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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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October 31, 2005

Radio Commentary -- Polls and the Antiwar Movement

The latest Gallup poll shows 55% saying Bush's leadership has been a failure and 54% that the war on Iraq was a mistake, down from slightly higher peaks earlier. Polls consistently show 60-70% of Americans in favor of withdrawing some troops, with support for immediate withdrawal about half that.

So why does there seem to be an almost total lack of serious opposition to the war among mainstream circles (as opposed to criticism of the way it's being handled, which is universal)?

An article by Harriet Erskine in the Spring 1970 issue of Public Opinion Quarterly, recently referenced by the History News Network, may help shed some light on that. Writing near the height of the Vietnam War, she looked at records of public support for World Wars I and II and the Korean War, as evidenced through polls of those times.

Her conclusion was that World War II was the only one that saw consistently high levels of support from the American people during its prosecution. Perhaps most relevant, although just initially only 20% said the Korean war was a mistake, by February of 1951, only eight months into the war, 50% thought it was a mistake. Later, as truce talks stretched out and the war bogged down into a highly destructive stalemate, that number went into the high 50 percents, even over 60% in one poll.

As Erskine pointed out at the time, only months after the highly successful Moratorium events of Fall 1969 and months before the resurgence of protest over the bombing of Cambodia, these disapproval numbers for the Korean War were higher than any seen by the end of 1969 for the Vietnam War.

Do you recall learning in school of how public opposition forced the United States to end the Korean War and how the war transformed the nation's consciousness, creating a Korea syndrome that kept it out of major interventions for decades?


I think the lesson is clear and can be encapsulated in two points. First, "opposition" in public opinion, as expressed in answers to poll questions, means very little; what matters is political opposition, things that genuinely make it more difficult for those in power to continue on their course, or that make alternatives seem preferable.

Second, closely linked to the first, is the source of and reasons for opposition. That first poll, shortly after the Korean War began, asked people if it was a mistake for the United States to "defend Korea." Throughout the horrors of U.S. bombardment of North Korea, which made the bombing of Vietnam seem light by comparison, the mounting numbers who opposed it still viewed it as the defense of Korea as do the vast majority today.

We defended Korea from the Koreans, as we later defended South Vietnam from what Adlai Stevenson termed "internal aggression" by the people of South Vietnam. And yet, for a variety of reasons, that story broke down and, by the early 70's, almost nobody believed it. So complete was the breakdown that it took a 20-year propaganda campaign to rewrite the story of the Vietnam War, starting with Reagan and a spate of Hollywood movies and ending when John Kerry reported for duty at the Democratic Convention last year. Even the seemingly overwhelmingly successful first Gulf War and a spate of supposedly humanitarian interventions in the 90's were not enough to completely rewrite the story.

There is no doubt that the vastly greater commitment and perseverance of the Vietnam antiwar movement as compared with the current one had a great deal to do with the immediate threat to activist students posed by the draft, something that is certainly not going to happen again. But it is equally true that much of that fervor came from two other sources horror at what was being done and belief that society could be dramatically transformed.

Today, right now, in our movement, we have some of that first component, though I would argue not enough, and we have little or none of the second. The Vietnam movement managed to help spread the first widely through society, though the majority clearly rejected the second. Our antiwar movement has largely failed even to spread the first. By so failing, we not only have a harder time ending the war, we lose the potential to use the horror and the failure of the war as a starting point for transforming society.

Posted at 10:49 am

October 24, 2005

Radio Commentary -- Ramadi and the Futility of the Occupation

A recent New York Times article about the situation in Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar province, sheds light on some key considerations of the occupation.

After last November's demolition of Fallujah and its transformation into a prison camp, insurgents shifted their focus to Mosul and Ramadi, as well as towns along the Euphrates up toward the Syrian border. Mosul, which had seen very few incidents before, became a hotbed of violence; Ramadi, which had been quite active before, became probably the city in Iraq in which there has consistently been the most fighting between the occupying forces and the resistance.

In the last six weeks, 21 American soldiers have been killed in Ramadi, far more than in any other city in Iraq, the vast majority by roadside improvised explosive devices, detonated when troops patrolled.

There is no police force in Ramadi and the local government set up by the U.S.-initiated political process is largely unable to function (the deputy governor of Anbar province was recently assassinated).

