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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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Sunday, 3 December 2006
Talking Trash to Look Good
Topic: Iraq

Talking Trash to Look Good

Perhaps it is far too early to be considering who to vote for in 2008 - when no one can vote for George Bush. Oh sure, people can write in his name, and probably will - the thirty-one percent who persist in thinking he's doing a wonderful job - but by law, he cannot serve a third term. Someone else will lead the free world, as they say, in January 2009.

The positioning to determine who that will be has already begun, and it is becoming fairly obvious there may be a third party campaign, led by two characters with whom neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are very comfortable at all. Those two would be Senator John "The Maverick" McCain, whose "straight-talk express" has on and off infuriated his fellow Republicans, and Senator Joe "The Last Honest Man" Lieberman, who badly lost the Democratic primary in Connecticut then ran as an independent, and won, with support from the far right and funding from the White House. As a rule, never trust anyone who says he is "The Last Honest Man" - run for the hills and hide your wallet. Such self-proclamations are the stuff of sales pitches for used cars recovered from the muck of New Orleans and shined up. Ah well, Lieberman says he's now above partisan politics, and "for the people." McCain implicitly claims the same thing. It's no wonder there is speculation the two will hook up and run together - to get us beyond all the bickering. It's too bad both are quite mad.

But the first weekend in December they got their opening - another leaked memo. As that weekend began, the New York Times reported they had been given a copy of a confidential memo, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to President Bush, written two days before Rumsfeld was tossed aside. Putting aside the question of some sort of internal coup in progress - a group of people out to embarrass the president and make trouble leaking internal memos - this particular memo was odd. Rumsfeld noted things in Iraq were a bit of a mess and a big change in direction might be a good idea - "go minimal" with far fewer troops, somehow force the hapless Iraqi government to "pull up its socks" (really), redeploy to the border, or to the main bases, or to the Kurdish north. It was a grab bag of general ideas, and Rumsfeld said he didn't really care for any of them. Perhaps they sounded too much like what everyone who opposed him had been saying - from Jack Murtha to the young lefties posting on the net. It really doesn't matter. He's gone now.

Sunday, December 3, there was the expected fallout. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, looking a bit depressed and haggard, did what he had to do - he faced Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press and did the requisite spin. You can watch a clip of that, with a partial transcript, here, but what it came down to was Russert pointing out that the Rumsfeld memo suggested a strategy of partial withdrawal. It really did. Russert asked why, when others had raised this idea in the past, "they were accused by your White House of cutting and running." Hadley told Russert "maybe you misunderstand what the memo was about" - Rumsfeld wrote no such thing and the memo was simply an effort by Rumsfeld to "broaden the debate," and certainly was "not a game plan or an effort to set out the way forward in Iraq." The man, one must assume, was just noodling around. He does that. The memo, we were left to gather, was thus inconsequential. And Hadley later added, by the way, that we're clearly winning in Iraq. We are? Of course he had to say that. He was having a bad morning, but someone had to say something about this all. He drew the short straw.

But there are not a whole lot of good ideas floating around for how to deal with this post-war war. There aren't even any workable ideas. It's no wonder Rumsfeld's memo said no option he had listed was really very good. Maybe he did resign voluntarily, after all.

That is not to say there are not ideas floating around. And that brings up McCain and Lieberman. They have an idea - escalate the war, big time, pouring in tens of thousands more troops. The idea seems odd, but it is a matter of getting elected in 2008 to run everything, of course.

Holly Bailey, in the December 11 issue of Newsweek, explains what this is all about in McCain's Ground War, with the subhead - "The senator is calling for more boots on the ground in Iraq. Is this any way to wage a presidential campaign?"

Yes it is, perhaps, but it has its risks -
Since the election, the Arizona senator has pushed for more, not fewer, troops in the Iraq conflict, claiming "without additional ground forces we will not win this war." It's a striking stance for a man considered to be the front runner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, considering the American public's growing impatience for the end of the war. Even in conservative New Hampshire, 38 percent of voters now support bringing troops "home ASAP," according to the most recent Granite State poll. South Carolina, where a tough defeat ended McCain's 2000 campaign, will play an even more influential role in 2008 thanks to early placement in the primary calendar. There, too, Republican voters are growing unhappy with the war. "People are wondering how long this is going to go on," says Buddy Witherspoon, a Republican National Committeeman from Columbia. "I don't think a proposal like that is going to get McCain any votes down here."

Privately, some McCain supporters have begun to worry that the senator's hard line on the war may turn off the moderate, independent-minded voters who've long formed the bedrock of his primary support. "We lost independents," says one campaign adviser, who asked for anonymity discussing the politics of national security. "McCain will have to get them back to win, or at least convince them to trust him."

Still, some members of McCain's inner circle are convinced the position could actually work to his advantage - reminding independents of the maverick they fell in love with in 2000. In a 2008 campaign, aides say, the senator would accentuate his differences with the Bush administration over management of the Iraq occupation, stressing his early criticism of ousted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the persistent call for more troops. The hope, the campaign adviser says, is that even antiwar voters will gradually come to accept the position as "a long-term stand based on principle."
Yeah, and if things go to hell in a hand basket, as they certainly seem to be doing, he gets to say - see, if they had only listened to me, we'd have won everything and the world would love us and thank us.

And it's not just him, there's this video clip and transcript, Senator Lieberman, on CBS's Face the Nation while Hadley was on NBC, enthusiastically endorsing escalation in Iraq. He says he's really surprised Rumsfeld didn't suggest that in the memo - it was "surprising" that "the one thing [the memo] doesn't raise as a possibility is to increase the number of our troops." Lieberman claimed the failure to send more Americans "may well be a critical part of the problems that we've been having lately." We clearly "require more personnel on the ground in Iraq." The two are working together. Or perhaps the two are just soul mates.

