Thursday, June 30, 2005

Run to the center? or change the rules?

There's an interesting debate playing out right now on the Left about the proper strategy for dealing with the Republican ascendency. On the one hand you have the Democratic Leadership Council types (e.g. Clinton), who believe that the solution is to run to the "unoccupied middle," i.e. the space that the ideological extremists in the Republican Party (e.g. the Republican Party) have abandoned. On the other hand, you have those who believe that the goal should be to redefine the terrain of political debate itself, since any time you fight a war on the terms of the enemy, you've all but lost before you begin.

A posting over at Crooked Timber captures the essence of the debate, in terms of an argument between Ed Kilgore (the DLC rep) and Rick Perlstein, the latter abetted by Matt Yglesias. Here's how Henry Farrell describes the situation:

In internecine battles over policy, New Democrat/DLC types have made hay with the claim that leftwing policies simply don’t sell in the marketplace of American politics. As a result, they tend to exaggerate the extent to which these market rules are a given, and to discount the possibility that they might be changed....

Perlstein's real claim, if I understand it rightly, is that long term political success doesn't come from adapting your party to a political marketplace in which the enemy has set the rules of competition. It comes from a concerted effort over time to remake those rules yourself. This doesn't have to be pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. Nor does it have to be something which is antithetical to ND/DLC types' policy goals. Matt [Yglesias]'s suggestion for a new kind of family and childcare politics is a good example of an initiative that could help remake the rules of debate, and that both leftists and centrists could get behind. But it does require people like Ed Kilgore to stop using the current rules of the political marketplace as a stick to beat the heads of leftists, and to start thinking creatively about how those rules might be changed.

Now, as someone who works in marketing, I have to say that (quite apart from my ideological sympathies) I regard Perlstein's way of viewing the political problem as absolutely convincing. Making sure that your audience makes their decision based on the "features" you have chosen is the overwhelmingly most important factor in determining who will win in a particular sales battle. In other words, it's a matter of getting the customer to think that features A, B, and C (where you have real advantage) are the ones that really matter, rather than features X, Y, and Z (where your opponent has the advantage). The battle, in short, is about making the buyer/voter care about the issues where you have an advantage, and to dismiss as secondary the issues where you are weak.

This is especially true in situations where there is total parity on ninety percent of the "features" between the two "vendors." As Alexander Cockburn puts it:

Consider the number of issues on which there is tacit agreement between the Democratic and Republican parties, either as a matter of principle or with an expedient nod-and-wink that, beyond pro forma sloganeering, these are not matters suitable to be discussed in any public forum: the role of the Federal Reserve; trade policy; economic redistribution; the role and budget of the CIA and other intelligence agencies (almost all military); nuclear disarmament; reduction of the military budget and the allocation of military procurement; roles and policies of the World Bank, IMF, WTO; crime, punishment and the prison explosion; the war on drugs; corporate welfare; energy policy; forest policy; the destruction of small farmers and ranchers; Israel; the corruption of the political system; the occupation of Iraq. The most significant outcome of the electoral process is usually imposed on prospective voters weeks or months ahead of polling day—namely, the consensus between the supposed adversaries as to what s off the agenda.
Given this tacit agreement on all the major issues that confront our society -- in other words, the fact that there is de facto major-party consensus on all the big issues that might actually roil political debate in this country -- the real political battle becomes which relatively trivial issues we will choose to debate. And in this respect, the Republicans, quite frankly, have made complete bitches out of the Democrats for the last two electoral cycles. Karl Rove's genius is that he knows exactly which political issues are the "right ones" to choose for establishing effective Republican differentiation.

Quite obviously, the big issues facing the country during the last electoral cycle were (1) the probity of the choice to invade, and the path forward in, Iraq; (2) the massive budget deficit; (3) what to do about entitlements with an aging population. But were these the central issues the two candidates debated? Rhetorical question. Instead, the electoral debate, as played out in the so-called liberal media, focused almost entirely on secondary issues chosen by Rove: gay marriage, Swifties, and "personal character."

There are two problems here. The first is that the Democrats, under DLC guidance, have utterly failed to differentiate themselves from the Republicans on the major issues of the day. This was why I was disgusted by Kerry, but felt that Dean would have been a good candidate. (Dean was "a choice, not an echo," as the Goldwater phrase would have it.) The second problem was that insofar as they were going to concede parity on the vital issues of the day, the Democrats also ceded the choice of secondary issues to the Republicans.

The result was all but inevitable, and in retrospect it's frankly amazing that Kerry got as close as he did.

Bush's popularity over time

This entry is really a note to myself. I expect I'll be checking back every month or so on this graphic to track what Kevin Drum calls "Bush's long, steady slide into oblivion."

The Plame game

So why is Time Inc. deciding to make the unprecedented move of handing over to a grand jury information about the confidential sources of one of its reporters, Matt Cooper?

If you've got the sentimental idea that this is because Time doesn't like the idea of Cooper going to jail, think again: the Wall Street Journal suggests that this decision is in fact fall-out from mass media consolidation and the financial leverage the government can therefore bring to bear against news agencies:

Time Warner's precise worries about continuing to defy the subpoenas weren't clear, but the company deals frequently with the federal government and may want to avoid a standoff that could involve possible criminal prosecution, such as obstruction of justice. Another concern: other Time Warner employees who might have seen the documents the government seeks could themselves face subpoenas.

Time Warner depends on government approval for a number of matters. It is, for example, awaiting antitrust approval for its acquisition -- with Comcast Corp. -- of Adelphia Communications' cable assets. It depends on the government's largesse to issue securities. And though it is a cable operator and holds no broadcast licenses from the Federal Communications Commission, the company is vulnerable to FCC pressures on issues of media content.

One other potential issue is a deferred-prosecution agreement struck last year between the Justice Department and Time Warner relating to America Online. A deferred prosecution contemplates cooperating with the government in its ongoing investigation into specific wrongdoing, in this case alleged accounting fraud.

"Time Warner has got to be inclined to be as cooperative with the government as they can on all fronts," says Washington attorney Hank Asbill, who is representing a former America Online executive charged with securities fraud.

What to do in Iraq

Juan Cole just posted the grim opinion Alan Richards wrote, that I posted earlier. With no comment.

In response to the letter, Reader Phil asked if there's anything to be done, other than hand-wringing. I think the answer is to draw down the troop level and let the bloodbath ensue. Or rather, to declare victory and go home. We're not making the situation better there, so we may as well leave rather that drop more dollars and blood in the desert.

All those hawks who think that the solution is to double down on the number of troops should go out and look at the history of insurgencies in the postcolonial period. Not once in the last forty years has an army from the Global North put down an insurgency in the Global South, so give up the Niall-Ferguson fantasies of running a benign empire, and accept the limits of hard power.

Incidentally, this is what Juan Cole wrote back to me when I suggested as much to him:

It isn't just a matter of emboldening the terrorists if we leave too soon.

It is December 31, 2006. The last US soldier has left Iraq, seen off by Prime Minister Jaafari.

You game out what happens in Iraq, Iranian Khuzistan and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia over the subsequent year.

Game it out and without question it royally sucks; but that doesn't mean that the alternative (i.e. staying) games out any better.

At this point, however, I expect that it will probably take ten years before the U.S. gets out, and I say that based on speculating on the domestic politics of withdrawal under fire. The next President, if a Republican, will inherit the foreign policy team that made these choices to begin with and will therefore stay the course in the vain hope of salvaging their historical place. If a Democrat, he or she will be too scared of appearing weak to pull out. That means that it will be till at least 2012 before a withdrawal is seriously contemplatable, and depending on electoral outcomes that year, we may well be looking at 2016 before we get an administration with enough distance from the original choice of going to war to be willing to look dispassionately at the situation.

Email of the day

From Small Precautions reader JH: "What was with the Bush speech last night? Yawn. More of the same. Why can't the Democrats just point out how much Bush actually resembles a mid-19th century con-men: plain spoken, compelling but ultimately peddling wares that are dangerous. It's time for someone to tar and feather him."

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Do we need a timetable in Iraq?

The main partisan dispute over Iraq these days seems to be about whether or not we should set a timetable or deadline for withdrawal. Many rightwingers argue that to set a timetable would "throw a lifeline" to the insurgency, by making it clear that if they can just continue their strategy until that date, then they will win. This is a debatable point, but let's assume for a moment that the rightwingers are actually right about this argument. Even if that's the case, I still think that we ought to be setting deadlines: not so much military deadlines, however, as domestic political deadlines.

The need for a timetable for withdrawal is not about military strategy; it's hard to know for sure how things will unfold military, and the enemy clearly cannot be given the impression that there is a clear date after which a stalemate will transform instantly into a victory for them.

Rather, the kind of timetable we need is about political accountability. In other words, the Bush regime needs to be called on to make a commitment to the American people that if we do not succeed in improving the situation by date X, to the point where troop withdrawal is possible, then heads will roll in Washington. The statement that the Democrats should be pushing for, in other words, is not "We're committed to bringing the troops home by January 1, 2007 [or whatever arbitrary date]"; but rather, "We're promising that if we haven't stabilized Iraq by January 1, 2007 so that the troops can come home, then we'll bring in a more competent team."

