iraqi security forces and moving U.S. troops from there into Baghdad.

"If we are not going to do a better job doing what we are doing out [in al-Anbar], what's the point of having them out there?" said a senior military official.
That's a good question, but the final decision may come a tad later - "As dire as the situation is, officials say they expect no decisions on any change in military strategy for at least another two or three weeks, until incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates is sworn in and given a chance to weigh in on the various options under consideration."

Why did he want Rumsfeld's job? He gets to choose between keeping our Marines in a no-win shooting gallery, or presiding over a defeat - hauling out of a big chunk of Iraq. There seems to be no third option. Rumsfeld lucked out, didn't he? He was shown the door before the consequences of his planning and management fully flowered. How does the song go? "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and know when to run." That was about a winning gambler. Rumsfeld won.

And that was before King Abdullah II of Jordan patiently explained, as the Middle East expert Juan Cole notes, this whole business isn't really about Iraq. It's about Palestine, or as Cole put it on Wednesday, November 29, It's Palestine, Stupid -
A surprise for Americans: The most urgent and destabilizing crisis in the Middle East is not Iraq. It is, according to King Abdullah II of Jordan (who will meet Bush today), the Israel-Palestine conflict, which is a major engine driving the radicalization of Muslims in the Middle East and in Europe. It seldom makes the front page any more, but the Israelis are keeping the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank in Bantustan penitentiaries and bombing the ones in Gaza relentlessly, often killing significant numbers of innocent civilians. Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, Michael Rubin, David Wurmser and other Likudniks who had managed to get influential perches in the US government once argued that the road to peace in Jerusalem lay through Baghdad. It never did, and they were wrong about that the way they were wrong about everything else.

In fact, September 11 was significantly about the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, and as long as the Israelis continue their actual creeping colonialization of Palestinian land while they pretend to engage in a (non-existent) "peace process," radicalism in the region will only grow. Polls taken in the last few years have shown that 64 percent of Egyptians expressed satisfaction with the Mubarak government, but only 2 percent had a favorable view of US foreign policy (i.e. knee-jerk pro-Likud policy) in the Middle East. That is, the argument that authoritarian government breeds radicalism is either untrue or only partial. It is the daily perception of a great historical wrong done to a Middle Eastern people, the Palestinians, that radicalizes people in the region (and not just Muslims).
Wait - did our Jordanian ally just say we had things backwards from the beginning? We not only fought a pointless war, we tackled the wrong problem in the first place? That must have been an interesting meeting. King Abdullah isn't playing his part in the grand narrative. One can imagine the president, troubled to be suddenly challenged on a really basic level, saying what is deep in his heart to the king - "Yeah, well what do YOU know about the Middle East?"

As for the matter of our forces just leaving Anbar province entirely, Cole says he thinks this is all that they can do. Earlier, in a highly detailed analysis, he laid out how "there is not a military mission that can obviously be achieved by keeping our troops there any longer." And that comes down to this -
The argument could be made that the attempt to subdue al-Anbar province has been a major radicalizing factor for not only the province itself but for Sunni Arab Iraq in general. The destruction of Fallujah, which is nevertheless still not secure, was a negative turning point in the guerrilla war. The Iraqi troops of the Nuri al-Maliki government will have to keep order or learn to compromise with al-Anbar, one or the other.
Keeping all the players straight is a bother of course, but you get the idea. We'll see if Robert Gates does.

It's enough to drive you crazy. And if you check out this video (with partial transcript) you'll see the New York Times' "big thinker," Thomas Friedman, saying things are worse than civil war in Iraq, as Iraq is like thirty civil wars now, and the only solution would be to reoccupy Iraq again.

What?

It went like this -
Friedman: …To have a proper civil war you need to have two sides - you have about thirty sides. It's beyond a civil war there.

Vieira: So what does that mean in terms of our role there then, Tom?

Friedman: Um, Obviously when you're dealing now with something broken up into so many little pieces - it's hard to believe that anything other than reoccupying the country - um, and establishing the very coherent order we failed to do from the beginning is really the only serious option left.

Vieira (stunned): But, is that really a serious option - to reoccupy the country?

Friedman: Well, I'm simply saying if you actually want to actually bring order there - the idea that you're going to train the Iraqi army and police to this kind of fragmented society is ludicrous. Who's training the insurgents? Nobody is training them and they seem to be doing just fine. This is not about the way - it's about the will. Do you have a will to be a country? If you don't have that then there's not much training is going to do.
And for all these years he thought this war was such a good idea. It just needed another six months. It seems all the "six months" are now used up.

The president, at the NATO summit didn't think so -
"There's one thing I'm not going to do, I'm not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete," he said in a speech setting the stage for high-stakes meetings with the Iraqi prime minister later this week. "We can accept nothing less than victory for our children and our grandchildren."
Christy Hardin Smith offers a translation - "I don't care how screwed up things are, I am not losing face so we are not leaving, and you can't tell me what to do. So there." It's what she calls part of the "charade of ignorance, obfuscation, and ego."

Her evidence is this -
"But saying it isn't civil war doesn't make it so," said Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat and Bush critic who has proposed partitioning Iraq. "Training and equipping Iraq's security forces as the United States is doing only produces more lethal combatants in the country's internecine conflict."

The potency of the term civil war comes from the fact that "it's not what we signed up for," said David Rothkopf of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "We went in there to replace a despotic government with a democratic government. We said we were there to get rid of terrorists. Well, which side are the terrorists?

"Now we find ourselves being a referee in a civil war. Neither side is us. It means that the premise for our national involvement and policies has been challenged and compromised," Rothkopf said.

