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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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March 31, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- The Battle of Basra

It seems as if the fighting in Basra – and in Nasiriyyah and in numerous neighborhoods of Baghdad – is winding down, after claiming over 350 lives. It remains to be seen whether this violence will impact the much-quotes “success of the surge,” the dominant storyline in the U.S. media even though it was outdated even before the latest round of clashes.

The past week should remind us that one of the main elements of the “success of the surge” was actually Moqtada al-Sadr’s decision to order his Jaish al-Mehdi to stand down; no doubt, this was partly out of fear of the U.S. military and its heightened presence in Baghdad, but it was a responsible action nonetheless. Unfortunately, Sadr’s reward for his restraint was to be targeted in an attempt to rout his forces out of some of their strongholds in Basra.

The consensus among media reports seems to be that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is behind the assault, a claim that is questionable at best. Reports have also tended to indicate that the offensive involving 30,000 members of the Iraqi security forces was targeted at all “militias” in Basra, but this is nonsensical to say the least: as an anonymous British military official quoted in the Times by James Glanz says, 16,000 of those members were from the Basra police, “which have long been suspected of being infiltrated by the same militias the assault was intended to root out.”

The fact that the Badr militia is the militia associated with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which is the dominant party in the Iraqi government, still seems difficult for many to internalize, as is the fact that organizations rarely order assaults on themselves.

So this was unquestionably an assault on the Sadr militias alone, and it clearly grows out of the fact, an open secret, that the British presence in Iraq is at this point just for show. The 4000 remaining troops, camped out near Basra airport, have not been withdrawn because Gordon Brown doesn’t want to embarrass the Americans, but Basra itself had been abandoned to a three-way fight between the Badr, Sadr, and Fadila militias, a fight that has much to do with organized crime and control of oil-smuggling revenues.

The other major antecedent to the conflict, as far as I can tell, is a sense of triumphalism in the Bush administration, General Petraeus, and diverse other sectors of the military, combined with an urgency to carry out major operations while troop levels in Iraq are still elevated.

Though the assault is portrayed as a decision by al-Maliki, into which the United States was dragged because of its overt commitment to the Iraqi government, I can’t imagine why. Many seem to have forgotten that Maliki, like Ibrahim Jaafari before him, owes his position to Sadr. The United States backed Adel Abdel Mahdi in both cases, and was forced to come to a compromise when it was clear that it could not strongarm enough Parliament members to get its way.

Of course, gratitude in a civil war is generally short-lived, but it’s hard to see why Maliki, a member of the Dawa Party, would feel that he has a dog in this fight.

On the other hand, the United States military has in the past few months upped the intensity in its attempt to clear Mosul of al-Qaeda in Iraq and presumably other insurgent groups, and, despite the talk about counterinsurgency and how it usually takes a decade, seems to think it can clear much of Iraq of its enemies very quickly. Furthermore, there has been a clear change in the U.S. willingness to coerce the Iraqi government; indeed, after their new alliance with Sunni insurgents and Saddam-era Ba’athist tortures (like Colonel Faisal Ismail al-Zobaie, the current police chief of Fallujah), many Americans are actively hostile toward the government.

The untold story of the surge is the evolution of the Americans into a major player in the internal politics of Iraq. Early on, they had a huge impact on daily life, but largely remained above the fray; now, they’re right in the middle, making deals, creating some alliances, destroying others, deciding which groups to strengthen and which to weaken. This is an essential part of counterinsurgency and is a feature, not a bug, of the new strategy. Unfortunately for Iraqis, it means not only more distortion of their politics, but more of a reason for the major Iraqi players not to reach a modus vivendi that could lead to a stable peace.

Posted at 10:29 am

March 24, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Chickens Coming Home to Roost?

Despite the gusher of coverage regarding various sermons by Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s pastor, little serious attention has been given to Wright’s actual claims. Defenders of Obama find them uncomfortable and want them to go away, and opponents dismiss them as bigotry, crackpottery, and America-hating.

