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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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Monday, 11 December 2006
Embracing the Homogenized Surreal
Topic: The Culture

Embracing the Homogenized Surreal

You have to love the contrarian point of view, especially on cultural matters. There are plenty of contrarians on matters of domestic and foreign policy, and on social policy. Everyone writes about that stuff - illegal immigration is awful, or it isn't so awful, universal healthcare would be wonderful, or a socialist evil portending the end of the nation as we know it, the vice president's lesbian daughter really shouldn't be pregnant and her father happy about it, or that is a big whatever, we should stay in Iraq, we should leave, we should stay in a different way, or something. On his last day in office George Bush should bomb Iran back into the Stone Age and let the next president worry about the blow-back, or not. It's all on the table. Everyone has an opinion.

But then there are the true contrarians, like Virginia Postrel, who, in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly, offers this - In Praise of Chain Stores. Of course this hit the newsstands as most American hit the malls to buy Christmas presents, and found themselves staring at the jammed parking lot and the depressingly uniform stores beyond. The mall could be anywhere, they all look alike. The stores are the same.

But she says these chain stores aren't destroying local flavor - they're actually providing variety and comfort. She has an odd view of comfort.

Those of us who spent a decade or two as "cooperate road warriors" know this issue well. You fly back and forth across the country each week and there that sense of dislocation - is this London, Ontario, or Ontario, California? There's the Starbucks and the Gap. It could be Pittsburgh or Tucson. You never know - it's all a blur. You take a break, use the frequent flier miles, and take a vacation. You fly Paris and one afternoon need new jeans - and you find yourself in Gap on Rue des Rennes. Inside you might as well be in Tulsa (except the sizes have odd numbers). Next door, even Monoprix seems comfortingly familiar - except for the language. It has the feel of Albany or Denver. And Starbucks hit Paris two years ago. And every major airport certainly seems familiar - which is either comforting or surreal. They all look alike. This may or may not comfort you. At least it's easy to find the restrooms.

Virginia Postrel sets up the expected -
"Every well-traveled cosmopolite knows that America is mind-numbingly monotonous - the most boring country to tour, because everywhere looks like everywhere else," as the columnist Thomas Friedman once told Charlie Rose. Boston has the same stores as Denver, which has the same stores as Charlotte or Seattle or Chicago. We live in a "Stepford world," says Rachel Dresbeck, the author of Insiders' Guide to Portland, Oregon. Even Boston's historic Faneuil Hall, she complains, is "dominated by the Gap, Anthropologie, Starbucks, and all the other usual suspects. Why go anywhere? Every place looks the same."
Need proof? The array at Faneuil Hall can be examined here, although it should be noted that those of us who are pipe smokers can find a good selection of pipe tobacco at the newsstand near the southeast entrance. In any event, Postrel says what we have now is a variation on an old worry dating back to the twenties - the big guys are putting the Mom and Pop stores out of business. Today everyone knows the little small independents are doomed - and really mostly gone. That's probably most evident with the oddly charming, small, dusty bookstores - Border's and Barnes and Noble buried most everyone and they're long gone, except in period movies for a "cute meet." (A classic is Fred Astaire discovering Audrey Hepburn in that Greenwich Village bookstore in Funny Face, but that was 1957 and seems another world.) Given the small independents have been squeezed out, and that really is a given, the issue now is what's left - and it's just all the same, everywhere.

And it is worst in the suburbs. Postrel's example is the Chandler Fashion Center - Chandler, Arizona, just south of Phoenix, the area's big shopping mall. You have the usual suspects - P. F. Chang's (the nearest here is at Beverly Center on La Cienega), California Pizza Kitchen (Sunset at Laurel Canyon, here), Chipotle Mexican Grill (everywhere), and the Cheesecake Factory (the original is out here in Marina del Rey, started by exiles from Rochester, New York, in the early eighties). One place is as good as another. And it's not just the mall itself -
Drive along Chandler's straight, flat boulevards, and you'll see Bed Bath & Beyond and Linens-n-Things; Barnes & Noble and Borders; PetSmart and Petco; Circuit City and Best Buy; Lowe's and Home Depot; CVS and Walgreens. Chandler has the Apple Store and Pottery Barn, the Gap and Ann Taylor, Banana Republic and DSW, and, of course, Target and Wal-Mart, Starbucks and McDonald's. For people allergic to brands, Chandler must be hell - even without the 110-degree days.
Been there - she's right - the heat is brutal - and the place is just like any other once you walk into Target.

Or as she puts it -
One of the fastest-growing cities in the country, Chandler is definitely the kind of place urbanists have in mind as they intone, "When every place looks the same, there is no such thing as place anymore." Like so many towns in America, it has lost much of its historic character as a farming community. The annual Ostrich Festival still honors one traditional product, but these days Chandler raises more subdivisions and strip malls than ostrich plumes or cotton, another former staple.
So there you have it, the place might as well be Altoona. No ostriches there either.

Then comes the contrarian view - the stores don't really matter. National chains are not some blight on the landscape, and they've not turned American towns into an indistinguishable "geography of nowhere."

That, we are told, is just silly. The idea is what else is there matters far more -
The first thing you notice in Chandler is that, as a broad empirical claim, the cliché that "everywhere looks like everywhere else" is obvious nonsense. Chandler's land and air and foliage are peculiar to the desert Southwest. The people dress differently. Even the cookie-cutter housing developments, with their xeriscaping and washed-out desert palette, remind you where you are. Forget New England clapboard, Carolina columns, or yellow Texas brick. In the intense sun of Chandler, the red-tile roofs common in California turn a pale, pale pink.
So, 1.) Stores don't give places their character, and 2.) Terrain and weather and culture do. The national chain stores, the claim is, just offer contrast. And in doing so they "make it easier to discern the real differences that define a place: the way, for instance, that people in Chandler come out to enjoy the summer twilight, when the sky glows purple and the dry air cools."

That's a quite romantic notion. It's more likely not many of these "Zoners" are out enjoying the summer twilight - they're at Target buying this or that, or at home watching some comedy taped out here in Hollywood, on a set in Studio City that's supposed to be New York (think Seinfeld). A sense of place may be a mere indulgence, something for oddballs.

As for the stores mentioned here, we're told that the idea that America was once filled with wildly varied business establishments is largely a myth -
Big cities could, and still can, support more retail niches than small towns. And in a less competitive national market, there was certainly more variation in business efficiency - in prices, service, and merchandise quality. But the range of retailing ideas in any given town was rarely that great. One deli or diner or lunch counter or cafeteria was pretty much like every other one. A hardware store was a hardware store, a pharmacy a pharmacy. Before it became a ubiquitous part of urban life, Starbucks was, in most American cities, a radically new idea.
And there is economic reality - national chain stores bargain down prices from suppliers and divide fixed costs across a lot of units, a good thing, And the contention here us that they "rapidly spread economic discovery." That would be "the scarce and costly knowledge of what retail concepts and operational innovations actually work." That sure beats trial and error - "Expecting each town to independently invent every new business is a prescription for real monotony, at least for the locals." So scale is a good thing, or large-scale is.