… "If you're lying dead on the street in Baghdad, I don't imagine it makes much difference" what the conflict is called, Rothkopf said, adding that the debate is "taking us away from" looking at the key moral and strategic questions about how the United States should handle it.
And here is her suggestion -
Let's just stop the PR tap dance, shall we, and start looking at this mess like grown up people. Let's all admit that the situation in Iraq is one big FUBAR mess, that George Bush should swallow his pride and own up to the fact that this is so, and that we need to stop marking time, dithering and generally just making things worse by trying on different pairs of rose-colored glasses instead of just being honest - with ourselves, with the American public and with the military and their families.

Iraq is a mess. We made it so. Innocent people are dying. That is bad.

Our soldiers are caught in the crossfire of a civil war, and they are caught in a horrible conundrum as a result, because they cannot be seen as taking sides or they lose what little credibility they have left, after our bungled mess of a non-strategy that they have been forced to foist on Iraq - and yet, by not taking sides, the violence is increasing by the hour. And the loss of life continues to increase every single day.

… to pretend that the militias, the factions, the insurgents, the Iraqi government and the sectarian and civil violence are not intertwined and one and the same is to ignore the reality that is Iraq at the moment. The sooner we all look this mess in the face and see it for what it really is, the better - because all the rose-colored glasses do is extend the inevitable leave-taking into someone else's future. But that leaves no future for the American soldiers who will die there in the meantime, let alone the innocent civilians trapped in the middle of this mess in Iraq.

Hell, even Joe Scarborough was quoting John Kerry's "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" quote from Kerry's testimony in 1971. And Pat Buchanan agreed with him. (Yes, I did almost spew my tea as I was listening to the show. It was as though I were watching some sort of Bizarro Scarborough, wherein he agreed, repeatedly, with Lawrence O'Donnell.)

Jim Miklaszewski just spent time on MSNBC explaining the Administration's "resurrect the al Qaeda boogeyman" strategy for changing subject from civil war in Iraq. And he did the reporting with a smirk on his face. If military families where I live are any judge, this strategy is doomed - military folks who have done multiple (and I mean MULTIPLE) tours in Iraq know how bad things are on the ground right now, and so do their families. And if you think people aren't talking about it and praying about it and crying with their friends and family about it over the holidays, you can think again. The snow job is not going to work - not this time.
Well, Tony Snow, the president's press secretary, as his work cut out for him.

Ah, the news is just too depressing. But wait - there maybe be help on the way. Depressing news won't be reported.

Newt Gingrich, who really, really, really wants to be the next president, was in New Hampshire and gave a talk in which he said that free speech will just have to be curtailed because we're in this war on terror. The Manchester Union Leader covered it -
Gingrich, speaking at a Manchester awards banquet, said a "different set of rules" may be needed to reduce terrorists' ability to use the Internet and free speech to recruit and get out their message.

"We need to get ahead of the curve before we actually lose a city, which I think could happen in the next decade," said Gingrich, a Republican who helped engineer the GOP's takeover of Congress in 1994.
Hey, Newt, we already lost a city. It just wasn't lost to terrorism. Our own government had a lot to do with it.

But then, he's right, the internet is full of stuff that questions the government's view - this and everything cited herein. When all this is shut down, no more depressing news. Problem solved.

The irony of course -
Gingrich spoke to about 400 state and local power brokers last night at the annual Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment award dinner, which fetes people and organizations that stand up for freedom of speech.
That's delicious. The state motto up there is "Live Free or Die." It's on the license plates. They might want to change the "or" to "and you will" on the plates.

Ah well, he was just trolling for potential votes, and he knows his audience - "He also said court rulings over separation of church and state have hurt citizens' ability to express themselves and their faith."

It may seem like he doesn't think much of the First Amendment and its stuff about the government having no business ever "abridging the exercise of free speech" and that "non-establishment clause" about religion. But he knows his voters, his potential base, the Bush crowd, and they are a little strange -
Lohse, a social work master's student at Southern Connecticut State University, says he has proven what many progressives have probably suspected for years: a direct link between mental illness and support for President Bush.

Lohse says his study is no joke. The thesis draws on a survey of 69 psychiatric outpatients in three Connecticut locations during the 2004 presidential election. Lohse's study, backed by SCSU Psychology professor Jaak Rakfeldt and statistician Misty Ginacola, found a correlation between the severity of a person's psychosis and their preferences for president: The more psychotic the voter, the more likely they were to vote for Bush.

But before you go thinking all your conservative friends are psychotic, listen to Lohse's explanation.

"Our study shows that psychotic patients prefer an authoritative leader," Lohse says. "If your world is very mixed up, there's something very comforting about someone telling you, 'This is how it's going to be.'" The study was an advocacy project of sorts, designed to register mentally ill voters and encourage them to go to the polls, Lohse explains. The Bush trend was revealed later on.
The world is very mixed up, obviously - it is quite a mess, actually - and there's a certain comfort in Bush-like authority, or authoritarianism, and that is something you can work with. Newt knows that. In times of trouble some want a strongman who will just take over.

The problem is, as depressing as the news is, some don't.

Posted by Alan at 22:13 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 29 November 2006 06:54 PST home

Monday, 27 November 2006
Traps - Human Experience Filtered and Mediated by Human Linguistic Constructions
Topic: Perspective

Traps - Human Experience Filtered and Mediated by Human Linguistic Constructions

To put things in perspective -
General Semantics is an educational discipline created by Alfred Korzybski (1879–1950) during the years 1919 to 1933. General Semantics is distinct from semantics, a different subject. The name technically refers to the study of what Korzybski called "semantic reactions," or reactions of the whole human organism in its environment to some event - any event, not just perceiving a human-made symbol - in respect of that event's meaning. However, people most commonly use the name to mean the particular system of semantic reactions that Korzybski called the most useful for human survival.

