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Photos and text, unless otherwise noted, Copyright 2003,2004,2005,2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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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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Friday, 1 December 2006
They've Got Your Number - Get Used to It
Topic: Couldn't be so...

They've Got Your Number - Get Used to It

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

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

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

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

Yep. So?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Diplomacy 101 - Trying New Things Is Always Awkward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joan Walsh notes we just look dazed and confused.

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

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

Bartlett: Right.

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

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

Reporter: So the scheduled trilateral is scrapped.

Bartlett: Right.

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

Bartlett: No.

Reporter: OK, so Maliki is not doing anything?

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

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

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

Reporter: No connection to the memo, whatsoever?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are We At The Bottom Yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 24 November 2006
The End of Thanksgiving
Topic: Couldn't be so...

The End of Thanksgiving

Here in the states we had our Thanksgiving - everyone ate too much, the kids ran around screaming and laughing on the sugar high after pumpkin pie and this and that, and earlier in the day, as is traditional, the Detroit Lions lost the football game that no one watched (it just seemed to on in the background). Someone might have watched the Macy's parade in Manhattan- it seems it rained.

In Iraq, other things were happening -
So as Thursday began, Sunni Arab guerrillas surrounded and attacked the Ministry of Health, which is dominated by followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The guerrillas trapped 2,000 employees in the compound and threatened to kill any who came outside. They also subjected the building to mortar fire. The ministry guards, who are probably Mahdi Army, kept them at bay but lost 7 men doing it. It took US and Iraqi forces 2 hours to respond, and the guerrillas were only finally dispersed by helicopter gunships. The siege probably came in revenge for the Mahdi Army attack on the Sunni-run Ministry of Higher Education two weeks ago.

Then US troops searching for a kidnapped US soldier in Sadr City were approached by van traveling at a high speed, which did not slow as they instructed it. They shot up the van, killing 4 civilians and creating some unhappy families in Sadr City; then this incident was overshadowed by several big attacks.

Steven R. Hurst of the Associated Press reported that the death toll in the string of car bombings targeting Sadr City and other Shiite neighborhoods on Thursday has risen to 161, with 257 wounded. Altogether, he says, "Counting those killed in Sadr City, at least 233 people died or were found dead across Iraq on Thursday." Oh, my. Since Iraq is 11 times smaller in population than the US, that would be like the deaths of 2,563 Americans. On September 11, on the order of 2,783 Americans were killed, and several hundred of other nationalities.

Armed Shiites came into the streets amid the charred and bloody corpses, says al-Hayat, cursing Sunni Muslims and firing their automatic weapons in the air in frustration and rage. They were taking mortar fire. The footage from Sadr City on Aljazeera looked like the seventh level of hell, with vehicles burning, the air thick with smoke, and mortar shells and small arms fire boiling in the background. reports in Arabic that after the car bombs were detonated in Sadr City, the Sunni Arab guerrillas set up checkpoints and attacked ambulances and rescue crews, stopping further ambulances from getting through. The Sunni Arab guerrillas also surrounded hospitals near to Sadr City and prevented cars bearing the wounded from getting through, firing on them.

The Iraqi government imposed a curfew on Baghdad and closed the Baghdad and Basra airports, cutting the country off from the outside worlds. Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that Basra ports were also closed "until further notice."
This has the smell of the end of the noble ideal - tossing out an awful government and introducing a new way of life, a western-style secular liberal democracy with an unregulated free-market economy where entrepreneurs would thrive and everyone would get along, and get rich. It wasn't a bad idea, but like everyone in the world learning Esperanto or everyone in American having a flying car to get around, it wasn't workable. Those who pointed that out were ridiculed, and still are ridiculed - that's just thinking small and not having the courage to try the impossible. Now these faint-hearted folks aren't saying "I told you so" as much as they are just depressed. Those in charge of everything are still thinking big.

But when the Shiite Ministry of Health is under siege in response to the hundreds blown to bits earlier at the Sunni-run Ministry of Higher Education, something is wrong. Imagine the National Institute of Health with its quiet grounds in Bethesda being surrounded and shot up by armed forces angry that someone blew up the Federal Department of Education downtown. Add both sides blocking ambulances to the hospitals of the "other side" - and firing on the paramedics as they slip on body parts trying to find someone relatively intact to save. Washington is a nasty place with some bad neighborhoods and a sadly high crime rate, but it's not like this. Still it's not civil war there - or so we're told.

