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

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

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

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Wednesday, 20 September 2006
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist
One tries to keep up on things, browsing who's saying what. It's just that listening to all the voices can spook you. What to make of it all? We're in for it.

As mentioned previously, there seems to be a war coming with Iran. It's not just Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker - William Arkin in the Washington Post reported that in his Early Warning column. The cover story of the week's Time Magazine tells us the plans are finalized and units are on notice. And the reporters who used to be Knight-Ridder - now McClatchy - here tell us there's the new the Iranian directorate at the Pentagon - getting the "real" information on the building of nuclear weapons there - bypassing the CIA and other agencies again, relying on Iranian exiles in America who want their old Iran back. That worked so well the first time with Iraq of course. And yes, Knight-Ridder alone was the news outfit that got the run-up to the Iraq war right - pointing to the holes in the information about the actual threat Iraq posed, and being skeptical, in a reasonable way.

And here we're told we are already on the ground in Iran, conducting operations there -

1.) "The evidence is overwhelming, from both the Iranians, Americans, and from Congressional sources."

2.) "The plan has gone to the White House. That's not normal planning. When the plan goes to the White House, that means we've gone to a different state."

3.) "I would say - and this may shock some - I think the decision has been made and military operations are under way."

That's from Colonel Sam Gardiner, the retired colonel who taught at the National War College, the Air War College and the Naval Warfare College and who famously found more than fifty instances of demonstrably false stories planted in the press in the run up to the war, back in 2003. The link is to a television appearance - he's one of CNN's military analysts. Maybe he's wrong.

But then his white paper is now available, a report for the Century Foundation - The End of the 'Summer of Diplomacy': Assessing U.S. Military Options in Iraq, September 2006 (in PDF format).

And it contains this gem -
When I discuss the possibility of an American military strike on Iran with my European friends, they invariably point out that an armed confrontation does not make sense - that it would be unlikely to yield any of the results that American policymakers do want, and that it would be highly likely to yield results that they do not.

I tell them they cannot understand US policy if they insist on passing options through that filter. The "making sense" filter was not applied over the past four years for Iraq, and it is unlikely to be applied in evaluating whether to attack Iran.
The italics were added to emphasize the obvious. This isn't supposed to make sense. Something else is going on.

In any event, Gardiner says the preparations for war "will not be a major CNN event." This will be subtle, sort of, as it "will involve the quiet deployment of Air Force tankers to staging bases" and "additional Navy assets moved to the region." He also adds that while nobody's talking about a land invasion of Iran - as there's no resources left for that - "significant elements in the government" do have much more ambitious goals than straightforward surgical strikes at Iranian nuclear facilities. You see, such strikes are very unlikely to actually resolve the perceived Iran issue, and there are administration figures who have convinced themselves that a sufficiently wide "air target set" will prompt regime change in Iran. We bomb them and the angry populace rises up and cheers us. Well, many have reported that's the current thinking.

Another voice - Matthew Yglesias here - "One should note that the curious thing about air power is that the professionals involved in managing it have a longstanding, cross-national, and incredibly pernicious habit of massively and systematically overstating its efficacy in accomplishing all sorts of implausible things."

Yep, ask the Israelis about that. But over at SLATE, Fred Kaplan here is wondering if the "prepare to deploy" order that's "been sent out to US Navy submarines, an Aegis-class cruiser, two minesweepers, and two mine-hunting ships" means we're going to war with Iran.

But Yglesias then adds this -
At this point, I think I need to bring up what one might call the Craziest Goddamn Thing I've Heard In a Long Time. This story came to me last week from an anonymous individual who I would say is in a position to know about such things. According to this person, the DOD has (naturally) been doing some analysis on airstrikes against Iran. The upshot of the analysis was that conventional bombardment would degrade the Iranian nuclear program by about 50 percent. By contrast, if the arsenal included small nuclear weapons, we could get up to about 80 percent destroying. In response to this, persons inside the Office of the Vice President took the view that we could use the nukes - in other words, launch an unprovoked nuclear first strike against Iran - and then simply deny that we'd done so. Detectable radiation in the area of the bombed sites would be attributed to the fact that they were, after all, nuclear facilities we'd just hit.

Now I rather doubt that's going to happen. Typically, Bush dials down the crazy factor a notch or two relative to what comes out of the OVP [Office of the Vice president]. Nevertheless, it's a sobering reminder that we have genuine lunatics operating in the highest councils of government at the moment. It's an extremely dangerous situation.
The italics there come from Yglesias. He wants things to make sense, so he doesn't think we'll launch an unprovoked nuclear first strike against Iran. The first voice, Colonel Sam, argues the other way.

Another voice, from the SALON review of Frank Rich's new book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold, there's this -
It is now widely accepted that the Iraq war is one of the greatest foreign policy blunders, if not the greatest, in US history. Some have gone further: The respected Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld argues that it is "the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C. sent his legions into Germany and lost them." Not a few regard Iraq as spelling the beginning of the end of American dominance in the world.

The review goes on to discuss what seems to be Rich's thesis - the Iraq war was waged to get Republicans elected again and again. That's the "sense" that the Europeans who talked with Colonel Sam seem to have overlooked.

Another voice?

On Tuesday, September 19, reporters asked General John Abizaid, the top US military commander for the whole Middle East, whether the United States is currently winning the war in Iraq. The Washington Post dutifully reported his answer - "Given unlimited time and unlimited support, we're winning the war."

That's not very reassuring and not particularly realistic. It makes little sense. But it is an answer, and an honest one.

And here's another voice, from August 25, retired General John Batiste, the former commander of the First Infantry Division in Iraq - "Donald Rumsfeld is still at the helm of the Department of Defense, which is absolutely outrageous. He served up our great military a huge bowl of chicken feces, and ever since then, our military and our country have been trying to turn this bowl into chicken salad. And it’s not working."

You can see the video of that here. (There are words you can't say on national television.)

And from the New York Times item of September 20, on how our government is really unhappy with the current premier of Iraq - he's not doing much of anything but visiting Iran and getting chummy with them - we get this - "To bolster Iraqis' confidence, American generals are spending money on quick reconstruction projects like trash pickup as the military goes through troubled neighborhoods of Baghdad."

Compare and contrast - Condoleezza Rice in a Times interview from October 21, 2000 with this - "We don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten."

But that was Kosovo, of course.

Those two contrasting gems were brought up by Bill Montgomery, at his site Whiskey Bar, where he is either the editor and sole writer, or proprietor - or the barkeep, if you will. And his voice comes next with this -

From crossing guards to trash collectors seems like a demotion to me - especially when the trash includes things like dead dog carcasses with IEDs stuffed inside them. But, hey, be all you can be.

We'll never know if this kind of stuff - nation building as an exercise in court-ordered community service - has made any difference in Iraq, or could have made a difference if more of it had been done more competently. I tend to doubt it, but then in the failure-was-inevitable vs. we-coulda-been-contenders debate, I tend to come down firmly in the inevitability camp.

The question is empirically indeterminate, since we don't have another Iraq to use as a control -- one where the post-conflict reconstruction process goes flawlessly, the U.S. Army is a model of counterinsurgency tact and wisdom and the entire process is guided by the kind of people who gave us the Marshall Plan and the long telegram [see this - AMP], instead of the cast members of a Three Stooges short feature.

However, at least some evidence for the inevitability argument can be found in record of the non-fantasy Iraq occupation.

In his book Fiasco, Tom Ricks lavishes praise on Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the 101st Airborne division, which was originally given the job of occupying the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. According to Ricks, Petraeus and his officers did everything the counterinsurgency textbooks told them to do. They established unity of command, worked with local leaders, avoided excessive use of firepower, tried not to antagonize or humiliate the locals, were selective in their arrests and interrogations and spread a lot of money around in small, local projects.

Whether it was because of these tactics or for some other reason, nobody contests that Mosul was relatively calm through the early months of the occupation - even after the 101st rotated out. But when the replacement force had to be drawn down to send reinforcements to Fallujah in October 2004, public order in Mosul promptly collapsed, with the police deserting in droves and insurgents taking over whole neighborhoods in the Arab quarter of the city. So much for hearts and minds.

Likewise, we heard a lot in the first two years of the war about the vastly superior counterinsurgency training and tactics of the British Army, and how this was the key to their success in keeping southern Iraq happy and docile. We don't hear nearly so much of that talk these days.

You can certainly argue that Petraeus's effort in Mosul and the British Army's work in the south were both undermined (stabbed in the back, so to speak) by the general incompetence of the CPA, the Cheney Administration, the military bureaucracy in Baghdad, etc. etc. Or, conversely, you can claim the successes were never as successful as they were cracked up to be - that what Petraeus and the Brits really were better at was media relations, not counterinsurgency.

Like I said, it's a counterfactual argument, one that historians no doubt will still be having long after you and me and Gen. Petraeus are all in our graves. But if you think Iraq was doable - that the Cheneyites snatched defeat from the jaws of victory instead of just making a miserable situation even worse - then you need to explain why virtually every other recent nation-building exercise has been as complete or almost as complete a failure : from Somalia to Afghanistan, Sierra Leone to Columbia.

… Under the circumstances, nation building in the Middle East might best be compared to sand castle building - on the beach in the face of a rising tide. We'd probably all be better off if our imperial strategists could come up with a strategy for managing the transition to a more decentralized, fragmented and at times chaotic world, instead of trying to turn back the clock to an earlier day. But, of course, if they were comfortable doing that they probably wouldn't be imperial strategists.

Oh well. It certainly doesn't hurt that the Army is picking up the trash in Baghdad, and it may even help, a little. But if I were them I wouldn't expect to get any tips - non-explosive ones, I mean.
But then, if Frank Rich is right (and not just rich), the whole idea is really to win elections here - by appearing tough and strong.

Eric Boehlert notes how that is going -here -
Here then, is some much-needed historical perspective to put Bush's standing in context:
  • According to Gallup, on the eve of President John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination, he was suffering the worst job-approval ratings of his presidency - 58 percent.
  • In 1968, when the war in Vietnam was claiming hundreds of US casualties each week, President Lyndon Johnson was considered so unpopular that he didn't even run for re-election. Johnson's average Gallup approval rating for that year was 43 percent.
  • When Reagan's second term was rocked by the Iran-Contra scandal, his ratings plummeted, all the way down to 43 percent.
Oh well. You do what you can.

And something that came up before, in these pages - Monday, August 21, The Hedgehog Is Back - a discussion of Jim Baker's little group with this -
A Bipartisan commission quietly started work last spring with a mandate to help the Bush administration rethink its policy toward the war.

