The New Crusade: America's War on Terrorism
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"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

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February 27, 2008

The Good Die Young

William F. Buckley, dead at 82.

February 25, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Good News from Pakistan

There is genuinely good news from Pakistan, where the latest election results herald actual hope for the future, if ham-handed U.S. intervention doesn’t ruin things yet again.

The only negative thing about the elections, held last week, was the low turnout; fears of indiscriminate terror attacks like those that have plagued Pakistan in the past year kept voter participation down below 45%.

The fact that Musharraf, beleaguered at home and abroad, with his power base dwindling to nothing, was forced to allow at least moderately clean elections (unlike those of 2002), was a very positive sign.

So too were the results, in which the voters sent two messages very clearly: a complete rejection of Musharraf’s dictatorship and a complete rejection of the extremist Islamist parties.

The party that Musharraf essentially formed around himself to legitimize his rule, the PML-Q (Pakistan Muslim League – Qaid-i-Azam), won only 42 of 272 seats in the National Assembly up for grabs in the general election, down from 118 seats in 2002. Both the Pakistan People’s Party of Benazir Bhutto and the PML-N of Nawaz Sharif did better, and the two together will form a coalition government.

The Islamist coalition, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, was even harder hit. Never a major force in national electoral politics before the American was in Afghanistan and the 2002 elections, they have returned to their previous insignificance, with only 6 seats in the National Assembly, down from 59 previously. In 2002, they also took over the Provincial Assembly of the Northwest Frontier Province, the part of Pakistan that abuts Afghanistan and where much of the resurgent al-Qaeda/Taliban activity is based; this time, they were blown out and lost control to the secular nationalist Awami National League.

Musharraf’s tremendous and rapid loss of public support as he tried to gut Pakistan’s judiciary and generally increased his dictatorial power – and as Pakistan has suffered a short-term economic crisis, with the price of staple items like wheat flour doubling and major shortages of electricity and gas – is a well-known and much-reported story.

Much less noted has been the massive delegitimization of jihadi terrorist groups and the political parties that have been loosely affiliated with them either directly or in public perception. According to a poll by the unfortunately named Terror Free Tomorrow, while in August 70% of the population of the Northwest Frontier Province had a favorable opinion of Osama bin Laden, today only 4% do. It’s important, by the way, to interpret these numbers with caution – for example, they don’t mean that 70% supported the 9/11 attacks, since most people favorable to bin Laden think he is a good Muslim unjustly accused of such acts.

I think the reasons are clear; growing discomfort with the increasing control being exercised by jihadi groups in that area, coupled with revulsion against the incomprehensible indiscriminate mass violence of the recent high-fatality suicide bombings. In Saudi Arabia, support for bin Laden plummeted in 2003 when al-Qaeda was involved in similarly incomprehensible attacks against Saudis.

The biggest unknowns now for Pakistan are whether or in what manner Musharraf will step down; how much free rein the military, which largely controls the state, will allow to the civilian government; and whether the United States will manage to screw up the progress made in the NWFP by insisting on a belligerent military posture.

While right now the public of the NWFP is angry at people blowing them up for no reason, that can shift in a heartbeat if they once again see the jihadis as defending them from unreasonable attacks and intrusions by the Pakistani military.

Although it’s hard to figure out what exactly is the best strategy against these jihadi groups, one thing seems clear: literally doing nothing would be far more effective than the kind of ramping up of military violence that is seemingly wanted across the U.S. political spectrum, from Barack Obama to George Bush.

If Americans can just stop seeing Pakistan as merely a battleground in their latest moral crusade, as they have for at least 25 years (and arguably since 1947), if they can just keep their hands off for a while, the Pakistanis have the chance to reclaim their democracy and bring the country back from the brink of the violent chaos that has gripped Iraq and to some extent Afghanistan. That is an eventuality worth far more – not just to them but even to any sane vision of U.S. interests in the region – than a marginal increase in the probability of catching or killing Osama bin Laden.

Posted at 10:22 am.

February 18, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Afghanistan's "War of Necessity"

In the last two days, about 120 people were killed in twin suicide bombings in Afghanistan. Last year, the country saw 140 suicide bombings, a number that, were it not for Iraq, would be utterly unprecedented in world history.

Simultaneously, the New York Times, never at a loss to regurgitate – or to create – conventional wisdom, published an editorial about Afghanistan that would be remarkable for its obtuseness, were that obtuseness not so commonplace.

Hectoring the south and central Europeans for their relative unwillingness to fight, the Times’ main point was that the Iraq war was making success in Afghanistan unlikely or impossible. The money quote: “Nearly everything about President Bush’s botched war of choice in Iraq has made it much harder to win Afghanistan’s war of necessity.”

The sages at the Times made no effort to explain why it is more “necessary” to combat Pashtun irredentism in southern Afghanistan than it was for the past few years to combat Sunni irredentism in western Iraq; apparently the necessity is grandfathered in because “it is a war that began in response to a terrorist attack on the United States” and, somehow, because it is “fully backed by international law, the United Nations and is a solemn legal commitment of NATO.”

