Tuesday, September 30, 2003
Recommended for your delectation: Fareed Zakaria's remorseless dismemberment of Donald Rumsfeld's Post op-ed of September 25, entitled "Beyond Nation-Building."
Rumsfeld's windy exercise in self-justification masqueraded as a vision statement for Iraq - indeed, it held itself out as an explanation of a new way of viewing the roles played by conqueror and conquered:
A foreign presence in any country is unnatural. It is much like a broken bone. If it's not set properly at the outset, the muscles and tendons will grow around the break, and eventually the body will adjust to the abnormal condition. This is what has happened in some past nation-building exercises. Well-intentioned foreigners arrive on the scene, look at the problems, and say, "Let's go fix it for them." Despite the good intentions and efforts of the international workers, there can be unintended adverse side effects. Because when foreigners come in with solutions to local problems, it can create dependency. Economies can remain unreformed, distorted and dependent.
Well, isn't that just so fucking convenient. It's a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of international development politics - you can't observe the problem without changing it. So don't look at it, and fuck off out of town as fast as possible, shaking Mr. Karzai's - excuse me, Mr. Chalabi's hand and saying "good luck!"
The difficulty here, excuse me, the glaring fucking hypocrisy here, is that, in fact, now that the "imminent threat" justifications have been stripped away, the current Administration justification for the war was, in fact, that Iraq had a problem (a brutal, sadistic dictator), so it was incumbent upon us to "go fix it for them." All of the events in postwar Iraq are completely encompassed by Rumsfeld's own phrase: "Despite the good intentions and efforts of the international [presence], there can be unintended adverse side effects." And that's only if you are willing to grant the administration credit for the altruistic intentions that they now proclaim as latter-day replacements for the tough "we're defending America" rhetoric that has now gone out of fashion like last year's Air Jordans.
Zakaria, however, takes Rumsfeld specifically to task for the conclusion of the article, a series of deceptive swipes at the UN's record of aiding the recovery of devastated societies. Putting aside the fact that, in general, the UN has not been responsible for the devastation, Rumsfeld's swipe is presumably meant to undergird the American case for seeking to use the UN as a mute quarry from which can be drawn money and troops, without allowing any loosening of American operational control. It's because they're incompetent, says Rumsfeld. They can't be trusted like we can!
Bullshit, says Zacaria:
[Rumsfeld argues] that the United Nations has encouraged places such as East Timor and Kosovo to become politically and economically dependent on it.
As proof of this, Rumsfeld points out that "four years after the war, the United Nations still runs Kosovo by executive fiat, issues postage stamps, passports and driver's licenses." This is shockingly ill informed. Rumsfeld must know that the United Nations still issues postage stamps and passports in Kosovo because the United States and Europe have not yet decided whether the place is a province of Yugoslavia or an independent country. If local authorities were to issue passports, that would settle things on the ground. It is not U.N. bureaucracy that has kept Kosovo in limbo but a political dilemma that Washington has not resolved.
Rumsfeld's other criticism is that these international administrations have produced distortions in the economy. In East Timor, he notes, international workers are paid 200 times the average local wage. In Kosovo, a driver for aid officials makes 10 times the salary of a university professor and the United Nations pays its local staff between four and 10 times the salary of doctors and nurses.
Rumsfeld should get out more. Were he to travel most anywhere in Asia or Africa, he would notice that people who work for Western corporations or nonprofits make vastly more money than locals. This is because of the enormous difference in wages between the West and the developing world, and because Western firms pay their employees abroad on a Western scale.
Rumsfeld's problem, it would seem, is not with international organizations but with global capitalism.
One can see this phenomenon vividly in one country these days -- Iraq. A senior international administrator -- that is, a high-ranking civilian in the Coalition Provisional Authority or a one-star American general -- makes around $10,000 a month, including housing allowances. The Pentagon estimates that doctors in Iraq made $20 a month last year. To be fair, local wages have risen now, but a university professor in Baghdad today makes at most $200 to $300 a month. In other words, a coalition official is probably earning 50 times the salary of a local professor. Iraq makes Kosovo and East Timor look like Swedish-style egalitarian societies.