In other words, what the American people have every right to expect from our "MBA President" is not just a statement of goals (and say what you will of Bush, but he's certainly fine at this task), but also metrics that allow us to measure whether he is making progress against those goals. In business, if you put together a business plan, and then your cost overrun by several hundred percent in order to achieve your goals, then you get fired. The same thing should happen in politics.

The subtext behind the arguments about deadlines and timetables is BushCo's perceived lack of candor about what they are doing. "Tell us what your goals are, tell us how much you think it's going to cost, and let us make the judgment on whether we believe that that's worth it," is the fundamental thing people want from the Bushies. The shifting rationales for the War, the refusal to make predictions about costs (except to dismiss estimates which turned out to be all too accurate), have generated an impression that these guys simply make decisions without any view to a cost/benefit analysis, or indeed that they don't care about costs at all. There's the sense that this regime is deliberately keeping the American people in the dark as to what they are up to, and the call for a deadline is thus really a call for a standard of accountability.

The Democrats (and anyone who is in favor of seeing the war pursued in a competent manner) needs to make clear that the goal of a timetable in Iraq is not to create a strategic straightjacket for our military planners, but rather to define a standard of accountability for the political leadership.

Accountability Watch: Abu Ghraib edition

Two senior officers responsible for overseeing detention and interrogation techniques in Iraq in 2003 are being promoted.

Interesting graphic on Iraq

Via Juan Cole, I found this flash animation of the geographical and temporal distribution of coalition casualities. Make sure to have the volume on while you're watching, as the punctuated staccato is chilling in itself.

Democratic counterpunch on SCOTUS nominees

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is showing himself to be quite the savvy political operator. His latest move is to propose some of his Republican colleagues as good SCOTUS nominees. Specifically, he suggests that Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mel Martinez of Florida, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Mike Crapo of Idaho would make good Justices.

This move is close to political genius, given the place Democrats occupy in Washington today and the partisan bitterness infecting everything (well, everything except sentimentality about animals). First of all, it gets the Democrats out ahead of the news cycle on the SCOTUS nomination issue, and provides a "hook" for the media to develop an altenrative narrative to the usual "Bush action / Democrat reaction" line, which has become the standard formula over the last two and a half years. Second, Reid's proposal demonstrates an unimpeachable anti-partisan attitude, thus blasting the notion that the Democrats are doctrinaire obstructionists who are unwilling to work with the majority across the aisle. Relatedly, it demonstrates that finding a compromise SCOTUS nominee is a real option -- which will make it far easier to pin the blame on the Republicans for the partisan fight if (or, rather, when) Bush chooses to nominate an underqualified ideological extremist. Finally, it represents direct outreach to those specific four Senators, which hopefully will encourage them to vote their conscience when they disagree with the policy dicta being promulgated by the White House.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Keep this in mind while listening to Bush tonight


With Tuesday's attacks, Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant with ties to al-Qaida, is now blamed for more than 700 terrorist killings in Iraq.

But NBC News has learned that long before the war the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out his terrorist operation and perhaps kill Zarqawi himself -- but never pulled the trigger.

In June 2002, U.S. officials say intelligence had revealed that Zarqawi and members of al-Qaida had set up a weapons lab at Kirma, in northern Iraq, producing deadly ricin and cyanide.

The Pentagon quickly drafted plans to attack the camp with cruise missiles and airstrikes and sent it to the White House, where, according to U.S. government sources, the plan was debated to death in the National Security Council.

"Here we had targets, we had opportunities, we had a country willing to support casualties, or risk casualties after 9/11 and we still didn't do it," said Michael O'Hanlon, military analyst with the Brookings Institution.

Four months later, intelligence showed Zarqawi was planning to use ricin in terrorist attacks in Europe.

The Pentagon drew up a second strike plan, and the White House again killed it. By then the administration had set its course for war with Iraq.

"People were more obsessed with developing the coalition to overthrow Saddam than to execute the president's policy of preemption against terrorists," according to terrorism expert and former National Security Council member Roger Cressey.

If this is true, it seems to me close to treasonable.

The coming civil war on the right

The "Bleeding Kansas" of contemporary conservatism?

Well, maybe that's a bit exaggerated, but it's still kinda fun to watch the nutters over at the Ayn Rand Institure throw well-aimed spit-balls at the religious right. And the conclusion, at least, is unimpeachable:

If "people of faith" choose to act irrationally in their private lives, they are free to do so. But if there is one institution that must be held rationally accountable for every single action it takes, it is the agency that can lawfully use guns, prisons, and lethal injections against legally disarmed citizens.

Separating church from state does not guarantee victory for the rational protection of individual rights--secular irrationality is possible, indeed commonplace--but such separation is indispensable nonetheless. This is why issues like abortion, gay rights, and "Intelligent Design" creationism merit so much attention. Once judges begin accepting religious feelings as valid decisional factors, the secular principle cannot survive, and the disintegration of society into sectarian strife must soon follow.

"People of faith" began this war, and so people of reason must now end it--by zealously defending the secular state, and vowing never to allow faith and force to be united under the American flag.

The Duke of moral hazzard

Lots of developments on the Randy "Duke" Cunningham corruption front. First of all, a federal grand jury today began subpoenaing documents from poor, persecuted Duke, regarding his sale of his home to a military contractor, Mitchell Wade, at an absurdly inflated price. Meanwhile, Wade's company, MZM Inc., has had its contracts with the government terminated, and the Wade himself has given up control over the company.

Bickering Elephants

Tax-cutting wingnut Grover Norquist admits he "misspoke" when he called John McCain "the nut-job from Arizona"; instead, he clarifies that, "I meant to say gun-grabbing, tax-increasing Bolshevik."

I'm sure glad we've got that all sorted out now.

SCOTUS shortlist

If Slate is right about the White House's Supreme Court nomination shortlist, then (God help us!) it appears that torture-apologist Alberto Gonzalez is the best we can hope for.

Limiting Presidential war powers as a wedge issue?

Kevin Drum argues that we ought to strengthen congressional oversight over the executive branch's "right" to wage war at will:

Presidents have long ignored the War Powers Act, and Congress has studiously done nothing about it. As for declaring war, forget it. The United States hasn't formally declared war on another country since the end of World War II.

If liberals wanted to team up with originalist conservatives on something, I think changing this would be a worthwhile project. It's certainly the case that the president needs to have the authority to respond quickly to events, and it's equally the case that Congress doesn't want to get involved in every minor use of American troops abroad.

But there ought to be a limit. In the case of a major foreign war involving detailed planning and serious numbers of troops, the president ought to be required to get a declaration of war from Congress. Defining "major war" isn't a trivial task, but it's not impossible either. Since 1990, the United States has been involved in at least four major wars--the Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq--which should have required a declaration of war. None of them got it.

It's worth noting that impeding the march to war was the exact point of the constitutional clause mandating that both chambers of Congress be given the responsibility for declaring war, as the debate during the Constitutional Convention makes clear. When the royalist Pierce Butler of South Carolina formally proposed giving the president the power to start war, Elbridge Gerry (the man for whom "gerrymandering" is named) of Massachusetts said that he "never expected to hear in a republic a motion to empower the executive to declare war." Butler's motion was quickly rejected. Explained Virginia's George Mason, the president "is not safely to be entrusted with" the power to decide on war. Mason therefore favored "clogging rather than facilitating war."

Moreover, the Contitution requires that Congress declare war is not just to limit the possibility of tyrannical rule, but also to guarantee that the political establishment get political "buy-in" before it wages war. The goal is to ensure that the people themselves are committed to the process themselves, so that they will stay steadfast in a long struggle. This need to establish popular commitment to the cause of a war is why the Constitution mandates that it be not just the Senate, the main organ of "advise and consent" to the President in matters of foreign policy (as in the approval of treaties and ambassadors, for example), but also the House of Representatives, the people's direct representatives, that approve a declaration of war. After all, if the President de facto declares war unilaterally, it's not surprising if national commitment to war slowly bleeds away as the going gets tough. But basic psychology makes it evident that steadfastness in the face of trouble is much more likely when the people's proxies have directly committed to war. This is why Kevin is exactly right to conclude:

One of the great travesties of the Iraq war is that Congress passed a "use of force" resolution in October 2002 and then passed the buck to the president to decide if and when its conditions for war had been met. Five months later we invaded Iraq without Congress doing anything further aside from approving some budgetary items. This allowed many members of Congress — mostly Democrats — to argue disingenuously that, sure, they approved the October resolution, but they didn't approve of the war as George Bush prosecuted it. They felt the conditions of the resolution hadn't been satisfied.

Frankly, they shouldn't be allowed to get away with this. It's one thing to pass a use of force resolution or to approve funding for a troop buildup. But when it comes time to pull the trigger and go to war, Congress should explicitly approve it without conditions. Based on its own evaluation of current facts on the ground, Congress should either approve military action at that point in time or not. This puts our elected representatives on the record about the act itself, and that's as it should be. It's long past time for Congress to stop ducking its constitutional responsibility.