And no one watches the news on Thanksgiving Day. The administration can be thankful for that. And the Christmas shopping season kicked off the next day - Black Friday. Some stores opened at midnight, others at dawn, the every route everywhere was jammed by the middle of the morning - another day when the news was not on anyone's mind.

Black Friday of course will edge any number of low-margin business just into the black for the year. That's how it got its name. The day can keep you in business, or sink you. It's important.

Black Friday in Iraq seemed to mean something else - "Revenge-seeking militiamen seized six Sunnis as they left Friday prayers and burned them alive with kerosene in a savage new twist to the brutality shaking the Iraqi capital a day after suspected Sunni insurgents killed 215 people in Baghdad's main Shiite district." It should be noted the six Sunni worshippers were doused with kerosene and burned alive "as Iraqi soldiers stood by." There are Iraqi soldiers of this sort and of that sort. These were the wrong sort of the unlucky six - they were Shiite or Kurd guys. They saw no reason to stop this.

What to make of it all? Don Surber argues here that the Democrats big win in the midterm elections here in the states is the real reason for the new chaos in Iraq. They saw we're not serious about bringing peace to Iraq - we tossed out the stern Republicans and elected the wimp Democrats - so they cut loose. This would have never happened if Americans voted the other way. They'd know better. They'd be good, as they'd understand getting out of line would get them slapped down by the young American guys in the sunglasses and body armor. Now they know we're not serious. That's what's really going on.

One wonders if they really care who was elected in Idaho. You can file that under "interesting theory - not provable either way." On the right it's no doubt moving into "conventional wisdom."

The real mystery, of course, is whether Vice President Cheney visited Baghdad on Thanksgiving. No one knows. If he did, perhaps the visit didn't go well. We'll never know.

And the air was full of hindsight and worry. Over in the UK, Boris Johnson, an MP for Henley, seems to have stirred awake - "No quantity of troops could have prevented this catastrophe; and the dreadful thing is that I think Saddam knew it."

So now he decides this? Well, yes -
It was the moment I should have twigged. It was the moment I should have realised that I had voted for the biggest British military fiasco since the Second World War. I was wandering around Baghdad, about 10 days after Iraq had been "liberated", and it seemed to me that the place was not entirely without hope.

OK, so the gunfire popped round every corner like popcorn on a stove, and civil society had broken down so badly that the looters were taking the very copper from the electricity cables in the streets. But I was able to stroll without a flak jacket and eat shoarma and chips in the restaurants.

With no protection except for Isaac, my interpreter, I went to the Iraqi foreign ministry, and found the place deserted. The windows were broken, and every piece of computer equipment had been looted. As I was staring at the fire-blackened walls a Humvee came through the gates. A pair of large GIs got out and asked me my business. I explained that I was representing the people of South Oxfordshire and Her Majesty's Daily Telegraph.

That didn't cut much ice. Then I noticed a figure begin to unpack his giraffe-like limbs from the shady interior of the Humvee. He was one of those quiet Americans that you sometimes meet in odd places.

He was grizzled and in his mid-50s and with a lantern jaw, and unlike every other US soldier I'd met he had neither his name nor his blood group stitched on his person. I grasped at once that this quiet American was no soldier. He had that Brahmin air, a bit Ivy League, a touch of JK Galbraith. Yes, folks, he was some kind of spook.

I remember how he walked slowly towards the shattered foreign ministry building, stroking his chin. Then he walked back towards us, and posed a remarkable question. "Have you, uh, seen anyone here?" he asked.

Nope, we said. All quiet here, we said. Quiet as the grave.

"Uhuh," he said, and started to get back in the Humvee. And then I blurted my own question: "But who are you?" I asked. "Oh, let's just say I work for the US government," he sighed. "I was just wondering if anyone was going to show up for work," he said. "That's all."

And that, of course, was the beginning of the disaster. Nobody came to work that day, or the next, or the one after that, because we failed to understand what our intervention would do to Iraqi society. We failed to anticipate that in taking out Saddam, we would also remove government and order and authority from Iraq.
Oh, that.

