Monday, January 31, 2005

Moronic tales from Belgravia

Over in London, Greg's hyperventilating about the undoubtedly moronic claims of an obscure political scientist named Ward Churchill, who has for years been spouting vile rhetoric about how the people killed in the World Trade Center on 9-11 were "little Eichmanns." Now, eviscerating Churchill for this sort of stuff is all well and good, but Greg goes further in a highly telling, or rather symptomatic, way:

How are all these little vignettes connected to the idiocy and amoral musings of a Ward Churchill? Only to the extent that I suspect that a byproduct of the 60's, that is to say a heightening of a postmodern condition characterized by incredulity to metanarratives, rank skepticism regarding the existence of Truth capital T; the moronic obsession with political correctness and debunking the baddies of the dead, white, male canon, the obsession with rights, rights rights! (but never talk of corollary responsibilities), and so on--all contribute to an intellectual climate characterized by Derrida-like gaming about, pastiche and bricolage, relativism and innate distrust of 'power structures', a detached, ironic stance. You see much of such trends, taken overboard in cretinous fashion, in Ward Churchill's 'essay' quoted above. But, and this is a somewhat different point, I firmly believe that one of the reasons that Bush is so unpopular is, simply, that he is so totally unironic. To Clinton's glib, smirkily-delivered "it depends on what the meaning of is is"--Bush speaks of the United States' mission as ending tyranny on the planet (and he really means it!). In an era permeated by cynicism (Peter Sloterdijk has, in another context, talked about an "enlightened false consciousness")--Bush is unabashedly appealing to what seems like a philosophically incorrect and almost embarrasingly retro idealism to marshall against fanatical terrorists. And, complicating the sell and task, and unlike the struggle against communism under Reagan, terrorism is not considered as pressing a challenge as the Soviets were by many in large swaths of Europe, Latin America, and Asia.

So Bush is attempting to hoist a bold, meta-narrative on a highly dubious international community (who breezily equate, carping from the sidelines at the primitive antagonists--his robust idealism with the fanatical nihilism of our foes--as too many have become overly unmoored from making value judgements as they dwell in a cynical, postmodern millieu). Put differently, such broad, meta-narratives aren't even supposed to exist anymore. Whether the destabilizations borne of WWI or, relatedly, Picasso's cubism, or, much later, Watergate-era cynicism, or even the late 19th Century developments with Nietzsche, Kierkegaard or Dosotoesky's revolutionary subjectivism--the canvas is supposed to be disconcerted, chaotic, ever-changing--John Coltrane to a Beethoven Symphony. And, like some odd Prophet from another era, Bush bangs on about freedom in our time and an end to tyranny....

Like most bloggers, Greg's posting was mostly greeted with cheers from like-minded readers, but there was some dissent, and I'll give Greg credit for the fact that he makes a point of regularly airing the correspondence of those who disagree with him. Here's the email he quoted:

I meant to write to you earlier today about your Churchill post, but others I see have beat me to it. Still, I have somewhat different criticisms. So I agree with you about the shocking degree to which views like Churchill's are widespread. I remember similar conversations after 9/11. But I disagree a) that they all originate in a love of irony and b) that this attitude is behind Bush hatred. First of all b) I know so many people who had the same reaction to 9/11 that you and I had, and who hated the Churchill people as much as anyone, who are clear and violent Bush-haters. As I remember it the Iraq war was really what set the fire. These people are not overly ironic or cynical or relativistic. But they felt (rightly or wrongly) that the Iraq war was wrong and worse, that it was dishonestly pursued and exploited 9/11 for purposes quite foreign to it. I don't agree with this view, but it doesn't fit into your picture, and anecdotally speaking it is extremely common.

Secondly, a lot of opposition to Bush like anti-Americanism generally is actually very idealistic and un-ironic. Take all the world's human rights activists for instance. They hate Bush to a man, but you would hardly call them ironic or cynical or relativistic. They hate him because they see him as an enemy of human rights. Likewise, a lot of al-Qaeda's tacit and explicit supporters are ideological; they are Third-Worldist in some form or other and so basically America is seen as a quasi-colonial power that exploits the third world to feed its own materialist capitalist appetites etc. etc. and so deserves what it gets. Plenty wrong with this view, but not a love of irony or hatred of straightforward idealism, at least not obviously.

Still, I have to say I'm glad to see that the Ward Churchill's of the world can still ignite the outrage they deserve.

To which Greg allows, "I didn't mean to indicate that the prevalence of irony in the postmodern millieu was the only variable causing much of the Bush hatred. Far from it, of course. Still, I take Zena's points." A big-hearted concession, you might say.

Actually, Greg's correspondent didn't go far enough in his takedown of Greg's symptomatic maundering. Not only can one can dislike Bush and his policies -- including, above all, his Iraq policies -- without being a relativist or an ironist, but even if one is an ironist, one can support the war effort. For evidence, look no further than Andrew Sullivan's blog, where irony and pro-war sentiments go cheek and jowl on a daily basis. (If you prefer visual proof of Sullivan's proclivity for camp, pastiche, and irony, just check out this picture from Time Out. In the article, Sullivan even frets about whether readers of Time Out will know that he's, well, ironizing.)

In fact there is no causal link between anti-foundationalist philosophical notions ("postmodernism" as Greg would have it) and political amorality, or even dovishness. Moreover, it's pretty much hopeless to try to prove such a link, because the nature of irony and anti-foundationalism is that it occupies a null space: it demands silence as to positivity. Inasmuch as anti-foundationalism question all verities and destabilizes certainties, it should be pretty obvious that by definition it cannot be tied to any single set of positive beliefs.

A small precaution: I am convinced of the essential epistemological correctness of anti-foundationalism. However, I also recognize that in order to act, one must set aside anti-foundationalist tenets and make decisions in the face of ineradicable uncertainty. Now, if Greg had argued that anti-foundationalism has a tendency to make it difficult to act without hesitation or equivocation, he would have been making an important and profound point. I might even have been sympathetic to the argument that a deeply-felt commitment to anti-foundationalist ideas may be inappropriate to the mental make-up of those who wield power in dangerous times. It is almost certainly politically wise to insist that those who wield power not find analytical uncertainty paralyzing. Weilders of power must be people who can act even in the knowledge that there exist "unknown unknowns," to use Rumsfeld's unjustly-maligned bon mot. And whatever one's normative judgment of whether this is a good or bad kind of character trait, there is little doubt that the material conditions of high power tend to weed out vacillators and equivocators.

[Update, 11:59 am: The requirement of decisive action in the face of ineluctable uncertainty is a good argument in favor of Bush's leadership, even a good argument in favor of the war in Iraq; indeed, that was Bush's argument for going to war, e.g. "We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." But acting in the face of uncertainty can only be judged by results, and here is where, pace the "accountibility moment" three months ago, Bush has failed. In fact, the main problem with Bush is not that he reaches policy decisions on the basis of too little evidence; it's the he reaches policy decisions on the basis of no evidence other than domestic political logic.]

Alas, such an argument would not have served Greg's purpose -- a purpose related to historical argument in the same way that Impressionism relates to mimesis. In fact, Greg's posting is less interesting as a historical argument than as a manifestation of the irritable mental gestures that today pass for ideas on the right regarding the etiology of all they consider wrong with the contemporary world. Once upon a time, the right-wing argument goes, prior to the publication of Of Grammatology and its military analog, the Tet Offensive, all was right in the world. Men believed in certainties and verities, the womenfolk trusted them, and the children obeyed. There was never any doubt on the right course of action. Then came "the Sixties" -- a scare word for all that's wrong with the world today -- and bada-boom-bada-bing the cultural contradictions of capitalism became manifest, the country went yella, and the hippies, vegans and bra-burners took over. Everybody began to doubt everything and as a result everything went to hell. And so it went... until finally Reagan came back and beat the Communists.

Needless to say, this nonsense isn't an actual historical narrative (much less metanarrative); rather, it's ideological positioning masquerading as an historical argument. What gives Greg away are his rhetorical flourishes. For example, the title of his post is "Moronic Tales from Academia." Academia? He presents evidence of claptrap from one political scientist at one third-tier college, and then extrapolates that to all of academia? Must be those damn liberal intellectual elites again! (In fact, academia is a much more heterodox place than the right wing think tanks that house the irritable mental gesturists, for reasons I explain here.)

The terrible writing of the post, which several people commented on, is also telling. The ungrammatical, stream-of-consciousness rant makes one suspect that Greg was drinking while he wrote it. But let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that this was the best expression he could make for his ideas. In any event, what we find is the argumentative equivalent of a drunken brawler wildly swinging his arms around in the hopes that at least a few of his punches will land, and if not, at least the baddie will be frightened away by the febrile effort. What's wrong with Ward Churchill -- scratch that -- what's wrong with academia is "a byproduct of the 60's"! no wait, it's a result of "incredulity to metanarratives"! actually, it's "political correctness"! no, "debunking the canon"! "Derrida"! "pastiche and bricolage"! "relativism"! "irony"! "Clinton"! "cynicism"! Against all this, stands only... Reagan.

