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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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Thursday, 16 November 2006
The Day We Chose Sides
Topic: Iraq
The Day We Chose Sides
Finding some way to make the war in Iraq turn out in some marginally acceptable way seems to be the issue consuming Washington, and to some degree our allies in the UK - which would be the Blair government there, not the people. Blair never quite got the people of the United Kingdom to buy into the war, but he had the levers of power so that didn't matter much. What are you going to do? He had been given the decision-making power, and he decided to throw his lot in with us.

Enough people here were for the war initially. Enough of the people were convinced Saddam had nukes and deadly chemicals and nasty biological stuff - and somehow had something to with 9/11 - that the substantial numbers of those who wondered about all that were drowned out. We were told his little drone airplanes could blanket Miami or Philadelphia with anthrax or whatever. We were told about mushroom clouds. And anyway, we had to hit back at someone - we had to make a statement, and Iraq was as good a someone as any you could find. Saddam Hussein was one nasty piece of work, a mass murderer and all. It would be good to take him out, in any event. And the bad guys around the world would discover we really did hit back, and as Thomas Freidman said at the time, we needed them to know that. So we made our statement, and everything that followed turned sour.

When the original reasons for this adventure turned out to be what the software folks call vaporware, the neoconservative theory about the "New American Century" remained standing. The "making a statement" argument stood - we were the sole remaining superpower after the end of the Cold War and bad guys everywhere had to be reminded of that, dramatically, and of their own impotence, even more dramatically. Rubbing their noses in their impotence would make us safe as they slinked off with their tails between their legs and everyone laughed at them. This was an odd reading of human nature, not allowing that they might dispute our assessment of their impotence and try to prove us wrong. When they did, we applied more and more force, and continue to do so. The problem is they have done the same, in their quite irritating asymmetrical way. So we apply more force. It didn't work before - so it must be going to work in the future.

Then too, when all the other rationales evaporated, we were reminded of our role in building the "New American Century" - it was our destiny or burden, or whatever you will, to build free-market Jeffersonian democracies where there had been none before. The basic idea informing the neoconservative movement was that when the Soviet Union self-destructed and communism turned out to be a dreadful joke, it was obvious our way of running things had prevailed. It was the one system left standing, so it must be, by default, the only way to manage a society. This was The End of History and all that - "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

Francis Fukuyama said that, in 1989 and then in 1992. That was the whole idea. Iraq was to be taking that idea out for a spin - applying it. We'd plant the send of the manifestly best system of government there, and the whole region would be transformed, as everyone learned the lesson of the Cold War - only one system works, and history, which had just ended, proved it. That's now what we say we're up to.

Fukuyama has since left the neoconservative movement and decided he had been wrong. Some things that are universal and obvious are also things that are hard to set up, and may take decades of building the institutions and customs that underlie Western liberal democracy - a free press and a sense of compromise and codified basic individual rights and assured public safety and shared-cost basic services. Unlike the Manifest Destiny we proclaimed in the nineteenth century, our new mandate, our new destiny, turned out to be hard work - it wasn't just grabbing every acre out to the Pacific, killing off the Indians, and James Monroe telling the rest of the world to keep their hand off anything in the western hemisphere. This was building from scratch, in a year or two, what had evolved over centuries elsewhere.

And they thought this would work? That seems absurd. But then there were no nukes nor any deadly chemicals nor any nasty biological stuff, and Saddam Hussein seems to have had nothing to do with 9/11, and he had actually loathed and feared al Qaeda (the feeling was mutual). This would have to do for an objective - victory will be achieved when we have established, or helped establish, a Western liberal democracy in Iraq.

That's not working. We find ourselves pretty much responsible for a failed government in a nation in the middle of what looks like a brutal sectarian civil war, and now screw the Western liberal democracy thing - we'll settle for a stable government of almost any sort.

And that's the problem. What would a stable government of almost any sort look like? Do we choose sides in the civil war - supporting the folks who have the best chance of getting things under control - or do we try to get the three sides - Sunni, Shiite and Kurd - to play nice with each other?

We need to think that one through.

And we don't have much time. Consider the news the Associated Press reported Thursday, November 16 - a double-dose of grim -
The Pentagon said a convoy of civilians traveling near Nasiriyah was hijacked on Thursday, while earlier in the day the Shiite-led Interior Ministry issued an arrest warrant for the top leader of the country's Sunni minority. The move was certain to inflame already raging sectarian violence.

… An official familiar with the incident said preliminary reports being checked by the military indicated that the attack occurred at a checkpoint near Nasiriyah and that four Americans were believed to have been taken captive.
So we had the second hijack-kidnap incident of the week - and four American contactors taken - while the Shiite head of the Interior Ministry orders the arrest of the top Sunni in the country. How do we deal with this?

Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, a Shiite, announced Thursday on state television that Harith al-Dhari was wanted for "inciting terrorism and violence among the Iraqi people." And Al-Dhari is head of the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars - the biggest of big guns on that side. The idea may be to drive any moderate Sunnis out of the political system, bringing things to a head. AP notes that moderate Sunnis have been threatening for weeks to leave the government and take up arms. This may turn them, leading to an all out civil war - not just reprisal killings and cleansing neighborhood - and making it impossible for us to leave. Someone has to keep a lid on things.

Hell, the Sunnis and Shiites couldn't agree on whether all hostages had been released from a mass abduction in Baghdad two days earlier. And there was the expected reaction -
Mohammed Bashar al-Faidi, spokesman for the Sunni association, condemned the warrant for al-Dhari's arrest.

"This government should resign before the Iraqi people force it to resign," al-Faidi told Al-Jazeera television from Jordan. "The association calls on its people to be calm."

Al-Faidi accused the interior minister "of supporting terrorism by covering for (Shiite) militias that are killing the Iraqi people."
Yep, he's a bit ticked - earlier this year, the Sunni association blamed the Interior Ministry for the killing of a nephew and cousin of al-Dhari. Their bodies had turned up in a bullet-riddled van in Baghdad. These guys play for keeps.

And don't forget the Kurds. On Tuesday, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, called al-Dhari a hard-liner with "nothing to do but incite sectarian and ethnic sedition."

How did we get in the middle of this? And the arrest warrant thing has always been a problem - in April 2004 we issued an arrest warrant against Muqtada al-Sadr and got ourselves a two-week uprising by his Mahdi Army militia. Hundreds were killed. And the Shiite who runs the country and visistes the White House, Al-Maliki, will do nothing to wipe out the Mahdi Army. Al-Sadr, is a key backer of the prime minister.

And it seems this Mahdi Army is responsible for kidnapping all those people from a Higher Education Ministry office building in Baghdad on Tuesday of the week. On Thursday, the Sunni higher education minister called the Interior Ministry "a farce" for not preventing that and claimed more than half the one hundred fifty that were grabbed were still in the hands of the Shiite vigilantes. National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie, a Shiite, said everyone had been freed and said everyone was making trouble when there was none now.

Sunni guys who had been abducted and released said most of the other Sunnis had been tortured and killed -
I was lucky. They only beat me with a wooden club. Others were handcuffed and hanged from the ceiling by their wrists. They were beaten with iron bars. Others, building guards, had cotton shoved in their mouths and tape wound around their heads. They suffocated. One was shot in the back. The managers in the building and people with higher degrees, masters and doctorates, were in a different room. I could hear them screaming like women. Then it was quiet. I think they died.
And we're in the middle of this. Hanging Saddam Hussein and televising it around the world close-up for all the gory details, isn't going to make this all better. William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard and chief spokesman for the whole neoconservative movement, famously said that people know nothing and always engage in cheap pop psychology, but really, there has never been any history of conflict and strife between Sunni and Shiite in Iraq - folks were just wrong about that. Wrong - but even if he had been right, there is conflict and strife now. And we have to deal with it.