Ultimately, this is a nonpartisan point: these clauses in the Constitution exist precisely to ensure that the Commander-in-Chief, who has the exclusive responsibility for how a war is waged, cannot enter a war to which the people themselves are not fully committed. In short, it exists as a safeguard both against tyrrany, and against the possibility that our country can function as an empire.

With all that said, I must say that it's obviously absurd to think that this could actually be a cause for finding common ground with the constitional "originalists" like Scalia etc. To think that this crowd is the least bit consistent about their commitment to a literal reading of the Constititon, is a joke -- and one in poor taste, I might add. These guys are merely apologists for fundamentalist moralizing and unimpeded corporate power, who merely intellectualize their hackery by referring in the most selective possible way to the "original intent" of the founders.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Stopping the avalanche in Iraq

A friend who is an economist and Middle East specialist writes to Juan Cole, of Informed Comment:

Dear Juan,

I have been reading the debate in your wonderful Blog on What next? in Iraq (unilateral withdrawal? UN forces? Staying the course?) with great interest. There is a way, however, in which I am troubled by what I perceive as a tacit assumption--a very American assumption,--underlying most of the discussion. It seems to me that even pessimists are actually optimists: they assume that there exists in Iraq and the Gulf some solution, some course of action which can actually lead to an outcome other than widespread, prolonged violence, with devastating economic, political, and social consequences.

I regret to say that I think this is wrong. There is no solution to this mess; it is sometimes not possible to fix things which have been broken. I can see no course of action which will prevent widespread violence, regional social upheaval, and economic hammering administered by oil price shocks. This is why so many of us opposed the invasion of Iraq so strenuously in the first place! We thought that it would unleash irreversible adverse consequences for (conventionally defined) US interests in the region. I am very sorry to say that I still think we were right.

Let me get specific:

1) As you have often pointed out, our continued presence de-legitimizes the current Iraqi government, which is, in any case, largely a Shiite Islamist and Kurdish tactical alliance. As Patrick Coburn has pointed out (LRB), the Kurds destabilized Iraq for half a century, and the Sunnis can certainly do the same. No Sunnis, no deal, no way-as you have repeatedly stressed. And the polls, which you courageously cite, which show some 40% of the population backing the insurgents, at least in principle, demonstrates-as you have repeatedly argued-that a large number of Iraqis want us to get out. This means, as you say almost every day,
that our current policy (unilateral presence, if I may call it that) is unsustainable. The insurgents, and many Iraqis, want us out, by any means. Our continued presence cannot succeed.

2) Your scenario for a regional Lebanese or Thirty Years War style conflict in the wake of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal seems very plausible. Indeed, since I think that the U.S. cannot stay, and since I (regrettably) think that the U.N. option is also not viable (for some of the reasons your correspondents have stated), such a scenario may be the most prescient prediction. But the U.S., as a polity and culture, will simply not sustain this war, not without huge damage to other interests, to the military itself, and to American democracy. Our continued presence only postpones the evil day, and the U.N. is not, I think, likely to step in.

3) Salafi jihadis and Iran are the big winners in all this-and they hate each other. I can see NO possible way for outsiders to defuse this: not with the U.S. in Iraq, not with the U.N., not with a power vacuum. People from outside the region (U.S., E.U., U.N., India, China, whoever) can do very, very little about this. It seems to me that, as usual, only Muslims can ameliorate the problems of Muslim governance.

4) Finally, there is a tacit assumption in the discussion so far that low oil prices, including current levels, are viable. I dont think this is true, for at least two reasons. A) The terrifying truth is that how we consume energy now both in the U.S. and elsewhere is entirely unsustainable for environmental reasons. Denial is the national past-time on this; and it is deeply destructive. Global warming is a reality, it will get worse, and the consequences will be extremely serious. I now work surrounded by biologists and environmental scientists, many of whom would cheer (even as they paid a heavy price in lost jobs and income) if the price of oil hit $100 a barrel, because they are in a panic about the consequences of our current profligate behavior. B) The jury is still out on the Hubberts Peak hypothesis, but the viewpoint is hardly silly. If it should prove to be correct, oil prices will rise, steeply-until we get serious about fostering the kind of changes in consumption and technology which are necessary, in any case (see A). To repeat: assuming that low oil prices are viable is very dubious at best, and at worst, constitutes a species of denial.

5) Who will pay the price for high oil prices? As you rightly say, poor people, especially in the Global South. Will they know this? Certainly. Will they thank rich countries like us? Hardly. Might this lead to other violent social movements, particularly given all the other problems in the Global South? I cant see why not. Of course, there are ways in principle of dealing with this problem which could minimize the pain. Every competent economist knows the litany of price changes, technology subsidies, and quantitative mandates which we should have implemented, decades ago. We should still do this now, even at this late date. Of course, every indication suggests that the necessary steps will not be taken, thanks, in large part, to American culture and politics. After all, no one, from either party, in the political arena is saying anything even remotely commensurate with the threat which most scientists see to the future of the planet. No one with any power is talking sensibly about energy use, global poverty, and their interrelationships. No one at all.

6) My last pessimistic point: my reading of history is that the only way large changes occur is as responses to large crises. I dont like this, but it seems true to me. And, I hasten to add, change in a crisis is hardly guaranteed to be humane, decent, or to have any claim on our ethical allegiance. We might get a new Roosevelt, but we also might get a new Hitler.

Please dont misunderstand me: I am not advocating regional-crisis-cum-oil-price-spike. I simply think that it is probably unavoidable. If we leave, there will be violence, mayhem, slaughter, and instability, and if we stay there will be violence, mayhem, slaughter, and instability. If there is (as I tend to think) a large crisis looming on the horizon, it will certainly be ugly, even hideous. And then-something else will happen. The one thing I dont think is possible is to avoid it.

So let me close where I began: I think it is delusional to imagine that there exists a solution to the mess in Iraq. From this perspective, the folly of Bush, Cheney and Company in invading Iraq is even worse than most informed observers of the region already think. Starting an avalanche is certainly criminal. It does not follow, however, that such a phenomenon can be stopped once it has begun.

The C-Word, Part II

Sixty-five percent of Republicans, 81% of Independents and 87% of Democrats do not believe the Bush regime's claims that the insurgency in Iraq is weakening.

iPod for dysleyxics

The Bush regime's international brand.

The C-word

Bloomberg: "Bush's Credibility on Iraq Undercut by Violence, Slow Progress."

To reiterate: in terms of the geopolitics and ethical metanarrative, the Iraq War could scarcely be more different from the Vietnam War; but in terms of the domestic American politics of the two wars, the parallels are becoming ever more evident.

Much as the Vietnam War effectively destroyed mid-century American liberalism at the very moment of its ascendency, so the Iraq War seems set to destroy contemporary conservatism.

Japanese culture

Ian Buruma is one of the most engaging writers today on the intersection of politics and culture, and his latest on the peculiarities of contemporary Japanese art is superb. Commenting on a current exhibition in New York called "Little Boy," Buruma notes the "the infantile quality of much of the imagery":

The wide-eyed little girls, the cute, furry animals, the winking, smiling mascots that one normally finds on candy boxes and in comic strips for children (which, by the way, are avidly consumed in Japan by adults too). The word, much used to describe young girls and their girlish tastes, is kawaii. The Hello Kitty doll is kawaii, as are little pussy cats, or fluffy jumpers with Snoopy dogs. Kawaii denotes innocence, sweetness, a complete lack of malice.

In the "Little Boy" exhibition the remarkable thing about the childlike drawings of young girls by Kunikata Mahomi, or the computer-generated prints by Aoshima Chiho, or Ohshima Yuki's plastic dolls of prepubescent girls, or Nara Yoshitomo's paintings of bug-eyed children, is that these supposedly kawaii images are actually not innocent at all, and sometimes full of malice. When you look at them carefully, you notice a strain of sexual violence. Everything about Aoshima Chiho's wide-eyed, nude girl lying on the branch of an apricot tree is kawaii, apart from the fact that she is tied up. In another picture by the same artist, cartoonish little girls are sinking into the earth in an apocalyptic-looking shower of meteors. Ohshima Yuki's plastic dolls at first look like the cute little pendants on a nine-year-old's school satchel; but on closer inspection they are objects of pedophile lust, half-naked children in suggestive poses. [Exhition curator] Murakami's own painting in pink acrylic of a smoky death's head with garlands of flowers in the eye sockets turns out to be a stylized version of the atomic bomb cloud....

The sense of catastrophe, of apocalyptic doom, in much Japanese Neo Pop imagery, echoing the popularity of Japanese animation films and computer games about world-destroying wars and Godzilla-type monsters, is explained by Murakami as a reflection of Japan's ill-digested wartime past. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, smothered in silence during the US occupation, have left a kind of unresolved, largely repressed rage. Japan's own atrocities have not been forthrightly faced either. Murakami argues that the US has successfully turned Japan into a pacifist nation of irresponsible consumers, encouraged to get richer and richer while leaving matters of war and peace to the Americans.

