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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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Saturday, 21 October 2006
Gloom and Doom
Topic: Perspective
Gloom and Doom
Eleanor Hall hosts The World Today - a weekday lunch hour current affairs show on ABC Local Radio and Radio National, except the ABC in this case is the Australian Broadcast Company - think BBC with kangaroos or something. It's one of those NR-style shows - background and debate from Australia and the world - offering what Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, calls thumb-suckers. It's background on the news, extended background. But the show on Thursday, 19 October, seems to have caused a stir beyond the land down under. And of course noon Thursday in Sidney was seven in the evening Wednesday in Hollywood, and it wasn't until Friday before folks here started to notice this - Eleanor Hall interviews a famous military strategist who says the United States has lost control Iraq, and maybe never really has it anyway.

This is depressing. Could it be so? The link has the transcript and the audio in three different formats, but the gist of it is in her introduction -
A key US military strategist who counts the former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, among his students, is absolutely scathing about the current Bush administration's strategy in Iraq and says no one except the President is in any doubt that it should change. Harlan Ullman who's now at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says the US lost control of events in Iraq almost immediately after the invasion and that far from assisting in the development of democracy, the US-led allies, including Australia, have fomented chaos. But Dr Ullman says he holds out little hope that either the escalating US deaths in Iraq or the recommendations now being developed by a senior policy adviser to the former Bush administration, James Baker, will convince the President to change his mind.
That's cheery, or in his own words -
We lost control of events on the ground probably in April or May of 2003. And it's taken a long time for that recognition to dawn in the White House.

The President and the administration has refused to recognize reality. Iraq is a disaster. It is a disaster at every level, and to think that they've got a functioning government and to think that the situation is better today than it was in 2003 or 2004, or 2005, is unbelievable.

We have a catastrophe on our hands and of course we've got to make course corrections and the only guy in town who seems not to be able to recognize that, sadly, is the President.

And so under these circumstances, it's very difficult to move forward because of the power of the President, and how you get the President to change his or her mind, in this case his mind, is extremely difficult.

But of course we're on a stupid course, but that doesn't mean that we are going to change it quickly enough to make a difference.
Well, we elected someone resolute - so we'd better learn to live with it, except for the troops who die, who won't.

But, but… they had elections and we could eventually get a fine democracy there.

No -
It's just not conceivable, it is not feasible, probably in our lifetime. We should have understood that from the beginning, but we haven't, and what we have to do now is limit the damage in Iraq, so it does not spill over the borders and create a further catastrophe in the Middle East, which we cannot contain.
But James Baker's Iraq Study Group will come up with something, won't they?

No -
I know the people on the group, they are rational, and they are smart. And anybody who has looked at this, who is rational, smart and objective, understands that we are losing, that we have to change things, that we have to change our strategy, we have to take American, British, Australian troops out of the line of fire, get them out of Baghdad, get them out of Basra. It's up to the Iraqis.

We know what we have to do is to defend the sovereignty of Iraq, that is the borders, we've got to train, but it's up to the Iraqis. We also have to have a regional conference on Iraq with all the powers, we've got to talk to Iran, and we've got to talk to Syria. Question is, how do you get the President to listen?
Well, you don't. Everyone knows that, and more than a few people have pointed out the one of the dynamics in play here - like so many former alcoholics (or dry-drunks or "recovering alcoholics" or whatever term you use) who skipped AA and declined medical treatment and quit by sheer force of will or in Bush's case, as he claims, by finding Jesus, you get stuck in a certain kind of rigidity. That's what saved you. You know that any kind of wavering on anything will destroy you. That rigidity is what holds your whole personality together. Loosen up and you'll go mad, or be back on the sauce - you'll lose who you are, the person you worked so hard to create from the previous chaos. Your will, and in this case, your belief in Jesus as your most very personal savior, is all you have. Many of us have met these folks - it's classic, and commonplace. There's no point is asking them to consider alternatives, to consider different points of view. All they see there is a black pit that will swallow them whole. It's an existential thing.

Ullman, of course, is not concerned with the psychodynamics here. He just observes the overt behavior, and of the suggestions floating around that the Baker group will recommend the United States seek should seek assistance from Syria and Iran - open a diplomatic front with these two states and get everyone together to work out some sort of stability - he knows that's not going to happen -
No, and that's the problem, because the President is going to hold and is going to say I've got to stay the course and I can't talk to members of the axis of evil. This is the issue.

I mean, George Bush will not change his mind, he's the President. Iraq, the government there, is divided along ethnic lines, it cannot control the militias, it cannot control anything.

And so to say we can't change our course means that we're going to lose this. And what I mean by "lose" is that Iraq becomes a chaotic state, and that chaos extends throughout the greater Middle East. And all of us will suffer for it.