Hell yeah! Tear down that wall!

The next paragraph continues in the same vein, even more amusingly: anti-Americanism, Greg "suspects" (oh telling word), is the result of nihilism... cubism... cynicism... Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dosotoesky... even poor John Coltrane gets blamed. All of which in some vague way connected in Greg's mind to a desire to appease Islamic radicals, and all of which is resisted only by... Beethoven and Bush.

Hey Greg, pass the scotch....

Good news from Iraq

Iraq is still a bloody disaster, but the good news is that it was only a normally awful day there yesterday in terms of bloodshed, and the election itself seems to have gone off better than most (including me) expected. It's certainly a hopeful moment, in that it could have been much worse. Without arguing the merits of the American invasion itself, it would be hard to dispute that yesterday was as good a day as the Iraqi people have had in a very long time.

The hard part is what comes next: the constitutional convention to determine how Iraq's people are to govern themselves. Civil war still strikes me as more likely than not -- in fact, arguably, it has already begun. One need not dispute the merits of democracy to wonder where the U.S.'s de facto sponsorship of a Shiite redeemers' movement will lead. There are a good Realpolitik reasons why the Bush's original plans called for a much more tentative form of democracy for Iraq....

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Policy in the service of partisan politics

It's not news to anyone who's been paying attention, but tomorrow's Washington Post outlines just how many of Bush's major policy inititatives--notably social security privatization, caps on tort liabilities, and abrogation of collective bargain rights for civil servants--are designed not so much with an eye toward what's good for the country, but rather with an eye to undermining the Democratic coalition. (Along the same lines, a couple months back, I detailed the political logic driving the Republicans' effort to phase out Social Security.)

That political logic drives everything in this White House was most memorably exposed in Ron Suskind's 2002 Esquire expose (available here) of Karl Rove, as narrated by John DiIulio, Bush's recent director of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Suskind quoted DiIulio in that article as saying, "There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus.... What you’ve got is everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis." (DiIulio later retracted his statements in a Stalinist-victim-style self-criticism.)

While I've always savored the phrase "Mayberry Machiavellis"--which perfectly captures the political mein of the sort of pasty-faced, balding, overweight, bespectacled political operatives who obsess about their "credibility"--it's nevertheless true that DiIulio's comments stem from the typical political naivete of the policy wonk: he honestly believes that there exists such a thing as "good policy" outside of good politics. Now, I happen to agree with DiIlulio that one ought to be able to create policies aimed at the greater general good without reference to politics, but that's an explicitly non-ideological view of politics.

The real point about the current Republican Party is that they are a completely ideological bunch. For ideologists, the political goal is the policy goal; trying to separate politics from policy is at best sentimental, at worst "elitist" technocratic thinking. And central to Republican Party ideology is the notion that making the country a better place requires undermining the institutions and practices that allow, support or encourage people to hold progressive political views. In other words, destroying the underpinnings of the (rudimentary, makeshift) social democratic institutions built during the New Deal is the Bush regime's policy agenda.

If you're pro-GWOT, vote against Gonzales

Ed Kilgore explains why anyone who sincerely cares about defeating Islamist radicalism should stand adamantly against Alberto Gonzales's nomination for Attorney General:
If you believe, as I do and I hope you do, that the war on terror is an ideological war in which perceptions of American values and good intentions are in the long run as important as military assets, then confirming the Poster Boy for Torture as Attorney General provides a propaganda victory for Islamic Jihadism that's potentially just as damaging as those images from Abu Ghraib. Moreover, Gonzales's confirmation will also reinforce the already dangerous impression that the United States will only obey those rules we get to set ourselves, an impression the administration finds ways to strengthen nearly every day.
Honestly, I don't see how anyone can vote for Gonzales in good conscience. Condi Rice I can admit to some disagreement on, but Gonzales is just beyond the pale. Not that the Democrats should put up a major political ruckus -- keep the powder dry -- but no one should actually vote for him. And any Republican who chooses to vote for the guy has for me definitely proved that he is more of loyalist than a moralist.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Rousseauvean thoughts

Looking at Iraq's "Democracy at gunpoint" I am continually reminded of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's estimation in The Social Contract of what to do with illiberals:
Whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be forced to obey it by the whole body politic, which means nothing else but that he will be forced to be free.
Roll that phrase over your tongue: "he will be forced to be free...."

Make no mistake, our neocons our latterday jacobins, with everything that was wonderful and terrible about the jacobins--except that they haven't the courage (yet) to do it to their own people, but only to an alien one.

Odds on the 2008 Presidential race

An Antigua-based oon-line betting company,, has released initial odds concerning likely nominations and winners in the the 2008 Presidential Race. They basically expect the Republicans have about a 60% chance of winning the Presidency in 2008, versus the Democrats' 40%. The more detailed breakdown of odds on individual nominees:

Party To Win 2008 U.S. Presidential Election

  • Republicans 10/17
  • Democrats 7/5

2008 Republican Presidential Nominee

  • Rudolph Giuliani 1/5
  • John McCain 7/1
  • George Pataki 15/1
  • Colin Powell 15/1
  • George Allen 20/1
  • Jeb Bush 20/1
  • Rick Santorum 40/1
  • Bill Frist 50/1
  • Mitt Romney 50/1
  • Chuck Hagel 75/1
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger 100/1

2008 Democratic Presidential Nominee

  • John Edwards 3/2
  • Hilary Clinton 5/2
  • John Kerry 6/1
  • Howard Dean 8/1
  • Evan Bayh 10/1
  • Richard Gephardt 15/1
  • Tom Vilsack 15/1
  • Rod Blagojvich 15/1
  • Al Gore 20/1
  • Barack Obama 24/1
  • Tom Daschle 50/1
Seems likely enough. I wonder, though, if the odds for Giuliani haven't fallen precipitously after the Bernard Kerik affair. (I don't think the odds have been updated since mid-November.) In fact, one can't help wondering if the Kerik affair wasn't intentionally staged by some supporter of one of the other Republicans on this list, in order to knock Rudy off his blocks.

"We've been taken over by a cult"

Seymour Hersh rambles on but gets it right about the neocon "cult" that's taken over our foreign policy. Read the whole rant, which is pretty disturbing. But in particular, reflect on this passage:

Let's all forget this word "insurgency." It's one of the most misleading words of all. Insurgency assumes that we had gone to Iraq and won the war and a group of disgruntled people began to operate against us and we then had to do counter-action against them. That would be an insurgency. We are fighting the people we started the war against. We are fighting the Ba'athists plus nationalists. We are fighting the very people that started -- they only choose to fight in different time spans than we want them to, in different places. We took Baghdad easily. It wasn't because be won. We took Baghdad because they pulled back and let us take it and decided to fight a war that had been pre-planned that they're very actively fighting. The frightening thing about it is, we have no intelligence. Maybe it's -- it's -- it is frightening, we have no intelligence about what they're doing. A year-and-a-half ago, we're up against two and three-man teams. We estimated the cells operating against us were two and three people, that we could not penetrate. As of now, we still don't know what's coming next. There are 10, 15-man groups. They have terrific communications.
The first rule of war: plans never survive contact with the enemy. Just goes to show how absurd the "Mission Accomplished" banner in May 2003 was. As if we needed more proof.

Hersh is also wondrous about precisely the historical question thing: how did such a small group manage to take on and take over such a huge immovable object as the U.S.'s foreign policy and defense establishment and move it so far down one particular path? Regardless of whether you think that Bush and Co. have chosen the proper path, one can't help but regard with incredulity and (grudging) admiration just how far they've taken us.

Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Sullivan answers some questions on torture

From today's New York Times, with emphasis added:

Q. How can we mobilize this administration's own grass-roots constituents to call for correction of this situation? How should we wake the pulpits of the right at a grass-roots level to the import of our complacencies — without triggering a defensive or dismissive reaction as "liberal agenda"? Can we identify conservative leaders to convince to take up this issue with commitment? — Eva Ng, Cambridge, Mass.

A. Well, I'm doing what I can. It seems to me that pro-war writers should be leading the charge on this. But the instinct to cover for the administration among conservatives is very deep. The trouble is that this White House actively rewards those who praise it and cuts off and punishes any dissenters. I tried to be clear and dispassionate in my review. But very few other conservatives have even raised an iota of concern. I'd like to think that religious Christians, for whom torture should be anathema, would lead the charge. But they seem to be leading the defense.

Q. I'm from South America. The U.S. is always bullying our governments to meet human rights standards. After reading these books, do you think the U.S. will have the moral authority to keep acting with other Central and South American governments as they have acted previously? — Rodrigo Campos, Bogotá, Colombia

A. I think we have fatally wounded our moral authority around the world.

Q. Does Abu Ghraib reflect a mentality that continues in our state-level prisons, and perhaps in psychiatric hospitals, over the years? — David L. Allen, Gary, Ind.