Some of them indeed are crackpottery. The idea that AIDS was developed by whites as an instrument of genocide against blacks is idiotic. While African-Americans retain a healthy skepticism against the government, in an unfortunately large portion this skepticism has crossed the line into paranoia.

The part of Wright’s sermon that got the most attention, however, is undoubtedly where he mentions Hiroshima and Nagasaki and various other crimes of the United States and says that the 9/11 attacks were simply “chickens coming home to roost,” and calls for God to damn America.

Now, I don’t think it’s a good idea to call for God to damn anyone or anything, so let’s leave that part aside. For the rest, though, this remains the issue of all issues on which it is impossible to have a rational discussion in this country.

But let’s attempt one anyway.

Let us act for a moment as if the United States belongs to the universe and is a subject of the same sorts of causal processes that apply to the rest of said universe.

Well, then, I don’t think there is any serious causal link between the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing or numerous other atrocities committed by the United States and the 9/11 attacks. It is true that, at least early on, al-Qaeda recruiting videos mentioned Hiroshima and Nagasaki among their list of U.S. crimes, but this is not a serious part of anyone’s motivations.

On the other hand, it is undoubtedly true that U.S. support for the Israeli occupation has created tremendous resentment and hostility against the United States; among Arabs, the occupation itself has led countless people to join armed resistance organizations, commit or support acts of terrorism, etc. Starting in the 1980’s but really accelerating in the 1990’s, especially with the manifest iniquities of the Oslo process, many Arabs started translating the hostility toward Israel to hostility toward the United States. As you can see from Marc Lynch’s excellent book, Voices of the New Arab Public, by the late 1990’s the sanctions on Iraq were another source of said hostility. Bin Laden was one of the earliest leaders to try to use that to recruit people for war on the United States.

Most important, the United States’ heartless and cynical manipulations in Afghanistan , in which 1.5 million Afghans died as a casual byblow of an attempt to “kill Russians” and bleed the Soviet Union for free, of course lead to 9/11. That anyone can think otherwise about an enterprise that caused the creation of al-Qaeda (which originated as a database set up to organize information about the huge stream of Islamic extremists sent with the aid of the Saudi government to fight in Afghanistan) is just ridiculous.

Now, people’s revulsion toward this analysis is not based on factual claims, but rather on the emotive content of the words. Call it “blowback” and nobody with any sense will disagree or be offended; call it “chickens coming home to roost,” which means exactly the same thing, and everyone will be up in arms.

The real thing that bothers people about these arguments is a perception that someone is claiming that the horror of 9/11 was deserved. Lincoln could say in his Second Inaugural that the far greater horrors of the Civil War were deserved because of the sin of “the bondman’s 250 years of unrequited toil” and people bought copies of the speech by the million and passed them around.

Although that is the greatest speech given by any American president, such views don’t really make sense absent some sort of religious framework; no one who is not religious could argue that those 3000 people should have died for the nation’s sins.

The real point of the moral part of this argument should be simply to make people understand that 9/11 was not some transcendent evil to which normal rules of analysis and logic or normal rules of reasonable response don’t apply; after all, we have done worse to others, often without their doing anything in response because it wouldn’t have been rational for them to do so. This ought to imply in turn that there are various things we shouldn’t do in response because they wouldn’t be rational (before one even gets to moral arguments).

It’s a real shame that the country still isn’t ready to understand these elementary points; if it did, perhaps there would be more attention paid to the steadily worsening situation in Afghanistan.

Update: After a member of the United Church of Christ wrote to me, I realized that the way this article is written gives a misimpression about what I'm saying. To begin with, the article's not really about Wright. Although his remarks are the "hook," what was mostly in my mind was the mainstream criticism of various remarks and imagined remarks by secular leftists after 9/11. In particular, the analysis of the "chickens coming home to roost" claim is not meant to suggest anything about what Wright was actually thinking when he said it, simply to analyze the claim in general.