But here is an interesting question -
What do those troops do?

Think of it this way: A company is losing profit against its competitors. No one can figure out why. If, in a well-run company, some advisor came in and said "Let's hire more people" without explaining exactly where those people would work and what they would do, the advisor would be booted out of the boss's office.

So far, it seems to me that McCain (and his enablers) keep saying "more troops! more troops!" without explaining the mission of the added troops. All they are truly calling for is more of the same.

Would someone in the press please ask the question above?
Someone in the press may ask, one day. Or they may not. We have a press that doesn't ask questions. They just report what's said.

For a more acerbic take on the question of what massive numbers of additional troops would actually do when and if they get to Iraq, see William S. Lind, who is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation, whatever that may be. He thinks the whole idea is just stupid -
The latest serpent at which a drowning Washington Establishment is grasping is the idea of sending more American troops to Iraq. Would more troops turn the war there in our favor? No.

Why not? First, because nothing can. The war in Iraq is irredeemably lost. Neither we nor, at present, anyone else can create a new Iraqi state to replace the one our invasion destroyed. Maybe that will happen after the Iraqi civil war is resolved, maybe not. It is in any case out of our hands.

Nor could more American troops control the forces driving Iraq's intensifying civil war. The passions of ethnic and religious hatred unleashed by the disintegration of the Iraqi state will not cool because a few more American patrols pass through the streets. Iraqi's are quite capable of fighting us and each other at the same time.
Then there is the question of what they actually would do -
… [the reason] more troops would make no difference is that the troops we have there now don't know what to do, or at least their leaders don't know what they should do. For the most part, American troops in Iraq sit on their Forward Operating Bases; in effect, we are besieging ourselves. Troops under siege are seldom effective at controlling the surrounding countryside, regardless of their number.

When American troops do leave their FOBs, it is almost always to run convoys, which is to say to provide targets; to engage in meaningless patrols, again providing targets; or to do raids, which are downright counterproductive, because they turn the people even more strongly against us, where that is possible. Doing more of any of these things would help us not at all.

More troops might make a difference if they were sent as part of a change in strategy, away from raids and "killing bad guys" and toward something like the Vietnam war's CAP program, where American troops defended villages instead of attacking them. But there is no sign of any such change of strategy on the horizon, so there would be nothing useful for more troops to do.

Even a CAP program would be likely to fail at this stage of the Iraq war, which points to the third reason more troops would not help us: more troops cannot turn back the clock. For the CAP or "ink blot" strategy to work, there has to be some level of acceptance of the foreign troops by the local people. When we first invaded Iraq, that was present in much of the country.

But we squandered that good will with blunder upon blunder. How many troops would it take to undo all those errors? The answer is either zero or an infinite number, because no quantity of troops can erase history. The argument that more troops in the beginning, combined with an ink blot strategy, might have made the Iraq venture a success does not mean that more troops could do the same thing now.
And note his closing -
The clinching argument against more troops also relates to time: sending more troops would mean nothing to our opponents on the ground, because those opponents know we could not sustain a significantly larger occupation force for any length of time. So what if a few tens of thousands more Americans come for a few months? The U.S. military is strained to the breaking point to sustain the force there now. Where is the rotation base for a much larger deployment to come from?

The fact that Washington is seriously considering sending more American troops to Iraq illustrates a common phenomenon in war. As the certainty of defeat looms ever more clearly, the scrabbling about for a miracle cure, a deus ex machina, becomes ever more desperate - and more silly. Cavalry charges, Zeppelins, V-2 missiles, kamikazes, the list is endless. In the end, someone finally has to face facts and admit defeat. The sooner someone in Washington is willing to do that, the sooner the troops we already have in Iraq will come home - alive.
Sure, one can say this is defeatist nonsense. But one can also say a major escalation with twenty thousand or more additional troops, assuring victory (whatever that means this day of the week), may be triumphalist nonsense. Take your pick.

But McCain will ride this one-trick pony for all it's worth (as in the Paul Simon song). And Lieberman is with him.

Yep, he's a maverick, although Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly suggests that too may be nonsense -
McCain's people seem to be confusing "maverick" with "popular." When McCain broke with his party to support campaign finance reform or a patients' bill of rights, he was backing positions that were popular with the electorate. Ditto for fuel efficiency standards and an end to torture. In fact, nearly all of McCain's "maverick" positions have been carefully crafted to appeal to the broad middle of the country.

In other words, they weren't maverick positions at all. They only seemed that way when the comparison point was the right wing of the Republican Party. Conversely, doubling down in Iraq is a very different beast: it's unpopular, it exudes stubbornness rather than fresh thinking, and it looks opportunistic rather than independent.

McCain's straight-talk schtick has always been a twofer: the press eats it up because it loves politicians who break with their party occasionally, and the public loves it because McCain is taking positions most of them agree with. But Iraq is going to be different: this time McCain is taking a position more extreme than the rest of the Republican Party. He's going to lose the press because his position seems increasingly bull-headed instead of brave, and he's going to lose the public because he's taking a stand they don't agree with.

For once, McCain is being a genuine maverick. I think he's about to find out that that was never really what people admired about him in the first place.
As with Lieberman, McCain could easily been seen as just talking trash, to get what he wants.

But some, like Digby at Hullabaloo, see that McCain's position, while risky, has its internal logic -
The McCain Iraq escalation plan is a very dicey proposition, but not necessarily for the reasons stated in that [Newsweek] article. He's making some assumptions about the state of play in 2008, not how voters are thinking in 2006. If there is no escalation and things continue to disintegrate, which it will no matter what we do, it allows McCain to run against both Bush and the Democrats (as any GOP candidate will have to do) and say that if they'd followed his advice we would have won the war. The Democrat will be left with "we should have admitted that we lost two years ago" which is not exactly a stirring refrain. The lines are already being drawn between the cowardly Dems who urged a pullout and the brave Republicans who did their best and were betrayed by the vast hippie conspiracy. Nobody will be better positioned to creatively use that argument for himself than McCain if he can say that he had the "winning" plan and nobody listened.