That same day in Baghdad gunmen fired on a bakery, killing nine people. It's a Sunni thing - most bakeries in the capital are run by Shiites. And we lost four more of ours that day - 2,862 at that point, and 44 through November 16. Now what? The president picked a hell of a day to finally make it to Vietnam, about forty years late. All the levels of irony are just too obvious.

But there may be a plan. Laura Rozen in the still functioning, for now, Los Angeles Times, reported that same day that the Bush national security team met over the Veterans Day weekend, quite secretly, to discuss options for Iraq. National security advisor Stephen Hadley seems to have set the agenda for the meeting, and it was all about choosing sides -
Numerous policy options were put forward at the meeting, which revolved around a strategy paper prepared by Hadley and drawn from his recent trip to Baghdad. One was the Shiite option. Participants were asked to consider whether the U.S. could really afford to keep fighting both the Sunni insurgency and Shiite militias - or whether it should instead focus its efforts on combating the Sunni insurgency exclusively, and even help empower the Shiites against the Sunnis.

... So what's the logic behind the idea of "unleashing the Shiites"? It's the path of least resistance, according to its supporters, and it could help accelerate one side actually winning Iraq's sectarian conflict, thereby shortening the conflict, while reducing some of the critical security concerns driving Shiites to mobilize their own militias in the first place.
Ah, so that's why the Shiite head of the Interior Ministry ordered the arrest of the top Sunni. We may have stepped back and said fine, do it, knock yourself out. If we let the Sunnis go - hell, let them use gas chambers - we'll get some stability and find a way to finally step back and fade away, little by little. Someone's got to pay the price to get us out of this mess. They'll do.

Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly understands -
Would this be an appalling strategy to follow? Of course it would. Appalling options are all that's left to us in Iraq.

More to the point: is it worse than the other options at our disposal? Or, alternatively, is it slightly less bad? I'd guess the former. There's not much question that Shiite forces are eventually going to wipe out the Sunni insurgency, but it's probably slightly better for them to do it on their own instead of doing it with our active help, something that would alienate every Sunni in the Middle East. And don't think that we might be able to keep this a secret. Even if our support for this strategy were never publicly acknowledged, there's not much question that everyone in the region would understand perfectly well what was going on.

Such is the moral calculus we're left with in Iraq. It's not a battle between good and bad, it's a battle between bad and worse.
So we piss off our Sunni allies over there - the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Gulf States. They'll get over it. We're in a jam.

David Kurtz says this -
There are other policy options on the table, but so far "the last big push" and "the tilt" are the two we've seen most publicly articulated.

Are the lame names for these strategies indicative of how poor the policy options are?
Yes. That was easy. (The "the last big push" idea was discussed here.)

Matthew Yglesias just offers common sense -
Let me merely point out that our occupation of Iraq has now gone on for so long that this, like essentially every other idea, has already had its moment in the sun. After the heady days of the Early Bremer period, we attempted a Sunni Placation Strategy during Iyad Allawi's administration. Then, at some point during the Ibrahim Jafari Era the decision was made that we needed to be backing the forces of "democracy" in Iraq (i.e., the Shiites) against their adversaries. We eventually wound up backtracking on that, and have spent much of Nouri al-Maliki's administration attempting a return to the Sunni Placation Strategy, complete with the resumption of on-again, off-again warfare against Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers.

And so, sure, why not tilt back again? Then again, why not leave?
That's a thought. But we can't do that.

Posted by Alan at 21:53 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 16 November 2006 21:57 PST home

Wednesday, 15 November 2006
Echoes of the Past
Topic: Making Use of History
Echoes of the Past
Wednesday, November 15, 2006, General John Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States needs to maintain - or possibly increase - current troop levels in Iraq because it has only "four to six months" left to stop sectarian violence from spiraling completely out of control.

For those of us of a certain age this sounds awfully familiar. Iraq is not Vietnam, of course. There was support for the French (pretty much secret), then when they were gone, advisors, then a few troops, then a few more, then a few more. As the numbers got really large, the explanation was always the same - a jump in troop levels will settle this thing once and for all, and rather quickly, so trust us on that. We topped out at six hundred fifty thousand, and that Vietnam business didn't work out well. And they didn't even have oil reserves.

Here we go again. The twist this time is the timeline involved isn't ambiguous at all. We have six months. It's always six months.

Tim Grieve does the heavy lifting, with Stop Us If You've Heard This One Before. The "next six months" are always critical in Iraq. And it's getting a bit absurd - in that Samuel Beckett way. Those two fellows may be waiting, but Godot never shows up.

Grieve notes that Tony Blair told reporters in January 2004 that Iraq was about to enter "a very critical six months." (That's here.) Republican Senator Hagel said "the next six months will be very critical" in August 2005, and Joseph Biden, the Democratic Senator, said "the next six months are going to tell the story" in December 2005. Who are you going to believe? Our ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said in July that "the next six months will be critical in terms of reining in the danger of civil war." (That's here.) Last month General Casey said that "the next six months will determine the future of Iraq." (That's here.)

And the left on the web, led by Duncan Black, has a great deal of fun with Thomas Freidman of the New York Times. Freidman has a record of, for years, saying "the next six months in Iraq are critical." It's all documented. Many now sarcastically talk about progress in Iraq in a new time unit - a Freidman. Abizaid is saying with have one Freidman or less to get this fixed. The intended effect of such a die warning gets blunted. Your eyes glaze over and you silently mutter, been there, done that.

You just can't keep saying that, twice a year, year after year. "No, no - really - this time it's true!" Whatever.

Tim Grieve suggests a reframing -
Maybe the next six months in Iraq really will be the critical ones. Maybe they won't be. But here's a modest proposal either way. Instead of talking about the future of Iraq in terms of months - hey, we'd all like a little more time! - let's quantify it a different way. At the current rate of things, six additional months in Iraq means that 416 more U.S. soldiers will die. Are we willing to bet their lives on the odds that the six monthers are finally right this time?
That may be the essential question. A Freidman is actually four hundred sixteen deal soldiers - our guys. In May tell us again this will only take another four hundred sixteen. Tell their families.

But the pressure is on for more troops. Robert Kagan and William Kristol in the Sunday, November 12, Financial Times, say Bush Must Call for Reinforcements in Iraq. They suggest fifty thousand more - minimum. Senator McCain, who badly wants to be the next president, has said he thinks twenty thousand more would fix things right up - "We're either going to lose this thing or win this thing within the next several months." We've only got one Freidman after all.

He's on the Senate Armed Services Committee and tried to get General Abizaid to admit the he, John McCain, was right after all. That didn't go so well -
MCCAIN: Did you note that General Zinny who opposed of the invasion now thinks that we should have more troops? Did you notice that General Batise, who was opposed to the conduct of this conflict also says that we may need tens and thousands of additional troops. I don't understand General. When you have a part of Iraq that is not under our control and yet we still - as Al Anbar province is - I don't know how many American lives have been sacrificed in Al Anbar province - but we still have enough and we will rely on the ability to train the Iraqi military when the Iraqi army hasn't send the requested number of battalions into Baghdad.

