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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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Tuesday, 21 September 2004

Topic: For policy wonks...

Piling On: One step beyond the tipping point...

Last weekend in these two items - Trends: There just isn't enough fairy dust to fix this one and The rolling meme gathers speed - you could find the argument that around September 13 a new narrative started gathering momentum - or a new meme, a newly accepted axiomatic sense of what is an actual fact.

What would that be? We are losing, or have already lost the war in Iraq. While this may have started with the New York Times and Newsweek, the new view of how things really are in Iraq is gathering momentum. Last weekend's items cited many a source, and pointed out, curiously enough, all this does not seem to be coming at all from the Democrats assailing Bush. It just kind of happened. Folks woke up? Something like that.

And on the Sunday morning political talk shows, following a week of this, even some Republicans were saying that, well, it might be time to admit the truth. Jeffrey Dubner provides a summary of what these Republicans said -
Chuck Hagel on Face the Nation: "[T]o say, 'Well, we just must stay the course and any of you who are questioning are just hand-wringers,' is not very responsible. The fact is we're in trouble."

Richard Lugar on This Week: "Well, this is incompetence in the administration."

Lindsey Graham on Late Edition: "Well, the bottom line is it will get worse before it gets better. And I agree with Carl [Levin] that we've done a poor job of implementing and adjusting at times."

John McCain on Fox News Sunday: "I'd like to see more of an overall plan articulated by the president. And also, by the way, again, congressional hearings are very good at getting answers to questions. And I think we'll be having at least one or two in the Senate Armed Services Committee."
Yipes! The president says things are going just fine and we're making progress, and these guys are saying these things?

Then the hard right Robert Novak drops the blockbuster here -
Well-placed sources in the administration are confident Bush's decision will be to get out. They believe that is the recommendation of his national security team and would be the recommendation of second-term officials. An informed guess might have Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, Paul Wolfowitz as defense secretary and Stephen Hadley as national security adviser. According to my sources, all would opt for a withdrawal.
Now Novak is the ultimate insider in these matters - ask whose wife is a secret CIA agent and needs to be exposed and ruined, for vengeance. And he says it's over, just no one in the administration is saying that now. It'll wait.

Andrew Sullivan here offers a few Byzantine explanations that all come down to a matter of the president coming out of denial -
The question lingers: why would the administration want to leak to Robert Novak that Bush is contemplating a quickish exit from Iraq? An obvious thought is that the leak comes from someone diametrically opposed to such a stance. An admission of any plan of that kind would demoralize the president's supporters (and war supporters) and probably prompt a question in the debates or upcoming news conferences. The president might then be forced to dismiss such an idea, boxing himself into the neoconservative position before the election. Tada! You scotch the withdrawal idea by raising it. The beauty of this is that it uses that anti-war curmudgeon, Novak, to bolster the president's resolve. Alternatively, it's less an attempt to corner the president than to wake him up. "Look," someone might be trying to say from within the cocoon. "You might still think we're marching to victory but almost no one else does. We're in a situation where withdrawal is increasingly a least-worst option." That comports with the allegedly despondent mood of Paul Wolfowitz, addressing a bunch of Iraqi exiles last week. Wolfowitz is a smart and principled man. He knows the extent of the failure since the fall of Baghdad and may be doing his best to rescue something from it. So you have Wolfowitz, Hagel, McCain, and Graham all trying to wake the president up - or bounce him into a concrete commitment of more money, troops and attention before the election. All this is purely my conjecture. Whatever scenario is more accurate, the underlying message is clear. Most of Washington now believes that the war in Iraq is all but lost and that Bush has to tell us soon how he intends to turn things around. People are coming out of denial. And that's dangerous for the president if it becomes widespread before November 2.
Most of Washington believes the new meme?

Not everyone. Donald Rumsfeld doesn't believe it. As the neoconservative Weekly Standard reports here in an account of a speech Rumsfeld gave late week -
The crux of the speech came during the question-and-answer session, when an audience member posed the following: "The Financial Times today editorializes that it is 'time to consider Iraq withdrawal,' noting the protracted war is not winnable and it's creating more terrorists than enemies of the West. What is your response?" An irritated yet good-natured Rumsfeld responded, "Who put that question in? He ought to get a life. If he's got time to read that kind of stuff, he ought to get a life."
Ah, in short, anyone who even reads bad news has the wrong attitude and should "get a life." Tell me again - how did we get into this war and make so many bad decisions? I guess those with reservations about our rationale(s), our evidence, about how many troops we'd need and how easy this all would be simply had a bad attitude and needed to get a life.

