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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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July 28, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- The John McCain Clown Show

Welcome to the desert of the political. In the vast Saharan stretch devoid of inspiration, interest, or, indeed, any signs of life but the gag reflex that has been this summer’s presidential campaign there has been only one bright spot: the comedic stylings of the John McCain clown show.

It’s hard to know where to begin. Just keeping up with McCain’s sophisticated, multifaceted push for the brain-dead voter has become a full-time job.

You could look to last week, which juxtaposed Barack Obama’s stirring if empty “Ich bin ein World Citizener” speech to 200,000 in Berlin’s Tiergarten, where he beautifully sugarcoated a call for Europeans to send more troops to kill and die in Afghanistan and got them to love him for it with John McCain’s failed photo-op in the utterly dramatic venue of a grocery store, where he was upstaged by a guy dropping pickle jars all over the floor and where the “random shopper” he talked to was actually supplied by the local Republican Party. Deviousness in the service of incompetence: that is the face of the new Republican Party.

Or perhaps we should consider the jaw-dropping stupidity and dishonesty of McCain’s last two campaign ads. In the first, he actually says Barack Obama is the reason for high gas prices. Perhaps it was Obama who also caused the decline of the witty, light-hearted romantic comedy.

If you thought he couldn’t top that, Jake Tapper of ABC’s description of his second ad says it all: “New McCain Ad Bashes Obama for Not Visiting Troops Using Footage of Obama Visiting Troops.” In McCain’s voiceover, he says that Obama "made time to go to the gym, but cancelled a visit with wounded troops.”

When Obama’s campaign staff was advised of the Pentagon’s concerns with his planned visit to Landstuhl, they figured they were in a Catch-22: do the visit and have the right wing go nuts claiming that Obama was politicizing the troops or not do it and have them claim that Obama was a troop-hating secret Muslim. Clearly, they made the wrong choice strategically – better to be criticized for visiting wounded soldiers than for not – but there is not one iota of evidence that Obama departs from the reigning ethos of troop idolatry.

We could talk about McCain’s novel geographical insight into the need to police the Iraq-Pakistan border – I give him a pass on the numerous Czechoslovakia references since the entire right wing seems unclear on the end of the Cold War – or his insistence on TV that, in fact, we were “greeted as liberators” in Iraq. Back in 2003, there were, of course, numerous instances where American soldiers were greeted with flowers and cheers, but that is what defenseless people always do with occupying armies of uncertain intent.

And, by far the most important thing: after years of saying that anyone who spoke of timetables for withdrawal was a traitor who wanted America to “surrender” to “the enemy” – including Mitt Romney, who didn’t even say anything – John McCain has suddenly flip-flopped on his only signature issue (excepting, of course, impaired oxygen flow to the brain, of which he is the primary champion in the American political realm) to start saying that Maliki’s timetable is fine, even though it is the same as Obama’s timetable.

John McCain has actually sunk below George Bush in intellectual content and rhetorical style, something that I hadn’t realized was possible. But life is a learning experience.

The left is making the mistake of concentrating its fire on Barack Obama during this election. It is good to criticize him and go on doing so, although most of that criticism is so disengaged that it can have no real effect, but let us not ignore John McCain. Despite his manifest absurdity, this crazy man still has a chance of winning the presidency; after all, Obama, whether or not he is a secret Muslim, is an out-of-the-closet black and a practicing Homo sapiens, both generally liabilities in American politics.

Most important, the media, John McCain’s base, has somehow contrived to ignore everything he has done and said, perpetuating the myth that he is a knowledgeable straight-talker; the public as well still credits McCain with more foreign policy knowledge than Obama and trusts him more on Iraq even though it disagrees with his stance (or one of his stances) on it. There is more to this phenomenon than McCain’s habit of supplying the press with Dunkin’ Donuts; there is obvious racial politics behind this and identifying such things used to be part of the business of the left.

Posted at 9:54 am.

July 14, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Declaration of Iraqi Independence

The last few weeks have seen a momentous development in Iraq.