… [W]hat makes this particular commission hard to dismiss is that it is led by perhaps the one man who might be able to break through the tight phalanx of senior officials who advise the president and filter his information. That person is the former secretary of state, Republican insider, and consigliere of the Bush family, James A. Baker III.
Who knew? And the Washington Monthly item ends with this -
"The object of our policy has to be to get our little white asses out of there as soon as possible," another working-group participant told me. To do that, he said, Baker must confront the president "like the way a family confronts an alcoholic. You bring everyone in, and you say, 'Look, my friend, it's time to change.'"
That's most curious. Everyone knows it's time to do something.

Wednesday, September 20, the New York Sun reports this Iraq Study Group has met with its subgroups - the working committees - and we get this -
According to participants in that meeting, the two chairmen received a blunt assessment this week of viable options for America in Iraq that boiled down to two choices.

One plan would have America begin its exit from Iraq through a phased withdrawal similar to that proposed this spring by Rep. John Murtha, a Democrat of Pennsylvania and former Marine. Another would have America make a last push to internationalize the military occupation of Iraq and open a high-level dialogue with Syria and Iran to persuade them to end their state-sanctioned policy of aiding terrorists who are sabotaging the elected government in Baghdad.

... The Iraq Study Group is likely to be as influential as the 9/11 commission, which Mr. Hamilton cochaired with a former governor of New Jersey, Thomas Keane. While the Iraq panel is not charged with assigning blame on past policy failures, as the 9/11 commission was, it does have the ability to give new legitimacy to a withdrawal strategy and force the administration's hand on policy.
And that leads to another voice, Kevin Drum, with this -
So: Bush should either plan to withdraw from Iraq or else open up talks with Syria and Iran. It's hard to know which of those two options he'd loathe the most, and even with Baker delivering the bad news it's hard to see Bush agreeing to either course. By the time the Iraq Study Group delivers its recommendations officially, though, he might not have much of a choice.
Maybe so. Or maybe than why a war with Iran is necessary. It would provide cover for either unpalatable alternative.

How'd we get here? The final voice is Digby at Hullabaloo, from right out here in Santa Monica, with this -
Virtually none of the foreign policy establishment were concerned that invading Iraq was a bad strategy in light of the threat of terrorism. It was obvious that we would inflame the Islamic radicals and create more of them - an American occupying army in the Mideast at a time of rising extremism and anti-American fervor was about as provocative an act as could have been imagined. This argument was glossed over as some sort of appeasement when, in fact, it was extremely salient. Why on earth would you go out of your way to aid the recruitment of your enemy unless it was absolutely necessary? The administration may need to play to its base with useless strongman preening but there was no excuse for liberal hawks not to care about this argument.

But the greatest strategic error was dismissing the possibility that by occupying Iraq it would empower Iran in the process. This was undoubtedly seen as pessimism or immoral realpolitik by the neocons and liberal hawks, but it was a very serious consideration that we are now seeing played out before our very eyes. It's quite clear that the most successful beneficiary of our Iraq policy has been Iraq's longtime rival, Iran. Had Iraq really presented the existential threat the administration claimed, it might have made sense. But nobody but the most deluded of neocons believed that Saddam was planning to launch drone planes filled with nukes and chemical weapons at the US. There should have been more attention paid to the ramifications of empowering Iran before we invaded Iraq by people who should know better. (The great irony is that the administration is now recycling the same fear mongering to use against Iran - instead of "gassed his own people" it's "denies the holocaust." SOS)

So, in the months before we went into Iraq the situation was this:
  • The Bush Doctrine was morphing before our eyes into a permission slip for unilateral aggression based on nothing more than guesswork about a possible future threat, degrading our moral authority before the war even started.
  • Many of our allies were balking which meant that we would potentially lose valuable cooperation on terrorism and would have a much harder time coalition building in the future.
  • Saddam had been successfully contained for more than a decade and could have stayed contained for some time, even if the hyped up threat assessment had turned out to be correct.
  • The evidence for terrorist ties between Iraq and al Qaeda was virtually non-existent and there was no reason to believe that they would ever have the same goals. Conversely, invading Iraq was likely to empower Islamic extremism in Iraq and elsewhere.
  • We rushed into it as if it were an emergency when Saddam had done nothing for years. This meant that planning (which never happened anyway) would have had to be done on a crisis basis, increasing the chance of mistakes and missteps.
  • We were committing our military to a non-urgent long term operation at a time when we needed them to be flexible for the emerging threats of the new era of Islamic extremism.
  • We knew that upending the structure of the middle east before we had a chance to fully assess the situation could result in empowering the actors we wanted to marginalize, both state and non-state.
For all those reasons one could see not just that it was an impossible task or that the Bush administration would mess it up, but that it was simply a bad idea when the circumstances after 9/11 dictated that we be smart about national security. 9/11 didn't change everything but you'd think the threat of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare would have changed the neocon and liberal hawk's longtime assumptions about the efficacy of traditional military power. If there was ever a time for realism - in the pure sense of the word - it was then. Instead, we had the right lashing out incoherently at their ancient demons and the liberal hawks naively believing that it was a good idea to express our goodness and greatness through a military action that was quite obviously unnecessary at that moment and for which the risk far outweighed the benefit.

We all know that the result was even worse that we feared. We couldn't know they did no planning at all for the occupation. It didn't occur to us that they would literally bring in twenty-something college Republicans to run the reconstruction. I couldn't imagine they would botch it so thoroughly on every level that we have now exposed ourselves as something of a paper tiger when it comes to such unilateral actions. It's weakened us considerably. (And it's also brought us to a very frightening point...) The abandonment of moral authority with aggressive war and torture, the lost opportunities in Afghanistan, the empowering of Iran are all fall-out from this terrible decision and while we couldn't necessarily know exactly what would happen, there was NO DOUBT that the outcome was unpredictable. Great powers can't afford to run dangerous military experiments with unpredictable results unless it's absolutely necessary. Blowback tends to be rather extreme.

The administration dazzled the nation with a big show and the media was chomping at the bit to have a "real" war that they could cover. But when you stripped away all the hysterical rhetoric it was clear then that even if the Bush administration had been capable of preventing Iraq from descending into chaos and achieving all its goals, liberal hawks should have known that rushing into war in the spring of 2003 was a bad idea anyway.
And now we're at it again.

And a quick summary from another voice, Stanley Kurtz, at "The Corner" - the daily commentary section of the now hyper-neoconservative and Bush worshiping National Review, with this -
On the one hand, we are faced with a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, nuclear blackmail and terrorist chaos at the heart of the world's Persian Gulf oil supply, and terrorist-planted nuclear weapons in America's cities. On the other hand, we can choose an economically disruptive war with Iran that will alienate us from the world, push us to and beyond our military limits, and that even then may not even succeed. The by now stock phrase, "there are no good options" doesn't quite do justice to the awful choice we face.
Even there?

In any event, those are the voices out there. Make of them what you will.

Posted by Alan at 21:57 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 21 September 2006 07:23 PDT home

Tuesday, 5 September 2006
The Case for Pessimism
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist
The Case for Pessimism
On a hot day in Los Angeles - it hit ninety-nine downtown early in the afternoon - the only thing to do was sit quietly in the office under the big ceiling fan and browse the net on global warming matters. So on Tuesday, September 5, as the asphalt streets here in Hollywood got gooey in the full sun, while reading about peak-oil and the end of civilization as we know it, this comment shimmered on the computer screen - "Global pandemic is considered a certainty by lots of smart people with good credentials in that area. Some other brilliant people think we're in for a religional [sic] clash of civilizations. Other well-qualified people foresee environmental collapse. War seems ever present in its changing nature. Most of the large fish in the ocean are already gone. Oceanic dead zones are on the increase. Tundra is thawing in vast stretches of northern latitudes, releasing methane in a positive feedback loop driving climate change. Human population is supposed to increase by fifty percent in the next couple or three decades while global energy consumption is supposed to double or more. And so on and so on. We live in interesting times. What's a person to do?"

One could choose an alternative life-style, one not so energy dependent, but selling the car and raising chickens on the balcony isn't going to help much. Feeling noble that the air-conditioner in the wall is dead and you don't feel like having someone fix it seems a bit silly. Things are too far gone. Pour another Diet Coke on ice, fill another pipe with that nice Danish pipe tobacco, and let's think about this. One could think about it down by the pool in the courtyard, but that's mad, in the "mad dogs and Englishmen" way - no one is down there, not even the sweet young things who move in and out of the building hoping to become the next Katie Holmes or whatever - the concrete would blister your feet and the pool, in the full sun for months, is a warm blue-green bath smelling of all the extra chlorine needed to kill the bad stuff that wants to grown in there. The cat in the shade next door looks boneless - a poured, fur lump.

It's a day for pessimism of course. That seems to be back in vogue. In fact, Joshua Foa Dienstag, a political science professor at UCLA, has that new book on the matter Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit - Princeton University Press (July 3, 2006) - ISBN: 069112552X. It's hot.

Here's the deal -
Pessimism claims an impressive following - from Rousseau, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, to Freud, Camus, and Foucault. Yet "pessimist" remains a term of abuse - an accusation of a bad attitude - or the diagnosis of an unhappy psychological state. Pessimism is thought of as an exclusively negative stance that inevitably leads to resignation or despair. Even when pessimism looks like utter truth, we are told that it makes the worst of a bad situation. Bad for the individual, worse for the species - who would actually counsel pessimism?

Joshua Foa Dienstag does. In Pessimism, he challenges the received wisdom about pessimism, arguing that there is an unrecognized yet coherent and vibrant pessimistic philosophical tradition. More than that, he argues that pessimistic thought may provide a critically needed alternative to the increasingly untenable progressivist ideas that have dominated thinking about politics throughout the modern period. Laying out powerful grounds for pessimism's claim that progress is not an enduring feature of human history, Dienstag argues that political theory must begin from this predicament. He persuasively shows that pessimism has been - and can again be - an energizing and even liberating philosophy, an ethic of radical possibility and not just a criticism of faith. The goal - of both the pessimistic spirit and of this fascinating account of pessimism - is not to depress us, but to edify us about our condition and to fortify us for life in a disordered and disenchanted universe.
Okay then, pessimism can be liberating, and fortifying. Who would have guessed? Things are as bad as they seem, or maybe worse. That's the way to approach the world.

Thursday, September 14, at seven in the evening, the author will be at Dutton's in Brentwood - the fancy bookstore not far from where Arianna Huffington lives, the woman with the celebrity blog, and not far from the site where OJ didn't murder Nicole - for a reading from the new book. But what's the point in driving all the way over there? What good would it do? On the other hand, that Dutton's is supposed to be a hot pick-up spot for a certain class of literate left-wing singles. But then, who would be interested in the fat old guy from Hollywood? Nope, better to listen to Joshua Foa Dienstag interviewed about pessimism on BBC4 here, from mid-July. It's better for the environment than driving across Los Angeles. Or maybe that's looking at things too pessimistically.