Okay then.

Krugman in the New York Times get on his own high horse, and rides in the other direction.

See The Last Deception
Paul Krugman, September 21, 2004

Krugman spends some time discussing Ayad Allawi and his visit this week to the UN and his upcoming address to a Joint Session of Congress, but here's the money quote:
Now Mr. Bush hopes that by pretending that Mr. Allawi is a real leader of a real government, he can conceal the fact that he has led America into a major strategic defeat.

That's a stark statement, but it's a view shared by almost all independent military and intelligence experts. Put it this way: it's hard to identify any major urban areas outside Kurdistan where the U.S. and its allies exercise effective control. Insurgents operate freely, even in the heart of Baghdad, while coalition forces, however many battles they win, rule only whatever ground they happen to stand on. And efforts to put an Iraqi face on the occupation are self-defeating: as the example of Mr. Allawi shows, any leader who is too closely associated with America becomes tainted in the eyes of the Iraqi public.

Mr. Bush's insistence that he is nonetheless "pleased with the progress" in Iraq - when his own National Intelligence Estimate echoes the grim views of independent experts - would be funny if the reality weren't so grim. Unfortunately, this is no joke: to the delight of Al Qaeda, America's overstretched armed forces are gradually getting chewed up in a losing struggle.
This is, of course, a bit grim, but the consensus now.

But is there any way out of this? Not exactly...
The Bush administration fostered the Iraq insurgency by botching the essential tasks of enlisting allies, rebuilding infrastructure, training and equipping local security forces, and preparing for elections. It's understandable, then, that John Kerry - whose speech yesterday was deadly accurate in its description of Mr. Bush's mistakes - proposes going back and doing the job right.

But I hope that Mr. Kerry won't allow himself to be trapped into trying to fulfill neocon fantasies. If there ever was a chance to turn Iraq into a pro-American beacon of democracy, that chance perished a long time ago.
Oh. No way out.

Krugman calls for scaling back our aims. Accept the idea that any Iraqi leader, to have legitimacy, must toss us out, or seem to. And forget those fourteen "enduring bases" we're building there. And accept the idea Iraq will not have a strong central government - probably just local autonomous leaders. The best we can hope for is "leaving behind an Iraq that isn't an American ally, but isn't a threat either." And even that isn't sure thing.

Well, we tried.

Richard Cohen says pretty much the same thing, the same day, in the Washington Post.

See Coming Clean About This War
Tuesday, September 21, 2004; Page A21

Key quotes?
At one time I would have ruled out anything less than what might be called a U.S. victory in Iraq -- a secure nation governed by democratically elected rulers. I would have argued that no matter how the United States got into Iraq, it simply could not preemptively pull out. To do so would have great and grave consequences. It could plunge the country into civil war, Shiites against Sunnis and Kurds against them both. It would cause the country to disintegrate, maybe dividing into thirds -- a Kurdish north, a Sunni center and a Shiite south. Where things are not so ethnically neat, expect a bloodbath -- and expect outsiders to join in.

Now, though, we all have to face the prospect that Iraq will end up a mess no matter what. The administration's own national intelligence estimate raises the possibility that civil war may erupt by the end of next year. That's the direst prediction, but it now seems more likely than the one President Bush once envisioned: an Iraq with some sort of Jeffersonian democracy. That ain't about to happen and bit by bit, Bush has been scaling back his rhetoric. The truth is that we'd now settle for a pro-American strongman such as Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf or Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Both countries are essentially military dictatorships.
I suppose such a strongman would do.

Then Cohen brings up Vietnam, as you might expect -
... Iraq is fast becoming Vietnam -- only the stakes are higher. (Vietnam had no oil.) It is also Vietnam in the way the presidential campaign is handling it. Once again the GOP is playing the odious patriotism card to silence dissent. As for Bush, he talks about Iraq with the same loopy unreality as he does his National Guard service. He's a fabulist.

