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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Postcript--Democratic alternatives?

I have just been listening to last night's Democratic debate, much of which dealt with Iran. All the candidates insisted that they wanted to resolve the issue of Iranian nuclear weapons through diplomacy, and most of them criticized Hillary Clinton--rightly, in my opinion--for supporting the resolution that declared the Republican Guard a terrorist organization. But Tim Russert, moderating, seemed to accept the idea that we had to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and he asked all the candidates to pledge that Iran would not get a nuclear weapon while they were President. Most of them did the best that they could to make such a pledge, without promising to go to war. Meanwhile, as a friend of mine pointed out a few weeks ago, Clinton took almost exactly the position on Iraq that Nixon took on Vietnam in 1968--she wants to end the war, but only responsibly.

It occurred to me, first of all, that the whole controversy about Iran reflects how insane the United States has gone since the end of the Cold War. While many of us found Cold War rhetoric frightening at various points, I do not recall any President or candidate threatening preventive war to stop a Communist state from getting nuclear weapons--not even Barry Goldwater in 1964 (when China did explode a nuclear weapon late in the campaign.) We owe some thanks to our parents' generation, apparently, for recognizing that preventive war was not a way of stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons--even though that option was discussed in Washington both in 1949-51 and in 1964. The Boom generation, of course, wants absolutely to have its way, and has apparently concluded that we have the right to attack any nation we find threatening--even if some of our politicians would prefer not to do so.

In the midst of all this, however, I was flabbergasted to hear Dennis Kucinich say exactly what I have been saying here repeatedly for three years--that the only way to argue that certain states should not have nuclear weapons is to commit to fulfilling the provisions of the existing Non-Proliferation Treaty (to which he explicitly referred) and commit to a world in which no one will have nuclear weapons. Once again we must credit our parents, who recognized that when they negotiated that treaty in the 1960s and wrote the provision in. But Kucinich, is, of course, a fringe candidate. I have checked the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the LA Times, and none of them reported that statement. Yet it is absolutely true.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Have the neocons won?

When the Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006, many of us, I think, thought tha the Bush era was over and a change would begin. The voters in particular had clearly rejected the Iraq war--as had Washington's traditional establishment, embodied in the Baker-Hamilton commission--and we now expected de-escalation to begin. The resignation of Don Rumsfeld (who was actually fired, we can now see, because he opposed escalation in Iraq) encouraged this illusion. But that was not what happened. Nearly a year after the election we have more troops (but less casualties) in Iraq than ever. More importantly, it seems that the course that the Bush Administration set us on five or six years ago--a futile attempt to rule the Middle East, if not the whole world, by force--may be so firmly entrenched that even another election will not reverse it.

I am glad that I managed in 2002 to recognize how revolutionary the new foreign policy was, and to reject it on fundamental grounds. (Anyone who is interested can find what I had to say on the H-Diplo internet list archives for the fall of that year.) Our new National Security Strategy had proclaimed that we had the right and the duty to overthrow any unfriendly regime that was trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and that we would do so alone if necessary. Meanwhile, President Bush announced that Israel would (in effect) keep whatever land it had settled and wanted to keep in any peace with a new Palestinian state. Each of those stands, in different ways, repudiated critical provisions of international law and flung the door open to international anarchy. Both were far, far more important than the President's attempts to promote democracy. Indeed, it is partly because the President has proclaimed that both the United States and Israel will take, and keep, whatever they want, that elections in the Middle East have turned out so badly for us.

Now for the last two months in Iraq, the purely military news has been remarkably good. After averaging over 90 per month from last October through this August, American deaths were at 69 last month and should be about 40 this month. It is hard to believe that such a spectacular and precipitous decline can actually represent the destruction of enemy capability, and it is possible that some enemies are waiting it out, but what does this mean, both for the situation on the ground and for our foreign policy?

It appears to mean that by 1) temporarily increasing our troop presence and 2) making political deals with traditional authorities, we have been able substantially to quiet down Sunni areas. Those deals have involved giving Sunnis arms, standing up police forces, and isolating extremists. There are, however, two big problems with this. First of all, the new strategy is not finding favor with the elected Shi'ite government at all, as today's New York Times explains, because we are strengthening the Sunni side in the ongoing civil conflict. Secondly, any gains depend entirely on a continuing American presence. Essentially, we have discovered that the combination of a larger American presence and a large measure of assistance for Sunni leaders, including former insurgents, can create a fairly safe Sunni area while the Shi'ites, and in particular Moqtadar Al-Sadr, consolidate their position in the South. It is a disguised partition of the country--but one that depends upon a more or less permanent American occupation to work.

That is not, of course, the whole story. We have also detained thousands and thousands more Iraqis, some of whom we are trying to re-educate, and we are relying more and more on air power, which kills large numbers of civilians. All this may make the whole edifice rather shaky--at some point the Iraqis may in fact conclude they have had enough of us and force a crisis. But meanwhile, in northern Iraq, the chickens that our bold new National Security Strategy let loose in 2002 are coming home to roost. The liberation of Iraq Kurdistan was the most striking consequence of the Iraq war, and some Kurds apparently feel that this will lead to the liberation of Turkish and Iranian Kurdistan as well. Turkish soldiers have been dying at the hands of Iraqi Kurds, and the Turkish government is claiming the same right that we claimed in 2001-2 and the Israelis have claimed since the 1950s--to cross borders to strike at terrorists. Although the President, ever the world's wise parent, tells the Turks that crossing the border is not in their interests, they astonishingly do not seem to agree. They are already bombing across it and seem certain to send in troops. No one knows where all this will end.

And meanwhile, the Administration is beating the drums and escalating its rhetoric for war on Iran. President Bush, indeed, has ratcheted up his demands. We must act now, he said last week, not to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon, but from having the knowledge to build a nuclear weapon. States that do not share our values, in short, must be denied even the possibility of building weapons that could actually hurt us. This is a yet more sweeping claim to rule the world, and we should not be surprised that Vladimir Putin, in particular, has refused to accept it. Our view, of course, was stated by then-National Security Adviser Condolezza Rice in 2003, when she rejected the idea of multipolarity because it led to the two world wars and the Cold War. American hegemony, she argued, was the world's only way out. She and her bosses still obviously believe this.

And now it is time to raise another issue on which I have rarely touched here--the power of the conservative American Jewish lobby, represented in Washington most powerfully by AIPAC. John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt, who created such a stir by writing about this a couple of years ago, have now published a book on the subject. It hasn't created much of a stir--the opposition seems to prefer to ignore it. When they published their initial article, Michael Massing in The New York Review of Books, as I pointed out here, did a fine job of pointing out, first, that AIPAC does not represent American Jewry--its leadership is far more conservative than most American Jews--and of showing how the organization has managed to frighten the entire Congress by equating any opposition to Israeli policies with support for terrorism. Now, AIPAC's main goal is to precipitate war with Iran.

Don't believe me? Think I'm being paranoid? Then simply click aipac.org. There you will find that AIPAC doesn't deny its importance, it brags out it, proudly citing a New York Times statement that it is "the most important organization affecting the America's [sic] relationship with Israel." Most of the site is devoted to progress towards war on Iran, including accounts of new sanctions, a report of a briefing AIPAC gave on Capitol Hill on the Iranian nuclear threat, and a headline noting Condolezza Rice's promise to maintain Israel's military edge in the region. Inside the site reports that a bill authorizing new sanctions against Iran has passed, 397-16, while a measure to allow state and local governments and fund managers to sell off holdings in any companies helping the Iranian petroleum industry passed 408-6. (Two co-sponsors of the latter measure are Barney Frank and Barak Obama.)

AIPAC, I suspect, is partly responsible for Hillary Clinton's vote to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, with all that that implies. Her vote, in turn, implies that she shares the goal of bringing down the Iranian regime and is once again willing to give the Bush Administration a pretext for doing so. And while some other Democratic candidates are less enthusiastic for such a course than she is, none have been willing to endorse the idea of national sovereignty, or the actual goals of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (complete nuclear disarmament by everyone), or the idea that we might indeed have to live with some hostile nations that have nuclear weapons--though hardly on the scale of our adversaries during the second half of the last century.

