November 14, 2007
Does The GOP Need Iraq?
I genuinely hope Joe Klein is right and Iraq's improvements are durable. And contrary to Joe's implication, I don't think, politically, this is something for Democrats to fear. The better Iraq is doing, the less of an issue it will be in the election. The less of an issue it is in the election, the more issues like the health care crisis, the mortgage meltdown, inequality, and global warming will come to the fore. Indeed, the less Iraq dominates the agenda, the more alternative foreign policy visions can emerge, and be tested, and become the new context for the discussion All that is good for the Left.
Indeed, I occasionally believe that Republicans know that once American troops leave Iraq, the country's need for the Republican Party, at least temporarily, will cease. The Iraq War has increasingly come to define the Republican party. They've sacrificed almot everything else for it, from fiscal discipline to social conservatism (see the Giuliani campaign). So long as troops remain in Iraq, the Republicans can at least argue that they need to finish the job they've begun, and that the Democrats lack sufficient commitment to victory. End it, and you end their relevance, at least until they can reinvent themselves as the party of closed borders. My sense is that, consciously or unconsciously, some of the GOP knows this, and it underpins their unwillingness to even begin drawing the conflict to a close. At this point, the end of the war would be existentially unmooring for the Party.
October 03, 2007
Does The Military Matter?
The apparent drop in civilian deaths in Iraq is very good news. And not because it means our Iraq strategy is working. Indeed, the forces behind this have little to nothing to do with American forces. The so-called Anbar Awakening is a Sunni operation, while the unilateral ceasefire of the Mahdi Army was Sadr's decision. The pacification of Baghdad, meanwhile, has a lot to do with the fact that Baghdad's effectively been ethnically cleaned, converting from a majority Sunni city to a 70% Shiite city -- they're running out of people to kill. Our troops aren't terribly involved in this change, and that's a good thing: Any changes brought about by American forces will be temporary. Changes that reflect shifts in the underlying dynamics of the country may endure.
I was talking to an Iraq expert yesterday and asked him whether it was correct to say that the military questions -- how many troops we have deployed, what their strategy is, etc -- are increasingly beside the point. He said yes, and then continued on to say that he forgets how different the conversation in the country is from the conversation among Iraq experts. Among those folks, he said, it was taken for granted that the military issues were largely a distraction, and the only questions worth asking were political and regional in nature. Some think the military's doing harm, others think it's offering a bit of benefit, but no one thinks the troops are making much of a difference one way or the other, or that their strategy has anything to do with the long-term success of Iraq. And the focus on what the military is doing, rather than on a diplomatic surge and Iran's involvement and all the rest, is actually quite harmful.
September 19, 2007
Is The Surge Working?
Given all the domestic dispute over whether the Surge is working, and whether the measurements are honest, and what "working" really means anyway, it's interesting to actually find out what the Iraqis think. So the BBC and ABC News polled them:
So the overwhelming majority thought the surge made things worse. Then came those who thought it made no difference. And then, hovering around 10 percent, were those who thought they detected some improvements. Given that the Surge is in theory, about Iraqi security rather than American politics, these are disheartening numbers.
Also: Could someone please inform the BBC that blue should fill the bar for things going well and red should should be the color for all that's gone awry? I find this pleasing, powder-blue denoting increases in deadly violence to be a bit confusing.
August 31, 2007
The Surge's Untrustworthy Numbers
The big factoid in favor of the surge is that violence is down. As Bush put it a few months back, "Within Baghdad, our military reports that despite an upward trend in May, sectarian murders in the capital are significantly down from what they were in January."
Devil, meet details. The Pentagon classifies violence as "sectarian killings," not simple murders. So those numbers don't count, among other things, Shia on Shia violence in the South, Sunni on Sunni violence -- including between al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and Iraqis Sunnis -- in the North, carbombings, and much else. But even within this vastly constrained definition, the Pentagon, without letting anyone in on their methodology, is changing the definition from month to month. Ilan Goldberg did the lord's work by graphing the Pentagon's numbers from the last few reports, and watch how the numbers for the very same months change with each successive report:
And we're not just seeing random fluctuations -- they're mainly changing downward, in order to reflect lower sectarian violence. But why would the January 2006 be lower in the June report than in the March report? Were the dead resurrected?
"But wait!" You say (because you're rude, and you interrupt a lot). "In the June report, killings were revised upward! That's true. But the timing matters. As Goldberg explains, "The impact here is that it makes the “pre surge” situation look extraordinarily dire and therefore signals progress thereafter."