ABIZAID: Senator McCain, I met with every divisional commander, General Casey, the core commander, General Dempsey, we all talked together. And I said, in your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American Troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq? And they all said no. And the reason is because we want the Iraqis to do more. It is easy for the Iraqis to rely upon to us do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.
Abizaid might just as well have called him a fool. Or maybe he was just being realistic -
Abizaid added that, even if it were in Iraq's best interest to increase the presence of U.S. forces, it would be difficult for the Pentagon to find additional combat troops without increasing the size of the active-duty military.
We don't have the troops. But then McCain is positioning himself for a presidential run. Cut him some slack. If things are going the way they seem to be going, McCain needs to be able to say, in September 2007, somewhere in Ohio or Colorado, that he SAID we needed more troops, and look what happened. He'll seem very wise and patriotic.

Abizaid probably understood quite clearly what was going on. It's a civilian thing. And Abizaid was reasonably polite.

But McCain needn't work on his positioning. The convention wisdom is that the Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton Iraq Study Group, in combination with Robert Gates taking Rumsfeld's job at the Pentagon, will save the day in Iraq. Baker and Gates are daddy's guys - sent in to save Junior. They'll fix things.

Apparently Junior isn't too happy. Robin Wright in the Washington Post broke the story that the administration has suddenly stared up its own study group, a parallel organization to offer better recommendations than daddy's guys. Or maybe not -
The two reviews are not competitive, administration officials said, although the White House wants to complete the process before mid-December, about the time the Iraq Study Group's final report is expected.

The White House's decision changes the dynamics of what happens next to U.S. policy deliberations. The administration will have its own working document as well as recommendations from an independent bipartisan commission to consider as it struggles to prevent further deterioration in Iraq.
Right. See Stephen Colbert's take on that in this video clip - and Colbert aired that before anyone know about "the alternative" Iraq Study Group. It's not so funny a day later.

David Kurtz adds some realism by checking everyone's odd assumptions -
(1) That the ISG recommendations will be substantive, well-founded, and more than mere political cover for a change of strategy yet to be unveiled. Perhaps they will be prudent recommendations, but I don't know why anyone would assume that yet.

(2) That the Administration will first embrace and then effectively implement the ISG recommendations. This assumption seems wildly at odds with this Administration's track record in both respects….

(3) That Bob Gates is going to make a dramatic difference over the next two years. First, I remember the last time we were promised wisdom, experience, and a steady hand from a member of Bush 41's old team. That was Dick Cheney. Second, the options available to the U.S. for proceeding in the Middle East range from very bad to horrendous. Neither Gates nor anyone else is going to be able to clean up this mess in the next two years.

(4) That things can't get any worse. Things can always get worse. We could see Turkey and Iran militarily staking claims to parts of Iraqi territory. We could have terrorist brigades from Iraq running missions into Saudi Arabia and Jordan to destabilize the regimes there. Iran could assert itself militarily in the Gulf. The Middle East is Murphy's Law squared.

(5) That the sooner we start implementing the ISG recommendations, the sooner our troops come home and the more American lives will be saved. First, see (1) through (4) above. Second, I still have a hard time envisioning a Republican Administration bringing home all the troops in short order and leaving oil-rich Iraq in chaos in the midst of a vital oil-producing region. We may very well witness a spike in the number of American troop causalities in the process of trying to extricate ourselves or in the process of trying to prevent a larger regional conflict.
And the assumptions don't matter. Late in the evening there was breaking news. The president will preempt Senator McCain. The decision has been made. It's escalation -
President George Bush has told senior advisers that the US and its allies must make "a last big push" to win the war in Iraq and that instead of beginning a troop withdrawal next year, he may increase US forces by up to 20,000 soldiers, according to sources familiar with the administration's internal deliberations.

Mr Bush's refusal to give ground, coming in the teeth of growing calls in the US and Britain for a radical rethink or a swift exit, is having a decisive impact on the policy review being conducted by the Iraq Study Group chaired by Bush family loyalist James Baker, the sources said.
Yeah, it will have a decisive impact - Baker's group will be left flat-footed. The president has decided. He's the decider.

So the word is - if you read this carefully - that Vice President Cheney has sat down with Baker and told him what's really going to happen. We're sending in twenty thousand more troops. Go tell the former president, daddy, to go hang around with his new buddy Bill Clinton and play golf or whatever he wants.

What we find out is that it now goes like this -
  • Increase US troop levels by up to 20,000 to secure Baghdad and allow redeployments elsewhere in Iraq
  • Focus on regional cooperation with international conference and/or direct diplomatic involvement of countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia
  • Revive reconciliation process between Sunni, Shia and others
  • Increased resources from Congress to fund training and equipment of Iraqi security forces
No talks with Iran or Syria, only with the good guys, and it's time "to draw a line in the sand and defy Democratic pressure for a swift drawdown." No one tells this guy what to do.

And the president takes no crap from anyone -
To the certain dismay of US neo-cons, initial post-invasion ideas about imposing fully-fledged western democratic standards will be set aside. And the report is expected to warn that de facto tripartite partition within a loose federal system, as advocated by Democratic senator Joe Biden and others would lead not to peaceful power-sharing but a large-scale humanitarian crisis.
So no "democracy" talk any more, and no partitions - just brute force.

And there's the force of will -
"You've got to remember, whatever the Democrats say, it's Bush still calling the shots. He believes it's a matter of political will. That's what [Henry] Kissinger told him. And he's going to stick with it," a former senior administration official said. "He [Bush] is in a state of denial about Iraq. Nobody else is any more. But he is. But he knows he's got less than a year, maybe six months, to make it work. If it fails, I expect the withdrawal process to begin next fall."
So everyone is wrong, and their ideas evil, and Henry Kissinger is whispering in his ear. It's like old times. Maybe he'll bomb Cambodia while he's at it. Oliver Stone can make a film about it later. Can Anthony Hopkins play a Texan?

The official quoted in the item isn't happy -
Bush has said "no" to withdrawal, so what else do you have? The Baker report will be a set of ideas, more realistic than in the past, that can be used as political tools. What they're going to say is: lower the goals, forget about the democracy crap, put more resources in, do it.
Well, it is decisive. And it makes the Iraq Study group look like cowards and fools, or so the thinking goes. And whatever General Abizaid was saying - that more troops don't help, and in fact would just keep things from moving forward, and no general on the ground wants them for that reason - also looks foolish and cowardly.

Damn, the man has turned into Richard Nixon and it's late 1973 all over again. For those of us of a certain age this sounds awfully familiar. Iraq is not Vietnam, of course.

Posted by Alan at 21:31 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 15 November 2006 21:44 PST home

Tuesday, 14 November 2006
Voices of Reasonable Despair
Topic: Perspective
Voices of Reasonable Despair
Everyone seemed to agree the big story of Tuesday, November 14, was this -
Suspected Shiite militiamen dressed as Interior Ministry commandos stormed a Higher Education Ministry office Tuesday and kidnapped dozens of people after clearing the area under the guise of providing security for what they claimed would be a visit by the U.S. ambassador.

Witnesses and authorities said the gunmen raced through all four stories of the building, forced men and women into separate rooms, handcuffed the men and loaded them aboard about 20 pickup trucks.