I realize that is an absurd position. But when you're talking about presidential politics it's exactly the kind of position that can win. I think it's a very smart move.

However, if the McCain Iraq escalation plan is actually gaining ground, as it seems to be, with his exact request for 20,000 troops being bandied about by the Pentagon [see the Washington Post here] and others, then perhaps McCain is going to see his plan put into action rather than have it as a conveniently theoretical alternate reality. As I said before, I don't want to see any more troops sent over to that meat grinder. But if it happens, it's going to mess up McCain, big time.

If he goes into '08 being the guy who escalated the war when we were about to end it and it didn't work, he's got a problem. If it remains theoretical, he may be able to get away with it by appealing to American's need to believe that we would have won if only we'd done it right. Nobody should delude themselves into thinking that many Americans aren't going to find that appealing. In America "losing" must be blamed on someone and firmly establishing the other side as being responsible is going to be the number one job of both parties and each individual candidate over the next two years. It isn't going to be pretty.

St John and Holy Joe are pushing to send more troops to their deaths for cynical political reasons. They are betting that Bush won't do what they want him to do. I certainly hope they don't send any more soldiers over there to get killed. But it would probably be better for the Democrats if they did.
That's about it - this seems to be an elaborate "don't blame me" game. And what's not stated here, of course, is "St John and Holy Joe" know full well that finding another twenty-thousand troops, getting them equipped and trained, and over there, cannot be done quickly. We may need them right now, but that cannot possibly happen - so they're both covered. If the administration does, somehow, agree and send "the brave twenty-thousand" and we suffer massive losses, or even the nine or ten a weekend as we do now, and things do not get better, as seems likely, "St John and Holy Joe" can always say the administration acted too late, and should have had these guys in the pipeline ten months earlier. No matter what happens, they come off as having been "right." It's a pretty nifty trick. And it's probably best for the two of them if lots of our guys die - it just emphasizes how screwed up this all is, and had they been in charge form the get-go, we'd have won this thing. It takes a lot of ego to run for office. And dead people help quite a bit.

But the White House has a countermove, as on the Sunday talk shows this oozed out - "President Bush is weighing a range of options in Iraq, including a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from violence-plagued cities and a troop buildup near the Iranian and Syrian borders, his top security aide said today."

So much for "St John and Holy Joe" - this would shift things in an entirely new direction.

Richard Einhorn doesn't like the direction -
… I felt quite certain that if Bush agreed to a withdrawal, he would find a way to do it that would make matters far worse. Exactly how he could manage such an astonishing feat I had no idea, Torch Najaf? Destroy Fallujah again? Nevertheless, I know this president. I knew he was capable of making a troop withdrawal as insane an action as all his others.

… Do I have to spell out what's so awful about this? Ok, I suppose I do.

Since late this spring, Seymour Hersh has been publishing article after article detailing behind the scenes plan for nuclear war with Iran. That's right, nuclear war with Iran. Sometime around April, there was a revolt among the US generals who insisted that the nuclear option be removed from discussions about military options re: Iran before they would agree to discuss them. Only after the generals went semi-public did the Administration back down and take the nuclear option out of discussion. Now if you believe Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld stopped jonesing - and planning - for the Big Bang on Iran, you're a fool. But ok, at least officially, active planning to hit Iran continued, but no nukes (wink, wink).

Recently, Hersh reported after the November election that as far as Cheney was concerned, the Bush administration will simply circumvent Congress if he, Cheney, deems it necessary to whack Iran or Syria. And believe me, he does so deem it necessary.

Soooo, we come to today. The Iraqi civil war that Bush/Iraq ignited has descended, as many said it would, to close to utter anarchy. And the US, weakened -as Kurtz [Howard Kurtz, media critic of the Washington Post and CNN] so helpfully informed us - by all those Democrats who want America to "lose" is demanding withdrawal. And lo and behold, Emperor George listens to his subjects. We will given them withdrawal.

Now, no one said where they wanted the troops withdrawn to. Surely you didn't expect Bush to ship them all to Honolulu and spend the rest of their service sipping Mai Tais and lowering their precious supply of oxytocin engaging in fornication with the locals, now did you?

So Americans want withdrawal? They're getting withdrawal. To the Syrian and Iranian borders. Where else?

Check it out: Bush will tell us, as he always has, that the Iranians and/or the Syrians - it depends on which day it is as to who's to blame - are the ones doing all the mischief in the Middle East. "That's why I withdrew 'em!" You can see the smirk, can't you, as he says he's just doing what we wanted in the best way he sees fit. And no doubt, the soldiers will be very useful interdicting the clotted mass of terrorists sneaking over the borders.

But here's the genius of it. If tensions rise maybe - say, if Iranians foolishly get alarmed that American troops are massing on the border after nine months of rumors of an American nuclear attack, and an Iranian sneezes a little too loudly - why how convenient! Before you can fake a bad Colonel Klink accent and mutter "blitzkrieg," kaboom! That's one small step for some troops, one more insane new war for a total moron and a horrified world.

Face it, ladies, gentlemen, and Republicans. When it comes to malicious incompetence, they broke the mold when it comes to 43…
Einhorn seems a bit bitter. Politics can make you bitter. Lots of people have to die so you can obtain power, and keep it. Of course it has always been so.