"Postwar Japan was given life and nurtured by America," writes Murakami in one of the catalog essays: "We were shown that the true meaning of life is meaninglessness, and were taught to live without thought. Our society and hierarchies were dismantled. We were forced into a system that does not produce 'adults.'" Part of this state of permanent childhood, in Murakami's view, is a sense of impotence, fostered by the US-written pacifist constitution, which robs Japan of its right to wage war. Murakami writes: "Regardless of winning or losing the war, the bottom line is that for the past sixty years, Japan has been a testing ground for an American-style capitalist economy, protected in a greenhouse, nurtured and bloated to the point of explosion. The results are so bizarre, they're perfect. Whatever true intentions underlie 'Little Boy,' the nickname for Hiroshima's atomic bomb, we Japanese are truly, deeply, pampered children.... We throw constant tantrums while enthralled by our own cuteness...."

Murakami and other theorists of this persuasion link these infantile "tantrums" and dreams of omnipotence to the actual violence of Aum Shinrikyo, the quasi-Buddhist cult, whose followers in the 1990s murdered unsuspecting Tokyo subway passengers with sarin gas while wait-ing for Armageddon. They, too, used apocalyptic fantasies to explode the meaninglessness of the postwar greenhouse. The difference is that these deluded men and women, many of them well-educated scientists, led by the half-blind guru Asahara Shoko, really believed they could find utopia by waging war on the world....

All this strikes me as wildly exaggerated. No one disputes that the atomic bombings were a terrible catastrophe or that the pumped-up postwar prosperity of Japan did much to bury the traumas of the wartime past. That overdependence on US security—combined with a de facto one-party state— has led to a kind of truncated political consciousness is at least plausible (I have argued this myself). And the humiliation of feeling dominated by Western civilization for more than two hundred years cannot be dismissed. But to explain contemporary Japanese culture entirely through the prism of postwar trauma is much too glib....

Even though the oversized, indeed grotesque proportions of human genitalia in pre-modern Japanese erotic art give a very different impression than the childlike humanoids in current art, a feeling of impotence goes back much further than General MacArthur's occupation. It might have something to do with the traditional constraints which have been a constant feature of Japanese society. Who knows, it may even have something to do with overbearing mothers, smothering their (male) toddlers with too much care, before the social handcuffs are applied and early childhood becomes a lost Eden to be pined for until death.

Buruma's writing is so compelling, and his interpretive touch so deft, that he can even get away with this shrug-of-the-shoulders nod toward Freudian reductivism. Certainly, anyone who's spent much time looking at Japanese art, especially anime, has to have asked themselves similar questions.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Massively parallel insurgency

John Robb, who specializes in applying cybernetic analysis to contemporary geopolitics, has an interesting piece explaining how the Iraqi insurgency is based on massively parallel operations. Money:
Iraq's guerrillas are using effects based operations against the current Iraqi state. Guerrilla entrepreneurs, operating autonomously in niches... of expertise/locality/loyalty, are attacking critical systems of the Iraqi state in a massively parallel way. How? The guerrillas use stealth (an ability to blend into the population), precision guided munitions (ie. car bombs, where the terminal guidance system isn't a computer but a person), and extremely decentralized command and control (hundreds of different autonomous groups/gangs/tribes) to attack targets over 70 times a day. Further, they have adopted a method of systems disruption that enables them to bypass hard targets (heavily defended) in favor of weak and undefended targets that achieve the same effect (ie. methods of disrupting scale free networks like electrical systems).
Our military is simply not equipped to deal with this sort of opponent -- and the limitation is ethical and political, not technical or organizational. Indeed, once an insurgency reaches a tipping point, only a strategy committed to eradicating the population surrounding the insurgents can "work." If Mao was right that the guerrilla is like a fish and the people like the sea, then boiling the ocean is the only sure way to eradicate the fish.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Nepal: the forgotten war

A great article on one of the world's forgotten hell-holes, Nepal. Pankaj Mishra meditates on Crown Prince Dipendra, who murdered most of his family four years ago, before killing himself, and wonders,
if he had indeed been sensitised to social and economic distress during his three years in Thatcher’s England, had seen his strange inheritance, a country where almost half of the 26 million people earned less than $100 a year and had no access to electricity, running water or sanitation; a country whose small economy, parasitic on foreign aid and tourism, had to be boosted by the remittances of Nepalese workers abroad, and where political forces seen as anachronisms elsewhere – monarchy and Communism – fought for supremacy.
Five years ago I visited Nepal for a couple of weeks, and I must say it was one of the most eye-opening and horrifying experiences of my life.

The poverty was of a sort that you simply cannot imagine unless you have been to Africa: villages where not a single peasant had shoes, skinny-poor children everywhere, and a haunted look of desperation in the eyes of virtually all the clawing locals -- and I saw only the relatively affluent parts of the country. Moreover, the degree of social friction was palpable. I'll never forget the village of Khuldi in the Modi Khola Valley, which I passed through on the way to the Annapurna Sanctuary. As I trekked through the village, I happened to witness a caste-based fist-fight between eight year old girls: a main group was attacking the kids from the single outcaste family with nettle-covered sticks. Meanwhile, the narrow valley echoed with the angry voices of the girls' mothers, who were sitting in their huts, yelling at each other. All of this against a backdrop of jawdropping natural beauty.

My visit to Nepal took place just after I completed of my dissertation, on the intellectual history of modernization theory (the dominant American doctrine of development during the 1950s and 1960s). In deciding where to go that Spring, I chose Nepal in part because I wanted to see what an "unmodernized" country looked like. Rather than finding an unmodernized country, however, I instead discovered a country suffering the aftermath of the failed dreams of modernization, as Mishra points out:

American economists and advisers trying to make the world safe for capitalism came to Nepal [in the 1950s and 1960s] with plans for "modernisation" and "development" – then seen as strong defences against the growth of Communism in poor countries. In the Rapti valley, west of Kathmandu, where, ironically, the Maoists found their first loyal supporters in the 1990s, the US government spent about $50 million "improving household food production and consumption, improving income-generating opportunities for poor farmers, landless labourers, occupational castes and women."

Modernisation and development, as defined by Western experts during the Cold War, were always compatible with, and often best expedited by, despotic rule. Few among the so-called international community protested when, after a brief experiment with parliamentary democracy in the 1950s, King Mahendra, Dipendra’s grandfather, banned all political parties. A new constitution in 1962 instituted a partyless "Panchayat" system of "guided democracy" in which advisers chosen or controlled by the king rubber-stamped his decisions. The representatives of the Panchayat, largely from the upper castes, helped themselves to the foreign aid that made up most of the state budget, and did little to alleviate poverty in rural areas. The king also declared Nepal a Hindu state and sought to impose on its ethnic and linguistic communities a new national identity by promoting the Nepali language....

The "modernisation" and "development" of Nepal during the 1950s and 1960s created millions of men like [Maoist insurgency leader] Prachanda, lured away from their subsistence economies and abandoned on the threshold of a world in which they found they had, and could have, no place. Nepal's agricultural economy offered few of them the jobs or the dignity they felt was their due, and they were too aware of the possibilities thwarted by an unequal, stratified society to reconcile themselves to a life of menial labour in unknown lands, and an old age spent in religious stupor. Educated, but with no prospects, many young men like Prachanda must have been more than ready to embrace radical ideas about the ways that an entrenched urban elite could be challenged and even overthrown if peasants in the countryside were organised....

There are few places in Nepal untouched by violence – murder, torture, arbitrary arrest – and most people live perpetually in fear of both the army and the Maoists, without expectation of justice or recompense. [Prachanda's father] Dahal, however, appeared to have made a private peace with his surroundings. He told me that he spent much of his day at the local temple, listening to recitals of the Ramayana. He said that he still believed the king had good intentions. He appeared both bemused by, and admiring of, his famous son, whom he had last seen at the funeral of his wife in 1996. The ideas of equality and justice, he thought, had always appealed to Prachanda, who was a sensitive man, someone who shared his food with poor people in the village. He couldn’t tell me how his son had got interested in Mao or Marx in such a place as Chitwan, which had no bookshop or library. But he did know that Prachanda had got involved with Communists when he couldn't find a good job with the government and had to teach at a primary school in his native hills of Pokhara.

In his speeches, which claim inspiration from Mao and seek to mobilise the peasants in the countryside against the urban elite, Prachanda comes across as an ideologue of another era: he's an embarrassment to the Chinese regime, which is engaged in the un-Maoist task of enriching Chinese coastal cities at the expense of the hinterland, and feels compelled to accuse Nepalese Maoists of besmirching the Chairman’s good name.

In the few interviews he has given, Prachanda avoids answering questions about his background and motivation, which have to be divined from details given by Dahal: the haphazard schooling, the useless degree, the ill-paid teaching job in a village school, all of which seem to lead inexorably to a conflict with, and resentment of, unjust authority.