There's more -
Chains make a large range of choices available in more places. They increase local variety, even as they reduce the differences from place to place. People who mostly stay put get to have experiences once available only to frequent travelers, and this loss of exclusivity is one reason why frequent travelers are the ones who complain. When Borders was a unique Ann Arbor institution, people in places like Chandler - or, for that matter, Philadelphia and Los Angeles - didn't have much in the way of bookstores. Back in 1986, when California Pizza Kitchen was an innovative local restaurant about to open its second location, food writers at the L.A. Daily News declared it "the kind of place every neighborhood should have." So what's wrong if the country has 158 neighborhood CPKs instead of one or two?
So we have democratization, along with homogenization - good and bad. (Los Angeles used to have many fine, small bookstores, by the way, before the folks from Ann Arbor arrived.)

And there's the matter of growth, which is supposed to be good, and can provide comfort at the same time -
The process of multiplication is particularly important for fast-growing towns like Chandler, where rollouts of established stores allow retail variety to expand as fast as the growing population can support new businesses. I heard the same refrain in Chandler that I've heard in similar boomburgs elsewhere, and for similar reasons. "It's got all the advantages of a small town, in terms of being friendly, but it's got all the things of a big town," says Scott Stephens, who moved from Manhattan Beach, California, in 1998 to work for Motorola. Chains let people in a city of 250,000 enjoy retail amenities once available only in a huge metropolitan center. At the same time, familiar establishments make it easier for people to make a home in a new place. When Nissan recently moved its headquarters from Southern California to Tennessee, an unusually high percentage of its Los Angeles–area employees accepted the transfer. "The fact that Starbucks are everywhere helps make moving a lot easier these days," a rueful Greg Whitney, vice president of business development for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, told the Los Angeles Times reporter John O'Dell. Orth Hedrick, a Nissan product manager, decided he could stay with the job he loved when he turned off the interstate near Nashville and realized, "You could really be Anywhere, U.S.A. There's a great big regional shopping mall, and most of the stores and restaurants are the same ones we see in California. Yet a few miles away you're in downtown, and there's lots of local color, too."
But who cares about local color? The idea is to reduce anxiety. Local color is for tourists. And "contrary to the rhetoric of bored cosmopolites," most cities don't exist primarily to please tourists (exclude Paris and Hollywood of course). They're just places people live, and do their best to do well. So you're not supposed to scoff at "the children toddling through the Chandler mall hugging their soft Build-A-Bear animals" who are "no less delighted because kids can also build a bear in Memphis or St. Louis." They'll be fine.

But there is the conflict -
The contempt for chains represents a brand-obsessed view of place, as if store names were all that mattered to a city's character. For many critics, the name on the store really is all that matters. The planning consultant Robert Gibbs works with cities that want to revive their downtowns, and he also helps developers find space for retailers. To his frustration, he finds that many cities actually turn away national chains, preferring a moribund downtown that seems authentically local. But, he says, the same local activists who oppose chains "want specialty retail that sells exactly what the chains sell - the same price, the same fit, the same qualities, the same sizes, the same brands, even." You can show people pictures of a Pottery Barn with nothing but the name changed, he says, and they'll love the store. So downtown stores stay empty, or sell low-value tourist items like candles and kites, while the chains open on the edge of town. In the name of urbanism, officials and activists in cities like Ann Arbor and Fort Collins, Colorado, are driving business to the suburbs. "If people like shopping at the Banana Republic or the Gap, if that's your market - or Payless Shoes - why not?" says an exasperated Gibbs. "Why not sell the goods and services people want?"
Fine. No oddly charming, small, dusty bookstores - except perhaps for "reconstructions" of what one might be like, for tourists. Embrace the homogenized surreal. Actually, you probably have no choice. And you can always skip the trip to the mall, turn off the television, and step out into the summer twilight, when the sky glows purple and the dry air cools. People will just think you're odd. They'll probably call the cops.

Posted by Alan at 21:21 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 12 December 2006 06:44 PST home

Sunday, 10 December 2006
Offered Without Comment
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Offered Without Comment

The events are arrayed below. Draw your own conclusions.

See Andrew Sullivan in the Sunday, December 10, 2006, Times of London with this -
Jose Padilla was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1970, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants. He was a troubled youth, joining a street gang when the family moved to Chicago, and was once jailed for aggravated assault.

After serving his sentence, he converted to Islam and professed non-violence. He went to the Masjid Al-Iman mosque in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and worked for a charity suspected of Islamist terror ties. He visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

Returning to Chicago on May 8, 2002, Padilla was arrested and held under a warrant related to the 9/11 attacks. A month later, as a court was about to rule on whether there was any evidence to merit his detention, President George W Bush declared Padilla an "enemy combatant" and he was sent to a military brig in South Carolina. No charges were brought against him for 3½ years.

The basic principle of Anglo-American liberty for several hundred years has been habeas corpus - the notion that the government cannot detain a citizen without charging him with crimes that can be brought before a court and a jury of his peers. It is the keystone of any notion of a free society. For the first time in the history of the United States, it has been indefinitely suspended, and Padilla is the proof.

Padilla was not charged for three years, but he was accused. He was accused by government sources of being part of a plot to detonate a dirty bomb in an American city; he was accused by talk radio of being John Doe No 2 in the Oklahoma City bombing; and he was accused of plotting terrorist acts in the US.

After three years in solitary confinement, the Bush administration feared its detention of Padilla might be struck down by a court, and so it finally decided to charge him with a crime. The charges it brought in November 2005 included no mention of any dirty bomb, no link to Al-Qaeda, and no charge of conspiracy to commit acts of terror in America. A judge threw out other charges. None of the charges that remain involve actual terrorist activity, just of being connected to a group that may have financed such activity in Bosnia and Chechnya.

So Padilla, an American citizen, was detained without being charged for 3½ years. It was nearly two years before he had access to a lawyer.
Now his lawyer claims this -
Mr Padilla was often put in stress positions for hours at a time. He would be shackled and manacled, with a belly chain, for hours in his cell.

Noxious fumes would be introduced to his room causing his eyes and nose to run. The temperature of his cell would be manipulated, making his cell extremely cold for long stretches of time. Mr Padilla was denied even the smallest and most personal shreds of human dignity by being deprived of showering for weeks at a time, yet having to endure forced grooming at the whim of his captors.

… He was threatened with being cut with a knife and having alcohol poured on the wounds. He was also threatened with imminent execution. He was hooded and forced to stand in stress positions for long periods.

He was forced to endure exceedingly long interrogation sessions, without adequate sleep, wherein he would be confronted with false information, scenarios and documents to further disorientate him. Often he had to endure multiple interrogators who would scream, shake and otherwise assault Mr Padilla.
Now his legal team says he is mentally unfit to stand trial. Angela Hegarty MD, director of forensic psychiatry at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, says now that "during questioning, he often exhibits facial tics, unusual eye movements and contortions of his body. The contortions are particularly poignant since he is usually manacled and bound by a belly chain when he has meetings with counsel."