Posted by Alan at 21:26 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 4 December 2006 07:12 PST home

Saturday, 2 December 2006
December Arrives
Topic: Perspective

December Arrives

"I like these cold, gray winter days. Days like these let you savor a bad mood." - Bill Watterson

"Too bad Lassie didn't know how to ice skate, because then if she was in Holland on vacation in winter and someone said 'Lassie, go skate for help,' she could do it." - Jack Handy

"People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." - Rogers Hornsby

"I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape - the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show." - Andrew Wyeth

"There are three reasons for becoming a writer: the first is that you need the money; the second that you have something to say that you think the world should know; the third is that you can't think what to do with the long winter evenings." - Quentin Crisp

"There's a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons That oppresses, like the Heft Of Cathedral Tunes." - Emily Dickinson

"A moment, and its glory was no more. The sun went down beneath the long dark lines of hill and cloud which piled up in the west an airy city, wall heaped on wall, and battlement on battlement; the light was all withdrawn; the shining church turned cold and dark; the stream forgot to smile; the birds were silent; and the gloom of winter dwelt on everything." - Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit

"It was one of those chilly and empty afternoons in early winter, when the daylight is silver rather than gold and pewter rather than silver." - G. K. Chesterton, The Wisdom of Father Brown "The last day of the old year was one of those bright, cold, dazzling winter days, which bombard us with their brilliancy, and command our admiration but never our love." - Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne's House of Dreams

"Winter is icumen in, Lhude sing Goddamm, Raineth drop and staineth slop, And how the wind doth ramm! Sing: Goddamm." - Ezra Pound

"Winter is nature's way of saying, 'Up yours.'" - Robert Byrne

"Spring, summer, and fall fill us with hope; winter alone reminds us of the human condition." - Mignon McLaughlin, The Second Neurotic's Notebook, 1966

"Antisthenes says that in a certain faraway land the cold is so intense that words freeze as soon as they are uttered, and after some time then thaw and become audible, so that words spoken in winter go unheard until the next summer." - Plutarch, Moralia

"Winter is not a season, it's an occupation." - Sinclair Lewis

"In the right light, at the right time, everything is extraordinary." - Aaron Rose

"The purpose of life is to fight maturity." - Dick Werthimer

"The aging process has you firmly in its grasp if you never get the urge to throw a snowball." - Doug Larson

"A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water." - Carl Reiner

Posted by Alan at 17:00 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
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Friday, 1 December 2006
They've Got Your Number - Get Used to It
Topic: Couldn't be so...

They've Got Your Number - Get Used to It

It starts December 4 - and it seems to be one of those "why not" ideas that just pop up now and then. The Homeland Security Department's computerized Automated Targeting System was originally designed to track cargo into the United States - looking for patterns and anomalies that might raise a red flag. Carefully inspecting every single shipping container arriving in Long Beach or wherever, for nuclear, chemical and biological nasties, is beyond impractical - but you can use a bit of data-mining on all the records, the bills of lading and cargo manifests and all that. You look for suspicious "patterns" in the details. Then what you actually inspect can be narrowed to what needs inspected - not the bulk containers of shoes from a known and harmless manufacturer in Brazil, where the ship made no unexpected stops in Yemen or Rotterdam. Pattern recognition on large datasets is cool - if you set up the search algorithms cleverly, the needle in the haystack will turn up quickly. There's no need to deal with the hay at all. This stared after the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.

But why use this technique on cargo only? You could us it on people. Why not? That's what is scheduled to be implemented on Monday, December 4 - individual air passengers as well as flight crews, anyone entering the United States, even Sally from Wheaton returning from visiting friends in Toronto, gets a profile and a score indicating the risk level they represent. It's better than the "winnowing fan" mentioned in Homer - certain people will get the third degree, and the rest can go about their business. There's no direct human judgment involved. The algorithms do all the work and just make certain folks - based on their credit and travel history, what in-flight meals they've ordered, whether they ever got a speeding ticket, or a parking ticket, and who they've mailed things to and what mail they've received, their phone records and all - pop up. It's pattern recognition. There's a ton of data on everyone out there just floating around, unprotected, and you can't review it all on every traveler. So you set up a system to do a massive scan and sit back and wait.

The details of the system were put on a federal notice board last month - the Federal Register, that fine-print compendium of obscure federal rules - but they attracted little attention. The Associated Press reported on Thursday, November 30, that Americans and foreigners crossing the borders since 2002 have been assessed by the Homeland Security Department's computerized targeting system and been given their "risk numbers." And now it goes operational. The Department of Homeland Security says this is no big deal - they posted the information about the profiling system on the notice board as part of their "commitment to open government." They were hiding nothing. They seemed rather proud of the gizmo.

But somehow people were unhappy. Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington was - "This is a tremendously significant deal. It means the federal government has secretly assigned a terrorist rating to tens of millions of US citizens."

Yep. So?

David Sobel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told the Associated Press - "It's probably the most invasive system the government has yet deployed in terms of the number of people affected."

But is it invasive? The information is out there, on people and the companies they work for, from the US Treasury (the tax folks), from the customs and immigration departments, and from every law enforcement agency that exists. Commercial airlines supply data through passenger name records, and foreign governments share intelligence on a bilateral basis all the time. It's just a matter of collating it all. And that has been cleverly automated. The systems sets a risk rating for each of us by analyzing information like a history of one-way ticket purchases, seat preferences (some of us like the window seat), by frequent flyer records, by the number of bags checked, how we pay for tickets and what meals we order (flagging vegetarian or Kosher or whatever). No one is spying. The data is out there.

And the DHS folks say the resulting "risk rating" is only used as a guide to immigration officers at the borders "to assist them in selecting passengers to interview upon entry as part of their inspection procedures." It's just no longer the useless random inspection thing. It's more efficient.

