Bush Reinvents “Progress”

March 20, 2007

CNN has a piece on the 4-year anniversary of the war.

There are some real darling quotes in there. Like this:

“There’s been good progress.”

Am I missing something?

“If American forces were to step back from Baghdad, before it is more secure, a contagion of violence could spill out across the entire country,” Bush said. “In time this violence could engulf the region.”

This is true. But is Bush offering a legitimate option for creating a lasting peace? It seems not.

But, in case all the sectarian violence has you feeling gloomy, we’re going to have a hanging pretty soon. Should be a good one.

Andy Griffith Hates America

January 20, 2007

(This from Elrod’s blog– it was so good I just had to repost it.) It’s short, just 1 minute long.

Of course, over at the Futurist it’s argued that those who oppose the Patriot Act actually want the terrorists to win: “Active opposition to both our overseas activities and the domestic Patriot Act is a good indicator that the person holding these opinions actually does not want America to win the War on Terror. How can someone oppose all these things, and still be on America’s side?”

But the Futurist is wrong- the Patriot Act has garnered opposition from both the left and the right, i.e., not just those of us who “hate America. “

A Dignified Decapitation?

January 15, 2007

Iraq is calling the execution of Saddam Hussein’s half-brother and the former head judge for the Baath party “dignified.”

However, Ridha, a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s office, said:

The only unusual aspect was that Hassan’s head became completely separated from his body by the hangman’s noose, he said. He called it “an act of God.”

“It was not like a very pretty scene,” Ridha said.

The men asked God for forgiveness and begged not to be hanged.

My thesaurus lists “elegant,” “composed,” and “proud” as synonyms for dignified. Maybe I’ll have to start redefining those in my mind too.

He’s Dead.

December 29, 2006

The blogosphere is raging with the news of Saddam Hussein’s death.  A sampling of the fascinating reactions:

CNN says yep, he’s dead, and describes celebrations around the body.

Brian says the death should not be celebrated because the act of invading a country, deposing its leader, and executing him sets a terrible precedent.

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Chess and Foreign Policy

December 18, 2006


Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess grandmaster, has become one of the most prominent critics of Vladimir Putin in Russian politics. He publicly praised the recent opposition rally in Moscow. And then Russian federal agents raided Kasparov’s offices for being a voice of dissent, something that seems to be a mark of being someone who matters in Russia. And I guess it’s better than getting shot in the head like Anna Politkovskaya.

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Letter to a Christian Nation

November 29, 2006


That’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s letter, not Sam Harris’s.

So what would posess the President of Iran to write a letter to the American people? Maybe he knows enough about the American press to realize that he’ll get lots of media coverage. And maybe he’s deluded enough to think that coverage will be positive. Nevertheless, I think it’s worthwhile to read some of his letter and offer a little critique.

“Both our nations are God-fearing, truth loving and justice seeking, and both seek dignity, respect and perfection. Both greatly value and readily embrace the promotion of human ideals such as compassion, empathy, respect for the rights of human beings, securing justice and equity, and defending the innocent and the weak against oppressors and bullies.”

I’m not sure the U.S. is quite as God-fearing these days as Mr. Mahmoud thinks. A poll in 1999 showed that only 63% of Americans believe God is “very important” in their lives. And, as the actions of Ahmadinejad’s regime to lessen the rights of women in Iran have shown (undoing years of work by Iranian liberals), profession of ideals relating to human rights is no substitute for really defending them.

“You know well that the US administration has persistently provided blind and blanket support to the Zionist regime, has emboldened it to continue its crimes, and has prevented the UN Security Council from condemning it.”

True, though I would have worded it a bit different (one can and should criticize Israel, but calling it “the Zionist regime” just turns off your American readers…). Our veto on the UN Security Council has been used more than any other coutntry’s, almost exclusively in protecting Israel from (sometimes legitimate) criticism.

“Who can deny such broken promises and grave injustices towards humanity by the US administration?”

Err.. American conservatives? Oh wait, that’s rhetorical.

“The legitimacy, power and influence of a government do not emanate from its arsenals of tanks, fighter aircrafts, missiles or nuclear weapons. Legitimacy and influence reside in sound logic, quest for justice and compassion and empathy for all humanity. The global position of the United States is in all probability weakened because the administration has continued to resort to force, to conceal the truth, and to mislead the American people about its policies and practices.”

