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Consider:

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

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

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

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Wednesday, 20 December 2006
Rethinking It All - Feckless Reassessments Portending Little Change
Topic: For policy wonks...

Rethinking It All - Feckless Reassessments Portending Little Change

Something is afoot - as Sherlock Holmes would say, "Come, Watson, the game is afoot."

Wednesday, December 20, brought the new issue of the National Review, one of the two journals where one goes to find what Cheney and the neoconservatives think we should think, and what this country really ought to be doing. The other journal is the Weekly Standard, but after Jon Stewart neatly eviscerated its editor, William Kristol, on The Daily Show, those folks may lie low for a bit. Its just no fun to be hung by the absurdity of what you've said is so turning out to be well beyond foolish. Reality and logic do seem to matter after all. They laughed at him. That's no fun.

National Review editor Rich Lowry knows better than to face the guys at Comedy Central. In fact, in a stunning about face from the smug and condescending "we're winning big in Iraq and everyone else is wrong" columns the one always finds in his journal, the new issue brings us this - "Most of the pessimistic warnings from the mainstream media have turned out to be right - that the initial invasion would be the easy part, that seeming turning points (the capture of Saddam, the elections, the killing of Zarqawi) were illusory, that the country was dissolving into a civil war."

What's gotten into Rich Lowry? This is very odd. These folks never say such things. The "pessimistic press" may have been right all along?

On the other hand, the National Review has a website, The Corner, where there's a running stream of analysis from their array of writers. One of them is Stanley Kurtz. He explains the real problem. They were duped. The mainstream media faked them out -
Conservative distrust of the media's very real bias has inclined us to dismiss reports about problems in Iraq that are real.

In the end, I think the media bears fundamental responsibility for this. Had they been less biased - had they reported acts of heroism and the many good things we have done in Iraq - I think conservatives would actually have taken their reporting of the problems in Iraq more seriously. In effect, the media's consistent liberal bias discredits even its valid reports.

... It's a terrible shame that we've come to the point where our ability to believe news reports hinges on a those rare cases where the record shows freedom from liberal bias. The media has discredited themselves, making it tough to take them seriously even when they are right, and that has hurt us all.
Stanley Kurtz should turn down all offers to appear on The Daily Show. His position - that the media's ridiculous and perhaps treasonous refusal to pay more attention to repainted schoolhouses and such things, and its single-minded focus on insurgent attacks, ethnic rivalries, collapsing infrastructure, ineffective government, and corrupt police forces - was the real problem. That single-minded focus on the bad stuff made us ignore them, so we missed the bad stuff, and how were we to know bad stuff was really happening? As "not our fault" arguments go, this one may be beyond parody, actually. Jon Stewart might have trouble with it. What can you say? Sometime the jokes just write themselves, but that doesn't make them good jokes.

And the spin continues. Robert Farley notes here a sudden flurry of conservative arguments that the real problem in Iraq is that our troops have been hamstrung by rules of engagement that are too strict - they have to worry about not killing civilians, particularly women and children, and its driving them crazy and means we'll lose this thing -
Why is this suddenly so popular? The argument carries a lot of wingnut water. First, it emphasizes that the problem in Iraq is that we've been too soft, and suggests that a more hard-line, brutal approach would put the natives in line. Second, it places implicit blame for the problem not on the people who actually designed the rules (the Army, Marine Corps, DOD, and the Bush Administration), but on those who we already know are soft and weak and don't care about American soldiers. Thus, the problem is defined as "Politically Correct Rules of Engagement", suggesting that the villains are likely liberals, Clintonistas, UN-niks, etc. Third, it allows wingnuts to express concern for the well being of the troops in the field, while ignoring the fact that the troops would be much, much safer if they weren't in Iraq, regardless of the ROE.
Where to begin? Brutality is best in dealing with angry insurgency is an approach that doesn't even rise to the level of needing a refutation. The appeal of such an approach is only visceral - it's lizard-brain stuff. But they just throw it out there. As Kevin Drum notes - "One way or another, conservatives are going to find a way to blame the Iraq disaster on liberals. I imagine they'll keep floating one theory after another until they finally find one that sticks." This one may not.

But the president has some ideas. Wednesday, December 20, he held a press conference to let us know what he'd been thinking about - a massive increase in the size of the military, which would take time, and perhaps sending thirty thousand more troop into Iraq, which wouldn't, as we'd keep folks there beyond their return rotation dates (many in their third rotation) and shuffle others around and speed up those in the pipeline. And by the way, "we're not winning" the war in Iraq. On the other hand, we're not losing either. So expect rough times and lots of casualties and he'll get back to us next month with the actual plan to assure victory, and he might even explain what victory in this case means.

The big news was his saying "we're not winning." A month ago he said we were, we surely were.

This may be a grammatical issue -
President Bush's tortured grasp of the English language is legendary, but I submit that during this morning's presser he actually provided an important clue to understanding what it is he's been saying about Iraq. He is speaking in a new tense that the rest of us have thus far failed to note the existence of: the fantasy tense.
The actual exchange went like this -
Q - Mr. President, less than two months ago at the end of one of the bloodiest months in the war, you said, "Absolutely we're winning." Yesterday you said, "We're not winning, we're not losing." Why did you drop your confident assertion about winning?

THE PRESIDENT: My comments - the first comment was done in this spirit: I believe that we're going to win; I believe that - and by the way, if I didn't think that, I wouldn't have our troops there. That's what you got to know. We're going to succeed. My comments yesterday reflected the fact that we're not succeeding nearly as fast as I wanted when I said it at the time, and that conditions are tough in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad.
Ah. Garance Franke-Ruta explains this -
Bush could easily have used the future tense and said, "we will win." Or he could have used an imperative construction: "we must win." But he didn't. He used the present tense and now says that his use of the present tense should merely be understood to mean what "I wanted" and what "I believe that we're going to."