Shortly afterward, authorities arrested six senior police officers in connection with the abductions - the police chief and five top subordinates in the Karradah district, the central Baghdad region where the kidnappers struck, Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf said.
Things aren't going well, and the newly elected Democratic Senate and House have no plan to fix it all. The election had been seven days before, and people were getting upset. Of course the new Congress doesn't get sworn in until January 20 - more than two months from the first Tuesday after the election - but no matter. They're not doing their job, damn it. Did the nation make a mistake? Why have the Democrats trapped us in this quagmire in Iraq, with no plan to fix things?

Yep, that's a little absurd - but no one seems happy with the idea there are no solutions to tough problems. We don't like having no solutions. We just don't think that way. Unlike the dour French existentialists of the fifties, we know there's always a solution, no matter what the problem. Otherwise, life would be as absurd at Sartre and Camus said, and that's an absurd idea to us. We're Americans, and we, not those long-dead Frenchmen, know what absurd really is. Absurd is thinking that some problems just cannot be fixed. Thomas Edison didn't think that way, nor did the Wright brothers, nor did Robert E. Lee (even if George Allen went down to defeat in the recent election, the South will rise again, and all that).

But even if the war is no longer the responsibility of the current administration, or something like that, they are looking for the solution, that magic bullet, that rabbit they can pull from the hat. That's what the Baker-Hamilton commission is all about, the Iraq Study group the will fix everything. Yeah, the commission is five Republicans and five Democrats, all retired politicians and not one Middle East expert in the mix at all, but they will find the solution to everything, or set of solutions. It has, of course, occurred to more than a few people that having no one on the commission who know jack about the region speaks volumes. They're looking for a domestic political solution - something the American people will accept and won't make the president go ballistic (literally).

No one knows what they will recommend. The dynamics of "the acceptable" is a puzzle, and everyone is waiting for the report, in what Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly calls a kabuki dance -
What will they recommend? The betting favorite is talks with Syria and Iran, which is a fine idea with one wee drawback: talks would likely have almost no effect on the violence in Iraq even if they were successful. Iran may be causing trouble in Iraq, but at this point the vast bulk of Iraq's trouble is homegrown. Iran could help in only a limited way even if it wanted to.

The other crowd-pleaser getting airtime these days is "One Last Push," the idea that we can surge in another 20,000 troops or so and end the Iraqi violence once and for all. John McCain is one of many running this idea up the flagpole, but it's a suggestion so puerile and reckless it boggles the mind. It's unlikely that 20,000 troops would have made a difference three years ago, let alone now, and he knows it.
And everyone really knows that this commission won't come up with any magic solution. Drum contend that liberals play along with this game anyway - it helps them avoid the real truth, that the conservatives are pretty much correct when they say that a pullout would be a disaster for Iraq. But then -
War supporters may have only themselves to blame for this state of affairs, but that doesn't make them any less right: A pullout now would almost certainly touch off a full-scale civil war, the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and the eventual establishment of a Shiite theocracy.
So no one wants to face up to the fact - there is no solution. We're not French, after all. But Drum seems to think "that our continued denial only makes the situation worse with every passing day, virtually guaranteeing a higher body count and an even more brutal end game."

It seems the choice is stay, and things get worse and worse, or leave, and things get worse and worse. If that is so, we might want to choose the latter. Either option being dismally equal, in producing the same net result, the latter saves American lives. But we pretend there's some third option. It's the pretending that's killing us - and our troops, and the Iraqis.

The logic here is clear, if you accept the premise that some problems - and this one in particular - admit no solutions. The nation is still working on that concept. It's a new one for us.

But what about talking with Iran and Syria?

Simon Jenkins argues, in the November 15th Guardian, that this is absurd. Look at it from Iran's point of view - "Why stop the Great Satan? He's driving himself to hell. Tehran can sit back and watch its tormentors sweat."

First there's the irony -
Help from Syria and Iran? Surely these were the monsters that George Bush and Tony Blair were going to crush, back in 2003? Surely the purpose of the Iraq adventure was to topple these terrorism-sponsoring, women-suppressing, militia-funding fundamentalists in favour of stability, prosperity and western democracy? Can the exit from Iraq really be through Tehran and Damascus? Was that in the plan?

I remember asking a western intelligence officer in Baghdad, six months after the American invasion, what he would advise the Iranians to do. "Wait," he said with a smile. Iran has done just that. If I were Tehran I would still wait. I would sit back, fold my arms and watch my tormentors sweat. I would watch the panic in Washington and London as body bags pile up, generals mutter mutiny, alliances fall apart and electors cut and run.
Reality has not yet replaced denial, of course. For the moment, denial still rules -
In America last week I was shocked at how unaware even anti-war Americans are (like many Britons) of the depth of the predicament in Iraq. They compare it with Vietnam or the Balkans - but it is not the same. It is total anarchy. All sentences beginning, "What we should now do in Iraq…" are devoid of meaning. We are in no position to do anything. We have no potency; that is the definition of anarchy.
This is followed by a status report -
From all available reports, Iraq south of the Kurdistan border is beyond central authority, a patchwork of ganglands, sheikhdoms and lawlessness. Anbar province and most of the Sunni triangle is controlled by independent Sunni militias. The only safe movement for outsiders is by helicopter at night. Baghdad is like Beirut in 1983, with nightly massacres, roadblocks everywhere and mixed neighborhoods emptying into safe ones. As yesterday's awful kidnapping shows, even a uniform is a death certificate. As for the cities of the south, control depends on which Shia militia has been able to seize the local police station.

The Iraqi army, such as it is, cannot be deployed outside its local area and is therefore useless for counter-insurgency. There is no central police force. There is no public administration. The Maliki government barely rules the Green Zone in which it is entombed. American troops guard it as they might an outpost of the French Legion in the Sahara. There is no point in patrolling a landscape one cannot control. It merely alienates the population and turns soldiers into targets.
If this is so, the argument goes, all this talk that Iraq will collapse into civil war if "we leave" is to "completely misread the chaos into which that country has descended under our rule." The reality is that something else is going on there, perhaps worse than civil war. Civil wars have their own logic - and this is just Darwinian "survival of the fittest" - or of the best armed and most ruthless. We had a sensible civil war here in the nineteenth century - with uniforms and massed armies and all the rest. What is happening in Iraq has not "risen to the level" of civil war. They just skipped that step and went for total anarchy. They're far beyond civil war.

And it is hard to see what we can do about it -
It is possible that a shrewd proconsul, such as America's Zelmay Khalilzad, might induce the warring factions to agree a provisional boundary between their spheres of influence and assign militias to protect it. But my impression is that Iraq has passed beyond even the power of the centre to impose partition.
But then our ambassador, Khalilzad, a Sunni born in Kabul, is quitting, leaving at the end of the year. Maybe he's secretly French, one of those who know some problems have no solution, and you need to get out before the "why didn't you fix it" crowd starts circling, looking for someone to blame.

Ah, maybe it's all just a language thing. The word problem is naturally linked to the word solution, in a "clang test" sort of way. I say a word and you say the first word that pops into your head. Problem! Solution! No one usually blurts out - "Oh well." We're kind of hard-wired to think anything can be fixed. We never drove Citroëns.

Jenkins concludes with this -
Bush and Blair are men in a hurry, and such men lose wars. If there is a game plan in Tehran it will be to play Iraq long. Why stop the Great Satan when he is driving himself to hell in a handcart? If London and Washington really want help in this part of the world they must start from diplomatic ground zero. They will have to stop the holier-than-thou name-calling and the pretence that they hold any cards. They will have to realize that this war has lost them all leverage in the region. They can insult and sanction and threaten. But there is nothing left for them to "do" but leave.
But we won't do that. That's no solution. And so it goes.