He’s right about legitimacy- it stems from justice and compassion. But power and influence stem from military, economic, and cultural power, all of which we’ve been happy to employ in our commonly realpolitik international relations. The illusion of American exceptionalism may convince many American citizens that their country’s actions are for the good of the world just as Muslim fanatics in Iran are convinced that forcing their religion on others is really what’s best for them.

“We all condemn terrorism, because its victims are the innocent.”

But Mr. Ahmadinejad, you do a decidely poor job of condemning terrorism.

“What have the Zionists done for the American people that the US administration considers itself obliged to blindly support these infamous aggressors? Is it not because they have imposed themselves on a substantial portion of the banking, financial, cultural and media sectors?”

Uh oh.. Here comes the whole worldwide Jewish conspiracy again. Powerful Jewish lobby? Sure. Overzealous, scary premillenial dispensationalists? Definitely. But worldwide Jewish conspiracy? Definitely not. (My friend Mr. Steinman told me so.)

And to the Democrats:

“Now that you control an important branch of the US Government, you will also be held to account by the people and by history.”

Thanks buddy. Glad you’re watching out for us.

“It is possible to lead the world towards the aspired perfection by adhering to unity, monotheism, morality and spirituality and drawing upon the teachings of the Divine Prophets. Then, the American people, who are God-fearing and followers of Divine religions, will overcome every difficulty.”

I’m not sure if the religious zealots in both our countries would very well in agreeing on which Prophets to follow. Unity and monotheism sound great, but when people can’t decide what to be unified about (look at denominationalism in Christianity and Islam) or which monotheistic God (and which book He wrote) to follow, unity is often another way of saying “my way is the only perfect way.”

Aspiring to perfection gives me mixed feelings. Yes, we should always try to improve, but the illusion that real perfection is possible is dangerous. It reminds me of a quote from the introduction to Francois Bizot’s The Gate, a first-hand account of his captivity in the killing fields of Cambodia. Bizot writes,

“I detest the notion of a new dawn in which Homo sapiens would live in harmony. The hope this Utopia engenders has justified the bloodiest exterminations in history.”

I think there is a middle ground, a way to envision a world that is better- more just, more peaceful, more free, more prosperous, more equal- without knowing that it is possible within one’s lifetime. But we should always strive to move closer to that ideal, even if the ideal may never be realized. Don’t let visions of revolutionary change- religious or not- stand in the way of gradual steps up.

Or, as Paul Farmer says, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”

Iran in Iraq & Iraq in Iran

November 27, 2006

For some time it’s been clear that Iran is more than peripherally involved in the violence in Iraq. The Bush administration has so far refused to talk to Tehran, but now Iraq’s president Jalal Talabani has basically said “if you’re not going to, I will.” That’s right- Talabani has accomplished what Saddam Hussein tried unsuccessfully to do for years: he’s finally arrived in the capital of Iran.


Of course, it was by slightly different means than what Saddam always intended.

Al-Jazeera has a piece about Talabani’s visit, where he plans to meet with Holocaust-denying, nuclear-weapons-seeking Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and with theocratic ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei . Interestingly, it seems that Khamenei and the many Islamic clerics who control much of Iran’s government serve as a necessary counterbalance to Ahmadinejad. In other words, despite what ole Mahmoud says, don’t expect Iran to nuke Israel any time soon.

An interesting note from the Al-Jazeera piece:

Analysts said Talabani, who speaks Farsi fluently after years of contacts with Iran when in opposition to Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president, could press Iran to stop seeing Iraq as a battleground in its three-decade-old fight with Washington.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times has reported leaks from the Iraq Study Group, which has advocated (not suprisingly) that America talk openly with Iran and Syria. As I noted in Why Both Parties Have it Wrong in Iraq, whether we acknowledge it or not, Iraq’s neighbors already have large stakes in Iraq’s future.

From the NYT:

“Officials said that the draft of the section on diplomatic strategy, which was heavily influenced by Mr. Baker, seemed to reflect his public criticism of the administration for its unwillingness to talk with nations like Iran and Syria.

“But senior administration officials, including Stephen J. Hadley, the president’s national security adviser, have expressed skepticism that either of those nations would go along, especially while Iran is locked in a confrontation with the United States over its nuclear program. ‘Talking isn’t a strategy,’ he said in an interview in October.