Thus, the present tense when used by Bush lacks its traditional meaning and should be understood, according to the president himself, only as an expression of his desires and beliefs. In short, he is speaking in something that must be understood as "the fantasy tense." The "I believe/I want/I hope this happens" aspect just happens to be implicit, making the tense sometimes hard to recognize.
Is that clear? It isn't? That may be the point.

And there's that other confusion about the recent midterm elections. The president said everyone was wrong about the results of that election. Sure, the Democrats won control of both the House and Senate, but that wasn't a rejection of the war at all - people were really saying they expected a victory, and wanted a change in policy that would give us that. They liked this war lots - they just thought the strategy should be adjusted a little, here and there. The press just foolishly read it the other way.

Steven Benan doesn't agree - "[T]he electorate just isn't where he thinks it is. 70% of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of the war, not because people want a different strategy, but because Bush rejects the one strategy with majority support - get the troops out of Iraq." But he's not the president, is he?

And we have our clear objectives -
  • "We began the year with optimism after watching nearly 12 million Iraqis go to the polls to vote for a unity government and a free future. The enemies of liberty responded fiercely to this advance of freedom."
  • "And I want the enemy to understand that this is a tough task, but they can't run us out of the Middle East; that they can't intimidate America."
  • "What is going to happen is we're going to develop a strategy that helps the Iraqis achieve the objective that the 12 million people want them to achieve, which is a government that can - a country that can sustain itself, govern itself, defend itself."
  • "A free country that will serve as an ally in this war against extremists and radicals."
Or as Matthew Yglesias parses it -
  • We're in Iraq to build a democracy.
  • No, we're in Iraq to find a permanent base for US military forces in the Middle East or, at a minimum, to demonstrate resolve detached from specific policy goals.
  • No, we're in Iraq to build an internally stable government.
  • No, we're in Iraq to create a government that will take America's side in regional disputes.
And his conclusion -
Needless to say these are different and, in some ways, contradictory goals. This is why we're not winning in Iraq and never will. We don't have coherent objectives we're pursuing. And there is no set of objectives such that the objectives are both achievable and worth the cost of achieving them. The sane thing to do at this point is to set a goal of removing American troops from the killing zone quickly and then to start thinking and arguing about how, exactly, this can be done in a way that minimizes risks to the troops and the rest of the region.
But that wouldn't be winning, would it? No one has sufficiently defined what winning exactly is in this case. But we know what it isn't. Perhaps that will have to do.

John Dickerson, the political editor at SLATE, was bothered by something else that occurred to him regarding this press conference - What Has Bush Learned From His Mistakes? His answer is nothing -
At his press conference Wednesday, the president was asked what lessons he's learned after five years of war. He's been asked a version of this question many times since he had such trouble answering it in April 2004. He has tried various responses over the years and none has been satisfying. This morning's answer also fell short: "It is important for us to be successful going forward is to analyze that which went wrong, and clearly, one aspect of this war that has not gone right is the sectarian violence inside Baghdad." [Yes, the sentence structure is odd - AMP]

It is progress of a kind for the president to talk about the need to examine past failures - there was a time when he didn't even admit them - but the answer still failed. First, Bush didn't actually answer the question. He talked about what went wrong, but not what he learned. Second, Bush seemed to suggest that the sectarian violence in Iraq was unforeseen - not so much something that went wrong, but a surprise they didn't anticipate. But war planners did know the sectarian violence was coming. The State Department, Army War College, and CIA analysts all predicted that the Shi'a and Sunnis would go after each other (apparently they've been at it for a while). The president and his team ignored or discounted these assessments.

It's hardly surprising that the president didn't answer a question at a press conference. Bush regularly answers the wrong question at length to give the appearance of answering without actually doing so. He gives a response when what we want is an answer.
And we didn't get one. This is no surprise. He's a politician. What puzzles Dickerson is "why Bush is keeping up this avoidance act while at the same time trying to rebuild his trust with the country." By not answering this specific question, Dickerson says he is trading away "perhaps his only chance to get people to listen to him again."

And he shouldn't do that -
People don't trust the president on the war, and they don't approve of the job he's doing. They haven't for a long time. They think he's either lying to them or that he's out of it. The tricks he has offered to win them back to his strategy - from scaring the public about Democrats and their proposals, to hyping the consequences of not following his policies, to poking his finger in the air - have not worked. This is a problem for him, because in January he will give yet another Big Speech on Iraq. In it he will offer his new strategy for completing the mission.

But why will anyone listen to Bush's new approach?
Yep "fool me once"… no, watch the president saying it himself - "There's an old saying in Tennessee - I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee - that says, fool me once, shame on - shame on you. Fool me - you can't get fooled again."

Close enough, or as they say, close enough for government work.

But we are getting a double dose of spin so we let our guard down -
First, Bush's people are trying to show that the president is working really hard to find the new answer. He has ordered reviews at the State Department and Pentagon and held repeated meetings with military officials. He's also studying the Iraq Study Group plan (even though he has pretty much trashed its major recommendations). Second, the president and his aides are trying to show that he actually understands how grave the situation is in Iraq. On Tuesday, he told the Washington Post that America is not winning in Iraq, matching the candor for which his incoming secretary of defense was praised during his confirmation hearings.
But that is clearly not enough to turn things around. At best that is "only enough to keep people from thinking he's not delusional." It's not a plan. It's looking busy.