Advocates of General Semantics view it as a form of mental hygiene that enables practitioners to avoid ideational traps built into natural language and "common sense" assumptions, thereby enabling practitioners to think more clearly and effectively. General Semantics thus shares some concerns with psychology but is not precisely a therapeutic system, being in general more focused on enhancing the abilities of normal individuals than curing pathology.

According to Alfred Korzybski himself, the central goal of General Semantics is to develop in its practitioners what he called "consciousness of abstracting," that is an awareness of the map/territory distinction and of how much of reality is thrown away by the linguistic and other representations we use. General Semantics teaches that it is not sufficient to understand this sporadically and intellectually, but rather that we achieve full sanity only when consciousness of abstracting becomes constant and a matter of reflex.

Many General Semantics practitioners view its techniques as a kind of self-defense kit against manipulative semantic distortions routinely promulgated by advertising, politics, and religion.

Philosophically, General Semantics is a form of applied conceptualism that emphasizes the degree to which human experience is filtered and mediated by contingent features of human sensory organs, the human nervous system, and human linguistic constructions.

The most important premise of General Semantics has been succinctly expressed as "The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing defined."
Got it? "The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing defined." We may need a kind of self-defense kit against manipulative semantic distortions routinely promulgated by advertising, politics, and religion. Our experience of the world is determined by human linguistic constructions - they allow us to think about things. Words are the medium of thought. Words matter.

That is why, on Monday, November 27, this mattered - "On the Today Show, NBC announced to the world that the violence in Iraq can now be labeled a civil war Monday morning. NBC assured us that they didn't just come up with that label. It asked many people and held careful deliberations."

Yeah, well, duh. Out here the Los Angeles Times had made the shift a few days earlier. Of course, there's this video and transcript, Dana Priest of the Washington Post saying that newspaper avoids "Civil War" language because what passes for a government in Iraq says there's no such thing going on, and it's their country after all. And our administration over here says there is no such thing going on. Mark Finkelstein here covers the back and forth at NBC - retired General McCaffrey and the White House saying the term is "Nonsense." It is just not a civil war. The White House view - "The violence is primarily centered around Baghdad and Baghdad security and the increased training of Iraqi Security Forces is at the top of the agenda when [Bush and Maliki] meet later this week." So stop this nonsense.

But it is too late. Newsweek editor and columnist Fareed Zakaria is on it -
We're in the middle of a civil war and are being shot at by both sides.

There can be no more doubt that Iraq is in a civil war, in which leaders of both its main communities, Sunnis and Shiites, are fomenting violence.

… To speak, as the White House deputy press secretary did last week, of 'terrorists targeting innocents in a brazen effort to topple a democratically elected government' totally misses the reality of Iraq today. Who are the terrorists and who are the innocents?
Okay does it matter? Edward Wong in the Sunday New York Times thinks it does -
In the United States, the debate over the term rages because many politicians, especially those who support the war, believe there would be domestic political implications to declaring it a civil war. They fear that an acknowledgment by the White House and its allies would be seen as an admission of a failure of President Bush's Iraq policy.

They also worry that the American people might not see a role for American troops in an Iraqi civil war and would more loudly demand a withdrawal.

But in fact, many scholars say the bloodshed here already puts Iraq in the top ranks of the civil wars of the last half-century. The carnage of recent days - beginning with bombings on Thursday in a Shiite district of Baghdad that killed more than 200 people - reinforces their assertion.

… "It's stunning; it should have been called a civil war a long time ago, but now I don't see how people can avoid calling it a civil war," said Nicholas Sambanis, a political scientist at Yale who co-edited "Understanding Civil War: Evidence and Analysis," published by the World Bank in 2005. "The level of violence is so extreme that it far surpasses most civil wars since 1945."

On Friday, Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman, insisted that the Iraq conflict was not civil war, noting that Iraq's top leaders had agreed with that assessment. Last month, Tony Snow, the chief spokesman for President Bush, acknowledged that there were many groups trying to undermine the government, but said that there was no civil war because 'it's not clear that they are operating as a unified force. You don't have a clearly identifiable leader.
Okay, fine. But what about CNN's Michael Ware talking to Kitty Pilgrim on the previous Friday -
Pilgrim: Michael, the Iraqi government and the U.S. military in Baghdad keep saying this is not a civil war. What are you seeing?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, firstly, let me say, perhaps it's easier to deny that this is a civil war, when essentially you live in the most heavily fortified place in the country within the Green Zone, which is true of both the prime minister, the national security adviser for Iraq and, of course, the top U.S. military commanders. However, for the people living on the streets, for Iraqis in their homes, if this is not civil war, or a form of it, then they do not want to see what one really looks like.

This is what we're talking about. We're talking about Sunni neighborhoods shelling Shi'a neighborhoods, and Shi'a neighborhoods shelling back.

We're having Sunni communities dig fighting positions to protect their streets. We're seeing Sunni extremists plunging car bombs into heavily-populated Shi'a marketplaces. We're seeing institutionalized Shi'a death squads in legitimate police and national police commando uniforms going in, systematically, to Sunni homes in the middle of the night and dragging them out, never to be seen again.