According to the Washington Post, the Bush administration’s ham-handed attempt at securing legal authorization for a long-term occupation of Iraq through negotiating a “status of forces agreement” with the Iraqi government has collapsed and the best that they hope for now is a “bridge agreement” that passes the buck to Bush’s successor. And it has collapsed in the end because of resistance by the Iraqi government.

The story is an interesting one. First, SOFA negotiations started to create something Iraq has not seen since its shambolic attempt at creating multi-party democracy started – the incipient creation of a nonsectarian opposition united around Iraqi nationalism. For once, the split was not Sunni vs. Shi’a or Arab vs. Kurd but rather parties and lawmakers of all groups who perceived themselves to be on the “outside” of the government vs. those on the “inside.”

Then, debate in the Iraqi National Assembly was hot enough that Nouri al-Maliki had to agree to submit any draft agreement to full discussion and vote by the parliament -- something George Bush, confronted with a remarkably supine Democrat-controlled Congress holding its breath until January 20, was not ready to permit over here in the birthplace of democracy. This agreement, coupled with Ayatollah Sistani’s obvious disgust with the Shi’a parties now controlling the government (that is how I interpret his dictum, later agreed on by the electoral commission, that his picture not be used in upcoming elections), has created a major concern among those parties about their showing in upcoming provincial elections – especially since the Sadrists, who are not planning to contest those elections as a party but will as individuals, can quite convincingly lay claim to the banner of nationalism.

In the end, Nouri al-Maliki said that no agreement would be ratified if it did not include a timetable for withdrawal. The Bush administration tried to suggest to him to change his tune, hinting that perhaps his words had been mistranscribed or mistranslated, but he held firm and the SOFA was dead.

The ridiculous overreach involved in actually wanting Iraqi lawmakers to meekly ratify the sort of brazen extraterritoriality agreements that one usually associates with China’s domination by Western powers in the late 19th century, certainly helped – in fact, in the ongoing negotiations, the administration was forced to scale back or abandon those demands, especially with regard to private contractors – but, I guess, was not the primary consideration.

Nationalism, particularly the nationalism of the oppressed, often latches on to symbolism over substance. In 1905, the British partition of Bengal – unlike later partitions, a purely administrative move that hardly affected the lives of Indians – ignited the first mass political protests of the freedom movement. The crushing taxes levied by the British, the policies that created mass starvation by famine in the late 19th century, did not have the same galvanizing effect.

One of the biggest mistakes the United States made, in May 2003, was to call what they were doing an occupation. The word, ihtilal, is not only the word used for the Israeli occupation, but also quite clearly indicates national subordination. This time, though that word was not used, it’s been on everyone’s mind for five years; everyone from local imams to Hashemi Rafsanjani of Iran has been warning that the agreement means “eternal servitude.”

The last time Iraq saw a political revolt of this magnitude was in April 2004, during the first assault on Fallujah, before there even was a parliament. All that has intervened since, including the brutal second assault on Fallujah, the severe U.S. mistakes that led to the ignition of sectarian civil war, Haditha, Mahmoudiyah, Nisour Square, couldn’t quite serve as foci for legislative resistance in the way that this particular form of words being pushed by the Bush administration did – though there is certainly no doubt that the improving condition of Iraq is what has given al-Maliki and the government the confidence for such acts.

This is not the first time the Iraqi parliament has refused to give the Bush administration the legislation it wants. Its defeat of the U.S. push for an oil law that granted unnecessary favors to foreign oil companies last fall was fairly important as well. The difference is that this one is foundational, striking at the occupation itself, which is the precondition for enforcing any other agreements.

The emergence of this kind of democratic resistance to U.S. demands in favor of the Iraqi national interest bodes well for that benighted country and for us; how the United States reacts to it is of paramount importance.

Posted at 10:47 am.

Note: Today is the 50th anniversary of the uprising that brought Abdel Karim Qassem to power and involved a similar Iraqi declaration of independence from Anglo-American domination (at that time, it was the British who had the permanent bases). And, of course, it's Bastille Day.