As he says, it is now commonplace for people like him, who supported the war, to say that we "did the right thing" but that it had mysteriously "turned out wrong." Now he sees this is "intellectually vacuous." (He's British, after all.) And more troops won't help. What are they supposed to do?

Of course one thing they need there is doctors, but they're all leaving, and according to one doctor, the "hospitals look more like barns" - so what's the point?

Richard Clarke makes the case that "It's time to admit it's over."

That's pretty clear -
Americans tend to think we can achieve almost any goal if we just expend more resources and try a bit harder. That spirit has built the greatest nation in history, but it may be dooming Iraq.

As the head of the British army recently noted, the very presence of large numbers of foreign combat troops is the source of much of the violence and instability. Our efforts, then, are merely postponing the day when Iraqis find their way to something approaching normalcy. Only withdrawal offers a realistic path forward.
And he knocks down the arguments for staying, like the "sink cost" one - we must honor the American dead by staying until we can build something worthy of their sacrifice. It doesn't work in business, and it doesn't work in Vegas - "what is gone is gone, and what is left we should conserve, cherish and employ wisely." But it does feel bad.

But if we leave now there'd be chaos. Here's it's "not so fast" -
The flaw lies not in the concept that chaos will happen, but rather in thinking that chaos would only happen if we withdraw in the near-term. Chaos will almost certainly follow any U.S. withdrawal, whether in 2008 or 2012.

Even granting that chaos after a 2008 pullout may be worse than what would follow a 2012 withdrawal, is the difference between those two levels of disaster worth the cost? This cost comes in American dead and wounded, Iraqi dead and wounded, billions of dollars in military expenditures, the continued damage to U.S. influence in the world, and the further strengthening of radical Islamist terrorists everywhere.
How did that old Fram oil filter commercial go? "You can pay me now or you can pay me later." You're going to pay.

But al-Qaeda will be emboldened by our departure, and we cannot have that. Yeah, but "Al-Qaeda is already sufficiently emboldened." What's the difference? And that's followed by a draw-down plan you can follow at the link. It's what many have suggested.

None of it matters -
President Bush insists on staying in Iraq, and it is easy to understand why. In "The March of Folly" (Ballantine, 1985), Barbara Tuchman documented repeated instances when leaders persisted in disastrous policies well after they knew that success was no longer an available outcome. They did so because the personal consequences of admitting failure would be very high. So they postponed the disastrous end to their policy adventures, hoping for a deus ex machine or to eventually shift the blame.
But everyone knows who's to blame, and it's not the newly elected Democrats. And this is a real war in Iraq, not some Greek tragedy where a flimsy contraption is lowered form the ceiling and an actor aboard speaks in his god-voice and makes everything all better. That's not what's coming down.

As for what is coming down, note this exchange between Matthews on "Hardball" and retired Major General John Batiste -
Matthews: This proposal for beginning a withdrawal within 4 to 6 months, what would that be in terms of policy? Would that make any difference to anything or is that just a political move?

Batiste: I think it's a political move. Chris, I think we're fighting a protracted war against the jihadists, and these people mean business. They have as a stated objective the destruction of our way of life. We got off to a terrible start in Iraq, a strategy that was fundamentally flawed, that opened up Pandora's box, that unleashed hell, and now we've got to get this thing under control quickly.

Matthews: Are we fighting jihadists in Iraq?

Batiste: Exactly.

Matthews: Are we?

Batiste: This is important, Chris. This group, this movement is after us, big time. We need to stop this.

Matthews: We have the Shi'a militia, we have the Sunni insurgents, and we have al Qaeda terrorists in that country. Which group is associated, or is part of this jihad?

Batiste: Clearly the al Qaeda, that foreign influence in Iraq, that has as their stated objective the destruction of our way of life, and my point is, we need to take this very, very seriously. To simply leave Iraq, to set timelines without conditions, set us up to fail big time in the future.

Matthews: The troops we have over there, 140,000 of them, what percent of our troops, what chunk of them are fighting jihadists, and what percent are fighting militias on the side of the government we're putting in there, and what percent are fighting Sunnis who are upset because they're losing out on the loss of power since Saddam fell?

Batiste: To the troops on the ground, it really doesn't matter; they're all the same.
Ah, it's the General Sherman thing. Kill them all and let God sort it out.

Matthews does press it - "Well, help us. What should we do in Iraq? Who should we be shooting at and fighting at, and who should we be defending? What side should we be on in Iraq? Tell us what's going on over there. What should we be doing?"

