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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 30, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- No War With Iran

Predicting political events is almost a sure way to make a fool of yourself. The situation in the world changes too quickly and is too difficult to know in sufficient detail for any “expert’s” prediction to be much better than an ordinary person’s guess.

If, however, you have a highly polarized atmosphere and a community with a strong stake in believing something, no matter the facts, then repeated incorrect predictions, far from discrediting you with that community, can even make you an expert.

Such was the case with Thomas Friedman, prowar liberals, and Iraq. As FAIR documented quite nicely, he has assembled a huge store of predictions that “the next six months” in Iraq will be “critical.” Of course, they never have been. Even so, Friedman remained the perfect liberals’ “expert” on Iraq and the Middle East – no matter that he knew very little about Iraq and didn’t understand those things he did know.

Such is the case with the antiwar movement and Iran. Seymour Hersh and Scott Ritter have distinguished themselves by repeatedly pointing to the imminence of war with Iran. In Hersh’s case, he has simply been acting in his own well-established journalistic modality – passing along things he gleans from a large group of dissidents inside the military and intelligence establishments. When this involves hard evidence like the My Lai massacre, Barry McCaffrey’s order to shoot some Iraqi prisoners of war after the Gulf War, or the Abu Ghraib atrocities, his reporting is unique and invaluable. When it involves passing along the complaints and speculations of his sources, it is less so – his sources are not always the most astute of political analysts.

Ritter has not only frequently cried wolf about Iran, he predicted that war would happen in June 2005. When June cam around, he followed that up with an article saying that it was in fact happening.

Now that they have established their expertise on Iran, of course, future pronouncements about war with Iran coming from them must be taken very seriously.

Iran is already by far the most written-about war that never happened.

Recent developments have once again ramped up concern about war. The near-confluence of midterm elections and joint naval exercises near Iran under the umbrella of President Bush’s Proliferation Security Initiative, in which a U.S.-led multinational force will war-game stopping ships carrying nuclear materials, has triggered a slew of apocalyptic predictions.

Paul Craig Roberts, a maverick Reagan-era government official who is regularly published in Counterpunch, says the Bush administration will use nuclear weapons on Iran; Chris Hedges, a usually very insightful and nuanced journalist, wrote a rather hysterical article along the same lines; and even United for Peace and Justice, quoting those two, put out an action alert suggesting that there’s a good chance of imminent war.

The Iranian government, on the other hand, had a pretty sensible response, decrying the maneuvers as adventurist but also playing them down and pointing out that similar maneuvers have been held many times in the past.

The last time this cycle played itself out, I broke my own rule on predictions: In February, I went out on a limb and said that war with Iran was very unlikely in the near future.

Most of the arguments I made then carry over to the current situation without change. A new piece of evidence regarding this comes from a special meeting Bush had with conservative columnists. Although the critical passages are off the record and redacted from the released text, when they come back on the record, a columnist asks, “Are you saying that a military attack is not feasible?” Of course, Bush returns to the standard line that no options are off the table, but the upshot is that Bush obviously said something to disappoint his few remaining hawkish fans.

By itself, this would mean little. It’s only when you add it to the well-established analysis of the idiocy of military strikes on Iran, the near impossibility of regime change, and the potential to totally destroy the already precarious U.S. position in Iraq that this particular datum becomes significant.

Anyway, I’ll break my own rule again – don’t expect war with Iran in the near future.

Posted at 11:20 am

October 23, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Iraq: Yet Another New Strategy for Victory

With congressional elections only two weeks away and the Republican Party’s fortunes seemingly in free-fall, suddenly the White House has announced a major policy shift on Iraq – although nobody can say exactly what it is.

Key Bush aides have been trying to suggest that time is running out. Several weeks ago, Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said that the Iraqi government "in the course of the next two months, has to make progress in terms of containing sectarian violence," and was followed in a few days by Secretary of State Rice saying that Iraqi leaders "don't have time for endless debates on these issues. ... They have really got to move forward."

And, although President Bush’s last weekly radio address declared that the strategy is still “victory,” whatever that is supposed to mean, the newspapers are full of articles suggesting the Bush administration’s “openness” to “new tactics.”

It is rather difficult to imagine either what those new tactics might be or how they will be able to rescue a completely vacuous strategy.