The recommendation -
To get people to buy into his solutions, the president has to put candor into his policy review. He has to prove that the new solutions weren't cooked up with the same broken process that cooked up the first batch of bad solutions. Which brings us back to the question of what lessons he's learned. He's been accused to living in a bubble, so who told him things during this round of meetings that he didn't want to hear? Whom did he seek out at the State Department that he would not have in the past? Who yelled at him? Who talked him out of a bad idea? What gut instinct that he trusted in the past has he learned to think twice about? He should answer the question about what he's learned from his mistakes, how he incorporated those lessons into his new policy process, and how the strategy he's put forward is the fruit of that new way of operating. That might - might - persuade some Americans to give him one more chance.
And pigs might - might - fly. Dickerson rightly points out that White House officials and Bush supporters "have always thought questions about mistakes and lessons learned are merely press attempts to make Bush whip himself in public." And they should get over it. That's unlikely. The January "new way forward" speech will just be another speech.

The game is not afoot, really.

Fred Kaplan offers an analysis of what is afoot. That would be "the hottest briefing in Washington these days," a fifty-six-page PowerPoint presentation, Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq. This is by Frederick Kagan, the military analyst of the American Enterprise Institute. The president thinks it's wonderful.

Fred Kaplan does not and explains why in The Urge to Surge -
It proposes "surging" 20,000 extra troops to secure Baghdad as a necessary and sufficient first step to securing and rebuilding the whole country.

It's being taken very seriously in White House and congressional quarters. I don't understand why, because it's not really a serious study. Numbers are grabbed out of thin air. Crucial points are asserted, not argued. Assumptions are based on crossed fingers, not evidence or analysis.

The upshot is that Kagan's surge involves more troops than the United States can readily mobilize and fewer troops than it needs for the kind of victory he has in mind.

He proposes a classic "clear and hold" method to secure the capital. Troops sweep into Baghdad's nastier neighborhoods and clear them of insurgents and other bad guys. Some troops stay behind to maintain security, while others move on to clear the next set of neighborhoods; some of those stay behind, while others move on; and so forth. Once Baghdad is stabilized, still more troops will pour into other troubled cities. Meanwhile, security allows reconstruction to proceed.
This is followed by a detailed analysis of why the numbers just don't work. They don't.

Consider this -
However they're counted, a lot of extra troops are necessary, because not only do they have to "clear" a neighborhood of bad guys, some have to stay there ("hold" the area) while others move on to clear the next neighborhood. (This was the problem at Tal Afar. The city was cleared, but then the troops were called to Baghdad, and the insurgents returned.)

In Kagan's plan, after Baghdad is secure, we have to go clear and hold the rest of Iraq. This means still more troops will be needed, beyond the initial surge, because the troops in Baghdad have to stay there.

Where will these troops come from? Kagan says that the Pentagon will have to expand the size of the Army and Marines by at least 30,000 a year over the next two years. However, according to some very high-ranking officers who deal firsthand with these sorts of issues, the Army can recruit, train, and equip only about 7,000 combat troops a year. This is a physical limit, constrained by the number of bases, trainers, supplies, and other elements of infrastructure.

Kagan writes, "The President must call for young Americans to volunteer to defend the nation in a time of crisis." Given the unpopularity of the president, and of this war, this seems unlikely. After the Sept. 11 attacks, when Bush was at peak popularity, and when the country was experiencing a surge of patriotism, Congress passed a bill expanding the size of the Army by 30,000 troops. Five years later, the Army has actually expanded by just 23,000 troops. It's still 7,000 troops short of that target. How does Kagan expect to attract 30,000 more in just one year, much less to do so two years in a row?

… if Kagan's advice is followed, the surged troops will have plenty on their hands. Kagan writes that they will have to fight the bad guys - and provide food, water, electricity, and other essential services. It's not as if they haven't been trying to do all that for the past three and a half years.

How long will the surged troops have to stay? Kagan writes that "the security situation" "improves within 18-24 months and we can begin going home." But given the way the numbers add up, this seems extremely unlikely. For one thing, they'll have to be replaced by Iraqi soldiers, but if all the American troops are engaged in counterinsurgency, who's training the Iraqis? Current administration policy calls for embedding U.S. advisers within Iraqi units. Kagan is opposed to that policy. He favors expanding U.S. units and having some Iraqi units tag along. He claims that those Iraqis will be trained "much more effectively" his way, "because they will be partnered with and fighting with our excellent soldiers."

This is simply wrongheaded. Indigenous soldiers are best trained by taking the lead in military operations. They gain most legitimacy in a counterinsurgency campaign if the local population sees them as being in charge, not as sitting quietly in the occupier's back seat.

One reassuring moment in President Bush's press conference today came when he said that if he did decide to surge more troops to Iraq, he would do so only if there were "a specific mission that can be accomplished with more troops." Kagan's briefing doesn't spell out that mission, doesn't show it can be accomplished with more troops, at least not with the number of extra troops that are remotely available.
But this seems to be the plan. This is what we'll be told is January is just what we'll do. And that's what is really afoot.

Actually what's really afoot - enlarging our military, already larger than the next twenty militaries in the world, combined - is getting the empire thing right. Getting the number of Imperial Storm Troopers right, and in the right places at the right time, to fight the Rebel Alliance, is hard work when you have to operate in a pseudo-democracy with a somewhat free press and elections at awkward times and all the rest. No, wait. That was Star Wars, where the Rebel Alliance was the good guys - Luke Skywalker and Yoda and all. Things got switched around. How did that happen?

Posted by Alan at 22:03 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 20 December 2006 22:20 PST home

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

There's Got To Be a Morning After

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He breaks down in tears when discussing your brother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gross Amateurism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 15 September 2006
The King and the Rebels
Topic: For policy wonks...
The King and the Rebels
The week's political events should always end with a flourish - with accusations and defensiveness and attacks and counterattacks. It gives political junkies something to argue about on the weekend, and gives everyone else something to think about if the weekend games are dull blow-outs and there are no good movies available - after the chores, of course.