I mean, if this is not civil war, where there is, on average, 40 to 50 tortured, mutilated, executed bodies showing up on the capital streets each morning, where we have thousands of unaccounted for dead bodies mounting up every month, and where the list of those who have simply disappeared for the sake of the fact that they have the wrong name, a name that is either Sunni or Shi'a, so much so that we have people getting dual identity cards, where parents cannot send their children to school, because they have to cross a sectarian line, then, goodness, me, I don't want to see what a civil war looks like either if this isn't one.
Well, as many have pointed out, this may not matter, really, except to the politicians and those who want us to continue whatever it is we're doing in this post-war war (and that may be an accurate but odd semantic construction in and of itself.). Note Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings - Civil War, Or The Failure Of Reconstruction? Who Cares?

But if you're going to think about how to make thing even a bit better, what words rattle around in your brain that could possibly settle into anything like a coherent policy? What are you working with here?

Maybe these folks just skipped the civil war thing and moved a step or two beyond that - to your basic chaos. Iraq looks like a failed state, with a government that is powerless to control its own factions. And there may be no movement to install "something else." Who is fighting for that, really? We have general lawlessness and every man for himself, or every sect, or tribe, or whatever. Christopher Hitchens sees the whole region disintegrating (and that may be the right word) in his Monday item, From Beirut to Baghdad - The Ghastly Predictability of Nihilist Violence.

So, we're fighting Islamic fanatics there so we don't have to fight them here - and all that stuff that looks like a civil war is just background noise. That would lead you to one set of approaches. Or we have a civil war, with two distinct sides - Sunni and Shi'a - and that needs attention. That would lead you to another set of approaches. Or we have unstructured nihilistic violence - internecine war with no clear objectives, or just criminal thuggish crap. That would lead you to yet another set of approaches.

It does seem to be a matter of how you conceptualize it. Words matter.

But out here in the Los Angeles Times, Sunday morning brought an overarching, and arch, solution proposed by Jonathan Chait - Bring Back Saddam Hussein.

What? It seems this was meant to provocative.

Digby at Hullabaloo assumed so - "I assumed he was making a Swiftian modest proposal. I read his piece to be a satirical left hook to the notion that the Baker Commission was going to find some magical solution to the Iraq quagmire and conclude that the only formula that would work would be to put Saddam back in charge."

But the he saw Chait on Chris Matthews "Hardball" explaining that he was engaging in "a little bit of hyperbole but I think there's something to it" and "maybe we should put it back where we found it."

So he was sort of serious? Chait did say "almost everyone with a brain says we shouldn't have gone in the first place" but then admits that he was for the war but on different grounds - because he thought "weapons of mass destruction were the rationale" and "I didn't pay attention to, I confess, I didn't pay much attention to the possibility of a completely failed state. When the Bush administration talked about democracy I thought they were lying the way they lie about everything else that they do."

Well, maybe they were serious.

The there's this -
Matthews reminded him that in 1991 Baker and Powell had warned about the break up of Iraq if the US invaded and admitted that he got tired of hearing about that and now knows they were right. Chait, however, disagrees. He says that the post war was "bungled as badly as you could have, they had no plan, Rumsfeld threatened to fire the next general who said, 'what do we do about Iraq' in the post war. They didn't have enough troops, they broke up the Baathist bureaucracy, they broke up the army, they did it as badly as you couldn't have, so you know, I think what they could have had was a stable, you know ... last vicious dictatorship.

Matthews asked if he would have gone with the INC and Chait responds, "No, no, I thought what they would do all along was keep the Baath Party in place, get rid of Saddam, get rid of his sons..."

Matthews interrupted as he always does and moved on to another point, so perhaps Chait had something else to say, but I have to admit I was astonished by his point of view throughout the exchange. I had thought his op-ed a rather unsubtle piece of satire and it turns out that it was only barely exaggerated version of what he thought should have happened to begin with and what he still thinks should happen now. He's making a real argument.
Maybe he just got caught up in his own words.

Digby notes there was Jonathan Chait, in The National Review in October of 2002 saying this -
When asked about war, they [liberals] typically offer the following propositions: President Bush has cynically timed the debate to bolster Republican chances in the November elections, he has pursued his Iraq policy with an arrogant disregard for the views of Congress and the public, and his rationales for military action have been contradictory and in some cases false. I happen to believe all these criticisms are true (although the first is hard to prove) and that they add more evidence to what is already a damning indictment of the Bush presidency. But these are objections to the way Bush has carried out his Iraq policy rather than to the policy itself. (If Bush were to employ such dishonest tactics on behalf of, say, universal health care, that wouldn't make the policy a bad idea.) Ultimately the central question is: Does war with Iraq promote liberal foreign policy principles? The answer is yes, it does.

Liberals and conservatives share many foreign policy values in common: encouraging democracy and capitalism, responding to direct aggression, and so on. That is why, for instance, both overwhelmingly supported overthrowing the Taliban and hunting down Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In the post-cold-war era, though, liberals have centered their thinking around certain ideals with which conservatives do not agree. Writing in these pages in 1999, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer identified three distinctly liberal principles: advancing humanitarian (rather than merely national) interests; observing international law; and acting in concert with international institutions, such as the United Nations. Krauthammer cited these three principles in order to dismiss them. I disagree. Underlying all three is an understanding that American global dominance cannot last unless it is accepted by the rest of the world, and that cannot happen unless it operates on behalf of the broader good and on the basis of principles more elevated than "might makes right."
Back then was back then. Now it may be time for a friendly dictator. Or maybe that was "really" the idea back then.

But we need to get some democratic western values in that region, right?

Digby -
Indeed, it was the official liberal argument in favor of the war. Only realist misanthropes and dirty hippie throwbacks argued that the democratic domino theory was a crock. We were borderline racist and hated America for even suggesting that it might be just a tad unrealistic.