A. I'm sorry to say it does. And we need to be far more vigilant about abuses in the domestic system.

Q. Seymour Hersh has speculated that the torture in Iraq was a deliberate policy, caused by the lack of intelligence at ground level: the photographing of prisoners was designed to humiliate them and thus force them into becoming informers on the insurgency. What do you think of this theory? — Alastair McKay, London

A. It makes much more sense than many other theories. Photographing was clearly part of the process. The photos were going to be used to blackmail detainees after they had been discharged. The use of sexual humiliation is clearly designed specifically for Muslim prisoners. Most grunts wouldn't know how to do this without some guidance. But the insanity of an under-staffed prison at Abu Ghraib also helps explain how it got so grim. It does not explain the dozens and dozens of cases outside Abu Ghraib.

Q. Partisan pundits have divided nearly every major issue of the day — Social Security, gay marriage, the war in Iraq, etc. — into separate camps. How difficult is it as a commentator to defy the platforms or actions of a party on the prisoner treatment issue while accepting it on economic policy? — Dan Morrell, State College, Pa.

A. It's getting tougher and tougher. I'm basically pro-war, strongly supported the war against the Taliban and against Saddam. I back low taxes. I favor social security reform. But I cannot believe how badly the administration has run this war — from manning it to planning it. I'm lucky since I have an existing career, my own blog, and I'm not financially dependent on the Republican or conservative establishment. Others aren't so lucky. And dissent can mean ostracism on the right these days. Nevertheless, some conservative outlets, such as the Weekly Standard, have tried to hold Rumsfeld to account for the conduct of the war. That shows it can be done.
As usual, Sullivan is clear-eyed and moral. But I am also struck by his oblique reference to a fundamental structural difference between right-wing and left-wing intellectual institutions. Whereas universities are the main institutions housing leftist intellectuals, the main institutions for right-wingers are private think tanks. And this makes a crucial difference, because whereas universities offer tenure, an institution explicitly designed to give academics the freedom to dissent, think tanks offer no such freedom. If a think-tanker gets out of line with the stated (or unstated) ideological objectives of her think-tank, she can easily and instantly see her career ruined. Whereas universities offer tenure precisely to preserve intellectual independence and thus integrity, the material conditions of right-wing intellectual production put severe pressure on the capacity of right-wingers to preserve their intellectual integrity.

This is not to say that everyone who works for a think tank feels compelled to toe the party line, but it is true that think tanks regularly issue memos and talking points on various topics, whereas universities would never dream of doing such a thing. Universities in principle look to provide a forum for all points of view. By contrast, think tanks are generally designed to promote a single point of view. And by employing people strictly on an "at will" basis, think tanks keep in place a mechanism for maintaining this orthodoxy. There seems little doubt that this material difference in the conditions of intellectual production goes a long way toward explaining the greater orthodoxy of the right, as opposed to the ideological messiness of the left.

Danes want to bring the boys and girls home

A poll by the main Danish daily the Berlingske Tidende indicates that 63 percent Danes want to bring their troops home from Iraq.

Published on Thursday, the survey reveals a rift between public opinion and the government's expressed plans to keep the soldiers in the war-torn country.

About 41% of the Danes questioned said Denmark, which has 525 soldiers in Iraq, should set a date for pulling them out, while 22% said the government should call the troops home immediately, according to the Gallup poll of 1015 people conducted between 18 and 20 January.

Thirty-five percent of those polled said they felt the Danish soldiers should stay in Iraq as long as they are needed. Two per cent of those polled were undecided.

"Baghdad is not under control"

Confirming the failure of the Iraqi state, the New York Times' grim assessment of the "progress" in Iraq. The key sections, with emphasis added:

Starkly put, Baghdad is not under control, either by the Iraqi interim government or the American military.

On the bright spring day in April 2003 when marines helped topple Mr. Hussein's statue in Firdos Square, Baghdad, more than any other place in Iraq, was the place American commanders hoped to make a showcase for the benefits the invasion would bring.

Instead, daily life here has become a deadly lottery, a place so fraught with danger that one senior American military officer acknowledged at a briefing last month that nowhere in the area assigned to his troops could be considered safe.

"I would definitely say it's enemy territory," said Col. Stephen R. Lanza, the commander of the Fifth Brigade Combat Team, a unit of the First Cavalry Division that is responsible for patrolling a wide area of southern Baghdad with a population of 1.3 million people.

In the week that ended Sunday, according to figures kept by Western security companies with access to data compiled by the American command, Baghdad was hit by 7 suicide car bombings, 37 roadside bombs and 52 insurgent attacks involving automatic rifles or rocket-propelled grenades. The suicide bombs alone killed at least 60 people and injured 150 others....

In one Baghdad office, only one of 20 people who were asked said he intended to vote; the others, all citing the fear of being attacked by insurgents, either as they walk to the polls - all civilian vehicle traffic has been banned on election day - or after they return home. American commanders have included Baghdad among four Iraqi provinces where they say security issues pose a major threat to the voter turnout.

The other 14 provinces, all with heavy Sunni Muslim populations, are Anbar, which includes the cities of Ramadi and Falluja; Salahadin, with the troubled cities Samarra and Bakuba; and Nineveh, whose capital is Mosul.

But for the elections' credibility, Baghdad may matter most, because it is the nation's capital, and because, with its intermingled population of Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and other groups, it is Iraq's most cosmopolitan city and thus, American officials believe, the most promising place for the civic norms represented by the election to take root....

Every American attempt to root out the insurgents has failed, and their dominion is written loudly in graffiti on freshly painted, and repainted, walls. "Long live the resistance!" they say. "There is no God but Allah and his Prophet!"; "Death to the Americans and their Iraqi lackeys!"

American military units travel in heavily armed convoys, gunners in helmets and goggles swiveling 50-caliber machine guns on expressways and along inner-city shopping streets to ward off attacks, and not infrequently opening fire, with civilian casualties.

And that's just what the insurgents are doing. Now consider what the impact of state failure is on the daily lives of ordinary Iraqis:

Along with insurgent attacks, the city has seen a surge of crime, including murders and kidnappings for ransom, that has undermined support for the Americans and all they represent - the elections included - as much as the war.

With hundreds of Baghdad police officers killed in insurgent attacks and others spending much of their time hunkered down at police stations hidden behind high concrete blast walls and watchtowers, police investigations have virtually ceased.

Hospital morgues are filled with unidentified bodies and body parts, many of them found floating in canals or decomposing on stretches of wasteland. Hardly anybody in Baghdad does not have a horror story to tell about children taken for ransom and later murdered, their bodies sometimes dumped at their homes.

Equally rife are tales of family members and friends murdered in disputes over property, illicit affairs, or in revenge for state-sponsored killings carried out under Mr. Hussein.

American commanders say the insurgents and criminal gangs are in league, criminals benefiting from the chaos caused by the insurgents, insurgents drawing criminals into their attacks....

So much for the idea promoted by some of my liberal friends, who hoped that the destruction of Saddam's state would improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis.

Finally, consider what the closing paragraphs of this article must mean about how Iraqis perceive the United States:

American commanders, acknowledging they have little chance of stopping the suicide bombers once the bomb-laden vehicles set out, have authorized the machine-gunners in the last vehicle of each convoy to open fire on any driver who ignores hand signals and warning shots to back off as he approaches a convoy from the rear.

This tactic has led to a growing number of incidents in which American gunners, in Humvees traveling at 50 miles an hour or less, have fired at suspected car bombers, only to discover afterward that the drivers who died were innocent civilians who had missed the warning signals, or perhaps never knew that overtaking American convoys was likely to be fatal [e.g. this].

These incidents have compounded a widespread impression among the people of Baghdad that the Americans are careless of Iraqi lives. Dr. Naqib, the dentist, fearful as he is of insurgent attacks, said he feared the Americans more. "The Americans, they are part of the terrorism," he said.

Mission Accomplished!

Doug Feith out

Doug Feith, a key neocon, goes down.

Thank God. Not only has Faith been the Bush regime's Likudnik-in-chief and lead Chalabista, he's also been a key promoter of the notion that the way forward for America diplomatically is to drop out of as many treaties as possible, specifically the ABM treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the International Criminal Court.

Of course no one in the Bush regime will represent Feith's resignation as an instance of accountability, but it probably is just that. In addition to his other sterling accomplishments, Feith was one of the main guys promoting the notion (1) that there was a link between Saddam and Al Qaeda; and (2) that regime change in Iraq would be easy. In fact, Feith was so adamant in these beliefs that he allegedly took the risk of leaking a classified memo he himself wrote promoting these ideas. Some predicted that this stunt might earn him a spell in jail, but it appears merely to have cost him his job.

It's hard to believe that treachery and evil can look this dorky, but that just goes to show how you never can tell what the devil will look like.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Dean leading in bid to run DNC

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that it's looking "inevitable" that Howard Dean will be the next chair of the DNC.