The "everyone else" in this case settles on thinking about who's really in charge, who should be in charge, and where we as a nation are heading, as kind of rainy day last choice. Except for when you see too many people you know losing their jobs, and you have vague odd worries too, and when you find your adjustable rate mortgage just jumped and the new monthly actually hurts and you can't do much about it, and when all the bills seem strangely larger (especially the medical stuff and gasoline), and it's been a long time since you had any sort of real raise, and when you blow by the news and see the scenes of our wars that were supposed to be fast, effective and clean but aren't, and see all these people in very nice countries not liking us much either - except for those sorts of times, we aren't a nation much interested in who runs things. A very small percentage of the population has a family member involved in the wars - in Afghanistan or Iraq. We have no draft. With the troop level there nearing one hundred fifty thousand no one much notices any local effects - there are three hundred million of us. Do the math. And there's no call for sacrifices - rationing and all that sort of thing. We're told to go shopping and act normal - otherwise the terrorist will have won. And that's fine. We just want to be left alone.

But it's an election year, so no one will be left alone. Some the advertising will even creep into the NFL broadcasts - some political aspirant or other claiming his or her opponent is a sleazy fool. How are you supposed to know? You shrug. But no one can hide from all this.

And why would you? It's become great theater, as they say. It's not that bad to consider.

The conflict has been building for weeks, culminating in, on Friday, September 15, a late morning press conference where the president took on the press and was in rare form, riding his high horse, trying to contain what some say is a revolt in his own party - major people on his own side saying he was wrong on one of the biggest issues of the day, or really a core issue about just who we are as a nation, and they just weren't going to go along with him. This was his chance to say, in public and on the record, that they were wrong, that everyone was wrong - he knew what was right and where did they get off with this "no" business? It was "unacceptable to think" what they seemed to be thinking. Those were his exact words. It was classic. All he needed was a few ball bearings to roll around in his hand, of you remember the movie.

The full transcript is here and the Associated Press account here, but context is in order.

Over the last several weeks, as the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan deteriorated, and Israel's adventure in Lebanon went sour, the White House decided a series of speeches was just the thing - to rally America. Cheney and Rumsfeld opened the campaign, most notable with Rumsfeld's speech to the American Legion in Salt Lake City, where he said those who disagreed with the administration were intellectual and morally confused - and knew nothing of history. That started the "we're really fighting fascists" thing off with a bang - lots of talk of Hitler and all. That was the history to which he refered.

That was followed by a series of speeches by the president where the new working theory of what's going on was laid out - Iraq doesn't really matter as it's just part of a larger war, against "Islamic Fascists" who want to take over the world. You may think the Sunnis and Shi'a hate each other, and Hamas and Hezbollah have different aims, and Iran wanting nuclear weapons has little to do with the daily mayhem in Baghdad, and North Korea and maybe even Cuba are other issues - but it's all one grand conspiracy against us and our way of life, and all one big war now. Throw in Venezuela and Syria too. So don't think about Iraq that much. Think about the big picture. And that was the theme of the president's speech on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

This accomplished a number of things, politically.

First, it changed the subject. At the time of the press conference there was a third day of tortured bodies found in the streets of Baghdad - over sixty Wednesday, and two dozen each of the next two days, and by the end of the week the new Iraqi government has announced they intended to get themselves a giant trench around the whole city of five million, to keep the bad guys from driving anymore car bombs in from the countryside. Yes, that hardly addresses the sectarian kidnappings and assassinations, but it might help. In any event, the idea was to keep people from thinking so much about Iraq. The worldwide, multifaceted and interlocking enemy - as bad or worse that Hitler and all - trumps worrying that we'll lose Baghdad or the Anbar province. There are biggest fish to fry, or whatever. This is new.

Secondly, this is good politics for the coming November elections, where the president's party may very well lose controls of congress. Under the new mantra - America is safer, but we're not yet safe - you tell people they should be very, very afraid. This is far worse than you ever imagined. But, because it is, you need to stick with the party that knows how to deal with danger and takes no crap from anyone. You have to vote Republican. Your life depends on it. There is an ad campaign that pretty much says that. Of course, as hundred of political writers have pointed out, this is dangerous. No only may some not believe the premise that everything is really connected if you think about it a certain way, folks might wonder what brought us to this pass. They could blame the president and his party - as they were in complete control of our government for the last six year. The ABC-Disney television movie might help there - laying out how most everything was Bill Clinton's fault - and it was released at just the right time. So maybe the blame thing has been neutralized. Still the words "not yet safe" do invite grumpy voters to ask the natural questions - "Why are we not safe now? Just what have you guys been doing?"

The last bit of context for the press conference is the president recently announcing that, well, we did have secret prisons - sorry about the denials - and we're sending fourteen people we've held in those to Guantanamo for trial, military tribunals actually. There they will get a fair trial and then be executed. BUT, since the Supreme Court ruled the military tribunals as they were planned were illegal as originally planned, congress has to pass laws to make them legal. The changes were simple. Make it so we don't have to tell them what the evidence against them actually is. Make it so that what they say "under coercion" is admissible as valid and true evidence. And, as part of that, make what coercion we have used - waterboarding, forced hypothermia, stress positions for forty hours at a stretch, and all the rest - be clearly defined as not torture at all, or anything forbidden in the Geneva Conventions we helped develop and helped revise in 1949, and to which we are a party. This last part requires that congress pass news legislation that redefines how we interpret the Geneva Conventions - the words say "this" and we, for our purposes and our legal system, take them to mean "that."

This was an election-year masterstroke. The wimpy Democrats would come out against torture and say these guys deserved real due process - and they'd lose their seat as any Republican running against them could claim they cared more about the rights of the terrorists than about the safety of Americans.