To be sure, Chait based his argument most fully on the WMD threat, but for all his skepticism about Bush's honesty in other areas, it apparently didn't cross his mind that they might lie about that. Neither did it occur to him and all the other liberal hawks that Saddam might have had good reason to exaggerate his arsenal for regional or domestic purposes, something that the thin gruel Powell presented to the UN and the continuous debunking of "proof" (as with the aluminum tubes and the drone planes) should have made thinking people at least consider.

But now we find out that certain liberal hawks (or Chait at least) always had their own "cakewalk" fantasy. The US was going to invade, get rid of the WMD, install our own friendly dictator and then get out. Who knew?

… But it does raise the question: do liberal hawks think that this is still a solution to the problem? Chait indicated that he was exaggerating to get people "thinking." But perhaps his "bring Saddam back" was as serious a piece of advice as his earlier exhortations that liberals should support the war. I would suggest that it has just as much merit.
Ah, but it is a solution. And the words spin on…

Chait was on with Tucker Carlson also -
We've learned that there are worse things than totalitarianism and one of them is unending chaos... My argument is not an entirely cynical argument... One of the things that foments chaos is the expectation of chaos, when people's behavior changes, when they don't see any established order, and one of the few things we'll be able to do, I was sort of supposing, would be the return of Saddam Hussein - he has high name recognition, people know who he is, they know what he's capable of doing and you have, it's still a recent enough that he was in charge of the state, that you still have the Baath army units and the infrastructure to put in place. So I was hypothesizing that this may be the only force capable of actually ruling the country, not that we want that by any means, it was horrendous, but simply that you have order, I mean it might be the best of some very, very, bad alternatives.

Carlson: Best for us. It seems to me the one thing about Saddam, as deranged as he may have been, he did have something to lose, he didn't want to die, and he wasn't a religious nut, he was incredibly brutal. Does that tell us something about what we would need to do in order to secure Iraq. I mean, he killed people with poison gas, Was that something he had to do? Was that required?

Chait: No I don't think so. But look, he's psychotic so you can't assume that anything a psychotic man does is something he rationally had to do. And he would still be psychotic if he was in power. There would be no doubt about it. I mean, it certainly would be better for us - we wouldn't have the Iranian influence and you wouldn't have Iraq becoming a potential terrorist haven, both things that threaten us a great deal, if we had Saddam in power. You would have someone who would brutalize his own population but again you're getting that right now anyway and you might be getting less of it if he returned.

Carlson: Obviously we're not... because there is a civil war, and according to NBC it officially begins today, that kind of implies we ought to pick a side. And in fact pick a strongman to preside over the country in a less brutal way than Saddam did, but in a brutal way nonetheless and keep that place under control? Should we pick a side?

Chait: I don't know. I think I'm probably like you. You read all these proposals about what to do with Iraq and there all people who specializing in the topic and know more about it than I do and probably more than you do and it just doesn't sound that convincing and when they pick apart the other guy's proposal, when they say "here's why we need a strongman and here's why partition won't work" and you say "that makes a lot of sense" and the other person says "here's why we need partition and why the strongman won't work" and that seems right also, so that sort of the mode I'm in. I just don't know what to do. The only time anyone seems convincing is when they say why everything else won't work.
Yep, words are funny that way. Alfred Korzybski knew a thing or two.

And Digby says this is all "chickenshit nonsense" -
This guy makes a living as a pundit. He wrote an extremely provocative article saying that we should re-install Saddam (or some other strongman.) And then he cops out by saying he's confused because the "experts" don't have any easy answers.

This kind of thinking has permeated the establishment from day one. Plenty of people said in advance that the war was a mistake for exactly the reasons that Chait is now so surprised by. Nobody listened to them then and nobody is listening to them now. In fact, they were and are derided and marginalized. Today allegedly liberal pundits are rather seriously discussing the merits of installing friendly dictators now that their fantasies failed to become reality. How ridiculous.
Words can do that. No one agrees on the terms we should use.

At the end of his interview with Chait, Matthews said something like "what's going on with you guys at The New Republic? You're going liberal." Chait said, "We've always been liberal."

Digby - "Mark my words, soon it will be said that when the going got tough the liberals said we should bring back Saddam Hussein. Everybody knows that the left are totalitarians from way back."

It will be a war of words.

And what of that publication, The New Republic? Their new issue is devoted to "What To Do About Iraq" and it seems it all depends on how you frame the problem. There are two pieces, both by political science professors. They are puzzling.

Kevin Drum suggests that they are "diametrically opposed and yet still manage to contain not a single glimmer of intelligent thought between them." As in "James Kurth suggests we obliterate the Sunnis because they've been such bastards, while suggests we obliterate the Sunnis because they've been such bastards, while Josef Joffe suggests we team up with the Sunnis in order to annoy Iran. Neither writer even remotely explains how we're supposed to accomplish either one of these goals."

But seem to have bought the "civil war" construction. That's the thing now. That's "the word" (or words). And it's a matter of which side to choose for which reason.

And George Packer in the same issue seems to use the Hitchens semantic construction - we not dealing with civil war, but something like nihilist violence. And it may be time to think about saving those who stuck by us -
Those Iraqis who have had anything to do with the occupation and its promises of democracy will be among the first to be killed: the translators, the government officials, the embassy employees, the journalists, the organizers of women's and human rights groups.

... If the United States leaves Iraq, our last shred of honor and decency will require us to save as many of these Iraqis as possible. In June, a U.S. Embassy cable about the lives of the Iraqi staff was leaked to The Washington Post. Among many disturbing examples of intimidation and fear was this sentence: "In March, a few staff approached us to ask what provisions would we make for them if we evacuate." The cable gave no answer. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad does not issue visas.