(I'm cutting out a lot - go read the whole thing.) I don't know why I am surprised, but I continually am, by the dishonesty of these people. Zakaria's right - Rumsfeld simply must have known, at the time he was writing, the real reason for the UN's role in administering the pedestrian functions of Kosovo's civil government. He knew that it could not honestly support his point. He used it anyway, trusting that most of his readers would not know, and instead would arch their eyebrows and see exactly the cartoon UN he wants them to see - a tribe of arrogant bureaucrats that infest governments of emerging nations, and dole out the people's patrimony of liberty in smudged coupon books stamped in triplicate.
Is the UN perfect? No, of course not. Are the problems of lately-devastated nations greater than a Randian "help yourself to be free" construction can possibly encompass? Of course. God, these people make me sick.
Oh, and don't get me started on Valerie Plame. Calpundit and Josh Marshall are all over it. And this is pretty funny.
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
Three days in a New York City jail. For most of our lives, we float on a sea of bureaucracy, credit reports, government records, and numbers, never seeing the characterization and transformation of the information that defines us as it is transferred from one hand to another. Thousands and thousands of individuals, agencies, companies, and organizations know - or believe they know - something about us, about our lives, our solvency, our medical and mental health status, our future prospects, our likely purchasing patterns, up to and including the actuarial gnosis that can pinpoint the very day that we will die. Most of the time, all of this is opaque to us, either because the bureaucracies have generally accurate information, or because we haven't yet run afoul of the particular set of circumstances that will reveal exactly how snarled and fucked up one or the other sector of this infosystem has gotten.
Some people run into this when they try to make a major purchase and realize that one of the three credit agencies believe that they have gone bankrupt six times. Other times, people apply to a professional organization, only to be told that they can't be admitted because of that pesky murder conviction. Other people get arrested by the New York City Police department.
Tuesday, September 23, 2003
Free Tommy Chong!
Thursday, September 18, 2003
Well, the office is shut down, there is a hurricane coming, the skies are black, and Bush is telling the truth. I have to wonder if this statement is connected to the entry of Wesley Clark into the race, and not just intended to correct the abysmally transparent lies told by Dick Cheney on Meet the Press last Sunday (on Planet Cheney, apparently, Iraq and not Afghanistan was the geographic base for the 9/11 perpetrators), but I don't know. Too much going on to woolgather about it now.
Tuesday, September 16, 2003
I got a little, er, exercised about the purported delay to the release of the Kay report, but now there is some countervailing suggestion that there will be no delay after all. Who's right? I dunno. As Kevin Drum said today, perhaps it's better to just wait for the report.
But! The linked CBSNews article above is itself quite a piece of work - a bit scattershot, but check this out:
Saddam's use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war, as well as his development of weapons of mass destruction leading up to the Gulf War, were always part of the administration's case for war. But the emphasis was on claims that a current threat existed.
However, as the weapons hunt came up empty, Bush administration officials referred increasingly to Iraq's pre-1991 programs as the rationale for the 2003 war.
The Halabja massacre was the lynchpin of that case — even though there has been at least some doubt as to whether Iraq was responsible for it.
A 1990 Marine Corps report on "lessons learned" in the Iran-Iraq war notes that blood agents were used in the attack at Halabja.
"Since the Iraqis have no history of using these two agents — and the Iranians do — we conclude that the Iranians perpetrated this attack," the report states.
Huh? That's the first I've heard of that. It is interesting to note (as many others have noted) that the case against Iraq as defined by the administration (ties to al Qaeda, driving to develop nukes, stockpiles of chemical weapons) is becoming clearer by the day - against Iran. If the administration can bullshit its way into war when none of these things are true, imagine how fast we could spin up a war when all of them are? Sure, there's no swaggering Stalinist villain like Saddam to focus on, but I'm sure we could pick somebody. How about this guy? He's worse than Hitler! KILL HIM!!!!
