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

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

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

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Monday, 27 February 2006
Close Enough: Close Enough For Some, Not For Others
Topic: For policy wonks...

Close Enough: Close Enough For Some, Not For Others

Is this close enough? In the Monday, February 27th New York Times there's this on Halliburton, the company Vice President Cheney used to run, and from which he receives a post-employment stipend. And yes, he has all those stock option he can exercise. The Times tells us Pentagon auditors have declared "potentially excessive or unjustified" Halliburton charges in what they do for us in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that would be about a quarter billion in potentially excessive or unjustified charges. That's a chunk of change. What to do? Pay most of the charges. As the spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers put it, "The contractor is not required to perform perfectly to be entitled to reimbursement."

Nothing is perfect, right? So Halliburton gets paid. Close enough.

Maybe close enough for government work. That used to be a joke. Draw your own conclusions. Maybe the Times is just stirring up trouble.

Is this close enough?

Last week some bad guys - no one knows quite who - blew up the Shiite al-Askari shrine in Samarra. This is, for the Shiites, like someone blowing up the Vatican. Chaos followed - roving bands of Shiite militia killing Sunni clerics, Baghdad locked down, mortar rounds falling in the city, lots of bodies showing up as one side or the other went after family, workers pulled from trucks and executed on the spot, and the following Monday, someone blew up an important Sunni mosque. Sure looked like the start of a civil war. That was discussed in these pages here, and after that was posted there was discussion all over about what was going on.

There were these excerpts from ABC's Sunday Morning talk show "This Week" - conservative columnist George Will being interviewed by the host, George Stephanopoulos -
STEPHANOPOULOS: What does civil war look like?

WILL: This. This is a civil war.
Oh. And the problem is they don't even have a government, depending on how you define "government" -
Now, does Iraq have a government? Let me just postulate the question. A government exists when it has a reasonable monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. As long as the militias are out there, the existence of an Iraqi government is questionable. Think of Los Angeles. If Los Angeles said the Bloods and the Crips are going to be tolerated, they're going to be armed and police their areas and enforce the law in certain areas, what sense would Los Angeles have of government?
On the panel that Zakaria, fellow from Newsweek demurred -
ZAKARIA: It was a very bad week for Iraq. The fundamental problem here remains the original one, which is when people don't have a sense of security because there were not enough American troops, they will revert to their script, their tribal loyalty, the Sunni and Shiite. This happens in every society. That is what is happening, a pervasive sense of insecurity has made them search for security in the things they can find, which is their sectarian identities. But the fact that a few hundred people died - and it is a terrible tragedy - it does not necessarily mean we're on the brink of civil war. India goes through sectarian violence from time to time. Nigeria does -
That's when George Will broke in. He was having none of that.

But the news is getting better, or so the Associated Press tells us here - Baghdad was "generally peaceful" Monday after four days of widespread violence. Except for those mortar rounds and all the dead people. We learn that Sunni Arab leaders said they were prepared to end their boycott of the talks on a new government "if Shiites return mosques seized in reprisal attacks against Sunnis," and they meet other unspecified demands. Maybe that'll happen, maybe not.

Our Ambassador there, Zalmay Khalilzad, says the crisis is over - "I think the country came to the brink of a civil war, but the Iraqis decided that they didn't want to go down that path, and came together" He says it's clear "the terrorists who plotted that attack" really wanted to provoke a civil war - but "the Iraqis decided to come together." That's the official line now. It's not a civil war. Nope. It isn't.

Is it close enough? Does it matter what you call it?

Tim Grieve here says that whatever you call it, all this means is that Iraqis and our troops among them "may be starting to get back to where they were before the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra last week - which is to say, a long way from where the administration predicted they'd be."

You remember that, three years ago -
• Feb. 7, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to U.S. troops in Aviano, Italy: "It is unknowable how long that conflict will last. It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months."

• March 4, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a breakfast with reporters: "What you'd like to do is have it be a short, short conflict ... Iraq is much weaker than they were back in the '90s," when its forces were routed from Kuwait.

• March 11, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars: "The Iraqi people understand what this crisis is about. Like the people of France in the 1940s, they view us as their hoped-for liberator."