... We should start issuing visas in Baghdad, as well as in the regional embassies in Mosul, Kirkuk, Hilla, and Basra. We should issue them liberally, which means that we should vastly increase our quota for Iraqi refugees. (Last year, it was fewer than 200.) We should prepare contingency plans for massive airlifts and ground escorts. We should be ready for desperate and angry crowds at the gates of the Green Zone and U.S. bases. We should not allow wishful thinking to put off these decisions until it's too late. We should not compound our betrayals of Iraqis who put their hopes in our hands.
So choosing sides in the civil war is moot. It really is beyond that now.

Drum -
On moral grounds, it's hard to conceive of any argument against Packer. The only question is: Is it practical? Can we actually do what he suggests? How would we address the obvious security problems inherent in a relocation program?

The only way to know is for people with experience to study the issue and create a plan. But what are the odds that anyone in the Bush administration will ever allow this to happen?
The odds are nil. Of the three ways to put this into words - we're fighting Islamic fanatics there so we don't have to fight them here and all that stuff that looks like a civil war is just background noise, or we have a civil war, with two distinct sides and the needs attention, or we have unstructured nihilistic violence - the Bush administration will only credit the first semantic construction. You can only think in the words that you allow yourself to use. It's a funny trick, or maybe it isn't so funny.

Posted by Alan at 22:02 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 28 November 2006 06:54 PST home

Sunday, 26 November 2006
Gross Amateurism
Topic: For policy wonks...

Gross Amateurism

There's a reason one doesn't go to class reunions. Unless you've out-trumped Donald Trump or have your Oscar, the whole thing can quickly become and exercise in major defensiveness - it's a "king of the hill" thing, or maybe it's like dodgeball. You don't want to get hit with the humiliation ball. It stings. And when it comes your way you can choose to throw it hard at others, if you wish - or you can use the condescending pity ball, and hit Fred, being so sorry about his seventh divorce and the kid in jail and losing his job and all. It's America - we thrive on competition, and on lying about our successes.

Some of course, have no reason to be defensive. Those of us who knew Steve Holmes back in the late sixties at Denison University - a small liberal arts college in the middle of rural Ohio - knew Holmes would do just fine. Rail-thin and hyper-intellectual, he seemed somewhere else already. And now - more power to him - he's actually there.

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, just glancing at what Gregory Djerejian had to say at Belgravia Dispatch, Holmes popped up. Now Gregory Djerejian is based in New York City as Senior Vice-President and General Counsel of a financial services company, and helps manage a philanthropic organization which has supported a number of projects in Armenia, and before that was a corporate lawyer, and before that worked, in conjunction with the State Department, on the "train and equip" program for the Bosnian Federation military and with the International Rescue Committee in the former Yugoslavia from 1994-1996. And before that he had worked at our Mission to the United Nations and with Congress. To top it off, he's fluent in French and conversant in Spanish and Russian, and a member to the Council on Foreign Relations. He's a Holmes kind of guy. (He previously lived in the Belgravia district in London - where all the embassies are, as noted even in the Sherlock Holmes stories - so that explains the name of his site.)

We're not talking minor musings from the back end of Hollywood here. This is the land of the big boys.

Djerejian is impressed with Holmes - not Sherlock, but Stephen - given what Holmes recently published in the London Review of Books, a review of the new Francis Fukuyama book America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy (the UK title is After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads, Profile, not Yale University Press, and £12.99). The review is titled Neo-Con Futurology, and it provides an analysis of how these guys were just, basically, full of crap (not a term the big boys use).

The idea here is, that when you look at it, the neoconservatives were, and are, absolute amateurs at foreign policy, and dreadfully shallow and silly. Yes, many had that niggling suspicion, but who would or could say that? This was the "serious policy thinking" that would change everything after the attacks of September 11, 2001. We needed to approach things differently - all those dead people, you see - and this was certainly different.

Holmes carefully points out, in this extended excerpt (emphases added), that this was also nonsense -
The neo-con argument goes roughly as follows. The US had to deploy its military might because American national security was (and is) threatened by the lack of democracy in the Arab Middle East. The premise behind this allegation is not the much debated notion that democracies seldom go to war with one another and, therefore, that democratisation makes an important contribution to the pacification of the globe. The neo-con argument is concerned not with relations among potentially warring states, but with class or group dynamics within a single state that may spill over and affect other countries adversely.

The thesis is that democracy is the most effective antidote to the kind of Islamic radicalism that hit the US on 9/11. Its exponents begin with the premise that tyranny cannot tolerate the public expression of social resentment that its abuses naturally produce. To preserve its grip, tyranny must therefore crush even modest stirrings of opposition, repressing dissidents and critics, with unstinting ferocity if need be. In the age of globalisation, however, repressed rebellions do not simply die out. They splash uncontrollably across international borders and have violent repercussions abroad. Middle Eastern rebellions have been so savagely and effectively repressed that rebels have been driven to experiment with an indirect strategy to overthrow local tyrannies and seize power. They have traveled abroad and targeted those they see as the global sponsors of their local autocrats.

On 9/11, this argument implies, the US woke up in the middle of someone else's savage civil war. The World Trade Center was destroyed by foreign insurgents whose original targets lay in the Middle East. The explosive energy behind the attack came from Saudi and Egyptian rebels unable to oust local autocrats and lashing out in anger at those autocrats' global protectors. Thus, the rationale for reaching 'inside states' is not the traditional need to replace hostile or un-cooperative rulers with more compliant successors (of the type Ahmed Chalabi was apparently slated to become), but rather to 'create political conditions that would prevent terrorism'. The political condition most likely to prevent anti-American terrorism from arising, so the neo-cons allege, is democracy.