“‘The issue is how can we condition the environment so that Iran and Syria will make a 180-degree turn, so that rather than undermining the Iraqi government, they will support it.'”

Apparently James A. Baker III is a big proponent of dialogue with Iran and Syria concerning security in Iraq. Hopefully Robert Gates (the former Iraq Study Group member nominated to replace Rumsfeld) will have similar opinions.

The main complaint against talking with Iran and Syria is that it will merely encourage them in their current paths. But I think we have to accept that Iran and Syria will continue to have strong influence in Iraq and elsewhere in the region whether we like it or not, solely by nature of their proximity. The issue at hand is not what the ideological superior thing to do is (i.e., not talking to states that back terrorists) but what the best method for relieving their potential threat is, and in the long term, how to move the Middle East toward governments that are stable, not overly theocratic, and allow some form of a public input (a difficult balance).

It seems that the only loser in the talks between Iran and Iraq is the United States, as it will give Iran more leverage when we finally do get around to talking to them Thoughts?

Why Both Parties Have it Wrong on Iraq

November 10, 2006

For the last few years American politics have been dominated by Iraq, and this isn’t likely to change. In fact, opinion polling showed again and again that Iraq is right up there with terrorism and the economy as the most important issues for voters. While I had a strong preference in this election, it wasn’t based on the war because I believe both parties’ policies (or lack thereof) on Iraq are doomed to fail.

First, as the Republicans haven’t been shy to point out, the Democrats have failed to articulate a clear position. The Democrats seem split between the urge to stay the course and hope things get better and the urge to drop everything now because we’ve suffered too many losses.

The so-called “cut and run” strategy favored by many on the left is exemplified by Cindy Sheehan. Every compassionate person should sympathize with the loss of her son, a soldier in Iraq.

But while some of my peers see Sheehan’s anti-war stance as a clarion call of truth, a prophetic voice in the desert, to me she has all the grating appeal of a shrill reactionary.

Are we as Americans wholly unwilling to sacrifice for a good cause? Regardless of the initial rationale for the invasion, or the morality of that action, pulling out now could result in absolute chaos, and we would be responsible.

The world is full of hot spots, potential genocidal regimes, conflict-induced famines and other situations that may morally necessitate intervention by the U.S. and other powerful nations to prevent atrocities.

Our unique sensitivity to American casualties is to some degree a testament to our dislike of war, but it kept us from doing a lot of good in Somalia (the incident portrayed in Black Hawk Down) and in places like Rwanda and Sudan.

On the other hand, the Republicans have rallied behind President Bush and his mantra of “stay the course”. This was recently moderated (largely due the political pressure of Tuesday’s elections) to having “benchmarks” for withdrawal—a slightly more nuanced view, but quite similar in most respects.

Some Democrats have rather correctly called Bush’s “stay the course” what it is: “stand still and lose.” Our strategy simply isn’t working. Despite the improvements we may have made to some portions of Iraqi society, both the sectarian violence and the flow of refugees out of Iraq have steadily increased.

The only policy direction that, in my opinion seems viable in the long term is largely absent from the debate: a three-state solution.

Why? Iraq is at its heart an unnatural state, a creation of British imperialists who cobbled together long-opposed tribal districts. David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace explores the history of the Middle East after the fall of Ottoman Empire, revealing that Iraq was created for the convenience of its rulers, with virtually no correspondence to ethnic and religious realities on the ground. Following imperialism, it took a tyrant like Saddam Hussein to hold Iraq together.

In a similar situation, Yugoslavia was only held together by imperial and dictatorial communist rule, and ethnic nationalism flared back up after the fall of Tito. While an early military intervention might have prevented a downward spiral of violence in what was to become Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia, at some point separation becomes the only workable option.

After Saddam Hussein was deposed, an occupation by a much more powerful American force might have been able to use crushing force prevent anti-American and sectarian violence and secure Iraq’s borders with Iran and Syria. But our failure to have a large enough force on hand and a lack of planning allowed an increase in violence that has steadily increased.

I believe Iraq has reached a breaking point. Ethnic and inter-religious tensions have been exasperated to the point that maintaining a viable, tolerant multiethnic nation would require a level of force and commitment that the American public is simply not willing to sustain.