But then, consider that chapters in his book -
CHAPTER ONE: The Anatomy of Pessimism
CHAPTER TWO: "A Philosophy That Is Grievous but True": Cultural Pessimism in Rousseau and Leopardi
CHAPTER THREE: "The Evils of the World Honestly Admitted": Metaphysical Pessimism in Schopenhauer and Freud
CHAPTER FOUR "Consciousness Is a Disease": Existential Pessimism in Camus, Unamuno, and Cioran
CHAPTER FIVE: Nietzsche's Dionysian Pessimism
CHAPTER SIX: Cervantes as Educator: Don Quixote and the Practice of Pessimism
CHAPTER SEVEN: Aphorisms and Pessimisms
CHAPTER EIGHT: Pessimism and Freedom (The Pessimist Speaks)
Let's see - consciousness is a disease which Don Quixote conquers by engaging in pointless battles for the right reasons, and Camus should have read Cervantes more carefully - or maybe Sisyphus could just as easily have tilted at windmills instead of pushing that stone up the hill over and over. Same thing. Got it. Schopenhauer and Freud admit we're all screwed. Fine.

What's the point in reading the book now, anyway? Do authors who write such things not know that true pessimists understand that there no point in even buying the thing?

Of course pessimists are not the target audience. The target audience - those who will buy the book - consists of "angry" pessimists (an odd concept when you think about it logically) who are feeling defensive, and those who these days, after six years of being told we're winning the great war (that would pay for itself, where we'd be greeted at liberators, and where our military would be home in a few months), and that New Orleans would be rebuilt, that this and that would be wonderful, are puzzled. We're told to be optimistic. Our leaders are.

What's up with that? Is there something inherently stupid about optimism? That seems to be the argument here. An audience that might accept this idea is possible.

"This will work out wonderfully if you just trust us." And what did we get?

Immediately you trust your leaders less and less. Joshua Foa Dienstag suggests going deeper. Leaders of any sort in America say they're optimistic about just about everything, save for Jimmy Carter. It's what you do. It's what people expect. But maybe the whole problem is optimism itself. That's about as subversive and un-American an idea you'll find anywhere.

As still, the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, September 3, published Dienstag's op-ed piece, Oh, to Be a Country of Pessimists Again, with the subhead - "Too much optimism can leave us stranded in our rose-colored illusions."

This opens with references to the president's second inaugural address where he said he had "complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom" and "history has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of liberty." Then in August he was saying at a press conference - "Frustrated? Sometimes I'm frustrated. Rarely surprised. Sometimes I'm happy. This is - but war is not a time of joy. These aren't joyous times…. "

The question posed is clear. Are we finally ready for some pessimism? Are we?

The problem is clear -
Americans of all stripes tend to treat pessimism as if it were a psychological impairment or rare tropical illness that inexplicably befalls others. Jimmy Carter was widely criticized when he dared to suggest that there existed a U.S. "crisis of confidence," a mistake Ronald Reagan exploited when he announced "Morning in America." During the presidential race of 2004, the candidates of both parties competed avidly for the title of most optimistic. But Bush's verbal fumbling on a question about the Iraq war indicates that there are some situations - unfortunately, very common ones - for which the language of optimism is not helpful.
It isn't? There's not an election consultant alive who would agree with that contention.

But there is history -
The first modern pessimists were dissenters from the Enlightenment notion that the world would be remade according to reason. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example. He is often remembered as a precursor to the French Revolution, but he was in fact deeply suspicious of what became the revolutionaries' alternative faith: inordinate belief in their own rational powers.

What Rousseau sought to emphasize was simply that we lacked the tools to master history and bring it to heel. "Everything is in continual flux on Earth…." he wrote. "All our plans for felicity in this life are idle fancies." Politics, like personal life, was a place where grand strategies could and often did go awry. We should celebrate the good that happened but not delude ourselves that the overall pattern of the universe is pre-made in our favor.

This doesn't mean that reason is useless. Rousseau had a variety of philosophical inheritors and, though they disagreed on many things, one point they generally had in common was the idea that reason served humans best by divesting them of politically dangerous illusions.
But illusions not grounded in reason, some would argue, are what made America, the land of big dreams, the wonderful place it is. Is it now more useful to think about what is actually possible? That not very inspiring.

But it may be necessary -
The president's claim that he is "rarely surprised" doesn't ring true; it seems like a particularly desperate effort to assert some control over a situation in which every supposed sign of progress in Iraq is undercut by more violence. Optimists, expecting things to go well, are constantly surprised and disappointed when their illusions are punctured. It is the pessimists, expecting little, who are rarely surprised.

It is sometimes claimed that pessimism retards political action, that one must somehow be an optimist in order to get out of bed in the morning. This is not only silly but dangerous. If one looks at the writings of, say, Albert Camus or Vaclav Havel, both philosophers who also were active in resistance against tyranny, it's easy to see that they had no expectations their actions would defeat what seemed like an overwhelming foe. They were as surprised as anyone when the regimes they opposed collapsed. They acted not out of optimism but out of a sense that opposing dictatorship was the only decent thing to do, the only way to live with dignity in dark times.

Camus liked to say that he wasn't interested in the future at all: "He who dedicates himself to … history dedicates himself to nothing and, in his turn, is nothing." Instead, we should engage in "giving all to the present," which meant dealing with the problems that appear on our doorstep rather than trying to vindicate an idealized destiny, the "visible direction" of history. (Perhaps if this administration had paid a little less attention to the tides of history, it might have had more time to deal with the actual floodwaters.)
So Camus and Havel never expected to win. No illusions. No blind faith the best would probably happen and everything fall into place, and thinking otherwise was defeatist. They only did the right thing at the moment. Fine, but can we use a Frenchman and a Czech fan of Frank Zappa as models here?

Not in this country - "Though the Bush administration may be the latest and most extreme version of the compulsory optimism of American politics, matters will not improve if we simply replace it with an equally optimistic administration from the other party. The problem is that the vocabulary of optimism itself distorts our understanding of the world and leaves us lost in illusions."

Why was the president recently reading Camus? It didn't sink in. Next he'll be reading Babbitt and Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." It won't help. He's locked in that "optimistic mode" - the slang term is "stuck on stupid" - just like most everyone on the left. That just the way it is, and, ironically enough, there's just no fixing it.

But it can tie you up in some odd logic. That's what happened Tuesday, September 5, with the second in the series of speeches to sell the Iraq war and all related policies on terror, and the need to do something about Iran and North Korea, to the American people in the run-up to the November congressional elections, where the president could lose control of the House if not the Senate and then be dead in the water for his last two years, or worse. And the theme itself was mixed - "America is safer, but we are not yet safe." Everything worked out fine, but it didn't.

The speech, before the Military Officers Association of America, is here and the accompanying twenty-ninepage "National Strategy for Combating Terrorism" here. It's all very curious - Iraq is not a big deal any longer, nor is al Qaeda and that Osama fellow. The problem now is Iran, but really everyone who opposes us, or opposes Israel, as they're all in this together. The idea is we now have one giant problem no one but this administration, backed by a Republican congress, can solve.

Here's some compact framing from Dan Froomkin in the Washington Post -
The White House today is battling to control the journalistic narrative in the days before the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

There are so many ways that journalists could help the public assess the last five years.

We could, for instance, trace the dramatic expansion of executive power in the name of fighting the war on terror.

We could expose the failures that have plagued the administration's initiatives to coordinate homeland security and emergency response.

We could write about Iraq, the most conspicuous, costly, deadly, and arguably counterproductive byproduct of President Bush's post-September 11 mentality.

We could expound on America's dramatic loss of moral authority, prestige and influence on the world stage.

We could reflect upon the administration's continued stoking of Americans' fears for political purposes.

But that's not what the White House wants, of course.

And while the White House can't exactly prevent journalists from writing whatever we want, the president does have a great way of forcing us to take notice of whatever it is that he wants. It's called a "series of major speeches" on the "Global War on Terrorism."
And the Post's account of the speech is here -
President Bush today renewed his pledge to accept nothing less than "complete victory" in the war on terrorism and delivered a strong warning to Iran, which he described as the leader of a strain of Islamic radicalism just as dangerous as that of al-Qaeda.

In a speech in Washington following the release of an updated strategy document on combating terrorism, Bush repeatedly quoted statements by Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders to highlight the radical Sunni Muslim group's "totalitarian" aims, which he said recalled the "evil" ambitions Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler. He said the centerpiece of those aims is the transformation of Iraq into the capital of an Islamic caliphate spanning much of the globe.
So this is a big deal. They're trying to take over the world. Lenin! Hitler! Iraq is only part of it. This could be the end of everything.

And there are the anti-American goals to Shiite Muslim "extremists" - leaders of Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. (Don't think about the Shiites we have put in power in Iraq.) And then there's the specter of an industrialized world subject to blackmail from nations awash in oil and nuclear weapons "if the radicals achieve their aims." People just aren't scared enough.

And there's this - a captured bin Laden letter, saying al-Qaeda intended to launch a "media campaign to create a wedge between the American people and their government." So if you listen to our own press you're being fooled and manipulated by the bad guys - most American reporters are with the terrorists, doing the terrorists' work. (See one press guy's reaction here - Olbermann was having none of it.)

It went on and on - "History teaches that underestimating the words of evil and ambitious men is a terrible mistake. . . . Bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them. The question is: Will we listen?"

He also called on Americans to "imagine a world in which they were able to control governments; a world awash with oil, and they would use oil resources to punish industrialized nations. And they would use those resources to fuel their radical agenda and pursue and purchase weapons of mass murder. And, armed with nuclear weapons, they would blackmail the free world and spread their ideologies of hate and raise a mortal threat to the American people." He vowed he'd never to allow this.

The Post quotes Wesley Clark -
"What I hear is the beating tom-toms of another military action taking form against Iran. And I think it's time that the American government stepped forward and talked to people we disagree with, before we start dropping bombs on them."

Clark called the invasion of Iraq "a strategic blunder" that has been "counterproductive in winning the war on terror."

As a result of the Bush administration's policies, "we've lost over 2,600 soldiers and Marines in Iraq," Clark said. "We've spent over $300 billion, with maybe $1 trillion or more on the line. We've seriously damaged our armed forces. … We've reduced our diplomatic leverage around the world. And despite all the trumpeting of patriotism by this administration, this administration and the Republican leadership in the Congress have weakened our country and made Americans less safe at home."
John Kerry is more succinct here -
Afghanistan is slipping back into chaos, Pakistan is one coup away from becoming a radical Islamic state with nuclear weapons, Iran is closer to a nuclear arsenal, and Iraq has become a recruitment poster for terror.
Yeah, well, thing are tough all over. And the president was on a roll. The problem is much bigger than ever - he never says why - and he can fix it if everyone would just shut up and let him do it. And stop saying he made the problem worse - that doesn't matter now. What difference does that make?