The "modernisation" and "development" of Nepal during the 1950s and 1960s created millions of men like Prachanda, lured away from their subsistence economies and abandoned on the threshold of a world in which they found they had, and could have, no place. Nepal's agricultural economy offered few of them the jobs or the dignity they felt was their due, and they were too aware of the possibilities thwarted by an unequal, stratified society to reconcile themselves to a life of menial labour in unknown lands, and an old age spent in religious stupor. Educated, but with no prospects, many young men like Prachanda must have been more than ready to embrace radical ideas about the ways that an entrenched urban elite could be challenged and even overthrown if peasants in the countryside were organised.

Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Cunningham story gets better every day

The circle of sleaze around Republican representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham keeps growing:

A defense contractor who took a $700,000 loss on the purchase of Rep. Randy Cunningham's Del Mar residence in 2003, and provided a yacht for his use in the nation's capital, forced his employees to make political contributions that benefited the San Diego Republican and other members of Congress, according to three former senior officials of the company.

The former employees of the defense contractor, MZM, Inc., said separately that its founder, Mitchell Wade, routinely forced employees to give political donations.

"By the spring of '02, Mitch was twisting employees' arms to donate to his MZM PAC," said one senior former employee. "We were called in and told basically either donate to the MZM PAC or we would be fired."

Guess what: that's illegal.

Sullivan defends Dick Durbin's Nazi comments

Defending Dick Durbin's comments about how the torture of prisoners is fundamentally anti-American, Andrew Sullivan makes exactly the right point:
I'm sick of hearing justifications that the enemy is worse. This is news? This is what now passes for analysis? They are far, far worse, among the most despicable and evil enemies we have ever faced. Our treatment of their prisoners is indeed Club Med compared to their fathomless barbarism. But since when is our moral compass set by them? The West is a civilization built on a very fragile web of law and humanity. We do not treat people in our custody as animals. We do not justify it. We do not change the subject. We do not accuse those highlighting it of aiding the enemy. We do not joke about it. We simply don't do it. This administration - by design, improvisation, desperation, arrogance, incompetence, and wilfull blindness - has enabled this to occur. They must be held accountable until this cancer is rooted out for good. It has metastasized enough already.
The only thing I would add is, "I told you so."

Sullivan is shocked, shocked to discover that right-wingers condone torture. But how could he not have realized that the people promoting this war were never really against such acts in the first place, despite all the protestations to the contrary. For example, has Sullivan forgotten what John Negroponte -- our last U.N. ambassador, more recently the chief administrator in Iraq, and now National Intelligence Director -- enabled in Central America in the 1980s?

More generally, this is a political regime riding the crest of a political movement that is trying to rehabilitate Nixon, to rehabilitate McCarthy, and to rehabilitate the Japanese-American internment during World War II.

To paraphrase Rumsfeld, you go to war with the political movement you have.

The Other GWOT: John Bolton edition

Bush has gotten himself into a political pickle with the Bolton nomination, and the odds are now clearly against Bolton's confirmation, with the political result is that George Bush is beginning to be openly described as a lame duck.

But these political issues aside, the underlying issue, at this point, is a procedural one. Although Bolton will certainly be a terrible U.N. Ambassador, the fight at this point is over whether you believe that the executive branch has an obligation to transparency to the other branches and to the American people. The Bush regime is arguing that as the President he has the right to get a vote on anyone he wants for any job, and that his nominations should get a vote without Congress being permitted a fishing expedition for documents -- even if those documents unquestionably pertain to the person's competency to perform the job. As I've written before, the Bush regime may suffer from a small consistency when it comes to Global War on Terror, but it is nothing if not single-minded in the pursuit of its "Other GWOT," e.g. its Global War on Transparency.

But the interesting question why are the Bushies putting up such a fight over these documents? After all, it hands over lots of documents every day, but then all of a sudden digs in its heels at a certain point. How does it draw the line? As part of its Other GWOT, it refuses to make even its own principles for drawing these lines transparent, since to do so would open that reasoning itself up to legal scrutiny.

Speculation is now running that it has to do with the companies that are named in the documents -- which many believe may be major Bush contributors, who are perhaps implicated in shady dealings or worse with the Chinese or the Libyans. Part of the reason for this speculation is that the last battle of this sort that received headlines was over the advice Dick Cheney had received from industry lobbyists in drafting an energy plan -- a battle that the Bushies eventually won before the Supreme Court.

In this case, however, the battle won't go to the Supreme Court but instead will be fought in the court of public opinion, over two competing procedural principles: should a President be able to get a Senate floor vote on any nominee he wants for any job, period; or do the American people first have the right to see all the documentary evidence regarding that candidate that a significant group of Senators deem pertinent to their vote? This is clearly a battle the Democrats ought to win, since in our democracy it remains (for now) awfully hard to make a principled defense of secrecy.

Monday, June 20, 2005

R.I.P Jake Pickle

Linking to two obits in one day is a bit much, but in this case there's a personal connection: former Congressman J.J. Pickle died over the weekend. I interned for Pickle in the Spring of 1989, by which time Pickle was the third most senior Democrat in the House. As you might expect, he didn't spend a whole lot of time with the high school kid, but we did have lunch together a few times, and to this day he's the most senior professional politician with whom I've gotten that amount of face time.

Several things strike me, as I recollect him. Instead of being embarassed by his somewhat silly name, he used it as a political brand: at political rallies, he would hand out small plastic pickle pins, and he also kept a collection of pickle-themed tchotchkes lying around the office. This was of a piece with his personal style. Pickle was the most genial guy you could imagine, to the point of being a bit of a ham, and you could see him engage completely and earnestly with even the silliest of constituent gripes. More seriously, the guy was living embodiment, indeed the archetype, of the late New Deal Democrat: with a technocrat's brain and a populist's heart, he was pro-Civil Rights Act, pro-farm subsidy, and pro-Social Security.

Though I can do without the farm subsidies, there's no doubt that today's Congress would be a far better place if it had a lot more people like Pickle.

Cardinal Sin

The best name in populist religion is dead.

The headline in the Manila Times? "Sin a great liberator."

Amen to that.

Quote of the day

"Things aren't getting better [in Iraq]; they're getting worse. The White House is completely disconnected from reality... It's like they're just making it up as they go along. The reality is that we're losing in Iraq." - Chuck Hagel, Prairie Republican

Sunday, June 19, 2005

A "generational commitment" in Iraq

A lot of the time when I am thinking about the Bush regime's foreign policy generally, and its Iraq policy in particular, I implicitly allow myself to believe that somehow the people running the show, while perhaps very wicked, are not in fact fools. After all, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, and Don Rumsfeld are unquestionably highly accomplished politicians -- excellent public speakers who respond with extreme discipline to high pressure circumstances. As someone who works in a capacity in which these traits are highly valued, these skills of theirs impress me, perhaps more than they should.

But every once in a while I see something that makes me realize that this team's knavery is perhaps the least of our worries, and that in fact, that may well be that they are, in fact, utter idiots.

For example, here I was this morning, listening to Fox News Sunday. On the show, Condie's getting interviewed by Chris Wallace, who at one point asks her, "Can the Bush administration fairly be criticized for failing to level with the American people about how long and difficult this commitment will be" in Iraq? Her answer, I think everyone will agree, was both illuminating and stunning.

Here's Condie:

The most important point about Iraq is that it was time to deal with Saddam Hussein and to create conditions in this very important region, this very volatile region, that would help bring about a different kind of Middle East so that the United States can be secure.

The Middle East came home to us on September 11 in ways that we never expected. And without change in this region, we're going to continue to fight terrorists for a very, very long time.

Now, we have a different kind of Iraq. It is still a young Iraq, a young, democratic Iraq. But if you look at the progress that they have made on the political front -- the turnover of sovereignty, the creation of a transitional administrative law, elections in January of this year, a constitutional committee now to write a constitution, and they will have elections in December -- they've made very rapid progress.

And so the administration, I think, has said to the American people that it is a generational commitment to Iraq. But it is not a generational commitment in military terms; it is a commitment of our support to them, our political support and an understanding that democracy takes time. But they're making very rapid progress.

Normally, I try to be optimistic about the policy savviness of the people running the American government. Normally, for example, I permit myself to think that the Bushies must surely understand that "the Middle East" is not a single undifferentiated mass. I think to myself, they must surely understand that it wasn't "the Middle East" that "came home to us" (a disturbing phrase on several levels, but let's leave that aside) on 9-11, but rather that what happened on 9-11 was that a particular, specific group of bloodthirsty Islamist extremists targetted for destruction the most visible physical symbols of American economic, political, and military power.

But then you read this transcript, and you realize, they just don't get it. You read this kind of thing and you realize: holy cow, these guys aren't Machiavellians, Mayberry or otherwise; on the contrary, these guys completely believe their own press releases. They really do believe that Saddam regime was "somehow connected" to 9-11!

You can almost hear the Bushie train of thought: "Here's one thing we know: the hijackers were all bad guys from 'the Middle East.' Here's another thing we know: Saddam was also a bad guy from the Middle East. ('Coinkydink' you say? Ha! say I.) And you know how those people think, right? They believe in the principle that 'my enemy's enemy is my friend.' And since Saddam and the 9-11 hijackers both are clearly my enemy... that must mean they're friends... so that must mean they worked on 9-11 together...." Or something like that.