(It should be said that Iran itself strenuously denies harboring any al Qaeda leaders, and has been responsible for some high profile arrests of such fugitives. Further it is a signatory to both the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. While Tehran may be in violation of these treaties, these treaties in fact may provide useful legal mechanisms for enforcing policy change that were not available against a pure rogue state like Iraq. That is, if Iraq had actually had such weapons, which it apparently did not. Ahem.)
Monday, September 15, 2003
Whoa. Gosh. Jeez. Damn. Yikes.
Never saw that coming. Josh Marshall on Sunday:
Enough already! For a week or more I and others have been getting word that the long-awaited Kay Report -- the systematic investigation into Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction programs -- might be delayed or never even issued at all.
The administration has been telling us for months that it would be released in mid-September. And now, of course, it's mid-September.
Then a couple days ago NBC's Andrea Mitchell reported that Kay's survey had come up short, but implied that a report would indeed be issued when Kay returns to Washington this week.
But this morning the Sunday Times of London is reporting (subscription required) that "Britain and America have decided to delay indefinitely the publication of a full report on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction after inspectors found no evidence that any such weapons exist."
Let's be honest: there's no reason for delaying or refusing to issue this report, save for domestic political concerns in the US and Britain. None.
And the wheel goes round. The white house's earnest defenders have been saying for months that the Kay report was going to shut everybody up, and was evidence of a "rope-a-dope" strategy by the White House to confound its critics - letting the democrats get way out ahead of the facts, and then cut them off at the neck with a report fully vindicating the administration and repudiating the naysayers. Oh, well.
I'm sure the supression of the Kay report will be spun as another masterful stroke of political or military genius, somehow. Er, let's see...Bush, as commander in chief is supressing the report because...it is TOO GOOD! Too full of damning information! We can't let this information out, because then al Quaeda will know that we're on to their little scheme, and Saddam's Baath party holdouts will find out that we've tipped their game! Why won't these childish liberals wake up and recognize that here in the real world, Bush has to make the tough choices, and that there are real people who want you just as dead as they want John Ashcroft, and don't see any difference anyway, except that you might serve their cause as useful idiots, for a while, before they kill you, too??!!! Don't you get it? People are trying to kill you! THEY'RE TRYING TO KILL YOU!!! THERE ARE TERRORISTS OUT THERE!! WHY AREN'T YOU FUCKING TERRIFIED!?!?!?!?!?!?!
Friday, September 12, 2003
Johnny Cash (1932-2003)
Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance
Seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on.
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner
Who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness
Through love and charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.
Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded
Of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought to be a Man In Black.
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mourning
For the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.
And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believing that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another
Hundred thousand who have died,
Believing that we all were on their side.
Well, there's things that never will be right, I know,
And things need changin' everywhere you go,
But 'til we start to make a move
To make a few things right,
You'll never see me wear a suit of white.
Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off
A little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black.
Thursday, September 11, 2003
Rep. Dave Obey of Wisconsin has a very interesting open letter to the President in The American Prospect today, in which he lays out five essential steps that must be taken to return our foreign policy/military structures to their traditional positions. The letter gives evidence that what we have experienced in the last three years under Bush is nothing less than a revolution in the approach we take to the command-and-control functions of the nation's foreign policy. Take a look at Obey's recommendations (excerpted, go read the whole thing):
First, I recommend that you allow the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense to return to the private sector. I am certain that they have worked hard and have made financial and personal sacrifices for what they perceived to be the national interest. Nonetheless, it is impossible to review the record of the past year and not conclude that they have made repeated and serious miscalculations.
Well, nothing to disagree with there. But it is worth noting that removal of a secretary of defense is seen as essential to reforming the nations foreign policy. The Bush administration has sought to create relationships with allies that the defense establishment is more appropriate to handle than the State Department.
Second, I recommend that the responsibilities for developing and implementing foreign policy that have traditionally resided in the Department of State be fully restored to that Department. I think it has become eminently clear that the Pentagon now faces daunting problems in meeting current military requirements . . . The prominent role played by the Pentagon in making decisions in Iraq and elsewhere that are far afield from their traditional military responsibilities has no doubt reduced its focus on resolving force protection, logistical and other issues. It is also highly questionable whether the Pentagon has adequate resources to responsibly make decisions on such things as the ethnic and political makeup of the Iraqi Governing Council.