A new war on behalf of non-proliferation, in my opinion, will further spread terrorism in the Middle East and beyond. It will also, I think, vastly increase the probability that a nuclear weapon will go off in an American city in the next ten years, because that will become our adversaries' only possible response to our insistence that we and our allies and we and they alone must dispose of this ultimate weapon. And such consequences will, I am afraid, eventually break down the solidarity of the advanced industrialized world, with consequences we can only imagine. Millions of Americans, in my opinion, understand this at some level, but as another Presidential election nears, they appear to be almost leaderless.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Nominating candidates

When the young Republican Party met in Chicago for its national convention in 1860, its leading candidates were William H. Seward of New York , Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, and Salmon P. Chase of Ohio--men whose national reputation had made them many friends and enemies. The Democratic Party was already hopelessly split, and the right candidate had an excellent chance of winning the election. Seward was the early leader in the balloting, but the convention slowly turned to a lesser-known Illinois Republican, Abraham Lincoln, a veteran of one term in Congress in the mid-1840s who had lost a close Senate election to Stephen Douglass just two years before (although actually winning the popular vote.) Party bosses realized that a lesser known candidate could more easily be packaged for the American people, and Lincoln became the "Rail Splitter" during the next few months and won perhaps the most important election in American history. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Democrats in 1932 also had bright prospects, and a round of primaries (a longer round, actually, than Kennedy and his rivals had to face in 1960), produced three candidates: Governor Franklin Roosevelt of New York, his predecessor and defeated 1928 candidate Alfred E. Smith, and Texas Congressman John Namce Garner. To protect white supremacy the South still insisted upon a 2/3 majority for the nominee, and Roosevelt, the front-runner, could not intially achieve it. But newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst brokered a deal, and Garner became FDR's Vice President--perhaps the first time, actually, that a major contender for the nomination had accepted the second spot. The ticket swept the country.

This year Hillary Clinton (now also from New York!) is the Seward of the campaign, the heir presumptive. Because of her family connections, eight years in the White House, and strategic location in New York, she had already locked up any of the most important contributors, I was very reliably informed by two Democratic luminaries, eighteen months ago. Like the Republican James G. Blaine in 1884, she is the emotional favorite of important segments of her party, but she carries tremendous baggage. She is denying that, as a fine Washington Post story explains this morning, by pointing to her impressive re-election throughout New York State, including the upstate Republican area, last year.

The point of the story is that that victory is being massively overrated by Clinton and her supporters. She had only slightly more Republican opposition than Joe Lieberman did in Connecticut--she ran against the former Mayor of Yonkers. And yes, she carried upstate, but she ran behind Governor Eliot Spitzer statewide, and well behind Charles Schumer in 2004. The story also includes evidence that she might suffer the fate of another New Yorker, Al Smith, in 1928--Smith had been elected Governor at least four times, but many of his fellow New Yorkers did not regard him as Presidential timber, and he lost the state in the Presidential election. I would certainly expect Clinton to carry New York next year, but I think her margin would be much lower, and as the story suggests, carrying western New York state does not mean that she could carry Ohio.

One hundred years ago it is at least possible that at the Democratic Convention the major rivals of such a controversial candidate--including John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Bill Richardson--might have come together to make a deal. They would unite behind one of their number--and I would nominate Obama, a midwesterner with unique assets and, apparently, few vulnerabilities. In return Richardson would be promised the State Department (where he would be outstanding) and Edwards would get Health and Human Services with a mandate to design national health insurance. Ms. Clinton could be offered the Attorney Generalship, which she would probably decline.

The country and the Democratic Party would both be far better off, I think, if those three candidates struck such a deal now, before someone (probably Clinton) has won a few critical primaries, been annointed as the winner, and put an end to any drama. The country would also be better off if Democratic opponents and the press leaked stories about former President Clinton's love life now (I am told several such are circulating), rather than wait for the Republican nominee to use them to swing the general election. Yet even now, with the Republican Party more than half way to destroying the America in which we all grew up and risking disaster all over the world, there is no sign that such a deal could take place. Perhaps this is the real dynamic behind the decline of great parties and great nations: after several decades of success, they become too pre-occupied with internecine warfare to think about their enemies in the outside world. Our nominating system, too, has become too expensive and rigid to respond quickly to the party's or country's needs. But one must not yet despair; much can happen between now and November 2008.

Don't miss yesterday's post, below.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Where are we going?

If indeed the United States is headed for a course correction, the news does not yet show it. Last fall's election certainly seemed to show that the country had turned against the Bush Administration and most of its works, but the Republicans have bizarrely managed to remain on the offensive and the Democrats seem to cower more every week. The Mukasey confirmation hearings present the latest and perhaps most dramatic challenge to the Democracy (as it used to be called): the Senate is now called upon to confirm a new Attorney General who claims absolute executive power in time of war, and if they do so--as it seems they surely will--it will amount to an admission that Presidents may in fact establish a modified dictatorship if it suits them. The drumbeat for war against Iran continues, and the President's CHIP veto has been sustained. Even more alarming, however, is the tenor of the debates among the two sets of Presidential candidates.

How so? Well, our Constitution has in effect been suspended, we may face an impending economic catastrophe, and we have destroyed the postwar world order that our parents spent half a century building up, all under President Bush. Yet the Republican candidates are projecting more self-confidence and self-assuredness than the Democrats! One hears no more talk of them distancing themselves from the President--they are falling all over each other (and this includes Rudy Giuliani) promising that they will out-Bush Bush. They are ready to attack Iran and foresake the UN, to make Bush's tax cuts permanent, appoint yet more extreme right wing judges and make all the Bush tax cuts permanent. So vehement are they that I will be genuinely surprised if the eventual nominee makes a real move towards the center in the general election. Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, the Democrats are once again failing to articulate any broadly different foreign policy (even though Obama has made a few tentative steps in that direction), and the front runner, Senator Clinton, seems eager to pursue the confrontation with Iran, if her vote on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is any indication. Perhaps the electorate still wants the most muscular foreign policy possible and an abridgment of civil liberties to fight terror because it sense how detested we have become around the world--a sad commentary, if true, on the Republican capacity for turning policy failure into political success.

Meanwhile, my thoughts have turned elsewhere because of the death of Deborah Kerr, especially because of the role that the obits have given the most attention--that of Karen Holmes, the lonely, depressed young officer's wife in From Here to Eternity. Reading that extraordinary book at the age of fifteen was one of the formative experiences of my life, and the book and the film have remained a major source of interest ever since.

I doubt many of my readers have ever read From Here to Eternity, even though it was perhaps the greatest best seller of the early 1950s. James Jones, its author, never had a comparable success, and the book was too long, perhaps, to become a staple of college reading lists. Set in Hawaii in 1941, it is probably the best portrait of Army life any American has ever written, but it was more than that. It is really a portrait of the greatest generation, both male and female, as they struggle to emerge from the Depression and make something of their lives. The female characters, the frank use of language (Jones was the first author freely to use the word "fuck," and few, if any, have used it more poetically than he), and the book's sex scenes--really bed scenes--were ahead of their time, and they remain some of the more remarkable achievements in those areas. Over the years I have pressed many friends and lovers to read it, but I think that only one has ever done so, and I have never found a way to assign it in a class.

The book's real power, for me, comes from another over-arching theme: a man's relationship to an institution. The first protagonist, Prewitt, knows no other life than the Army, with which, as several other characters realize, he was hopelessly in love. (I was shocked when something similar happened to me during my brief military service, but when I returned to From Here to Eternity I understood.) Prewitt loves the camaraderie, the ritual, and the equality that the army offers, although he can't stand the petty politics that have consistently worked against him. Like me, he started out at the top. A bugler, he served at Fort Meyer and played a Taps on Memorial Day at Arlington in his first enlistment--just as I spent the first four years of my career teaching at Harvard. Neither one of us ever achieved anything quite like that again. Prewitt is "the best fuckin' soldier in the company," as his first sergeant puts it, and that is far from an advantage. But he also has scruples. He has quit boxing, at which he also excelled, because he accidentally blinded a man in the ring, and the institution will not forgive him. Institutions have never been more powerful in in the United States than they were from the 1930s through the early 1960s, and it is fitting that his rebellion eventually crushes him.