Meanwhile, according to the Washington Times, leaks from the super-duper James Baker-led Iraq Study Group, which is finding fixing Iraq somewhat more difficult than fixing an election in Florida, suggest plans for a major “course correction” in Iraq.

Although their final report is not supposed to come out until after the elections, of course, and will probably be scrubbed free of any substantive remarks before it is released, the WashTimes suggests that numerous Plans B are being considered, the three most prominent being a timetable for phased withdrawal, a breakup of Iraq into three countries, and, most amusingly, the engineering of a military coup to put a “strongman” into power. With this last option, supposedly, although U.S. troops would be involved, the United States would disavow all knowledge of or involvement with the coup – a neat trick with 130,000 American troops in the country – and then recognize the new government after a “decent interval” (incidentally, the reintroduction of the Vietnam-era phrase “decent interval” means that history’s repetition as farce is now complete).

Ignoring, if I may, all moral, ethical, and left-political concerns, it’s clear that the “grownups” who have all these great ideas to fix the Bush administration’s blunders are, if anything, smoking an even more potent form of weed than the Bush cabal.

From the point of view of someone who wants to preserve U.S. strategic interests – whatever the hell they are at the moment – the timetable for phased withdrawal has struck me as a non-starter for quite some time now. The idea would have been a relatively stable transition to rule by a U.S.-friendly government, but it’s clear that, with the very marginal exception of the Kurds, there is no potential U.S.-friendly force in Iraq and that the United States has very little leverage to impose any such force on anyone in the country anyway – and whatever leverage it does have would be vacated by any announcement that its presence is short-term.

From the point of view of someone who wants what’s best for Iraqis, it’s pretty clear that sectarian violence has steadily risen while the U.S. troops were there and that the United States is some combination of unwilling and unable to stop it – witness the recent bloody fighting in Balad, where U.S. troops waited until the violence got completely out of hand before intervening. Given this fact, “phasing” of withdrawal at this point won’t accomplish anything that immediate withdrawal doesn’t – and, if it’s about “standing up” Iraqi troops, there are now 311,000 of them, for what it’s worth.

The three-part solution, floated for years by Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations and picked up by Senator Joe Biden, possibly the man in Washington most impressed with his own astuteness, was never legally possible and has grown steadily more absurd over time. Major parts of the country, including the whole Baghdad area, have Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds living cheek-by-jowl – although ethnic cleansing has given neighborhoods more unitary identities, it has not done that on the scale of the city as a whole. The fight over how to partition these areas will make the violence now look like a children’s game – and it’s already at somewhere not too far from the level in the Lebanese or Bosnian civil wars.

Most importantly, the U.S. military, which can’t even enforce order in the capital city, cannot possibly enforce such a division, against the will of the Iraqi people and of each sectarian group, which will want to benefit maximally from any division.

The strongman idea, which it is hard to imagine Washington accepting considering its massive rhetorical overdoses of democracy and freedom, is the most risible idea of all. There’s no one – at this point, even Saddam couldn’t imagine it. A strongman needs two things – a plausible claim to represent, or at least balance, the interests of everyone, and a powerful military/security force that can crush potential challengers. There is no one in Iraq with the first requirement, the second requirement doesn’t exist and can’t be brought into being, and even if both of those things could be changed, the current armed sectarian groups that are causing so much of the violence wouldn’t accept the situation – he would be faced with a much fiercer insurgency, on multiple fronts, than the Americans.

All three of these ideas, on their face, so different, suffer from the same fatal flaw – they are based on some notion of great U.S. power to dispose of Iraq’s fate. It seems even the grownups have not come to terms with the fact that that power, so abundantly three and a half years ago, has gone never to return. Whether you call it democracy or elections, followed by the rise to power of mass-based sectarian groups that use Iraq’s oil money to build their own power and brutally violate human rights, this genie can’t be put back in the bottle.

Posted at 9:47 am

October 16, 2006

Understanding the Iraq Mortality Survey

There’s no competition for this week’s top story -- a new survey of excess mortality in Iraq, put together by some of the same researchers at Johns Hopkins and al-Mustansiriyah University who did the last one in 2004, concludes that there have likely been 655,000 excess deaths of Iraqis during the first 40 months of the occupation, 601,000 due to violence.

