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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, 23 October 2006
Stuck on Stupid
Topic: Couldn't be so...
Stuck on Stupid
"Stuck on stupid" somehow moved from ghetto slang into general parlance. Take yourself back to September 20, 2005 - Hurricane Katrina had done its damage and Rita was on the way, heading for Galveston and cities inland. Susan Olasky notes this from one of the press conferences -
Lt. General Russell Honore, in charge of the National Guard in New Orleans, is trying to get reporters there to focus on getting out evacuation instructions for Hurricane Rita: "Let's not get stuck on the last storm. You're asking last storm questions for people who are concerned about the future storm. Don't get stuck on stupid, reporters. We are moving forward. And don't confuse the people, please."

When a reporter persisted - "General, a little bit more about why that's happening this time, though, and we did not have that last time..." - Honore responded, "You are stuck on stupid. I'm not going to answer that question. We are going to deal with Rita. This is public information that people are depending on the government to put out. We can have a conversation on the side about the past, in a couple of months."
You can find the full transcript and audio here. The general is more than frustrated. The reporters keep pressing him on why he thinks things will go fine this time, when they didn't go fine last time and New Orleans was lost. Then he explodes and blurts out the real classic - "Wait a minute. It didn't work the first time. THIS AIN'T THE FIRST TIME!"

If something didn't work the first time, you keep doing it. It'll work the second time, maybe. It really should. And if it doesn't, you try it the third time. You stick with what you think should work. Evidence that it doesn't work is being stuck in the past - you always have to look to the future, and do whatever it is again and again. To the reporters that seemed like being stuck on stupid but didn't use those words, and it worried them, but the general thought they were stuck on stupid, stuck on what happened in the past, and he kept hammering them with those three words. But there was no test of who was stuck - Rita veered away and missed the cities.

Fast forward one year, one month and three days to Monday, October 23, 2006, where the Associated Press reports here - "Under election-year pressure to change course in Iraq, the Bush administration said Monday there are no plans for dramatic shifts in policy or for ultimatums to Baghdad to force progress."

So two weeks before the midterm elections where the Republicans may lose control of at least one house in congress, the White House tried to calm folks down about the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Iraq - what seems like chaos no one can contain. And both Democratic and Republican lawmakers are calling on the president to change his war plan. It's that "stuck on stupid" thing again - and the question is just who is stuck. Is it the administration, persisting in doing what clearly doesn't work in the hope it might work if we just try harder or adjust some details? Or is it the growing opposition - stuck on the idea it won't work, not realizing this is not early March 2003 - Saddam is now gone, so are his incredibly nasty sons, there have been a series of elections and an actual government has been put in place, however hapless, and the conditions are really quite promising now? Take your choice.

Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, doesn't much care - "We're on the verge of chaos, and the current plan is not working." He told the Associated Press that United States and Iraqi officials really should be "held accountable for the lack of progress." Heads should roll and all that. So they asked him who he had in mind. Would that be Rumsfeld or the generals leading the war? Graham said - "All of them. It's their job to come up with a game plan." Note he did not name the president. Having a plan, a new one that might work, does not seem to be the commander-in-chief's job. It must be like professional football - the coach and his assistants come up with what should be a winning game plan, while the owner sits above it all in his air-conditioned skybox, sipping bourbon, chatting with his friends, and waiting to see how the plan works out. The grunts on steroids and amphetamines, mostly minority freaks, slamming into each other for sixty minutes are a minor matter. And if it looks like you're losing, or do lose, the coach can explain that all in the post game interviews. Maybe it's not exactly like that. But Lindsey Graham did exclude the president for some reason. In any event, he thinks someone is defiantly stuck on stupid.

The president says it's not him. The same day he appeared on the business network CNBC - this is the week he is scheduled to talk up how well the economy is doing and that all the middle class folks who don't think so should be just be a little more patient. He gave CNBC an exclusive interview - with the sultry and smoldering money-babe Maria Bartiromo (video here) - and said he's not stuck. That went like this - "Well, I've been talking about a change in tactics ever since I - ever since we went in, because the role of the commander in chief is to say to our generals, 'You adjust to the enemy on the battlefield.'"

Maybe the professional football analogy was fine - owners don't lose games, coaches do. You tell them to come up with a good game plan, you tell them to be flexible, but sometimes they screw up. What are you going to do?

