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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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November 27, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Iraq: Change in the Air

There is a whiff of change in the air regarding Iraq. Ever since the elections, talking heads have been pontificating about changes of course, arguing about whether we should go big or go long, talking about the Iraq Study Group, and regaling us with expert pronouncements that the “next four to six months” will be crucial, just as were the previous four to six months, the four to six before that, and so on. But in the last week, things seem to be coming to a head.

In part, that is because the situation in Iraq has, amazingly, deteriorated even further. Not only are private individuals, mosques, and other associations vulnerable to armed attack, now, it appears, even government ministries are. Earlier, Shiite militia members attacked the Ministry of Higher Education, taking a variously estimated 50 to 150 people hostage; last week, Sunni guerillas counterattacked by laying siege to the Sadrist Ministry of Health for hours.

On Thursday, multiple suicide bombings in the crowded markets of Sadr City took the lives of over 200 people, injuring over 250, in the largest single episode of mass carnage since the end of “major combat operations” three years ago. In retaliation, Shiite militias took the already horrific array of violence to a baroque new extreme, attacking numerous mosques and taking at least six Sunni worshipers, drenching them in kerosene, and setting them on fire as nominal members of the nominal Iraqi Army looked on.

The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq reports, based on statistics from the Baghdad morgue and the Iraqi Ministry of Health, that over 3700 civilians were killed in October, their highest tally yet, though it is surely a substantial underestimate.

Less noticed, but just as relevant, a recent survey of Iraqi attitudes by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found 74% of Shi’a Arabs and 91% of Sunni Arabs in favor of quick withdrawal by American troops; 82 and 97% respectively believe that the U.S. military is provoking more conflict than it is preventing; and 62 and 92% respectively approve of attacks on U.S. forces.

Over here, even as momentum seems to build for an absurd and feckless “surge” plan to put 20,000 more troops in Iraq, as if it will make the slightest bit of difference, the bipartisan consensus on not thinking seriously about reality seems to be breaking down. Henry Kissinger, recently revealed by Bob Woodward as the author of the Bush administration’s “stiff upper lip” policy in Iraq, tells us that the war cannot be won. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post, titled “Leaving Iraq Honorably,” quite correctly points out that, in conventional terms, there will be no victory or defeat in Iraq, just more of the same. Although he concludes only by calling for a phased withdrawal, one of Washington’s favorite nostrums at the moment, the tone of the op-ed is a chilling sign for the Bush administration. And Maureen Dowd, bellwether for air-headed liberal sentiment among the chattering classes, admits that the only problem we have with regard to Iraq is figuring out who to lose to.

All in all, now is an excellent time for the long-dormant antiwar movement to try to reinsert itself into a public dialogue from which it has been systematically marginalized. I don’t agree with those who think the way to do so is to beat our chests and proclaim the election results or the change in the country’s mood as our accomplishment; it is all too clear to anyone seriously following the issues that the last time we made our way into the public arena was with Cindy Sheehan and even then it was not done in a way to give legitimacy or credibility to the movement as a whole.

Nor does the way lie in attempting to repeat what everyone else is saying. We have long been hampered by the fact that we have no independent information on Iraq and that we were not trying to put forward views that differed substantially from those of liberal journalists and opinion-makers. Now, however, is a time when it is particularly easy to inject a new note into the dialogue.

We can take a queue from historian and antiwar activist Carolyn Eisenberg, who recently published an op-ed in Newsday arguing against the siren song of phased withdrawal. We cannot leave Iraq honorably – we went in dishonorably, we conducted ourselves dishonorably, and we did the whole thing with dishonorable intentions. Continuing this sordid mess in order to pursue the chimera of what Nixon used to call a “decent interval” will simply compound the problem. The central message is this: none of the plans being debated right now are worth the paper they’re printed on because none of them is either facing up to reality or honestly trying to figure out what interests we are serving in Iraq. In a few months, important people and opinion-makers will be saying this; if we say it first, perhaps we can try to rebuild a role for the antiwar movement and affect the shape of things to come.Posted at 10:54

November 20, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Bush, Vietnam, and American Moral Idiocy

The last five years have been tough on anyone’s native sense of incredulity; I have a special file labeled “couldn’t make this up.” How, after all, could even a master fantasist imagine Paul Wolfowitz’s stirring call that foreigners should not meddle in Iraq?

But, even after five years of hardening, I must admit my jaw dropped again when I heard about President Bush’s recent remarks in Vietnam.

At a press conference in Hanoi, when asked whether the Vietnam War held any lessons for him about the current situation in Iraq, Bush replied,
I think one thing -- yes, I mean, one lesson is, is that we tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take a while. … And it's just going to take a long period of time to -- for the ideology that is hopeful, and that is an ideology of freedom, to overcome an ideology of hate. Yet, the world that we live in today is one where they want things to happen immediately.