Warden, the First Sergeant--whom Burt Lancaster made the most memorable part of the movie--doesn't share Prewitt's idealism and has reached the top, at least within the enlisted ranks. (As those who have served in the military know, becoming a First Sergeant is probably statistically as hard as becoming a general, and it requires a very impressive person to make it.) He resents the incompetence of his superiors even more than Prewitt, but he is too smart to say so in public. He has a code of his own, but he plays the angles. On the other hand, he is enough of a rebel to break one of the strongest taboos, and to seduce his commanding officer's wife.

That seduction, in his Captain's bungalow on a rainy Honolulu afternoon, is the most extraordinary scene in the movie of From Here to Eternity, in my opinion, and probably the most dramatic scene that Kerr ever played--far more so than the one on the beach. (There's a memorable reference to that scene in the movie Hud.) Some of the more exciting dialogue from the book had to be cut in 1953, but Lancaster and Kerr more than made up for that by conveying so much with their expressions. "Why, if it isn't Sergeant Warden," she says. "My husband isn't here, if you're looking for him." "And if I'm not looking for him?" Lancaster asks, with the perfect hint of a grin. "Then he's still not here," she replies, suddenly measuring him---and on it goes from there. When I first saw the film in the late 1960s after reading the book I was disappointed because so much dialogue and so many plot lines had to be cut, but later viewings changed my mind. The audiences of the 1950s knew how to fill in many of the blanks, and the adaptation captured the essence of the story very well. Donna Reed was also outstanding (and won an Oscar) as Lorene, the hooker with whom Prewitt falls in love. She was a "dance-hall girl" in the film, but she still explained her career choice--she was accumulating enough money to establish herself as a middle-class woman back in her home town and secure a good husband--something her beauty alone had not been enough to do. Prew eventually asks her to marry him, but she refuses. "She has to marry a man who has so much position and respectability," her roommate (also a hooker) explains, "that his wife couldn't possibly ever have been a whore." A soldier, obviously--even an officer--is out of the question.

Love, in From Here to Eternity, is doomed, just as it was in Casablanca, another classic also set in late 1941. That only makes it more intense and more powerful, in both cases.
The characters are as tossed about by events as those of Dr. Zhivago, A Tale of Two Cities, or The First Circle. It was the real gift of our parents to have lived through that period for us, so that love, music and film could become the great themes of our own youth. Now, it seems, our children will have to put their noses to the grindstone to get society and government back on their feet. I still hope they will not suffer on the same scale of their grandparents, but it seems things may get a lot worse before they get better.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ongoing discussion

I don't usually respond to comments, preferring to have my say and let others have theirs, but two of the ones on the last post are provocative and I wanted to answer them. Here's the first, shown in bold, with my comments interspersed.

I think Boomers attract an unjustified level of opprobium.

When I was 18, the level of unemployment amongst 18 year olds (and new college graduates) was as high as any time since the 1930s.

Yahh sure it was stupid to vote for Ronald Reagan and his voodoo economics and his denial of AIDS until it was almost too late. But in the context of the time, lots of Americans, and not just ones born after 1945, voted for him.

I suspect GIs did more than Boomers to elect Reagan (and quickly brought him up short when he tried to tamper with Social Security.) Reagan did relatively little that couldn't be fixed, despite the huge deficits, with respect to the New Deal America in which he had made his fortune, although he did start a big round of union busting. Certainly his nomination and election marked the Goldwaterization of the Republican party.

OK so I am a late Boomer. But the early Boomers had something known as a 'Draft Number' that determined whether they would go to Vietnam, to die or be severely maimed.

Yes, as I have written at great length, Vietnam was the GIs tragic mistake, which allowed and encouraged Boomers to disregard everything GIs had thought, done, and said. That was tragic. But it didn't make everything they did wrong.

This notion of the 'selfish Boomers' as opposed to the 'Greatest Generation' entirely ignores the fact, for example, that the GG did nothing about racism and segregation. And it was Boomers who ended the Cold War.

Here I must totally disagree. The first two blows to segregation were the integration of the armed forces by Harry Truman and Brown v. Board of Education--a Lost President and a Lost Supreme Court. Brown was litigated by two GIs, Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg. The next and final blows were the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965. The key figures in those were Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the Urban League, A Philip Randolph (who staged the March on Washington), Hubert Humphrey, Everett Dirksen, Mike Mansfield, John F. Kennedy (who introduced the bill), Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and, in the streets, Martin Luther King, Jr. That's 6 GIs, two Lost, and two first-wave Silents. Boomers were spectators to the inspiring end of segregation--and immediately declared that pure equality wasn't enough and moved on to affirmative action. Now a Boomer Supreme court has essentially undone Brown v. Board of Education. Boomers can take some credit for women's lib (although Silents pioneered it), and most of the credit for gay lib, but their elders did the hard work on civil rights and deserve the credit for it. And the greatest black prophet, by far, is W. E. B. Dubois, who does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Cornel West, for example. As for the Cold War, Soviet prophets ended it. And how quickly we have turned our back on the era of peace the end promised.

Bush is a Boomer. But so is Al Gore. JFK was no Boomer, but Bill Clinton had a responsible personal life compared to JFK. JFK was boffing mistresses as his child lay dying.

All I can say here is that I share the High attitude that politicians' sex lives are their own business. It was Boomers who decided that a blow job was an impeachable offense, and history is going to laugh at them for it, not least because of their incredible hypocrisy. GIs knew better.

Each generation plays the cards it is dealt with. The Greatest Generation were no saints, and neither are our children.

No, they were not saints, and they had major blind spots about the inner life. But they were much, much better at politics than anyone who has come after them.

I share your concerns about the fate of American Democracy, but it's not just, or primarily a Boomer problem.

The second comment is briefer but almost as interesting.

Fundamentalist Christians can also be (and in some places are) described as religious addicts who use their beliefs to deny their own inner traumas. (Think about Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, or Ted Haggard if you don't believe me.)

It must be so much easier when you can dismiss everyone who disagrees with you as a mental defective. Once a Boomer, always a Boomer.

"Mental defective" is hardly what I said. I said such people were running away from their own inner traumas and that is what I believe. The poster, however, has a point in a broader sense. Prophets, including Boomers, grow up while old truths are dissolving around them, and seize the opportunity to proclaim their own. This is great if they are right, disastrous if they are wrong. Prophets, I think, are almost unique in that their virtues and vices are two sides of the same coin. All I can do is try to be right. . .history and other generations will decide.

Another poster asked about my course. It has been so long that I don't believe I have a syllabus handy. Here, however, is a fairly typical list of materials used.

Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago.

Alice Miller, For Your Own Good

A collection of essays by George Orwell

Ignazio Silone, Fontamara

Marcel Ophuls' film, The Sorrow and the Pity

Alexander Solzehnitsyn, The First Circle

John LeCarre, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Alice Miller provided a framework for talking about the characters in the books. Eventually I gave undergraduates the option of writing about how it applied to themselves. The results were quite extraordinary. My favorite final paper topic actually asked whether, in light of the books, life was worth living. It was a lot of fun--the kind of course upon which current academia puts no value whatever.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Rivers in Egypt

I have been awfully hard on my own generation over these last few years here, and I do not regret anything I have said. Boomers, I think, have had a very bad influence on academia, business, and politics, because of their self-centeredness, their emotionalism, and above all, their conviction that nothing that happened before 1968 could be very important. That, however, is only part of the story. In other ways, Boomers (building on the achievements of the Silent generation have changed life for the better. Nowhere is that truer than with respect to emotional and mental health, and how we see families, relationships, and individual needs. Fifty years ago about one million people were institutionalized in mental hospitals. Men and women who could not adjust to society--or to their families--were routinely judged to be defective. Therapy, which was not generally available, was mostly Freudian, blaming everyone's neuroses on their own self-destructive impulses. When a few courageous therapists began to introduce the idea that people might become distressed because of things that had actually happened to them, they met tremendous resistance.