Their reasoning at this point becomes exasperatingly obscure and confused, but their guiding assumption is clear enough: democratic government channels social frustrations inside the system instead of allowing discontent and anger to fester outside. Autocratic governments in the Arab world have shown themselves capable of retaining power by sheer coercive force, but their counter-revolutionary efforts, under contemporary conditions, have serious 'externalities', especially the export of murderous jihad to the West. America's security challenge is to shut down this export industry. To do so, the US must find a way to democratise the Middle East.

This convoluted and debatable argument played only a marginal role in the administration's decision to invade Iraq. It plays a more substantial role in the current presentation of its 'mission' in Iraq, however. It is also a central focus of Fukuyama's book. So how should we evaluate the idea? Is a democratic deficit in the Middle East the principal cause of anti-Western jihadism? And is democratisation a plausible strategy for preventing the export of political violence?

The first thing to say is that fighting terror by promoting democracy makes little sense as a justification of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Although the lack of democracy in Saudi Arabia and Egypt may indirectly fuel anti-Western jihad, in Iraq it has never done so. In non-democratic countries with which the US is allied (such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt), anti-regime violence naturally escalates or swerves into anti-American violence. The idea that a lack of democracy in countries overtly hostile to the US (such as Saddam's Iraq or contemporary Iran) will have such an effect is logically implausible and unsupported by historical evidence.

To argue that creating democracy in Iraq will help defeat Islamic terrorism is to bank on a multi-stage process by which democracy, once established in Iraq, will spread to Egypt, Saudi Arabia etc by force of its inspiring example. Only then, after neighbouring dominoes (including governments allied with the US) begin to fall, would the democratisation of Iraq contribute seriously to draining the terrorists' proverbial recruitment pool. Of course, such political revolutions, in the unlikely event that they actually erupted, would be wholly impossible to control or steer. That is reason enough to doubt that Cheney or Rumsfeld, for example, ever took seriously this frivolous bit of neo-con futurology.

The idea of a democratic cure for terrorism assumes that there are two separate causes of anti-American jihad: Middle Eastern autocracy, and unprincipled or opportunistic American backing for it. Anti-American jihad would subside, the theory implies, if either condition could be eliminated. Thus, the neo-con rationale for regime change in the Middle East seemingly justifies something much less radical, and presumably less difficult, than creating stable multiparty democracy in Mesopotamia: the gradual withdrawal of American support from the region's corrupt oligarchies and oppressive autocracies. Putting daylight between the US and abusive Middle Eastern regimes should be enough to insulate America from the violent backlash such tyrannies produce.

Unfortunately, this pathway is blocked. The US cannot simply disengage from a region in which so many of its vital interests, including the steady flow of oil and the tracking down of terrorists, are at stake. Yet the paradox remains. From the impossibility of disengaging and the perils of engaging with autocrats, the neo-cons conclude that American interests require engagement with a democratic Middle East. The logic sounds impeccable at first. But it is based on the unfounded assumption that periodically elected governments in the region will necessarily be stable, moderate and legitimate, not to mention pro-American.

An even more fundamental argument against fighting terrorism by promoting democracy, however, is that no one in the US government has any idea how to promote democracy. Fukuyama accuses the neo-cons of chatting offhandedly about democratisation while failing to study or even leaf through the 'huge academic and practitioner-based literature on democratic transitions'. Their lack of serious attention to the subject had an astonishing justification: 'There was a tendency among promoters of the war to believe that democracy was a default condition to which societies would revert once liberated from dictators.' Democracy obviously has many social, economic, cultural and psychological preconditions, but those who thought America had a mission to democratise Iraq gave no thought to them, much less to helping create them. For their delicate task of social engineering, the only instrument they thought to bring along was a wrecking ball.

One might have thought that this 'remove the lid and out leaps democracy' approach was too preposterous ever to have been taken seriously. But it is the position that Fukuyama, with some evidence, attributes to neo-cons in and around the administration. They assumed, he writes, that the only necessary precondition for the emergence and consolidation of democracy is the 'amorphous longing for freedom' which President Bush, that penetrating student of human nature, detects in 'every mind and every soul'. Their sociology of democracy boils down to the universal and eternal human desire not to be oppressed. If this were democracy's only precondition, then Iraq would have no trouble making a speedy transition from clan-based savagery and untrammelled despotism to civilised self-restraint and collective self-rule: sceptics who harped on the difficulty of creating a government that would be both coherent and representative in a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian and tribally fragmented country, simply failed to appreciate the love of freedom in every human heart.

Neo-cons, Fukuyama implies, seldom do the hard work required to learn about the evolving political and social dynamics of specific societies. Instead, they over-personalise any 'regime' that they dream of destabilising, identifying it with a single reprehensible ruler who can, in principle, be taken out with a single airstrike. But here again they walk into a serious self-contradiction. One of their principal claims is that a bad regime will have long-lasting negative effects on the society it abuses. A cruel autocracy puts down 'social roots' and reshapes 'informal habits'. Thus, 'Saddam Hussein's tyranny bred passivity and fatalism - not to mention vices of cruelty and violence.' It is very likely, in other words, that Saddam unfitted the Iraqi people for democracy, for a time at least. This is a logical implication of the neo-cons' theory of 'regimes', but not one they considered, presumably because it would have knocked the legs from under their idealistic case for war...