If this story is accurate, it's the best thing to happen to the Democratic Party since Clinton took it down the rathole. As I've argued before, Dean was probably a poor choice for President, but he's an ideal choice to run the Democratic Party.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

False equivalence alert

The top headline on the home page of the Washington Post at this moment is a link to a story on the linguistic aspects of the debate over Social Security.

This headline commits a classic error of "fairminded" liberal journalism, namely suggesting a false equivalence between the tactics of the two parties. The headline reads, "No 'Private' and No 'Crisis' In Social Security Debate. GOP and Democrats shy away from hot-button words on contentious issue." Thus phrased, the headline suggests that the Democrats and Republicans are both playing equivalent word games, with the Democrats rejecting the use of the word "crisis" and the Republicans rejecting the declensions of the word "privatization."

Unfortunately for the benighted soul on the Washington Post web site staff who wrote this headline, any such suggestion of equivalence is, to put it bluntly, total bullshit. Insofar as one compares the Democrats' effort to eliminate the word "crisis" from the debate to the Republican effort to eliminate the word "privatization," the two are not at all parallel. On the one hand, the Democrats reject the word "crisis" to describe Social Security's funding situation because the Republicans are using it to create a sense of anxiety where none should be there. On the other hand, the Republicans have decided to eschew the word "privatization" -- which not only accurately describes what they want to do, but which (not coincidentally) they themselves have also used for years -- because it focus group tests badly.

But the way the WaPo headline frames the article, the two efforts are equated on the grounds that they are both "semantic issues." In fact, both of these semantic points are of Republican provenance, the one accurate, the other demogogic. The Republicans are backpedalling on the accurate usage, and the Democrats are exposing the demogogic usage. There's nothing at all equivalent about these two "refine wording."

What makes the headline on the home page even worse is that the article itself contains no discussion of the Democrats' attack on the word "crisis." Mike Allen's article is actually a very useful cataloguing of how the Republicans are trying to switch linguistic horses in midstream, to move away from the language of "privatization" which has been at the center of right-wing thinking about Social Security for over a decade.

Update, 8:14 pm: The headline has been dropped from the top spot on the page and the link now reads simply (and more accurately) "Semantics Is Key To Social Security."

Friday, January 21, 2005

Iraq replaces Afghanistan as terrorist training ground

Dana Priest hits it out of the park yet again, this time with a report on what the CIA's in-house think tank considers the likely result of our invasion of Iraq:
Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as the training ground for the next generation of "professionalized" terrorists, according to a report released yesterday by the National Intelligence Council, the CIA director's think tank.

Iraq provides terrorists with "a training ground, a recruitment ground, the opportunity for enhancing technical skills," said David B. Low, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats. "There is even, under the best scenario, over time, the likelihood that some of the jihadists who are not killed there will, in a sense, go home, wherever home is, and will therefore disperse to various other countries."

Low's comments came during a rare briefing by the council on its new report on long-term global trends. It took a year to produce and includes the analysis of 1,000 U.S. and foreign experts. Within the 119-page report is an evaluation of Iraq's new role as a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists....

"At the moment," NIC Chairman Robert L. Hutchings said, Iraq "is a magnet for international terrorist activity."

Before the U.S. invasion, the CIA said Saddam Hussein had only circumstantial ties with several al Qaeda members. Osama bin Laden rejected the idea of forming an alliance with Hussein and viewed him as an enemy of the jihadist movement because the Iraqi leader rejected radical Islamic ideals and ran a secular government....

"The al-Qa'ida membership that was distinguished by having trained in Afghanistan will gradually dissipate, to be replaced in part by the dispersion of the experienced survivors of the conflict in Iraq," the report says.

According to the NIC report, Iraq has joined the list of conflicts -- including the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, and independence movements in Chechnya, Kashmir, Mindanao in the Philippines, and southern Thailand -- that have deepened solidarity among Muslims and helped spread radical Islamic ideology.

At the same time, the report says that by 2020, al Qaeda "will be superseded" by other Islamic extremist groups that will merge with local separatist movements. Most terrorism experts say this is already well underway. The NIC says this kind of ever-morphing decentralized movement is much more difficult to uncover and defeat.

Terrorists are able to easily communicate, train and recruit through the Internet, and their threat will become "an eclectic array of groups, cells and individuals that do not need a stationary headquarters," the council's report says. "Training materials, targeting guidance, weapons know-how, and fund-raising will become virtual (i.e. online)."
By funding an Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan in the 1980s, we (that is, the Reagan regime) sowed the dragon's teeth that we ended up reaping on 9-11. After displacing Afghanistan as the prime locale for Islamist militancy, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq undid the good work we had done in Afghanistan by creating a new space for a whole new generation of terrorists to gain their seasoning. Sad to say, the skills the insurgents are learning in combatting the U.S. in close quarters in Iraq will be applied globally for the next generation. The Osama bin Laden of the 2020s is all too likely to be some young man coming up in Iraq today.

Mission Accomplished!

Even the Danes...

Danish soldiers charged with abusing prisoners in Iraq.

The Danes, torturers. Truly, that was a headline I never expected I would read in my lifetime.

Got rights?

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, argues trenchantly that Bush "idealism" ignores human rights:

The decision to speak in terms of liberty instead of human rights was deliberate.... Liberty is an abstract concept, but human rights bind everyone, including the Bush administration. It's easy to say I'm for liberty but difficult to say I'm for human rights when he's overseeing what we know is a conscious policy of coercive interrogation, including inhuman treatment and sometimes torture.

Liberty, yes, but not for the guantanamistas.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Shooting in Tal Afar

A photo gallery of American soldiers shooting an Iraqi man and woman... and then retrieving their five bloodspattered kids from the back seat. Warning: extremely graphic.

Here's a written account of what happened, from the photographer, Getty Images' Chris Hondros. More photos of the incident, too.

As grim as it gets.

The promise of four more years

The second-term curse is a much-remarked-upon phenomenon, and there are many good reasons for it: the loss of tyro zeal; the fact that any candidate's biggest items are almost inevitably launched in the first term (just in case he doesn't get a second); the tension between the President's lame-duck status and the continuing political ambitions of members of Congress; the hubris of having had one's first term's accomplishments at least on some level affirmed by the electorate; and, finally, the sheer exhaustion factor.

To some extent, all of these factors apply to the Bush regime. But one underremarked-upon dimension of secondtermitis (which was critical in the plight of the Johnson and Clinton administrations in particular, and which there is every reason to believe will apply with equal force in for the Bush regime), is the steady erosion of deference on the part of the media to the President. (This feature is underremarked-upon not just because for the media to remark on it would appear self-regarding, but also because members of the media don't like to admit what this dynamic says about their relationship with power.) Brand-new presidents are given the benefit of the doubt by most reporters, the proverbial honeymoon; second terms have no such honeymoon, in part because the media has gotten used to a certain dynamic with President, and more and more realize that the President's interests do not align with their own. There's every reason to believe that this factor will be greatly magnified for Bush; indeed, we're already seeing it with the reception of his New Deal rollback proposals. In Bush's first term, the press gave Bush a double honeymoon (some might call it a free pass): first the traditional honeymoon, where most criticism of him was mainly over his apparently rudderless agenda; and then a second, magnificent honeymoon in the wake of 9-11 up to and including the coverage of the invasion of Iraq. During these two years, the American media all but completely abandoned the usual journalistic best practice of subjecting a sitting government's statements to skeptical scrutiny. The New York Times, in particular, has lambasted itself publicly for the dereliction of its critical responsibilities in the run-up to the Iraq war, when it (like the rest of the American mass media) accepted, more or less at face value, the statements of the administration regarding the threat posed by Saddam's Iraq.

It is safe to say that this deference is highly unlikely to recur for the Bush regime in its second term. In part, this is because reporters have become fully aware of the contemptuous nature with which the Bushies regard them. The Bush regime views the media's self-conception as a fourth estate, responsible for both framing political debate and also for actual advocacy on the issues, as at best an absurd pretension and at worst vaguely antidemocratic. Instead, the Bushies view the media as profit-seeking scandalmongers, who in terms of their "framing duties" seek nothing more than to manufacture controversy, while in terms of their "advocacy duties" promote the viewpoints of those imfamously overeducated and morally feeble "cultural elites."

Regardless of whether this is an accurate representation of what the media do (and I must say that it's not a completely unfair representation of what organizations like ABC and CBS do), this perception is bound to fuel a more combative relationship between the media and the regime. The desire of reporters to dig up dirt will now be motivated not just by the desire for profitable controversy or liberal sentiments, but also by professional hostility. Likewise, we should expect the media to be much quicker to doubt what the President's says, to seek for contradiction, to look to expose weakness, to frankly depict failures and flip-flops. That Washington will be far less aligned with the President's own political goals will make it easier for reporters to tap into leaks. And finally, that the Democrats seem to finally be waking up to the reality of being an opposition party means it won't be hard to find Democrats (like Sen. Barbara Boxer during the Rice confirmation hearing) willing to take hard stands against almost anything the regime wants to accomplish, thus giving reporters a "hook" on which to hang anti-Bush stories.