Today that is different in much, although not all, of our society. We recognize alcoholism, domestic violence, and other addictive behaviors as symptoms, and we have more sensitivity to the problems of the spouses and children of those who suffer from them. Even though in my opinion our treatment of those addicted to illegal drugs is wasteful and scandalous, a lot of help is available--much of it, for instance in twelve step groups, at no charge--to anyone who wants it. We all know what a dysfunctional family is and most of us sympathize with the children that has to cope with one. An enormous literature is available for individuals to try to understand how they got where they are.

Unfortunately, the help is still rarely used by those who need it most--those with the most money, power and influence. Although many of them (or their families) may seek therapy, it is most unlikely to wean them from the drug they depend on--success. It's an inescapable fact of history, in my opinion, that many if not most of those who rise to the top--especially in politics--are desperately trying to fill up some inner emptiness by bolstering their sense of their own importance. I honestly don't think that a group of men like the neoconservatives who led us into the Iraq war could so easily wreak havoc in the lives of millions of people about whom they know nothing if they had any real sense of their inner needs. As the brilliant Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller argued decades ago, such people are playing out their inner conflicts on the world stage, and the rest of us have to pay for it. Who can believe that Richard Nixon's obsession with toughness, Lyndon Johnson's hubristic desire to end poverty in the US and raise up Southeast Asia, and George Bush's belief that he can liberate people all over the world do not have profound emotional roots?

The Republican party that has ruled us for the last seven years is led by a former alcoholic who apparently never went through a twelve-step program or had any significant therapy. Fundamentalist Christians can also be (and in some places are) described as religious addicts who use their beliefs to deny their own inner traumas. (Think about Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, or Ted Haggard if you don't believe me.) Worst of all, the main governing technique of the Republicans--"staying on message--"has become a compulsive form of denial. Freedom, Orwell wrote in 1984, means the freedom to say that two plus two equals four. But every major important Republican candidate feels compelled to insist that the Iraq war was necessary and is now going well, that tax cuts always raise revenues, and that we don't need any more health insurance--surely answers of 3, 5, and 6 to Orwell's question? All these statements are so obviously false that their endless repetition has to have serious consequences both for the candidates themselves and for the whole society. All this has happened before--Republicans from 1930 to 1940 never stopped arguing that the nation didn't need much government intervention to get out of the Depression, for instance, and southern Democrats in the 1950s insisted that "we don't have any trouble with our Negroes"--but it is sad to see it return again with such force.

I am not sure, in short, that we can separate the personal from the political when it comes to dealing with reality. I fear that political stability, sane government policies, and effective performance by our institutions (performance that inspires real confidence) may be necessary for the advances in individual emotional life to continue. I would hate to think that believers in reality might become something of a cult at best, and a hounded minority like Soviet dissidents at worst. I am such a believer in truth myself that I must think that any candidate of either party with the courage to "talk sense to the American people," as Adlai Stevenson put it, would draw considerable support; but they all seem so surrounded by consultants that this is not very likely to happen. The steady disintegration of our political life over the last forty years has been one of the great frustrations of my adult life, but it may be that we shall have to focus upon our own personal reality for the remainder of our lives in order to preserve the best of what has been achieved during that period. Art, literature, and even individual courage, after all, have often thrived even in difficult political times. During the 1980s and early 1990s I taught a course on the first half of the twentieth century with the help of Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Alice Miller, and John LeCarre--and I think I may be spending more time with those books again in the near future. Despite what our parents told us, the struggle for genuine human survival, it seems, never ends. The Boom generation has now seen to that, but in so doing it has given us and the younger generations an opportunity to leave something valuable behind, in one way or another--if only by continuing to exist, as Orwell put it, that two and two still make four.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Over to Britain again

Repeatedly over these three years I have had to point out stories in the British press--usually the Guardian or the Independent--about inside workings of the American government that have not appeared in our own media. The latest, on Robert Gates's attempts to stop war against Iran, appears in the Telegraph.

Two new posts from the weekend appear below.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

William Kristol on Iraq, 2003-7

Some weeks ago, during one of my rare forays into cable television news, I saw that eminent Baby Boomer, Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard, pontificating on Iraq. He was explaining how tragic it would be to pull back now, now that we “finally” had a successful strategy going. What angered me so much was that some one who, as far as I could tell, had been so consistently wrong about Iraq from beginning to end—most notably in an interview with Terri Gross of NPR right after our invasion, in which he assured her that there would not be sectarian conflict because “Iraq has always been pretty secular”—still had the public status of some kind of authority. Computers and the net are wonderful tools, and I decided to investigate Kristol’s various pronouncements on the war in greater depth. The results surprised me in one way. Kristol has indeed been soconsistently wrong that one can safely discount his current euphoria on the principle that even a stopped clock is right twice a day. (As I have suggested myself just yesterday, things may be a little better in Iraq just now, but we certainly shouldn’t believe that because he says so.) But on the other hand, it turns out that anyone who wanted to understand Washington and Iraq during the last four years should have been reading Kristol. In detailing the arguments raging in Washington—arguments in which he has emerged as one of the victors—he was way ahead of me, and of just about anyone else that I can remember. The man may be an ideologue who has been repeatedly wrong, but he’s well-connected and very much in tune with President Bush, and during the last four years he has triumphed over his enemies in the bureaucracy and the older generation—leaving the American people, of course, stuck with the bill.

A search for “William Kristol” and “Iraq” on the Weekly Standard website turned up about 80 articles, of which I studied 17, from mid-2003 until last month, very closely. (I paid no attention to the run-up to the war—those fish were shot dead in the barrel long ago.) Quite a few of them have been co-authored by one of the Kagan brothers, Robert or Frederick, and in fact Frederick is listed first on several of the more recent ones. They made interesting reading.

Although as we shall see Kristol pretty consistently criticized the Administration for not doing enough in Iraq from 2003 through 2006, he has nonetheless been guilty of repeated howlers along the lines of his statement to Terri Gross from the beginning. Again and again he has wrongly identified the problem in Iraq and again and again he has claimed that we were on our way to victory. “The good news,” he wrote on July 28, 2003, “is that we may turning the corner in the debate on post-war Iraq. . . .More important, and despite the continued killings of American soldiers, the situation on the ground in Iraq may well be turning. Aggressive military tactics may be breaking the back of the several thousand Baath die-hards, and we're probably closing in on Saddam. . . . Yet as the administration beats back unjustified criticism about Iraq, it has foolishly given a sword to its critics by insisting on the redaction of 28 pages, in the congressional report on 9/11, on Saudi Arabia's links to the hijackers.” The problem then wasn’t Iraq, but the next target, the Saudi royal family. Two months later, on September, he and Robert Kagan showed a little more concern, but not without massively underestimating the problem. “And considering what might have gone wrong--and which so many critics predicted would go wrong--the results have been in many ways admirable. Iraq has not descended into inter-religious and inter-ethnic violence. There is food and water. Hospitals are up and running. The Arab and Muslim worlds have not erupted in chaos or anger, as so many of our European friends confidently predicted.” But they admitted, paradoxically, that “basic security, both for Iraqis and for coalition and other international workers in Iraq, is lacking. Continuing power shortages throughout much of the country have damaged the reputation of the United States as a responsible occupying power and have led many Iraqis to question American intentions. Ongoing assassinations and sabotage of public utilities by pro-Saddam forces and, possibly, by terrorists entering the country from neighboring Syria and Iran threaten to destabilize the tenuous peace that has held in Iraq since the end of the war.”

Kristol and Robert Kagan felt much better on March 27, 2004.