And it's hard work in Iraq. … We'll succeed unless we quit.
Apparently, he learned from Vietnam that one must stay the course, but that as long as we don’t “quit,” the “ideology of freedom” will overcome the “ideology of hate.” This is the kind of lesson that only hard experience in the Texas Air National Guard could teach.

What’s remarkable about the remarks, however, is that they were not part of one of Bush’s familiar hectoring talks about the need for whatever dark corner of the world he is in to accept the light of God’s truth and American civilization and to live up to the exalted moral standards that Bush and his policies embody if they don’t want to be bombed.

They came instead in the middle of a series of speeches praising Vietnam, in condescending paternalist terms, for its energy, entrepreneurship, and integration into the American world order. He wasn’t attacking the Vietnamese, he was trying to praise them – which makes the remarks all the more revealing.

What do they reveal? Besides, of course, the well-documented stupidity of George Bush, who seems to have been unaware that it was the supposed “ideology of hatred” that actually won in Vietnam and that the people he was courting were the very ideologues of hatred?

The more interesting revelation is of profound moral idiocy. With regard to Vietnam and other American imperial adventures, it is a quality Bush shares with most Americans and nearly all American political figures.

While Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is excoriated for his ignorance of the Holocaust and his ridiculous suggestion that its history be revisited, nobody seems to have thought that to someone in the Third World the American conventional wisdom that the Vietnam War was a noble effort in the cause of freedom that went tragically awry because we didn’t understand the importance of Americans’ lives is equally morally repellent and equally evidence of ignorance and stupidity.

Even John Kerry, who at one time apparently knew better, displayed and appealed to this species of moral idiocy while running the most jingoistic Democratic presidential campaign in living memory. Others joined in as well, to reduce the entire debate about Vietnam to Kerry’s and Bush’s participation or lack thereof, just as a previous generation had reduced it to the question of the putative existence of a handful of MIAs instead of, say, the ongoing effects of the U.S.’s massive use of Agent Orange.

We saw this moral idiocy on display again with the Nicaraguan elections, where Oliver North went to Managua to campaign against Daniel Ortega, telling the Nicaraguans that they had “suffered enough from the influence of outsiders" – a positively Wolfowitzian moment. After Ortega won, North told the New York Sun, "It is very painful in a very personal way. I spent a good deal of my career on trying to achieve a democratic outcome down there."

After all the failures in Iraq and the renewed tarnishing of America’s none-too-bright image in the world, the American people may have learned a thing or two – that force doesn’t always solve every problem, that imperial arrogance should be kept within bounds. One thing that hasn’t been dented one whit, unfortunately, is the moral idiocy that envelops this entire debate and all others about America’s role in the world. Changing that is the proper job of the antiwar movement. For sure, nobody else is going to do it.Posted at 10:55 am

November 16, 2006

The Good Die Young

Latest installment.

Posted at 1:30 pm

November 13, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Changes of Course in Iraq

With the Democrats’ victory in the midterm elections, everything seems to be in flux. The news is full of the supposed new conciliatory bipartisan spirit of the Bush administration. We hear of a radical change of course in Iraq, including possible implementation of the Iraq Study Group’s proposals, such as talks with Iran and Syria. Democratic senators Carl Levin and Joe Biden have announced they will introduce in January a resolution calling for a phased withdrawal from Iraq, with troops starting to come home in summer 2007.

Apparently, everything changed in a day. Democracy did its work, just as the political scientists tell us it does, and everything is on track to being fixed.

To be fair, in addition to all this verbiage, the Bush administration, after hanging on to Donald Rumsfeld like grim death for so long, has finally let him go.

I still don’t quite know what to make of all of this. Still, here are my best guesses.

Let’s start with the obvious: the Democrats are still hopelessly muddled on Iraq. On the one hand, they have called for an international conference that will include Syria and Iran. On the other hand, they want to pressure Iraqi groups to come to a reasonable, comprehensive settlement along lines laid down by the United States. On the third hand, they want to announce a phased withdrawal.

As I have mentioned before, it is ludicrous to believe that a United States that has been consistently unable to implement its will so far will somehow magically gain leverage when it announces that it will be gone soon. All this will do is cement the already dominant impression of U.S. irrelevance in Iraqi politics and increasingly in the region; whatever settlement the principal actors come to will be made without any reference to U.S. interests or suggestions.

Next, a number of people, mostly Republicans like John McCain and Joe Lieberman, have been talking about an increase in troop deployment to Iraq. McCain has been suggesting that another 20,000 troops are needed. This is reminiscent of the worst Vietnam-era lunacy, when the “best and the brightest” American planners kept on thinking that minor tweaking of the policy could enable victory, while entirely failing to grasp the political situation on the ground. With Iraqi society disintegrating into armed bands, large parts of the country in open warfare against the Americans, and with the vast majority of Iraqis wanting an end to the occupation, a mere 20,000 troops won’t even make a noticeable difference.