Sullivan -
To put it bluntly: he has been sent mad. Last week, new photographs surfaced of the way in which Padilla has been treated. He needed to be escorted from his cell to get root canal treatment. Padilla has never exhibited any violent behavior in detention of any kind, according to his jailers. Yet he was manacled head-to-toe, he was barefoot, and given blackout goggles so he could see no light and soundproof ear-muffs so he could hear nothing. He was escorted by three soldiers in full riot gear, visors and weapons. Suddenly, you get a glimpse of the sadism inflicted on him for three years of total isolation.

Could this still happen? Yes, it could. In fact, if another American citizen were today to be arrested by the president, and declared an enemy combatant, he would be barred from any recourse to the federal courts. The Military Commissions Act - passed in the last week of the outgoing Congress before the recent elections - stripped the courts of any jurisdiction over new military commissions set up to try and convict American citizens.
Is that troublesome? The statute - "Notwithstanding any other law (including section 2241 of title 28, United States Code, or any other habeas corpus provision), no court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider any claim or cause of action whatsoever, including any action pending on or filed after the date of enactment of this chapter, relating to the prosecution, trial, or judgment of a military commission convened under this section, including challenges to the lawfulness of the procedures of military commissions under this chapter."

So that's that. Sullivan notes that "the president can now detain any citizen he so designates, remove him from the judicial system and subject him to a military commission, with much weaker rules than a civilian court." Yes, torture is formally banned, but torture techniques such as waterboarding are still at the president's discretion. So two hundred years after the nation was formed, and almost eight centuries since the Magna Carta, Americans are "at the mercy of a new king, who can jail without charges and torture at will." So much for habeas corpus.

Is Sullivan wrong to be upset? The New York Times set him off with its December 4 item on this matter.

They note the solitary confinement -
One spring day during his three and a half years as an enemy combatant, Jose Padilla experienced a break from the monotony of his solitary confinement in a bare cell in the brig at the Naval Weapons Station in Charleston, S.C.

That day, Mr. Padilla, a Brooklyn-born Muslim convert whom the Bush administration had accused of plotting a dirty bomb attack and had detained without charges, got to go to the dentist.
Followed by the classic depersonalization -
Several guards in camouflage and riot gear approached cell No. 103. They unlocked a rectangular panel at the bottom of the door and Mr. Padilla's bare feet slid through, eerily disembodied. As one guard held down a foot with his black boot, the others shackled Mr. Padilla's legs. Next, his hands emerged through another hole to be manacled.

Wordlessly, the guards, pushing into the cell, chained Mr. Padilla's cuffed hands to a metal belt. Briefly, his expressionless eyes met the camera before he lowered his head submissively in expectation of what came next: noise-blocking headphones over his ears and blacked-out goggles over his eyes. Then the guards, whose faces were hidden behind plastic visors, marched their masked, clanking prisoner down the hall to his root canal.
And they note the sensory deprivation -
In the brig, Mr. Padilla was denied access to counsel for 21 months. Andrew Patel, one of his lawyers, said his isolation was not only severe but compounded by material and sensory deprivations. In an affidavit filed Friday, he alleged that Mr. Padilla was held alone in a 10-cell wing of the brig; that he had little human contact other than with his interrogators; that his cell was electronically monitored and his meals were passed to him through a slot in the door; that windows were blackened, and there was no clock or calendar; and that he slept on a steel platform after a foam mattress was taken from him, along with his copy of the Koran, "as part of an interrogation plan."
And although the Times is not saying the man was tortured, they do note "his interrogations… included hooding, stress positions, assaults, threats of imminent execution and the administration of 'truth serums.'"

And they quote Hegarty, director of forensic psychiatry at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, in her affidavit filed that Friday - "It is my opinion that as the result of his experiences during his detention and interrogation, Mr. Padilla does not appreciate the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him, is unable to render assistance to counsel, and has impairments in reasoning as the result of a mental illness, i.e., post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated by the neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation."

And note this -
The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Punishment or Treatment (United Nations, 1985) defines torture as: "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity." Acts that would be considered torture under the above definition include a variety of methods: severe beatings, electric shock, sexual abuse and rape, prolonged solitary confinement, hard labor, near drowning, near suffocation, mutilation, hanging for prolonged periods, deprivation of basic biological needs (e.g., sleep, food, water), subjection to forced constant standing or crouching, and excessive continuous noise (e.g. McCoy, 2006; Walsh, 2006). Torture may also include actions inducing psychological suffering such as threats against the victim's family or loved ones (e.g., McCoy, 2006).

McCoy, A. W. (2006). A question of torture: CIA interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. New York: Metropolitan Books.

United Nations, Department of Public Information (1985). Outlawing an ancient evil: Torture. Convention against torture and other cruel or degrading treatment or punishment. New York: Author.
So that's that. The argument we are given justifying all this is that we live in a new age of terror, and we face an existential threat unlike any we have ever faced before. What we face is a threat far more dire than the nuclear annihilation we faced in the pervious decades before the Soviet Union finally collapsed, far more serious than the threat posed by the combined Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo. This time we must play dirty and change the rules about how our government treats its own citizens. Whether that is so is a judgment call. But the idea is that, if you grant that premise, what has happen in this case presents no real issues. Even if this one citizen was a nobody - the charges were pretty much dropped, but for so minor issues - he might have been a major terrorist, and we needed to get information from him, by any means possible, even if the means were both illegal and massively counterproductive. The almost four years of what seems like torture that turned him into a useless basket case, while getting us nothing, might have gotten us something. It just didn't work out. Are you to fault the government for trying to protect us? Yes, what happened to this man could, theoretically, happen to any of us now, but the odds are against that, and you ought to trust the government. They're just trying to keep us all safe. They're not unhinged sadists, after all. That's the line. Buy it or don't.

Just note this - on December 8 the president met with a number of Democratic leaders to review the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report, and discuss "the way forward in Iraq." But the president didn't want to talk about that at all -
Instead, Bush began his talk by comparing himself to President Harry S Truman, who launched the Truman Doctrine to fight communism, got bogged down in the Korean War and left office unpopular.

Bush said that "in years to come they realized he was right and then his doctrine became the standard for America," recalled Senate Majority Whip-elect Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "He's trying to position himself in history and to justify those who continue to stand by him, saying sometimes if you're right you're unpopular, and be prepared for criticism."

Durbin said he challenged Bush's analogy, reminding him that Truman had the NATO alliance behind him and negotiated with his enemies at the United Nations. Durbin said that's what the Iraq Study Group is recommending that Bush do now - work more with allies and negotiate with adversaries on Iraq.

Bush, Durbin said, "reacted very strongly. He got very animated in his response" and emphasized that he is "the commander in chief."
Make of that what you will. There's two more years of this in store for us all.