“A year has passed since the invasion of Iraq, and while no sensible person would claim that Iraqis are safely and irrevocably on a course to liberal democracy, the honest and rather remarkable truth is that they have made enormous strides in that direction. The signing on March 8 of the Iraqi interim constitution--containing the strongest guarantees of individual, minority, and women's rights and liberties to be found anywhere in the Arab world--is the most obvious success. But there are other measures of progress, as well. Electricity and oil production in Iraq have returned to prewar levels. The capture of Saddam Hussein has damaged the Baathist-led insurgency, although jihadists continue to launch horrific attacks on Iraqi civilians. But by most accounts those vicious attacks have spurred more Iraqis to get more involved in building a better Iraq. We may have turned a corner in terms of security.

“What's more, there are hopeful signs that Iraqis of differing religious, ethnic, and political persuasions can work together. This is a far cry from the predictions made before the war by many, both here and in Europe, that a liberated Iraq would fracture into feuding clans and unleash a bloodbath. The perpetually sour American media focus on the tensions between Shiites and Kurds that delayed the signing by three whole days. But the difficult negotiations leading up to the signing, and the continuing debates over the terms of a final constitution, have in fact demonstrated something remarkable in Iraq: a willingness on the part of the diverse ethnic and religious groups to disagree--peacefully--and then to compromise.

“This willingness is the product of what appears to be a broad Iraqi consensus favoring the idea of pluralism. The interim constitution itself represents a promising compromise between the legitimate desire of the majority Shiites to be fairly represented in the Iraqi government--for the first time in a century--and the equally legitimate desire of Kurds and Sunnis to be protected from a tyranny of the majority. These are never easy matters to resolve, as our own Founders knew well. Add to these problems the vexing question of the role of Islam in Iraqi politics and society, and the complexities multiply. Yet here, too, the Iraqis seem to have struck a hopeful balance. Islam is respected in the constitution as the national religion. But that does not impinge on the basic rights of Iraqis, both Muslim and non-Muslim. This does not seem to be a Muslim theocracy in the making. Indeed, the way in which the Iraqi constitution reconciles liberal democracy with the culture and religion of Islam really is an encouraging and feasible model for others in the Islamic world.”

These paragraphs are the Terri Gross interview squared, and they show what happens when ideologues, rather than men and women with any actual regional expertise, are allowed to let their fantasies about foreign lands run wild. (Walt Rostow had a similar series of fantasies about the rapid modernization of South Vietnam.)

April 2004 was the month in which things fell apart in Iraq, both in Fallujah and in Shi’ite areas to the South. This is how Kristol and Robert Kagan sized up the situation on the 28th of that month.

“The mere fact that violence has increased recently in Iraq is not by itself grounds for criticizing the administration's handling of the war. No sensible person believed that the effort to build a democratic Iraq would be without cost and dangers. No reasonable person expected administration officials and military commanders, either in Washington or in Baghdad, to be able to exercise unerring mastery over an inherently complex and always explosive situation.

“Nor is the news from Iraq all bad. Several weeks ago we argued optimistically (perhaps too optimistically) that things were looking better, and we still believe there is much in Iraq to be gratified by: continued peaceful cooperation among Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders, despite many disagreements; an economy that seems to be improving; the fact that a large majority of Iraqis, as documented in polls, say their future is promising, reject political violence, and support an ongoing American presence. And much of Iraq remains, at the moment, relatively peaceful. All this is important progress.”

A month later, on May 23, Kristol himself had to admit things had not been going so well, so he deployed one of his favorite analogies, the crisis in Union morale in the middle of 1864, overcome by Sherman’s capture of Atlanta. Interestingly enough, however, while identifying the problem, he proposed to solve it by about as un-Petraeus like a strategy as could be imagined.

“If a provisional Iraqi sovereign government is to operate effectively from July until the elected government takes power in January, adequate security is necessary. This requires striking a decisive military blow against the armed insurgencies that seek to prevent the Iraqi government from coming into existence. As was the case in 1864, the immediate task is therefore the destruction of the armies and militias of the insurgency--not taking and holding territory, not winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis, not conciliating opponents and critics, not gaining the approval of other nations. All of these can follow after victory over the violent insurrection.

“So any armed insurgency opposed to a peaceful transition in Iraq must be destroyed. Fallujah must be conquered and terrorists denied safe haven in Fallujah and other centers of insurrection. Moqtada Sadr's militia must be rendered powerless. This will have to be accomplished primarily by American and British military power--however useful various political efforts can be, however useful Iraqi and coalition forces can be. Then a sovereign Iraq, with continued U.S. military and other assistance, will be able to move ahead with the task of political and economic reconstruction.”

Of course, our forces in Iraq have never been remotely close to large enough to deny terrorists all safe haven, and Moqtada Al-Sadr has grown stronger and stronger over the last three years.

American troops reconquered and largely destroyed Fallujah in November 2004—still our costliest month in terms of casualties—and by December 13, Kristol was preparing to declare victory not only in Iraq but throughout the Middle East.

“The sounds one hears emanating from the Arab Middle East are the sounds, faint but unmistakable, of the ice cracking. Though long suppressed and successfully repressed, demands for liberal reform and claims of the right to self-government seem to be on the verge of breaking through in that difficult region.

“The key to turning these random sounds of discontent into the beginnings of a symphony of self-government is, of course, success in Iraq. Here, the last month's news--the mainstream media to the contrary notwithstanding--is promising. Bush's reelection victory; the successful offensive in Falluja and the failure of the ‘Sunni street’ to rise up in outrage; the inability of both the terrorists and antidemocratic political forces to deter the Iraqi and American governments from moving ahead with the January 30 elections; the president's willingness to increase U.S. troop levels, and his commitment to victory--all of this enables one to be cautiously optimistic about the prospects in Iraq.

“And if Iraq goes well, the allegedly ‘utopian’ and ‘Wilsonian’ dreams of fundamental change in the broader Middle East won't look so far-fetched. Failure in Iraq, it's widely recognized, would be an utter disaster. What's less widely recognized is that the rewards of victory could be considerable. The most obvious and tangible benefits would of course be for the Iraqi people, and secondarily for American geopolitical credibility. But the indirect effects in the Middle East should not be underestimated. . .”

Robert Kagan and Kristol became absolutely rhapsodic after the first round of elections in Iraq in January 2004—the elections which the Sunnis boycotted.

February 14: “Thankfully, President Bush never accepted the notion that Iraqis or other Arab or Muslim peoples are not "ready" for democracy. As a result millions of Iraqis (and Afghans) have now voted. How will this remarkable exercise of democracy affect the rest of the Arab and Muslim world? We remain confident that progress toward liberal democracy in Iraq will increase the chances that governments in the Middle East will open up, and that the peoples of the Middle East will demand their rights. And the chances increase every time the president singles out nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, or Iran and Syria, for special mention, as he did in the State of the Union. Words do matter, especially against the backdrop of deeds in Iraq and Afghanistan. There will, for example, be elections in Lebanon this summer, where an opposition victory could spell the beginning of the end of Syria's imperial role in that country. As for Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, you don't have to take our word for it. Jordan's King Abdullah put it best: ‘People are waking up. [Arab] leaders understand that they have to push reform forward, and I don't think there is any looking back.’

“Here in the United States, the partisan reaction to the recent successes has been truly stunning. Never have so many been so miserable in the face of such good news. The Middle East experts who predicted disaster have not been able to bring themselves to acknowledge that it wasn't a disaster after all. Instead, they have simply shifted to predicting disaster in the future, or to falsely claiming that Iraqi Shia, who follow Ayatollah Sistani's lead, are tools of Iran. The democracy experts have been particularly egregious as well. Has their hatred of Bush made it impossible for them actually to applaud democratic elections when they occur?”

And here is Kristol on March 7:

“History is best viewed in the rear-view mirror. It's hard to grasp the significance of events as they happen. It's even harder to forecast their meaning when they're only scheduled to happen. And once they occur, it's usually the case that possible historical turning points, tipping points, inflection points, or just points of interest turn out in the cold glare of history to have been of merely passing importance.

“But sometimes not. Just four weeks after the Iraqi election of January 30, 2005, it seems increasingly likely that that date will turn out to have been a genuine turning point. The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, ended an era. September 11, 2001, ended an interregnum. In the new era in which we now live, 1/30/05 could be a key moment--perhaps the key moment so far--in vindicating the Bush Doctrine as the right response to 9/11. And now there is the prospect of further and accelerating progress.”