But people foolishly want to make sense of this all, like Tim Grieve, reading the "National Strategy for Combating Terrorism" and noting this -
Iraq isn't exactly at the center of it. The word "Iraq" comes up just nine times in the 29-page report, and at least a couple of those are attempts to minimize the role the Iraq war plays in the president's "global war on terrorism." "Countries that did not participate in coalition efforts in Iraq have not been spared from terror attacks," the report says. "The ongoing fight for freedom in Iraq has been twisted by terrorist propaganda as a rallying cry," the report says.

What about Iraq as the "central front" in the war on terror? Oh, it's in there, too - as in, "Terrorists see Iraq as the central front of their fight against the United States."

So what's the central front in the GWOT now? Well, you might think it would be the hunt for the man who masterminded the attacks against the United States five years ago. But Osama bin Laden gets just a single mention in the report, and even then only as an example used to make a larger point: Arguing that terrorism isn't "an inevitable by-product of poverty," the report notes that "many terrorist leaders, like bin Laden, are from privileged upbringings."

It would all be so surprising if it were surprising at all. The president said long ago that he doesn't spend much time thinking about bin Laden, and the CIA last year quietly disbanded the unit that had been assigned to hunt for him. As for Iraq, the White House has some delicate detangling to do. If the polls are to be believed, the fight against terrorism remains the Republicans' sole strong point with voters. At the same time, a substantial majority of the public disapproves of the way Bush is handling the war in Iraq. Having spent the better part of the past four years linking 9/11 to Iraq and Iraq to the overall war on terrorism, the GOP now must find a way to cash in on voters' fears about future acts of terrorism without tainting the argument with the reality that has already come to pass in Iraq.

So just like that, Iraq becomes the central front in the war on terror only in the twisted minds of terrorists. The real central front? It's in Iran, in Syria, in North Korea, on the Internet and in small, decentralized terror cells. "Terrorist networks today are more dispersed and less centralized," the report says. "They are more reliant on smaller cells inspired by a common ideology and less directed by a central command structure." Translation: Forget Iraq. Forget bin Laden. The terrorists are everywhere now. And if you want to keep your family safe from them - unless, of course, one of your family members happens to be serving in Iraq - you'd better vote for the Republicans on your ballot in November.
One would think folks might just get tired of it all.

In Newsweek Fareed Zakaria certainly is -
Washington has a long habit of painting its enemies 10 feet tall - and crazy. During the cold war, many hawks argued that the Soviet Union could not be deterred because the Kremlin was evil and irrational. The great debate in the 1970s was between the CIA's wimpy estimate of Soviet military power and the neoconservatives' more nightmarish scenario. The reality turned out to be that even the CIA's lowest estimates of Soviet power were a gross exaggeration. During the 1990s, influential commentators and politicians - most prominently the Cox Commission - doubled the estimates of China's military spending, using largely bogus calculations. And then there was the case of Saddam Hussein's capabilities. Saddam, we were assured in 2003, had nuclear weapons - and because he was a madman, he would use them.
See Kevin Drum here -
It is not quite right to say that "Washington" has a habit of doing this. Zakaria should instead say that "hysterical Republican hawks" have a habit of doing this.

Accuracy is important in these matters. For the record, then: "Team B" was a creation of George H.W. Bush and included such members as Richard Pipes, Paul Wolfowitz, and Edward Teller. The Cox Commission was the brainchild of Congressman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.). And Saddam's nuclear bombs were the fantasy product of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, et. al.

This quibble aside, the column is very good. The fever swamp hysteria floating around right-wing circles has become increasingly desperate in recent weeks, and Zakaria does a good job of showing it up for the infantile yowling that it is. Democrats who want to be taken seriously on foreign policy could do worse than have it stapled to their foreheads.
Infantile yowling? That'll do.

And, for a minor digression, see Charles P. Pierce here -
Every now and again I give the president the benefit of the doubt, try to see things from his side, walk a mile or so in his manly brush-clearing workshoes as it were. So, I'm George W. Bush, right? I have launched a war that I have repeatedly said is a critical response to an existential threat to Western civilization that is as serious as were those of Nazi Germany and the Soviet empire. Things have not gone well. And most of the country doesn't trust me when I tell them why I'm doing what I'm doing. (Most of the country doesn't trust me if I tell them the sun rises in the East, but that's a whole 'nother mile in them workshoes.) Nevertheless, the threat is real and it is growing and I can't get the country to see it.

Why, then, do I give all my speeches to captive audiences of people who either already believe what I believe or who get paid to serve under my steady hand as commander-in-chief? Doesn't the seriousness of the threat, and the requirements of my job, mandate that I go out into the most skeptical parts of the country and do my convincing there? After all, when confronting the Depression or the growing threat in Europe, FDR didn't send out the fireside chats by subscription only. When Lyndon Johnson wanted to convince people on the need for civil rights legislation, he didn't bring Hubert Humphrey over from the OEOB for a chat. He brought in George Wallace, and damned near got him, too. Shouldn't I have had Cindy Sheehan in for BBQ? Shouldn't I be making my speeches in those places where the war is the least popular? Shouldn't I be convincing the people who most need convincing? Shouldn't I be speaking in Boston or Berkeley? Shouldn't I be talking to town hall meetings in Vermont and Oregon? Aren't I president of all the United States? These shoes are not comfortable at all.
One assumes he likes speaking to fellow optimists. Who needs the others?

See Thomas DeFrank in the New York Dauly News, quoting his White House sources here -
"We'll lose the House," one of the party's most prominent officials flatly predicted, "and the President will be dead in the water for two years." Even a perennially optimistic senior Bush strategist conceded, "I'm pretty worried about it. The House is not looking good."
Pessimism. And more than three years ago they couldn't imagine anything going wrong - get rid of Saddam, install the convicted embezzler Chalabi, secure the oil, and get out. Now they're pessimistic. How odd. Well, their political survival is on the line. Now it's serious.

But we will have total victory or nothing. How did the pessimism man put it? There are some situations - unfortunately, very common ones - for which the language of optimism is not helpful. Define victory here.

Let's get real. But that's pessimism. No, it's realism. Maybe they're the same thing, but optimism unfettered by any sort of reality has gotten us nothing, or less.

Joshua Foa Dienstag is onto something. But he'll never sell that idea in America.

Posted by Alan at 22:46 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 6 September 2006 08:32 PDT home

Monday, 28 August 2006
Katrina Day
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist
Katrina Day
Monday, August 28, 2006 - it was Katrina Day -
President Bush saluted the resilience of Hurricane Katrina survivors here Monday and promised that their plight hadn't been forgotten a year after the storm cut a swath of death and destruction along the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts.

"Even though we've been through about one year together, one year doesn't mean that we'll forget," Bush told community leaders at a luncheon in Biloxi, Miss. "As a matter of fact, now is the time to renew our commitment to let people down here know that we will stay involved and help the people of Mississippi rebuild their lives."

Bush's stops in Mississippi and New Orleans were part of a two-day trip to mark the first anniversary of a hurricane that killed 1,695 people, displaced 770,000 others and caused at least $96 billion in damage when it hit land on Aug. 29, 2005.

Bush is using the anniversary to reassure gulf residents and Americans that his administration is on top of the recovery effort after doing an admittedly poor job in the initial days following the hurricane.
Well, there was a lot to do on that front, with Ernesto bearing down on his brother's Florida that day, and at the time working itself up to become some sort of hurricane, not just a "tropical storm." People needed to know the government, to which they had paid taxes for basic services, wasn't going to flake out on them again.

That called for PR - the White House had the week before put out a four-page document detailing what the administration has done for Gulf Coast residents in the past year, securing a hundred and ten billion in federal funds for recovery efforts, repairs to the damaged levee system and for removing many, many tons of post-storm debris from the gulf. But how hard was that? Like the congress, controlled by his own party, wasn't going to vote for the clean-up? No one had to twist any arms anywhere, heroically forcing the stingy bastards in congress to do the right thing. No one would, and no one did vote against helping here.

But then, only seventy-seven billion of the total funding has been released so far, and of that only forty-four billion spent, mostly going to big corporations in bed with the Republicans. There was the seventeen billion to rebuild over two hundred thousand homes, and after a full year that money is just starting to be released. Federal emergency officials, the DHS-FEMA crew, have said they're sure that the levees are ready for a major hurricane - the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, the guys who did the repairs, said it's not exactly clear whether the levees can withstand a big hurricane. Who are you going to believe?

The Knight-Ridder item linked her also quotes the president, kind of getting it - "I know there's some frustration. The checks have begun to roll. They're beginning to move."

After one full year, will "the check is in the mail" do here?

Maybe not. There's the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll - all of thirty-one percent of Americans now approve of the way Bush handled the hurricane, down a full fifteen points from a year ago, and fifty-six percent of us don't believe that the country is ready for another disaster of any kind. The administration has a hill to climb here.

This is not helped by a number of Democrats planning a conference call for Tuesday morning, along with the Campaign for America's Future, to outline the federal government's "failures" and to charge that hurricane rescue and recovery was hurt by "the conservative ideology of disinvestment, cronyism and corruption." And Nancy Pelosi released a broadside ending with this -
Americans deserve more than no-bid contracts, bureaucratic inefficiencies and a too little, too late PR campaign. One year later, the Gulf Coast continues to need the financial, health care, education, housing and small business support that they deserve to turn devastated neighborhoods into thriving communities. And we still need an independent commission, modeled after the 9/11 Commission, to find out what exactly went wrong, why it went wrong, and how to fix it.

I can even give a hint about where the biggest problem is. Start at the top.

And then there were the pranksters.

CNN reports on them here, figuring out a little too late it was a hoax.

It was The Yes Men, the guys responsible for the Halliburton SurvivaBall (to protect managers against rapid climate change), and a hamburger made from human waste (to solve the global hunger crisis). They were the subject of the 2003 documentary The Yes Men - "A comedic documentary which follows The Yes Men, a small group of prankster activists, as they gain world-wide notoriety for impersonating the World Trade Organization on television and at business conferences around the world." (They fess up here.)

People are always too late to get it - they're not who they say they are. The trick is to start off sounding quite reasonable (and dress right). Then you get people to nod yes to all sorts of foolishness. And they fooled New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, and a full thousand construction-industry members at a privately-organized conference in Kenner, Louisiana.

It seems Andy Bichlbaum posed as a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official, a Rene Oswin, and pulled it off. He said the government was really going to help, and so was private industry.

Exxon and Shell would spend $8.6 billion "to finance wetlands rebuilding from $60 billion in profits this year." Wal-Mart would withdraw its stores from poor neighborhoods and "help nurture local businesses to replace them." The federal government would spend $180 million to fund "at least one well-equipped public health clinic for every housing development." And the kicker - the federal government would reverse plans to replace public schools with private and charter schools, and instead create a national tax base to supplement local taxes.