The Associated Press writer Michael J. Sniffen (no kidding, that IS his name), on Friday, December 1, adds fascinating detail, like no travelers are not allowed to see or directly challenge these risk assessments ever. And the government intends to keep them on file for forty years. And this is interesting - some or all data in the system can be shared with state, local and foreign governments "for use in hiring, contracting and licensing decisions." Courts and some private contractors can obtain some or all of the data under certain circumstances. But you will not be allowed to see what it is, or challenge it in any way.

Sniffen sniffs around and gets a quote from incoming Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont - he pledged greater scrutiny of such government database-mining projects after reading about this, as in - "Data banks like this are overdue for oversight. That is going to change in the new Congress."

We'll see. Leahy also said, "It is simply incredible that the Bush administration is willing to share this sensitive information with foreign governments and even private employers, while refusing to allow U.S. citizens to see or challenge their own terror scores." And this system "highlights the danger of government use of technology to conduct widespread surveillance of our daily lives without proper safeguards for privacy." But then, this is the man to whom Vice President Cheney said, on the floor of the Senate, "Go fuck yourself." It will be said again.

By late Friday the government had received twenty-two written public comments the program - and folks either opposed it outright or objected to the lack of a direct means for people to correct any errors in the database about themselves. A typical one was this - "As a US citizen who spends much time outside the US, I can understand the need for good security; however, just as I would not participate in a banking/credit card system where I have no recourse to correct or even view my personal data, I cannot accept the same of my government."

Yeah, well, there's not much you can do about it. They're just looking for patterns in open, public data. It's not like anyone is lying about you. Consider it "interpretation." As with Rubenstein with Chopin or Bernstein with Beethoven, how can you question an interpretation? (Bernstein always conducted Beethoven much too fast, didn't he?)

Barry Steinhardt, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (of course) is quoted - "Never before in American history has our government gotten into the business of creating mass 'risk assessment' ratings of its own citizens," and he said "we are stunned" the program has been undertaken "with virtually no opportunity for the public to evaluate or comment on it." The reply from the Homeland Security Department was to say the nation's ability to spot criminals and other security threats "would be critically impaired without access to this data." You want to be safe, don't you? Of course selling the "risk numbers" to HR departments of companies who might want to hire you is a bit troubling. But it is pubic data, or an interpretation of it.

But the Sniffen item is interesting as he actually visits the operation. And he does a pretty good Ian Fleming, for an AP staffer -
… on Friday as the normal daily flow of a million or more people entered the United States by air, sea and land, the ATS program's computers continued their silent scrutiny. At that Virginia building with no sign, the managers of the National Targeting Center allowed an Associated Press photographer to briefly roam their work space.

But he couldn't reveal the building's exact location. None of the dozens of workers under the bright fluorescent lights could be named. Some could not be photographed.

The only clue he might have entered a government building was a montage of photos in the reception area of President Bush's visit to the center. But there was only one guard and a sign-in book.

Inside, red digital clocks on the walls showed the time in Istanbul, Baghdad, Islamabad, Bangkok, Singapore, Tokyo, and Sydney. Although billboard-size video screens on the walls showed multiple cable news shows, there was little noise in the basketball-court-sized main workroom. Each desk had dual computer screens and earphones to hear the video soundtrack. Conferences were held in smaller workrooms divided by glass walls from the windowless main room.

Round the clock, the targeters from Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection agency analyze information from multiple sources, not just ATS. They compare names to terrorist watch lists and mine the Treasury Enforcement Communications System and other automated systems that bring data about cargo, travelers and commercial workers entering or leaving the 317 U.S. ports, searching for suspicious people and cargo.
Why, it's just like a Hollywood movie.

And then we learn that government officials could not say whether the system has actually apprehended any terrorists. They've been using it for four years, in beta mode it seems. Based on all the information available to them, federal agents turn back about forty-five foreign criminals a day at our borders, according to Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection spokesman Bill Anthony- but he couldn't say how many were spotted by the new system. That's classified, you know. But it now goes fully operational. One must assume it works just fine.

No one, too, would describe in detail "the format in which border agents see the results or in which the databases store the results." Don't ask. Just know they have your number - actually a number - or soon will.

So how do you feel about this? The data is out there - as above, no one is spying on you. The government is supposed to be alert to threats to us all - that's their job, or part of it. And data-mining is a fact of life - retailers have used it for decades to make all sorts of marketing decisions, looking at terabytes of seemingly random demographic and economic data to decide what to make and try to sell, and just where and at what price. The government shouldn't do something with such technology, to keep us safe?

Perhaps the initial negative reaction to all this has to do with being assign "a number" you will never know, that defines how much of a threat you are to the nation, and it will stay with you for forty years, and be offered to potential employers. Did we sign up for this?

--

Note: Those of us who have worked in systems know the danger of someone working the system to raise someone's "risk number" out of personal anger or for political ends, and the parallel risk of someone from the outside hacking the system just to have some fun doing the same, or to make some bad guy "low risk." That's not very comforting.

Posted by Alan at 21:43 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 1 December 2006 21:45 PST home

Thursday, 30 November 2006
No Changes Ahead - Time to Blame Someone
Topic: Iraq

No Changes Ahead - Time to Blame Someone

Not that it mattered, but it should be noted -
AMMAN, Jordan, Nov. 30 - President Bush delivered a staunch endorsement of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Thursday morning and dismissed calls for U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq as unrealistic, following a summit meeting in which the two leaders discussed speeding up the turnover of security responsibilities.
Maliki said the Iraqi government would take over security by June 2007 - and all this sectarian nonsense would stop. They'd be an impartial army and police force, beholding to no side, than would have things in hand. Bush smiled.

Later in the day, this should be noted -
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faced a widening revolt within his divided government as two senior Sunni politicians joined prominent Shiite lawmakers and Cabinet members in criticizing his policies.

Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi said he wanted to see al-Maliki's government gone and another "understanding" for a new coalition put in place with guarantees that ensure collective decision making.

"There is a clear deterioration in security and everything is moving in the wrong direction," the Sunni leader told The Associated Press. "This situation must be redressed as soon as possible. If they continue, the country will plunge into civil war."

Al-Maliki's No. 2, Deputy Prime Minister Salam Zikam Ali al-Zubaie, also a Sunni, argued that the president's government failed to curb the spread of sectarian politics.

A boycott by 30 lawmakers and five Cabinet ministers loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was in protest of al-Maliki's meeting with President Bush in Jordan on Thursday. The Sadrists said the meeting amounted to an affront to the Iraqi people.
At the press conference the president, asked about the upcoming recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, did say - "I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq. We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there."

What if there's no government? Then what?

And the Washington Post has its eye on the Saudis, who seem to be signaling we'd really better not even think about withdrawing in any way, or the Saudi monarchy will take things into their own hands. The word comes from Nawaf Obaid - "an adviser to the Saudi government" - and of course his opinions "are his own and do not reflect official Saudi policy." Of course they don't. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

And this is the word -
Saudi leadership is preparing to substantially revise its Iraq policy. Options now include providing Sunni military leaders (primarily ex-Baathist members of the former Iraqi officer corps, who make up the backbone of the insurgency) with the same types of assistance - funding, arms and logistical support - that Iran has been giving to Shiite armed groups for years. Another possibility includes the establishment of new Sunni brigades to combat the Iranian-backed militias.

... Remaining on the sidelines would be unacceptable to Saudi Arabia. To turn a blind eye to the massacre of Iraqi Sunnis would be to abandon the principles upon which the kingdom was founded. It would undermine Saudi Arabia's credibility in the Sunni world and would be a capitulation to Iran's militarist actions in the region.

To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks - it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse.
And he also adds a warning to Iran - Saudi Arabia might also try to drive oil prices into the ground by increasing production and cutting its own prices in half. So much for their leverage. Regional war, and economic chaos, would be just fine. We'd just better not get too chummy with Maliki and the Shiites. And one has to assume the Saudis speak for our "allies" in the region - Jordon, Egypt and so on. Cheney's little trip to Saudi Arabia the weekend before - they seem to have summoned him there to read him the riot act - must have been nasty. Things are spinning out of control, and the our major Sunni allies aren't happy. There will be no "peace" if the Shiites control Iraq - sandwiched between their allies Iran and Syria. Our "allies" won't stand for that.

This is not good. The only government Iraq has at the moment is Shiite, holding onto tenuous power because the radial Sadr block - who want to wipe out the Sunnis - holds the thirty seats in parliament that allow Maliki to hold office. We've gotten ourselves into a fine mess.

The president says it will be all better. Maliki will fix things. It's not our business, really. We're just there to help him out, if he asks. Otherwise, we'll stand back. We did our part. It's a bit of a joke, but not particularly funny.

As for the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group offering the solution to this multi-faceted mess, both the New York Times and Washington Post got the inside scoop on what that panel will recommend when they released "the answer to everything." The Times says it will be pleasantly vague (or "mostly harmless" as Douglas Adams would say) - a gradual pulling back of our combat forces in Iraq, just what the president rejected out of hand at the Maliki press conference. The group will call for some sort of diplomacy with Syria and Iran, which the president says we will never try. As for the troops, the panel apparently won't be saying anything specific about when a pullback should start or what the pace of it should be. That's the president's call. And the Times says the group's report "leaves unstated whether the 15 combat brigades that are the bulk of American fighting forces in Iraq would be brought home, or simply pulled back to bases in Iraq or in neighboring countries." But even as combat troops are pulled back the plan will be to add additional forces to serve as advisors for Iraqi security forces.

And there will be no timetable for anything. In the Post we learn that a source "familiar with the panel's recommendations" tells them that the committee's recommendation "wasn't as specific as that, and it was a lot more conditional." The whole item is here, a not very encouraging. No one really can say what "the conditions" are. It's more of the "make it up as you go along" way of doing things. It worked for Indiana Jones, didn't it?

The president was asked whether he had talked with Maliki about any "time limits" on the Iraqis' taking control of their own security at that press conference. His reply - "As quick as possible I've been asked about timetables ever since we got into this. All timetables mean is that it - it is a timetable for withdrawal. You keep asking me those questions. All that does is ... set people up for unrealistic expectations."

We're not going anywhere. The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group seems to have been just for show, a bit of theatrics - to give the impression that "wise men" had looked this all and rally, there are no radical options. We just have to keep going on doing what we're doing, whatever that is. So being unhappy about it all is pointless. The "wise men" say so.

But people are unhappy, and thus it is time to assign some blame for this mess.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has been keeping score - kind of like the line score some keep at a baseball game. It's a way to know what's going on.

First up is Stanley Kurtz at the National Review with this -
The underlying problem with this war is that, from the outset, it has been waged under severe domestic political constraints. From the start, the administration has made an assessment of how large a military the public would support, and how much time the public would allow us to build democracy and then get out of Iraq. We then shaped our military and "nation building" plans around those political constraints, crafting a "light footprint" military strategy linked to rapid elections and a quick handover of power. Unfortunately, the constraints of domestic American public opinion do not match up to what is actually needed to bring stability and democracy to a country like Iraq.
That's interesting. We just didn't have the will to do what was the right thing to do.

Marshall's analysis -
It may be a form of literary grade or concept inflation to call it irony. But the irony of this ludicrous statement is that from the outset it has been the American political opposition (the Democrats) and the internal bureaucratic opposition (sane people in the US government and military, not appointed by George W. Bush) who've pushed for a much larger military footprint in Iraq and much more real nation-building. These weren't 'domestic political constraints'. These were ideological constraints the administration placed on itself.