… James Baker is not well received by George W. Bush. Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, Jim Baker, they worked for his father. And they are rational, they are pragmatic, and they are right. And their views butt directly against the President's.

So, it is tough, even though Jim Baker was instrumental in helping George Bush win the (inaudible) and gain the presidency, I think that there is little friendship in that area.

And what you're saying to the President of the United States, somebody who's got a huge ego, who is very, very, very stubborn, "you are wrong". And George Bush does not want to admit he's wrong.
There's more. It's not pretty. But it's not the "huge ego" - it's the desperate rigidity, the fear you see in the man's eyes, the fear he may lose it all.

Dan Froomkin, late Friday in his Washington Post compilation of who's said what about all this, suggests the problem is simply the ugly truth -
It's often said that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

But there may be nothing that goes against President Bush's nature more than doing just that.

When it comes to Iraq, Bush's political strategy in the run-up to the mid-term elections has been to stress the possible downsides of the "cut and run" approach - civil war, increased carnage, instability at the heart of the Middle East, Iraq as a base for terror - while refusing to acknowledge that his "stay the course" approach, ironically, appears to be delivering all those things and more.

Now, a presidency that has been all about aggression risks a major public rebuff as a sizeable majority of the Americans appears to have accepted what Bush can't: That his brassy approach has backfired - and that it's we who are getting beaten up.

Evidently, something needs to change. But what?

The Bush White House (and its press corps) often confuse tactics, strategy and goals. Tactics are what you use in the service of the strategy you choose to achieve your goal. Even the best tactics, in pursuit of an ill-chosen strategy, will not achieve the desired goal.

Bush's goal is a stable, secure, democratic Iraq. His strategy is for American troops to stay there until that happens. The tactics are getting those troops killed.

And while the president has been talking about adjusting tactics lately, he can't accept that his strategy may need changing - or even his goal. At least not yet.
And William Arkin puts the facts on the table -
Long ago, the Bush administration decided, with its stand-up/stand-down policy, that it was content not to "win" the Iraq war.

The American people got it, and withdrew their support.

Beyond politics, because American honor and credibility, and American security, were at risk if we precipitously withdrew, the Bush administration promised we were on the road to turning Iraq over to the Iraqis, and it grasped at every possible indicator that things were getting better to justify continued American deaths and injuries. Maybe they believed it.

Many months later, the vision has been proven wrong, and we are no where near standing down. Iraq is close to anarchy, and American boys and girls are held hostage until after next month's elections and until after the new political line-up emerges.

It is tragic, and there is no magical or easy answer. Withdrawal of U.S. forces is a foregone conclusion at this point. That is to say, it is one hundred percent certain that the United States will be out of Iraq before there is peace, Republican or Democratic rule.
But what do the Democrats purpose? That kind of doesn't matter, as one of Josh Marshall's readers points out -
Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were in the front seat.

They drove the Iraq car off a cliff.

Then they turned to the Dems in the back seat.

And said the Dems couldn't complain unless they could come up with a plan of their own.

The tragedy is that there is no rational hope for a plan (any plan) that will work well. When you've driven the car off the cliff, your range of options is quite limited. We're in the hands of gravity at this point.
Gravity is notoriously unforgiving.

One more voice might be worth listening to - Chas Freeman. He might know a few things. He hangs around in the background. He was the principal American interpreter during the President Nixon's visit to China in 1972, but wasn't in the opera about all that. Ping, Pang and Pong are the diplomatic guys in Turandot. Adams would have none of that in his opera.

Freeman was also Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs from 1993-94, and has his public service awards from the Department of Defense for his roles in designing a NATO-centered post-Cold War European security system and in reestablishing defense and military relations with China. And he was our ambassador to Saudi Arabia during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Previously he served as Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d'Affaires in our embassies at Bangkok (1984-1986) and Beijing (1981-1984). He was Director for Chinese Affairs at the Department of State from 1979-1981.

So he knows a few things, and he knows we're in trouble - we have lost international support not because foreigners hate our values but because they believe we are repudiating them and behaving contrary to them -
Americans began our independence with an act of public diplomacy, an appeal for international support, based upon a "decent regard to the opinions of mankind."

