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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 24, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- The End of the War?

Has the Iraq war ended while we were all concerned with other things?

Perhaps, if you take seriously the draft status of forces agreement between Iraq and the United States, supposedly up for ratification in the Iraqi parliament this week.

The is surprisingly clear. It calls for withdrawal of U.S. forces from cities, towns, and villages by June 30 of next year, and complete withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2011.

It makes mercenaries and other foreign civilian contractors fully subject to Iraqi law. It requires U.S. troops to get Iraqi permission in order to detain anyone (although it is hard to see how this will be respected in practice). It states that the U.S. presence in Iraq is authorized only in regard to its operations in Iraq; Iraq is not to be used as a staging area for attacks on other countries. Although, of course, it already is.

Some of the key provisions are fairly malleable in practice. U.S. troops are supposedly subject to Iraqi law when off base and not on duty, but the agreement allows the United States to determine retroactively whether or not a given person was on duty. And the agreement, of course, does not abridge the sovereign right of the Iraqi government to ask U.S. forces to stay longer – although to do so would take an affirmative act, rendering it unlikely under most foreseeable circumstances.

Passage of the agreement is not at all guaranteed. Sadr has already announced his opposition, and nobody is clear about the Sunni vote.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has staked much of his credibility on passage of the bill in its current form, recently declared that if the bill doesn’t pass, Iraq will not ask the Security Council to reauthorize the occupation and that U.S. forces will have to withdraw “immediately.” Of course, he may just be blowing smoke.

Regardless, it looks in many ways as if the U.S. strategy of creating a “sovereign” Iraqi government is finally catching up with it. In the past year or so, it has become clear that U.S. successes in Iraq are not limited to their effective use of defectors from and erstwhile allies of the Sunni insurgency to destroy it and are not dependent solely on Sadr’s attempt to stand down from direct confrontation and to regain control of his highly fractured organization.

Instead, they seem to have created some sort of constituency for themselves within the Iraqi government, coupled with an increasing legitimacy in the eyes of the public of the Iraqi army. After years of uselessly fetishizing the Iraqi government and “supporting” it while “opposing” Shi’a militias, even though they were largely the same thing, the United States seems to have gotten wiser.When the Iraqi Army took over Basra in the spring, they were apparently restrained from carrying out the sort of oppressive policing that various militias had been carrying out, and the population responded gratefully.

This sort of result raises the possibility that the United States, if it continues to work carefully and intelligently, could actually create a significant pro-American nucleus in the Iraqi government while simultaneously enhancing its ability to act as a state – if it has enough time. Is three years enough time, especially with a major stand-down of operations in 7 months? Who knows.

Obama or not, I have seen no reason to believe that the United States would wish to leave Iraq before assuring the retention of a significant political foothold in the government – nor, indeed, without securing basing rights and a permanent garrison.

But the Bush administration decided it wanted a consensual agreement with the Iraqi government, probably largely because of exaggerated fears that Obama would reverse course if he wasn’t locked in to staying; the result has been, as so often the case with these Mayberry Machiavellis, the opposite of what they intended. Once Iraqi nationalism and even public opinion (or at least political pandering to public opinion) was engaged, passage of an agreement of the kind that Bush wanted became politically impossible. First, they had to give on the bases and now on the timetable.

Although there is much scope for foot-dragging, I don’t believe the United States is in a position simply to ignore legal commitments to the Iraqi government, absent some stunning political development.

Unfortunately, any significant draw-down in Iraq will simply free up more troops for escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where U.S. depredations are significantly worse and where more troops will mean more problems.

Posted at 10:43 am.

November 10, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Only in America

This could only happen in America. Americans should feel proud and the rest of the world should take note. They have a lot to learn from us.

Even if you’ve only seen three minutes of television commentary on the election of Barack Obama, you’ve come across this particular theme. Americans are incredibly good at taking credit and phenomenally bad at taking blame. We are the only ones who can deal with and rise above racial prejudice enough to truly judge even presidential candidates only by the content of their character, so let’s beat our chest about that. How many people have you seen on TV saying that only America could casually set in motion events that would destroy a country 7000 miles away from us, that did not pose even a notional threat to us, that was already weak and in shambles, and then act as if we were the victims in the whole affair?

We apparently have a great secret to teach the world, but has Iraq taught us that we should learn anything from the world?

I want to give credit where credit is due. I do believe there is an American Creed that says that Americans, no matter their situation or origin, ought to have a fair chance to get ahead in life. In the long run, its workings are powerful and hard to deny, because, unlike in France, say, where colorblindness is official government policy, the American Creed is something lodged deep in the minds of the people, not something imposed from above. Not many countries that have something similar. Much of the world could indeed learn from us on this, and indeed much national soul-searching has already started. Even in France, a group of opinion-leaders, including Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, is putting out a call for something to be done about the shameful denial of opportunity to French people of African and Arab descent.

But let’s put things in perspective. It is true that this could only happen in America. But what is “this”?

As Nicholas Kristof was one of the few to point out, electing a racial minority to the top political position has been done. Jamaica and Mauritius, majority black, have had white prime ministers. Sikhs are a minority of about two percent in India. In the 1980’s, a Sikh assassinated the prime minister; the central government and the government of Punjab fought a counterinsurgency against Sikh separatists for years. Yet the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is Sikh. Russia, home of Great Russian chauvinism, was ruled for three decades by a Georgian; there is no love lost between the two groups. And, of course, even Chile, a tremendously patriarchal society, elected a woman head of state before we have.