And the head couch was working on things. Rumsfeld, in simultaneous remarks at the Pentagon, said we're now working with Iraq to set "broad time frames" for when Iraqis can take over sixteen provinces that are under our control - and no one was talking about penalizing the Iraqis if they don't hit certain benchmarks. Heck, they already have taken control in two provinces - nothing anywhere near Baghdad of course, but there was a plan. And earlier in the day Rumsfeld had visited the White House with General Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for a chat about when the Iraqis might move a bit closer to setting up a reconciliation process to help things between Sunnis and Shiites. See? There's some sort of game plan. There just won't be a change in policy - no force drawdown, not talks with Iran or Syria or any other nation in that neighborhood, no choosing other cities for attention, no negotiations or diplomacy of any kind. Nothing like that. Whack-a-mole is the policy. When the locals can whack their own moles, we'll move on.

The more dignified and official way of putting that is this - "Our policy is stand up/stand down; as the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down."

That's it, all of it.

Still AP notes that Joseph Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said two Republicans have told him they will demand a new policy in Iraq after the election. They're fed up with stand up/stand down and tinkering around the edges - but Biden wouldn't say who the two were. He said both knew the Rove Rule that went out to all Republicans - don't make waves before the election because it could cost the party seats. You don't cross Rove.

Our kids are dying, but there are the midterm elections to think about. It's a matter of priorities, and everyone has them -
Showing progress in Iraq is critical with the approaching elections, which are widely viewed as a referendum on public support of the war. In Baghdad on Tuesday, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander there, are scheduled to hold a rare joint news conference.

Facing growing impatience with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's failure to stem the carnage, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said international forces must not abandon Iraq while the situation there remains volatile.

"I do believe there is no option for the international community to cut and run," he told reporters after meeting Prime Minister Tony Blair in London. He said Iraqis and the international community need to be realistic, "but not defeatist."

"We need to understand that there is a need of utmost urgency to deal with many of the problems of Iraq but we must not give in to panic," he said.
Nope, panic is bad. As you recall the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has just two words on the cover - "Don't Panic" - and recommended you should always have a dry towel handy. You could look it up.

So make sure you have a towel and don't panic, even when the same day you see things this -
Shiite militiamen loyal to a fiery anti-American Shiite cleric re-emerged in the troubled southern city of Amarah on Monday, dragging four policemen aligned with a rival Shiite militia from their homes and killing them.

Witnesses said the Iraqi army, camped on the edge of the city, was doing nothing to stop the resurgence of Shiite-on-Shiite violence. Iraq's leaders sent a force of about 500 soldiers to the city late last week after Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen stormed the city and attacked police stations, manned primarily by loyalists of the rival Badr Brigades, also a Shiite militia.

… In Amarah, gunmen dragged police Lt. Sarmad Majid al-Shatti from his home before dawn, then dumped his bullet-riddled body at a farm on the city's outskirts, said Ali Chaloub of Sadr General Hospital. Another policeman, Lt. Alaa al-Kabi was shot to death outside his home, Chaloub said.

At about the same time, provincial policemen Hamid Majeed and Hassan Abdullah were kidnapped from their homes, and their bodies were later found dumped outside the city, Chaloub said.

Badr fighters took revenge, killing and beheading the teenage brother of the local Mahdi Army commander. The Mahdi commander was killed Thursday, setting in motion the Amarah violence.
The Washington Post here notes that this isn't the Sunni-Shiite violence - it's fighting between rival Shiite militias operated by factions actually within the ruling coalition. That renders the "we stand down when they stand up" thing a bit absurd. They're not standing up in any sense we expect - they have other issues. And our role is what, exactly?

But there was an adjustment - over the weekend the president said "staying the course" was never his strategy. (See this and this.) But what is our strategy? What are the new options?

Dan Froomkin in the Post has this -
Said Bush: "Well, listen, we've never been stay the course, George. We have been - we will complete the mission, we will do our job and help achieve the goal, but we're constantly adjusting the tactics, constantly."

… So it would be big news if Bush were finally considering a change in strategy - not just tactics. And that's precisely what David S. Cloud reported in the Sunday New York Times.

Cloud wrote: "The Bush administration is drafting a timetable for the Iraqi government to address sectarian divisions and assume a larger role in securing the country, senior American officials said.

… "[F]or the first time Iraq was likely to be asked to agree to a schedule of specific milestones, like disarming sectarian militias, and to a broad set of other political, economic and military benchmarks intended to stabilize the country.
Bill Montgomery deals with that here -
None of this babbling makes any sense, in other words. Nor is it remotely in scale with the size of the Cheney administration's failure in Iraq. Part of me thinks it's all being driven by the need of beltway journalists and think tankers alike to have something new to say about Iraq, something that isn't a variation on: "Yep. We're still fucked." But there's obviously a hard edge of real desperation - if not despair - behind this. America's ruling elites have had things largely their own way for the past couple of decades. But now they're looking at a bottomless quagmire that may have a much bigger disaster (like loss of access to Persian Gulf oil) hidden somewhere in the mud. And they don't have a clue about what to do. They've lost control, which is the last thing any ruling elite can afford to admit.