Then too there are domestic issues that may have no solution, as Garrison Keillor notes here, regarding the recent elections -
… the election is over, so let's all relax and quit irritating each other. OK? Nancy Pelosi, the she-wolf from Sodom, is about to become the madam of the House, so you Republicans just get over it. Cash in your blue chips and invest in gold ingots and maybe real estate in Costa Rica. The black helicopters have landed. Live with it.
And he says Democrats intend to bring reform to Washington, so deal with that too.

And he suggests starting with the United States Senate, sorely in need of reform for a century or so - "Two senators per state is a good idea in theory, assuming they are half smart, but then you look at George Allen, a lumbering frat boy from the state of Madison and Jefferson, and you think, whoa, something is wrong with this picture."

What we are offered is a solution where there is no problem, or there's a problem no one thought about.

He suggest fewer states -
First of all, is there a reason for Wyoming to exist as a state? I have often wondered about this. Why give two Senate seats to a half million dimestore cowboys while California gets two seats for 34 million people? (Wyoming has roughly the population of Sacramento.) It's OK if Wyoming sends somebody with brains and an independent streak, but when they send a couple of Republican hacks, then it makes no sense.

The idea behind the Senate was to create a sheltered body of wise counselors who, because they don't have to shill for money perpetually, can rise above the petty tumult and think noble thoughts and do the right thing in a pinch. Can you think of a time when Wyoming's senators have done this? No, you can't. So let's bite the bullet and make Wyoming a federal protectorate and appoint an overseer. This would be a good assignment for Halliburton. It's done a heck of a job in Iraq, so let's give it Wyoming and, while we're at it, Alaska. A wonderful postcard place, but what have its congresspeople done other than grub for federal largesse for Alaska? Change the name to Denali and put Halliburton in charge of it.
Other solutions -
While we're at it, let's admit that Utah, Texas and Vermont have never been completely comfortable as part of the United States. They've tried to fit in, but it just isn't working, so let's allow them to pull out and find their own path. You could attach Nevada to Utah and make a lovely little desert nation out of that, and let Vermont join Canada, and make Texas a republic. Add Oklahoma to it. They really are part of the same thing. This leaves us with 43 states, which we could reduce to 40 by joining Rhode Island and New Hampshire and making Idaho part of Montana and combining North and South Dakota into one state called West Minnesota. It's called consolidation, folks. It goes on all the time in corporate America and also in local school districts, so let's make it work for America.
Obviously, he should be on the Baker-Hamilton Iraq commission. He thinks outside the box. He didn't even know there was a box.

The Baker-Hamilton Iraq commission isn't like that. Don't expect much. And pretend you're French.

Posted by Alan at 23:19 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 15 November 2006 08:27 PST home

Monday, 13 November 2006
The Issue of Bullies
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist
The Issue of Bullies
With all the news floating around, all urgent (maybe), you can miss things. Veterans Day this year, November 11, fell on a Saturday, and no one listens to the president's weekly radio address - not on a Saturday morning. No one much listens to commercial radio at all, perhaps, what with that iPod feeding your ear, or satellite radio feeding you Howard Stern or all Elvis, all the time, commercial free. There's pop rock and the talk shows - Rush and the right-wingers, Air America on the left - and the medical and self-help shows. Who the heck is listening to the president, or to the Democrat of the week with the counter-spin? The whole business is sort of an early fifties thing - from the days when you could hear Jack Benny or Jack Webb weekly for a dose of comedy or Dragnet (before television).

So Veterans Day no one much noticed when the president said this - "One freedom that defines our way of life is the freedom to choose our leaders at the ballot box. We saw that freedom earlier this week, when millions of Americans went to the polls to cast their votes for a new Congress. Whatever your opinion of the outcome, all Americans can take pride in the example our democracy sets for the world by holding elections even in a time of war."

Yeah, yeah - more meaningless nice words - we're a wonderful nation and all that. But, but… just what was he implying?

Someone was troubled -
That was really a scary comment. Did they actually think of canceling the election because of Iraq?

Why would he say such an inflammatory thing if the thought never crossed his mind?
And this -
We should be "proud" that the federal government didn't cancel our elections? That the Bush administration didn't use the war as an excuse to interrupt the democratic process?
Well, some on the right, mightily disappointed in the results of the election, were being provided comfort. The implied message was that, yes, he could have declared marshal law and canceled the elections - and declared himself president-for-life or some such thing - but that would have been wrong.

No doubt there are those who are angry that he didn't - seeing him now as a wimp like his father. What's the point of having power if you don't use it? He got rid of habeas corpus and can lock up whomever he wants without charges forever, no one has successfully challenged him on bypassing warrants and all the laws to wiretap anyone he chooses, he signs bills into law and adds signing statements reserving the right to ignore those laws when he chooses, he systematically calls those who question his policies, or any of his decisions, traitors who might as well join the worldwide jihad and fly a 757 into any nearby big building - and he wouldn't take this step? Maybe he shouldn't have mentioned it at all. There's no pleasing some people.

Those would be the authoritarian bullies. But then, they've had their day. Joan Walsh in Salon says that's what the election was about, and they lost. Her take on things is that the results of the midterms was clear - it was "the repudiation of the culture of bullying and intimidation perfected by Republican leaders, especially since 9/11."

She trots out her examples.

George Allen -
Everyone knows he stepped in "Macaca," but the debate about the word's racial meaning threatened to obscure the basic message: Allen was caught on YouTube doing what comes naturally, bullying somebody, somebody who just happened to be the lone brown-skinned man at his campaign event. Sure the racism mattered, a lot, but it was the bullying no one could deny. And when Salon, just a few weeks later, revealed the senator's habitual use of the N-word in college, one factor cited by witnesses who came forward was seeing Allen, the bully of old, captured on that video.
And there was the incumbent senator from Pennsylvania, the number three Republican in Congress, who got toss from his seat -
In the last year Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum tried to transform himself into a good Catholic conservative motivated by love, not hate, but Santorum sealed his defeat in 2003 in an interview where he equated homosexuality with bigamy, polygamy, incest and most famously "man on dog" sex. In the furor that followed, Republican leaders from Sen. Bill Frist to President Bush defended Santorum, head of the Republican Conference, who held onto his leadership post despite the storm. "The president believes that the senator is an inclusive man," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters. "The president has confidence in Senator Santorum and thinks he's doing a good job as senator - including in his leadership post." Pennsylvanians obviously disagreed.
Well, maybe, but there were lots of issues there - using state money to educate his kids in Maryland, the general flakiness (Iran is really not The Eye of Mordor) and a sense that he didn't care a whit for what happen in native Penn Hills or in Scranton. But Walsh may be partially right.