But he doesn't get much of an answer, other than this is serious, and we need funding - maybe a war tax. The Army and the Marine Corps need resources.

Matthews - "I think you'd be more successful with that argument, General, if you would tell me who we're fighting in Iraq right now, and why should we be fighting them, and who should we be fighting for in Iraq?"

He doesn't really get an answer, other than we need to fight on. It's important.

And then it gets interesting -
Matthews: General, the problem from my perspective, watching this, and you're the expert, the military man, we're reporting on numbers every day, coming out of Iraq, something like 3,700 Iraqis killed by other Iraqis, the Shi'a militia going after Sunni, the Sunni insurgents going after Shi'a - they're killing each other. If that's the case, that Muslim is killing Muslim, how can you describe it as some jihad against the West?

Batiste: That's exactly what it is. Chris, inside Iraq, we're fighting a multi-faceted enemy, but make no mistake about it: we're fighting the jihadists. What do you think the attack on 9/11 was?

Matthews: Wait a minute, let's talk about Iraq. The Iraqis are killing each other, General, every day, over 120 a day on average this month, 3,700 Iraqis being killed each month, by Iraqis; how can you define that as an anti-Western war?

Batiste: It's all part of it, and it's exactly why we need -

Matthews: How so? Just explain how an Iraqi killing another Iraqi is an attack on the West.

Batiste: It's a mix of multi-faceted enemies that are coming at us, and part of it is a civil war - no question about it - but it's why we need a new, dramatic strategy on the ground in Iraq now, to solve this problem.

Matthews: Who are we going to be shooting? Who do we shoot?

Batiste: It's why we need leadership that can explain all this to the American people. We need to stand up —

Matthews: Stand up against whom?

Batiste: It doesn't matter.
It doesn't? This is very curious. You don't deal with a problem by breaking it down, looking at all the parts, and seeing what you're dealing with? You just stand firm? It's a good thing the general is doing talk shows in his retirement, and didn't open an auto repair shop.

Maybe it doesn't matter. Alexander Cockburn argues we're not really controlling event in Iraq -
Imagine a steer in the stockyards hollering to his fellows, "We need a phased withdrawal from the slaughterhouse, starting in four to six months. The timetable should not be overly rigid. But there should be no more equivocation." Back and forth among the steers the debate meanders on. Some say, "To withdraw now" would be to "display weakness". Others talk about a carrot and stick approach. Then the men come out with electric prods and shock them up the chute.

The way you end a slaughter is by no longer feeding it. Every general, either American or British, with the guts to speak honestly over the past couple of years has said the same thing: the foreign occupation of Iraq by American and British troops is feeding the violence.

Iraq is not on the "edge of civil war". It is in the midst of it. There is no Iraqi government. There are Sunni militias and Shi'a militias inflicting savagery on each other in the awful spiral of reprisal killings familiar from Northern Ireland and Lebanon in the 1970s. Iraq has become Chechnya, headed into that abyss from the day the US invaded in 2003. It's been a steep price to inflict on the Iraqi people for the pleasure of seeing Saddam Hussein die abruptly at the end of a rope.

If the US is scheduled for any role, beyond swift withdrawal, it certainly won't be as "honest broker", lecturing fractious sectarians on how to behave properly, like Teacher in some schoolhouse on the prairie. It was always been in the US interest to curb the possibility of the Shi'a controlling much of Iraq, including most of the oil. By one miscalculation after another, precisely that specter is fast becoming a reality. For months outgoing ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad tried to improve the Sunni position, and it is clear enough that in its covert operations the US has been in touch with the Sunni resistance.

If some Sunni substitute for Saddam stepped up to the plate the US would welcome him and propel him into power, but it is too late for such a course. As Henry Kissinger said earlier this week, the war is lost. This is the man who - if we are to believe Bob Woodward's latest narrative - has been advising Bush and Cheney that there could be no more Vietnams, that the war in Iraq could not be lost without humiliating consequences for America's status as the number # 1 bully on the block. When Kissinger says a war is lost, you can reckon that it is.
So basically America is not controlling events in Iraq. If the Shia choose to cut supply lines from Kuwait up to the northern part of the country, the US forces would be in deep, deep trouble. The problem is that there is a precedent.

