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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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June 18, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- A Unique Opportunity

About a month ago, I wrote about the dramatically changed political situation with regard to the Iraq war, with the first actual political opposition to Bush’s policies (the Democrats’ fight over the supplemental). While concluding that the situation was very hopeful for opposition to the war, I thought it looked rather bleak for the antiwar movement, and I couldn’t come up with any suggested action.

The Democrats’ capitulation and the public scorn it occasioned have, however, clarified the matter. The antiwar movement is facing its greatest potential opportunity since before the war, one that has a good chance of being squandered.

Like the proverbial stopped clock, a recent ANSWER manifesto actually had the right answer: a march in Washington DC is the for once the right thing to do. And yes, it should have a million people.

Now, an organization as wrong as ANSWER can at best be half right; after all, its “Million Worker March” of 2004 might more aptly have been called the “Thousand Worker March.”

I am not a believer in the magical efficacy of protest marches – especially those of recent years, which involve a two-hour stroll through the streets and a quick return home. The February 15, 2003, march was important. The marches since then have had minuscule effect (including even the RNC protest), especially the last two.

The reason is simple – nothing works by magic. Any action you take has to be turning some levers that are connected to something, hopefully something societally important; ideally, you should have a theory of the levers being turned.

One time when a demonstration can be important is when left activists bring public attention to an obscure issue. On an issue like Iraq, which has achieved information supersaturation and which involves powerful social institutions, protests require certain specialized circumstances to be effective. In the Vietnam era, the protests were seen as a serious threat to public order; troop levels in Vietnam were capped in part because of a feeling they would be needed at home.

That kind of dynamic is out of the question in the current situation. Instead, we have to accept that the antiwar left is not big enough to force national attention, let alone approbation, with a demonstration. If the New York Times wants to call “global public opinion” the “second superpower,” they will; if they want to bury us on page B34, they’ll do that. And then the march will be as if it never happened. Attention and a favorable orientation from opinion leaders makes or breaks the demonstration.

This is where the Democrats’ recent capitulation has changed the picture. Over the past few years, the story of the Iraq war, and the critique of it, has been crafted by establishment liberal intellectuals and political figures. These figures have in turn become the focus of people’s hopes for action to end the war; in fact, over time people steadily oriented more toward them and less toward either the movement or action on their own.

The hopes placed in the Democrats have been violated. Polls regarding approval of Congress were inching upward into the 40’s in April and May, but now are down in the mid-20’s. Liberal bloggers, Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, and a host of liberal bien pensants are articulating that public anger quite effectively.

UFPJ can’t bring out a million people by itself. What needs to happen is a protest that is planned by UFPJ but publicized by Daily Kos, Atrios, MoveOn, maybe even Comedy Central, and that Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd of the New York Times are actually excited about. In the past, even very liberal big bloggers like Atrios have not publicized antiwar demonstrations; I think that could change this time.

Of course, in order to make this happen, UFPJ will need to ignore ANSWER and its planned march and simply call for its own.

It has to be in Washington. And those million people should be ready to hang out in the streets, at least for a full day, and to hang out in Democrats’ offices as well. And no speeches in solidarity with the Filipino New People’s Army. Also no major compromises – working with liberals doesn’t have to mean capitulating to them.

UFPJ’s next national conference is coming up this weekend in Chicago. Unfortunately, the current plan seems to be for six to eight “regional” demonstrations, a reasonable idea in light of the complete ineffectuality of the movement six months ago, but not compatible with seizing this opportunity. The window won’t remain open forever.

Posted at 10:40 am

June 11, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- The Korea Analogy and What It Means

A couple of weeks ago, the White House suddenly suggested that their model for our involvement in Iraq, one we would transition to very quickly, was South Korea, where we have had 30,000 or more troops, in a non-combat role, for over 50 years.

This bizarre volte-face came on the heels of hints in the press, usually from anonymous officials, that the administration was planning a major draw-down of troops within about a year or, let’s say, 17 months.

Those of us used to sudden random effusions from the administration – remember the mission to Mars? – could be pardoned for not taking this seriously for a while. By now, though, it has been repeated numerous times by different officials and backed up by some independent reporting, most notably a piece by the Washington Post’s Tom Ricks, who can be counted on to present to us the military’s view of the world.

There is sufficient reason to believe that the administration does indeed intend a significant change in the presence in Iraq, although they obviously didn’t think through a few of the basic facts about the Korea analogy.

Unfortunately, media coverage has, as usual, generated more heat than light on the subject. So here is my own take on what is going on:

The first question to ask is, “So what?” Not a year has gone by in which we did not see, usually in the summer, strong hints of the administration’s intentions to draw down troops. These were always of the form, “If the things we want to happen, which have no chance in hell of happening given what we’re doing, happen, then we will draw down to a lower level.” For the last three years, its’ been clear that this was nonsense and that everyone in charge – civilian and military – was out of touch with reality.

This time, I believe it’s serious. No conditions seem to be attached and the new guys – Robert Gates and David Petraeus – don’t seem to be as happy with happy talk as the people before. Even the president has admitted things aren’t going well.

It’s also odd, after the major political battle over the “surge” and the much more intensified counterinsurgency operations that have followed, and even before the “surge” has crested, that they would suddenly shift gears like this – especially given that a counterinsurgency strategy like the one they’ve adopted would have taken years to work, even if it had a chance (it didn’t).

My guess is that the Bush administration is privately admitting failure. They don’t think they can win and they’re pulling back roughly to the contours of the Baker-Hamilton plan, a plan practically designed for failure.

A sign of this is that they have dropped the other shoe we’ve been waiting for so long. On April 17, 2003, the New York Times reported plans to establish four military bases in Iraq that would be held for a long time. Ever since, the Bush administration has denied that it has any such plans while building on a massive scale and simultaneously refusing all calls, including those of the Iraq Study Group, to declare that it has no intention to establish said bases. Admitting now that they are – and have always been -- part of the plan is a move made in extremis.

The other reason to take it seriously is the lesson of the 2006 election, something the Republicans have clearly taken to heart. The planned timing of the planned draw-down is almost laughable – mid-2008 to early 2009.

The most important thing is not the bases themselves, but the reason for them. It is actually not standard U.S. policy to keep bases in a country that doesn’t allow them and doesn’t ratify a “status of forces” agreement – Guantanamo being the exception. Obviously, you can’t keep troops on maneuvers in 130 or 140 countries against their will, even if you are a superpower.

The reason in this case is very simple. The Bush administration seems to have figured out it can’t win, and it can’t keep this level of troops in Iraq for very much longer. But if it withdraws now, it will have lost all influence in Iraq. In fact, had the counterinsurgency strategy stabilized Iraq, it would simply have freed the Shi’a-dominated government to oppose U.S. desires and align with Iran. The 30,000 or 50,000 troops on permanent bases are simply the only way that the United States can retain any influence in Iraq and minimize if not eliminate the damage to its imperial position in the region.

Posted at 10:45 am
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