Then she lays into Donald Rumsfeld -
Given his unconscionable botching of the Iraq war, it may seem a small thing to accuse Rumsfeld of mere bullying. But his complete control over war planning and execution - as well as over the president's perspective on them - stemmed largely from his capacity to belittle and intimidate everyone from Condoleezza Rice to generals to the Pentagon press corps. So many images from Bob Woodward's "State of Denial" have stayed with me - Rummy "snowflaking" the Pentagon with his orders on little white Post-its, micromanaging every aspect of the Defense Department, is one of my favorites. But one of the most damaging sections depicted his work to make sure Bush didn't pick Adm. Vern Clark, the outspoken chief of naval operations, as his first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2001. "Clark was the one officer who might survive Rumsfeld and preserve some sense of dignity and independence for the uniformed military," Woodward explained, and Rummy preferred the more pliable Air Force Gen. Richard Myers. Rumsfeld got his way, on that choice and countless others - at least until last Tuesday.
Well, he's gone now. Rush Limbaugh isn't, so we get this -
Here's hoping soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sent the bloviating radio host flowers and candy, because he cost Jim Talent his Missouri Senate seat - and the Republicans their Senate majority - by mocking Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's symptoms. (Thanks for having that camera in the studio, Rush - your monstrous ego was your party's undoing.) Now Limbaugh is claiming he feels "liberated" by the Republicans' losses, because he no longer has to "carry water" for inept GOP leaders. That's just good comedy. From Vice President Dick Cheney to President Bush to beleaguered Denny Hastert after the Foley scandal, Republicans in trouble made it a point to head to Rush's studio and cry on his man-bosom about Democratic perfidy. Let's hope the nation is soon "liberated" from Limbaugh's abuse.
No irony intended, but fat chance. He's the one success on commercial radio - his audience is massive. He'll be mocking the handicapped, crippled, sick and unlucky for years to come. His career depends on it - and he's found a broad swath of Americans who, too cowardly or weak to be bullies themselves, get their jollies letting him say what they will not. They feel deep grudges and seethe with resentment - life is so unfair - so Rush will be around for them for a long time to come. He'll find someone to mock for all of them.

Walsh says the defeat of George Allen is the most significant thing in all this, "as last spring he was considered a front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2008. Allen was cut from the same cloth as Bush, two transplants to the South - Allen from Southern California to Virginia, Bush from Connecticut to Texas - who embraced certain Southern stereotypes, from cowboy boots to nicknames to a faux-down-home suspicion of book learnin', but not much Southern dignity or decency."

So we have two peas in a pod, but she doubts the president will learn much from what happened. She doesn't explain that, but everyone knows the explanation anyway. Bullies don't learn. They just get meaner. There's no alternative. Any other way of dealing with life would shatter their carefully constructed sense of self. To keep that - to keep one's very self - you redouble your efforts to be what you know you are, to hold onto your identity. It's an existential thing.

Really? Of course, as, after the elections removing his power base, the president reintroduced the nomination of John Bolton to be our ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton was not approved before and appointed to the post when the senate was in recess, and has to leave in January unless they actually confirm him. That didn't work the first time, and it is certain to not work this time. But as the new congress won't convene until January 20, so the president wants this lame duck senate to confirm him. They say they won't. He insists they do. There is no chance at all they will. What's up with that? It's that sense of self thing. The president has no alternative.

Similarly he wants this lame duck congress to approve the Arlen Specter compromise on wiretapping anyone and everyone the president chooses without warrants. The bill gives the president the right to do that, with the caveat that, if he chooses, he can decide to tell a few select senators and congressmen when he has done such a thing - but informing them is entirely optional. That bill is dead too. But the pressure from the White House to pass the thing is increasing. The pressure is a statement of "being," really. It has little to do with what the law is and could be. It's an existential thing too.

And there's this -
Immigrants arrested in the United States may be held indefinitely on suspicion of terrorism and may not challenge their imprisonment in civilian courts, the Bush administration said Monday, opening a new legal front in the fight over the rights of detainees.

In court documents filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the Justice Department defended the military's authority to arrest people oversees and detain them indefinitely without access to courts.
That's not going to fly. The courts don't appoint kings. The law matters. But it does make a statement, an identity statement. This is who we are!

In a more scholarly vein, Austin W. Bramwell in The American Conservative move the whole thing away from the less than scholarly president - there are not the president's ideas alone (if at all, they are on the instinctual level) - and suggests the whole bully thing is integral to reactive conservatism and got hooked to the whole neoconservative movement -
After 9/11, neoconservatives championed any war that we waged in reaction. In this, they were acting opportunistically but not hypocritically: in their view, 9/11 is what happens when the United States suffers any challenges to its authority. The rest of the movement knew only that it wanted a ruthless response. Neoconservatism just happened to provide a convenient ideological infrastructure with which to justify metonymic revenge against some Muslim Arab or other. Before 9/11, the movement was praising modesty in foreign affairs; after 9/11, it did not so much embrace neoconservatism as blunder into it by accident...

What they need is analysis: the skeptical tradition extending from Machiavelli to Hobbes, Hamilton, and Burnham that seeks to understand the world as it is rather than as we might like it to be.
Yeah, but bullies don't do analysis. And they don't use words like metonymic - "a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated." They just knew someone had to be hit hard, and it hardly mattered who that was - Iraq would do. Metonymic, my ass.

Bramwell decides that the "conservative movement" is now dead, much like Walsh. As if.

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in the lastes issue of Foreign Policy, offers a letter My Fellow Neoconservatives. All is not lost. We can still find our inner bully.

First, don't abandon George Bush -
All policies are perfect on paper, none in execution. All politicians are, well, politicians. Bush has embraced so much of what we believe that it would be silly to begrudge his deviations. He has recognized the terrorist campaign against the United States that had mushroomed over 30 years for what it is - a war that must be fought with the same determination, sacrifice, and perseverance that we demonstrated during the Cold War. And he has perceived that the only way to win this war in the end is to transform the political culture of the Middle East from one of absolutism and violence to one of tolerance and compromise.

The administration made its share of mistakes, and so did we. We were glib about how Iraqis would greet liberation. Did we fail to appreciate sufficiently the depth of Arab bitterness over colonial memories? Did we underestimate the human and societal damage wreaked by decades of totalitarian rule in Iraq? Could things have unfolded differently had our occupation force been large enough to provide security?
Are we idiots led by an idiot? Ask the question the right way, Joshua.

And he adds don't abandon Rumsfeld, even though he's gone -
One area of neoconservative thought that needs urgent reconsideration is the revolution in military strategy that our neocon hero, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, has championed. This love affair with technology has left our armed forces short on troops and resources, just as our execrable intelligence in Iraq seems traceable, at least in part, to the reliance on machines rather than humans. Our forte is political ideas, not physics or mechanics. We may have seized on a technological fix to spare ourselves the hard slog of fighting for higher defense budgets. Let's now take up the burden of campaigning for a military force that is large enough and sufficiently well provisioned - however "redundant" - to assure that we will never again get stretched so thin. Let the wonder weapons be the icing on the cake.
Right. When things don't work, do more of the same.

And there's more - subvert Middle East governments, combat anti-Americanism but finding Europeans who understand the persuasiveness of military force, and the key -
Prepare to Bomb Iran. Make no mistake, President Bush will need to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities before leaving office. It is all but inconceivable that Iran will accept any peaceful inducements to abandon its drive for the bomb. Its rulers are religio-ideological fanatics who will not trade what they believe is their birthright to great power status for a mess of pottage. Even if things in Iraq get better, a nuclear-armed Iran will negate any progress there. Nothing will embolden terrorists and jihadists more than a nuclear-armed Iran.

The global thunder against Bush when he pulls the trigger will be deafening, and it will have many echoes at home. It will be an injection of steroids for organizations such as We need to pave the way intellectually now and be prepared to defend the action when it comes.
Good luck with that.