During the rest of 2005, Kristol said much less about what was actually happening in Iraq, although by the fall he was becoming worried that various Republicans, including George Will and political strategist Grover Norquist, were either losing faith in the cause or worrying (presciently) about the war’s impact on the 2006 elections. But the next round of Iraqi elections in December allowed him to reach even greater heights of ecstasy—which in retrospect emerge as greater flights of fancy. December 26:

“In Iraq, just about everyone is celebrating. ‘Happy days!’ cheered Salim Saleh to a New York Times reporter. ‘Before, we had a dictator, and now we have this freedom, this democracy,’ Emad Abdul Jabbar, a 38-year-old Sunni, told the Times. ‘This time, we have a real election, not just the sham elections we had under Saddam, and we Sunnis want to participate in the political process.’ ‘We are so happy,’ Sahera Hashim told the Financial Times. ‘We hope for security, good life. We have suffered too much in the past.’ The mayor of Ramadi, an insurgent and Sunni stronghold, compared the elections to a wedding: ‘Right now, the city is experiencing a democratic celebration.’ Another Sunni man told a Post reporter, ‘All my neighborhood is voting. God willing, after the elections things will be good.’

“The biggest story of this election, apart from its obvious milestone character, is the staggeringly high Sunni turnout. In October we were being assured, by the usual experts, that the passage of the constitutional referendum was a disaster, another of many final nails in the coffin of Iraqi democracy: The Sunnis would now never participate in the electoral process. It turns out that they did participate, and they did so with eager anticipation that through the new democratic process their voices could be heard and their interests protected.

“It also turns out that one of the major reasons Sunnis had not participated before was fear that they would be killed by terrorists and insurgents. This time, with 160,000 American troops and thousands of newly trained Iraqi soldiers and police, there was a sense of security. ‘Last time, if you voted, you died,’ Abdul Jabbar Mahdi, a Sunni, told the Times's Dexter Filkins. ‘God willing, this election will lead to peace.’ As Filkins notes, ‘Comments from Sunni voters, though anecdotal, suggested that a good number of them had stayed away from the polls in January not because they were disenchanted with the democratic process, but because they were afraid of being killed.’

“Not a turning point? The participation of the Sunnis in such high numbers by itself marks this election as a watershed. Either something dramatic has happened to Sunni attitudes, or true Sunni feelings were previously suppressed. Among the Sunnis he interviewed, the Times's John Burns found ‘a new willingness to distance themselves from the insurgency, an absence of hostility for Americans, a casual contempt for Saddam Hussein, a yearning for Sunnis to find a place for themselves in the post-Hussein Iraq.’ Zaydan Khalif, 33, wrapped himself in the Iraqi flag as he headed to the polls. ‘It's the national feeling,’ he explained. According to the Los Angeles Times, in Sunni-dominated Falluja voters chanted ‘May God protect Iraq and Iraqis.’ The majority of Sunnis appear to have decided to cast votes rather than plant bombs. One Sunni man told a reporter, ‘We do not want violence and for others to say Sunnis are spearheading the violence in Iraq.’ Amer Fadhel Hassani, a Sunni resident of Baghdad, said, ‘If we get more seats, it will be quieter. The ones who were absent in January will now have a voice.’

“They have a voice partly because of the apparent success of the recently adopted American/Iraqi counterinsurgency strategy of ‘clear and hold.’ There may now be a realization among Sunnis that the insurgency is not winning, and thus may not be the best way for them to recover their lost power--or even to strengthen their bargaining position. Sunni fence sitters seem to be tilting toward involvement in the political process. A more active counterinsurgency strategy--and the presence of 160,000 American troops--has not, as some predicted, reduced Sunni participation in the political process or engendered greater hostility and violence. On the contrary, the extra troops helped provide the security that made it safer for Sunnis and others to vote, and for democracy to take root. If American and Iraqi troops continue to provide basic security, and if Iraq's different sects and political groups now begin to engage in serious, peaceful bargaining, then we may just have witnessed the beginning of Iraq's future.”

Not the election in Iraq, but President Bush’s narrow victory in the election in the U.S., had deprived not only Kristol but the mainstream American media of their powers of critical judgment. I don’t spend much time on this blog saying “I told you so,” but this time I can’t resist. My own analysis of those elections appeared on December 11, 2005, and I argued that they showed that Iraq was disintegrating into sectarian conflict—like Czechoslovakia in the 1930s—because the voting had been entirely along sectarian lines. Just two months later, in February, came the bombing of the Al-Askiriya shrine and the escalation of Sunni-Shi’ite conflict into civil war—but Kristol and Frederick Kagan found plenty of silver lining in these clouds on April 20.

“Within hours of the bombing of the al-Askariya shrine in Samarra on February 22, the media were filled with warnings that Iraq is sinking into civil war. Of course, almost any insurgency is, in a sense, a civil war, and sectarian violence has marked this insurgency from the very beginning. But the fact is that we are not facing a civil war in Iraq, with large scale military formations fighting one another along ethnic and sectarian lines. Moreover, we can very likely prevent this outcome, and, even better, make real progress toward victory.

“What was striking, following the mosque bombing, was the evidence of Iraq's underlying stability in the face of attempts to undermine it. The country's vital institutions seem to have grown strong enough to withstand even the provocation of the bombing of the golden mosque.

“In the wake of the bombing, it is true, militias took to the streets, and widespread sectarian violence occurred, killing and wounding many Iraqis. But not a single Iraqi political leader, including the volatile Moktada al-Sadr, endorsed an expansion of the violence. On the contrary, all joined to condemn it, to support government efforts to curtail it, and called on their followers to stop it. The Iraqi army and police were sent out to enforce curfews and stop traffic in many areas. Even in this crisis, they executed their orders, and shut down the great bulk of the violence within several days. Within a fortnight, Sunni leaders who had boycotted discussions aimed at forming a government reentered negotiations, and Iraqi politics--turbulent and nerve-wracking as it is--began again. This is not the performance of a society on the brink of civil war.

“The tenacity of the Iraqi army is particularly notable. Iraqi soldiers are granted leave every month to hand-carry their salaries back home, in the absence of a reliable banking system. Especially for Shiites deployed in the Sunni triangle, this is a dangerous undertaking. Yet every month almost every Iraqi soldier "re-ups" by returning to his unit. This fact speaks volumes about the commitment of those soldiers and their professionalism in the face of the current dangers. If the situation began to spiral into real civil war, these Shiite soldiers would simply start deserting in droves, some of them to join up with Shiite militias. They are not doing so.

“The continuing sectarian violence is, nevertheless, worrisome, as are the continuing tensions about the future nature and course of the Iraqi government. Together, these may ultimately undermine the foundations of stability. If the violence spreads, or other horrific terrorist attacks occur, the army and police may lose their effectiveness. The power of militias may grow beyond the point where the government and the Iraqi Security Forces can control them. Certainly, there is no basis for complacency. Iraq can still fail, with all the consequences that would follow.”

During the remainder of 2006 Kristol (and Fred Kagan) began to focus on their push for a further escalation of the American presence, a drive that was crowned with success after the November election. One should note, however, that in the midst of his campaign, on November 26, 2006, the two of them, in the midst of yet another absurdly optimistic recap, actually presented a truer picture of the events of the spring of 2004 than Kristol had been willing to print at the time.

“[General] Abizaid has been in command of this war for three years. General George Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Abizaid's direct subordinate, has had his command since mid-2004. Both men remember the war in Iraq at its lowest point--when the Sunni Arab insurgency raged unchecked, insurgents controlled Falluja, Shiite troops under Moktada al-Sadr seized Najaf, and Shiites in Sadr City rose. They watched Iraqi troops flee battlefields and refuse to fight. They watched as U.S. Marines engaged in clearing Falluja were forced to desist because of political pressure from a weak Iraqi government. All of that happened in 2004.