Furthermore, at the end when I say only a religious person could conceivably claim that the 3000 dead (actually slightly less) of 9/11 were appropriate sacrifices, I had long forgotten Wright. If you read the transcript of his post-9/11 speech (which, by the way, does not include the "God Damn America" part -- that's a more recent speech), you can see that he does not make this claim directly or indirectly. In using the word "religious," I was thinking of Lincoln, who does make the claim explicitly -- and you can, of course, add in people like Jerry Falwell and many tinpot pastors further to the right than him, who again made the claim, not regarding U.S. crimes abroad but because of "sins" like tolerating homosexuals.

This is not to defend Wright, since I think some of the things he said are not defensible, but just to correct any misimpression about his statements I may have made. Of course, comparing him, as some moderates like to do, with people like John Hagee is ridiculous. I don't suppose Wright would ever say that it is the Jews' disobedience to God that caused the pogroms, the oppression, the Holocaust, etc., which is standard fare for Hagee's ilk.

I do urge people who are interested to actually read the transcript I linked to; you will certainly find that, along with an occasional statement that is objectionable or whose tone is questionable, analysis similar to that made by many secular left intellectuals after 9/11 and an admirable call for restraint and peace, and for self-examination before worrying about the beam in your brother's eye.Posted at 3:23 pm.

March 17, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Nothing Ever Happens in Macondo

A lot can happen in five years. Children who were in 7th or 8th grade during the invasion of Iraq are now deciding whether or not to enlist and be sent to Iraq to kill or die.

Iraq itself has been changed beyond recognition, irrevocably altered. Depending on which study you believe, 400,000 to 1.3 million have died of violence, perhaps 25% of them at the hands of American soldiers. Over 4 million have lost their homes, half of them now refugees in foreign lands. The middle class is eviscerated and, given the collapse of the educational system, is not likely to recover in a generation even if peace is restored. So quickly have events accelerated that there are now stories that a new generation, having seen the results of the nation’s descent into religious insanity, is growing up with an attitude of cynical contempt for clerics and anyone who invokes Islam to tell them what to do.

And yet here in Macondo, nothing has happened and nothing will ever happen.

According to the Pew Center’s latest “News IQ” poll, only 28% of those surveyed could tell within a thousand how many American soldiers had died in Iraq – the one thing about the Iraq war that a (slim) majority of the American public used to have a handle on. Unsurprisingly, this decline in the most basic of knowledge tracks a virtual cessation of news coverage in Iraq; from an average of 20% of the news in the first half of 2007 and 15% over last summer, it is now 3% -- and likely to stay that way at least until after the election.

Iraq is already receding into the hazy glow of memory, like Vietnam, Korea, the War of 1812. And, even though this is a remarkably screwed-up attitude toward a war that is still raging, with levels of violence still roughly half what they were at the nadir of 2006, this wouldn’t even bother me that much, if only …

If only we had learned something from the war. Not about the difference between Sunni and Shi’a, not about the volatility and susceptibility to fanaticism of the Middle East, but about a heart of darkness closer to home.

It is true, of course, that some people have learned some things. Peter Beinart, who got a $600,000 book contract on the basis of an article claiming that the Democrats had lost the 2004 election because they were too pacifistic – after the most militaristic campaign by a Democrat in recent memory – ended up writing a mealymouthed book that opposed the Iraq war and suggested that America lead by moral example, like Truman did (Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the brutal counterinsurgency in Greece, the Korean War). Insane triumphalist hawks have become moderate cautious hawks.

But if you want to understand just how little we have learned overall – not individuals, but the people who craft the narratives that end up dragging all of us into them – check out the New York Times’ Sunday March 16 retrospective on the Iraq invasion. It reads like a self-parody – L. Paul Bremer, Richard Perle; Danielle Pletka and Frederick Kagan, neoconservatives with the American Enterprise Institute; Kenneth Pollack, whose book “The Threatening Storm” was mailed by the State Department to liberal intellectuals and opinion-makers all over the country to convince them of the case for war; two retired generals, a Marine lieutenant, Anthony Cordesman, long-time hawkish military consultant for network TV turned national-security-based critic of the war, and the centrist dean of the Woodrow Wilson school at Princeton.

Not only do Iraqis not exist for the New York Times, neither do real critics of the war and America’s role in the world.