And as a kicker, he has one last suggestion -
Recruit Joe Lieberman for 2008. Twice in the last quarter-century we had the good fortune to see presidents elected who were sympathetic to our understanding of the world. In 2008, we will have a lot on the line. The policies that we have championed will remain unfinished. The war on terror will still have a long way to go. The Democrats have already shown that they are incurably addicted to appeasement, while the "realists" among the GOP are hoping to undo the legacy of George W. Bush. Sen. John McCain and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani both look like the kind of leaders who could prosecute the war on terror vigorously and with the kind of innovative thought that realists hate and our country needs. As for vice presidential candidates, how about Condoleezza Rice or even Joe Lieberman? Lieberman says he's still a Democrat. But there is no place for him in that party. Like every one of us, he is a refugee. He's already endured the rigors of running for the White House. In 2008, he deserves another chance - this time with a worthier running mate than Al Gore.
Okay, run Joe. And tell the American people it will be no more realism - that not what the country needs - just all innovation, all the time.

The bullies don't realize they were voted out for a reason. Maybe Bush should have called off the elections last week. This is madness, and it's only partially contained. Not all of us want to connect to our inner bully. It seems a few thousand more than half of us don't. It's an existential thing. It only seems political.

Maybe it's time to face the truth. All this never was political, and there's no political solution to be found. When people flight to maintain their identities, what compromise is possible?

Now THAT is a depressing thought.

Posted by Alan at 21:30 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 13 November 2006 21:33 PST home

Sunday, 12 November 2006
The Momentum of War
Topic: Couldn't be so...
The Momentum of War
Momentum -

1 - a property of a moving body that the body has by virtue of its mass and motion and that is equal to the product of the body's mass and velocity; broadly, a property of a moving body that determines the length of time required to bring it to rest when under the action of a constant force or moment
2 - strength or force gained by motion or through the development of events

The Democrats may have won the House and Senate in the midterm elections, but the new Congress doesn't convene until January, and anyway, in spite of the talk of things changing in the country, they don't have the momentum. The war in Iraq, by virtue of its mass and motion (accelerating and increasing violence as two of the three major factions there find ever more horrific ways to kill those on the "other side" in greater and greater numbers), has its own momentum. And what we started in early 2003, with an invasion, the removal of the government there, and an ongoing occupation tp get things working there in some sort of way, has its own momentum. There's a whole lot of mass and motion involved there too.

Newton's First Law of Motion states that bodies at rest tend to remain at rest, and that bodies in motion tend to remain in motion. Those bodies that are in motion move at a constant speed in a straight line. This is called inertia, or in the case of what happens to be in motion, momentum. You have to take that into account. Nothing much is going to change very quickly, if at all. Momentum must be countered with some sufficient force. The Democratic majority in the two houses may not be it.

And this is pathetically insufficent -
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats, who won majorities in the U.S. Congress in last week's elections, said on Sunday they will push for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq to begin in four to six months.

"The first order of business is to change the direction of Iraq policy," said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is expected to be chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the new Congress.

Levin, on ABC's "This Week," said he hoped some Republicans would emerge to join Democrats and press the administration of President George W. Bush to tell the Iraqi government that U.S. presence was "not open-ended."
That's not an opposite and equal force to counter the momentum, much less reverse it. It's wishing.

Sunday, November 12, the talk was of this -
After meeting with President Bush tomorrow, a panel of prestigious Americans will begin deliberations to chart a new course on Iraq, with the goal of stabilizing the country with a different U.S. strategy and possibly the withdrawal of troops.

Tuesday's dramatic election results, widely seen as a repudiation of the Bush Iraq policy, has thrust the 10-member, bipartisan Iraq Study Group into the kind of special role played by the Sept. 11 commission. This panel, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D), might play a decisive role in reshaping the U.S. position in Iraq, according to lawmakers and administration officials.

Those familiar with the panel's work predict that the ultimate recommendations will not appear novel and that there are few, if any, good options left facing the country. Many of the ideas reportedly being considered - more aggressive regional diplomacy with Syria and Iran, greater emphasis on training Iraqi troops, or focusing on a new political deal between warring Shiites and Sunni - have either been tried or have limited chances of success, in the view of many experts on Iraq. Baker is also exploring whether a broader U.S. initiative in tackling the Arab-Israeli conflict is needed to help stabilize the region.
So they will meet with the president and then begin deliberations - which seems to involve sitting around and trying to think of something that will slow the war's self-sustaining momentum and, one day, reverse it.

Then there's this assessment - Why the Baker Commission on Iraq Doesn't Matter.

There are the unpleasant actual facts -
The situation in Iraq is "even worse than we thought,'' with key Iraqi leaders showing no willingness to compromise to avoid increasing violence, said Leon Panetta, a member of the high-powered advisory group that will recommend new options for the war.

… Private assessments by government officials are much more grim than what is said in public, Panetta said, "and we left some of those sessions shaking our heads over how bad it is in Iraq.''

U.S. forces can't control sectarian violence and powerful militias. One of the most disturbing findings, Panetta said, is that many Shiite religious leaders who are a big part of the government have no interest in deals or compromises with Sunnis and other groups, and are "playing for time because they say it's their show.''
So this assessment is that the "meeting between the overgrown child in White House and the would-be foster parents of the Iraq Study Group led by James Baker" doesn't matter much. Not only has it long been obvious that the Shiite leadership had no interest in compromise, they essentially couldn't compromise with their Sunni counterparts.

That goes like this -
Nor, as the U.S. government has been embarrassingly slow to learn, is there anything we can do to force the Shiites to make concessions. Even as Iraq spiraled into the abyss, this was demonstrated when Team Shiite shut Baathists out of the government formed this spring, just as it had excluded them from the previous one… "Too many Shiites have died at the hands of Baathists (both during Saddam Hussein's reign and since then) for them to take any chances."

The increasing sectarian atrocities this year have only made matters worse. So it's almost laughable to think that anything Baker and his team come up with will manage to change the basic power equation in Iraq - one in which all sides would rather fight than share power peacefully with their increasingly bitter enemies.

Events have shown that even the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are little more than overwhelmed bystanders at this point... or, at best, speed bumps slowing down an otherwise full-speed descent into the hell of civil war. The underlying dynamic has been in place since before the American invasion, when both sides planned in advance their response to the toppling of Saddam Hussein - the Shiite religious leaders by plotting to use our promises of democracy to install a hard-line sectarian government, and Saddam himself by carpeting the countryside with weapons and explosives to ensure that the U.S (and the Shiites) would face the most well-armed insurgency in history.

The impotence of the American military during the nationwide rampage of looting after Saddam was deposed convinced every Iraqi faction that no one could secure their interests but themselves, and conversely that the path to power was wide open to whoever could acquire the most armed strength. Since then, our inability to impose our will has only become more obvious - the Shiite religious leaders seized the political initiative in November 2003 when Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani vetoed the U.S. scheme to concoct our own constitution for Iraq before holding elections, and a devastating guerrilla offensive in April 2004 forced us to essentially withdraw from Anbar province, more or less conceding that we could never defeat the Sunni insurgents militarily.

Those decisive moments have largely dictated the events of the past three years, not to mention the ultimate conflagration that will erupt when the U.S. is no longer able to sustain its presence in Iraq. So there's really no need or reason to work up much fear, hope, or anything else about what Baker and/or his group propose.

The Baker commission's only reason for existence is to provide a formal channel for telling the President that there's no pony in Iraq - that failure/defeat is not only an option, it's basically the only one left. The question is whether he'll listen even now.