What to do? Dave Lindorff argues that the first thing Democrats should do in January is to rescind the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) that was nothing but trouble -
The first thing Democrats need to do when they walk into the Senate and House chambers this January is to vote out a joint resolution repealing the September 18, 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which was the authorization for the U.S. attack Al Qaeda forces and the Taliban government of Afghanistan.

That AUMF has been used, wholly inappropriately and wantonly, by President Bush as the justification for his assault on the US Constitution, for his willful violation of laws domestic and international, and for his unconstitutional usurpation of legislative and judicial power.

The president has claimed that the AUMF, far from simply being an authorization to go to war against Afghanistan and against the Al Qaeda organization there, was an open-ended authorization for him to initiate an unending "War on Terror," which he has subsequently claimed has no boundaries, and will be fought around the globe and within the U.S.

Bush has further claimed, without a shred of Constitutional authority, that this AUMF makes him commander in chief in that never-ending global conflict, and that as commander in chief, he is not bound by either law or Constitution. It is this spurious and sweeping claim of dictatorial power that the president has used to justify his signing statements, which he has used to render inoperative in whole or in part some 850 or more acts passed by Congress since 9-11. It is this same claim that the president has used to justify his deliberate violation of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - a felony and violation of the Fourth Amendment.

It is likewise this AUMF that he has used to justify his authorization of torture, kidnapping and detention without charge, his refusal to answer legitimate requests for information from Congress and the 9-11 commission, and his ignoring of direct orders from the federal courts.

All of these actions by the president are manifestly unconstitutional, and cry out for his impeachment. (The Constitution clearly defines and limits the president's commander in chief role to simply making him the senior officer of the military, not a generalissimo. Furthermore, as Barbara Olshanski and I explain in our book "The Case for Impeachment," the AUMF never gave Bush any authority at all to conduct war inside the U.S. (In fact, Tom Daschle, who as a Democratic Senator from South Dakota was the Senate Majority Leader at the time the AUMF was passed, specifically denied a last-minute request from the White House to have the words "in the United States" inserted into the wording of the resolution authorization.)
Yeah, yeah - no one is impeaching anyone. But it is over -
Afghanistan is no longer a war. The U.S. is simply contributing military assets to a NATO action in that country at the request of the elected government in Kabul. Such an action requires no AUMF. Meanwhile, the prevention of terror is clearly an intelligence and police issue, not a war.

It too does not require an AUMF.

A simple majority vote of House and Senate would put the U.S. Constitution back in place, and would restore the balance of power between executive, legislative and judicial branches.
That's a thought. And's John Pike thinks the Bush administration will use the AUMF to bomb Iran before the end of 2007. (See the first interview in Part 2, here). But he said that in Canada, so that may be wrong. Still, better safe than sorry. It can be rescinded. It won't be, of course. We'll be told we'll all die if the "tool" is taken away. Sigh.

But all the news got buried in the Thanksgiving holiday. Somewhere in there, that Russian spy died, the one who was digging up dirt Russian President Vladimir Putin - "The bastards got me." Putin condemned the fellow's deathbed statement as a "provocation." If Ann Coulter suggested that the same should happen to Justice Stevens, as she once hoped, it didn't make the news. Everyone was eating turkey then shopping, and Lebanon fell apart after the assassination of the anti-Syrian minister Pierre Gemayel. Too much news is too much news.

Posted by Alan at 22:09 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 24 November 2006 22:38 PST home

Wednesday, 22 November 2006
Stuck in Holiday Traffic
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Stuck in Holiday Traffic

Wednesday, November 22 - the day before Thanksgiving - and everyone was on the road. It was a day to stay home - just south of the airport (LAX) a truck full of nasty chemicals overturned and they closed the southbound 405, so if you thought about heading down past Long Beach into Orange County or even down to San Diego, you had to think about some other way to get there. Nothing was moving and there were those guys in the HAZMAT suits - just another disaster on the world's busiest freeway, just by the giant airport, as the largest crowd of the year was trying to get somewhere else. Wait… it seems the 101 freeway just over the hill in the San Fernando Valley is, officially, the world's business freeway. It's hard to keep it straight. They all look alike when its three hours after midnight and the six lanes each way are at a dead stop and twenty thousand cars are idling quietly. And disaster is a disaster. They happen all the time.