And that's bad news for the Bushies, because once the reporters decide to really start digging, it shouldn't be hard to find serious dirt. Kerry's instincts were right on when he described these guys as "the most crooked, you know, lying group of people I've ever seen." Just get 'em to talk under oath and it's amusing how much vaguer they suddenly become....

Update: For example, what are the chances that four or even two years ago the Washington Post would have written this critique of the hypocrisy embedded in Bush's address yesterday? The gloves are already off, and one should only expect the pummelling to be relentless.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The right idea about how to fight terror

By the way, in the Sy Hersh New Yorker piece I linked to earlier this week, there was one piece of news that I found heartening:

The new rules will enable the Special Forces community to set up what it calls "action teams" in the target countries overseas which can be used to find and eliminate terrorist organizations. "Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?" the former high-level intelligence official asked me, referring to the military-led gangs that committed atrocities in the early nineteen-eighties. "We founded them and we financed them," he said. "The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren’t going to tell Congress about it." A former military officer, who has knowledge of the Pentagon's commando capabilities, said, "We're going to be riding with the bad boys."

One of the rationales for such tactics was spelled out in a series of articles by John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, California, and a consultant on terrorism for the rand corporation. "It takes a network to fight a network," Arquilla wrote in a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle: "When conventional military operations and bombing failed to defeat the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya in the 1950s, the British formed teams of friendly Kikuyu tribesmen who went about pretending to be terrorists. These 'pseudo gangs,' as they were called, swiftly threw the Mau Mau on the defensive, either by befriending and then ambushing bands of fighters or by guiding bombers to the terrorists' camps. What worked in Kenya a half-century ago has a wonderful chance of undermining trust and recruitment among today’s terror networks. Forming new pseudo gangs should not be difficult.... If a confused young man from Marin County can join up with Al Qaeda... think what professional operatives might do."

That the ticket: rather than launching needless wars against tinpot dictators, infilitrate the actual terrorist networks. The Bush regime is quite right that the people who perpetrated 9-11 cannot be dealt with the way one would deal with a conventional sovereign enemy; they need to be terminated, as Harrison Ford once put it, with extreme prejudice.

There's still stuff in this that's worrisome, of course (we're talking about the Bushies, after all). For one thing, it's quite inexplicable to me why there would be, by design, no oversight from the Pentagon and C.I.A. for these operations. While I understand that U.S. agents on these sorts of missions need to be able to act without being micromanaged, the lack of any oversight risks permitting unfortunate scope creep, and more seriously, makes it harder to synthesize any intelligence that may be gathered. In addition, the unwillingness to share any information about these activities with Congress is straightforwardly unconstitutional. But these are implementation details: the idea itself of covertly penetrating the terror networks is sound, and I'm glad to hear it's happening.

Of course, this kind of operation only highlights how Iraq has become the answer to the trivia question "What do you get when you cross a wild goose chase with a clusterfuck?" The problem with the war in Iraq is that, as even Bush himself has acknowledged, Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with the very real terrorist threat that the whole country finally woke up to on 9-11. In fact, as even conservatives are slowly beginning to concede, the Bush's splendid little war in Iraq has made the problem of dealing with the real terror threat only more difficult.

That Iraq is also a collosal human and diplomatic catastrophe is something else altogether.

Was it worth it?

Most Americans no longer think so.

Representing workers

A must-read interview with Thomas Frank. Some of the money:
I think the values of the left still have power. But something has become apparent to me since I moved to Washington, D.C. [from Chicago]. There is this aversion, bordering on hatred, for the left, especially among Democrats. People who dominate discussions in Democratic circles despise the left, and there is no way in hell they are going to embrace the values of the left. You can try to explain to them how they need to do it for strategic purposes or in order to win elections, [but] it doesn’t matter. The Democratic centrists got their way [in the 2004 presidential election], they got their candidate, they got their way on everything, and they still lost.
Although Frank overplays the capacity of unions to serve as the central pillar of a revitalized Democratic Party, he's basically got it right. The hard work that the Democrats need to do is to (re)define themselves around representing the economic interests of low-end service workers. Protecting unions and extending organizing rights is a crucial part of that effort.

But even more important is to acknowledge the reality of capital having moved to flexible workplaces, and given that move, to do things that will help workers who will need to reinvent their careers numerous times over the course of their working life. What are the things that such a "flexible" working class needs? They need retraining programs, job placement programs, tax breaks for daycare, portable health care, solid pensions, high-quality (teacher's unions: do you read me?) public education, and so on. This is what the Democrats need to do to wrest the working class back from the politics of cultural resentment.

The Bush regime's embrace of torture

Andrew Sullivan stays on the torture case:
[We] know from Gonzales' documents released yesterday that the Bush administration wants to reserve the right to torture detainees for the CIA. Rice has also confirmed this. They refuse to specify what 'coercive interrogation techniques' they are sanctioning for security reasons. They say they don't want to tip off al Qaeda. So we don't have a right to know if the government is practising torture as policy? I guess not. We have now crossed a line where the CIA can torture anyone they deem to be an enemy combatant, with no one outside the inner circle knowing, in places no one knows about.
We had our all-or-nothing "accountability moment" in November. Expect the next four years to be all-"Fuck Off"-all-the-time. Get used to the attitude.

I'm shocked, shocked to find that torture is going on in here!

The New York Times helpfully is the first to publish the transcripts of Condie's hearing today here and here. I only listened to about two hours of the testimony -- and one thing I definitely took away is that the woman is indefatigable, in both a physical and moral sense. Totally focused and totally unflappable.

Condie's exchange with Barbara Boxer is bound to get the most press, simply because it was the most combative; the media (including the punditocracy and the blogosphere) loves to focus on overt conflict, since it provides a brainless narrative line. But of what I heard of the testimony, the most telling exchange was this one she had with Senator Christopher Dodd:

SEN. DODD: Is it your view, as a human matter, that water- boarding and the use, as we saw, in prisons in Iraq of nudity -- is that torture in your personal view, as a nominee here for the --

MS. RICE: Senator, I'm not going to speak to any specific interrogation techniques, but let me talk about Abu Ghraib, because that was not acceptable.

SEN. DODD: I'd like to just get your views on just a simple matter. It's a simple question I'm asking. I'm... asking about some very specific techniques that were used, whether or not you consider them to be torture or not.

MS. RICE: Senator, the determination of whether interrogation techniques are consistent with our international obligations and American law are made by the Justice Department. I don't want to comment on any specific interrogation techniques. I don't think that would be appropriate, and I think it would not be very good for American security.

Say what? It's "not very appropriate" for the prospective Secretary of State, whose responsibilities include advancing the international protection of human rights, to comment on whether certain interrogation techniques constitute torture?

Dodd goes on:

SEN. DODD: Well, let's leave it, if that's your answer, there. It's a disappointing answer, I must say. The face of U.S. foreign policy is in the person of the secretary of State, and it's important at moments like this to be able to express yourself aside from the legalities of things, how you as a human being react to these kinds of activities. And with the world watching, when a simple question is raised about techniques that I think most people would conclude in this country are torture, it's important at a moment like that that you can speak clearly and directly without getting involved in the legalisms questions. I understand these involve some legal determinations, but as a human being how you feel about this, about to assume the position and be responsible for pursuing the human rights issues that this nation has been deeply committed to for decades, is a very important moment.

MS. RICE: Senator, I maintain the commitment and will maintain the commitment of the United States to norms of international behavior and to the legal norms that we have helped to --

SEN. DODD: Let me ask you this, then. What would happen if someone did this to an American? What would happen if we saw on television that a captured American was being subjected to these kind of activities? How would you react to it?

MS. RICE: Senator, the United States of America -- American personnel are not engaged in terrorism against innocents.

SEN. DODD: I wasn't asking you what they have been charged with. I'm asking whether or not, if you saw an American be treated like this, how would you react?

MS. RICE: We expect Americans to be -- because we are parties to the Geneva Conventions, we expect Americans to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

SEN. DODD: Of course we do. And do you consider these kinds of activities to violate the Geneva Conventions?

MS. RICE: We believe that there are certain categories of people, the al Qaeda, for instance, who were not covered by Geneva, that in fact it would have been a stretch to cover them under Geneva, would have weakened Geneva to cover them. But the president said that they had to be treated, as military necessity allowed, consistent with the application of Geneva.

SEN. DODD: Do me a favor. At the end of all of these hearings, I'd like you to spend about 15 minutes with John McCain and talk to him about this stuff. I think you'll get some good advice when it comes to the subject matter, someone who has been through this, about what the dangers are when we have sort of waffling answers about these questions and then Americans can be apprehended and what happens to them.

Let me move on, because I don't want to take up the committee's time on this particular point, but I'm troubled by your answer.

Dodd asks Rice two crucial questions, that to my mind speak directly to her suitability to be a leader of our government. First, he asks what her "human reaction" is to waterboarding as an interrogation technique; second, he asks her whether waterboarding constitues "torture." Both questions get right at whether Rice has the moral character suitable to be running State.