I would say Stanley should go back and familiarize himself with the debates in 2002, 2003 and 2004. But of course he was there.

We're now down to the Iraqi people or the American people as the primary culprits behind George W. Bush's disaster.
That's the key - it wasn't George Bush's fault that this unraveled - it must be the Iraqi people or the American people. Neither is worthy of him.

Marshall adds this -
For what it's worth, I think substantially more troops would have made a big difference earlier on. Now, however, the Army and Marines are too worn down for any more troops to be available. And, more importantly, the sectarian chaos in the Iraq has taken on far too much momentum on its own for more troops to bring it under control. Would the 400,000 troops Gen. Shinseki wanted have led to a successful occupation? Probably not. But there are a thousands gradations of worse. And I think it wouldn't have been nearly as bad as it is now. The truth is that so many things were done so wrong in this disastrous endeavor that it's inherently difficult to pick apart the relative importance of each screw up to the eventual result.

I know there are a lot of people who either think that Iraq was a doable proposition that was botched or a project destined for failure no matter how it was handled. There are, needless to say, fewer and fewer in the former category. And I'd basically class myself in the latter one, if pushed. But both strike me as needlessly dogmatic viewpoints which make it harder to learn from the myriad mistakes that were made while telling us little about how we extricate ourselves from the mess.

Watching the president snap back to his usual state of denial, what I've been thinking about recently is how much of a difference it would have made if the White House had publicly recognized, say back in 2004, that Iraq was on a slow slide toward anarchy and started rethinking things enough to stem the descent to disaster. Let's say early 2005. Earlier the better. But let's give the benefit of the doubt and say it would have been hard to make the course correction in the midst of a presidential election. How much could have been accomplished? How much of this could have been avoided if the White House hadn't continued to pretend, for political reasons, that things were going well? And since the president now seems inclined to continue with his disastrous policy for the next two years, should we ask in advance what could have been avoided over the next two years if he'd only had the courage to confront reality today.
That's a thought. Reality may matter.

One of Marshall's readers adds this -
… the Bush Administration knew it could never make that case, so it deliberately concealed (possibly from itself, even, but certainly from the outside world) how costly it would be. Simply put, if they were honest about the potential costs, they never, ever would've gotten enough political support to invade. Only by grossly exaggerating the danger of Saddam and grossly downplaying the difficulty of the mission could they get the political support to do what they did.

It was a stupid idea from the beginning for that very reason, and to treat it now like that's some little miscalculation in planning is disingenuous in the extreme. Or delusional.

This is a central, perhaps the central issue in the whole shambling, tragic, dingbat debate. But we don't return to it often enough. Saying the American people don't have what it takes to finish the job, or come up with a new job or, really, figure out a way to help George W. Bush keep his job in Iraq amounts to blaming the public for the lies this White House told to get the country into the war. It's really that simple.
Is it that simple? Marshall speculates -
Consider a thought experiment. Let's go back to late 2002 and early 2003. Assume that the buildup on the WMD front is more or less as it transpired. But assume, for our counterfactual, that the costs of what we were getting into had been made pretty candidly clear. Half a million troops to secure the place, maybe years of occupation and nation-building. Then you get to early 2003 when it was clear that even if there was some mustard gas hidden away somewhere, that beside those lamo rockets the inspectors found, there really weren't any big WMD programs or stockpiles. Remember, that was clear, before the war started. Once that was clear, and if people knew the costs of what we were getting ourselves into, is there any way the president would have had any support for still going to war, pretty much just for the hell of it?

This is the key. Yes, the American people probably won't support what it takes to make this happen. That's because they make a perfectly rational calculation that so much blood and money for no particular reason just isn't worth it. They're only in this situation because President Bush and his advisors gamed the public into this war on false pretenses knowing that once they were it would be almost impossible to get back out.
And that's where we are now.

Got your scorecard? Next up is Morton Kondracke with a column in Roll Call with this -
All over the world, scoundrels are ascendant, rising on a tide of American weakness. It makes for a perilous future.

President Bush bet his presidency - and America's world leadership - on the war in Iraq. Tragically, it looks as though he bit off more than the American people were willing to chew.

The U.S. is failing in Iraq. Bush's policy was repudiated by the American people in the last election. And now America's enemies and rivals are pressing their advantage, including Iran, Syria, the Taliban, Sudan, Russia and Venezuela. We have yet to hear from al-Qaeda.
We don't like to chew our food? Is that the problem?

Marshall -
Let's first take note that the 'blame the American people for Bush's screw-ups' meme has definitely hit the big time. It's not Bush who bit off more than he could chew or did something incredibly stupid or screwed things up in a way that defies all imagining. Bush's 'error' here is not realizing in advance that the American people would betray him as he was marching into history. The 'tragedy' is that Bush "bit off more than the American people were willing to chew." That just takes my breath away.

Now come down to the third graf. Bush gets repudiated in the mid-term election ... "And now ..." In standard English the import of this phrasing is pretty clear: it's the repudiation of Bush's tough policies that have led to the international axis of evil states rising against us. Is he serious? The world has gone to hell in a hand basket since the election? In the last three weeks? The whole column is an open war on cause and effect.

This is noxious, risible, fetid thinking. But there it is. That's the story they want to tell.
Well, maybe, as a people, we aren't worth of George Bush. That seems to be the new talking point these days.

If you don't want to blame yourself, you could, as Timothy Noah notes, join everyone else in Blaming Iraqis.

This is a discussion of the November 29 Washington Post article by Thomas Ricks and Robin Wright surveying all those who are say such things, as discussed here in Trying New Things Is Always Awkward.