• March 16, Vice President Cheney, on NBC's Meet the Press: "I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators. . . . I think it will go relatively quickly, . . . (in) weeks rather than months." He predicted that regular Iraqi soldiers would not "put up such a struggle" and that even "significant elements of the Republican Guard . . . are likely to step aside."

The war begins

• March 20, President Bush, in an Oval Office speech to the nation: "A campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict."

• March 21, Rumsfeld, at a Pentagon news briefing: "The confusion of Iraqi officials is growing. Their ability to see what is happening on the battlefield, to communicate with their forces and to control their country is slipping away. ... The regime is starting to lose control of their country."

• March 27, Bush, at a news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, when asked how long the war would take: "However long it takes. That's the answer to your question and that's what you've got to know. It isn't a matter of timetable, it's a matter of victory."

• March 30, Myers, on Meet the Press: "Nobody should have any illusions that this is going to be a quick and easy victory. This is going to be a tough war, a tough slog yet, and no responsible official I know has ever said anything different once this war has started."

• March 30, Rumsfeld, on Fox News Sunday, when asked whether Iraqis would "celebrate in the streets" when victory is won: "We'll see."
They were adjusting as things developed. Now? It may look like a civil war but it really isn't. Honest.

Grieve also notes that Nearly 2,300 U.S. soldiers and maybe ten times as many Iraqis have died in the war so far. And that the insurgents appear free to attack almost at will. And that and basic services remain well below what they had before we invaded. And that the president says again and again that that our troops will come home as Iraqi security forces stand up - "As they stand up, we will stand down." So Grieve links to the story on all the wires - "The administration used to boast that one Iraqi battalion was able to function without US support; last week, it downgraded the ranking of even that battalion, meaning that there is currently not a single Iraqi battalion that the Pentagon deems capable of fighting on its own."

Not one. Going backwards. Close enough? Draw your own conclusions.

And as mentioned in these pages, fifty-five percent of the American public now thinks that it was a mistake to go to war in Iraq, and even Bill O'Reilly of Cheney's favorite bunch of "journalists," Fox News, says it is now time to get our troops out of there "as fast as humanly possible."

Not close enough. Not by a long shot.

On the other hand, political junkies could also see, on Fox News, the chief apologist for this grand neoconservative experiment in remaking the world, Bill Kristol, the editor of their bible, the Weekly Standard, say the problem really is we had just not made a serious effort in Iraq.

What? We'd been fooling around in Iraq and not doing much, so now it's time to get serious?

Well, to be fair, his point seemed to be the administration was always looking into the future and thinking about ways to reduce troop levels, a political thing politicians do - there are elections to worry about, and voters. That's what Kristol does not like at all. The administration should have told the American public we'd have a massive force in Iraq (and wherever else in the region is next) for decades, and the American public had better get used to it - but they didn't. So Bush and the gang aren't really "true believers" in the vision. Remember the apologists for communism - it was a great system but Stalin messed it up, and but for him it would have worked just fine? Same sort of thing. "Crooks and Liars" has the video here in two formats. It's amazing. The man has his vision. And what's happening is not "close enough" to the grand neoconservative vision. Bad Bush. He wasn't serious. Damn his eyes!

No one is happy. Late Monday, February 27th, we got the results of the latest CBS poll - the president's approval rating hit an all-time low, thirty-four percent (Cheney is now at eighteen percent, down for twenty-three last month). They must have polled a few of the neoconservative "true believers" along with the regular folks who are tired of this "close enough" approach to things.

And the port deal, where Dubai World Ports, owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, gets to run operations at six of our major ports, and twenty-one all told (Portland, Maine isn't major), may have something to do with the low numbers. (Cheney's low numbers are probably due to the shooting - lefties think he's a madman and the NRA types think he embarrassed all hunters with his carelessness.) The administration says there's no real problem this port deal - no one has to worry about security. We're covered, close enough. The numbers show that's not going down well, even if it might be true. "Close enough" don't cut it.

One suspects "close enough" is not working because this has to do with, as folks see it, life and death - our dead troops from Iraq, a bomb going off in Baltimore. They saw the latter in that movie, and the former is at your local cemetery.

And then last Friday, William F. Buckley, Jr., the "father" of modern conservatism published this National Review editorial - It Didn't Work. What didn't work? The elective war to change the world. Iraq. "One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed."