So, perhaps the “this” that couldn’t happen anywhere else is the following: nowhere else could a country enslave a racial minority, be consumed by a civil war, free the minority, then quickly impose an elaborate legal framework supplemented by a host of informal practices to keep the newly free population subordinated, let the losing side in the civil war write the history about the minority, have a mass movement that ended invidious legal distinctions, then construct a new elaborate ideological framework supplemented by “colorblind” policies that disproportionately impacted said population, have national politics dominated by a newly constructed racism, throw several percent of that population in jail, then elect someone from that minority who was careful not to emphasize the position of that minority and equally careful to grant implicit racial absolution to those who voted for him. And, throughout this whole process, to have race remain the central axis around which politics turns.

Other countries have profound levels of racism. The way Romanians treat Gypsies or rural Indians treat untouchables has no parallel in the recent history of the United States. Neither does the way most European countries treat nonwhite immigrants. But countries for which race has been the national obsession are a much smaller list: South Africa, Israel, a handful of others.

America has come a long way and, in many ways, has bettered itself. Everywhere you go, you find white people who are ecstatic at Obama’s victory. Americans have grappled hard with racial prejudice and many have won; more important, a new generation is growing up that doesn’t have to grapple. But if we are better now than many countries, it is in part because we were so much worse.

The rest of the world should be inspired, but in part it should be inspired the way you would if a friend of yours was mentally ill for years and finally started to regain sanity.

Posted at 10:37 am.

November 3, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- A New Birth of Patriotism

I’m a patriot. You’re a patriot. We are all patriots, all Americans, all pledging allegiance to the same flag. There is no red America or blue America. There is only the United States of America. There are no places in this country that are more pro-American than others. We all agree that America is the greatest country in the world. Indeed, it is a magical place. And, of course, we will all prove that it is by voting for the tall skinny kid with the funny name whose father came from Kenya. Only in America.

That was not easy to say. And yet it all rolls trippingly off Barack Obama’s tongue at virtually every campaign rally.

As we move toward a historic election that has already been an index of how far America has come, I’d like to share with you one of my greatest concerns.

By some mysterious alchemy, the destruction of Iraq and depletion of America’s political capital abroad has led not to deep soul-searching (with many honorable exceptions) but rather to a new birth of patriotism and a smug belief in our own moral superiority.

This new birth does not come from the noxious right wing, although there certainly has been some influence, but from liberals and most especially from Obama.

And it is all the more dangerous for that. The tired, cranky, increasingly strident nationalism of John McCain’s campaign was, like the candidate himself, mired in the past. It will not die while the “war on terror” continues or while there is any profit in demonizing an Other. But it is cramped, restrictive, senseless, and dysfunctional. It does not include, it excludes. So narrow is McCain’s personal version of patriotism that even most of the right wing is excluded. After all, virtually all of their leading lights prefer talking about war and sending other men to kill and die to actually fighting in one personally.

Led by Sarah Palin, the right wing is now distilling that patriotism down to a pure form that, to say the least, is uncomfortable for Arabs, Muslims, blacks, Jews, gays, urbanites, liberals, people who won’t condemn liberals, people who think you can catch more Islamic flies with honey than you can with vinegar, people who think, people who read -- the list goes on. If things go much further, it may get beyond the viability point for social reproduction.

Not so with Obama’s grand, inclusive, transforming vision of patriotism. To begin with, it is built around the core of what is actually good about America, not around jingoism, distortion of history, xenophobia, and religious intolerance. When Gunnar Myrdal wrote his celebrated study of race in America in the mid-40’s, he built it around the concept of the “American Creed,” the idea that every American, no matter who, ought to get a fair shake and a chance to get ahead in life. In the Hegelian agon he posited between the American Creed and the ideas underpinning the racist treatment of blacks, he concluded that the former would win out.

Though he was much criticized, and racism and the legacy of racism are still much with us, I think time has proven him right. Tomorrow – knock on wood – the American Creed will elect Barack Obama.

Not only is there a place for every American in Obama’s patriotism, he has made it extremely seductive even for those few with critical minds. It is comforting to feel that, despite what America has done, we are the greatest nation on earth (what does that mean?), to feel that the country was hijacked for the past eight years and taken away from its true self, to feel that the true story of this time is of America’s victimization by the Bushes, not Iraq’s victimization by America. It is very comforting to sit in your comfortable home, before it’s foreclosed on, and praise American soldiers to the skies for defending our country and our freedom, even while you strongly believe that the Iraq war was about neither.

Though Obama’s vision is kinder and gentler, it excludes the rest of the world just as much as McCain’s. And it leads to remarkably similar foreign policy pronouncements. The United States would have started no new wars – except for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are grandfathered in – no matter who was elected. Interventionism was similarly difficult after the Vietnam War. But failure to learn the lessons then – after far more serious moral turmoil than this was has occasioned – led to the mess we see now. And failure to learn these lessons will lead to future horrors, though their shape cannot now be predicted.

Posted at 10:28 am.
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