It's really about the future -
When we think about an exit strategy for Iraq, we are really thinking about two things. Most obviously, we're thinking about when and where to move U.S. troops, whether and how to replace those troops with Iraqi soldiers or an international force, and other material concerns. But we're also thinking about something less tangible. We're thinking about what we're going to tell ourselves in the future about this fiasco, to borrow the title of Thomas Ricks' disturbing book about the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. We're thinking about who or what to blame. No troop withdrawal can occur until this narrative has been assembled.

That work has now begun.

… The Bush administration has yet to endorse this paradigm shift publicly, but a blame-Iraqis spirit certainly informed National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley's eyes-only memo criticizing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

… In the Post story, Ricks and Wright point out that blaming Iraqis for their country's near-disintegration will likely poison relations between the two nations. But it's probably too late to stop. Perhaps it isn't too late, though, to point out some logical deficiencies.
And those deficiencies have to do, curiously, with Vietnam -
It's their war. They're the ones who have to win it or lose it. President John F. Kennedy famously stated this in a TV interview shortly before he died. He was referring, of course, to the South Vietnamese. It was undeniably true - truer, in fact, than Kennedy knew. … The Post story has retired Army Col. Andrew J. Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran, observing that the current Iraqi-bashing parallels the Vietnamese-bashing that occurred as the United States prepared to pull out of Vietnam. But there's a crucial difference between the Vietnam War and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In Vietnam, we backed a weak but indigenous military force that was already battling the North Vietnamese. In Iraq, there was no indigenous military battling Saddam's regime, and none emerged after we got there (unless you count the Kurds, who've enjoined relative success in stabilizing and governing their corner of Iraq). Overthrowing Saddam Hussein wasn't the Iraqis' idea; it was ours. Americans expected Iraqis to be grateful for ridding them of a bloodthirsty dictator, and for a brief time, they were. But it somehow doesn't compute that Iraqis, following the same logic, now blame the United States for the civil war we unleashed.

Iraqis aren't ungrateful. They're scared. Of us.
They are? The evidence -
To those who endure it, the United States occupation does not feel benign. This was especially true in the early days of the occupation. In Sunni villages, it was routine for U.S. troops to round up all the men and take them prisoner; it was assumed, wrongly, that the Army would be able to determine quickly who the innocents were and set them free. Iraqi vehicles were fired upon if they drove too close to U.S. convoys. Soldiers thought nothing of holding a gun to the head of an Iraqi from whom they were trying to elicit information, pulling the trigger, and letting that Iraqi learn only after the fact that the gun wasn't loaded. To round up certain wanted men, the Army would sometimes threaten harm to their families.

U.S. troops did these things not because they were evil. They did them because they lacked sufficient numbers to feel safe, because many of them were poorly trained, and because, Ricks suggests, the vagueness of Bush's case linking Iraq to 9/11 encouraged grunts to think all Arabs were the enemy. But the Army's rough treatment of Iraqi citizens led Iraqis to think Americans were evil, or at the least very dangerous. Even those who took a more benign view had to recognize that the Americans weren't up to the job of keeping them safe from the armed thugs among them.
Still there's all the talk that Iraq is ungovernable because the Iraqis turned out to be backward and pathologically unable to get along with one another, or some such thing. As Noah notes - "Ingratitude is a common theme among embittered reformers, because it's usually too painful to blame oneself."

So we get all sorts of crap.

Maybe the press will save us from buying into it. Ernest Hemingway started his professional career as a reported for the Toronto Star and once famously said, "Every good writer needs a foolproof, shockproof crap detector." Good reporters have those, right?

Maybe not. Maybe they should have one of those, as Dan Froomkin, who blogs for the Washington Post, explains in On Calling Bullshit -
Mainstream-media political journalism is in danger of becoming increasingly irrelevant, but not because of the Internet, or even Comedy Central. The threat comes from inside. It comes from journalists being afraid to do what journalists were put on this green earth to do.

What is it about Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert that makes them so refreshing and attractive to a wide variety of viewers (including those so-important younger ones)? I would argue that, more than anything else, it is that they enthusiastically call bullshit.

Calling bullshit, of course, used to be central to journalism as well as to comedy. And we happen to be in a period in our history in which the substance in question is running particularly deep. The relentless spinning is enough to make anyone dizzy, and some of our most important political battles are about competing views of reality more than they are about policy choices. Calling bullshit has never been more vital to our democracy.

It also resonates with readers and viewers a lot more than passionless stenography.

… I'm not sure why calling bullshit has gone out of vogue in so many newsrooms - why, in fact, it's so often consciously avoided. There are lots of possible reasons. There's the increased corporate stultification of our industry, to the point where rocking the boat is seen as threatening rather than invigorating. There's the intense pressure to maintain access to insider sources, even as those sources become ridiculously unrevealing and oversensitive. There's the fear of being labeled partisan if one's bullshit-calling isn't meted out in precisely equal increments along the political spectrum.

… If mainstream-media political journalists don't start calling bullshit more often, then we do risk losing our primacy - if not to the comedians then to the bloggers.

But here's the good news for you newsroom managers wringing your hands over new technologies and the loss of younger audiences: Because the Internet so values calling bullshit, you are sitting on an as-yet largely untapped gold mine. I still believe that no one is fundamentally more capable of first-rate bullshit-calling than a well-informed beat reporter - whatever their beat. We just need to get the editors, or the corporate culture, or the self-censorship - or whatever it is - out of the way.
Bu then, as Duncan Black points out - "Let me add that failing to call bullshit doesn't just fail to inform readers, it also requires the reporter to internalize the bullshit, to continue to treat bullshit as if it might be true."

So no help there. Nothing will change, and the media will tell us the Iraqis failed George Bush, and we did too.

Posted by Alan at 21:25 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 30 November 2006 21:48 PST home

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

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