To Dodd's first question, Rice had no reply. (Dodd even made the moral work easy for her, by asking her what she would feel if she heard of an American being waterboarded; but she still wouldn't answer.) There are only two interpretations of this refusal or inability to answer: either she in fact had no "human reaction," or she is refusing to testify before Congress, which if I were a Senator with any self-respect, would immediately cause her to lose my vote.

To Dodd's second question, she replied with boilerplate about "commitment to norms of international behavior" -- but given her unwillingness to define the key terms of those international norms, the boilerplate becomes meaningless. Saying you defend an abstract principle without being willing to discuss specific applications is the definition of intellectual dishonesty. It's like saying "I support the first amendment," but then refusing to define what you mean by "speech" or "religion" or "assembly"; or like posing as a defender of the second amendment, but refusing to discuss what the phrase "A well regulated militia" might mean.

Oh, wait...

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The consequences of "gotcha"-ism

This WaPo editorial on Alberto Gonzales points out the dysfunction of a Senatorial system that uses its "advise and consent" function to disqualify candidates for Attorney General for failing to pay taxes on their nannies, but tolerates candidates who provide legal cover for the use of torture, the permanent suspension of habeus corpus, and the evisceration of the Geneva Conventions.

More broadly, it seems that Americans have so resigned themselves to political gotchaism that individuals whose political judgments result in irreperable harm the country's moral standing are acceptable, while those who commit the smallest infractions of civil law can be disqualified from office (or impeached).

As the Republicans used to ask, "Where's the outrage?"

Monday, January 17, 2005

WSJ op-ed page panicking

The WSJ's op-ed page's Web editor James Taranto--who makes a living being as partisan, condescending and snarky toward progressives as possible--has his panties in a wad over the Democrats ability to rally against the Bush regime's push to abolish Social Security. Taranto especially singles out for backhanded compliments the fantastic work Josh Micah Marshall has done defending Social Security over at his blog.

Josh used to blog on all sorts of political and military topics. But over the last two months he has devoted himself single-mindedly, and with great substantive impact, on defending Social Security as we know it. In addition to exposing the misrepresentations and lies of the Bush administration regarding the future financing of the program, Josh has adopted a very straight-forward political method: get every single member of Congress, and especially centrists on both sides of the aisle, to commit themselves publicly to whether state pensions are something they believe in.

Do you believe in spending two trillion dollars to phase out state pension guarantees in favor of savings accounts that people can, for better and worse, control for themselves? It's really a simple question. Josh rightly views the Social Security debate as, above all, an ideological battle--a battle about what one thinks the role of government is in mitigating social risks. He understands that making every Democrat commit ideologically is a prerequisite for victory.

Social Security is also a great "wedge issue" for Democrats: the Republicans' plans to privatize Social Security exposes just how ideologically out of touch the Republican Party is with mainstream America. (The Plen-T-plainters may really hate liberal elites, but they also want to collect Social Security.) As I've argued before, for the Democrats ever to return from the political wilderness, they must stop enjoying ambiguity and complexity and instead embrace simple ideological fundamentals. Josh is taking them in the right direction.

What the next four years promise

Sy Hersh thinks he knows:

Despite the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, the Bush Administration has not reconsidered its basic long-range policy goal in the Middle East: the establishment of democracy throughout the region. Bush's reëlection is regarded within the Administration as evidence of America's support for his decision to go to war. It has reaffirmed the position of the neoconservatives in the Pentagon’s civilian leadership who advocated the invasion, including Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and Douglas Feith, the Under-secretary for Policy. According to a former high-level intelligence official, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff shortly after the election and told them, in essence, that the naysayers had been heard and the American people did not accept their message. Rumsfeld added that America was committed to staying in Iraq and that there would be no second-guessing.

This is a war against terrorism, and Iraq is just one campaign. The Bush administration is looking at this as a huge war zone," the former high-level intelligence official told me. "Next, we're going to have the Iranian campaign. We’ve declared war and the bad guys, wherever they are, are the enemy. This is the last hurrah—we've got four years, and want to come out of this saying we won the war on terrorism."

And no doubt Greg will be delighted to learn this:
In my interviews, I was repeatedly told that the next strategic target was Iran. "Everyone is saying, 'You can't be serious about targeting Iran. Look at Iraq,'"the former intelligence official told me. "But they say, 'We've got some lessons learned—not militarily, but how we did it politically. We're not going to rely on agency pissants.' No loose ends, and that's why the C.I.A. is out of there."
But perhaps Sy can talk him out of it with this paragraph:
There are many military and diplomatic experts who dispute the notion that military action, on whatever scale, is the right approach. Shahram Chubin, an Iranian scholar who is the director of research at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, told me, "It's a fantasy to think that there's a good American or Israeli military option in Iran." He went on, "The Israeli view is that this is an international problem. 'You do it,' they say to the West. 'Otherwise, our Air Force will take care of it.'" In 1981, the Israeli Air Force destroyed Iraq's Osirak reactor, setting its nuclear program back several years. But the situation now is both more complex and more dangerous, Chubin said. The Osirak bombing "drove the Iranian nuclear-weapons program underground, to hardened, dispersed sites," he said. "You can't be sure after an attack that you'll get away with it. The U.S. and Israel would not be certain whether all the sites had been hit, or how quickly they'd be rebuilt. Meanwhile, they'd be waiting for an Iranian counter-attack that could be military or terrorist or diplomatic. Iran has long-range missiles and ties to Hezbollah, which has drones—you can't begin to think of what they'd do in response."
Then there's this little passage about the likely results for Iran's internal politics of an American attack:
The immediate goals of the attacks would be to destroy, or at least temporarily derail, Iran's ability to go nuclear. But there are other, equally purposeful, motives at work. The government consultant told me that the hawks in the Pentagon, in private discussions, have been urging a limited attack on Iran because they believe it could lead to a toppling of the religious leadership. "Within the soul of Iran there is a struggle between secular nationalists and reformers, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the fundamentalist Islamic movement," the consultant told me. "The minute the aura of invincibility which the mullahs enjoy is shattered, and with it the ability to hoodwink the West, the Iranian regime will collapse"—like the former Communist regimes in Romania, East Germany, and the Soviet Union. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz share that belief, he said.

"The idea that an American attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would produce a popular uprising is extremely illinformed," said Flynt Leverett, a Middle East scholar who worked on the National Security Council in the Bush Administration. "You have to understand that the nuclear ambition in Iran is supported across the political spectrum, and Iranians will perceive attacks on these sites as attacks on their ambitions to be a major regional player and a modern nation that's technologically sophisticated." Leverett, who is now a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, at the Brookings Institution, warned that an American attack, if it takes place, "will produce an Iranian backlash against the United States and a rallying around the regime."
Kind of reads like a replay of the pre-Gulf War II debate about whether Iraqis would greet the U.S. army as liberators or with a popular insurgency, doesn't it?

The article is based, mainly, on a single, high-ranking former C.I.A. source -- and there's a lot of disgruntled ex-employees running around right now, probably eager to let some Bush administration blood. That doesn't mean that any of this is wrong. Insofar as the article reports mainly on "administration attitudes," of course, it's bound to be partial, since there are divisions within the administration which the source does not acknowledge. The again, the case seems all too plausible.

There's also lots of great stuff about how the emasculation of the C.I.A. has led to the empowerment of the Pentagon, and how all this is being kept away from any congressional oversight. It'll make you feel swell about your democracy on this Martin Luther King Day.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Very light blogging this week

A lot going on at home and at work right now, so I'll be very light the next ten days or so.

Politics trumps policy

Bush's declaration that the 2004 Presidential election constituted "an accountability moment" in his Iraq policy would be merely laughable if this guy weren't still President of the United States. Does Bush really believe that any American election could vindicate (or repudiate) his Iraq policies?

Bush may have won the election because the majority of Americans approved of his Iraq policies -- though given that a sizeable majority of Americans think the war was "a mistake" it seems more likely that Bush won despite these opinions. But what does that have to do with policy accountability? Even if Americans considered Bush's future policies in Iraq likely to be better than those of a putative President Kerry, does that mean that they approved of every aspect of what's happened in Iraq, or even that they think the war was worth it at all?

Does he know that Americans think the whatever security gains we have achieved by invading Iraq have not been worth it in terms of American casualties -- to say nothing of the loss of prestige and national credibility, nor of the fact that many more Americans will die in the Mesopotamian sands before we get to leave that hellhole?

Sadly, I don't have enough time right now to expose the absurdity of this way of thinking, but let's just say that it's a caricature of the Bush regime's pathological tendency to let politics trump policy.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Fabricating crises

A great op-ed piece by Harold Meyerson in yesterday's WaPo on the President's patented political methodology: manufacturing a sense of impending disaster in order to ram through a policy that he wanted a priori:

When historians look back at the Bush presidency, they're more likely to note that what sets Bush apart is not the crises he managed but the crises he fabricated. The fabricated crisis is the hallmark of the Bush presidency. To attain goals that he had set for himself before he took office -- the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the privatization of Social Security -- he concocted crises where there were none.