The problem is that it didn't work out that way. Three key senators on the Republican side said no - torture is not what we do, or should ever be doing, and everyone get due process, as that's how we do things in this country. The three were John Warner of Virginia, once Secretary of the Navy and head of the Armed Services Committee, John McCain of Arizona, who had been a prisoner of war for five years in Vietnam, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former military lawyer and still a reserve JAG officer. Then Colin Powell, the president's former Secretary of State and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a public letter to McCain saying plan to redefine the Geneva Conventions would cause the world "to doubt the moral basis" of the fight against terror and "put our own troops at risk."

This has to be stopped, thus the press conference - and warnings that the United States had lost the high moral ground to adversaries got an angry - "It's flawed logic." And the president said if he didn't get the changes he wanted in the Geneva Conventions and all the rest - he'd tell the CIA to just stop all interrogations. What would be the point?

The Democrats just sat back and watched, in amazement, except for what the AP reports here -
"When conservative military men like John McCain, John Warner, Lindsey Graham and Colin Powell stand up to the president, it shows how wrong and isolated the White House is," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "These military men are telling the president that in the war on terror you need to be both strong and smart, and it is about time he heeded their admonitions."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, "Instead of picking fights with Colin Powell, John McCain and other military experts, President Bush should change course, do what the American people expect, and finally give them the real security they deserve."
But they really didn't have to say anything. The fight was internal -
Bush took vehement exception when asked about Powell's assertion that the world might doubt the moral basis of the fight against terror if lawmakers went along with the administration's proposal to come up with a U.S. interpretation of the Geneva Convention's ban on "outrages upon personal dignity."

"If there's any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it's flawed logic," Bush said. "It's just - I simply can't accept that."

Growing animated, he said, "It's unacceptable to think that there's any kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective."
Yes, there's a bit of tautology there - we are good, so no matter what we do, what we do must be good. We cannot lost the high moral ground - even after Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the kidnappings and secret prisons and what looks to the world like torture - because we are good underneath it all, and our motive are pure. He seem to be saying that when you know you're good you can do anything at all, and whatever you do would automatically be good, because you're good. Since he cannot possibly be that simple-minded, one has to assume that was for the rubes in his base, to get them to the polls in November - all the Democrats, and these Republican traitors, are telling America we're no good, so get out there and vote for the good folks!

In any event, this seems like a bit of a big deal. The Washington Post, when the president visited congress the day before, said this -
President Bush rarely visits Congress. So it was a measure of his painfully skewed priorities that Mr. Bush made the unaccustomed trip yesterday to seek legislative permission for the CIA to make people disappear into secret prisons and have information extracted from them by means he dare not describe publicly.

Of course, Mr. Bush didn't come out and say he's lobbying for torture. Instead he refers to "an alternative set of procedures" for interrogation. But the administration no longer conceals what it wants. It wants authorization for the CIA to hide detainees in overseas prisons where even the International Committee of the Red Cross won't have access. It wants permission to interrogate those detainees with abusive practices that in the past have included induced hypothermia and "waterboarding," or simulated drowning. And it wants the right to try such detainees, and perhaps sentence them to death, on the basis of evidence that the defendants cannot see and that may have been extracted during those abusive interrogation sessions.

There's no question that the United States is facing a dangerous foe that uses the foulest of methods. But a wide array of generals and others who should know argue that it is neither prudent nor useful for the United States to compromise its own values in response.
The usual response to that is what good are values when you're dead? But the president actually said that the nation's ability to defend itself would be undermined if these rebellious Republicans in the Senate did not come around to his position - "This enemy has struck us, and they want to strike us again, and we'll give our folks the tools necessary to protect the country. It's a debate that, that really is going to define whether or not we can protect ourselves."

The New York Times notes this -
Mr. McCain and his allies on the committee say reinterpreting the Geneva Conventions would open the door to rogue governments to interpret them as they see fit.

In a statement late Friday, Mr. McCain stuck to his position, saying that his proposed rules included legal protections for interrogators. "Weakening the Geneva protections is not only unnecessary, but would set an example to other countries, with less respect for basic human rights, that they could issue their own legislative reinterpretations," he said.

Mr. Bush rejected the crux of Mr. McCain's argument when a reporter asked him how he would react if nations like Iran or North Korea "roughed up" American soldiers under the guise of their own interpretations of Common Article 3.

"You can give a hypothetical about North Korea or any other country," Mr. Bush said, casting the question as steeped in moral relativism. "The point is that the program is not going to go forward if our professionals do not have clarity in the law."
See Marty Lederman here -
At last, the issue is publicly - and when all the smoke has cleared, the central question is quite simple:

And it is this: Should the CIA be legally authorized to breach the Geneva Conventions by engaging in the following forms of "cruel treatment" prohibited by "common" Article 3(1)(a) of those Conventions?:

- "Cold Cell," or hypothermia, where a prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees, during which he is doused with cold water.

- "Long Time Standing," in which a prisoner is forced to stand, handcuffed and with his feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours.

- Other forms of "stress positions" and prolonged sleep deprivation, perhaps akin to "Long Time Standing."

- Threats of violence and death of a detainee and/or his family.

... It's important to be clear about one thing: The question is not simply whether, in the abstract, it would be a good or acceptable idea for the United States to use such techniques in certain extreme circumstances on certain detainees. I happen to think that the moral, pragmatic, diplomatic and other costs of doing so greatly outweigh any speculative and uncertain benefits - but that is obviously a question on which there is substantial public disagreement, much of it quite sincere and serious. Instead, the question must be placed in its historical and international context - namely, whether Congress should grant the Executive branch a fairly unbounded discretion to use such techniques where such conduct would place the United States in breach of the Geneva Conventions. And that, of course, changes the calculus considerably. Does Congress really want to make the United States the first nation on earth to specifically provide domestic legal sanction for what would properly and universally be seen as a transparent breach of the minimum, baseline standards for civilized treatment of prisoners established by Common Article 3 - thereby dealing a grievous blow to the prospect of international adherence to the Geneva Conventions in the future?