And traffic disasters are minor stuff. You'll get there eventually, wherever "there" happens to be. It's the rest of life that's the problem.

Ronald Reagan, of all people, got it right back in 1982 - "If history teaches anything, it teaches self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts is folly."

And that's where we are these days.

Some of it is minor, as in this story from central New York, an evangelical student burns down an Episcopalian church. They had their theology wrong -
Cleveland said Lussier confessed to robbing the Christ Church and setting fire to both houses of worship. He also allegedly admitted to sending threatening letters to three churches in his hometown. He was charged with two felony counts of third-degree burglary and a count of third-degree arson, a felony.

"He didn't think they were following the Bible the way they thought they should," Cleveland said. "He holds to the principle, but he said he went about it in the wrong way."
Well, before he torched the buildings he did gather all the Bibles, bagged them carefully, and made sure they didn't go up in flames. Burning those would be wrong, of course. No word on the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. This should make for an interesting case when the fellow comes to trial. His defense - he had to stop a pernicious misreading of what Jesus really meant - will sound a lot like what is said these days in Iraq. Sarasota is hardly Baghdad, but the idea is the same. There the mosques get blown up - and people too - because the other side just didn't get their theology straight. Of course it's more than that - the history of who had been on top and did nasty things plays a part, as does family and tribe. But it's not that much different.

The scale is different. There things are far more grim -
The number of Iraqi civilians killed in sectarian violence last month has reached a new high of more than 3,700, a report for the United Nations said today. Despite the Iraqi Government's commitment to address human rights abuses, the influence of armed militia is growing, and torture continues to be rampant in the country, the report by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) said.

The civilian death toll for October was 3,709 - the highest to date - according to the UN figures. The report also said that more than two million have fled their homes since the US invasion to escape the rising sectarian violence. "Hundreds of bodies continued to appear in different parts of Baghdad handcuffed, blindfolded and bearing signs of torture and execution-style killing," the report said. "Many witnesses reported that perpetrators wear militia attire and even police or army uniforms."
And we are under this self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts - things are not getting better, and we are not bring peace and democracy and other goodies to these folks. Those who can leave are getting out, fast. Those who stay keep a low profile and hope for the best, as friend and family die left and right.

But we will fix things. But Andrew Sullivan suggests we probably can't -
Tragically, the "government" we have instituted cannot meaningfully represent all Iraqis, because the sectarian divisions, deeply exacerbated by the anarchy of the last three years, have become too deep. The government forces themselves - police and military - are increasingly indistinguishable from sectarian militia forces. The Maliki faction is indistinguishable from the Sadr militia. We do not even know at this point which Iraqi faction is capable of delivering order, or where. Which Shiites have actual control of the streets in the South? Which Sunnis can deliver stability in Anbar? Torture and murder have become endemic. We can retrain as many Iraq soldiers and policemen as we want, but it's no use if we are merely training them to be more skillful in a civil war. That's our fundamental dilemma.

We have only one lever over Iran and Syria - and it is - paradoxically - the chaos we have unleashed. Those regimes do not want to see Iraq completely disintegrate. So a policy of drawing down troops, redeploying to Kurdistan, and waiting to see who emerges from the hideous process of ethnic cleansing and civil war is just about the only option we have left. Iran and Syria will have to ensure that a regional conflagration doesn't tear their entire neighbor apart. That is both a blessing for them - how profoundly they would have loathed a democratic Iraq - but also a curse. It means that both neighbors have to worry about instability spreading from outside to within. This is the silver lining of the Iraq failure. And it is a very slim one.
Did Reagan say something about folly?

If self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts is folly, wasn't it just last month that the president said that he was "trying to figure out a matrix that says things are getting better" in Iraq. It was matter of framing things - a PR problem. Now it's these 3,709 dead folks. Framing that in a way that says thing are getting better is a bit of a challenge.

Tim Grieve gives it a go -
That's the highest number of civilian casualties in any month of the war so far, and it's a staggering number when you consider that Iraq's population is less than one-tenth that of the United States'. If the death toll were equalized for population, it would be as if more than 42,000 U.S. civilians had been killed in the war last month.

An Iraqi government spokesman told the Associated Press that the U.N. number was "inaccurate and exaggerated" because "it is not based on official government reports." Pressed to explain what an "official government report" would show, the spokesman said that one is "not available yet, but it will be published later."