And through the end of the 20th century, no country was then more widely admired or emulated than ours. The superior features of our society - our insistence on individual liberty under law; the equality of opportunity we had finally extended to all; the egalitarianism of our prosperity; our openness to ideas, change, and visitors; our generous attention to the development of other nations; our sacrifices to defend small states against larger predators both in the Cold War and, most recently, in the war to liberate Kuwait; our championship of international order and the institutions we had created to maintain it after World War II; the vigor of our democracy and our dedication to untrammeled debate - were recognized throughout the world. Critics of our past misadventures, as in Vietnam, had been silenced by the spectacle of our demonstrable success.
But then we had our national nervous breakdown. It seem 9/11 did change everything All that was "before" stuff -
It was before we panicked and decided to construct a national-security state that would protect us from the risks posed by foreign visitors or evil-minded Americans armed with toenail clippers or liquid cosmetics. It was before we decided that policy debate is unpatriotic and realized that the only thing foreigners understand is the use of force. It was before we replaced the dispassionate judgments of our intelligence community with the faith-based analyses of our political leaders. It was before we embraced the spin-driven strategies that have stranded our armed forces in Afghanistan, marched them off to die in the terrorist ambush of Iraq, and multiplied and united our Muslim enemies rather than diminishing and dividing them. It was before we began to throw our values overboard in order to stay on course while evading attack.

It was before, in a mere five years, we transformed ourselves from 9/11's object of almost universal sympathy and support into the planet's most despised nation, with its most hateful policies.

You can verify this deplorable reality with polling data or you can experience it firsthand by traveling abroad. Neither is anything a thoughtful patriot can enjoy. In most Arab and Muslim lands (which include many in Africa and Asia) the percentage of those who now wish us ill is statistically indistinguishable from unanimity. In many formerly friendly countries in Europe and Latin America, those with a favorable opinion of us are in the low double digits. Polls show that China is almost everywhere more admired than the United States. We used to attract 9 percent of tourists internationally; now we're down to 6. The best and the brightest from around the world came to our universities; now, very often, they go elsewhere. We are steadily losing market share in the global economy.

Suffice it to say that the atmosphere is such that men like Hugo Chávez Frías and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad felt confident of a warm response to their unprecedentedly anti-American diatribes at the UN. And that's what they received. Clearly, we are now more than "misunderestimated," to employ a useful word coined by our president; we are badly misevaluated and misunderstood abroad.
And we have reacted in one of three ways, the first being the Roman model -
Caligula's motto for effective foreign policy was ODERINT DUM METUANT - "let them hate us, as long as they fear us." Some, many of whom seem to inhabit the bubble universe created by our media as an alternative to the real world, agree with Caligula and the cult of his followers in the Administration and on the Hill. They think it's just fine for foreigners to hate us as long as we've got the drop on them and are in a position to string 'em up. They're surprised that "shock and awe" has so far proven to be an inadequate substitute for strategy, but they're eager to try it again and again on the theory that, if force doesn't work the first time, the answer is to apply more force.
The second is your basic denial -
That's the only way I can explain the notion of "transformational diplomacy" coming up at this time. Look, I'm all for the missionary position. But, let's face it, it's hard to get it on with foreigners when you've lost your sex appeal. A democracy that stifles debate at home, that picks and chooses which laws it will ignore or respect, and whose opposition party whines but does not oppose, is - I'm sorry to say - not one with much standing to promote democracy abroad. A government that responds to unwelcome election results by supporting efforts to correct them with political assassinations and cluster bombs has even less credibility in this regard. (If democracies don't fight democracies, by the way, what are Gaza and Lebanon all about? But that's another discussion.)
The third is the new call for a return to public diplomacy, "this time on steroids." But that's probably not going to work -
… as we all know, Americans no longer do diplomacy ourselves. We are very concerned that, by talking to foreigners with whom we disagree, we might inadvertently suggest that we respect them and are prepared to work with them rather than preparing to bomb them into peaceful coexistence. Both at home and abroad, we respond to critics by stigmatizing and ostracizing them. To avoid sending a signal of reasonableness or willingness to engage in dialogue, we do threats, not diplomacy. That's something we outsource to whomever we can find to take on the morally reprehensible task of conducting it.

Usually, this means entrusting our interests to people we manifestly distrust. Thus, I note, we've outsourced Korea to Beijing even as we arm ourselves against the Chinese; we've outsourced Iran to the French and other fuddy-duddies in the officially cowardly and passé "Old Europe;" and we've outsourced the UN to that outspoken international scofflaw, John Bolton, who, despite representing us in Turtle Bay, remains unconfirmable - as well as indescribable in polite company. We can't find anyone dumb enough to take on the Sisyphean task of rolling the Israeli rock up the hill of peace or to step in for us in Iraq so we try to pretend, with respect to both, that the absence of a peace process equates to the absence of a problem. Everything is under control and going just fine.
But that's not the biggest problem. There's this -
As our founding fathers understood so well, for public diplomacy to persuade foreigners even to give us and our policies the benefit of the doubt, let alone to support us, we must put on at least the appearance of a decent respect for their opinion. Persuasiveness begins with a reputation for wisdom, probity and effectiveness, but succeeds by showing empathy and concern for the interests of others. Finally, it's easier to make the case for judgments that have some grounding in reality, and for policies that have a plausible prospect of mutually beneficial results, than for those that don't.