Although the U.S. forces do have a civil affairs officer who is supposed to win the hearts and minds of the locals, he spends most of his time patching and paving roads to make it harder to plant IEDs and planning demolitions of homes and buildings that are being used by snipers.

Here is one of the key realities of the occupation. Troops go on patrol to get shot at and thus to find and kill the people who are shooting at the troops because of the troops' patrolling. In their spare time, they undertake activities to make patrolling easier.

These activities are entirely self-referential. The newly released film Occupation Dreamland, illustrates this particularly well with a Socratic monologue by a captain of the 82nd Airborne in Fallujah in the fall of 2003. He says, "What are we here for? To provide security? To secure the local government? Does anyone think that the local sheikhs and notables in the government are going to be killed by their own people? [This was still early in the occupation, when indeed that was very unlikely] So then who are we securing? We're securing ourselves."

A USAID official quoted in George Packer's new book, the Assassin's Gate, says it similarly: "Our troops are in force-protection mode. They don't protect anyone else. They're another private militia."

This reality, so obvious to anyone who has been in Iraq, seems finally to have percolated up to the level of the Army's general staff, although it's not clear that they will do anything about it.

Another instructive point: the resistance in Ramadi, while composed of numerous groups with lots of competition and poor central coordination, and far from a model force for instance, they heavily attacked polling centers on constitutional referendum day in general maintains a focus on attacking the occupying forces. There have been no suicide bombings in a long time, and no mass killings of Iraqi civilians such as characterize so many other areas.

Indeed, even further than that, according to the article's author, the resistance even refrains from attacking projects, like power plants and transformers, that the population supports.

The result is that, at least as far as occupying forces can tell, the population of Ramadi is solidly behind the resistance, which is indeed, at least to some extent, a fish swimming in the sea of the people.

Interestingly, in Ayman al-Zawahiri's recent letter meant for the ears of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi which I tend to believe is genuine, notwithstanding the speculation that it's a forgery Zawahiri very explicitly tells Zarqawi of the crucial importance of public support if one desires to wage a successful insurgency. He says the lack of support was the downfall of the Taliban, and even suggests gently that mass killings of Shia and beheading videos cut into that support.

Although the overall Iraqi insurgency, and Zarqawi, have certainly not learned that lesson, perhaps those in Ramadi have.

Finally, says the article, Iraqi army forces are far better at fighting the resistance than they were a year ago. This is entirely because of the sectarian cast given to the counterinsurgency, where Shiite and Kurdish units are brought in to fight in Sunni Arab al-Anbar province.

The result, presumably, is that the only ways for the Americans to win Ramadi will be to destroy it themselves or have Shiites and Kurds do it and set the stage for civil war.

Posted at 10:58 am

October 17, 2005

Radio Commentary -- Iraqi Constitution 2

As the results trickle in, and Iraqi election workers count the ballots so carefully stored in those plastic tubs with twist ties, it looks as if the new draft constitution has passed.

Although the Bush administration is engaging in nothing like the propaganda offensive it did after the January elections, and the news media here have nothing like the saturation coverage they did then, then as now the vote is being dramatically misrepresented as a great victory for U.S. policy in Iraq.

In reality, it is nothing of the kind; indeed, the electoral processes that have been unleashed this year underscore America's failure and political impotence in Iraq even more dramatically than the military clashes of last year.

The draft constitution is certainly not entirely free of American influence. For example, the earlier clause deploring the existence of foreign military bases was removed although even that clause allowed for the National Assembly to approve of bases.

Although U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad worked constantly to broker the deal, U.S. interests are hardly reflected in the final draft. Perhaps the most striking example of U.S. impotence was a phone call in August from President Bush himself to SCIRI leader Abdelaziz al-Hakim in which he pleaded for concessions on federalism, and was completely ignored.

Those federalism provisions are wide-ranging. Any province or group of provinces in Iraq can declare itself a region. Although the central government's prerogatives include international relations and defense of the borders, regions have a right to independently administer a share of the oil revenues and, remarkably, to oversee internal security issues. Given that nominally the Iraqi government has authority to order coalition forces to leave Iraq, this raises the specter of regional governments independently ordering U.S. forces to leave or stop operations. Of course, the United States will ignore any such request, but it would prove embarrassing.

Much like the U.S. constitution, the Iraqi constitution gives all powers that are not explicitly attributed to the national government over to the regions.