So Iraq became a clear and present danger to American hearths and homes, bristling with weapons of mass destruction, a nuclear attack just waiting to happen. And now, this week, the president is embarking on his second great scare campaign, this one to convince the American people that Social Security will collapse and that the only remedy is to cut benefits and redirect resources into private accounts.

In fact, Social Security is on a sounder footing now than it has been for most of its 70-year history. Without altering any of its particulars, its trustees say, it can pay full benefits straight through 2042. Over the next 75 years its shortfall will amount to just 0.7 percent of national income, according to the trustees, or 0.4 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That still amounts to a real chunk of change, but it pales alongside the 75-year cost of Bush's Medicare drug benefit, which is more than twice its size, or Bush's tax cuts if permanently extended, which
would be nearly four times its size.

In short, Social Security is not facing a financial crisis at all. It is facing a need for some distinctly sub-cataclysmic adjustments over the next few decades that would increase its revenue and diminish its benefits.

Politically, however, Social Security is facing the gravest crisis it has ever known. For the first time in its history, it is confronted by a president, and just possibly by a working congressional majority, who are opposed to the program on ideological grounds, who view the New Deal as a repealable aberration in U.S. history, who would have voted against establishing the program had they been in Congress in 1935. But Bush doesn't need Karl Rove's counsel to know that repealing Social Security for reasons of ideology is a non-starter.

So it's time once more to fabricate a crisis. In Bushland, it's always time to fabricate a crisis. We have a crisis in medical malpractice costs, though the CBO says that malpractice costs amount to less than 2 percent of total health care costs. (In fact, what we have is a president who wants to diminish the financial, and thus political, clout of trial lawyers.) We have a crisis in judicial vacancies, though in fact Senate Democrats used the filibuster to block just 10 of Bush's 229 first-term judicial appointments.

With crisis concoction as its central task -- think of how many administration officials issued dire warnings of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein or, now, by Social Security's impending bankruptcy -- this presidency, more than any I can think of, has relied on the classic tools of propaganda. Indeed, it's almost impossible to imagine the Bush presidency absent the Fox News Network and right-wing talk radio.

With the blurring of fact and fiction so central to the Bush presidency's purposes, is it any wonder that government agencies ranging from Health and Human Services to the Office of National Drug Control Policy have been filming editorial messages as mock newscast segments, complete with mock reporters, and offering them to local television stations?

We've had plenty of presidents, Richard Nixon most notoriously, who divided the media into friendly and enemy camps. I can't think of one, however, so fundamentally invested in the spread of disinformation -- and so fundamentally indifferent to the corrosive effect of propaganda on democracy -- as Bush. That, too, should earn him a page in the history books.

Hat tip: Balkinization.

Condoning torture

Andrew Sullivan offers a passionate, damning piece in the New York Times book review on how the Bush regime has condoned the use of torture. The essay ranges broadly, from the lack of accountability within the Bush regime, to the openness of a society that allows reports on these abuses to be published, to the disturbing indifference of the American electorate.

Sullivan has no qualms about specifying where the blame for the widespread use of torture must be laid:

Bush clearly leaned toward toughness. Here's the precise formulation he used: "As a matter of policy, the United States Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva." (My italics.)

Notice the qualifications. The president wants to stay not within the letter of the law, but within its broad principles, and in the last resort, "military necessity" can overrule all of it. According to his legal counsel at the time, Alberto R. Gonzales, the president's warmaking powers gave him ultimate constitutional authority to ignore any relevant laws in the conduct of the conflict. Sticking to the Geneva Convention was the exclusive prerogative of one man, George W. Bush; and he could, if he wished, make exceptions.

The president's underlings got the mixed message.

Unlike the vast majority of his fellow conservatives, moreover, Sullivan appreciates the way in which both the publicity about the torture and the fact of the torture itself have (perhaps fatally) compromised any hope the Americans had of achieving success in the struggle against Islamist extremism; that is, if "success" is defined as the creation of pro-American democratic regimes in the Muslim world.

Like most neocons, Sullivan's a moralist: he wants the United States to be on the side of the angels. What he fails to recognize is that, first, America has never been on the side of the angels in the Middle East, and second, the horrific nature of war itself -- particularly war in the age of the decentralized mass media -- precludes the possibility of waging a war on the side of angels. (The bumpersticker "Who would Jesus Bomb?" captures the point nicely.) Sullivan may have been credulous enough to believe that Bush went to war to liberate the people of the Middle East, but world opinion rightly rejected the representation of this war as a new turn in America's Middle East policy. Rather, world opinion, and Arab opinion in particular, viewed the war as an attempt to vindicate sixty-plus years of American policy goals in the Middle East: a licentious cultural agenda, a free trade economic agenda, and political agenda bent on keeping Arab states weak and indulging the Israeli settler movement.

Whatever the justice of this conception of the U.S.'s Middle East policy, subsequent events have done nothing to undermine them. Both the collapse of the original rationale for the war (namely to disarm Iraq of its putative WMDs) and the nastiness of the war itself have only reinforced antebellum opinions that the war itself was nothing but old school American imperialism dressed up in hypocritical evangelical rhetoric. While Sullivan's moralizing was sincere, as his criticisms of the Bush regime's pro-torture policies demonstrate, the silence (and even active apologies) of the vast majority of the American right about the Bush regime's widespread use of torture has confirmed in the eyes of the world the vacuity of Bush's moral claims on behalf of the war.

Ironically, here is where the hard-right seems to have the goods on the neocons, including Sullivan: if the point is to stick with the basic American policy goals in the Middle East, while at the same time winning "the war on terror," then the strategy must be to intimidate and destroy those who are so angry at America that they are willing to take up arms against us. Now, if you subscribe to this view -- that is, that the U.S. never did anything wrong in the Middle East that would warrant the hatred of the region's people, and that the attacks of 9-11 are thus mere representations of evil that must be crushed without further question -- then it seems to me that you ought to have the courage of your convictions. If you hold these views, then you ought to be willing to say, straight-forwardly, that these people are evil-doers who need to be wiped out; and you then must be willing to break some eggs to make the omlette. Abu Ghraib and the rest were just such eggs. Taken in this light, Bush's statements on torture were clearly meant as an unambiguous signal to the men and women in the field that we have to win this fight at all costs, up to an including the cost of always being nice guys. Indeed, this is exactly what Sullivan himself concludes.

Sullivan doesn't like this line of reasoning, but that may just indicate that he is too squeamish to advocate doing what's required to win the war according to the terms on which it was launched. If you want to be an imperialist, you need to have the stomach to do it right. For example, if a mob publicly slaughters some of your mercenaries on a bridge, you must have the willingness to raze the town, and to do it without apologies. The Romans and the Brits always understood this. But that just underscores how incompatible it is to be both an imperialist and also on the side of the angels. Bush's real problem is that (thank God) this is the twenty-first century, and he can't get away with just razing Fallujah.

The hard fact is that there's no such thing as a clean war against a popular insurgency -- something both the hard right and the hard left recognize. Unpleasant though it may be for Sullivan to admit this to himself, the reason the Iraqi insurgency is popular is that many Arabs recognize that the insurgents and Islamists offer the only coherent opposition to Western (and especially American) policies and practices that the vast majority of local populations find abhorrent. (This isn't just the view of Susan Sontag; it's also the view of at least some within the C.I.A.)

On some level, Sullivan must grok the actual popularity of the Iraqi insurgency, which is why he goes to such strenuous lengths in his blog and elsewhere to deny the widespread popular support for the insurgency in Iraq (and Islamist extremists generally). Sullivan claims our opponents are merely thugs and gangsters whose only relationship to the local population is to terrorize them. But do we really think bin Laden could have survived years of being hunted if he wasn't a popular hero among the peoples of the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands? Don't we know that Hamas, in addition to supporting terrorist attacks on Israelis, runs most of the social services in the Gaza strip? The examples could be endlessly multiplied. Sadly enough, there's no clear distinction between the ter'rists and the people we're trying to "liberate." This point becomes obvious when you read any account of how hard it is for American soldiers to tell the difference between friend and foe in Iraq.

Yet for all my criticism of Sullivan, what's most remarkable about this piece -- and about Sullivan's writing generally -- is his willingness to criticize himself, to admit that as a public intellectual he must bear co-responsibility for the policies he advocates, even when they fail. Thus he asks himself:

Did those of us who fought so passionately for a ruthless war against terrorists give an unwitting green light to these abuses? Were we naïve in believing that characterizing complex conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq as a single simple war against "evil" might not filter down and lead to decisions that could dehumanize the enemy and lead to abuse? Did our conviction of our own rightness in this struggle make it hard for us to acknowledge when that good cause had become endangered? I fear the answer to each of these questions is yes.