Based on the escalation of Iraqi-vs.-Iraqi violence since the invasion of Iraq, we basically have two choices: divide Iraq into three states now, or watch the Iraqis (or more accurately, the extremists on all sides) ethnically cleanse themselves into three states after we withdraw.

The reason a three-state solution of Kurdish, Shi’a and Sunni regions hasn’t gained strong support is that Iraq’s neighbors hate the idea. Iran and Turkey fear independent Iraqi Kurds because their countries hold their own Kurdish separatist movements. Also, enclaves in Iraq lack of clear boundaries, Baghdad is divided, and a number of minorities could suffer persecution in divided states just as the states of the former Yugoslavia struggle with minority rights.

These problems might be moderated by moving Iraq toward a loose federation that gives regions significant autonomy, and allows some sharing of oil revenues. This would make Iraq’s neighbors uneasy, but less so than full independence. And again, if segments of Iraq are likely to separate themselves through the process of war after the Americans depart anyway, giving people the choice to move now might curtail future violence.

I hope I’m wrong; the process would be messy and result in more loss of life before the situation could ever stabilize. But regardless of what Democrats and Republicans claimed in their campaign speeches, neither of the presently espoused strategies seems likely to succeed.

Blunders of Bush

October 25, 2006


“Stay the course.” If one repeats a mantra enough times it can become inseparable from one’s political persona. So what do you do when the pressure to change that view has become so great that to deny it would appear even more stupendously stubborn? The answer, it seems, is to say you’re not really changing anything.

Despite saying for months, even years, that those calling for a timetable for withdrawal are foolish, the Bush administration has now announced it plans to implement “benchmarks” in its Iraq strategy.

Allow me to play analyst for a bit.

Unfortunately, it seems that “staying the course”, “benchmarks”, and a timetable are all inherently flawed strategies, because they neglect the root of Iraq’s problems. If we stay the course, our troops will be caught in the middle of a bloody civil war. If we leave now, Iraqis will fight a blood civil war.

Why? Iraq is at its heart an unnatural state. Of course, many national boundaries have no connection to historical or ethnic realities, and many of those nations work (while others host the world’s bloodiest conflicts) . The problem is that in Iraq the current violence seems to be exasperating tensions between religious and ethnic groups that might have otherwise lived in peace.

Based on the escalation of Iraqi-vs.-Iraqi violence since the invasion of Iraq, we basically have two choices: Divide Iraq into three states now, or watch the Iraqis (or more directly, the extremists on all sides) ethnically cleanse themselves into three states.

One of my favorite books about the Middle East is called A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Making of the Modern Middle East, which explores the history that led to the creation of such unnatural states as Iraq. (I particular enjoyed the sections describing the role of Winston Churchill in those events).

From historical accounts like this, and current events, it appears the only forces capable of holding Iraqi together have been oligarchy and the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein. For much of Hussein’s rule we found it useful to strongly support him as a foil to communism and Iran. Many of the war crimes Saddam is now being prosecuted for were pursued during his time as our ally. (Of course, this should surprise no one in light of our current support of Pakistan and Egypt).

And the oligarchic approach doesn’t seem to be working today. Juan Cole’s article at The Nation opines, “In a similar fashion, the US-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority has attempted to rule Iraq by using communal and religious leaders and corrupt expatriate politicians–the modern analogues of the tribal chieftains of an earlier era.”

In general, I think the analysis in Cole’s article is correct. A long-term occupation would be most conducive to democracy (and the least likely to be supported by the American populace) while a short term occupation (like leaving now) would likely lead to an authoritarian government. To this I add the option of a civil war resulting in two or three states, assuming the conflict ends without a clear victory by some despot.

The problem with a three-state solution, of course, is that Iraq’s neighbors hate the idea. The Turks spend enough of their money (and ours) suppressing their Kurdish rebels. A truly independent (as opposed to more or less autonomous) Kurdistan in northern Iraq would spell huge trouble for Turkey’s sovereignty in its eastern provinces. And Iran and Saudia Arabia aren’t about to consent to what Iraq might become. And the Sunnis would lose their oil of course.

So there are significant obstacles to overcome, and significant bloodshed ahead. But, given the stakes, I think pursuing a three-state solution is the only option that has a high probability of eventually resulting in regional stability. Until that is achieved, it will never really be “Mission Accomplished”.