Small wonder then, that the policy "debate" has now crossed the line into complete fantasy - like a long piece of dialogue pulled from Waiting for Godot. The realists have turned into surrealists. Baker now sounds almost as naive and deluded as Bush.
And they cannot even keep their story straight. Note Alex at Martini Republic here -
After all, what real choices are we left with, after nearly four years of bungling? How does "stability first" or "stand up/stand down" differ from "stay the course," except for semantics? And how are we going to get an Iraqi government to "stand up" and achieve "stability first" when militias allied with the two strongest factions of the ruling Shiite coalition are executing each other's people in the street in front of their homes?
Good question, and the answer is not - "Wait a minute. It didn't work the first time. THIS AIN'T THE FIRST TIME!"

No, things are different now. And before the Tribune Corporation disassembles the Los Angeles Times and turns it into a shopping guide with movie reviews, they still offer the background only a good newspaper can with, Monday, October 23, Into the Abyss of Baghdad -
I keep seeing his face. He appears to be in his mid-20s, bespectacled, slightly bearded, and somehow his smile conveys a sense of prosperity to come. Perhaps he is set to marry, or enroll in graduate school, or launch a business - all of these flights of ambition seem possible.

In the next few images he is encased in plastic: His face is frozen in a ghoulish grimace. Blackened lesions blemish his neck.

"Drill holes," says Col. Khaled Rasheed, an Iraqi commander who is showing me the set of photographs.

He preserves the snapshots in a drawer, the image of the young man brimming with expectations always on top. There is no name, no identification, just a series of photos that documents the transformation of some mother's son into a slab of meat on a bloody table in a morgue.

"Please, please, I must show these photographs to President Bush," Rasheed pleads in desperation, as we sit in a bombed-out palace along the Tigris, once the elegant domain of Saddam Hussein's wife, now the command center for an Iraqi army battalion. "President Bush must know what is happening in Baghdad!"
Like he would care? He listens to the vice president who thinks people literally getting holes drilled in the head is an Iraqi tactic to deny them a Republican majority, as in this -
On Oct. 17, Cheney told Limbaugh: 'I was reading something today that a writer - I don't remember who - was speculating on increased terrorist attacks in Iraq attempting to demoralize the American people as we get up to the election. And when I read that, it made sense to me. And I interpreted this as that the terrorists are actually involved and want to involve themselves in our electoral process, which must mean they want a change.

… [The] show was not the first time Cheney has suggested terrorists have picked favorites in the upcoming election.

In August, Cheney told wire service reporters that 'al-Qaeda types' were looking to break the will of the American people to stay and fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. He linked that al-Qaeda effort to the Connecticut Democratic primary rejection of Iraq war supporter Sen. Joe Lieberman.
As Digby at Hullabaloo points out, It's all about them, you see. And so it is.

More from the Times -
Every day the corpses pile up in the capital like discarded furniture - at curbside, in lots, in waterways and sewer lines; every day the executioners return. A city in which it was long taboo to ask, "Are you Sunni or Shiite?" has abruptly become defined by these very characteristics.

Once-harmonious neighborhoods with mixed populations have become communal killing grounds. Residents of one sect or the other must clear out or face the whim of fanatics with power drills.

… People are here one day, gone the next. Those who do go out often venture no farther than familiar streets. In the sinister evenings, when death squads roam, people block off their lanes with barbed wire, logs, bricks to ward off the killers.

Many residents remain in their homes - paralyzed, going slowly crazy.

"My children are imprisoned at home," says a cook, Daniel, a Christian whom I knew from better times, now planning to join the exodus from Iraq. "They are nervous and sad all the time. Baghdad is a big prison, and their home is a small one. I forced my son to leave school. It's more important that he be alive than educated."

But homes offer only an illusion of safety. Recently, insurgents rented apartments in mostly Shiite east Baghdad, filled the flats with explosives and blew them up after Friday prayers. Dozens perished.

Even gathering the bodies of loved ones is an exercise fraught with hazards. A Shiite Muslim religious party controls the main morgue near downtown; its militiamen guard the entrance, keen to snatch kin of the dead, many of them Sunni Muslim Arabs. Unclaimed Sunni corpses pile up.

… On a recent patrol in Adamiya, one of the capital's oldest sections, U.S. soldiers went door to door speaking with merchants and residents, trying to earn their confidence. Everyone seemed cordial as people spoke of their terror of Shiite militiamen. Then a shot rang out and a soldier fell 10 yards from where I stood with the platoon captain; a sniper, probably Sunni, had taken aim at this 21-year-old private from Florida ostensibly there to protect Sunnis against Shiite depredations. The GI survived.