American political polarization also contributed. Most of those who made the most fuss about these incidents - like Mark Danner or Seymour Hersh - were dedicated opponents of the war in the first place, and were eager to use this scandal to promote their agendas. Advocates of the war, especially those allied with the administration, kept relatively quiet, or attempted to belittle what had gone on, or made facile arguments that such things always occur in wartime. But it seems to me that those of us who are most committed to the Iraq intervention should be the most vociferous in highlighting these excrescences. Getting rid of this cancer within the system is essential to winning this war.

I'm not saying that those who unwittingly made this torture possible are as guilty as those who inflicted it. I am saying that when the results are this horrifying, it's worth a thorough reassessment of rhetoric and war methods.

And finally, Sullivan leaves parting words for any Democrats who may feel a smug (or horrified) sense of "I told you so." For despite the partisan polarization over the war, the fact is that

the saddest evidence of our communal denial in this respect was the election campaign. The fact that American soldiers were guilty of torturing inmates to death barely came up. It went unmentioned in every one of the three presidential debates. John F. Kerry, the "heroic" protester of Vietnam, ducked the issue out of what? Fear? Ignorance? Or a belief that the American public ultimately did not care, that the consequences of seeming to criticize the conduct of troops would be more of an electoral liability than holding a president accountable for enabling the torture of innocents? I fear it was the last of these. Worse, I fear he may have been right.

Sullivan's account of Kerry's calculated avoidance of the torture issue seems to me to be both correct and utterly damnatory of both Kerry and the Democratic Party. It also helps explain why I voted happily for Dean in the primaries, but could only vote for Kerry by holding my nose. Dean at least had the courage to say what he really believed about the war, to react with honest moral emotions. The fact that the Democratic Party chose to reject Dean's moral honesty in favor of an "electable" triangulating billionaire arriviste tells you everything you need to know about what's wrong with the Democratic Party today, and why it's not surprising that they lost the last two elections.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Je ne regrete rien

In a 20/20 interview yesterday, Barbara Walters and George Bush had the following exchange:

Barbara Walters: [WMDs were] our main reason for going in. So now when we read, "Okay, the search is over," what do you feel?

President Bush: Well, like you, I felt like we'd find weapons of mass destruction. Or like many, many here in the United States, many around the world, the United Nations thought he had weapons of mass destruction, and so therefore, one, we need to find out what went wrong in the intelligence gathering. Saddam was dangerous. And . . . the world was safer without him in power.

Walters: But was it worth it if there were no weapons of mass destruction? Now that we know that that was wrong? Was it worth it?

Bush: Oh, absolutely.

As you keep this little exchange in mind, let's go back and revisit the most widely heard speech where Bush laid out the case for war against Iraq, namely his State of the Union address two years ago. If you reread the section on Iraq, what is striking is that his argument for "confronting" Iraq is based entirely on the putative threat of WMDs. There is no reference whatsoever to the supposed salutary, transformational effect that toppling Iraq will have on the Middle East. Democratizating the Middle East or saving the Iraqi people from Saddam -- the two benefits that neocons use to continue to defend the war (never mind that neither thing seems to be happening) -- do not figure at all in the portion of Bush's 2003 SOTU address that deals with Iraq. Here's the relevant portion of the speech:
Twelve years ago, Saddam Hussein faced the prospect of being the last casualty in a war he had started and lost. To spare himself, he agreed to disarm of all weapons of mass destruction.

For the next 12 years, he systematically violated that agreement. He pursued chemical, biological and nuclear weapons even while inspectors were in his country.

Nothing to date has restrained him from his pursuit of these weapons: not economic sanctions, not isolation from the civilized world, not even cruise missile strikes on his military facilities.

Almost three months ago, the United Nations Security Council gave Saddam Hussein his final chance to disarm. He has shown instead utter contempt for the United Nations and for the opinion of the world.

The 108 U.N. inspectors were sent to conduct -- were not sent to conduct a scavenger hunt for hidden materials across a country the size of California. The job of the inspectors is to verify that Iraq's regime is disarming.

It is up to Iraq to show exactly where it is hiding its banned weapons, lay those weapons out for the world to see and destroy them as directed. Nothing like this has happened.

The United Nations concluded in 1999 that Saddam Hussein had biological weapons materials sufficient to produce over 25,000 liters of anthrax; enough doses to kill several million people. He hasn't accounted for that material. He has given no evidence that he has destroyed it.

The United Nations concluded that Saddam Hussein had materials sufficient to produce more than 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin; enough to subject millions of people to death by respiratory failure. He hasn't accounted for that material. He's given no evidence that he has destroyed it.

Our intelligence officials estimate that Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent. In such quantities, these chemical agents could also kill untold thousands. He's not accounted for these materials. He has given no evidence that he has destroyed them.

U.S. intelligence indicates that Saddam Hussein had upwards of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents. Inspectors recently turned up 16 of them, despite Iraq's recent declaration denying their existence. Saddam Hussein has not accounted for the remaining 29,984 of these prohibited munitions. He has given no evidence that he has destroyed them.

From three Iraqi defectors we know that Iraq, in the late 1990s, had several mobile biological weapons labs. These are designed to produce germ warfare agents and can be moved from place to a place to evade inspectors. Saddam Hussein has not disclosed these facilities. He has given no evidence that he has destroyed them.

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb.

The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.

Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.

The dictator of Iraq is not disarming. To the contrary, he is deceiving.

From intelligence sources, we know, for instance, that thousands of Iraqi security personnel are at work hiding documents and materials from the U.N. inspectors, sanitizing inspection sites and monitoring the inspectors themselves.

Iraqi officials accompany the inspectors in order to intimidate witnesses. Iraq is blocking U-2 surveillance flights requested by the United Nations.

Iraqi intelligence officers are posing as the scientists inspectors are supposed to interview. Real scientists have been coached by Iraqi officials on what to say.

Intelligence sources indicate that Saddam Hussein has ordered that scientists who cooperate with U.N. inspectors in disarming Iraq will be killed, along with their families.

Year after year, Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken great risks to build and keep weapons of mass destruction. But why?

The only possible explanation, the only possible use he could have for those weapons, is to dominate, intimidate or attack.

With nuclear arms or a full arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, Saddam Hussein could resume his ambitions of conquest in the Middle East and create deadly havoc in that region.

And this Congress and the American people must recognize another threat. Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaida. Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own.

Before September the 11th, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained. But chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained.

Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.

We will do everything in our power to make sure that that day never comes.

Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike?

If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words and all recriminations would come too late. Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option.

The dictator who is assembling the world's most dangerous weapons has already used them on whole villages, leaving thousands of his own citizens dead, blind or disfigured.

Iraqi refugees tell us how forced confessions are obtained: by torturing children while their parents are made to watch. International human rights groups have catalogued other methods used in the torture chambers of Iraq: electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out tongues, and rape.

If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning.

And tonight I have a message for the brave and oppressed people of Iraq: Your enemy is not surrounding your country, your enemy is ruling your country. And the day he and his regime are removed from power will be the day of your liberation.

The world has waited 12 years for Iraq to disarm. America will not accept a serious and mounting threat to our country and our friends and our allies.

The United States will ask the U.N. Security Council to convene on February the 5th to consider the facts of Iraq's ongoing defiance of the world. Secretary of State Powell will present information and intelligence about Iraqi's -- Iraq's illegal weapons programs, its attempts to hide those weapons from inspectors and its links to terrorist groups.

We will consult, but let there be no misunderstanding: If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm for the safety of our people, and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.
Some may argue that Bush does make a moral case for the war here, by pointing out how evil Saddam is. Bush raises the issue of Saddam's violence against his own people, not as an argument for war in itself, but merely to show that Saddam is a ruthless person who stops at nothing, and therefore can't be trusted with WMDs. The relevance of Saddam's evil to American interests is described entirely as a byproduct of Iraq's putative possession of WMDs. Bush knows this, which is why the one paragraph dealing with Saddam's evil is preceded by thirty paragraphs dealing with WMDs, and followed by three more dealing with WMDs.

It's not that Saddam's evil is irrelevant to Bush's argument for the need to "confront" Iraq, of course. If Saddam weren't evil, then we'd probably be willing to live with him having WMDs. After all, we're not invading England or India, because they're not evil.

When Bismarck famously remarked that the Balkans "were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier," he was pointing out that while many bad things might be going on in the Balkans, Germany had no strategic interest in the place. Likewise, Bush clearly (and rightly) feels that the very great evil being perpetrated by regimes in places like Burma, Zimbabwe, or the Sudan are not worth the bones of a single American grenadier. What distinguishes Iraq from these other cases of evil-doing is (or was) the putative WMDs. Reading the SOTU address, it's hard to come to any other conclusion.

While the war may not have been justified even if Saddam had possessed WMDs, it's absolutely clear that in the absence of those WMDs, there was no need to wage a war that to date has cost the United States tens of thousands of casualties and a quarter trillion dollars.

Which is why yesterday's claim to Barbara Wa-wa strains credulity.