July 7, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Nobody Wants to Fight a Three-Front War

In what has become one of the perpetual rites of late spring and early summer, everyone is once again talking about an attack on Iran. The buzz is greater now than it was several months ago, when William Fallon’s dismissal as head of Centcom was misinterpreted by many as a sign of impending war and greater even than in January, when a bizarre naval non-incident took place in the Straits of Hormuz – greater, in fact, than it has been at any time since about this time last year, and the year before, and even the year before that.

Much of the talk centers around Israel. About a month ago, Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz’s remarks about the inevitability of military strikes all by themselves made the price of oil jump by about $6 a barrel. A few days later, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, after meeting with President Bush, made some cryptic remarks about an “agreement on the need to take care of the Iranian threat” that were interpreted by many as a sign of impending war.

Just as the pot was reaching a boil late last month, along came the inevitable Seymour Hersh article, now well established as an indispensable element of the yearly Kabuki ritual.

Hersh has unfortunately lost a good deal of credibility on this topic due to a distressing tendency to allow himself to be used as a mouthpiece for various alarmist dissidents in the military and intelligence complex; at this point, I generally want to see corroboration when he says something.

This time, I do believe the basic thrust of his claims, which are twofold. One is that U.S. Special Operations Forces conduct periodic “snatch-and-grab” missions within Iran against “high-value targets” and the other is that the United States is backing a variety of terrorist groups, from the ex-Marxist Mujahidin-i-Khalq to the Kurdish separatist Pejak to the Salafist Jundullah, to carry out attacks within Iran.

Sporadic “HVT” attacks within Iran are much more plausible a role for American forces than ongoing operations regarding potential nuclear sites, and under the table sponsorship of covert action by a rogues’ gallery of indigenous groups are pretty normal U.S. courses of action, no matter how stupid they are.

Spokespeople for the Iranian government seem to have backed up some of the claims, and Hersh cites coverage from Iranian newspapers in corroboration. Perhaps most interesting, David Ignatius of the Washington Post also wrote recently about these covert operations, although he describes them, very plausibly, as feckless and half-hearted.

All in all, it seems very likely that the United States is engaged in operations that, were they being done by any other country, would be considered an act of war.

Nevertheless, I don’t believe that these pinprick actions constitute a “preparation of the battlefield,” in Hersh’s terms. I have written many times before about various general considerations militating against war – the impossibility of regime change, the fact that a limited bombing raid would have only negative results.

But consider two other factors. The price of oil recently reached $145 a barrel. If there is war with Iran, it’s quite likely that the price will skyrocket. In any such war, the Fifth Fleet will have to secure the Straits of Hormuz in order to keep oil from Iraq and Kuwait flowing, a tactic that will make the United States extraordinarily vulnerable to very high-casualty attacks from Iran; note how close Hizbullah came to sinking an Israeli destroyer in the 2006 war.

Secondly, the United States is fighting a two-front war. In the past year, it has somehow managed to get a very tenuous handle on one of those fronts, Iraq, but the Afghanistan front is blowing wide open. At the same time, there is a great deal of thought to making Pakistan Front number two and a half. It’s a basic military principle that when you are losing or potentially losing on two fronts, you don’t open a third. This is why, despite the absolute conviction of most of the military that Iran is attacking them through proxies in Iraq, they still fervently oppose an open war with Iran.

If it’s a matter of an Israeli attack, the favored mode of the various war speculators these days, do keep in mind that such an attack is impossible without U.S. agreement; if the United States were to agree to such an attack, undoubtedly it would use its own far vaster capacity to give the mission at least some chance of success.

I worry about many things, especially Pakistan right now; Iran is still not one of them.

Posted at 10:41 am

July 4, 2008

The Good Die Young

Jesse Helms, dead at 86.

He joins John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in dying on July 4. He had other things in common with Jefferson.
Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and BeyondBush, Iraq, and Demonstration Elections Notes on Bush RNC Speech"Report from Baghdad -- Hospital Closings and U.S. War Crimes "Report from Baghdad -- Winning Hearts and Minds"Report from Fallujah -- Destroying a Town in Order to "Save" it"Report from Baghdad -- Opening the Gates of Hell"War on Terrorism" Makes Us All Less Safe Bush -- Is the Tide Turning?Perle and FrumIntelligence Failure Kerry vs. Dean SOU 2004: Myth and Reality