Coursing through the deserted cityscape in an Army Humvee after curfew empties the streets is an experience laced with foreboding. U.S. vehicles, among the few on the road, offer an inviting target for an unseen enemy. Piles of long-uncollected trash may conceal laser-guided explosives. Russian roulette is the oft-repeated analogy.

"Everyone's thinking the same thing," a tense sergeant tells me. "IEDs," he adds, using the shorthand for roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices.

One evening, I accompanied a three-Humvee convoy of MPs through largely Shiite east Baghdad. Before leaving the base, the commander performed an unsettling ritual: He anointed the Humvees with clear oil, performing something akin to last rites.

… At this point, anything seems possible here, a descent of any depth into the abyss. Militiamen and residents are already sealing off neighborhoods by sect. Some have suggested district-to-district ID cards. Word broke recently of a plan to build barriers around this metropolis of 6 million and block the city's entrances with checkpoints. The "terror trench," as some immediately dubbed it, seemed to have a fundamental flaw: The killers already are in Baghdad.
They do not seem to be thinking about our elections. And Digby is reduced to sarcasm -
Sure, it's a little "untidy" and all, but they should be a lot more grateful to the liberators who freed them and created this wonderful Democratic paradise. Interfering with the Republicans' ability to do more of this good work in their country is drilling through their faces to spite their noses.
What? That needs some work. But this is all absurd after all, or surreal - or something like that.

Josh Marshall here tries to work out what the current problem really is -
… it's worth remembering why President Bush, short of being forced kicking and screaming, will never and can never withdraw American forces from Iraq.

Fundamentally, it doesn't have to do with military strategy or ideology. It has to do with coming to grips with the monumental failure he has wrought, which of course he can never do.

Setting aside the vast costs in human life, national treasure and regional stability, I see President Bush's adventure as a failed business venture, a start-up that went bad - an analogy that, come to think of it, he could probably relate to.

A failed company can lose money for a very long time before it makes money and becomes a success. It only really fails when the investors decide that the problems aren't transient but terminal. They decide to stop throwing good money after bad. And then that's it.

If we look at the matter in those icy terms, that moment of reckoning came at least two years ago, certainly before the 2004 election. By then it was depressingly clear the whole matter was never going to come to a good end. But President Bush got the country to reinvest and the country has kept on doing so since then with some factor of lives, money and time.

As long as that's the case President Bush and his supporters can keep up the increasingly ludicrous pretense that Iraq isn't a horrendous failure but simply a work in progress that hasn't been given the necessary time to work.

In fact, I think if you look back over the last two years, President Bush has been engaged in what amounts to a cynical game of chicken with his fellow Americans.

Think of the president as a failed or deadbeat entrepreneur (again, not such a stretch) who's already lost his investors a ton of money. He goes back to them and says, 'Okay, fine. You think I'm a moron and a screw-up who lost you guys a ton of money. Fine. But do you really want to finally, totally, conclusively kiss that $300 billion goodbye. You wanna just totally call it quits? Admit it's a total loss? What about giving me just another $10 billion and maybe somehow I'll actually pull this off? Or, since that's just not gonna happen, a mere $10 billion to put off for six months having to write the whole thing off as a loss, having to come to grips once and for all with the fact that all the money's gone and the whole thing's a bust?'

That's really what this is about. And I think we all know it pretty much across the political spectrum. In this way, paradoxically, the very magnitude of the president's failure has become his tacit ally. It's just such a big thing to come to grips with. And reinvesting in the president's folly, even after any hope of recouping the money is gone, carries the critical fringe benefit of sustaining our own collective and increasingly threadbare denial.

But President Bush's interests are not the same as the country's. He's maxed out, in for 100%. If Iraq is a failure, a mistake, then the same words will be written right after his name in the history books. A country, though, can take missteps and mistakes, course corrections and dead ends, and move on. We've done it before and we'll do it again.

But President Bush can't and won't withdraw from Iraq because when he does, under the current conditions, he'll sign the epitaph, the historical death warrant for his presidency. Unlike in the past there are no family friends to pawn the failure off on and let them take the loss. It's all his. So he'll keep kicking the can down the road forever.
And that may be the classic definition of stuck on stupid. And if you use the metaphor here, his venture capitalists, those who provide the funding - that would be us - are pulling out and investing elsewhere. Some things are just bad ideas.