It would be one thing - a momentous thing, no doubt - for the United States to propose that Geneva itself be amended to permit certain extreme interrogation techniques in certain limited circumstances. In that case, the principal question would be whether torture and its close equivalents are ever acceptable, and whether they could and should be regulated under a legal regime that would somehow keep such techniques within "proper" bounds, if there are any. But as the issue now stands, the advisability and morality of such techniques, as such, and the practical questions of regulating such conduct, although obviously of great importance, are overshadowed by an even more solemn question: whether legalizing such techniques is worth an effective repudiation of Geneva by the most powerful state on the planet, with all that such a repudiation would entail for the future of Geneva and other international agreements.
That's where things stand.

And to put that in context, see this from a reserve soldier in Iraq -
I was deployed in my reserve unit (USMCR) as part of operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield. Marine infantry, and we were on the front lines, supposedly to guard a gunship base, but really, though, the gunships guarded us.

Not too much later, it was time to take prisoners. One of the platoons went north, and when they came back, there were stories about how Iraqi soldiers lined the roads, trying to surrender. I spent a week guarding Iraqi men in a makeshift prison camp, a way-station really, and more than I could count. They didn't look like they were starving or dehydrated. Apparently, once the ground war began, they just pitched their weapons and headed south at first opportunity. The more I've thought about it, the more I realize that they knew bone deep that they'd get fair treatment. We gave them MREs (with the pork entree's removed) but almost immediately some Special Forces guys arrived and set up a real chow line for them. We gave each man a blanket, (I kept an extra as a souvie) and I think I saw a Special Forces doc giving some of them a once over.

Once, only once, one of them got all irritated and tried to get in one of the Corporal's faces, loud. (I was a lance-corporal). He wouldn't back down, so the Corporal gave him an adjustment, a rifle butt-stroke to his gut, not hard, but he went down. The Corporal sent me for the medic. The guy was ok, and now calm (or at least understanding the situation), and hand-signed that he was out of smokes and really, really needed one... Not a bad guy, just stressed-dumb and needing a smoke. None of the others prisoners in the camp even registered it.

We went north to mop up not long after that. I saw the Iraqi weapons: rocket launchers a little smaller than semi-trailers, hidden in buildings, AKs in piles, big Soviet mortars and anti-tank mines, everywhere but unarmed. They had food too. Pasteurized milk to drink, but most gone bad by then. Some of the mortar rounds were still in crates. They had long trenches that were hard to see in the dunes, bunkers with maps, fire-plans laid out, and blankets, all placed with decent vantage for command and control. They even had wire laid for land-line communications. The point is, they could have fought. Not won, no they couldn't have won, but they could have fought. Instead, they chose to surrender.

Looking back, I think that one of the main drivers in these men's heads was that they knew, absolutely, that they'd get fair treatment from us, the Americans. We were the good guys. The Iraqis on the line knew they had an out, they had hope, so they could just walk away. (A few did piss themselves when someone told them we were Marines. Go figure.) Still, they knew Americans would be fair, and we were.

Thinking hard on what I now know of history, psychology, and the meanness of politics, that reputation for fairness was damn near unique in world history. Can you tell me of any major military power that had it? Ever? France? No. Think Algeria. The UK? Sorry, Northern Ireland, the Boxer Rebellion in China... China or Russia. I don't think so. But America had it. If those men had even put up token resistance, some of us would not have come back. But they didn't even bother, and surrendered at least in part because of our reputation. Our two hundred year old reputation for being fair and humane and decent. All the way back to George Washington, and from President George H.W. Bush all the way down to a lance-corporal jarhead at the front.

It's gone now, even from me. I can't get past that image of the Iraqi, in the hood with the wires and I'm not what you'd call a sensitive type. You know the picture. And now we have a total bust-out in the White House, and a bunch of rubber-stamps in the House, trying to make it so that half-drowning people isn't torture. That hypothermia isn't torture. That degradation isn't torture. We don't have that reputation for fairness anymore. Just the opposite, I think. And the next real enemy we face will fight like only the cornered and desperate fight. How many Marines' lives will be lost in the war ahead just because of this asshole who never once risked anything for this country?
For a slightly different take, see Bill Montgomery here -
What will be on the table then is the question of whether a nation as powerful and potentially dangerous as America (the proverbial bull in the china shop) can survive on brute force alone - without moral legitimacy or political prestige, without true allies (save for the world's other leper regimes) and without "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." We're not there yet, but that's the direction we're heading in, and a unilateral decision to redefine the Geneva Conventions (without actually admitting that we're doing it) would take us another few hundred miles down the road.

What this amounts to (and what Powell was really complaining about) is the final decommissioning of the myth of American exceptionalism - one of the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal. Without it, we're just another paranoid empire obsessed with our own security and willing to tell any lie or repudiate any self-proclaimed principle if we think it will make us even slightly safer.

To put it mildly, this is not the kind of flag the rest of the world is likely to rally around, no matter how frantically we wave it. Even Shrub seems to understand this somewhere in the dimly lit attic that is his mind - thus his recent remark that an America that doesn't advance the cause of freedom is an America that has lost its soul. It's easy to paint this as delusional, or an updated version of the old Orwellian slogan that slavery = freedom, but Shrub at least seems to understands that America will have to convince the world it stands for more than just power, privilege and profit if it's going to attract the support of the 80% of the world that lacks all three. How, exactly, would ditching the Geneva Conventions further this goal?