... The proposal to pull Mesopotamia into the modern world, he says, is based on a facile optimism reminiscent of 1960s liberalism and publicly rebutted by the original neo-cons. Progressive dreams are bound to be dashed on the hard realities of social habit. One of the fundamental goals of neo-conservatism, in its formative period, was to show that 'efforts to seek social justice' invariably leave societies 'worse off than before'. They were especially 'focused on the corroding effects of welfare on the character of the poor'. All distribution from the rich to the poor and from whites to blacks is inevitably counterproductive. Progressive attempts to reduce poverty and inequality, although well-intentioned, have 'disrupted organic social relations', such as residential segregation, triggering a violent backlash and failing to lift up the downtrodden. According to the neo-cons, it is wiser to concentrate on the symptoms, using police power and incarceration to discourage violent behaviour and protect civilised values.

The neo-cons, according to Fukuyama, never explored the relevance of such warnings to US foreign policy. Proponents of the Iraq war, very much like old-style liberal advocates of welfare, 'sought worthy ends but undermined themselves by failing to recognise the limits of political voluntarism'. Their failure in Iraq was just as predictable as the failure of American liberals to improve the lives of poor American blacks. In short, the plans of today's idealistic hawks for creating Iraqi democracy show how utterly they have betrayed the neo-con legacy. Perhaps the deepest irony is that their enthusiasm for destroying the status quo and overthrowing the powers that be (without giving much thought to how to replace them) recalls the institution-bashing antics of 1960s student radicals more than the counter-revolutionary posture of the founding fathers of neo-conservatism.
So in the end, they come off just like the long-haired smash-everything "down with the establishment" types Holmes probably remembers from the sixties (even though there weren't many of those in central rural Ohio in the winter of 1966). Holmes had no use for them then - there just weren't serious and shouldn't be taken seriously. He doesn't much care for them now.

Sorry for the long quote (and for the British spelling and punctuation), but if this were a class reunion, some of us would give Holmes the floor and cheer him on. In this matter he wins "king of the hill."

Gregory Djerejian adds that he came across this "on a day when Dick Cheney, more or less hat in hand, is in Saudi Arabia looking for any assistance the Kingdom can render to stabilize Iraq and counter Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon (still foolishly without engaging in direct dialogue with them)." He is also not pleased with this "more rubble, less trouble" crowd, those who want to "end all evil." This isn't the sixties. And he adds - "Would that this only constitutes but burlesque farce and cheap entertainment, save that some of these personages still (amazingly) wield not insignificant influence in the Beltway."

No such luck - no cheap comedy here. These guys run the show, for now.

And people listen to them, for some odd reason. They have ideas on how to make the Iraq business all better - fifty thousand more troops and whatnot.

Glenn Greenwald has the final word on that -
Seeking input from the neocons on how to solve the Iraq disaster would be like consulting the serial arsonist who started a deadly, raging fire on how to extinguish it. That actually might make sense if the arsonist were repentant and wanted to help reverse what he unleashed. But if the arsonist were proud of the fire he started and actually wanted to see it rage forever, even more strongly - and, worse, if he were intent on starting whole new fires just like the one destroying everything and everyone in its path-- it would be the height of irrationality for those wanting to extinguish the fire to listen to what he has to say.
Gregory Djerejian - "What he said." Hollywood - "What Holmes said too."

Now back to watching the helicopters outside the window, covering the annual Christmas parade on Hollywood Boulevard. It'll be something to talk about at the next class reunion.

Posted by Alan at 19:52 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 26 November 2006 19:54 PST home

Saturday, 25 November 2006
Thanksgiving is so over...
Topic: Perspective

Thanksgiving is so over…

For your amusement, so be grateful. (More in tomorrow's Just Above Sunset…)

"Persons thankful for little things are certain to be the ones with much to be thankful for." - Frank A. Clark

"Having listened to people for a long time, I believe many of us should be thankful not to be shot." - Leston Havens

"Let us be thankful for the fools. But for them the rest of us could not succeed." - Mark Twain

"Keep your eyes open to your mercies. The man who forgets to be thankful has fallen asleep in life." - Robert Louis Stevenson

"I have strong doubts that the first Thanksgiving even remotely resembled the 'history' I was told in second grade. But considering that (when it comes to holidays) mainstream America's traditions tend to be over-eating, shopping, or getting drunk, I suppose it's a miracle that the concept of giving thanks even surfaces at all. - Ellen Orleans

"Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for - annually, not oftener - if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors, the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man's side, consequently on the Lord's side; hence it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments." - Mark Twain

"I feel a very unusual sensation - if it is not indigestion, I think it must be gratitude." - Benjamin Disraeli

"Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive." - Edward Gibbon

"Gratitude - the meanest and most snivelling attribute in the world." - Dorothy Parker

"Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs. - Joseph Stalin

"A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all the other virtues." [Gratus animus est una virtus non solum maxima, sed etiam mater virtutum onmium reliquarum] - Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero), Oratio Pro Cnoeo Plancio (XXXIII)

"He is ungrateful who denies that he has received a kindness which has been bestowed upon him; he is ungrateful who conceals it; he is ungrateful who makes no return for it; most ungrateful of all is he who forgets it. [Ingratus est, qui beneficium accepisse se negat, quod accepit: ingratus est, qui dissimulat; ingratus, qui non reddit; ingratissimus omnium, qui oblitus est.] - Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca), De Beneficiis (III, 1)

"In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican." - H. L. Mencken

"It's a sign of mediocrity when you demonstrate gratitude with moderation." - Roberto Benigni

"When I'm not thanked at all I'm thanked enough." - Henry Fielding

"Man always travels along precipices. His truest obligation is to keep his balance. - Jose Ortega Gasset

"One of the effects of a safe and civilized life is an immense oversensitiveness which makes all the primary emotions somewhat disgusting. Generosity is as painful as meanness, gratitude as hateful as ingratitude." - George Orwell

"No favor can win gratitude from a cat." - Jean de La Fontaine

Posted by Alan at 15:02 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
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