HUD hurriedly confirmed Oswin wasn't part of their agency. Their spokeswoman Donna White - "This announcement is totally false; it's totally bogus. I'm like, who the heck is that?"

And she added - "It's really a sick, twisted - I don't even want to refer to it as a joke. At this point, it's not funny."

No, it isn't. The people and organizations that have the power to do good, and the government, which has the mandate to do good, don't do that sort of thing. It's not funny at all.

As for the president's problem, other than that nasty Yes Men hoax, Sheryl Gay Stolberg in the New York Times puts it nicely here -

When Americans record the legacy of George W. Bush, 43rd president and self-described compassionate conservative, two competing images will help tell the tale.

The first is of Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, bullhorn in hand, feet planted firmly in the rubble of New York's twin towers. The second is of him aboard Air Force One, on his way to Washington from Crawford, Texas, peering out the window at the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina below.

If the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina called into question the president's competence, that Air Force One snapshot, coupled with wrenching scenes on the ground of victims who were largely poor and black, called into question something equally important to Bush: his compassion.

A year later, he has yet to recover on either front.
Perhaps that's because the compassion is "self-described." There's not a whole lot empirical evidence for much compassion. But then, this administration is not big on empirical evidence.

And the Times item quotes James Thurber - not, not that one - the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington - "This is a real black mark on his administration, and it's going to stay with him for a long time. It will be in every textbook."

And then there's Senator Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat - "I might argue that this was the worst thing that's happened to George Bush in the whole six years of his presidency. It was a perception-altering event. People had questioned his ideology. People had even questioned his intelligence. But before this, average people rarely questioned his competence or his caring."

That's followed by an array of "man in the street" quotes from Republicans who are fed up, followed by quotes from politicians on both sides who say he really does care - but that's just filler.

Better is this analysis from Matthew Yglesias, saying the president's political persona (whatever that might be) has been under-analyzed -
It's a strange thing primarily because Bush didn't really do anything on 9/11 or its immediate aftermath. Terrorists hijacked four planes and sought to crash them into buildings. They succeeded in doing so with three of the planes. Thousands died. The physical destruction was enormous. It was terrible. But it wasn't quite as bad as it could have been. The passengers on one plane downed it before it could reach its target. Many people were evacuated from the World Trade Center and their lives were saved. But none of the good work that was done on that day - and there was some good, heroic work done - was done by the president or had anything in particular to do with him.

Rather, the good vibes about 9/11 Bush all, in essence, relate to a series of speeches he gave in the days following the event (his immediate evening-of speech was poorly received). And I think they were good speeches. The rubble/bullhorn event was a good event. The address to a joint session of congress was great, too. But what does that all really amount to?

Not nothing. Providing inspirational rhetorical leadership in a time of panic is legitimately part of the president's job. But it still doesn't add up to very much. A speech is just a speech. It's not, moreover, like this was a DeGaulle or Churchill type situation where the disaster struck and then a new leader stepped forward to take the reigns of authority from those who had failed and gave a speech to mark a new beginning. His popularity skyrocketed because, having failed to foil a serious terrorist plot, he made a series of pleasing remarks about the plot. And ever since that day, I think this dynamic has been infecting our national strategy. The main goal, in essence, is to do things that signify the adoption of an appropriate attitude toward hostile elements in the world rather than to evaluate possible courses of action in terms of their effects.

The debate on Iraq is just awash in this. The war gets discussed as if it's a metaphor of some kind. A good opportunity to demonstrate resolve or commitment, or else the lack thereof. A place where our stick-to-it-tiveness will show how strongly we feel that democracy is good. A shadow theater wherein we send messages to al-Qaeda or Iran or what have you. But, of course, Iraq is a real place. The soldiers and civilians in that country are real people. They shoot real bullets and detonate real explosives. And so the question has to be, what, actually, is being achieved? What more might realistically be achieved? What are the consequences - not intentions, not desires, not hopes, but consequences - of our policies?
That's about right. The intentions and right attitude aren't much good for the people of New Orleans, or for the peoples of the Middle East. It's as if the quite predictable consequences of any policy don't matter - showing resolve does. And it's not helping.

Or maybe these guys just have a screw loose, as Kurt Vonnegut suggests in his latest book, the collection of essays, A Man Without a Country -
… I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been. What has happened instead is that it was taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d'etat imaginable.

I was once asked if I had any ideas for a really scary reality TV show. I have one reality show that would really make your hair stand on end: "C- Students from Yale."

George W. Bush has gathered around him upper-crust C- students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka Christians, and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or PPs, the medical term for smart, personable people who have no consciences.

To say somebody is a PP is to make perfectly respectable diagnosis, like saying he or she has appendicitis or athlete's foot. The classic medical text on PPs is The Mask of Sanity by Dr. Hervey Cleckley, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Medical College of Georgia, published in 1941. Read it! [Out of print, but used copied of the 1988 edition available here, starting at only $109.83! - AMP]

Some people are born deaf, some are born blind or whatever, and this book is about congenitally defective human beings of a sort that is making this whole country and many other parts of the planet go completely haywire nowadays. These were people born without consciences, and suddenly they are taking charge of everything.

PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose!

And what syndrome better describes so many executives at Enron and WorldCom and on and on, who have enriched themselves while ruining their employees and investors and country and who still feel as pure as the driven snow, no matter what anybody may say to or about them? And they are waging a war that is making billionaires out of millionaires, and trillionaires out of billionaires, and they own television, and they bankroll George Bush, and not because he's against gay marriage.

So many of these heartless PPs now hold big jobs in our federal government, as though they were leaders instead of sick. They have taken charge. They have taken charge of communications and the schools, so we might as well be Poland under occupation.

They might have felt that taking our country into an endless war was simply something decisive to do. What has allowed so many PPs to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is they are so decisive. They are going to do something every fuckin' day and they are not afraid. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with any doubts, for the simple reason that they don't give a fuck what happens next. Simply can't. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody's telephone! Cut taxes on the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club and In these Times, and kiss my ass!
Well, Vonnegut is a bitter old man now. But old men know things.

And if the third of the country that still supports the president reads Vonnegut, this might happen -
By now the brain circuits of the authoritarians and their followers are breaking down. Ken Lay's did, and he killed himself. Rush Phlegmball's did, so he turned to painkillers. George Bush never had any circuits. The man used to blow up frogs with firecrackers. Now he blows up children with bombs. He can't feel a thing. Who will do the post-mortem on the brains of these psychopaths? Whoever it is, surely they will find broken circuits.
Maybe so, but the "C- Students from Yale" are in charge. And they have no doubts. That seems to impress people no end. They're deadly serious, and they tell you so. And they're the only serious ones - everyone else is frivolous and wrong. They're changing the world. You cannot laugh at them.

One thinks of what Carl Sagan once said - "They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

There was a lot of bitter laughter on Katrina Day.


It should be noted that the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina got short shrift in the media, as did the wars, and Iran's ambitions, and the economy (new data - ninety percent of all workers are worse off than at any time since 1947), because the same day brought America this - "Schoolteacher John Mark Karr will not be charged with the murder of 6-year-old beauty pageant competitor JonBenet Ramsey, Karr's attorney said Monday."

The guy was a creep, or is a creep, but the crime scene evidence was clear - the DNA wasn't his, and there were no prints or anything else of his anywhere. He says he killed the kid, and they've dropped all charges. They canceled the arraignment hearing. He just wanted to be the murderer. He's one sick puppy.

America is amazed, and confused, and wonders who done it, so to speak. That sucked up all the airtime, and the column inches in the press. Katrina and the wars got pushed into the background. Damn, the OJ thing was more fun - we got a cool trial. Now we get nothing.

The whole thing left the Colorado governor, Bill Owens, saying things like this -
Unfortunately, the hysterics surrounding John Mark Karr served only to distract Boulder officials from doing their job, which should be solving the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. I find it incredible that Boulder authorities wasted thousands of taxpayer dollars to bring Karr to Colorado given such a lack of evidence. (District Attorney) Mary Lacy should be held accountable for the most extravagant and expensive DNA test in Colorado history.
Yeah, well, whatever. The case is ten years old and nobody's business, outside the family involved and their friends. Yes, murderers should be caught and convicted and all. But this one ten-year-old case capturing the imagination of the nation? Ah, it's a compelling diversion from the far too real stuff, the stuff you actually don't want to matter - and it's full of safe vicarious thrills. It'll do. The other stuff is too depressing, and dangerous.

And out here in Los Angeles, the Sunday paper brought a four page promo for a movie about an unsolved Los Angeles murder from that same year, 1947 - Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, based on the James Ellroy novel. It opens September 15, but the promo was four pages of precise reproductions of every article on the case the Los Angeles Times printed in January 1947 - so it looked just like a regular news section.  It seems no case is too cold for the American public. We do need other scary things to think about. The otherness is important, and it's Universal Studios to the rescue.

It may be a good idea to check the trade papers and walk up to the premier at the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, whenever it is, and take some pictures for Just Above Sunset - maybe, now that he's free, John Mark Karr will jump out from the crowd and say he did it. You never know.

Some of us, of course, like plain old diverting news stories like this -
A woman in Hohhot, the capital of north China's Inner Mongolia region, crashed her car while giving her dog a driving lesson, the official Xinhua News Agency said Monday.

No injuries were reported although both vehicles were slightly damaged, it said.

The woman, identified only be her surname, Li, said her dog "was fond of crouching on the steering wheel and often watched her drive," according to Xinhua.

"She thought she would let the dog 'have a try' while she operated the accelerator and brake," the report said. "They did not make it far before crashing into an oncoming car."

Xinhua did not say what kind of dog or vehicles were involved but Li paid for repairs.
That's amusing, and reminds us we've let the dog drive for six years.

Posted by Alan at 21:53 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 29 August 2006 06:28 PDT home

Monday, 3 July 2006
American Values
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

American Values

When I left teaching in 1980 or so it was to get with the real world. Tried of being underpaid and hearing "those who can't do, teach," diving into the world of business seemed to offer a chance to "do" for a change - not to talk about things, but to participate in them, and make reasonable money. So it was hauling my sorry ass out of Rochester, New York, and moving to Los Angeles, where my sister and her family had ended up some years earlier, and hitting the bricks. In a few months I was doing, sort of, and living down in Manhattan Beach. So this is what the real world is like. That's what I told myself.