If the president still needs a matrix or a metric or whatever, perhaps he could spend Thanksgiving simply reading the list of ways that Iraqis are dying in his war now. "Hundreds of bodies continued to appear in different areas of Baghdad handcuffed, blindfolded and bearing signs of torture and execution-style killing," the U.N. report says. "Many witnesses reported that perpetrators wear militia attire and even police or army uniforms." Sectarian violence is the primary killer, but the AP says Iraqis "also continue to be the victims of terrorist acts, roadside bombs, drive-by shootings, cross fire between rival gangs or between police and insurgents, kidnappings, military operations, crime and police abuse."

One more metric for the president: In a poll taken in September, 61 percent of Iraqis said they support attacks on U.S. troops. Seventy-one percent want U.S. forces out of their country within a year, and more than half of those want them gone within the next six months.
Could we say they're just a little grumpy, and they'll get over it? That may not fly.

The same day gave us this - "A car bomb exploded inside the government Green Zone on Tuesday in an apparent attempt to kill Iraq's controversial speaker of parliament …"

The Green Zone in Baghdad, behind the walls, where the government works and we have our top folks, is the safest place there. Oops. This is a first. And it's ominous.

And this will take some careful framing - "BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) - More than 140 bodies have been found dumped across Baghdad over the past three days, police said Wednesday. Police said 52 bullet-riddled bodies were found Wednesday, with 20 of them blindfolded, tied up and possibly tortured."

That may be a record. And this is not like being stuck on the LA freeways. Wherever we thought we were going, we're not going to get to that particular there. Maybe there will be a miracle change in something that fixes everything, but that seems unlikely. As the most popular way of putting things goes these days, you can look for that pretty pony, but there's no pony hidden deep in that steaming pile of horseshit.

And the attempt to keep that hope for a pretty pony alive gets harder all the time, as Associated Press reports in this item. The president does hear these sorts of things - his audiences are carefully vetted - but his father was in quite friendly Abu Dhabi, where he feels quite at home, giving a plesant speech on his family's accomplishments, when a woman rose from the audience to say this - "We do not respect your son. We do not respect what he's doing all over the world."

If the AP is to be believed, the president's father seemed "stunned" when the audience, full of young business leaders, "whooped and whistled in approval."

His voice was "quivering." He gave this reply - "This son is not going to back away. He's not going to change his view because some poll says this or some poll says that, or some heartfelt comments from the lady who feels deeply in her heart about something. You can't be president of the United States and conduct yourself if you're going to cut and run. This is going to work out in Iraq. I understand the anxiety. It's not easy."

Something is up. He wouldn't say he would handle the situation in Iraq differently than his son had. That was a trap, but he gave a hint - "I have strong opinions on a lot of these things. But the reason I can't voice them is, if I did what you ask me to do - tell you what advice I give my son - that would then be flashed all over the world ... If it happened to deviate one iota, one little inch, from what the president's doing or thinks he ought to be doing, it would be terrible. It'd bring great anxiety not only to him but to his supporters."

What did Reagan say about self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts? Well, silence will have to do. That's a subset of folly that's a bit less dangerous. He has apparently not told his boy the he won't be getting a pretty pony this holiday season. And he won't be telling his son that the reason why. What can you do? You stick by your kids. But forget about the pony.

We are, at least, training the Iraqi Military, and that will make things all better. As they stand up we stand down, and all that. But then there's this from the Pentagon reporter at the Washington Post, Thomas Ricks (the fellow who wrote Fiasco, and didn't call it Folly) -
Some advisers reported being personally targeted by infiltrators. "We had insurgents that we detected and arrested in the battalion that were planning an operation against me and my team," Allen said.

But Iraqi officers may have had even more to fear, because their families were also vulnerable. "I went through seven battalion commanders in eight weeks," Allen noted. Dixon reported that in Samarra both his battalion commander and intelligence officer deserted just before a major operation.

Iraqis also had some complaints about their U.S. advisers, most notably that junior U.S. officers who had never seen combat were counseling senior Iraqi officers who had fought in several wars. "Numerous teams have lieutenants … to fill the role of advisor to an Iraqi colonel counterpart," the Lessons Learned report stated.