But if you want to learn powerful lessons like good intentions are not enough or Arabs are too crazy for democracy, that’s the place for you.

The Vietnam War caused a moral crisis for a large number of Americans; the Iraq War has created a moral smugness that the rest of us are not George Bush and Dick Cheney. The Vietnam War created a revulsion against the status quo of U.S. foreign policy and even, for some, against the internal operation of U.S. society; the Iraq War has created a fervent appreciation of the status quo, symbolized in the newfound appreciation for Bush the Elder, one of the most immoral and cynical presidents we’ve ever had. The Vietnam War delegitimized the military as an institution and drew massive criticism of the military-industrial complex; the Iraq War has led to an almost unprecedented valorization of the military and no attention to the military-industrial complex even as the military budget has metastasized.

It’s not that we’ve learned nothing; I predict that for some years to come there will be no new military adventurism, unless you count the American escalation in Afghanistan and its spillover to Pakistan. But what an opportunity we’ve blown – as a nation – to have Iraq be, like the Winter Soldiers wanted Vietnam to be, the place where America turned.

Posted at 10:32 am.

March 10, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- What the Left Should Demand from Nader

Last week, I mentioned that I’m not exactly excited about the return of Ralph Nader and suggested that this time around he would have to recognize that, just like the Democratic candidate, he will have to earn the votes of the left.

I don’t know that there’s anything he could do at this point to win my support, but there are some minimum requirements.

I should start by saying that I think it’s fatuous to say that you should just vote for the candidate whose views most closely reflect your own. If so, you could just write in yourself or your dog. If you admit that the candidate should be on the ballot, you have already allowed the intrusion of crass concerns about political efficacy.

Many on the left went further and voted for Nader in 2000 rather than for David McReynolds even though they knew Nader wasn’t exactly a leftist.

They were right to do so; Nader’s campaign was building the Green Party at a tremendous rate, his super-rallies were bringing in thousands of disaffected people at every stop he made, and he was garnering serious attention by virtue of his 30 years’ worth of political capital. There was a prospect of building a much wider organizational base for the left and of getting federal funding for the Green Party.

Things are very different now. Nader is not running as a Green and he will be doing well to have hundreds come to his rallies.

More important for the left, between 2000 and now there was the 2004 campaign, which saw the most serious infighting on the left since the Vietnam era. Greens split, the Party completely lost its organizational momentum and became a shell of its former self, and the left as a whole was ripped apart.

Nader is as responsible as anyone for this. He decided that he couldn’t be beholden to the Green Party and couldn’t subject himself to democratic accountability – even though he would have won the nomination in a walk. Instead, he decided not to run for the nomination, but instead maneuver the Greens into not nominating anyone and then endorsing him as an independent. This strategy, combined with the generally autocratic nature of his organization even in 2000, which routinely refused to share decision-making and resources with the grassroots activists who organized his super-rallies, led some Greens to resist his coronation.

This is true no matter what you think of David Cobb and the Greens who supported him. I have no interest in descending into the ugliness of 2004 to figure out in detail how to apportion blame; I’m just saying there is plenty for Nader to share.

I even understand why Nader didn’t want to be subject to Green Party discipline; in many areas, the Greens were pretty dysfunctional. Nevertheless, his actions helped destroy the Greens without putting anything else in their place and he is responsible for his actions.

So if you’re a leftist the first thing you should demand from Nader in return for supporting him is an admission of responsibility and even an apology – or at the least, some overt sign that he feels accountable to you. Don’t hold your breath waiting for it, though.

The second thing you should demand is some recognition of the challenges that confront him and that he has a plan to accomplish something by running. His pathetic insistence on invoking his civil rights when asked about questions like this instills no confidence that he is politically savvy enough to be worth supporting.

What will he try to do to detoxify his image so that he doesn’t actually taint issues like Iraq withdrawal or the siege of Gaza by association? Is he going to put any issues, but especially Iraq, in a way that helps galvanize public opinion to break the current logjam? What’s he going to build; we know it’s not the Green Party, whose nomination he isn’t seeking? What does he plan to do about his pathetic fundraising last time? Why should we think that this isn’t just the campaign of a cantankerous old man who bears a grudge against the Democrats for their constant scurrilous attempts in 2004 to keep him off various state ballots – he even gave this as a primary reason for running when he talked to Tim Russert.