This is along the same lines, but even more explicit. It is odd to hear a Congresman ask the White House to allow the State Department to function as the primary engine of foreign policy. Colin Powell has been reduced to a supernumerary, sort of an extra senior ambassador, dispatched to soothe the Brits and the UN, while Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz globe-trot and make major policy statements in foreign capitals. This is ass-backwards. Especially in light of point one of Obey's argument.
Third, I recommend that you make it clear to whomever you appoint to replace Secretaries Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz that the uniformed leaders of our military are to be accorded their traditional role in the formulation of military policy. While I believe it is of the utmost importance that the uniformed services remain subservient to and work under the direction of civilian leaders, I believe countermanding their professional judgments in matters of war fighting should be done with the greatest of discretion -- particularly when it is done by civilians with no combat experience . . . I believe that if the professional judgments of the uniformed leaders had been followed, we would have lost fewer lives, we would have recovered a significantly greater portion of Iraqi intelligence materials and we would have had a workable plan for the post invasion phase of the Iraq operation.
Rumsfeld's penchant for declaring revolutions in defense policy is well-known (his poetry less so). And he is right to point out that what masquerades as institutional knowledge in the Pentagon is often simply bureaucracy with a gread sheaf of medals pinned to it. But some of that institutional knowledge is..well...institutional knowledge. Based on his experience as the ground commander of U.S. forces in Kosovo (and Bosnia) after a decade of war in the region and two U.S. engagements (one with the UN, one with NATO), Gen. Eric Shinseki was the most experienced U.S. general in dealing with complex refugee/reconstruction issues in postwar environments, and testified to the Senate regarding his opinion that several hundred thousand soldiers would be required to maintain the peace in postwar Iraq. Rumsfeld & Co. snubbed him dead and ignored his advice. This was not brave or revolutionary, this was dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb, fucking dumb.
Fourth, I recommend that you establish government wide standards for the collection and vetting of intelligence. While we should always be seeking ways to improve our nation's intelligence capabilities we should also recognize the excellent performance of our established intelligence agencies. The much publicized intelligence failures of the past year were, by and large, not failures of these organizations. They were in fact, failures based on information collected outside of these organizations that found its way into the formal decision making processes of this government without the normal vetting procedures required of all other government intelligence.
More of the same. Let the Central Intelligence Agency operate as the central intelligence agency. This example is similar to point three, above; These huge organizations exist in order to marshall huge capacities together. In this administration, political civilians at the very top go to these organizations and ask for support for very specific, politically useful propositions. When they don't get them, the leadership short-circuits the process, sets up its own small cabal to get the answers or actions they want, and the rest of the bureaucracy that disagreed is dismissed with a handwave as "irrelevant' and in need of an organizational overhaul.
Fifth, I recommend that you significantly strengthen the staffing of the National Security Council. In all six of the previous administrations with which I have served the Council has played a critical role in balancing and coordinating the roles of the various entities within the executive branch that contribute to our nation's security. Each of these entities has a valuable contribution to make and each offers a useful perspective on security issues. Without the active efforts of the NSC, it is inevitable than one Department or Agency will become too dominant in that process and will exclude or reduce the contributions of other portions of the government. It is in your interest and in the interest of the American people to keep all channels open.
Create a powerful committee to balance out powerful individuals. Sounds pretty good, and it is still under the direct control of the President. The Secretary of Defense does not have some hereditary right to greater power than the Secretary of State. It is all a matter of focus, of institutional culture installed from the top down.
There's no doubt that Obey's a lefty, but he's also ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee. So is he just adding his squirt of liberal piss into the raging conservative river? Maybe, maybe. But it is interesting to me how each of these criticisms points boil down to one essential criticism - concentration of power at the top is reducing the operational efficiency of the government, with visible consequences.
Wednesday, September 10, 2003
What can you say? This is classic.