Another piece of evidence that this is the correct interpretation of Rice's words is her phrase about the supposed "generational commitment" that the Bushies are making to Iraq on behalf of the American people.

First of all, let's be utterly clear on one fact, since the basic M.O. of the regime is to obfuscate this point: before April 2003 no one in the Bush regime suggested that Iraq would require a 20-30 year commitment on the part of the U.S. -- and for damn good reason, since if they had, no one in the right mind would have supported the war. What various people did say, of course, was that the "war on terrorism" represented a generational commitment... and then they said that Iraq was part of the war on terror... and then, finally, by the magic of metonymic thinking, part became one with the whole, indistinguishable, such that on the one hand any distinction between Al Qaeda and Saddam went lost, and on the other hand the useless war in Iraq became virtually coterminous with the Bush regime's GWOT effort.

Although this kind of reasoning doesn't surprise me when it comes from wingnuts, it's massively disturbing to observe the head of our foreign office seemly incapable of making even the most elemental distinctions between different groups and powers what may be the most geopolitically complex, touchy, and volatile place on the planet.... and then I realize, holy shit! they really, really just don't get it....

When future historians try to figure out what on earth could have motivated the U.S. to choose to go after Saddam before finishing off Al Qaeda, the answer, I suspect, will be located in the dangerous power of categorical analysis when those categories are overly broad. Specifically, by taking "the GWOT" seriously as an analytical category (as opposed to viewing it as simply a political category) the right essentially deprived itself of the basic analytical and policy tools you'd hope that the people running the most powerful country on the planet would have.

In other words, what this transcript underscores is the subtle and sinister transformation that pro-GWOT thinking has undergone over the last three years. The idea of a "Global War on Terror" (which began as a way to describe elective affinities between different conflicts and to summarize them under a single rubric in order to galvanize political momentum behind an entire multifacted policy agenda) has ended up conflating a whole bunch of radically different policy challenges, thus eroding any ability to make distinctions that would allow us to calibrate policy according to larger priorities, stages and sequences, or ranks of importance.

More at Think Progress.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Another disgruntled administration insider, I guess

Michiko Kakutani in the Times reviewing Larry Diamond's new book:

The failures of the Bush administration to prepare adequately for the postwar period in Iraq are by now well known, underscored by the revelation this week that a briefing paper, prepared for Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain eight months before the invasion, warned that "a postwar occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise" and that "little thought" had been given by the United States to "the aftermath and how to shape it."It is a subject explicated in chilling - and often scathing - detail by "Squandered Victory," a new book by Larry Diamond, a former senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad and a leading American scholar on democracy and democratic movements. In this book, Mr. Diamond contends that the postwar troubles in Iraq - a bloody and unrelenting insurgency, the creation of a new breeding ground for terrorists and metastasizing ethnic and religious tensions - are the result of "gross negligence" on the part of a Bush administration that rushed to war. He asserts that "mistakes were made at virtually every turn" of the occupation, and that "every mistake the United States made in Iraq narrowed the scope and lengthened the odds for progress...."

What makes Mr. Diamond's account particularly valuable is its insider's look at the day-to-day realities on the ground in Iraq in 2004 (which often stood in stark contrast to the spin emanating from Washington) and his ability to provide a historical context for the efforts to implant democracy in Iraq.

Mr. Diamond had not been a supporter of the war, but in the fall of 2003, he says, he received a call from his longtime friend and former Stanford University colleague Condoleezza Rice asking him to spend several months in Iraq as an adviser to American occupation authorities. Because he believed that if the United States failed there "Iraq would become what it had not been before the war: a haven for international terrorism and possibly a direct threat to America's national security", he agreed to go. He was also excited, he says, by the challenge of helping "to build a decent, lawful, and democratic political order" in Iraq.

As he began his work, however, Mr. Diamond became convinced that America's "plan for political transition in Iraq was critically flawed," that there was a fundamental contradiction between "our aspiration for democracy" and "our impulse for unilateral control." He writes that the Americans "never listened carefully to the Iraqi people, or to the figures in the country that they respected" - like the Shiite leader the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - and that "we never won their trust and confidence."

As Mr. Diamond sees it, "blame for the early blunders" in Iraq "lies with the high officials of the Bush administration - including the president himself - who decided to go to war when we did, in the way we did, with the lack of preparation that has become brutally apparent." He reminds us that "the startling mismanagement of planning for the postwar did not result from a sudden emergency and a lack of time to plan": civilians at the Pentagon had begun pushing the case for war against Iraq almost immediately after 9/11, and a wide-ranging report known at the Future of Iraq Project had been started at the State Department in the spring of 2002. This report, says Mr. Diamond, was initially ignored by the Pentagon, which in its early certitude about "the inevitability and speed of America's triumph," swept "aside experts in the State Department and elsewhere who had described what the postwar realities in Iraq would require."

Like many other analysts, Mr. Diamond believes that one of the "most ill-fated decisions of the postwar engagement" was President Bush's acceptance of the plan designed by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld - "to go into Iraq with a relatively light force of about 150,000 coalition troops, despite the warnings of the United States Army and outside experts on post-conflict reconstruction that - whatever the needs of the war itself - securing the peace would require a force two to three times that size." Committing more troops than the United States initially did, Mr. Diamond argues, "would have necessitated an immediate mobilization of the military reserves and National Guard (which would come later, in creeping fashion), and might have alarmed the public into questioning he costs and feasibility of the entire operation" - a development that might have slowed the gallop to war.

The lack of sufficient troops, Mr. Diamond goes on, would create a further set of problems: an inability to prevent looting and restore law and order, which would further undermine Iraqis' trust in the United States; and inability to seal the country's borders, which would allow foreign terrorists to enter and help foment further violence. "The first lesson," Mr. Diamond writes, "is that we cannot get to Jefferson and Madison without going through Thomas Hobbes. You can't build a democratic state unless you first have a state, and the essential condition for a state is that it must have an effective monopoly over the means of violence."

In Mr. Diamond's opinion, L. Paul Bremer III, America's civilian administrator of postwar Iraq, exacerbated an already precarious situation by making several crucial mistakes. His 2003 decision to dissolve the Iraqi army and ban all senior members of the Baath party from government employment created a vacuum in terms of both security forces and institutional expertise, and it alienated two important sectors of Iraqi society. In addition, Mr. Diamond writes, "Bremer spurned the appeals of a wide range of Iraqis - including many who were cooperating with us - and of the United Nations mission to transfer authority quickly to an Iraqi interim government, and he proceeded to reshape Iraq through an occupation that he led, and over which he exerted tight, indeed almost total, control."

This decision to turn the American presence into a formal occupation, Mr. Diamond suggests, fueled Iraqi suspicions that the United States did not want a truly sovereign Iraq but wanted to dictate terms that would serve America's own economic (i.e. oil) and military interests.

When Mr. Diamond returned to the United States in April 2004, he says, he wrote his old friend Ms. Rice a long, confidential memo, recommending that America "disavow any long-term military aspirations in Iraq," establish a target date for the withdrawal of our forces, respond to concerns about Iraqi detainees, proceed vigorously with a plan to disarm and reintegrate Iraqi militias and send "significantly more troops and equipment."

The memo concluded: "If we do not develop soon a coherent counter-insurgency plan combining political and military, Iraqi and international initiatives, we will creep closer and closer to that tipping point, beyond which so many Iraqis sympathize with or join the insurgency that we cannot prevail at any bearable price."

He says he never heard back from Ms. Rice or her principal assistant for Iraq, Robert Blackwill.

Emphasis added. Hat tip: WAB

Friday, June 17, 2005

"Think Local, Act Global" Dept.

In the historiography of Imperial Germany, and in particular in the historiography of German involvement in World War I, there is a classic debate between the Primat der Innenpolitik crowd and the Primat der Aussenpolitik coterie. The latter argue that German foreign policy was a largely autonomous realm, unbeholden to Germany's roiling internal challenges. By contrast, the former believe that the primary drivers behind German foreign policy (from Bismark to Weimar) were domestic political tensions; in other words, German statesmen used foreign policy as a proxy for internal, domestic political battles.

I've always believed that much of American foreign policy is best explained via a Primat der Innenpolitik methodology; that is, I've believed that much American foreign policy has not been driven by a deep understanding of, or engagement with, the complexities of foreign relations and nations, but rather in the main by domestic political issues, in which foreign policy served mainly symbolic or perhaps mythological roles within a domestic policy agenda. For example, the Spanish-American War is harder to explain in terms of the alleged urgent geopolitical need to acquire an empire than in terms of President McKinley's desire to stoke jingoist fervors in order to consolidate a political situation at home. (With that said, the particular places McKinley chose to conquer in 1898 were undoubtedly chosen based on perceived geopolitical imperatives.)