Of course he's taking about the current American "close enough" objective, establish a Jeffersonian democracy with an unregulated free-market entrepreneurial economy and all that, not the ones that didn't fly - getting one key guy who was connected to 9/11, getting rid of the man trying to build a nuclear weapon, getting rid of the other WMD there, and all the others. But whatever the current justification, the old man sees this -
Our mission has failed because Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable by an invading army of 130,000 Americans. The great human reserves that call for civil life haven't proved strong enough. No doubt they are latently there, but they have not been able to contend against the ice men who move about in the shadows with bombs and grenades and pistols.
So the objective doesn't matter. These are just awful folks?

Well, not exactly. We ourselves were mistake in our "postulates" -
One of these postulates, from the beginning, was that the Iraqi people, whatever their tribal differences, would suspend internal divisions in order to get on with life in a political structure that guaranteed them religious freedom.

The accompanying postulate was that the invading American army would succeed in training Iraqi soldiers and policymakers to cope with insurgents bent on violence.
He says they're both false. No "close enough" for him.

The reaction from the war supporters was predictable, here and here for example - the old guy has no patience, things take time and last week was only a temporary setback. From the other side there were items like this - "To the progressive movement, getting an unlikely ally like the columnist is a huge moral victory." Whatever.

The National Review's current editors shot back with this - "If Iraq ever descends into a real civil war, we won't have to debate whether it has happened. It will be clear for all to see. The military will dissolve into ethnic factions, and the government will collapse. That hasn't happened, and so declarations of defeat in Iraq - of the sort our founder and editor-at-large William F. Buckley Jr. made last week - are pre-mature. That view could ultimately be proven right, but there is no way to know with certainty at this point ... The outcome depends, as is always the case, on the choices made by the players, including ourselves. Even if our influence in Iraq is waning, our commitment - and the specific forms it takes - still matters very much. Defeatism will be self-fulfilling."

Yeah, yeah. The military has not dissolved into ethnic factions, completely, and the government hasn't yet collapsed (it hasn't formed yet). It's just that everyone sees just that happening pretty much in real time. These guys think we'll pull some rabbit from some hat and things will be fine. "Defeatism will be self-fulfilling." Right. Don't believe your eyes. Think positive thoughts. Those positive thoughts will create the positive reality. Clap your hands and Tinkerbell will not die. Been there. Who do you think is right?

So we may be doing fine, or close enough. Or not. Of course it's not just Buckley jumping ship, as mentioned previously, on the 19th in the New York Times Magazine, Francis "The End of History" Fukuyama published a book excerpt renouncing neoconservatism and its visionaries - Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan and the crew who infected our government with this fever. He calls them Leninist - "They believed that history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will." Well, visionaries are like that. They're kind of dangerous. And Fukuyama that this mess in Iraq will lead to a new American isolationism. His idea? We need to rethink things - we need "ideas that retain the neoconservative belief in the universality of human rights, but without its illusions about the efficacy of American power and hegemony to bring these ends about."

Two comments from the odd Andrew Sullivan, now writing for Time Magazine.

This -
... For my part, I think he gets his analysis almost perfectly right. In retrospect, neoconservatives (and I fully include myself) made three huge errors in the last few years. The first was to over-estimate the competence of government, especially in extremely delicate areas like WMD intelligence. The shock of 9/11 provoked an understandable but still mistaken over-estimation of the risks we faced. And our fear forced errors into a deeply fallible system. The result was the WMD intelligence debacle, something that did far more damage to the war's legitimacy and fate than many have yet absorbed. Fukuyama's sharpest insight here is into how the near miracle of the end of the Cold War almost certainly lulled many of us into over-confidence about the inevitability of democratic change, and its ease. We got cocky. We should have known better.

The second error was narcissism. America's power blinded many of us to the resentments that such power must necessarily provoke. Those resentments are often as deep among our global acquaintances as enemies - in fact, may be deeper. Acting without a profound understanding of the dangers to the US of inflaming such resentment is imprudent. This is not to say we shouldn't act at times despite them, unilaterally if necessary. Sometimes, the right thing to do will inevitably spawn resentment. We should do it anyway. But that makes it all the more imperative that we get things right, that we bend over backwards to maintain the moral high-ground, and that we make our margin of error as small as possible. The Bush administration, alas, did none of these things. They compounded conceptual errors with still-incomprehensible recklessness, pig-headedness and incompetence in preparing for the aftermath of Saddam.