Posted by Alan at 21:07 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
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Saturday, 9 December 2006
Denial and Delusion
Topic: Perspective

Denial and Delusion


Just a few quotes to go along the the administration response to the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report -

QUOD VIDES PERISSE PERDITUM DUCAS - Catullus ("What you see is lost, set down as lost.")

"One popular human strategy for dealing with difficulty is autosuggestion: when something nasty pops up, you convince yourself it is not there, or you convince yourself it is pleasant rather than unpleasant. The Buddha's tactic is quite the reverse. Rather than hide it or disguise it, the Buddha's teaching urges you to examine it to death. Buddhism advises you not to implant feelings that you don't really have or avoid feelings that you do have. If you are miserable you are miserable; that is the reality, that is what is happening, so confront that. Look it square in the eye without flinching. When you are having a bad time, examine that experience, observe it mindfully, study the phenomenon and learn its mechanics. The way out of a trap is to study the trap itself, learn how it is built. You do this by taking the thing apart piece by piece. The trap can't trap you if it has been taken to pieces. The result is freedom." - Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English

"It's not denial. I'm just selective about the reality I accept." - Bill Watterson

"Delay is the deadliest form of denial." C. Northcote Parkinson

"How often it is that the angry man rages denial of what his inner self is telling him." - Frank Herbert

"The first step in the risk management process is to acknowledge the reality of risk. Denial is a common tactic that substitutes deliberate ignorance for thoughtful planning. - Charles Tremper

"Refusal to believe until proof is given is a rational position; denial of all outside of our own limited experience is absurd." - Annie Besant (English social reformer, sometime Fabian socialist, theosophist, and Indian independence leader, 1847-1933)

"I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it." - Garrison Keillor

"At the approach of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal force in the heart of man: one very reasonably tells the man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of avoiding it; the other even more reasonable says that it is too painful and harassing to think of the danger, since it is not a man's power to provide for everything and escape from the general march of events; and that it is therefore better to turn aside from the painful subject till it has come, and to think of what is pleasant. In solitude a man generally yields to the first voice; in society to the second." - Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

"The great law of denial belongs to the powerful forces of life, whether the case be one of coolish baked beans, or an unrequited affection. - Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

"Many people have delusions of grandeur but you're deluded by triviality." - Eugene Ionesco, Exit the King

"There is nothing more fatal to a man whose business is to think than to have learned the art of regaling his mind with ... airy gratifications. Other vices or follies are restrained by fear, reformed by admonition, or rejected by the conviction which the comparison of our conduct with that of others may in time produce. But this invisible riot of the mind, this secret prodigality of being, is secure from detection and fearless of reproach. The dreamer retires to his apartments, shuts out the cares and interruptions of mankind, and abandons himself to his own fancy; new worlds rise up before him, one image is followed by another, and a long succession of delights dances around him. He is at last called back to life by nature or by custom; and enters peevish into society, because he cannot model it to his own will." Samuel Johnson, Rambler, Number 89 (January 22, 1751)

"However we may labor for our own deception, truth, though unwelcome, will sometimes intrude upon the mind." - Samuel Johnson, Idler, Number 80 (October 27, 1759)

"It is a common delusion that you can make things better by talking about them." - Rose Macaulay

"Reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it." - Lily Tomlin


Posted by Alan at 14:18 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
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Friday, 8 December 2006
Management 101 - Systems Management and Self-Management
Topic: Bush

Management 101 - Systems Management and Self-Management

After a moderately successful career in management a few things become painfully obvious. No matter what, you don't know everything, and you'd better listen to both those who do the work and those for whom the work is done. And being bullheaded not only makes enemies of those who you lead, it alienates (putting it mildly) the customer, or whoever it is that pays for what your folks provide. You may think you know what's best, and fancy yourself a firm decision maker, but your career will crash on the rocks with your ego. "Tell me more" and "I didn't think of that" are not just manipulative catch-phrases you toss out to impress others in the crisis meeting. You actually have to want to know more and assume you don't know what's really going on. It's not much fun, but it pays well.

On the other hand, there are various management theories. William Arkin, who writes the "Early Warning" thing at washingtonpost.com (the online site, not the print newspaper), notes the other style -
Extremist-in-chief George W. Bush yesterday continued along his merry way, going over the heads of the wise men and defying Washington moderation and the glories of bipartisan centrism to remind the American public that he is also the protector.

"The only way to secure a lasting peace for our children and grandchildren is to defeat the extremist ideologies," the president said.

Mark his words: the only way.

Those yearning for a tidier world can produce studies and recommendations galore, but the president firmly believes he is the one who has to deal with the real world, and that he and not the ivory tower uniquely understands how dangerous it is.

Thus we are witnessing the emergence of a new divide in American politics. It is no longer Democrats vs. Republicans or withdrawers vs. stay-the-coursers. The majority, bucked up by strong majority in American public opinion, is clearly in favor of change. In English, that means it's over in Iraq.

The new battleground will be between the believers and the non-believers. Bush and Cheney command the believers, who remain the custodians of the Sept. 11 aesthetic that America and the world are threatened, leaving no room for niceties and togetherness.

But it is not just Bush and Cheney, and the Washington-New York-Hollywood axis should take notice. The protectors are mobilizing. They see American "will" dwindling and think they need to do something about it.

In our naïve ways, we might believe that that means they have to change policy. But in the ways of national security, the protectors believe just the opposite….
It's that "I hear what you're all saying but there's only one way to fix this" attitude that's telling. It's a confusing of "firm principles" with "I know the best way to do this and you don't." They're quite different things, actually. The first has to do with your values, and the second with what you actually do, operationally, as they say. The latter is where you manage - where you get things done. Confusing the two is deadly. And that may be the problem here, with this whole business of how the administration will deal with the report of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group.

Of course the report says what we're doing just isn't working. But a good summary comes from Lindsay Beyerstein - the report is "demanding that our failed strategy start working better, and fast." Or as Ivo Daalder puts it - "The biggest problem with the ISG report is that it, like much of Washington, buys into the notion that because the consequences of defeat are so dire we should not accept the reality that we have lost." Perhaps this is so. "Tell me more" and "I didn't think of that" are not in the mix here.

It is certainly clear that the report does not recognize that Iraq is in civil war, or that the government there is inherently weak but dominated by one side in this conflict, the Shi'a, or that the Iraqi army and police are pretty much shell organizations made up of Kurdish and Shi'a militias. That's a bit of a problem. To get to the "should be" one usually has to get everyone to agree on the "as is." You don't dwell on the "as is" - you just document it. It's what you have to work with, unfortunately. It's Management 101, not rocket science.

And the problem may be systemic. There may be a major management issue here, one Arkin on touches in passing.

Martin Kettle in the Saturday, December 9, Guardian (UK) agues that the report actually addresses the management theory problems the administration faces.

Kettle tosses in the expected nod to what everyone saw in the report, that it was a "shatteringly critical verdict" of the conduct of the war that "left George Bush looking more than ever out of his depth at his White House press conference on Thursday." So what else is new?