This pattern of letting internal politics driving foreign policy makes especially good sense when you consider the peculiar American habit of drawing our Presidents not from Washington itself but more usually from some provincial governor's mansion. These politicians naturally have much deeper understandings of domestic, regional, and national politics than they do of international relations and foreign policy. It would be odd, therefore, if their point of policy departure were anything other the beliefs and lessons they had garnered back home in podunksville. To me, the Bush II presidency has been an exemplar of this sort of thing. As I wrote long ago, the slogan of the Bush presidency might well be, "Think Local, Act Global."

At the same time, I've also always assumed that the primacy of Innenpolitik was not so much a self-conscious choice as it was a natural function of the fact that we recruit our national leadership from regional political organizations. This is why the following report, if accurate, may cause me to sharply reconsider how unselfconscious this process really is. Money:

Two years before the September 11 attacks, presidential candidate George W. Bush was already talking privately about the political benefits of attacking Iraq, according to his former ghost writer, who held many conversations with then-Texas Governor Bush in preparation for a planned autobiography.

"He was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999," said author and journalist Mickey Herskowitz. "It was on his mind. He said to me: 'One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.' And he said, 'My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.' He said, 'If I have a chance to invade·.if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it. I'm going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I'm going to have a successful presidency." Herskowitz said that Bush expressed frustration at a lifetime as an underachiever in the shadow of an accomplished father. In aggressive military action, he saw the opportunity to emerge from his father's shadow. The moment, Herskowitz said, came in the wake of the September 11 attacks. "Suddenly, he's at 91 percent in the polls, and he'd barely crawled out of the bunker."

That President Bush and his advisers had Iraq on their minds long before weapons inspectors had finished their work - and long before alleged Iraqi ties with terrorists became a central rationale for war - has been raised elsewhere, including in a book based on recollections of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. However, Herskowitz was in a unique position to hear Bush's unguarded and unfiltered views on Iraq, war and other matters - well before he became president....

According to Herskowitz, who has authored more than 30 books, many of them jointly written autobiographies of famous Americans in politics, sports and media (including that of Reagan adviser Michael Deaver), Bush and his advisers were sold on the idea that it was difficult for a president to accomplish an electoral agenda without the record-high approval numbers that accompany successful if modest wars....

According to Herskowitz, George W. Bush's beliefs on Iraq were based in part on a notion dating back to the Reagan White House - ascribed in part to now-vice president Dick Cheney, Chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee under Reagan. "Start a small war. Pick a country where there is justification you can jump on, go ahead and invade."

Bush's circle of pre-election advisers had a fixation on the political capital that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher collected from the Falklands War. Said Herskowitz: "They were just absolutely blown away, just enthralled by the scenes of the troops coming back, of the boats, people throwing flowers at [Thatcher] and her getting these standing ovations in Parliament and making these magnificent speeches."

Republicans, Herskowitz said, felt that Jimmy Carter's political downfall could be attributed largely to his failure to wage a war. He noted that President Reagan and President Bush's father himself had (besides the narrowly-focused Gulf War I)successfully waged limited wars against tiny opponents - Grenada and Panama - and gained politically. But there were successful small wars, and then there were quagmires, and apparently George H.W. Bush and his son did not see eye to eye.

"I know [Bush senior] would not admit this now, but he was opposed to it. I asked him if he had talked to W about invading Iraq. "He said, 'No I haven't, and I won't, but Brent [Scowcroft] has.' Brent would not have talked to him without the old man's okaying it." Scowcroft, national security adviser in the elder Bush's administration, penned a highly publicized warning to George W. Bush about the perils of an invasion.

Herskowitz's revelations are not the sole indicator of Bush's pre-election thinking on Iraq. In December 1999, some six months after his talks with Herskowitz, Bush surprised veteran political chroniclers, including the Boston Globe 's David Nyhan, with his blunt pronouncements about Saddam at a six-way New Hampshire primary event that got little notice: "It was a gaffe-free evening for the rookie front-runner, till he was asked about Saddam's weapons stash," wrote Nyhan. 'I'd take 'em out,' [Bush] grinned cavalierly, 'take out the weapons of mass destruction·I'm surprised he's still there," said Bush of the despot who remains in power after losing the Gulf War to Bush Jr.'s father·It remains to be seen if that offhand declaration of war was just Texas talk, a sort of locker room braggadocio, or whether it was Bush's first big clinker. "

The notion that President Bush held unrealistic or naïve views about the consequences of war was further advanced recently by a Bush supporter, the evangelist Pat Robertson, who revealed that Bush had told him the Iraq invasion would yield no casualties. In addition, in recent days, high-ranking US military officials have complained that the White House did not provide them with adequate resources for the task at hand.

Looks like we've got ourselves another disgruntled former insider on our hands....

U.S. using napalm in Iraq

Actually not napalm, but MK77 bombs, which are very similar -- and possibly in violating of international law in doing so. Plus, we're lying about it to our must important ally in Iraq:

Despite persistent rumours of injuries among Iraqis consistent with the use of incendiary weapons such as napalm, Adam Ingram, the Defence minister, assured Labour MPs in January that US forces had not used a new generation of incendiary weapons, codenamed MK77, in Iraq.

But Mr Ingram admitted to the Labour MP Harry Cohen in a private letter obtained by The Independent that he had inadvertently misled Parliament because he had been misinformed by the US. "The US confirmed to my officials that they had not used MK77s in Iraq at any time and this was the basis of my response to you," he told Mr Cohen. "I regret to say that I have since discovered that this is not the case and must now correct the position....

The confirmation that US officials misled British ministers led to new questions last night about the value of the latest assurances by the US. Mr Cohen said there were rumours that the firebombs were used in the US assault on the insurgent stronghold in Fallujah last year, claims denied by the US. He is tabling more questions seeking assurances that the weapons were not used against civilians.

Lying to our co-combatants: what a great way to encourage others to join us in the Iraq struggle! Disdaining international law may play well in Wingnutistan, but it is nigh disastrous in terms of public diplomacy.

Hat tip: RM

What is to be done in Iraq?

Like everyone else, I have no real idea what I think the right Iraq policy should be at this point. But here are some thoughts that may be useful for analyzing what is to be done in Iraq.

I think Suzanne Nossel puts things into the proper perspective as she wrings her hands and observes,

1) public support for the war's dwindling; 2) without strong public backing war becomes untenable; 3) we can't cut and run for fear terrorists will be emboldened and that Iraq itself will descend into chaos dragging down the region; 4) our very presence in-country seems to be fueling the insurgency; 5) we cannot up the number of boots on the ground without instituting a draft or similar; 6) no other countries are willing to ante up troops to help us and, under the circumstances, its hard to blame them; 7) training of Iraqi troops and police is much slower/harder than expected; 8) even if one gives up on the hope of a liberal democracy in Iraq in the short or medium term, the goal of a base level of stability to allow U.S. exit within the next 2 years or so looks out of reach; 9) the political process has bogged down to a point where its unclear whether a unified state will emerge.

As progressives, we've argued at every turn against the decisions and actions that led us to this quagmire. The longer our advice is ignored, the tougher it becomes for us to say what to do next (one of Kerry's problems during election season).

Like Nossel, I think we've passed the point of no return. According to Sy Hersh, the Israelis concluded already two years ago (once it became clear that the U.S. was facing an insurgency) that the U.S. had effectively already lost --and have responded by working to secure a friendly Kurdistan out of the Iraqi rubble.

If this is true, then the strategy now should be to leave as soon as possible. No need to set an official timetable for withdrawal; simply delcare victory and start pulling the boys out steadily, much as we did in Vietnam from 1971 forward. Politically, to encourage this choice, the Democrats should argue that, "The war may or may not have been a good idea in the first place. The war may or may not have been winnable when we launched it in April 2003. But now, given the way the war has been waged (with not enough troops on the ground in the first place, with the botched security and infrastructure situation in the immediate aftermath of the war, and with the scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo), now the war is lost. From here on forward, every further American who dies in Iraq is dying not to make victory possible for his country, but only in the vain attempt to salvage George Bush's historical reputation." Of course this position will be attacked as defeatist, and progressives would just have to have the courage to deal with that.

However, there is another possibility, one that Juan Cole put forward last month, namely that we're "just screwed": we may not have passed the "point of no return" and definitively lost, but we certainly face a 10+ year insurgency, one that we should expect will cost 10,000 Americans lives... after which we still may not "win" (in the sense of establishing one or more stable, prosperous, pro-American states in Mesopotamia).

If you believe this is the case, then clearly BushCo should have the courage to say this to the American people, and hope the American people will keep re-electing them. However, it seems pretty clear the Bushies believe that to come clean in this way -- implicitly admitting that they radically miscalculated to begin with -- would result in a royal political shaft at home. And failing to come clean about the long-term costs of the war makes it much harder to sustain the pressure on the insurgents that would make victory even a hope.

Which path you take -- (1) cut and run; or (2) stay the nasty, brutish, and long course -- really depends on two variables: how central you think the Iraq war is to American security, and what you think the chances of "victory" are if we choose (2).

Personally, I think the chances of "victory" in Iraq are so slight, the costs of "victory" so high, and the geopolitical importance of "victory" so questionable, that choosing to cut and run seems like the only reasonable option. It will be a moral stain on our nation, to be sure. But it doesn't seem to me that allowing ten thousand more Americans to die will make the eventual disaster any less of a moral stain.