There is great fear among U.S officials that the nine Shiite-dominated southern provinces will designate themselves as a region and align closely with Iran. Since Iran was even a greater strategic enemy of the U.S. in the Middle East than Iraq, this would represent a complete failure of the grab for regional hegemony that was the main cause of this war in the first place.

Although the constitution itself says very little about Islamic law, it does lay the basis for regions to implement strict interpretations of Shari'a. This is again something the United States very much does not want, and which the neoconservatives will see as a repeat of the same mistake (in their view) that FDR made with Ibn Saud back at the beginning of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

While such strict interpretations will have deplorable effects on many, most notably women, there is little doubt that they have great popular legitimacy. Shiites were liberated by Saddam's fall not just to carry out their religious observances but to order their own political affairs in accord with their religious beliefs; Sunni Arabs, on the other hand, have recently turned to more radical interpretations of Islam as a source of strength and resistance against a hated foreign occupation.

Across the board, in its major aspects, the constitution represents the will of the most popular representatives of the broad majority of Iraqis (not including the 20% that are Sunni Arabs). Some left commentators are upset about language in the constitution saying that Iraq's oil reserves will be developed in accord with market principles. Well, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, all the countries that nationalized their oil back in the 70's or earlier are either inviting foreign investment in exploration or resigning themselves to declining production. Saddam made investment deals, Iran has made them, Venezuela has made them; even Hugo Chavez doesn't repudiate them. Any major deals will have to wait on stabilization of the country, which means an end to the occupation, at which point Iraqis will be able to negotiate the terms they choose.

Trapped by their initial grandiose plans to remake Iraq and by Ayatollah Sistani's hard-nosed maneuvering in favor of free elections and Shiite majority rule, the United States continues to watch not just Iraq but the region slip out of its hands, even as it continues to bomb.

Posted at 10:35 am

Octber 10, 2005

Radio Commentary -- Iraqi Constitution

On Saturday, we will see the next stage in what has become the almost entirely farcical process known in the United States by the code phrase "bringing democracy to Iraq."

I don't really want to be a naysayer. Democratic elections are a good thing, as are constitutions that respect human rights.

Iraq under Saddam had neither. Unfortunately, the United States has wanted to introduce these things in Iraq only insofar as help the U.S. occupation.

The January elections were forced on the United States against its will by Ayatollah Sistani. The U.S. illegitimately intervened to help Ayad Allawi. Even so, they ended up being the fairest in Iraqi history, as long as one accepted the fact that Iraq was not a sovereign country and would not be allowed any degree of control over U.S. military operations.

Even so, the 2005 elections were no triumph of liberal democracy, nor did they inaugurate the kind of politics they teach you about in your government classes in high school, where voters evaluate the political programs of various candidates or parties, see what policies they advocate, try to guess what they'll accomplish, and vote accordingly.

Instead, the national elections were basically an ethnic census, with Kurds overrepresented and Sunni Arabs dramatically underrepresented.

Indeed, in many ways the 1958 revolution, though it didn't involve national elections, was a far more democratic process. It involved mass movements of hundreds of thousands in the streets, it overthrew a hated, foreign-dominated government, and it ushered in the first government in modern Iraqi history that put the concerns of the poor majority near the forefront.

It also put a military dictator, Abdel Kerim Qasim, in charge; though he started with clear humanitarian and anti-colonialist considerations, he grew increasingly autocratic and erratic, and eventually did his best to destroy some of those same popular movements.

Even so, if you judge the 1958 revolution by that standard, what can one say about the January elections that have ushered in a police state where roving state-affiliated paramilitary gangs kill and torture at will (and air the results of that torture on state TV) and where politicians are so caught up in sectarian wrangling and so little focused on the needs of the people that they waited three months before even forming a government?

Now we come to the next stage in this process of creating an illiberal police state that neglects the people but has the occasional election the constitution.

Already in the creation of the government, the different ethnic groups proved unable to come up with any long-term compromises that all groups would actually abide by. Even after three months, the best they could do was leave the thorny issues to be decided later.

Heedless, the United States pushed these same feuding groups to come up with a constitution by August 15, for ratification by the electorate on October 15. Even pro-American Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman said, "We're short of time it's the fault of the Americans. They are always insisting on short deadlines. It's as if they're [making] hamburgers and fast food."

This time, the push by the United States isn't even for an actual increase in power or even ability to stabilize Iraq, but simply for the sake of a few days of glowing media coverage in the United States.