But then he calls out key passages from the report - "The US military has a long tradition of strong partnership between the civilian leadership of the department of defense and the uniformed services. Both have long benefited from a relationship in which the civilian leadership exercises control with the advantage of fully candid professional advice, and the military serves loyally with the understanding that its advice has been heard and valued. That tradition has frayed, and civil-military relations need to be repaired."

And there's this - "Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals."

And this - "A lack of coordination by senior management in Washington still hampers US contributions to Iraq's reconstruction."

These are management issues, not foreign policy issues. So, really, the report is a repudiation of the way the Bush administration works internally -
Nowhere is this more resonant than in what it says about the Pentagon. For it was the Pentagon that ran the administration's Iraq policy, and the senior civilian officials - Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith - who did things their own way and marginalized any service chiefs who disagreed with them.

But the Pentagon ran the policy because the president allowed and encouraged them to do so. This was a huge disfigurement of the traditional inter-agency way of doing things, in which the president, as commander-in-chief, was supposed to make the decisions after taking advice from the inter-agency policy-making apparatus coordinated by the national security adviser.
Kettle calls this "institutional failure on the epic scale"

And it is not as if there were no warnings about this. Ron Suskind's The One-Percent Doctrine - "Sober due diligence, with an eye to the way previous administrations have thought through a standard array of challenges facing the United States, creates, in fact, a kind of check on executive power and prerogative." But that's not the management model they guys work from. And that come from the top, from the president - "He is suspicious of officials, bureaucrats and departments. He is impatient with policy intellectuals. He doesn't want information. He prides himself on his certainties." It's a classic confusing of "firm principles" with "I know the best way to do this and you don't."

Woodward's State of Denial noted the president has a "distrust of the inter-agency" and this instinct became even more pronounced after the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, and that as things went bad in Iraq he wanted "a process" even less. Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books - "What is striking is the way that the most momentous of decisions were taken in the most shockingly haphazard ways, with the power in the hands of a few Pentagon civilians who knew little of Iraq or the region, the expertise of the rest of the government almost wholly excluded, and the president and his highest officials looking on."

Kettle sees the pattern here, and sees the Iraq Study Group as a management document - an indictment of "the way the Iraq policy was generated and maintained." It's really about how things were done, as much as it is about what was done, or not done.

Although Kettle doesn't say so directly, the idea seems to be that the "what" here isn't as important as the "how" - broken processes produce broken policies, as he would have it. Everyone makes mistakes, but you don't establish a system that is guaranteed to produce mistakes. The leader may have his firm principles, but combine that with a weak ego and a need to prove this or that, and a default trait of petulant, angry defiance when challenged, and the "management style" follows, as does this mess we're in. And this man has an MBA?

Perhaps the new defense secretary, Gates - who comes with a far different management style than Rumsfeld (from the president's father's group, not the president's circle like Rumsfeld) - will work the "how" of it all differently, and the senior military will once again "feel free to offer independent advice not only to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon but also to the president and the national security council." He seems to have done a fine job as a university president, where managing hissy fits among strong-willed and over-educated prima donnas to get useful things done is simply what you do. Here the stakes are higher.

But if Kettle is right - "bad forms of government contribute significantly to bad decisions" when there are "fewer effective ways for reasoned objections to affect the decision-making process" - it is obvious one thing that the Iraq Study Group was saying was it may be time to pull out the books from graduate school and read what was no doubt skipped way back when - basic management and organizational theory and all that sort of thing. Keep your firm principles - fine, no problem - but do some basic common-sense managing. Getting all defensive and shutting down or manipulating the organization is more than counterproductive. It is deadly. The dead bodies prove that, not to be too literal or anything.

As for self-management, that's a different kettle of fish - so forget Martin Kettle and turn to Jim Holt in the New York Times of 3 December, where he explains The New, Soft Paternalism.

This is very curious, and opens with this teaser -
When the government tells you that you can't smoke marijuana or that you must wear a helmet when you ride your motorcycle even if you happen to like the feeling of the wind in your hair, it is being paternalistic. It is largely treating you the way a parent treats a child, restricting your liberty for what it deems to be your own good. Paternalistic laws aren't very popular in this country. We hew to the principle that, children and the mentally ill apart, an individual is a better judge of what's good for him than the state is and that people should be free to do what they wish as long as their actions don't harm others. Contrary to what many people believe, you can even commit suicide legally (although if you don't live in Oregon, you should think twice about seeking assistance).

But what if it could be shown that even highly competent, well-informed people fail to make choices in their best interest? And what if the government could somehow step in and nudge them in the right direction without interfering with their liberty, or at least not very much? Welcome to the new world of "soft paternalism." The old "hard" paternalism says, We know what's best for you, and we'll force you to do it. By contrast, soft paternalism says, You know what's best for you, and we'll help you to do it.
The example if this Holt cites has to do with casino gambling. It seems in Missouri and Michigan compulsive gamblers have the option of putting their names on a blacklist. This is a "self-exclusion" list, and it bars them from casinos - they're banned for life. If they violate the ban they can be arrested and have their winnings confiscated. And people have actually signed up - seeking help, one assumes - in Missouri ten thousand have. Holt notes that in Michigan, the first person to sign up for it was also the first to be arrested for violating its terms. He couldn't resist sneaking back to the blackjack tables - he got a year a year's probation and the state kept his winnings. Who'd have even imagined such a thing?

This is what's called a self-binding scheme - "a way of restructuring the external world so that when future temptations arise, you will have no choice but to do what you've judged to be best for you. The classic case is that of Ulysses, who ordered his men to tie him to the mast of his ship so that he could hear the song of the Sirens without being lured to his destruction. As a freely chosen hedge against weakness of the will, self-binding would seem to enlarge individual liberty, not reduce it."

But that may be wrong, or so the libertarians say -
To begin with, they don't like soft paternalism when it involves the state's coercive power; they are much happier with private self-binding schemes, like alcoholism clinics, Christmas savings clubs and Weight Watchers. They also worry that soft paternalism can be a slippery slope to the harder variety, as when campaigns to discourage smoking give way to "sin taxes" and outright bans. But some libertarians have deeper misgivings. What bothers them is the way soft paternalism relies for its justification on the notion that each of us contains multiple selves - and that one of those selves is worth more than the others.
You can read the multiple personality discussion if you will, be it's rather mind-bending -
You might naïvely imagine that you are one person, the same entity from day to day. To the 18th-century philosopher David Hume, however, the idea of a permanent "I" was a fiction. Our mind, Hume wrote, "is nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement." According to this way of thinking, the self that inhabits your body today is only similar to, not identical with, the self that is going to inhabit your body tomorrow. And the self that will inhabit your body decades hence? A virtual stranger.

… Further evidence for the fragmented self comes from neuroscience. Brain scans show that the emotional part of the brain, the limbic system, is especially active when the prospect of immediate gratification presents itself. But choice among longer-term options triggers more activity in the "reasoning" part of the brain, located (suitably enough) higher up in the cortex. Now suppose you're tempted by a diet-violating Twinkie. Which part of your brain - the shortsighted emotional part or the farsighted reasoning part - gets to be the decider? There may be no built-in hierarchy here, just two autonomous brain modules in competition. That is why you might find yourself eating the Twinkie even while knowing it's bad for you. (A similar disconnect between two parts of your brain occurs when a visual illusion doesn't go away even after you learn it's an illusion.)