The final error was not taking culture seriously enough. Fukuyama is absolutely right to note the discrepancy between neoconservatism's skepticism towards government's ability to change culture at home and its naivete when it comes to complex, tribal, sectarian and un-Western cultures, like Iraq's, abroad. We have learned a tough lesson, and it's been a lot tougher for those tens of thousands of dead innocent Iraqis and several thousand killed and injured American soldiers than it is for a few humiliated intellectuals. American ingenuity and pragmatism on the ground may be finally turning things around, but the original policy errors have made their work infinitely harder. The correct response to this is not more triumphalism and spin, but a real sense of shame and sorrow that so many have died because of errors made by their superiors, and by intellectuals like me.
Elsewhere he says Fukuyama "does us all a favor by laying those errors out in full view."

So? Big deal. You guys got it all wrong and people died and we're in a world of hurt.

At the anti-Bush "A Call to Action" you get this - "While those Americans who always opposed the Iraq War may see this unseemly scramble of Bush's former allies as a classic case of rats deserting a sinking ship, the loss of these two prominent thinkers of the Right mark a turning point in the political battle over the US occupation of Iraq."

Maybe. Perhaps a turning point is when the rats go mainstream - Monday, February 27, Francis "The End of History" Fukuyama was the featured guest on MSNBC's rising show "Countdown with Keith Olbermann."

Something is up. The president does his "things are fine, or close enough" speeches. The opposition never liked that casual approach to war and national security, seeing a dim-witted frat boy and a bald and nasty old man behind him messing up everything we've work for since we started this American experiment. And now supporters are miffed too.

Where's it all leading?

Close enough doesn't cut it.

See this (Monday, February 27, 2006) -
Most of the president's critics have already fixed their gaze on the 2006 congressional elections, but there are still a hardy few talking of a more dramatic remedy for what ails the country: impeachment.

The Center for Constitutional Rights announced today the publication of "Articles of Impeachment Against George W. Bush." It's a book, not an enactment of the House of Representatives, but the CCR says it's serious nonetheless. "President Bush has forced America into a grave constitutional crisis by breaking the law and violating the constitutional principles of separation of powers," CCR legal director Bill Goodman says in a statement. "This book is not a policy debate, but a legal case for impeachment based on the president's repeated illegal actions."

The CCR says Bush has committed impeachable offenses by authorizing warrantless wiretaps in violation of the Constitution and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; by ordering the indefinite detention, rendition, torture and abuse of terrorism suspects; by lying to Congress about the reasons for the Iraq war; and by generally violating the constitutional separation of powers "by arrogating excessive power to the executive branch."

The CCR book comes on the heels of an essay in Harper's in which Lewis Lapham starts skeptically, then finds himself asking why Americans should run the risk of not impeaching the president. "We have before us in the White House a thief who steals the country's good name and reputation for his private interest and personal use; a liar who seeks to instill in the American people a state of fear; a televangelist who engages the United States in a never-ending crusade against all the world's evil, a wastrel who squanders a vast sum of the nation's wealth on what turns out to be a recruiting drive certain to multiply the host of our enemies," Lapham writes. There's a word for such a man, he says: criminal.

Lapham's take, in turn, spins out of Michigan Rep. John Conyers' resolution calling for the creation of a select committee to investigate possible grounds for impeachment. Conyers' resolution hasn't gone anywhere but the House Rules Committee, where it will ultimately die a slow death. But it isn't for lack of intense interest, at least among a minority of the minority: Twenty-six other members of Congress have signed on as cosponsors so far.
It is possible, although unlikely, that this minority of the minority, may shift to becoming a minority of the majority, given the new CBS poll. That may happen. Then, next...

Close enough just isn't cutting it.

Or maybe it still is. People have their own personal lives to consider. This is all unimportant to them, until the neighbor's kid comes home in a box, or Baltimore lies in radioactive ruin.

Such things, what we do in the world, do matter.

Posted by Alan at 22:06 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 27 February 2006 22:19 PST home

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