McCain also says that this will require an increase in the size of the army of about 100,000 troops, which would require massively increased recruiting, induction of the homeless, or some kind of special appeal to the country.

Last, this is not the first time the Bush administration has made bipartisan noises. It did for a while after 9/11, for example. Had Bush been capable of even maintaining the slightest of bipartisan facades, the country would have remained unquestioningly united behind his crusade; instead, his approval rating just hit 31%, tied with Dick Cheney, and only 8 points above Richard Nixon’s lowest ebb. The smart money is that all of this, even Rumsfeld’s dismissal, is just a feint.

But a feint in aid of what? I feel safe in predicting that, even if there are talks with Syria and Iran, they will go nowhere because the administration still wants to order others to do its bidding, and it lacks the power to back that up. As I have argued before, division of Iraq is a non-starter, not a solution to the U.S. problem, and not even enforceable by the United States. A phased withdrawal seems unlikely as well.

I would also rule out a significant increase in the size of the military, for reasons above. A significant additional deployment of existing troops would be unsustainable for very long.

What are we left with? Minor changes – a few more troops for a while, stepped up bombing, more sweeps, fewer sweeps – and a lot of hype. Then, six months later, people will once again note that nothing has been accomplished. Unless a new political leadership in Iraq arises, dedicated to unifying the country and acting politically to kick out the occupiers, this bloody dance of death will continue.

Posted at 10:54 am

November 6, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- The Glorious Democrats

I haven’t said anything about the upcoming midterm elections in some time now, not because I don’t think they’re important, but because there didn’t seem to be anything particularly interesting to say.

There still may not be, but last week’s events went over my threshold of annoyance, so here it is.

For those of you eagerly anticipating a stunning Democratic victory, more power to you (although recent trends in the polls suggest otherwise), but do stop to consider what you will get if your wishes are granted.

The Party’s fundamental bankruptcy and lack of political principle, political acumen, and even basic intelligence was on full display with John Kerry’s celebrated gaffe last Monday and the reaction to it.

Kerry told a group of students in Pasadena, “If you … do your homework, you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.” The Republicans immediately jumped on this as a horrible, unbearable insult against the U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

After counterpunching blindly for a while, Kerry did point out that he had “botched” his lines and that the joke was actually about how if you don’t do your homework, you might end up like President Bush and get “us” stuck in Iraq. With his ear for jokes and ability to read a crowd, you wonder why he ever leaves his house.

Although Kerry is quite capable of disingenuousness, in this case it’s pretty clear that his explanation is accurate. Kerry never insults the soldiers; indeed, almost no Democrats (with exceptions like John Murtha) have the guts to say anything mildly critical of even the most egregious actions of the soldiers.

Why one C student would want to poke fun at another C student in this manner is beyond me; perhaps it’s something that only other C students would understand.

In any case, the Republicans paid no attention to little things like the truth. There’s no point in blaming them for it. They’re Republicans. Might as well blame a dog for licking his genitalia.

But do consider the Democrats’ reaction, which paid equally little attention to the truth. Prominent Democrats tripped over each other in their haste to be the first to stick the knife in Kerry’s back. Harold Ford, currently losing a tough Senate race in Tennessee, said Kerry was wrong to say what he did; Jon Tester, in a dead heat for Senate in Montana, said, "He owes our troops and their families an apology." Hillary Clinton, coasting to an easy victory in New York, jumped on the dogpile, calling Kerry’s remarks “inappropriate.”

In the end, Kerry apologized for something he didn’t say.

The truth about the soldiers was also not addressed. While officers in the military are highly educated by American standards, only about 4% of enlisted personnel have college degrees. Everybody knows this; everybody knows that many people join the army in order to get money to go to college – only to find out later that instead of the GI bill they’ve gotten a bill of goods.

Everybody knows it but no politician has the guts to talk about it. But don’t feel all superior about it – we voters created this sorry mess of politicians.

If you like, you can explain all of this away. They had to make these choices. Ford and Tester are fighting for their political lives. Clinton has no chance of becoming president if she doesn’t show what a gung-ho jingoist she is. The difference they’ll make in office far outweighs the impact of a few statements.

But whoever heard of an American politician being more principled in office than in running? Maybe, having won on jingoism, moral cowardice, lack of political principle, and cheap sheltering behind the flag, they will then continue to, as we say in Texas, “dance with the one that brung them.”

My point here is not to ignore electoral politics in favor of purely marginal activities. It’s just that you get the Democratic Party you pay for. If you want a different one, you have to figure out a way of exerting leverage on it. Easier said than done, but I don’t notice it being either said or done very much these days.

Posted at 1:05 pm
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