The shell game here has to do with the term "sectarian murders," which the Pentagon is apparently defining differently from month to month, albeit without telling anyone what's changed. In other words, you can't trust these numbers. But they're the ones that are being used -- and will be used -- to argue for the Surge's success.
August 24, 2007
Does the Internet Need Fixing? Sadly, Yes.
By Deborah Newell Tornello a.k.a. litbrit
How could I have missed this bit of lovely on Tuesday? Oh yeah, it was the first full-day of school. No matter--is it any less relevant today? Sadly, No.
August 10, 2007
Knocking Over The Chessboard
Does Ken Pollack realize quite what he's proposing here?
We did meet with a number of top Iraqi policymakers over there and we found exactly what you said, which was absolutely no progress at that strategic political level. These are people who know that if there were really free and fair elections, they might not win nearly as many seats as they have under the current prevailing conditions of a failed state and a security vacuum. I came away from the trip believing it may be necessary to have new elections in Iraq and maybe even a new electoral system that actually could produce a government that is more representative of the Iraqi people, with leaders who actually would be much more willing to make compromises.
So he's suggesting, essentially, that the Americans unilaterally dissolve the sovereign Iraqi government and demand new elections that would be conducted in some theoretically more proportionate way, and which would be more amenable to compromises that would, in turn, rely on marginalizing the country's most powerful parties and thus angering exactly the groups we need to abide by compromises.
What if General David Petraeus just shot himself in the face instead? Wouldn't that have essentially the same effect?
August 01, 2007
The Way To Go in Iraq
Peter Galbraith's piece on "The Way To Go" in Iraq is about the best I've seen at digging beneath daily outrages and promises and laying out the underlying tensions tearing apart the society. For instance, the other day, I saw, and recommended highly, the film No End in Sight. The movie spends a lot of time on the tragic mistakes made in the immediate aftermath of the war: Decommissioning the Iraqi army, allowing looting, De-Baathification, etc. But as Galbraith explains, though the American's may have accelerated the civil war through policies like De-Baathification, it's not at all clear that a different way forward could have prevented it:
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim leads the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC, previously known as SCIRI), which is Iraq's leading Shiite party and a critical component of Prime Minister al-Maliki's coalition. He is the sole survivor of eight brothers. During Saddam's rule Baathists executed six of them. On August 29, 2003, a suicide bomber, possibly linked to the Baathists, blew up his last surviving brother, and predecessor as SCIRI leader, at the shrine of Ali in Najaf. Moqtada al-Sadr, Hakim's main rival, comes from Iraq's other prominent Shiite religious family. Saddam's Baath regime murdered his father and two brothers in 1999. Earlier, in April 1980, the regime had arrested Moqtada's father-in-law and the father-in-law's sister—the Grand Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr and Bint al-Huda. While the ayatollah watched, the Baath security men raped and killed his sister. They then set fire to the ayatollah's beard before driving nails into his head. De-Baathification is an intensely personal issue for Iraq's two most powerful Shiite political leaders, as it is to hundreds of thousands of their followers who suffered similar atrocities.
This is a society with, shall we say, some baggage. But the Surge was supposed to give them time to work all that out. By flooding the country with American troops and temporarily stabilizing the security situation, the Bush administration hoped to give the Iraqi government time to make progress on political reconciliation. Well, the Iraqi government went on vacation, so that's unlikely. But more to the point, the substance of "reconciliation" -- oil-sharing laws, revising the Constitution to create more centralization, limited re-Baathification -- doesn't quite address the underlying tensions splitting the society:
Sunni insurgents object to Iraq being run by Shiite religious parties, which they see as installed by the Americans, loyal to Iran, and wanting to define Iraq in a way that excludes the Sunnis. Sunni fundamentalists consider the Shiites apostates who deserve death, not power. The Shiites believe that their democratic majority and their historical suffering under the Baathist dictatorship entitle them to rule. They are not inclined to compromise with Sunnis, whom they see as their longstanding oppressors, especially when they believe most Iraqi Sunnis are sympathetic to the suicide bombers that have killed thousands of ordinary Shiites. The differences are fundamental and cannot be papered over by sharing oil revenues, reemploying ex-Baathists, or revising the constitution. The war is not about those things.
The war, in other words, is not about anything we can control, or even particularly effect.