The short-run self cares only about the present. It is perfectly happy to indulge today and offload the costs onto future selves.
There's great deal of this. Click on the link if you dare - but it comes down to an interesting question. Should we outsource our self-discipline? That's a fascinating question. The president outsourced his drinking problem to Jesus, or so he says. Are all those anti-smoking ordinances just outsourcing our self-discipline to the state? And what about that trans-fat ban in New York City? Should the state keep me from that doughnut that tastes a certain way? Did we all agree to that self-binding decision?

Holt notes The Economist warned that "life would be duller if every reckless spirit could outsource self-discipline to the state." But we can, and we do.

Jean-Paul Sartre used to insist that each of us is free to redefine his character through "an act of radical choice." What choices do we have. Bush chose Jesus. Some of us liked those doughnuts down on 34th Street. This self-management business is even trickier than systems management in large organizations.

Ah well, somehow we'll manage - whatever that means these days.

Posted by Alan at 22:30 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 8 December 2006 22:32 PST home

Thursday, 7 December 2006
There's Got To Be a Morning After
Topic: For policy wonks...

There's Got To Be a Morning After

Hollywood trivia - The Morning After (music and lyrics by Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha) won the Oscar in 1972 for "Best Song." It was from The Poseidon Adventure - a schlock disaster film with big stars. Shelly Winters was brassy and brave as the ship rolled over and eventually sank. And the film was almost a disaster too - shooting was delayed twice because of the projected production costs, and finally began only when Irwin Allen and his outside backers matched the investment of Twentieth Century Fox. The story is that Allen found those backers by walking across the street from the Fox lot - Pico Boulevard down at Motor - to the country club there, where he found some friends playing cards. During the card game they somehow agreed to back the film. He was persuasive, or had good cards. But here's the kicker - because the studio never really had to spend any of the backer's money, the backers made a profit from the success of the film without actually spending a thing. They just said they would, if they really had to. Somehow one thinks of Halliburton and Iraq, and shipwrecks. Someone made a killing.

The song, which was a minor hit for Maureen McGovern (great voice and the charisma of a turnip), was one of those "it's always darkest before the dawn" things - "There's got to be a morning after, if we can make it through the night" and so on. People like that sort of thing. Some of us prefer posters like this - "It's always darkest before it goes pitch black." But when you're down, it is nice to think that the best thing to do is pack it in, get some sleep and things will look better in the morning. Heck, Hemingway used those four words from John Donne for the title his first novel, "The Sun Also Rises" - and it always does, even if he was being ironic. The novel ends on the road out of Biarritz as everything has gone beyond sour -
"Oh, Jake," Brett said, "we could have had such a damned good time together."

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

"Yes," I said. "Isn't it pretty to think so?"
Hemingway blew his brains out before he could hear this or that tiny but awfully cute child actress belting out The sun'll come out tomorrow, badly but earnestly. "Tomorrow! Tomorrow! I love ya, Tomorrow! You're always a day a-way." Well, yes. The logic is impeccable. But is the tomorrow in question any better?

Think about how the week starting Monday, December 4, had gone for the president. Monday his in-your-face UN ambassador was forced to resign, Tuesday his nominee for Secretary of Defense, Roberts Gates, was asked in his initial confirmation hearing if we were winning the war in Iraq, and Gates, without missing a beat said no, we were not. Wednesday, the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group released its report - things were dire and we had to make big changes in policy, involving doing something else entirely with our 144,000 troops, and involving talking with governments with whom we said we would never talk, and all the rest. We had screwed up, and we needed to rethink this all. And this from his father's guys. Yipes.

And as Steve Gilliard, notes that wasn't all -
Okay.

Your father has to defend you from a savage attack on your character.

He breaks down in tears when discussing your brother.

He sends his best friend to save your ass and you act like he shouldn't have bothered.

Your daughters decide not to spend Thanksgiving with you, and one decided to spend Christmas with her new Argentinean boyfriend, whose employment status is questionable.

Oh yeah, the tabloids have been discussing your divorce for the last six months.

The Bush family is falling apart before our eyes, and the only people reporting it is the tabloids.

So when does Laura finally snap and turn on Bush and his "wife" Condi?

If this didn't involve dying people, this would be fun to watch - the Bush family, who think of themselves as some kind of American royalty, when they are basically mediocre WASPs, fall into torpor and disunion.
Things were bleak indeed. So, would Thursday, December 7, be better, or was the anniversary of Pearl Harbor to be as dismal as the other days? Surely it wouldn't be another day that would live in infamy.

The day, however, brought word of how the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group were going down in Baghdad. Were they grateful for a possible change in things? The answer was no, not really -
They said the report is a recipe, backed by threats and disincentives, that neither addresses nor understands the complex forces that fuel Iraq's woes.

… Iraqis also expressed fear that the report's recommendations, if implemented, could weaken an already besieged government in a country teetering on the edge of civil war.

"It is a report to solve American problems, and not to solve Iraq's problems," said Ayad al-Sammarai, an influential Sunni Muslim politician.
They knew, and it was kind of unanimous. Sunnis were upset at the proposals that seemed to favor Shiites, and Shiites upset at the proposals that seem to favor Sunnis. And no one has any better ideas then the Baker group had. They just knew that this report doesn't really have much to do with them. And Kevin Drum notes that the now famous report "doesn't say a single word about promoting democracy either in Iraq or anywhere else in the Middle East?" Who knows what it was about?

It's about moving forward, or as William Arkin, the Defense reporter at the Washington Post, comments, it really isn't -
Here's how I see Iraq playing out in the short term: The president makes an announcement within a month about his "new" plan. Washington is ever so pleased with a new approach. But the a la carte plan is seen by the Iraqis for what it is; it is not a U.S. timetable for withdrawal. It is not an unequivocal pledge not to establish permanent bases. It is sovereignty and authority in name only for Iraq with continued American control behind the scenes. I can't see [how] any of this equivocation will deflate the insurgency or stem the hatred for America that is fueled by our presence.

The "plan," in other words, is neither what the American people nor the Iraqi people want.
The plan, such as it is, "merely kicks the day of reckoning further down the road." And of course every single additional day that we spend in Iraq just makes our eventual disengagement harder, and bloodier. Kevin Drum again - "Always remember: things can get even worse than they are now. They have for each of the previous three years, after all."

And have a nice day. And Michael Gordon in the New York Times was reporting the military advisors to the Iraq Study Group said the key idea - embedding our advisors with Iraqi units and then withdrawing all our combat troops within a year - was crap. It looks like the group didn't even discuss its military recommendations with its own military advisory panel -
Jack Keane, the retired acting Army chief of staff who served on the group's panel of military advisers, described that goal as entirely impractical. "Based on where we are now we can't get there," General Keane said in an interview, adding that the report's conclusions say more about "the absence of political will in Washington than the harsh realities in Iraq."