First at Northrop, then Hughes, it was working in "Training and Organizational Development" - but it was still teaching. These were, however, classes in supervision - how to manage difficult workers and play by the rules and motivate and reward, and reprimand, and all the rest - as if I knew. But they had scripts and all sort of audio-visuals that made it fairly straightforward, and if you can get seventh graders arguing about Macbeth and his motives, you can use some of the same techniques to get prima donna PhD engineers to be happy and productive workers, designing the next generation of electronics for the spy satellites. The new supervisors and managers needed all the help they could get, having been bumped up from being brilliant workers themselves to suddenly being bewildered bosses who didn't do the doing at all. They did the meetings, and the paperwork, the planning, and all the HR stuff - performance appraisals and the raises, coaching, hiring and firing. A good number of them were not entirely happy with that, but a promotion is a promotion. And that's how large organizations work - do something really well and you'll move up and not do it any more.

A few thrived. Many didn't. Those who thrived later became amazing executives, and those who didn't tried to remember what they had learned in "charm school" as they called it, and got stuck in that dreaded nowhere land of middle management, responsible for the work of those below them, and hammered by those above them for results, and not allowed to "do" anything. That's where I ended up, moving from the training thing to HR systems, coding clever little applications, then supervising those who did, then managing "systems shops" where I had not much idea what real work was being done two or three levels down, for which I was entirely responsible. Managing the business applications shop at a GM locomotive plant in Canada was a long way from those lazy afternoons in upstate New York, getting the kids to think about what Lady Macbeth was really up to, and writing something about it. How did that happen?

But those days are over. The systems world is an awful place, with all that "churn" and the outsourcing and the ever-changing technology, and no sense that anyone is ever safe. After stints at CSC and Perot Systems, where contracts come and go and the reorganizations move everyone around or out quite regularly, it seemed best to move on. The websites are fine. I'm retired.

In the middle of all the business stuff of course you had to read all the books on management theory - Tom Peters and that sort of thing. These books told how to get the most out of people, and be successful. "Management by walking around" made sense - be an open inquisitive presence, hourly if need be, and people will know you care about what's good on. It was all common sense, and rather obvious. These books made their authors rich, and they spoke at all those conventions you had to attend. I think this was supposed to be motivational. But nothing much can fix Salt Lake City or Las Vegas, stuck in a banquet room with five hundred of the clueless, sipping bad coffee and listing to the "insights" and worrying what's gone south back at the office.

And too there was the matter of values. Teaching English to kids from seventh to twelfth grade had that values stuff built in - help them develop the ability to understand what they read, to think critically as best they could, and help them learn to organize what they thought, and to write it down in a way others can understand. That was hard work, but it made sense. That's what they needed.

In the systems world it was a bit different. It was getting people to work well in threatening and chaotic circumstances, and like it, with the ultimate aim of keeping costs down, including the salaries you paid, so that the organization made scads of money and the shareholders were happy. It seemed a bit of a scam. Or maybe it was just detached from any sort of value, beyond the dollar.

This all came back when I came across an item in The New Statesman by Tom Hodgkinson, The Winner Takes It All. Tom Hodgkinson is editor of The Idler and author of "How to Be Idle" (Penguin) - and a bit of a wag, and blunt, as Brit writers can be when they deal with nonsense.

The item is a review of four of those management books -

Winning: the Ultimate Business How-To Book
Jack Welch with Suzy Welch, HarperCollins, ISBN 0007197675

You Can't Win a Fight With Your Boss and 55 Other Rules for Success
Tom Markert, HarperCollins, ISBN 0007227515

The Servant Leader: Unleashing The Power Of Your People - 50 Cautionary Tales for Managers
Peter Honey, How To Books, ISBN 0749445335

Bonjour Laziness: Why Hard Work Doesn't Pay
Corinne Maier, Orion, ISBN 1400096286

As you see, the first three are the management book, and that last one is the subversive one. That's why it was discussed in these pages off and on, most recently here, here, and by guest columnist Bob Patterson here. It "resonated," as they say. It's a values thing.

And Hodgkinson, in his review, dives right in the values issue, as a peculiarly American thing (British spelling, punctuation and usage maintained) -
In 1736, the American Puritan Benjamin Franklin published a pamphlet called "Necessary Hints to Those That Would Be Rich"; this was followed in 1748 by "Advice to a Young Tradesman". In these early management training guides, Franklin outlines the principles of a new kind of capitalism, then in its infancy: riches are to be pursued for their own sake; it must be remembered that "time is money".

Franklin goes on to recommend hard work and stresses the importance of appearing industrious: "The most trifling actions that affect a man's credit are to be regarded. The sound of your hammer at five in the morning, or eight at night, heard by a creditor, makes him easy six months longer; but if he sees you at a billiard table, or hears your voice at a tavern, when you should be at work, he sends for his money the next day . . . it makes you appear a careful as well as an honest tradesman."

As Max Weber pointed out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Franklin promotes avarice, hypocrisy and the accumulation of wealth as if they were ethical principles. The emphasis is on how you are perceived. It doesn't matter if you go to the tavern - just don't let your boss see you there. Qualities such as honesty are promoted not because they are essential virtues, but because they might be useful business tools.
The scam has been going on a long time, but then, who's not to say avarice, hypocrisy and the accumulation of wealth are the real core of American ethics?

No, that couldn't be. Greed is good? Everything you do must be in the service of profit, growth and share price?

Let's see. Ten years in teaching, twenty-five in the business world. No, that seems about right.

And Hodgkinson is saying the first three of these books, on the secrets of "doing well" in business, promote what is "one of the central myths of capitalism - that, purely by virtue of hard work, anybody can get to the top."

Of course that's silly. If anyone could, they would, and everyone would be at the top, and then it wouldn't be the top, because everyone was there. It would be the dreaded middle. Maybe the books exist make you feel bad - you're not at the top, so you haven't been doing the right things, you inadequate slug. Maybe they aren't motivational at all, but written for depressives who want to think the worst of themselves.

And Hodgkinson, too, says the books recommend all sorts of immoral actions -
In the old days, greed and covetousness were seen as sinful; now they are encouraged. Jack Welch's Winning sets the tone. The author grins manically from the cover - despite the silver hair, manicured nails and perfect teeth, he looks like Beelzebub incarnate. Welch became CEO of General Electric after beginning his corporate life in plastics. He is well known in the business world as a "great CEO" - which, roughly translated, means that he has made loads of money. So now he feels qualified to advise young men and women how to "win". As Welch explains in his grammar-free prose: "And that is what this book is about - winning. Probably no other topic could have made me want to write again! Because I think winning is great. Not good - great."

But why is "winning" so great? Because, says Welch, it enables people to make lots of money which . . . erm . . . enables them to "get better healthcare, buy vacation homes, and secure a comfortable retirement". That's it. Those are the three goals of our mortal existence, otherwise known as more pills, more mortgages and more burglar alarms. Whatever happened to joy, pleasure, brotherhood? Whatever happened to enjoying life? Whatever happened to creativity? Whatever happened to love?
Well, those are for high school teachers to discuss when such things come up in whatever book they're teaching. And curiously, in my last position those who worked for me were aghast because one of the senior executives thought Welch had the right idea - each year fire the fifth of the workforce with lowest performance appraisals, as there's no point in helping them improve their work. That takes too much time and just slows everything down, and costs a ton of money. What's the point? What was I to say, that it would never happen in our office? It was going to happen. Life is hard, and I had to do the performance appraisals on a curve - there would be a lowest twenty percent. What to say? I'd write a nice reference letter. We'd have a going way luncheon at a nice place, if I could play tricks with the budget to find the funds.

But Welch is big on honesty -
"I have always been a huge proponent of candor," he says, before going on to explain why honesty is the best policy in business. Displaying his trademark Franklinesque hypocrisy, he advocates honesty in your dealings with others not because it is ethical, but because it can be useful for making money.
And there's this -
Some of the traits Welch looks for in potential staff are a little worrying: "They're sports trivia nuts or they're fanatical supporters of their alma maters or they're political junkies." Nuts, fanatical, junkies: in the everyday world, being insane, a fundamentalist or a drug addict might be considered bad; in business, it seems, the crazier you are the better. All of which summons up a picture of a madhouse office, with grinning employees giving each other high-fives, shouting "whoop!" and exploding with joy because they have just beaten someone else to a pulp. And Welch warns that you can't be too mad: "Hire and promote only true believers and get-on-with-it types . . . ferret out and get rid of resisters, even if their performance is satisfactory."
Well, he may not be charming, but he is successful, in his own thuggish way. And he has his values. They just aren't very pretty.

As for the Markert book, You Can't Win a Fight With Your Boss, that one is just about working hard - "You can forget lunch breaks. You can't make money for a company while you're eating lunch . . . if you don't put in the hours, someone just as smart and clever as you will. Fact of life: the strong survive." Don't follow that advice "and you might just end up as roadkill - lying dead by the side of the corporate highway as others drive right past you." Thomas Hobbes lives

Of course out here in Hollywood there's the classic line that if you can fake sincerity you've got it made. It's not just Hollywood -
Markert shares Welch's view that certain moral qualities can be useful in business - sincerity, for example, when sucking up to the boss ("The trick is to simply be sincere and charming"). He advises that "having friends at work is not a great idea", and he offers a staggering homily about plane travel. Markert claims that he always introduces himself to the person sitting next to him on the plane. Oh, that's sweet, you think. But then he explains this is "not to be nice"; it's because he wants to find out whether the other guy is a competitor before he gets out his laptop and displays confidential information. In such a world, even eating is seen as a business tool: "I'm a recent convert to eating well . . . food is fuel. Fuel is an element of performance. Bad fuel means low performance."
This is very utilitarian of course, or pragmatic. We American invented Pragmatism as a school of philosophy. Maybe we just don't do values.

The Neuschel book is more of this, and it all comes down to this -
The same tenets are repeated in these books: all variety in life is subservient to the goal of making money; individual character traits are fine so long as they don't hinder profits and share prices. "Eccentricities are welcome provided they do not have a detrimental effect on people's performance," warns Peter Honey in 50 Cautionary Tales for Managers. None of these authors ever mentions what the company he works for actually makes. Not once does Welch or Markert talk of quality of craftsmanship or the satisfaction of creativity; their sole interest is in growth, success and profits. Where the profits come from is immaterial. It could be cat food, computers or cars, any old stuff - as long as it makes money.
Hodgkinson say these books are just "sophisticated whips for slaves." He quotes Raoul Vaneigem - "Every call for productivity under the conditions chosen by capitalist economics is a call to slavery." That did occur to some of us in management, when told to get more out of people, but there was no money for raises, so we had to attended workshops on "no monitary reinforcement and motivation" - the brainstorming session were just depressing.

But that worked for some - heap on the praise, let them leave early and come in late now and then, as they're working at home too. We've all managed a few of these gung-ho happy workaholics. They can be scary. Just what are their values? What do the think, or feel, or dream? Vaneigem - "Nowadays ambition and the love of a job well done are the indelible mark of defeat and of the most mindless submission."