Well, the president's personality-based inertia aside, the "facts on the ground" don't offer much hope.

What bold move will change everything? We're hardly about to convene a regional summit and chat with Iran and Syria about working out some sort of stability in the area - the president has made it clear we do not hold any sort of talks, even secret back-channel talks, with countries we consider evil, as that only legitimizes them or even rewards them. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said publicly, and repeatedly, there is absolutely and unequivocally no reason to talk with them - they know what they're supposed to do. And of course, after a publicly belittling like that, they certainly have no reason to talk. She shut that door, and locked it.

And we're hardly about to change positions on what most say is the core issue in the region and return to the position of previous administrations, deciding to play "honest broker" between Israel and the Palestinians. It's a little late for that, after the Israel-Hezbollah war that dismantled Jordon that we urged should continue, and our latest veto of a UN resolution condemning Israel for killing nine civilians in their ongoing attacks on Gaza. The Israeli government said it was a technical error that killed the nine kids. That's good enough for us. We decided early on in this administration that what former presidents of both parties thought was important - getting the parties together to cool things down - wasn't. The thought seemed to be that changing Iraq would change everything in the region, and thorny issues a few hundred miles west of Baghdad would be resolved as regimes changed and people woke up to how things could be - with Jeffersonian democracies springing up left and right. That actually was our position. And we're not about to back down from our matching Israel-can-do-no-wrong stance. We'd appear weak, and foolish, and there'd be a heavy price to pay with Israel and here at home. And of course it would solve nothing now - an "abandoned" Israel might just, on their own, take out most of Iran's nuclear sites, their command and control apparatus, and most roads and bridges, if we stepped back our support for them. All hell would break loose from Pakistan to Turkey - not to mention crazed anger in Muslim countries around the world, like Indonesia - but Israel has its own survival to consider. So nothing can be changed there. We made our decisions.

So any sort of change in all this is hard to imagine. In football (our version), momentum is a problem. You seem have "The Big Mo" and then you've lost it - and it's hard to get back. What can change things? Sometimes it's a lucky call from the refs, or the other team makes an unexpected bone-headed mistake. Suddenly you're back in the game and everything is falling your way again. But you can't depend on that, so you try a trick play - a quadruple reverse or some fancy Hail Mary thing no one expects. In gambling, it's a bit different. You've been on a roll and then, for some reason or no reason, it's all snake eyes, all the time, or in poker, you're just not getting the cards. You find yourself deep in a hole. You're just about to lose everything. And in that case there are only two alternatives - cut your losses and walk away (to the bar, as your drinks will now be on the house), or double-down. So you can stay in and make it all back - double your bets and assume the law of averages, or at least what statisticians call "the return to the mean," will save your butt. It could happen.

Robert Kagan and William Kristol think so. In the Sunday, November 12, Financial Times, they say Bush Must Call for Reinforcements in Iraq. Send ten or twenty or thirty thousand more guys in there - maybe more. Slap these people around and make them cut the crap. The problem is we've not taken this seriously enough. It's time to double-down. Heck, we might even find those WMD (no, they didn't go that far).

And it's not just those two thinking this way. In the first NBC "Meet the Press" after the midterm elections, Tim Russert and his bookers decided to continue their "no Democrats" policy and invited John McCain and Joe Lieberman to come in for a chat on "what it all means and where we are going." Lieberman, of course, did not run as a Democrat - he lost the primary - and told Russert now that he's won his senate seat back as an independent, he wouldn't rule out caucusing with the Republicans and voting with them on all issues, and at the same time he'd keep his Democratic committee chairmanships and meet with the Democrats if they were nice to him (he didn't mention kissing his ring), as he's moved beyond political parties. Russert asked what Lieberman was going to demand of senate Democrats for his cooperation - what he would force them to do to get his support. Lieberman hemmed and hawed for a bit and said he was not going to do anything like that, really. He's having a bit of trouble settling into the "I'm better than anyone else" role. It's a work in progress.

In any event, as NBC carefully booked no Democrat who won any seat in either house, they had the floor, or screen, or camera, or whatever. They both called for a massive increase in the number of troops we have in Iraq.

There's a video of McCain saying that here - "We're either going to lose this thing or win this thing within the next several months." So it's double-down.

Russert noted that on December 8, 2005, McCain had said, "Overall, I think a year from now, we will have a fair amount of progress [in Iraq] if we stay the course." McCain was forced to admit he had "proven not to be correct." But things are different now? That seems to be the idea. Lieberman too had said not six months ago that things we're going great in Iraq and the evil media was reporting it all wrong, and undermining the president. Now he says pour in the additional troops. They agreed. So that's how things are. The transcript is here.

Summing it up is Duncan Black here -

Well, reading the tea leaves it's pretty clear what's going on. The Iraq Study Group which Democrats have decided is going to save them is going to recommend either sending in more troops (McCain/Lieberman position this morning) or beginning to bug out. Elite Consensus will tell us to double down one more time, send in another 30,000 troops or so, while condemning the Democrats as defeatists. There won't be enough Democrat support to use what little levers of power they have (not many) to force the administration's hand. So more American soldiers will have their lives disrupted and families torn apart, more of them will die, more Iraqis will die, so that soulless Joe "no one wants out of Iraq more than I do" Lieberman can prop up his feeling of self-importance.

God I hate these people.
But you cannot fight the momentum here. The president is hardly the sort of man to cut his losses and walk away to the bar for a stiff one, or three or four. He was an alcoholic through his early forties, and now he doesn't drink. And those other ideas - talk with Iran and Syria, and go all "neutral intermediary" on the Israel-Palestine issues? After six years of having none of that he's hardly likely now to eat crow and reverse his positions there. And although he cannot explain what winning in Iraq means - no one can, exactly - he sure as hell isn't about to preside over anything that looks like losing. Every business in which he was involved failed - he needs this. When you've never won anything and you're backed into a corner, there's only one option, double-down. They're not his chips anyway, not his kids off to join the hundred fifty thousand we have there now. Why not?

Duncan Black is reading the tea leaves right. Things in motion just have their momentum.

Operationally we're talking about this -
"Roughly, you need another 20,000 troops in Iraq, but that means expanding the Army and Marine Corps by as much as 100,000 people," the Arizona senator told reporters after a campaign event for Republicans in New Hampshire's North Country.
So where do we find those people? There aren't even enough unemployed former senators and representatives.

The day before Kagan and Kristol and McCain and Lieberman gave the president the only option he would consider this hit the wires -
The Pentagon is developing plans that for the first time would send entire National Guard combat brigades back to Iraq for a second tour, the Guard's top general said in the latest sign of how thinly stretched the military has become.

Smaller Guard units and individual troops have already returned to Iraq for longer periods, and some active duty units have served multiple tours. Brigades generally have about 3,500 troops.

The move - which could include brigades from North Carolina, Florida, Arkansas and Indiana - would be the Pentagon's first large-scale departure from its previous decision not to deploy reserves for more than a total of 24 months in Iraq.
There aren't more chips for this game. And if McCain is right - we're either going to lose this thing or win this thing within the next several months - signing up another hundred thousand to get the twenty thousand chips necessary for this big hand of poker doesn't fit his timeline. They'd be ready in eighteen months. By then the game, he himself says, would be over.

Time to head for the bar. Big Mo won. George can have a ginger ale.

Posted by Alan at 22:32 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 13 November 2006 07:49 PST home

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