Over at Andrew Sullivan's blog, now part of Time Magazine, Monday, October 23, was also the day there was an open discussion of the whole idea of this Iraq adventure. Sullivan, once all for it, is now saying it was a fine idea but bungled badly by some real fools. After World War II we got a great Germany and Japan - open, democratic and vital - and "reverse domino theory" does work - when the Soviet Union fell all the eastern block nations woke up and became modern democracies and all that. The idea wasn't bad - just the execution.

A reader here -
The theory in Iraq was that we would not need to occupy the nation, not need to impose martial law, not need to do the things that we did in both Germany and Japan because it wouldn't be necessary. Iraqis were going to do by themselves and for themselves what Germans and Japanese did guided by the firm hand of occupation forces which dominated every aspect of their post-war civil life.

If you wish to cite Germany and Japan as the examples, you'll have to explain why our leaders believed, and repeatedly affirmed, that the aftermath of Iraq would require so much less time, effort and manpower than our occupations of those Axis powers. America and its coalition partners never lacked the competence to occupy Iraq, we embraced a theory that said occupation would be unnecessary.

As for the Soviet Union are you seriously suggesting that toppling Saddam could possibly have the same effect on his neighbors, some of whom were sworn enemies, that the collapse of the Soviet Union had on its component and client states? The similarities between the two are limited to the term "change of government." You're better than this sophist argument.

The point still stands. The philosophy behind our effort Iraq doomed it, not an incompetent implementation of that philosophy.

It was conservative members of the US government who predicted that Iraq would take longer, cost more, and require hundreds of thousands more troops to turn out the way Germany and Japan turned out. Their opinions were dismissed out-of-hand as "old thinking." Neo-conservatives predicted that we'd be pretty much done militarily in Iraq within a few months, that our efforts would cost next-to-nothing, and that the entire region would then change for the better.

You say that we were just being over-optimistic. Optimistic thinking would be that it would only take three years, 300,000 troops and $300 billion dollars to succeed. The pre-war predictions of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz weren't "over-optimistic," they were magical thinking enshrined as policy. Our nation acted upon those sunny predictions as if they bore any relationship with reality, and reality is now kicking our behinds.
That's another way of saying stuck on stupid, shifting the emphasis to the second element. Using the Josh Marshall business metaphor, we were asked to invest in a venture to rid the world of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, but there were none. We were asked to invest in the same venture, but to rid the world of one of the main supporters of al Qaeda and perhaps one element of the 9/11 plot - but it turns out that wasn't the case. So we were asked to invest in the same venture, but to set up a model democracy that would inspire other nations in the region to change everything about how the thought nations should be run. And that's not going well.

Just why did we keep investing in this venture? Another of Sullivan's readers here -
The project was always doomed because our strategy was the result of philosophical hogwash.

Back before the war there were many of us who asked a simple question: When in recorded history have human beings reacted to the sudden toppling of their systems of governance the way Iraqis are supposed to react after we topple Saddam, by peacefully and immediately creating an entirely different system of governance?

The answer: Never

We asked a second question: When in recorded history has a change of government in one nation led to a peaceful and spontaneous change of governments in neighboring nations?

The answer: Never.

The operating assumption of the Bush administration was that Iraqis would not act in historically predictable ways because our motives were pure. The notion other human beings will defy human nature if our hearts are pure must be called what it is: new-agey poppycock.

Our motives were pure; we were going to liberate Iraqis from an awful dictator, period. The people of Iraq, upon experiencing this act of selflessness on the part of "good guy" America, would then be guided by peace and love and immediately start rebuilding their society in our image, or something close enough that we could be proud of it. Their neighbors, seeing how the Age of Aquarius had broken out next door, would then rush to join the love-in... and the world would live as one. Thus we would be able to bring most of our troops home very quickly after toppling Saddam, leaving behind only enough to protect Iraq from its evil neighbors until they, too, saw the light.

The effort was doomed from the start because it was based upon magical thinking.
It is odd that so many invested in this venture for so long - but maybe we wanted to believe in magic after the 9/11 attacks. But as entertaining as magic can be, it's quite stupid stuff. The whole premise of it is odd. You're amazed that you could be fooled, and admire the skill used to fool you, and you pay to participate in being fooled. Magicians like to be called illusionists, and the more effectively they make their audiences feel stupid, the better the illusion. It seems we're no longer stuck on that particular kind of stupid.

So the magicians stand on stage, working the cards and scarves and rabbits in the hats, while the audience shuffles up the shadowy aisles, through the lobby smelling of stale popcorn, and out into the unexpected and very bright sunlight and fresh air. Show's over, folks.

Posted by Alan at 23:03 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 24 October 2006 08:40 PDT home

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