As for the hyper-successful authors of these books, Hodgkinson says this -
These architects of misery never exhibit the slightest concern for ecological issues: these are the sorts of guys who have been wrecking the planet, yet they present themselves as heroes. Nor, unsurprisingly, do they acknowledge the role of good fortune in business. They never say: I was just lucky in that, for 20 years, the markets went my way and I have no idea why.
They like that illusion of control, but how much of their brilliant success was just plain dumb luck, as Chaos Theory would and will demonstrate?

For a discussion of that see this, where Leonard Mlodinow, the author of those books on physics and mathematics - Feynman's Rainbow, Euclid's Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace and, with Stephen Hawking, A Briefer History of Time - discusses the Hollywood executives out here who believe their success is based on great decisions they've made and their management skills, when really whether any one movie is a hit or a flop can be explained best by Chaos Theory and information cascades and all that. The mathematical concepts are complex, but explained clearly. The item is long, and amazing. Any movie can be a hit or a flop, and there's not much way to tell which it will be. That is demonstrated mathematically, with plenty of examples. You only have the illusion of control. It's a scam too.

Hodgkinson really likes Corinne Maier's Bonjour Laziness - she knows a scam when she sees one. That's why that one has been discussed in these pages.

And all I can feel is gratefulness. Hodgkinson read these nasty books. Facing that would be too depressing. Those days are over. No more of that.

But that's the business side of things. There are other American vales, as we are a religious nation - a pious nation. Outside the world of Islam and the nations which with we are now in conflict, you will find no more hyper-religious state. We'll match them scriptural revelation to scriptural revelation, the Bible faces the Koran in a showdown of righteousness. We're not all about making money. We're about doing God's work here on earth. And that's a different sort of management theory.

Amy Sullivan explains here, and it's a bit complicated -
For the past six years, the most prominent Christian in America has been the president. His belief is not of the "God said it. I believe it. That settles it," sort that fundamentalists embrace. Rather, Bush subscribes to a syllogistic doctrine of presidential infallibility: God works through Christians; I am a Christian; I have decided to do X; therefore, X is God's will.

Bush is known to start each day reading a devotional from My Utmost for His Highest, a collection of essays by 19th-century Scottish minister Oswald Chambers. As Bob Wright explained in the New York Times a few years ago, Chambers had a very simple - some might say comforting - view of divine will. "The basic idea" Wright wrote, "is that once you surrender to God, divine guidance is palpable." The only questioning involved is whether one carries out God's will, not whether one correctly interprets it.

Those who accuse Bush of being a theocrat have made much of his reported belief that God speaks through him. That's not entirely fair, because what Bush refers to is a fairly common hope among believers that God will use each of us to be instruments of justice and mercy and grace. "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Your sight," from Psalm 19, is a prayer many Christians recite. It's just that most of us don't express this as a confident assertion that God does in fact speak through us. Instead, the prayer is a humble plea.
But the man isn't humble. And he's at the top of the heap, king of the mountain. So that's a management approach too.

What to make of all this, the Brit reviewing the management books and ragging on Ben Franklin? And this business about doing God's work when you manage things? What are our values?

Monday, July 3, 2006, there was this -
People in Britain view the United States as a vulgar, crime-ridden society obsessed with money and led by an incompetent president whose Iraq policy is failing, according to a newspaper poll.

The United States is no longer a symbol of hope to Britain and the British no longer have confidence in their transatlantic cousins to lead global affairs, according to the poll published in The Daily Telegraph.

The YouGov poll found that 77 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that the US is "a beacon of hope for the world".

As Americans prepared to celebrate the 230th anniversary of their independence on Tuesday, the poll found that only 12 percent of Britons trust them to act wisely on the global stage. This is half the number who had faith in the Vietnam-scarred White House of 1975.

A massive 83 percent of those questioned said that the United States doesn't care what the rest of the world thinks.

... US President George W. Bush fared significantly worse, with just one percent rating him a "great leader" against 77 percent who deemed him a "pretty poor" or "terrible" leader.

More than two-thirds who offered an opinion said America is essentially an imperial power seeking world domination. And 81 per cent of those who took a view said President George W Bush hypocritically championed democracy as a cover for the pursuit of American self-interests.

... In answer to other questions, a majority of the Britons questions described Americans as uncaring, divided by class, awash in violent crime, vulgar, preoccupied with money, ignorant of the outside world, racially divided, uncultured and in the most overwhelming result (90 percent of respondents) dominated by big business.
Yeah, but they drink warm beer, and they have those football hooligans (and they perversely call soccer football when we know what that is), and the queen wears funny hats. We have all the money, and we have God on our side. What do they know?

The poll, the review of the management books, appear on the same day, just as the United States celebrates our two hundred thirtieth July Fourth. It's time to examine the values. Again.

Posted by Alan at 23:39 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 4 July 2006 00:04 PDT home

Thursday, 22 June 2006
About This War
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

About This War

Sometimes, when things are on your mind and you can't quite find the words to pin down what it is that's bothering you it helps to do some reading. It's that old thing about language and epistemology - the medium of thought is language, not just the words, but the words put together in such a way that, when they fall just right, you finally realize what the issue is. Otherwise you just have a vague, uncomfortable mix of unsettling feelings. But then you find someone providing the words to "express" that unease and, often to your surprise, you have the thing in hand - you can think about it, not just mope around and feel ill at ease. Good poetry is like that, finding the exactly words for what disconcerts, and making it something that can be considered. It was hard to explain that to the students in the English class back in the seventies, as it's one of those odd ideas, that the poem they don't want to discuss anyway really doesn't "mean" anything at all - as Archibald MacLeish puts it Ars Poetica, "A poem does not mean, but be" (text here). It's expression, not description, and certainly not an essay out to make a point. It's bringing what was outside language, and not accessible (not "thinkable"), and making it actually available to the mind. And that's pretty neat, and too, often a great relief - you finally get the words that make it possible deal with the big stuff in life, or the small and funny stuff. No one wants to go through life feeling vaguely uneasy, or even vaguely happy, and not be able to explain or express either, or much of anything, even to themselves. We all want to make sense of things. And that takes words. It takes language.

But it's not just poetry that does that. Many are uneasy about what's happening in the world, and in this country, and read everything they can, or listen to the talking heads on the radio or television, hoping someone will say the "Ah Ha!" words that ease the uneasiness, as it were - the words that pull all the uneasy feelings into the words that make it all accessible. We all want to make sense of things. And that takes words. It takes language. Yes, some find such "relief" reading or listening to Ann Coulter, or Rush Limbaugh. Some prefer Al Franken or Bill Clinton. The impulse is the same - making sense of things. The primary sources are all spinning you this way or that - John Murtha one way and George Bush the other, for example. You try to sort it all out. You turn to the words of those who say they have done just that. You get a match with the words that ease your inarticulate discomfort - or you don't and keep trying.

This is all complicated by the net. There are a million voices out there, and many million words. How do you find a match - the "Ah Ha!" words that ease the uneasiness?

Here's a shortcut. Try Arthur Silber at "The Power of Narrative" here - and yes, the name of his site indicates he knows just what he's doing, building the narratives you might find useful, finding the words that make it possible to think about things that made you really uneasy but you just couldn't nail down.

And this particular link he's trying out some ideas, some language, that offers a way to think about the big issue of the day, our war in Iraq. He pulls in some stuff from Jacob Hornberger and tries out some formulations that might help.

A few days earlier he had written this regarding the invasion and occupation of Iraq, something he says almost all politicians and our media ignore entirely -
This is the foundational point, one that is almost never acknowledged in our public debates. Iraq constituted no threat to us, and our leaders knew it. Therefore, our invasion and occupation of Iraq were and are naked acts of aggression. To fall back on the defense of "good intentions" is to confess that your actions have caused nothing but disaster and death - but that you "meant well." None of the Iraqis who have suffered so grievously or who are now dead, and none of the Americans and others who have been horribly wounded or killed, gives a damn about anyone's intentions, good or otherwise. Neither should any decent and compassionate human being.
That's blunt, and of course no one discusses it, but with the majority of us now thinking the war in Iraq was a stunningly stupid idea, and having any number of reasons to think so, this cuts deeper. It's not really one of those "what was oft' thought but ne'er so well expressed" things, because no one was probably "thinking" this, they just sensed it was so, but didn't have the words. No WMD, no ties to al Qaeda, so we're told the real reason for the Iraq move was to bring democracy to these people, because that's a good thing to do. People were uneasy with that, and still are. This nails it - it's been a deadly mess but we really, really meant well, just doesn't cut it. We know better.

Then there was this interesting question in the Detroit News - "Some war critics are suggesting Iraq terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi should have been arrested and prosecuted rather than bombed into oblivion. Why expose American troops to the danger of an arrest, when bombs work so well?"

That sets off Jacob Hornberger here, suggesting one answer is so a five-year-old Iraqi girl isn't killed -
Of course, I don't know whether the Detroit News editorial board, if pressed, would say that the death of that little Iraqi girl was "worth it." Maybe the board wasn't even aware that that little girl had been killed by the bombs that killed Zarqawi when it published its editorial. But I do know one thing: killing Iraqi children and other such "collateral damage" has long been acceptable and even "worth it" to U.S. officials as part of their long-time foreign policy toward Iraq.

This U.S. government mindset was expressed perfectly by former U.S. official Madeleine Albright when she stated that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children from the U.S. and UN sanctions against Iraq had, in fact, been "worth it." By "it" she was referring to the U.S. attempt to oust Saddam Hussein from power through the use of the sanctions. Even though that attempt did not succeed, U.S. officials still felt that the deaths of the Iraqi children had been worth trying to get rid of Saddam.
Yeah, yeah. As Silber says, some would argue that such "collateral damage" is just an unfortunate byproduct of war - "War is brutal. People get killed in war. Compared with the two world wars, not that many people have been killed in Iraq, proponents of the Iraq war and occupation would claim."

Hornberger -
Such claims, however, miss an important point: U.S. military forces have no right, legal or moral, even to be in Iraq killing anyone. Why? Because neither the Iraqi people nor their government ever attacked the United States. The Iraqi people had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. Thus, this was an optional war against Iraq, one that President Bush and his military forces did not have to wage.

The attack on Iraq was akin to, say, attacking Bolivia or Uruguay or Mongolia, after 9/11. Those countries also had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks and so it would have been illegal and immoral for President Bush to have ordered an invasion and occupation of those countries as well. To belabor the obvious, the fact that some people attacked the United States on 9/11 didn't give the United States the right to attack countries that didn't have anything to do with the 9/11 attacks.