“Since then, they have seen improvements. Falluja was cleared in late 2004 and has been held. Tal Afar, cleared unsuccessfully twice before, was finally cleared and effective government established in 2005. Mosul soon followed. The Iraqi military that failed in 2004 was disbanded and replaced by Iraqi units that have subsequently fought well in Tal Afar, Ramadi, Baghdad, and elsewhere. No major Iraqi cities are under the control of insurgents as Falluja and Tal Afar once were. The Iraqi government has supported a number of clear-and-hold efforts around the country, including in many neighborhoods in Baghdad. All these developments are important and even heartening judged against the calamitous situation we faced in 2004.”

Since the surge began, Kristol and Frederick Kagan (Robert has not joined Kristol in quite a while) have been increasingly rhapsodic. On July 25th they returned to their weakest terrain—the analysis of how and what Iraqis are thinking—in terms Terri Gross would find familiar.

“Last week, a group of tribal leaders in Salah-ad-Din, the mostly Sunni province due north of Baghdad, agreed to work with the Iraqi government and U.S. forces against al Qaeda. Then al Qaeda destroyed the two remaining minarets of the al-Askariya mosque in Samarra, a city in the province. Coincidence? Perhaps. But al Qaeda is clearly taking a page from the Viet Cong's book. The terrorists have been mounting a slow-motion Tet offensive of spectacular attacks on markets, bridges, and mosques, knowing that the media report each such attack as an American defeat. The fact is that al Qaeda is steadily losing its grip in Iraq, and these attacks are alienating its erstwhile Iraqi supporters. But the terrorists are counting on sapping our will as the VC did, and persuading America to choose to lose a war it could win.

“The Salah-ad-Din announcement that Iraqis were turning against al Qaeda was just one of many such announcements over recent weeks and months. Some media reports have tried to debunk this development, reporting, for example, that the Sunni coalition against al Qaeda in Anbar province is fragmenting. But even the fragments are saying that they will continue to cooperate with us and fight al Qaeda. Sunni movements similar to the one in Anbar have developed and grown in Babil province south of Baghdad and even in strife-torn and mixed Diyala province to the northeast. Most remarkable, local Sunnis in Baghdad recently rose up against al Qaeda, and even hard core Baathist insurgent groups have reached out to U.S. forces to cooperate in the fight against the terrorists. Far from being evidence of our desperation and danger, as some have claimed, this turn of events demonstrates the degree to which al Qaeda is repelling Iraqis.

“It has long been clear that most Iraqis want nothing to do with al Qaeda's religious and political views. They do not find the intolerant and occasionally ludicrous al Qaeda program appealing: Being required to segregate vegetables in a market by sex, as al Qaeda fighters have apparently demanded, appalls Iraqis just as it would Americans. Yet whenever al Qaeda makes itself comfortable in an Iraqi neighborhood, it begins to enforce its absurd and intolerant version of Islam. Locals resist, and al Qaeda begins to "punish" them with an increasing scale of atrocities. Just that sort of escalation led to al Qaeda's loss of control in Anbar and to the growth of the various anti-al Qaeda movements in Iraq's Sunni community.”

Now during the last two days, as I intermittently put this piece together (although not without allowing it to interfere with more important matters such as the baseball playoffs), I have occasionally asked myself whether William Kristol, who like George W. Bush owes his position of eminence largely to his father and who has demonstrated nothing so much over the last five years as a complete lack of shame over being wrong again and again, was really worth it. But as I made my way through these pieces I realized that the answer is yes, not because of any wisdom he has displayed (he hasn’t), but because he has been a key player in the real struggle taking place in Washington during these five years, and, as it turns out, one of the big winners at the policy level. No one can read these columns without bemusedly reaching that conclusion.

We liberal Democrats have been kidding ourselves for seven years if we really think we have anything to do with the debate over our foreign policy. We are nothing but whipping boys and girls, trotted out as defeatists eager to stab our troops in the back to rally the public behind a policy that has so far delivered nothing but failure. The real battle has been a family fight (literally) among Republicans, pitting the surviving GIs and Silents (Scowcroft, Baker, Colin Powell and the first President Bush), against the Boomers, including Cheney (temperamentally a Boomer although technically a Silent), Wolfowitz, Perle, Kristol, and George W. Bush. A secondary player has been the entire bureaucracy, including most of the military and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which always had doubts about the war in Iraq and has wanted to wind it up as quickly as possible for at least three years.

Kristol has understood all this from the beginning and has anticipated where the debate would go. He has been calling for more American troops in Iraq since 2004, again and again. He repeatedly criticized our military leadership for wanting to wind the war down. And in practice, though not, as we have seen, in theory, he never had any confidence in the Iraqis to protect our interests. On only one occasion did he seriously criticize President Bush. He attacked the slogan, “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” because he thought it showed false confidence in their ability to take over the job. He proposed an alternative: “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand with them.” For all his disgraceful rhetoric about how liberals threw away victory in South Vietnam, one suspects that he really understands that to have held South Vietnam, American forces would have had to stay there forever—exactly what he now must hope for in Iraq. He also complained that the size of our forces was being held down by the need to rotate them regularly.

What really impressed me, I must admit, was Kristol’s realization, which did not dawn on me until I read Bob Woodward’s new book early this year, that Donald Rumsfeld was on the other side of the fight. As early as November 2003, Kristol was criticizing Rumsfeld for pressing the Iraqis to take over responsibility for their own security. He later expressed contempt for the theory that the Iraqis had to know we were leaving in order to get serious about their own responsibilities, calling this foreign policy as welfare reform. And while he apparently had the sense not to crow about it, Rumsfeld’s resignation after last November’s election was a key event, as I have already written here, because it allowed the surge to go forward.

But of course, Kristol, like his hero the President, has not been willing to face up to the implications of his policy. Success in Iraq would indeed (if it were possible at all) require more troops—far more troops, probably three times as many. That would probably require doubling the size of our ground forces—and that would obviously require a draft. Kristol did advocate expanding the army early—but not that much. And he has never, so far as I know, advocated a return to conscription. Perhaps that will come when, and if, a Democrat takes over the White House. Kristol has won this dispute because the President is obviously on his side. (I am less sure, ironically, about the Vice President—but that is another story.) But I do not think that will be anything to be proud of ten or twenty years down the road.

Meanwhile, Kristol’s columns have never—literally never—seriously addressed the human costs of this war. He has never referred to the two million refugees that have left Iraq or the roughly equal number that have been internally displaced. He has not discussed the tactics of Shi’ite and Sunni militias very much, or even alluded to the basic fact—surely an indicator of something?—that no American has been able to go anywhere in Iraq without armed escort for years. And he has never said much about the Americans who are actually fighting the war. On September 23, 2003, in one of his first calls for more forces, Kristol made an interesting remark. “And contrary to what some say,” he and Robert Kagan wrote, “more troops don't mean more casualties. More troops mean fewer casualties--both American and Iraqi.” As my readers know, that did not initially turn out to be the case—American casualties rose sharply during the first six months of the surge, although they have declined during the last two months. On June 14, 2004, in the wake of the uprisings in Fallujah and southern Iraq, he wrote, “But there are grounds for hope. We are actually winning the war in Iraq, and the war on terror. We're not winning either as thoroughly or as comprehensively as we should be. Still, it is a fact that one year after the invasion of Iraq, Saddam and his regime are gone; a decent interim Iraqi government is taking over; we and the Iraqis have not suffered a devastating level of casualties; the security situation, though inexcusably bad, looks as if it may finally be improving; Moktada al-Sadr seems to have been marginalized, and the Shia center is holding; there is nothing approaching civil war.”