I don’t know that the average Afghan villager cares much for the “legal commitments” of NATO or thinks that NATO’s rules are somehow laws for Afghanistan, but then maybe the Times knows much more about these things than the rest of us.

Somehow, the self-righteous fervor that gripped the United States after the 9/11 attack still precludes rational assessment of the occupation of Afghanistan.

Whether or not you opposed the initial attack – along with others, I opposed it for reasons that, unfortunately, have been copiously borne out – there’s no reason you shouldn’t try to understand what’s going on now and what should be done. After all, if we get all of our arguments about withdrawal from Iraq from people who supported the war (who are naturally much more “credible” than the rest of us), why shouldn’t we hear some contradiction of the conventional wisdom on Afghanistan from people who were intoxicated by it in the past?

I’m not saying Afghanistan is the same as Iraq. There are numerous differences – public opinion polls show that the US/NATO presence is not as widely hated as that of the coalition in Iraq, the fact that the vast majority of Afghans get no basic services is not such a big political deal since they didn’t before the war either, the total level of violence has been much lower.

But look at the trends. Over 750 soldiers of the occupying force, almost 500 of them from the United States, have been killed; 2007 was the worst year for casualties. Suicide bombings are at levels that would have been impressive in Iraq at any time until mid-2005. Violent military operations by the occupying forces are probably at a higher level than in Iraq – last year, 3572 bombs were dropped there compared with 1447 in Iraq.

The rules of engagement seem overall to be somewhat different as well. In Iraq, improvements in the treatment of the population came only when they were seen as a key component of military strategy and part of the remedy for the massive failure of the occupiers to control the country; in Afghanistan, things have not gotten to that point, so the impetus to treat the population carefully is significantly less.

From every respectable quarter of liberal opinion, we hear that the occupying presence in Afghanistan must be increased, including more offensive operations in the south. This opinion is not limited just to the blinkered ignorance of the leading presidential candidates and the political class in the United States.

I hear, unfortunately, very little to convince me that this will be anything but a step on the road to Iraqization of Afghanistan. The fact that there hasn’t yet been massive ethnosectarian violence between Pashtun and non-Pashtun and Sunni and Shi’a in Afghanistan doesn’t mean there won’t be if the perception of foreign military victimization of Pashtuns is ramped up any further. You can point to the lessening of violence in Iraq recently, but one of the reasons for the lessening is that the violence reached such extravagant levels that people were willing to go to great lengths to stop it. Do we want to be looking back in five years on a “success” in Afghanistan that involves several hundred thousand (or a million) dead and a short-term drop in the violence to only twice what it is now?

Posted at 10:17 am.

February 11, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Iraq, the Campaign, and the Antiwar Movement

Back in early 2004, I predicted – correctly – that Iraq would be the defining issue of the presidential campaign. It was a message not really heeded by anyone – Howard Dean had risen to prominence over it, but then lost consistency as he became a front-runner, and even Nader and Kucinich never really made use of it as they could have. Kerry, of course, refused to see the light – or even to understand that running against George Bush as a better militarist was a bad idea.

This time around, unfortunately, I think it’s already clear, in this extended campaign season that has given us all a taste of what Purgatory will be like, that this is not the case.

It is true, of course, that revulsion against some varying combination of Bush’s militarism, incompetence, arrogance, and stupidity frames the election and is the reason the Democrats are favored over all. And it’s true that a lot of people are fed up with the bullying stupidity of the right wing and much of the Republican Party. It’s even true that nobody except for a few crazies (who are marginalized to powerless enclaves like the New York Times opinion page, foreign policy advisor to presidential candidates, etc.) actually wants to get into another war.

But there is virtually no traction to be had from an increasingly confused and tuned-out public over Iraq policy.

One case in point was the miserable failure of Dennis Kucinich’s candidacy to attract attention from anyone at all. Kucinich raised less than $4 million, as compared with $11 million last time around, and presumably quit running not just because of the threat to his seat but because he wasn’t accomplishing anything.

Similarly, Bill Richardson, a conservative Democrat and previously an Iraq war hawk, like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, attempted to juice up his lackluster campaign by promoting himself as the only “mainstream” candidate who would pull American troops out on day one of his presidency – or start pulling them out or pull them out within a year or whatever parsing allowed him to stay ahead of his rival candidates without actually saying anything. Looking at the New Hampshire exit polls, I think about 1% of the voters in the Democratic primary shifted their allegiance to Richardson because of this.

The Obama-Clinton matchup is all about “change” vs. “experience” and, to the extent that any support hinges on “policy positions,” it depends on whether you support garnishing workers’ wages to force them to pay corporations for health insurance.

Although some on the left habitually excoriate the media for covering only the “horserace” aspect of a campaign rather than paying attention to actual issues and positions, it’s somewhat understandable. There is utterly no point in trying to parse Obama’s and Clinton’s stated positions on Iraq; not only are they about as clear as a Rorschach test, all they reveal at the end of the day is what position each candidate thinks will help them win.