That made the United States the aggressor nation and Iraq the defending nation in this conflict. That incontrovertible fact holds deep moral implications, as well as legal ones, for U.S. soldiers who kill people in Iraq, including people who are simply trying to oust the occupiers from Iraq. Don't forget that aggressive war was punished as a war crime at Nuremberg.

... Moreover, what people often forget is that the United States is no longer at war in Iraq. This is an occupation, not a war. The war ended when Saddam Hussein's government fell. At that point, U.S. forces could have exited the country. (Or they could have exited the country when it became obvious that Saddam's infamous WMDs were nonexistent.) Instead, the president opted to have the troops remain in Iraq to "rebuild" the country and to establish "democracy," and the troops opted to obey his orders to do so. Occupying Iraq, like invading Iraq, was an optional course of action.
But then, now we are an occupation force serving a sovereign regime, however dysfunctional and new, and that makes us pretty much the domestic police force there. What they have isn't up and running yet.

But the folks we have there now aren't thinking that way. That's not what they were trained to do, and Hornberger sees a problem -
It's not difficult to see that the military holds the Bill of Rights in contempt, which is precisely why the Pentagon established its torture and sex abuse camps in Cuba and former Soviet-bloc countries - so as to avoid the constraints of the U.S. Constitution and any interference by our country's federal judiciary.

It is not a coincidence that in the Pentagon's three-year effort to "rebuild" Iraq it has done nothing to construct a judicial system that would have independent judges issuing search and arrest warrants or that would protect due process, habeas corpus, jury trials, and the right to counsel. To the military, all that is anathema, not only because it would presumably enable lots of guilty people to go free but also because it might inhibit the ability of the military to take out people without having to go through all those legal and technical niceties.

... More important, all too many Americans have yet to confront the moral implications of invading and occupying Iraq. U.S. officials continue to exhort the American people to judge the war and occupation on whether it proves to be "successful" in establishing "stability" and "democracy" in Iraq. If so, the idea will be that the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, including countless Iraqi children, will have been worth it. It would be difficult to find a more morally repugnant position than that.
No kidding. That may be bothering people, and now they have the words that make it possible to think about that, seriously.

Silber piles on -
For obvious reasons, neither our political leaders nor our media will confront this fact in a straightforward manner. As Hornberger says, to do so would be to acknowledge that our government and our military have acted in the most profoundly immoral manner imaginable. And ... an attack on Iran would multiply the scope of the immorality involved by many factors.

Our widespread determination to avoid these fundamental issues leads to ludicrous results, including much of the reaction to the death of Zarqawi. Here I am not concerned with the fact that Zarqawi's death will not make the slightest bit of difference to Iraq's future - although it certainly will not, the unceasing propaganda of our government to the contrary notwithstanding. Zarqawi was a comparatively minor figure, and we have unleashed much larger forces. At the moment, it would appear that no one and nothing can control or diminish those larger forces to the required degree.

In the wake of Zarqawi's death, many supporters of Bush and our foreign policy strongly condemned those of us who failed to adopt the celebratory tone they demanded.

... "Look how consumed you are by hatred for America and for Bush!" the hawks bleated. "You can't even be happy that this monstrous son of a bitch has been killed!" Zarqawi was certainly a monstrous son of a bitch, and I shed no tears for him personally. But am I happy that he was killed? No, I most certainly am not - because our very presence in Iraq represents an act of unforgivable immorality. We should never have been there to kill him in the first place. But that is precisely the point that the hawks want all of us to forget, and to never acknowledge under any circumstances.

This is what happens what you forget basic moral principles, and when you seek to obliterate the chain of events that brought us to where we are today. Each event is judged in isolation, completely disconnected from every relevant fact. But judgments made in this fashion are completely meaningless and devoid of content: events occur in a complex, specific context, and it is that context that reveals their meaning and their moral import. Discard the context, and judgments are utterly arbitrary. Yet this is essentially the manner in which all our national debates now take place.
That really is what happens when you can't find the words to express that something is wrong here. These two guys do. And yeah, this all is what many of us were sort of thinking. But we didn't have the words. Now we do.

But then, given events of Thursday, June 22, the war will go on -
The GOP-controlled Senate gave an election-year endorsement to President Bush's Iraq policy on Thursday, soundly rejecting Democratic demands to withdraw troops from the three-year-old war that has grown increasingly unpopular.

Vice President Dick Cheney criticized the Democrats' position, saying on CNN, "Absolutely the worst possible thing we could do at this point would be to validate and encourage the terrorists by doing exactly what they want us to do, which is to leave."

... In back-to-back votes, the Senate agreed with the president and turned back two Democratic proposals to begin withdrawing most of the 127,000 American forces in the war zone.

The first, offered by Sen. John Kerry and supported by 11 other Democrats and one independent but no Republicans, would have required the administration to start pulling troops out by year's end. It also would have set a deadline of July 2007 for all combat forces to leave.

... Most senators didn't agree, and the proposal fell on a 86-13 vote.

Minutes later, the Senate defeated by 60-39 a resolution to urge the administration to begin "a phased redeployment of U.S. forces" sometime this year. The resolution would not have set a deadline for the end of the
U.S. presence in Iraq.

That vote was largely along party lines.

... On Capitol Hill, the two parties' competing assessments previewed likely lines of attack little more than four months before Election Day.

... Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have staged debates on Iraq for two weeks, with both sides maneuvering for the political upper hand in a midterm election year. Both the House and Senate soundly defeated withdrawal timetables last week. Thursday's Senate votes showed up in campaign literature shortly after they were cast.
The lines are drawn, and what the Republican have left - with the war so unpopular and the chaos in the streets of Baghdad, Afghanistan going badly and its prime minister turning on us, and the world turning on us even more, and the ongoing scandals from Tom Delay and Jack Abramoff to the crew of thieves in Ohio, with the head of all government procurement just convicted on four felonies counts, the Marine investigations of a possible massacre here and premeditated murder there - is name calling. Is seems proposing options and plans makes you a coward who wants to cut and run.

How odd. And Josh Marshall puts it nicely here -
I'm a bit confused. I'm hearing a lot of reports about Republicans chanting about staying in Iraq forever, the danger of ever withdrawing our troops. There's Cheney. There's Frist. I can't say I've done a systematic scan of all media. I'm just saying what I've happened across during a day of work. And I'm not seeing any Dems. Not hearing any clear message.

What Republicans want is More of the Same.

That's the motto. More of the Same.

The president says he wants to stay in Iraq for at least three more years. Virtually every Republican agrees. Three more years. They approve the course the president has set.

They're for More of the Same. They don't have a plan. They just want to stay indefinitely.

They're just for More of the Same.

I must say it drives me to distraction that Democrats aren't saying this more clearly. Get on TV. Get on the radio. Why cede all the ground to the likes of Dick Cheney?
Why? Because you'll be called out as a coward if you do. That's the real "power of narrative."

Yes, it makes no sense. Alternatives are not treason. But in an election year they are, even sensible ones - not saying that these were. It's really not the substance of any alternative, of course. It's proposing one at all. Doing that makes you a quitter who wants to cede the world to the bad guys. That's the narrative. We'll see if that flies, come November.

And the president has famously said that when the troops come home is up to the next president. That's three more years.

But there are alternatives.

James Wimberley discuss them here -
The operative part of House Resolution 861 - the one that just passed on a strict party split - was the refusal to set a withdrawal date from Iraq. I found the half-baked rhetoric of the preamble at least as interesting, for it shows the depths of confusion into which US policy has fallen; and, by the same token, the extent of Osama bin Laden's strategic victory.

He started from a very difficult position. Most jihadi Muslims, including the Taliban, Chechen autonomists, Hamas, and al-Zarqawi follow the fairly realistic "near enemy" strategy aimed at "liberating" Muslim majority populations into the delights of fundamentalist rule. He leads a small minority group of jihadis espousing an apparently insane "far enemy" strategy directed at the United States as the ultimate guarantor of the vile regimes all jihadis want to overthrow: secular, corrupt rulers of Muslim countries and of course Israel.
That is discussed in detail, and a good read, but what Wimberley works to is a hypothetical American policy aimed at actually winning in a reasonable time frame, in perhaps then years.

What would that be?

This -
1. Counterattack as narrowly as possible. Isolate bin Laden and his followers from other Muslims, even other jihadis; cut the links of sympathy from the mass of Muslims.

2. Return to the best values of American tradition: integrity, steadfastness, due process, magnanimity, and "a decent regard to the opinions of mankind". This is essential to the first objective.

Consequently the third becomes:

3. When his movement is weakened and isolated, destroy it.

The style of the conflict should be inspired by the half-century of containment of Soviet communism. Global jihadism as an ideology is worthless fantasy and cannot survive more than a few decades. US policy should be principled; Fabian; patient; calculating; multilateral and multi-level; and political ahead of military. A few ingredients:

• Recognise and name your enemy. It is Al-Qaeda, a small jihadi faction, and its emulators. It isn't even all jihadis. Near-enemy jihadis have a lot of different enemies, Russia, Israel, Mubarak's Egypt, Musharraf's Pakistan, etc. America's first problem is the few jihadis that kill Americans as such.

• Refuse bin Laden's vainglorious gambit of defining the conflict as a war. Insist you fight criminals: outlaws, pirates, enemies of humanity. When they are captured, try them as such. Take the direction of the conflict away from the Pentagon.

• "Speak softly and carry a big stick." Avoid the hysterical and alienating rhetoric that HR 861 exemplifies, advertising fear and weakness. This is a great power against a couple of hundred fanatics; a threat, but not an existential one.

• Divide and conquer. Don't fall into bin Laden's trap of defining the conflict as one. Set jihadis against each other; split jihadis from peaceful Muslim fundamentalists, fundamentalists from modernizers.

• Cooperate with allies but don't let them set your priorities. Hamas is Israel's enemy, not America's. The alliance with Israel may lead America to boycott Hamas; or an interest in splitting jihadism may point to a dialogue. Don't pretend there is no tradeoff or that interests are identical.

• Show a determination to moralize the conflict with trials of American war criminals and compensation to their victims. Close GITMO and other extralegal camps. Bring all detainees into the ordinary criminal justice system, or release them.

• Accept civilian casualties stoically. This is the only area where the metaphor of war is useful. There's no reason to think that al-Qaeda is capable of inflicting 9/11 casualties on a regular basis, but make it clear that the USA could stand them indefinitely without changing its core foreign policies.

• Accept failure in Iraq and get out.
Now there an odd concept here - stop calling this a war and giving them status of some great military power. Call them thugs and go after them, all out, as stupid thugs, an treat them with the appropriate contempt. Belittle them.

It is an alternative. For some of us this is a match - the "Ah Ha!" words that ease the uneasiness, at it were.

It'll never happen. The administration is too invested in the narrative they've got humming along now. But it's a thought.

Posted by Alan at 22:29 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 22 June 2006 22:35 PDT home

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