Farrell, the officer in east Baghdad, said some advisers were literally "phoning in" their work. Some would not leave the forward operating base "more than one or two days out of the week - instead they would just call the Iraqis on cellphones," he said.

Dixon was grim about the experience. "Would I want to go back and do it again?" he asked. His unambiguous answer: "No."
Yeah, but we were told things were going great with all this training, as here. That was one year ago. Someone was being optimistic, or self-delusional. Take your pick.

Perhaps one should listen to the officers involved -
Bing West, a former Marine officer who runs a government-consulting firm and who has been to Iraq numerous times captured the situation thusly:

"140,000 American soldiers, 3,000 advisors. My goodness gracious, less than two percent. If you're serious about building up the Iraqi forces there's something wrong with that equation. I think just coming back from Iraq that really throughout our ranks you sense they know that. They get it. So almost independent of the Congress and the executive branch, the military is most likely going to move in a major way - reducing the overall forces but really building up the advisors. Why? If you go to any Iraqi battalion or any police unit, the first thing the advisors there tell you is they can't stand without us. They're not ready yet and probably will not be for several more years. So if you hear one chorus from over there, it's to embed more Americans with the Iraqis – then you don't need as many Americans."

Jay Garner, the retired Army general who was the American viceroy in Iraq until he was shoved out by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003, was also on the panel. Garner gave the problem some scale by offering a guesstimate on how many Iraqi units still need significant advising and training.

"What we have right now is a 100-plus certified Iraqi battalions - about 110, I think," Garner said. "I'm not sure what certified means but it does not mean that they're capable of operating by themselves. A few of them are maybe somewhere between five and ten." Each Iraqi battalion has between 400 and 600 men.
Ah, just about all of the Iraqi forces being called certified can't operate effectively without being "robustly advised" in Garner's opinion. No pony there.

And Christy Harden Smith reports listening to Thomas Hammes, the retired Marine colonel who wrote "The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century," during a recent National Public Radio interview saying we need sixty US advisors with each battalion instead of the current ten, and they would need to be non-commissioned officers and be maintained for "a very long period of time." This would mean an additional ten to twenty thousand troops being sent to Iraq.

No pony there. And she points to Frank James in the Chicago Tribune with this -
Not only does the U.S. military not have enough service members devoted to advising and training, but as Ricks's piece indicates, many of the people we've assigned to advise Iraqi forces don't have the right skills or experience to do the job.

All the experts I've listened to recently expect the Iraq Study Group led by former Secretary of State James Baker and Lee Hamilton, the former Indiana congressman, to recommend that the U.S. ramp up its advisory and training activities. That is a key part of any responsible exit strategy.

But as Ricks's story and other evidence indicates, the U.S. is frighteningly far from where it needs to be if we are, in good conscience, to move our forces from Iraq and leave behind an indigenous military adequate to the task of dealing with the insurgency and sectarian violence.
Ah, but there is self-delusion. It'll work out. On the others hand, good numbers of Iraqis are seeking asylum in Scandinavian nations. Finland is fine. You can get used to all the herring.

Smith's assessment -
Someone is going to need to sit down with the Shrub soon and have a talk. Because the rose-colored glasses schtick isn't working with anyone whose brain has half a working synapse, and it is getting worse by the hour in Iraq. And it is worth asking, over and over again until someone gets a straight answer, where the President got the idea that the Vietnam War was winnable with just a few more bombs? Because if that is the perspective that he and his advisors bring to the table in any consideration on Iraq, then we are going long and then some… until some time after 2008, at the very least.

This is a mess of George Bush's making, of his choosing, of his pushing. The accountability for this failure is at his feet.

The neocons bear a lot of responsibility for pushing their agenda and failed "flowers and candy" idiocy along - they are not even remotely blameless in this no matter how quickly Richard Perle tries to scuttle away from the bright lights and back into whatever lair he resides in the off-political-seasons. And Adelman and his ilk sure don't get a pass either.

But Iraq and its endless ripples of violence and hatred and cultural and secular division… this will all be laid at George Bush's feet as his legacy, his Presidency, his monumental hubris and failure.

It is past time for accountability.
Yep, "If history teaches anything, it teaches self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts is folly." The man should listen to his hero.

Geez, out here we're only stuck in traffic.

Posted by Alan at 21:13 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 22 November 2006 21:44 PST home

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