Then again, maybe it's best if the myth gets busted. Maybe America should take public responsibility for torturing prisoners - instead of just pawning the job off on the Jordanian or Egyptian or Saudi intelligence services, who could and would hook car batteries to testicles while we piously pronounced our hands (and hearts) are clean. A U.S. torture statute would at least bring a certain degree of clarity to the issue, eliminating the "vague" and "open to interpretation" policies that have long allowed the United States to enjoy the fruits of torture (and other crimes) without actually committing them ourselves. I know that's not exactly the kind of clarity Shrub was asking for today, but it would still be a refreshing outbreak of honesty.

That said, though, nobody should have any illusions about what that kind of "clarity" would reveal and which side of the moral line the United States would be seen standing on.
So, is this what we signed up for?

Actually, it not that much about torture - it's about power, and who has to follow the rules. It's that frat-boy thing again. That a little disheartening, but then it's great theater.

We'll see how it plays out in November.

Posted by Alan at 23:27 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 15 September 2006 23:31 PDT home

Sunday, 6 August 2006
Crises: Short Term, Long Term
Topic: For policy wonks...
Crises: Short Term, Long Term
So as of Sunday, August 6, we have a crease-fire proposal out there. The United States and France settled their differences and come up with a resolution the United Nations will consider in the next several days. Its not a cease-fire, but rather a proposal fro a cease-fire - a draft UN cease-fire resolution. The clock radio snapped on at six in the morning here in Hollywood, turned to the all-news station, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was speaking to the early risers in Los Angeles, and everyone in the world of course, from the president's ranch in Texas, the one he bought in 1999 to cement his image as a cowboy. She's there with National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, messing up his already shorted vacation - ten days, not the usual month. Poor guy.

The Associated Press account is here, of Rice saying this cease-fire resolution as "a first step to stop violence in the Middle East," but it cannot solve the problems in Lebanon. For that the Lebanese government must "extend its authority into the south" so Hezbollah does not have control there, and really, the "international community" must help Lebanese forces toss the bums out over the next several months.

He depressing message - "We're trying to deal with a problem that has been festering and brewing in Lebanon now for years and years and years, and so it's not going to be solved by one resolution in the Security Council. These things take awhile to wind down. It is certainly not the case that probably all violence is going to stop. ... I can't say that you should rule out that there could be skirmishes of some kind for some time to come."

While she was saying that, the Israeli Air Force was bombing the crap out of southern Beirut, again, and Hezbollah was barraging northern Israel down as far south as Haifa with waves of those fall-where-they-will rockets, killing twelve or thirteen Israeli civilians. The rate was up to eighty rockets an hour. (And at the same US troops were pouring in Baghdad to try to stop the chaos there, and a suicide bomber killed at least ten people and wounded about twenty more at a funeral up north in Tikrit - taking out a tent filled with mourners at the funeral of the father of a provincial councilor.) Things aren't going that well.

In any event, draft UN cease-fire resolution calls for Hezbollah to stop all military operations and for Israel to stop its offensive drive against Lebanon. The proposal would, of course, allow Israel to strike back if Hezbollah were to break any cease-fire that's worked out. You have to give them that option.

Hadley said the United States hoped the resolution would pass Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning, perhaps, but the Lebanese parliamentary speaker, a Shiite who has been negotiating on behalf of Hezbollah, flat-out rejected the plan because it did not include an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of Israeli troops. The fighting does stop not until they Israeli troops are gone. Israel says it won't pull its troops out of the south until "a significant international military force" is deployed in the region. They're staying, and this does not look promising. Rice says there really will be "a significant international military force" one day - that's in a second proposal being drafted. But that one is harder. And we won't be part of that - it would look bad and we don't have the troops anyway. So really, nothing much will change.

A curious detail in the AP item is this - President Bush spoke on the phone to British Prime Minister Tony Blair for forty-seven minutes Sunday about their "strategy for the Middle East" but Hadley said Bush had not called the prime ministers of Lebanon or Israel. One assumes it's just not their show. What do they have to do with anything? That surprised people, but Hadley said Bush could call them, you never know - "If it will advance the diplomacy, the president will do it." As for now it seems they don't matter. They're just the children - the adults are working things out. So they've been put in their place, creepy little countries whining about their dead. But there's no surprise here. Or government likes to slap people down and exclude others - it shows we're the good guys, and certainly the important people.

A quick summary from Juan Cole, the Middle East expert at the University of Michigan here -
The resolution does not require Israeli forces to depart Lebanese soil, which Hezbollah says is a deal breaker with regard to any ceasefire.

That this language was agreed upon by John Bolton, among the most velociraptor-like warmongers to hold high office in American history, suggests one of two things: Either the Israeli political elite itself has concluded that it has accomplished all it can against Hezbollah, or the Europeans and US Arab allies, including Iraq, have prevailed on Bush to shorten the leash on Olmert. The war will go on for a while, even so, as the Israelis continue their ethnic cleansing of the Lebanese South.
The point is that Israel has agreed to something, after all, as unworkable as it is. Within the next few weeks or months something or other will happen and this will end, or not.

Bill Montgomery offers a comprehensive analysis of this first draft UN cease-fire resolution here and because it is long and complex he opens with an appropriate quote -
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."
Of course that's from Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass. And it fits, as in -
It's difficult to know exactly what to make of the proposed UN Security Council resolution the Anglos and the French have finally managed to hammer out - in part because it's really two resolutions jammed together one.

It's a portmanteau, in other words, like one of Humpty Dumpty's nonsense words in Through the Looking Glass - "slithy," "toves," "mimsy," etc. - "Well, 'slithy' means 'lithe and slimy.' 'Lithe' is the same as 'active.' You see it's like a portmanteau - there are two meanings packed up into one word."