Wednesday, September 03, 2003
How far does realpolitik go? I missed it when it came out, but the following excerpt is from an article in Time magazine from last week:
Confessions of a Terrorist
By Johanna McGeary
By March 2002, the terrorist called Abu Zubaydah was one of the most wanted men on earth. A leading member of Osama bin Laden's brain trust, he is thought to have been in operational control of al-Qaeda's millennium bomb plots as well as the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000. After the spectacular success of the airliner assaults on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, he continued to devise terrorist plans.
Seventeen months ago, the U.S. finally grabbed Zubaydah in Pakistan and has kept him locked up in a secret location ever since. His name has probably faded from most memories. It's about to get back in the news. A new book by Gerald Posner says Zubaydah has made startling revelations about secret connections linking Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and bin Laden.
Details of that terrorism triangle form the explosive final chapter in Posner's examination of who did what wrong before Sept. 11. Most of his new book, Why America Slept (Random House), is a lean, lucid retelling of how the CIA, FBI and U.S. leaders missed a decade's worth of clues and opportunities that if heeded, Posner argues, might have forestalled the 9/11 terrorist attacks. [ . . . . ]
Zubaydah's capture and interrogation, told in a gripping narrative that reads like a techno-thriller, did not just take down one of al-Qaeda's most wanted operatives but also unexpectedly provided what one U.S. investigator told Posner was "the Rosetta stone of 9/11 ... the details of what (Zubaydah) claimed was his 'work' for senior Saudi and Pakistani officials." The tale begins at 2 a.m. on March 28, 2002, when U.S. surveillance pinpointed Zubaydah in a two-story safe house in Pakistan. Commandos rousted out 62 suspects, one of whom was seriously wounded while trying to flee. A Pakistani intelligence officer and hastily made voiceprints quickly identified the injured man as Zubaydah.
Posner elaborates in startling detail how U.S. interrogators used drugs—an unnamed "quick-on, quick-off" painkiller and Sodium Pentothal, the old movie truth serum—in a chemical version of reward and punishment to make Zubaydah talk. When questioning stalled, according to Posner, CIA men flew Zubaydah to an Afghan complex fitted out as a fake Saudi jail chamber, where "two Arab-Americans, now with Special Forces," pretending to be Saudi inquisitors, used drugs and threats to scare him into more confessions.
Yet when Zubaydah was confronted by the false Saudis, writes Posner, "his reaction was not fear, but utter relief." Happy to see them, he reeled off telephone numbers for a senior member of the royal family who would, said Zubaydah, "tell you what to do." The man at the other end would be Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, a Westernized nephew of King Fahd's and a publisher better known as a racehorse owner. His horse War Emblem won the Kentucky Derby in 2002. To the amazement of the U.S., the numbers proved valid. When the fake inquisitors accused Zubaydah of lying, he responded with a 10-minute monologue laying out the Saudi-Pakistani-bin Laden triangle.
Zubaydah, writes Posner, said the Saudi connection ran through Prince Turki al-Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, the kingdom's longtime intelligence chief. Zubaydah said bin Laden "personally" told him of a 1991 meeting at which Turki agreed to let bin Laden leave Saudi Arabia and to provide him with secret funds as long as al-Qaeda refrained from promoting jihad in the kingdom. The Pakistani contact, high-ranking air force officer Mushaf Ali Mir, entered the equation, Zubaydah said, at a 1996 meeting in Pakistan also attended by Zubaydah. Bin Laden struck a deal with Mir, then in the military but tied closely to Islamists in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (isi), to get protection, arms and supplies for al-Qaeda. Zubaydah told interrogators bin Laden said the arrangement was "blessed by the Saudis."
Zubaydah said he attended a third meeting in Kandahar in 1998 with Turki, senior isi agents and Taliban officials. There Turki promised, writes Posner, that "more Saudi aid would flow to the Taliban, and the Saudis would never ask for bin Laden's extradition, so long as al-Qaeda kept its long-standing promise to direct fundamentalism away from the kingdom." In Posner's stark judgment, the Saudis "effectively had (bin Laden) on their payroll since the start of the decade." Zubaydah told the interrogators that the Saudis regularly sent the funds through three royal-prince intermediaries he named.