I still don't think the United States can just pull out of Iraq. But I do think the option is worth discussing. Would the threat of a U.S. pullout concentrate the minds of Iraqis so that they take control of their own destinies? Would the loss of the Yankee enemy cause Iraqis to blame actual bombers for the bombing -- and not the United States? Would a threatened U.S. withdrawal get the attention of NATO, not to mention neighboring Middle Eastern countries? Do they want Iraq in shambles? I doubt it.

Bush ought to come clean. What are his goals for Iraq now? Does he plan to bring in more troops if he wins in November or is he simply going to accept defeat, call it victory and bring the boys (and girls) home? If I were still in the uniform I once wore, I'd sure like to know. It's terrible to die for a mistake. It's even worse to die for a lie.
And it's 1968, or 1972, all over again. Same questions.

But the most interesting of the analyses of all this comes from Chris Suellentrop.

See Cheney's Burden
The case for war vs. the case for peace.
Posted Monday, Sept. 20, 2004, at 7:38 PM PT - SLATE.COM

Suellentrop says Cheney, unlike Rumsfeld above, makes the most compelling case possible for continuing with a flawed policy.
... Before 9/11, he says, the terrorists learned two lessons from how the United States responded to their multiple strikes: "They could strike the United States with relative impunity," and, "If they hit us hard enough, they could change our policy," as happened after the 1983 attack in Beirut and again in Mogadishu. That's why, Cheney insists, the nation must stay the course in Iraq. The strategy of terrorists is to use violence to force a change in U.S. policy. If that happens, "that's a victory for the terrorists."

Kerry hasn't argued for a complete withdrawal from Iraq, of course, though Cheney certainly implies it. What really differentiates Cheney's position from Kerry's is how the two men approach the burden of proof for war: The Bush administration has shifted it from war to peace.

That's what Cheney is saying, that the administration's current Iraq policies are the proper default position. Any change in policy--not just a complete withdrawal, but any "change"--must be weighed against the fear of emboldening al-Qaida. And at its heart, that's what the debate over going to war with Iraq has been about for two years.
So it's a burden-of-proof thing. Cheney, the one man who can be said to most probably control and direct the administration, is saying one needs to prove the case for anything else but war. Unless you come up with some damned good reasons, then continual war it is.

He just shifts the terms, and Suellentrop remind us of how we got into this -
Those, like Kerry, who wanted to give the inspectors more time, or who wanted to bring more allies aboard before invading, believed that the burden of proof was on war, that an attacking nation must provide evidence of the justness of its decision. The administration argued the opposite, that Iraq needed to prove to the world that it didn't deserve to be invaded. The job of the inspectors, in this view, wasn't to find weapons of mass destruction but to prove a virtual impossibility, that Iraq didn't possess WMD. That was the lesson of 9/11, the administration said. We couldn't wait to find out whether Iraq had WMD. If we did, it might be too late.

Based on his speech in New York on Monday, Kerry doesn't agree with that lesson. He says he voted for the war to give the president leverage in the United Nations. That way the inspectors could verify whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But Kerry misunderstands the administration's position. They didn't want to prove the case for war. The only way to dissuade them would be if someone had proven the case for peace.

... The question in front of voters in November: Do you think, for the next 30 to 50 years, that the nation needs to prove its case when it goes to war? Or do you think the world has changed so much that we should have to prove the case for peace?
Yep, that is the core question. And I suspect most folks buy into the war-as-default policy.

Think of the bully who has you cornered, grabs your shirt and sneers, "Okay, give ten good reasons I shouldn't beat the crap out of you right now?" An angry and frustrated American people can understand why playing the part of that bully is just plain satisfying, and relatively easy given our military resources - no one pushes us around. Hey, anything else is just too much of a bother, and kind of French.

But it is too bad that people who have been repeatedly bullied fight back in sneaky ways that make life hard. Geez, they just don't get it. Algeria in the fifties, Vietnam in the sixties, Gaza and the West bank now, Northern Ireland since 1688 - and so many other examples of the defeated and powerless just not accepting their worthlessness - makes you wonder if this "prove to me you don't deserve a beating" stance really works.

Well, it's what we do. And one does not sense much change in the air. Everyone may agree we're in a mess with Iraq, but it looks like will just keep hitting the twerps harder and harder.

Ah, you could vote for going the other way on that.

Posted by Alan at 15:46 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 22 September 2004 08:43 PDT home

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