The first resolution - the lithe part of "slithy" --appears to be basically a ceasefire in place dressed up with some artful language to make it sound like the Israelis and Hezbollah are not being placed on an equal footing, even though they are. This part of the resolution calls for: A full cessation of hostilities based upon, in particular, the immediate cessation by Hizbollah of all attacks and the immediate cessation by Israel of all offensive military operations.

An immediate ceasefire in place, without preconditions, is what the French and the rest of the world have been begging for since the war started, while Bush and his British butler have been holding out for a "comprehensive" or "lasting" ceasefire with many preconditions, including the disarming of Hezbollah and extension of Lebanese government authority and Lebanese army control to southern Lebanon.

The first part of the resolution contains none of these supposedly indispensable conditions. It appears to call quite clearly for an immediate cessation of hostilities on both sides - although with slightly different phrasing applied to each. It's not clear to me whether this word play is simply a fig leaf to try to obscure the fact that the resolution essentially treats Hezbollah as a legitimate combatant, or whether it's some sort of loophole designed to allow the IDF to continue its "offensive operations" while the Israelis and the Cheney administration pretend that they've been halted.
Who knows? Does it matter? Hezbollah is saying - "Israel is the aggressor. When the Israeli aggression stops, Hezbollah simply will cease fire on the condition that no Israeli soldier remains inside Lebanese land." This may not work at all.

And so it goes. But there are more pressing problem, long-term ones. Like the air conditioning crisis.

What?

Yep - you could look into this from William Saletan about "the deluded world of air conditioning."

He's not kidding
Have you heard the news? Scientists have found a planet that can support life. Its atmosphere is too hot for year-round habitation, its gases impede breathing, and surface conditions are sometimes fatal. But by constructing a network of sealed facilities, tunnels, and vehicles, humans could survive on this planet for decades and perhaps even centuries.

The planet is called Earth.

If you've seen this planet lately, you know what's going on: temperature records shattering, scores of Americans dead. By summer's end, the toll will be in the hundreds. It's not as bad as 2003, when a heat wave killed 30,000 people in Europe. But according to global-warming forecasts, within 40 years, every other summer will be like that one.
That leads into a discussion of air conditioning and the current trend in from Washington to Los Angeles opening artificially cooled buildings to the public, and all the people lining up to buy window units (more places there are no more to be purchased).

We're told that according to the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (there is one), shipments of air conditioners and heat pumps have tripled over the last three decades and the percentage of single-family homes built with central air has gone from thirty-six to eighty-seven, and cars built with air conditioning from sixty-one to ninety-eight percent. Occupied mobile homes have jumped from forty-two percent to eighty-four.

So what's the problem? The problem is really simple - air conditioning takes indoor heat and pushes it outdoors, and to do this, it uses energy, "which increases production of greenhouse gases, which warm the atmosphere. From a cooling standpoint, the first transaction is a wash, and the second is a loss. We're cooking our planet to refrigerate the diminishing part that's still habitable."

This is serious, perhaps. Power consumption is breaking records, and air conditioning is the issue - we use about one-sixth of our electricity for it. Saletan notes that's more than the total electricity consumption of India, and they have more than a billion people there. And of course to get all this electricity, we burn oil and coal. And the air conditioners in cars drops urban fuel efficiency by up to four miles per gallon - so that's seven billion gallons of gasoline right there.

Then there's this -
More burning of oil and coal means more greenhouse gases. Based on government data, Stan Cox, a scientist at the Land Institute, calculates that air-conditioning the average U.S. home requires 3,400 pounds of carbon-dioxide production per year. The effects of this are particularly bad at night. Over the last five summers, very high minimum daily temperatures - those that score in the top 10 percent historically - have been far more widespread in this country than during any other five-year period. This is what's killing people. Outdoor air used to cool at night, allowing us to recover from the day's heat. Now it doesn't. To fuel our own air conditioning, we're destroying nature's.

The hotter it gets, the more energy we burn. In 1981, only one in three American households with central air used it all summer long. By 1997, more than half did. Countries once cooled by outdoor air now cool themselves. In Britain, 75 percent of new cars have air conditioning. In Canada, energy consumption for residential cooling has doubled in 10 years, and half the homes now have central or window units. Kuujjuaq, an Eskimo village 1,000 miles north of Montreal, just bought 10 air conditioners. According to the mayor, it's been getting hot lately.
You see where this is leading. Forget Israel and the Hezbollah - we're ruining the whole world real fast.

And the politicians cannot fix this, for the most ironic of reasons -
Policymakers aren't facing global warming, because they aren't feeling it. They gave themselves air conditioning in the 1920s and '30s, long before the public got it. White House meetings and congressional hearings on climate change are doomed hours beforehand, when the thermostats are set. One minute, you're watching video of people sweltering in New Orleans. The next minute, you're watching senators dispute the significance of greenhouse gases. Don't ask whether these people are living on the same planet. In effect, they aren't.

When outdoor heat leaks into the Washington bubble, like crime into a white neighborhood, officials treat it as a faux pas. Three weeks ago, House Majority Leader John Boehner told reporters in a Capitol press gallery, "It'd be nice if they could get you a little more air conditioning up here." This week, President Bush's spokesman, Tony Snow, assured White House correspondents that their briefing room would soon be renovated. "Gathering from the temperature in this room at this moment, I think everybody agrees that it's probably about time to have a new and updated air conditioning and heating system," he joked.
And course, as reported everywhere, Majority Leader Boehner has vowed, should the Republicans, but some miracle, retain control of the House, he will fight tooth and claw to expose the hoax of global warming and stop all these efforts by the sadly misinformed scientists and the chicken-little-sky-is-falling environmentalists, who hate capitalism and free enterprise and whatever else, from ruining America.

Ah well, choose your crisis. Things may settle down in the Middle East, and it may not matter.

Posted by Alan at 13:37 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 6 August 2006 13:39 PDT home

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