May 16, 2007
Hackin' and Iraq'n
I mentioned the other day that the Bush administration's tendency to prioritize loyalty over competence has been at least as damaging to the government as their crazed fiscal management. So I'm glad to see Tom Friedman suggest that his audience read Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City "details [as to] the extent to which Americans recruited to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad were chosen, at times, for their loyalty toward Republicanism rather than expertise on Islamism." Two CPA staffers, for instance, were asked whether they supported Roe v. Wade, assumedly because Iraqis are really concerned over whether the American Constitution includes an implicit right to privacy.
It's tolerance for this sort of politicization of the bureaucracy that I find most enraging about the modern GOP. I can respect disagreements over abortion, taxes, Iraq, and all the rest. I'll fight to win them, but I grant that they're often offered in good faith and real conviction. But part of taking seriously the Republican argument on Iraq is believing that they want our mission their to succeed. And that desire is utterly incompatible with a tolerance for croneyism and the appointment of politicized hacks. That the Bush administration's actions with the CPA never elicited a cry -- much less a hue! -- from the Right is truly distressing.
May 15, 2007
Dispatches From When The Country Went Crazy: Kill 'em All Edition
While writing this post yesterday, I came across this gem from Paul Berman, writing in a January 2004 Slate forum reconsidering the Iraq War. "[The] largest of facts," he wrote, "is the rise of a certain kind of political movement—movements animated by paranoid hatreds, by apocalyptic fantasies, and by the fanatical desire to kill people en masse. These have been the big totalitarian movements, Nazism, Fascism, Stalinism, and a few others—movements whose greatest goal was to destroy liberal civilization...The totalitarian visions live on. Only, instead of being called fascism or some other name from the past, the visions of the present are called radical Islamism and Baathism and suchlike, with doctrines duly descended from their European progenitors—the totalitarianism of the modern Muslim world."
I forget the elegant disingenuousness with which the war was often sold. Notice how Berman recasts a fight against Saddam Hussein as a war against a unified totalitarian ideology. This despite the fact that the Baathism, under Saddam's Iraq, and radical Islamism, under Khomeini's Iran, had spent over a decade killing each other (with America arming not one, but both). Notice how these movements are ripped of positive -- which is different than "good" -- goals and recast as a mindless attack on "liberal civilization."
But that's just the start of the crazy. Remember, here, that Berman was the author of the hugely influential liberal hawk manifesto Terror and Liberalism, and a main character in George Packer's The Assassin's Gate. He goes on to write: "Sept. 11 did not come from a single Bad Guy—it was a product of the larger totalitarian wave, and the only proper response was to comprehend the size and depth of that larger wave, and find ways to begin rolling it back, militarily and otherwise—mostly otherwise. To roll it back for our own sake, and everyone else's sake, Muslims' especially. Iraq, with its somewhat antique variation of the Muslim totalitarian idea, was merely a place to begin, after Afghanistan, with its more modern variation."
Iraq and Afghanistan were just places to begin! We were supposed to take on every country with a whiff of autocracy and a useable set of prayer mats! It's staggering stuff.
March 13, 2007
Are The People Interested?
I think Eve's perspective on the Democrats' withdrawal plan is a bit skewed:
Some nasty stuff's on the way for the Democratic deal on Iraq...Here's the bitchy subtitle of today's Post's lead editorial: "It makes perfect sense, if the goal is winning votes in the United States."
Wince. But I don't think it even does make perfect sense as a purely political strategy: The plan faces immense obstacles to get to the House floor, at which point it probably won't pass the Senate, and if it did, it'd be summarily vetoed -- drawing Democrats into a constitutional showdown with Bush. Is that what people are interested in?
Well, yeah. According to the most recent polling, Iraq is the most important single problem facing our country, outpolling the nearest runner-up ("economy/jobs") by 21 percent. 67 percent disapprove of Bush's handling of the issue, 63 percent oppose the surge, and 51% say they're concerned "Congress won't go far enough in pressing the President to reduce troop levels in Iraq." So yes, I think the American people are decidedly interest in the issue.
Moreover, the framing of Eve's post is odd. Americans are, of course, not interested in a bunch of procedural wrangling leading to gridlock. But the bloodless presentation above obscures a fairly astonishing political event: After an election in which Americans overwhelmingly voted in the anti-war party and amidst polls showing 58% think we should withdraw within the next year, the President is blocking all action on the issue, blocking all action on the electorate's top priority. It is, of course, soundly undemocratic. To suggest that Congress should stop pushing for more direct enactment of public preferences because Bush has telegraphed his intent to flout the will of the country is really missing the forest for the trees.