The details of the constitution are not as problematic as they could be. Both Kurds and Shiite groups want to allow for high degrees of local autonomy, which angers Sunni Arabs who have been used for the past few centuries to controlling a unitary state even though they are a minority. Islamic law is enshrined, something that was inevitable with the American occupation being seen as at least in part a war against Islam.

The problem is with the process. Copies of the final draft of the constitution are just now being distributed; most Iraqis will have a week or less to peruse it before they vote on it. It is expected that Iraqis will vote it up or down on sectarian lines and not because of its actual content.

Kurds and Shiites have decided to ram it through over the often unreasonable objections of Sunni Arabs, thus, inevitably, further deepening an already yawning sectarian divide.

In the end, if it is ratified, it will be a meaningless piece of paper unrelated either to Iraqis' material well-being or to their civic and political rights. As such, it will be a perfect symbol of the occupation.

Posted at 10:56 am

Octber 3, 2005

Radio Commentary -- Iraq Withdrawal and Conventional Wisdom

The current conventional wisdom seems to be that, over the course of the next year, the United States will make significant troop withdrawals, and that, more generally, the Bush administration is desperate to get out of Iraq. Like much conventional wisdom, this notion has little relationship to reality.

It is true that the administration had never planned to have to keep so many troops tied down in one country. They were happily preparing for an "exit strategy" that took them out through Damascus or Teheran, leaving behind a large residual force on military bases to exert influence over the country and the region.

It is furthermore true that within not much over a year there will be serious difficulties in maintaining a force of 150,000 in Iraq and they will be forced either to decrease the number, sacrifice operational readiness, or redeploy troops currently stationed at overseas bases.

It's even true that they would like very much to see Iraqi security forces bear the brunt of the fighting and an even larger share of the dying.

Nonetheless, I don't expect to see significant troop withdrawals for quite some time to come.

The recent testimony of Donald Rumsfeld and assorted generals before the Senate Armed Services Committee helps make this a lot clearer.

General Abizaid admitted that, out of 100 battalions in the Iraqi Army, only one was what the U.S. military considers fully trained and capable of conducting operations by itself down from three earlier, so the training is actually going backwards. It's not exactly clear what they mean whether it's really a matter of technical training or rather a lack of motivation but it certainly means there's little or no progress in eliminating the role of U.S. troops.

When asked point-blank whether troop reductions were being planned in the coming year, General Casey, chief commander in Iraq, said only that they were in favor of something called "condition-based reductions of coalition forces."

Not really a mellifluous phase, but it precisely sums up what the military and the administration are thinking. Translated into English, it means, "We'll start drawing down forces when we start winning."

Two years of serious failure in Iraq, and the creation of a much more dangerous climate in the region and the world, have not convinced the administration or even the military that victory is difficult to impossible through military means. Although the rest of the world sees the United States losing, these guys see progress being made toward eventual victory even though they can't even define what victory would mean.

Further, they seem to believe that victory can be achieved by mindlessly continuing with the same tactics and strategies they've been using for the past two years.

The basic one is very simple and yet mindboggling in its absurdity: U.S. troops go out on "patrols" to draw fire. The patrols serve no other function. Outside of Fallujah, which they razed to the ground and turned into a prison camp, and the Green Zone, there is not a square inch of Iraq that is meaningfully under the political control of coalition forces. Insurgent groups, Sadr's Mahdi Army, Kurdish parties, Shiite parties, control the rest, and the presence or absence of U.S. troops, though it may get people killed, does not change that in the slightest. In the process of these raids, some enemies of the U.S. forces are killed, and others are created.

Even a change to some marginally intelligent tactics would probably not make it possible for the United States to win whatever that means. Likely, nothing short of massive violence would do that.

This was much the same position we were in after the Tet offensive in the Vietnam War. Nobody serious believed the United States could win. Unfortunately, the Nixon administration did believe it, and, closeted in its bunker, away from public opinion, kept on going for another five years. Even then, they still didn't give up, and spent two years supplying the South Vietnamese with massive amounts of arms. Indeed, they didn't see the writing on the wall until the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

We are in the same stage now. Everyone sane may see the writing on the wall, but the Bush administration still believes it can achieve total victory. Without a fundamental change in the political climate, the end of this war is not yet in sight.

Posted at 11:05 am
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