Those are the only two discussions of American casualties that I found in everything Kristol has said about the war—one arguing that they would not increase, one arguing that they were not that bad. (Kristol has quoted Australian David Kilcullen claiming—misleadingly, I believe—that casualties as a percentage of American troops had fallen during the first few months of this year, while rising absolutely). Neoconservatism, like Richard Nixon’s foreign policies, involves a real contempt for human life, which must freely be sacrificed to defend America (usually, for some inexplicable reason, on the continent of Asia), and “spread democracy.” And of course, if things go wrong, one can always blame the reality-based community in the bureaucracy, the military, and the press. Kristol and I are both, in our own ways, trying to affect the course of American policy. I can’t claim to have had the influence he has, but I’m proud to say that I’ve done it on my own time, and for nothing. That’s the beauty of the net.

p.s. Mentions of this post by my brother Charles at radaronline and Eric Alterman at mediamatters.org have led to an avalanche of hits. I hope new visitors will check out more recent posts as well, and perhaps take advantage of the feedblitz link to subscribe. I especially recommend the penultimate post on the death of my dear friend Bill Strauss just two weeks ago, and on how he changed the way I see the world. Thanks.


Saturday, October 06, 2007

How much progress?

There is no doubt about it—violence in Iraq has dropped during the last month. After nine months in which coalition (almost entirely American) deaths averaged over 90 per month, they fell during September to 69, and the rate so far has been even lower. The deaths occurred almost entirely in three areas: Baghdad, where about half of them occurred; Diyalac province north of Baghdad; and Anbar province, which is much quieter, but still a major trouble spot. Wounded Americans who could not return to duty within 48 hours fell by almost half. Meanwhile, the independent web site Iraqi coalition casualties says that violent Iraqi deaths fell from nearly 1700 each in both July and August to 842 in September. That still represents almost thirty deaths a day, but it is a step in the right direction.

Sitting here ten thousand miles away in my house, without any unpublished sources of information, it is extremely difficult for me to know how to interpret all this. Given the persistence of the much higher casualties since last December, I am inclined to believe that something has changed. The one change of which we are definitely aware is in Anbar, where American authorities have struck deals with local sheiks to form an alliance against Al Queda in Mesopotamia—an alliance cemented with American money and arms. That alliance is threatened by the assassination of several of the sheiks who are cooperating. Things have obviously quieted down a bit in Baghdad as well Two other possible explanations are a significant decline in insurgent capabilities thanks to better intelligence, raids on their bomb factories, and the detention of thousands more Iraqis, or a decision by insurgents (including Moqtar Al-Sadr) to lie low for awhile and avoid confrontations with American troops in the hope of an American withdrawal over the next couple of years. It is even possible that American troops are going on fewer patrols and exposing themselves to fewer ieds. Any assertion of which of these possibilities is true, much less any attempt to rank their importance, would be pure guesswork.

The trend must not be exaggerated. 69 deaths is around the median for the first eight months of 2006, just before the first of two major increases in US casualties began, and certainly not a period in which the war was going well. Baghdad and Diyala are far more lethal for Americans now than they were during that period, compensating for reduced American casualties in Anbar. The situation might be compared to Vietnam in 1970-1, when American troops had started coming out in large numbers and American casualties had fallen—all the way to the level of 1965-6, which didn’t seem very low at the time.

Meanwhile, there has been no progress towards the reconciliation of Iraq’s three major groups. The Kurds are signing their own oil deals, including one well-publicized one with a long-time friend of President Bush’s from Texas. The Sunni sheiks in Anbar and around Baghdad are arming with American help to defend themselves against the Shi’ites, and the Shi’ites are anything but happy about this process. And in southern Iraq, which has never had very many American or coalition troops (and which has fewer and fewer as the British pull back into bases and begin to withdraw), various Shi’ite factions are struggling violently for power. These issues have for the moment faded from the front pages, however, because of the Blackwater controversy. In any event, last month General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tried to put the whole issue of national political progress on the back burner. Since American forces were improving local security, at least in Anbar, that was what suddenly became important. We are reading much less about Prime Minister Al-Maliki in US newspapers today, except for his complaints about Blackwater.

A mixture of deployment in populated areas and (more importantly) deals with local elites—the stable of British and French imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—has calmed things down somewhat in what had been the most violent area of the country. Here another Vietnam parallel becomes relevant: the Accelerated Pacification Campaign initiated late in 1969 by General Creighton Abrams, William Westmoreland’s successor, which stationed more American units in Vietnamese villages and hamlets to force the Viet Cong to retreat. That campaign has been best described, albeit within only one province, by Vietnam veteran and historian Eric Bergerud in one of the most remarkable studies of the Vietnam War, The Dynamics of Defeat, which focuses on Hau Nghia, a province on the Cambodian border. His conclusions remain highly relevant. On the one hand, as long as American troops remained within the villages, violence declined and the Viet Cong had to lie low. Viet Cong casualties also increased somewhat. (Incidentally, Bergerud does a good job of dispelling another Vietnam myth—that the Viet Cong, the South Vietnamese guerrillas, were wiped out by the 1968 Tet Offensive and never recovered. The truth is that their main force units, or conventional battalions, did disappear after Tet, but as local guerrillas, terrorists, and political operatives, they remained a very potent force in much of the country.) But what Bergerud also showed was that the American presence did nothing to increase local faith in the central South Vietnamese government. And since American withdrawals were in progress by 1970, the people began preparing to deal with the Viet Cong, whom they assumed (rightly) would easily prevail over the South Vietnamese government once the Americans had left. American troops—like French troops in Algeria in 1958-62—could substantially reduce insurgent violence, but they couldn’t bring about a lasting change in the political constellation.

There is another parallel between Vietnam in 1969-70 and Iraq in 2007. The emphasis on pacification appears to be accompanied by more ruthless use of American firepower. That took place in Vietnam in the Mekong Delta, where American troops—specifically the Army’s 9th Division—went on a huge offensive against Viet Cong guerrillas for the first time. Their tactics, as reported by one of their battalion commanders, the late David Hackworth (one of the more remarkable American soldiers of the twentieth century), were to say the least aggressive. “If it moves, shoot it, and if it’s lying there, count it,” was the informal division motto, and although the unit developed some new quick-response tactics, it undoubtedly killed a great many civilians. Today’s New York Times contains yet another story of an Iraqi-American dispute, this one over an attack on a Shi’ite village near Baghdad which American forces attacked in an attempt to find weapons smugglers, including at least one Iranian. Iraqis claim the armed forces in the village were self-defense forces fighting Sunni Al Queda terrorists from neighboring villages, but the Americans claim they opened fire. The U.S. made air strikes, and approximately 25 Iraqis were killed—many of them, the Iraqis claimed, unarmed civilians. American forces, from General Petraeus on down, are obviously coming under great pressure to show results. That will make it harder to use the kind of discriminate violence which, every authority agrees, is essential to counterinsurgency.

What Petraeus seems for the moment to have proven is that an increased American presence among the population can reduce violence, although it remains at high levels. But that in turns only means—as for the French in Algeria or the Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza—that the U.S. can hold down (but not eliminate) violence as long as it is willing to stay in Iraq. That is President Bush’s intention: for us to remain for generations. In their most recent debate, none of the leading Democrats would promise to get out of Iraq if elected. We may indeed be stuck in a long-term imperialist enterprise (because that is what it is, even if it relies upon local elites the way the British did in India.) I continue to believe, however, that we shall be a focus of Islamic hatred and terrorism as long as we try to occupy a major Middle Eastern country, and that the enterprise will continue to hurt our Middle Eastern friends and help our enemies, led by Osama Bin Laden. And in any case, the one overarching strategic truth about Iraq will never change: 150,000 men are simply nowhere near enough to pacify a country of that size. That point has just been made with renewed force by my friend Professor (and former Colonel) Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, in an article about General Petraeus in The American Conservative, Pat Buchanan’s organ. If Petraeus really believed in what he was doing and wanted to make it a success, he suggests, he should have asked for a tripling of the size of the army and a doubling of the force in Iraq. Petraeus’s thesis, however—which I have already discussed, and which Bacevich has read as well—was about how the Army must attempt to carry out whatever mission it has with whatever forces it has. His real goal, I think, is to lay the foundation (as Abrams did in Vietnam) for claims that the Army learned how to do counterinsurgency in Iraq. But he can’t do anything about the irretrievable miscalculation that led us into Iraq in the first place: the attempt to create an ally in a country where the political basis for long-term friendship with the U.S. simply does not exist.