The last eight paragraphs of the book set up a final startling development. Those three Saudi princes all perished within days of one another. On July 22, 2002, Prince Ahmed was felled by a heart attack at age 43. One day later Prince Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki al-Saud, 41, was killed in what was called a high-speed car accident. The last member of the trio, Prince Fahd bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabir, officially "died of thirst" while traveling east of Riyadh one week later. And seven months after that, Mushaf Ali Mir, by then Pakistan's Air Marshal, perished in a plane crash in clear weather over the unruly North-West Frontier province, along with his wife and closest confidants.
Via Tacitus, from a couple of days ago. We have a regional "special relationship" with the Saudis as real as the one we have with the UK in Europe, but based much more directly upon naked self-interest. And, if the account in the above article is true, realpolitical self-interest will be the ground upon which the Saudis will rest their defense. "We must maintain the stability of our nation;" they will say. "We have to deal with these fanatics. You don't understand, can't understand what pressures we are under. Say what you will about us, but we are better than what will come if we fall."
The Saudi government is a Byzantine labyrinth of influence, chopped into multiple interlocking fiefdoms to allow every royal family member a sinecure and some limited responsibility. The entire government is an enormous, shifting hall of mirrors, where the real center of power, or as much of it as is not under the sand or buried in Swiss banks, is never quite seated before you. Neoconservative elements in the administration have been making the case against Saudi Arabia for some time. This story, if true, will give new gravitas to an argument that had previously been mocked as the obsession of eccentric think-tank whackjobs.
So where does that leave us? I think the attack on Afghanistan was justified and probably unavoidable, once the Taliban refused to turn over bin Laden. If indeed somewhere inside the Chinese box of the Saudi government lie the knowing paymasters of 9/11, what do we do then? In the wake of our enervating fiasco-in-progress next door, what can we do?
Tuesday, September 02, 2003
Sometimes I think I should just post a link to J. Marshall's Talking Points Memo every day, and end this charade. Today, Marshall points to a very interesting article he has this month in Washington Monthly. The article examines the Bush administration tendency to somewhat pathologically disregard the advice of experts in policy, scientific matters, and foreign affairs, tending to characterize such opinions as wrongheaded, irrelevant, and the product of bias or calcified bureaucratic culture:
Indeed, this same tendency to dismiss expertise shaped the whole war effort. Just before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki--who had focused his tenure on peacekeeping and nation building--said that hundreds of thousands of soldiers would be needed to pacify and control Iraq. Days later, Paul Wolfowitz told another committee that Shinseki didn't know what he was talking about; the occupation, Wolfowitz said, would require far fewer troops. At the time, many took Wolfowitz's evident self-assurance as a sign that he knew something the general didn't. Now, it's clear that it was the other way around, and Wolfowitz was engaging in a typical undisprovable assertion. Senior officials like Wolfowitz set an example that trickled down the bureaucratic ladder. One Pentagon civil servant specializing in Middle East policy described to me how, a few months after 9/11, he was chastised by a superior, a political appointee, for delivering a negative assessment of a proposed policy in a briefing memo to the Secretary of Defense. The civil servant changed his assessment as instructed but still included a list of potential pros and cons. But that wasn't good enough either. The senior official told him, "'It's still not acceptable. Take out all the discussion of the cons and basically write there's no reason why we shouldn't [do this].' I just thought this was intellectually dishonest."
Marshall concludes with something that hadn't occurred to me - that despite the sunny posturing of the Bush Administration's public face, these guys must be pissed:
Doctrinaire as they may be in the realm of policy, the president's advisors are the most hard-boiled sort of pragmatists when it comes to gaining and holding on to political power. And there's no way they planned to head into their reelection campaign with a half-trillion-dollar deficit looming over their heads and an unpredictable, bleeding guerrilla war in Iraq on their hands.
When you think about it, that's right, and very important. These guys didn't want to devastate the economy, or to lose a soldier a day in Iraq. These guys wanted booming markets and victory parades down Main Street U.S.A.