... The group's final military recommendations were not discussed with the retired officers who serve on the group's Military Senior Adviser Panel before publication, several of those officers said.
Why bother? This didn't have much to do with the possible.

One of Josh Marshall's readers noticed something else -
I've noticed a pattern in the official and media portrayal of the situation in Iraq that I am curious if others have also noticed. Bush, ISG, and other "advice reports" all seem to assume that the official government of Iraq, as personified by Nuri Maliki, has the same intentions for Iraq that we do.

This assumption seems crazy to me as contrary evidence is everywhere. Maliki has repeatedly demonstrated favoritism toward the Shia and its militias and seems to be sponsoring - or at least openly tolerating - the Shia militias' conflict with the Sunni militias. Iraq is making commercial deals with Iran openly, publicly, and in clear defiance of us. Maliki ordered our troops to take down the barricades we had constructed to rescue a kidnapped soldier in Sadr City, immediately after Moqtada al-Sadr pressured him to do so. Sadr even kidnapped all the bureaucrats in Iraq's Education ministry in broad daylight. Can anyone seriously contend that was done without the official government's knowledge and approval?

Here's the point. If the true aim of Iraq's official government is what it seems; i.e., develop close ties with the Shia community in Iran, annihilate the Sunnis, and establish an Islamic government, why are we continuing to assist them?
Ah… because the president says we should? Marshall asks the obvious - "Without addressing this specific question, is there any substantial body of people in Iraq - south of Kurdistan at least - who wants anything remotely like what President Bush wants? What is our constituency?"

Who knows? Nicole Belle lines things up -
So let me see if I have this straight: We invaded a country for whatever reason du jour (WMDs, Saddam an evil dictator, 9/11, terrorists, etc.), without the people at the top having the foreknowledge of the history of the area or the difference between various Muslim sects, took out the relatively secular (although admittedly dictator-based) government in favor of a far more Islamic (but democratically elected) government and continued to occupy said country, fighting in some cases FOR the Shia (being assisted by our sworn enemies, Iran) and against the insurgent Sunnis (that our allies, the Saudis, support). Have I got that right?

Anyone else thinking that the people in charge do not know their ass from their elbow? Feel safer in that "War on Terror"?
No, not really, considering late the same dismal day things got worse -
Private Saudi citizens are giving millions of dollars to Sunni insurgents in Iraq and much of the money is used to buy weapons, including shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, according to key Iraqi officials and others familiar with the flow of cash.

Saudi government officials deny that any money from their country is being sent to Iraqis fighting the government and the U.S.-led coalition. But the U.S. Iraq Study Group report said Saudis are a source of funding for Sunni Arab insurgents. Several truck drivers interviewed by The Associated Press described carrying boxes of cash from Saudi Arabia into Iraq, money they said was headed for insurgents.

Two high-ranking Iraqi officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, told the AP most of the Saudi money comes from private donations, called zaqat, collected for Islamic causes and charities. Some Saudis appear to know the money is headed to Iraq's insurgents, but others merely give it to clerics who channel it to anti-coalition forces, the officials said.

In one recent case, an Iraqi official said $25 million in Saudi money went to a top Iraqi Sunni cleric and was used to buy weapons, including Strela, a Russian shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile. The missiles were purchased from someone in Romania, apparently through the black market, he said.
Oh great, our Saudi ally is funding those picking off our troops and now shooting down our planes.

No, really -
Allegations the insurgents have purchased shoulder-fired Strela missiles raise concerns that they are obtaining increasingly sophisticated weapons.

On Nov. 27, a U.S. Air Force F-16 jet crashed while flying in support of American soldiers fighting Anbar province, a Sunni insurgent hotbed. The U.S. military said it had no information about the cause of the crash. Gen. William Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman, said he would be surprised if the jet was shot down because F-16's have not encountered weapons capable of taking them down in Iraq.

But last week, a spokesman for Saddam's ousted Baath party claimed that fighters armed with a Strela missile had shot down the jet.

"We have stockpiles of Strelas and we are going to surprise them (the Americans)," Khudair al-Murshidi, the spokesman told the AP in Damascus, Syria. He would not say how the Strelas were obtained.
Well, Saddam had a few of them. They could be leftovers. The president's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, wrote in that recent leaked memo that Washington should "step up efforts to get Saudi Arabia to take a leadership role in supporting Iraq, by using its influence to move Sunni populations out of violence into politics." Good luck with that. The week before, a Saudi who headed a security consulting group close to the Saudi government, Nawaf Obaid, wrote in the Washington Post that Saudi Arabia would use money, oil and support for Sunnis to counter Iranian efforts to dominate Iraq if American troops pulled out (previously discussed here). The Saudi government denied the report and fired Obaid. But something is up. Those private citizens can be pesky. This thing is going regional, and beyond the governments.

And as for the dream of embedding our guys with their guys, Matthew Yglesias sees where that is heading -
The headline call to withdraw all-or-most US combat brigades from Iraq by 2008 is actually pretty misleading. This is supposed to be combined with embedding something like 20,000 American soldiers directly inside the Iraqi Army. We're also supposed to go forward with the plan to build this giant embassy with thousands of people working in it. They also want us to increase the quasi-civilian presence in Iraq by sending FBI, DOJ, and other people to build up Iraqi law enforcement capabilities. And to increase the level of intelligence assets in Iraq. What's more, special operations forces, air power, etc. are all supposed to remain available, though perhaps based just over the border.

The upshot of this if you could really pull it off would be to create something akin to the British Indian Army, where the United States would have effective control over the institutions of the Iraqi state. America's embedded officers - down to the company level - would be in de facto command of a large body of Iraqi cannon fodder, with US civilians similarly embedded throughout many of Iraq's civilian agencies. Whatever you think of this idea (and I don't think much of it) the government of Iran certainly isn't going to think much of it. One could imagine them helping us do something in Iraq, but creating a stable, effective government controlled from Washington, DC isn't on that list.
You can read all about the British Indian Army here, and we know what finally happened in India - although Gandhi's tactics were not much like those used in Iraq these days. Just what are we doing?

And then the same day, wouldn't you know, the Brit came to town - Tony Blair visited George Bush, they chatted, and then they held a press conference together. They might as well have been singing that song from Annie, or the one from the big budget seventies movie about the doomed, overturned and sinking ship. Things will be fine. Tomorrow is another day. (It is, by definition.)

The president flat-out rejected the key recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group, and Blair embraced them. But they were both optimistic, in their own ways.

President Bush would have nothing to do with the proposal that Iran and Syria be included in regional talks aimed at ending Iraq's worsening civil war, which he says isn't really a civil war. He restated the standard White House position - talks with Tehran were conditional. They had to stop that uranium enrichment, while contacts with they Syrians in Damascus would depend on an end to Syrian destabilization of Lebanon. They had to stop the arms and money flows over the border to Lebanon, and to Iraqi bad guys - "We've made that position very clear. And the truth of the matter is that these countries have now got the choice to make." He was firm - "If they want to sit down at the table with the United States, it's easy. Just make some decisions that'll lead to peace, not to conflict."