I will not dwell on how poorly our current approaches measure up to these standards. Americans are now famous internationally for our ignorance and indifference to the world beyond our borders. We are becoming infamous for our disregard for the fate of foreigners who perish at our hands or from our munitions. Some of our military officers sincerely mourn the civilian Arab deaths their operations and those with whom we have allied ourselves cause; there is no evidence that many other Americans are the least bit disturbed by them.

Not content just to let foreigners - Arabs and Muslims, in particular - hate us, we often seem to go out of our way to speak and act in such a way as to compel them to do so. Consider Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, the practice of kidnapping and "rendition," our public defense of torture, or the spectacle of American officials fending off peace while urging the further maiming of Lebanon and its people. Catastrophically mistaken policies based on intelligence cooked to fit the policy recipe have combined with the debacle of Iraq reconstruction and the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina to discredit American competence with foreign governments and publics alike. It's hard to find anybody out there who believes we know what we're doing or that we have a sound grasp of our own interests, let alone any understanding or concern for theirs. We have given the terrorists what they cannot have dared dream we would - policies and practices that recruit new terrorists but that leave no space for our friends and former admirers to make their case for us or for our values or policies.
So we're screwed. And it seems not much will change, even if the upcoming elections sweep the Democrats into power -
Judging by its record, the so-called opposition party has suffered from the same hallucinations that made us so sure that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that there was an urgent need to eliminate them; the same delusional beliefs that foreign occupation - because it was by Americans - would be seen as liberation, that regime removal in Afghanistan and Iraq would result in democratization, and that inside every Arab there is an American struggling to come out; the same disorganized thinking that equates elections to democracy, and the same ruthless impulse to reject and punish the results of democracy when - as in the case of the Palestinian elections this past January - Americans find these results uncongenial.

Neither party is in the least introspective. Both are happy to attribute all our problems to the irrationality of foreigners and to reject consideration of whether our attitudes, concepts, and policies might not have contributed to them. Both are xenophobic, Islamophobic, Arabophobic, and anti-immigrant. The two parties vie to see which can be more sycophantic toward whoever's in charge in Israel and to be most supportive of whatever Israel and its American lobby wish us to do. Neither has a responsible or credible solution to the mess we have created in Iraq, a plan for war termination in Afghanistan, an answer for how to deal with Korean issues, a vision for relations with China or other rising powers, or a promising approach to Iran or the challenge of post-Fidel Cuba, among other issues. … Neither party displays any willingness to learn from the successes and errors of foreigners, and both are unjustifiably complacent about our international competitiveness.

Both Republicans and Democrats seem to consider that statecraft boils down to two options: appeasement; or sanctions followed by military assault. Both behave as though national security and grand strategy require no more than a military component and as though feeding the military-industrial complex is the only way to secure our nation. Both praise our armed forces, ignore their cavils about excessive reliance on the use of force, count on them to attempt forlorn tasks, lament their sacrifices, and blithely propose still more feckless tasks and ill-considered deployments for them. Together, our two parties are well along in destroying the finest military the world has ever seen.

So now what. The contention he is we get real - "the threat the United States now faces is vastly less grave but much more ill-defined than that we faced during the Cold War."

Think about it -

Muslim extremists seek to drive us from their lands by hurting us. They neither seek to destroy nor to convert nor to conquer us. They can in fact do none of these things. The threat we now face does not in any way justify the sacrifice of the civil liberties and related values we defended against the far greater threats posed by fascism or Soviet communism. Terrorists win if they terrorize; to defeat them, we must reject inordinate fear and the self-destructive things it may make us do.

… Muslim extremists cannot destroy us and what we have stood for, but we can surely forfeit our moral convictions and so discredit our values that we destroy ourselves. We have lost international support not because foreigners hate our values but because they believe we are repudiating them and behaving contrary to them. To prevail, we must remember who we are and what we stand for. If we can rediscover and reaffirm the identity and values that made our republic so great, we will find much support abroad, including among those in the Muslim world we now wrongly dismiss as enemies rather than friends.
That's not going to happen with our own Caligula, Cheney, directing everything. We may be "a far better and more courageous people than we currently appear," but those who represent us don't seem to want anyone to know that.

It seems that things are not going well. There's little or no reason to think they'll get any better.

Posted by Alan at 15:42 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 21 October 2006 15:44 PDT home

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