Monday, September 01, 2003
What's in a name? Kieran Healy, writing on Crooked Timber, evaluates the question of quagmire, and the applicability of that freighted word to the occupation of Iraq. He says, and I think I pretty much agree with him, that militarily, the case for quagmire is weak. From an American perspective, quagmire is Vietnam, with hundreds of troops dying weekly, and U.S. troops throughout the country engaged in slash-and-riposte raids. This does not describe the current situation in Iraq. However, Healy goes on to argue for the political applicability of the word:
Now that the U.S. is entrenched in Iraq, it must stay because to withdraw would be to give a victory to “every bad actor in the Middle East.” Iraq is where the war on terror is being fought. But of course it’s being fought there because that’s where the U.S. has chosen to put its soldiers. Which is why it must stay. Around and around we go. That is the logic of a quagmire, and it makes the analogy to Vietnam clearer. There, it wasn’t the sheer number of casualties lost in the jungles or troops fragging their commanders or anti-draft protests at home that were at the root of problem. It was that the U.S.’s presence in the region was, by way of arguments about nation-building there and face-saving here, the very reason for further escalation.
The U.S.’s day-to-day problems in Iraq may end up resembling Northern Ireland rather than Vietnam: car bombings, political assassinations, a general effort by terrorists to violently undermine civil society and resist the occupying power. The cost in terms of soldiers’ lives would be much lower than in Vietnam, but if there’s no viable way to extricate yourself the feeling of the situation may be much the same. Putting the emphasis on the political logic of involvement in Iraq seems to me to be the most plausible way of making the “Quagmire Case.” Involvement there is self-justifying and there’s no clear way to get out of the loop.
Personally, I don't think there needs to be a "quagmire case," because I think the word "quagmire" is too closely associated with Vietnam, and premature comparisons to that long, slow, painful death can only blunt criticisms of the Administration's policy in Iraq, as such comparisons are easily swatted away on factual grounds. But the political problem Healy points to is certainly the primary policy axis that will keep us pinned in Iraq and unable to maneuver. This is the "wolf by the ears" problem referenced in the Josh Marshall post quoted below.
In conclusion, Healy notes some cognitive dissonance within the pro-war camp:
There’s some irony — but maybe also some hope — in how the official position on Iraq has evolved. As it has moved away from dealing directly with Al-Qaeda and towards reconstructing the entire political economy of the Middle-East, the administration’s actions have inevitably begun to imply an analysis of terrorism focused on root-causes. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, any talk of root causes was dismissed as watery left-wing handwringing. Terrorists were simply evil and there was no point in thinking about their origins any further. Now the official view is that the way to eliminate terrorism is to turn countries that produce them into capitalist democracies. If there is a realistic exit strategy from Iraq, it may depend on having believable measures of terrorism’s root-causes. It’ll be interesting to see the people who sneered at the very idea of thinking in those terms eventually pointing to such measures as evidence of the success of their policies.
I think Healy's right, but doesn't go far enough. Talk of root causes was (and is) not merely dismissed as weak-minded, but actively anti-American. The neoconservative grand plan does seem in this regard to embrace the notion that terrorists are not simply assembled in some Laboratory of Evil in the tunnels beneath Tora Bora and unleashed on an innocent world. Terrorists come from somewhere. They develop their beliefs over time, and do the evil they do in reaction to specific stimuli, filtered though the lenses of political oppression and fundamentalist religion. Each terrorist was awake and alive in the world for decades before they drove that truck bomb, fired that shoulder-launched rocket, packed that box cutter in their carry-on. They were not drugged, tortured, or blackmailed into doing those things. We study cults to see how their leaders convince people to give up their savings, alienate their families, and become sycophants to jumped-up mini-Christs in ramshackle Texas compounds, but we can't give the same attention to terrorists without being traitors? The US has been heavily involved in the politics and the economy of the Middle East for half a century, and follow in the footsteps of the English before us. We cannot credibly claim to have no influence over the conditions prevailing there. The difference, of course, is whether you believe that invading countries and toppling their leaders is likely to change the conditions, the "root causes," that lead to the violent radicalization of the marginalized elements of society in the region. Maybe it is likely. I don't know. I have nothing to compare it with, because nothing else has been tried.