Nothing will change. And Blair said a regional peace initiative as suggested would be cool - the only basis for those discussions should be acceptance of UN resolutions on Iraq. The curious thing is that later a Downing Street spokesman confirmed the British position of demanding a halt to uranium enrichment while just continuing to talk to Iran on other issues - "In terms of our position, we continue to have diplomatic relations with Iran and have always done so." George must think Tony is a fool.

As for the study group saying it would be a good idea to work out a de-escalation of the Israel-Palestine mess, Blair has always said that was key, and Bush shined him on. No change there. Bush shrugged. He's waiting for the other reports. He's asked General Pace at the Pentagon to write one, and the National Security Council to write one. Heck, he may have asked the EPA and the Boy Scouts of America for reports on what to do. Tony and his Israel-Palestine is just one more view, after all. He's more interested in what the military says -
"Baker-Hamilton is a really important part of our considerations," the president said. "But we want to make sure the military gets their point of view in. After all, a lot of what we're doing is a military operation."

The military report is not expected to propose substantial troop withdrawals and may even advocate a brief surge in the US military presence in Iraq. President Bush yesterday made it clear he was more likely to listen to that kind of advice. He said: "Our commanders will be making recommendations based upon whether or not we're achieving our stated objective."
And he mentioned he'd asked for a study from the State Department too, as that would only be fair. But Tony Blair is just one guy. Baker's crew is just a bunch of people with opinions. He said he'd decide on something later, and tell us all when he did. He will only talk of eventual "victory" - whatever that means. And he'll decide things. Earlier in the day, when the press secretary Tony Snow was asked if James Baker would be advising the president on a continuing basis, Snow was blunt - "Jim Baker can go back to his day job now." So opinions are just opinions. They will be noted. And the president will then go with his "gut instinct." That's how things work.

It's getting harder to hum those show tunes. Blair is good at it, but he must have been privately appalled. He was doing his plaintive Maureen McGovern thing, mixed with a bit of Annie. The president was stuck in a John Wayne movie, with no catchy songs - just a cowboy harmonica in the distant background.

The reality is neither, but what Martin Jacques describes in The Guardian (UK), on Friday, December 8, with The Neocons Have Finished What the Vietcong Started -
Just a month after the American electorate delivered a resounding rebuff to the Bush Iraq policy, the great and the good - in the guise of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) - have subjected that policy to a withering critique. The administration has had the political equivalent of a car crash. George Bush is being routinely condemned as one of the worst presidents ever, and his Iraq policy no longer enjoys the support of a large swath of the American establishment. The neoconservatives suddenly find themselves isolated and embattled: Rumsfeld has been sacked, Cheney has gone quiet, the likes of Richard Perle are confined to the sidelines. The president is on his own and it is difficult to see how Bush can avoid moving towards the ISG position. The political map is being redrawn with extraordinary alacrity.

Before our eyes, the neoconservative position is disintegrating. Its foreign-policy tenets have been shown to be false. As is now openly admitted, they have brought the US to the verge of disaster in Iraq, which is why the American version of the "men in grey suits" has ridden to the rescue. After less than six years in office, elected at a time when the US was unchallenged as the sole superpower, the Bush administration has managed to deliver the country to the edge of what can only be compared to a Vietnam moment: the political and military defeat of the central and defining plank of American foreign policy.
Of course that's wrong. The president can avoid anything he wishes to avoid.

And Jacques notes this just isn't Vietnam. Actually, it's worse -
In 1975 the Americans suffered a spectacular military defeat at the hands of North Vietnam and the Vietcong, with US helicopters seeking to rescue leading US personnel from the tops of buildings as Vietnamese guerrillas closed in on the centre of Saigon. It was to shape American foreign policy - in particular, a desire to avoid overseas military entanglements - for decades. Indeed, the rise of the neoconservatives was partly predicated on a rejection of what they saw as American defeatism during and after the Vietnam War. Iraq is very different. There is no single enemy with a clear military strategy. Baghdad will not be Saigon. This is a case of an endless, bloody and unwinnable quagmire rather than any spectacular denouement in waiting.

But the Iraq moment is far more dangerous for the US than the Vietnam moment. Although one of the key justifications for the Vietnam war was to prevent the spread of communism, the US defeat was to produce nothing of the kind: apart from the fact that Cambodia and Laos became embroiled, the effects were essentially confined to Vietnam. There were no wider political repercussions in east Asia: ironically, it was China that was to invade North Vietnam in 1979 (and deservedly got a bloody nose).

The regional consequences of the Iraq imbroglio are, in comparison, immediate, profound and far-reaching. The civil war threatens to unhinge more or less the entire Middle East. The neoconservative strategy - to remake the region single-handedly (with the support of Israel, of course) - has been undermined by its own hubris. The American dilemma is patent in some of the key recommendations of the ISG report: to involve Iran and Syria in any Iraqi settlement (including the return of the Golan Heights to Syria) and to seek a new agreement between Israel and Palestine. In short, it proposes a reversal of the key strands of Bush's foreign policy.
We just aren't going to be able to do what we said we'd do. The world has changed -
The American era is now over.

In future the US will be forced to share its influence with regional powers such as Iran, with the EU - and no doubt in time, with emerging global players such as China and perhaps even Russia. Such a scenario may well mean that the key alliance that has shaped the Middle East since 1956 - between the US and Israel - will no longer be so pivotal and could be increasingly downgraded. From a regional standpoint, it is clear that the Iraq moment is far more serious for the US than the Vietnam moment.

What is true regionally is also the case globally. We are reminded of how even the most powerful and, indeed, the most knowledgeable can get things profoundly wrong. It is worthwhile recalling the longer-term global context of the American defeat in Vietnam. It did not signal any serious upturn in the fortunes of the Soviet Union; this was already in a state of economic stagnation and growing political paralysis that was to become terminal in the 80s, leaving the US as the sole superpower. It was this that encouraged the neoconservatives to utterly misread the historical runes at the end of the 90s. They believed that the world was ripe for a huge expansion of American power and influence.

A few years later we can see the full absurdity of this position. Far from the US being in the ascendant, deeper trends have moved in the opposite direction. The US might enjoy overwhelming military advantage, but its relative economic power, which in the long run is almost invariably decisive, is in decline. The interregnum after the cold war, far from being the prelude to a new American age, was bearing the signs of what is now very visible: the emergence of a multipolar world. By misreading global trends, the Bush administration's embrace of unilateralism not only provoked the Iraq disaster but also hastened American decline.
The necessary shift is obvious - some form of power-sharing on both a global and regional basis, and things depending on the involvement of Iran and Syria in this specific case. We're talking a BIG change here. That's what the Baker guys were really suggesting, perhaps. And maybe they think pigs will fly - tomorrow. There does have to be a morning after, of some sort.

Posted by Alan at 22:00 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 8 December 2006 08:04 PST home

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