But what about emboldening the terrorists?! people will cry. What I like to remind the cassandras who worry about the disastrous geopolitical consequences of leaving (not all on the right: see Nossel's point 3, above) is that things may not, and in all probability will not, work out nearly as badly as you think. Remember how the hawks warned that if we lost in Vietnam then all of Southeat Asia would fall, and that eventually we'd be battling the reds on the shores of Malibu? Didn't happen.

In fact, in the larger scheme of things, the GWOT may not be all that important. The larger geopolitical and historical issues are the massive economic imbalance in the global economy, and relatedly, what the economic rise of China (and India) means for geopolitics. It may well be that, whatever the outcome in Iraq, the way the war will be remembered is mainly as a massive, costly distraction for America that accelerated the pace at which China reasserted its traditional position as the center of world civilization.

Finally, the question of what to do in Iraq is in some sense moot. It's clear that for the next three years Bush, if for no other reason that domestic politics (and he never needs any other reason for anything he does), will refuse to choose either of these "reality-based" possibilities. Between now and 2009, therefore, we should expect that at least a thousand more Americans will die, that ten thousand more will be maimed, and that perhaps a hundred thousand Iraqis will suffer similar fates. By failing to choose either "reality-based" option, moreover, Bush makes the option of effectively winning against the insurgents ever more costly, so that by the time we get someone more responsible in the Presidency (let's hope in 2009), they in all likelihood will have no choice left but to cut and run.

So that, in the long light of history, seems likely to be George Bush's (and early 21st century America's) geopolitical legacy: a massive mis-reaction to the tragedy of 9-11 that accelerated the return of Chinese global dominance.

Duke Cunningham's dead in the water

Yes, that would be a pun: apparently when Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningman is in Washington he lives aboard a yacht that is owned by Michael Wade -- who is, yes indeed, the same guy who paid him $700K too much for his house just before he started receiving a millions in defense contracts from the Appropriations Committee that Cunningham chairs. In fact, Wade even named the boat "Duke-Stir."

How do guys like this think they can get away with it?

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Downing Street memos

Howard Kurtz provides a very helpful summary of MSM coverage of the DSM, and how the blogosphere has helped keep the issue alive. (For some of the original coverage, see the London Times reportage.)

The administration and its media hacks have offered a multi-prong defense of the memos:

  1. "Old Hat" Dept. Everyone knows BushCo was planning the war way in advance, even though he kept insisting that peaceful resolution was possible; so what's the big deal? This point of view was most cogently expressed by Michael Kinsley. This argument is a classic example of Harry Frankfurt's "bullshit principle," which is that you can get away with saying things that are utterly untrue, so long as everyone knows you're not serious and the image it projects of the speaker is salutary. In other words, the argument here is: what the hell, everyone knew Bush had already decided to attack Saddam at the time (even though he denied it), so why are you getting your panties in a wad?
  2. "Water under the bridge" Dept. The decisions were what they were; the real question now is to deal with the situation at hand in Iraq, and how we got there is not relevant. (The official White House line: "In terms of the intelligence, it was wrong, and we are taking steps to correct that and make sure that in the future we have the best possible intelligence, because it's critical in this post-September 11th age, that the executive branch has the best intelligence possible.")
  3. "Just Opinion" Dept. The DSMs aren't proof that the Bushies lied to the public about their intent in Iraq and then sexed up the intelligence to sell it. Rather, to quote Andrew Sullivan, the DSMs are "one individual's take on what was going on in Washington." (Okay, yeah yeah yeah, he's the head of the MI6 -- but what do those guys know? We already know that you can't trust those directors of intelligence.) Kevin Drum demolishes this argument.
  4. "Deny, deny, deny" Dept. That intelligence was "fixed" is nothing but a politically-motivated calumny. Tony Blair's line: "I can respond to that very easily. No, the facts were not being fixed in any shape or form at all. And let me remind you that that memorandum was written before we then went to the United Nations. Now, no one knows more intimately the discussions that we were conducting as two countries at the time than me."
I think part of the reason why progressives are fixing on the DSMs is that they provide a chance to refight some media battles that progressives lost over the last couple of years. For example, the DSMs shed interesting light on the kerfuffle two summers ago regarding BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan's alleged "liberal bias" in reporting that the MI6 had "sexed up" intelligence reports on Iraqi WMDs. As we know, the BBC ended up taking the blame for that "mistake" -- a "mistake" which now seems likely to have been entirely accurate. In the meanwhile, progressives were left to whine about a "whitewash."

As things continue to head south on the ground in Iraq, moreover, the question of how we got into the mess in the first place becomes ever more relevant. Unjustified wars that you win don't cost you much politically; it's the unjustified ones that you lose that are a political disaster. We're losing this war, and now the question is, who's going to take the political blame. Unfortunately for the Republican Party, it won't be able to blame President Kerry....

GOP Exit Strategy: Social Security phase-out edition

Social Security phase-out is dead and Republicans are looking for political shelter. The good political news is, Bush isn't providing them with any, and (in his usual M.O.) has abandoned his earlier oily paeans to bipartisanship and is now trying to ram through a GOP-only version.

This impasse for the Republicans raises an interesting issue for the Democrats. If the Democrats feel certain that the Senate will under no circumstances pass a phase-out bill, then it might be a good idea for the Democrats to try to bait the GOP's House leadership into bringing the Social Security phase-out issue to a roll-call vote. This would force every House Republican to go on record on this topic, with obvious political benefits for the Democrats. A floor vote on phase-out would force fence-sitting GOPers either to break with the President and the leadership (thus encouraging internecine GOP warfare between the wingnuts and the mere rightwingers) or provide a key issue for Democrats to use against them in the midterm elections.

Cunningham story goes national

The story about Randy Cunningham's corrupt real estate deal in San Diego has now gone national, and the Washington Post provides the right context, which is that this story again exposes how the Republican leadership in Congress (read: Tom DeLay) is effectively blocking any and all ethics investigations.

Apologists for torture

A couple decades hence, I am confident that there will be universal consensus in this country that the likes of James Taranto, Jonah Goldberg and the rest of the defenders of Gitmo will be remembered for exactly what they were: apologists for torture, and betrayers of America's most cherished promises. The Fox Newses, the National Reviews, and the Wall Street Journal op-eds have substituted temerity for tolerance, cockiness for courage, and hatred for humility.

These people will occupy the same infamous niche in history that defenders of Japanese-American internment during World War II; that is, the one reserved for people who respond to national tragedy by betraying the values that made this country great in the first place. Then again, to say these wingnuts have "betrayed" these values is perhaps to give them too much credit, for it suggests that these people believed in those core American values in the first place. In fact, what the wingnut defense of Gitmo shows is that the rhetoric of "democracy" and "human rights" was never more than hollow cynicism. Smart hawks (like Belgravia Dispatch or Andrew Sullivan) realize that these defense of torture vitiate the larger moral claims with which they try to defend Bush's wars, which is why they are desperate to stop the defenses of Gitmo...

Kos has more.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Gitmo for life

Bush declares his unilateral right with respect to militant Islamists to "to make laws to bind them in all cases whatsoever, without their consent" (to paraphrase the first Georgia constitution's cri de coeur) -- or at any rate to lock 'em up and throw away the key.

What rhymes with Iraq?

As I've discussed repeatedly, historical analogies are (at best) revealing of contemporary events only up to a point. Once one takes it to a certain level of detail, these analogies inevitably become misleading. This phenomenon is nowhere more true than in parallels many (esp. on the left) draw between the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

Cunning Realist, however, makes a compelling case that even if Iraq is not a repetition of the folly of Vietnam the two conflicts certainly "rhyme". Part of the reason why CR's parallels are interesting is that they focus on the domestic American politics and meaning of the two wars (which are indeed disturbingly similar), rather than on the ideological or geopolitical context of the two wars (which could scarcely be more different).

Cunningham is going down

Turns out that the realtor who gave Cunningham's contractor buddy a "fair estimate" on the property is also a longtime contributor to Cunningham.

So here's the story. Cunningham has a contributor declare that his property is worth $1,675,000. Then he sells it to a defense contractor for $1,675,000. The contractor the turns around and "flips" the house at a $700,000 loss. The contractor then starts winning lots of bids on contracts that Cunningham has oversight for.

Cunningham, I expect, will soon be retaining the services of a criminal defense attorney.

Pro-lynching senators

Americablog is keeping a running list. It currently includes:

  • Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
  • Robert Bennett (R-UT)
  • Thad Cochran (R-MS)
  • John Cornyn (R-TX)
  • Michael Crapo (R-ID)
  • Michael Enzi (R-WY)
  • Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
  • Judd Gregg (R-NH)
  • Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
  • Kay Hutchison (R-TX)
  • Jon Kyl (R-AZ)
  • Trent Lott (R-MS)
  • Richard Shelby (R-AL)
  • John Sununu (R-NH)
  • Craig Thomas (R-WY)