These aren’t illegitimate questions that show your subservience to the two-party system, although Nader will undoubtedly tell you they are if you get to ask them; they’re just a pretty mild version of the questions any presidential candidate should have to answer.

Posted at 10:26 am

March 3, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Return of the Nader

The military budget has become bloated beyond belief – over $700 billion annually – and the only thing mainstream presidential candidates will say is that they want to increase the size of the army, which would, presumably, increase it yet further. Southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan are going the way of Iraq, but the only solution on offer is to do more of the things that failed so spectacularly in Iraq – i.e., sending more troops to conduct search-and-destroy missions. Gaza is being crushed and, other than a few U.N. officials, no one is making a peep about it.

You’d think, with all of this (and more), I would be ecstatic to see Ralph Nader, who directly addressed points 1 and 3 on Meet the Press last week and is probably down with 2 (though you couldn’t tell it from his phenomenally exiguous website) throw his hat into the ring one more time.

That is not, to put it mildly, exactly the emotion I felt at the time.

I will give him credit for one thing: picking Matt Gonzalez, the most dynamic and successful Green politician in the country, as his running mate. Gonzalez is young, personable, and in touch, and, as far as I could tell from an evening of hanging out with him a number of years ago, not afflicted with a terminal sense of his own rectitude – in other words, as personally different from Nader as possible. It was exciting to see him almost win the mayorship of San Francisco in 2004, with 47% of the vote (of course, in the Bay Area, it is the Republicans who are the potential spoiler party).

But that’s almost the only thing that’s good that I can think of to say. The most obvious first reaction at this point, of course, is who cares? Nobody is listening to Nader any more and nobody is voting for him. In 2004, Nader got 465,000 votes -- .38% of the total. The Libertarian Michael Badnarik, who nobody had ever heard of or will ever hear of again, got .32 %. It is odd, indeed, to see Nader justify his candidacy, as he effectively did on Meet the Press, by suggesting that he will get so few votes that he couldn’t possibly spoil the Democrats’ chances.

Nader is right in that, but he is wrong to be so sanguine about the Democrats’ chance for a landslide. First, there are no more landslides in presidential elections. When Bush won in 2004, it was the first time the winner got over 50% of the popular vote since 1988. Second, if, as seems likely, Barack Obama is the candidate, the nasty innuendo and racial smears we’ve seen from the Clinton campaign will seem like a children’s game compared to what the Republicans do. Anything can happen and Obama and his supporters will have to fight tooth and nail for the victory.

One possible second reaction is, well, he’s unlikely to spoil, so it will be good to have someone bringing up these difficult issues and maybe even helping Obama to look more centrist. I wish I believed that. In truth, I think that, given the way Nader is perceived in the country now, his association with those issues will work negatively.

At long last, serious critiques of U.S. foreign policy and its role in the Middle East are on the table for members of the mainstream – liberals, moderates, old-style conservatives, realists, pretty much everyone but the neoconservatives. And even on the issues I started with there is more space within the mainstream for critique than ever before.

For various reasons, none of the possibilities inherent in these critiques has come to fruition. And, frankly, the antiwar left has neither done very much to extend and develop these critiques or to position itself to affect the underlying issues. Nader will just help these views to look more marginal than they really are, in addition to making them take on the burden of the liberals’ vituperative hatred for him.

None of this is said to suggest Nader shouldn’t run. He has obtusely staked his justification for running on his basic civil and political rights and on those grounds no one should deny him – especially Democrats worried about him getting ballot access and media gatekeepers worried about heretical views being expressed in debates.

But, just as Nader points out that nobody – Barack Obama, John Kerry, Al Gore – should feel automatically entitled to someone’s vote, Nader needs to realize that this applies to him as well. More on that later.

Posted at 10:25 am.
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