Interestingly, even though Obama and Clinton are wildly different on foreign policy – she is a big fan of her husband’s interventionism and went around making speeches about the “grave Iraqi threat” before voting for war without even bothering to read the National Intelligence Estimate while he clearly wants to avoid wars in favor of domestic transformation and actually spoke at an antiwar rally – they sound virtually identical on Iraq, a sign that their advisers, at least, agree with my analysis. And they agreed even a few months ago, when polls were still showing Iraq as the number one issue on voters’ minds.

There is at least a smidgen of hope that there will be some change in the general election, where John McCain has staked himself on a messianic vision of staying in the Middle East at least until the Rapture. There are two potential strategies for a moribund antiwar movement right now, understanding that, as in 2004, there is little chance to do very much non-electorally during a campaign season.

The first is to get involved in the Obama campaign (I judge him as much better placed to attack McCain effectively on the war than Clinton), in part to engage with Obama’s enthusiastic converts and turn some of their attention to other things, and the second is to support a Nader campaign, if it emerges, that focuses relentlessly on the war and avoids the personalistic narcissism that helped split the left in 2004.

I’m not excited about either strategy, frankly, but the alternative seems to be another year waiting for Godot.

Posted at 8:20 pm.

February 4, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Lessons from Edwards' Failure

Despite John Edwards’ talk of going all the way to the convention to take the country back from our corporate overlords, in the end it turned out Eli Manning had more fight in him than Edwards.

Though I personally find this unsurprising, given my perception that Edwards was a poseur and an empty suit, he certainly excited many progressives; it’s worth the effort to try to see what lessons we can learn from his failure.

For a long time, it’s been a majority view on the left that if only someone who had the right opportunities – i.e., had lots of money and mainstream respectability and didn’t believe in UFOs -- would stand up in an election season and promote a strong, anti-corporate economic populist message, the entire game would be changed. Part of the underlying belief was that the masses who don’t vote – usually 45+% of the voting-age population – allow servants of the plutocracy like George Bush to get elected because they are closet socialists and don’t want to sully themselves by voting for a mildly redistributionist pro-capitalist politician. And even for those who end up voting, the reasoning would go, very often it’s like playing eeny-meeny-miny-moe because they don’t get anyone who really represents their interests.

Well, John Edwards raised $44 million in 2007, he’s a former vice presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, and he has excellent hair. Nobody mocked him as a leprechaun or a vegan. And his words – all twelve of them, repeated over and over – were anti-corporate enough that Ralph Nader himself, famous for his claims that there’s no difference between the two main parties, called Edwards a Democratic “glimmer of hope” and said that this was, “the only time I've heard a Democrat talk that way in a long time.”

Well, it’s true that, as his wife pointed out, he had the handicap of being from that ultimate historically disadvantaged group, white males. As politically asinine and overall whiny as her comment was, it wasn’t exactly wrong – Edwards couldn’t really make himself interesting to most, especially when compared with Obama. And it’s true that the mainstream media gave him less attention than the other two – and later panned him for his “divisive” rhetoric.

Even so, he had absolutely the best chance in a long time of catching on with a populist message and it just didn’t fly. In fact, the message did considerably worse than it appears from his vote totals. If you look at exit polls from the primaries, you’ll find that in Iowa and South Carolina those who identified themselves as conservative voted for Edwards at twice the rate as those who identified as liberal, while in general Obama and Clinton spread pretty evenly across the categories. In South Carolina, it was clearest, when white men (the most conservative demographic group overall) voted largely for Edwards.

It’s possible that most of them really weren’t paying any attention to what he said. It’s possible that some of them picked up on his obvious homophobia (which differentiates him from Clinton and Obama). Or, perhaps, just the comforting fact that he was a white man with a Southern accent blinded the conservative voters to all else.

This is not a nicely controlled experiment. Edwards raised money from his hedge-fund cronies to run a populist campaign, he repudiated every single legislative stance he had ever taken, and he generally had difficulty projecting credibility with his new tack. On the other hand, Nader, who had all the credibility in the world in 2000, tried to run outside the two-party system, forgoing the massive institutional support that the system gives by design to the two parties.

Still, put it all together and the results suggest very clearly to me that we should give up on the fetishization of “If we could just get the information/message out” and realize that, even on what ought to be the slam-dunk issue of representing 80% of the people’s economic interests against those of the other 20%, the ground must be prepared.

The right wing has done this so well that even an insane message like “Cutting tax rates always increases tax revenues” seems automatically true to a significant chunk of the population, of media opinion-makers, and of politicians – and even with the rest, it doesn’t qualify you as a wingnut. We have yet to do this with even a much more intuitive message like “When corporations control your health care and are paid with fixed premiums, their profits will be higher the less care they actually allow.”

Until we can do that, we can forget about changing the game of electoral politics in this country.

Posted at 9:33 am.
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