George W. Bush, the expert statistician, apparently considers the numbers not “credible,” and believes that the researchers’ methodology is “pretty well discredited.” Somehow, I doubt that his aides explained to him what a clustered random household survey is, let alone log-linear regression – somehow, I doubt he has any aides who know.

His assessment was corroborated by epidemiological expert General George Casey. Other dismissive hacks included Anthony Cordesman, who understands military issues but little else, and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute.

On the other hand, no actual expert in epidemiology who was asked has dismissed the findings (and, obviously, it passed peer review in the Lancet, the premier British medical journal), and Human Rights Watch has said that this is probably the best result out there.

It is true that the numbers are vastly different from other numbers you see out there. Iraq Body Count, which combs media reports thoroughly and hospital and morgue reports sporadically, and only counts civilian deaths, counts 44,000-49,000; the Los Angeles Times, which did a rather better job, looking at statistics from the Baghdad morgue, the Iraq Health Ministry, and other agencies, estimated that at least 50,000 Iraqis had died due to violence. Unlike the IBC, which viciously attacks anyone who comes up with higher numbers, the LA Times story acknowledged that its number was likely a serious undercount.

The reason for these strong divergences is simple. Suppose, say, you were trying to estimate the number of rapes in the United States. Even if you did a very thorough job combing police station and court reports, you would come up with a tremendous undercount. Surveying a random sample of people would likely give you a much more accurate estimate. In the United States, death – especially violent death – doesn’t work the same way. Virtually all of it gets reported and logged by some government agency; even here, though, trying to estimate deaths due to inadequate health-care from media and hospital reports would be a hopeless and ridiculous task.

In Iraq, by contrast, if you live in a small town in al-Anbar province and your family got hit by a U.S. airstrike, you bury them by sundown and go on. You don’t hit the AP speed-dial on your cell-phone and get a story in the papers; you don’t go to a useless government agency, even if you could find one; you don’t take dead people to a hospital. And you don’t get counted.

As Les Roberts and collaborators explain in their article, “passive” methods based on reports or monitoring how many bodies show up at a given location usually give dramatic undercounts in Third World countries wracked by violence – during the worst years in Guatemala, newspaper reports captured bout 5% of total deaths.

The survey has very high margins of error, because, although 1849 households were sampled, they had to be sampled in a total of 47 different randomly chosen clusters. Even the low end of the estimate, however, is just shy of 400,000, far greater than any other number yet produced. The high end is over 900,000.

The truth is that this study is the standard by which all the other numbers should be judged. Its conclusions are stunning -- one out of every 40 Iraqis, 2.5%, have died since the occupation started. In the 15-year Lebanese Civil War, about 150,000 people died. Iraq has 9 times the population, but it’s only been three years.

Of equal import, 31% of violent deaths were caused by the occupying forces – 186,000. Even during the period June 2005-June 2006, 26% of violent deaths were caused by the occupiers. The occupiers continue to be a major part of the problem, not, as recent news reports seem to suggest, an ineffectual part of the solution.

Posted at 10:46 am

October 11, 2006

655,000 Excess Dead in Iraq War and Occupation

Gilbert Burnham, Riyadh Lafta, Shannon Doocy, and Les Roberts, of Johns Hopkins and Mustansiriyah University, have just published the results of a new Iraqi excess mortality study in the Lancet.

It concludes that in the 40 months from March 2003 through the end of June 2006 (originally, I had a typo -- June 2003 instead of June 2006; it was caught thanks to the alert vigilance of an Air Force public affairs person), excess mortality in Iraq is 655,000, with 601,000 of that due to violence. Of the violent deaths, 31%, or 186,000, were due to coalition forces.

After several moments of absolute shock, my initial reaction on reading the study is that the estimate is very plausible and the methodology for evaluating it is sound. Formidable sampling problems mean that the margin of error is high, but it has been considerably reduced from the margin of error for the first study, published in October 2004.

Although, as everyone has felt, the proportion of deaths caused by the occupying forces has declined, it remains much higher than most people think and much higher than one could possibly gather from news reports (security conditions now mean that reporters can only report on U.S. military operations from embedded positions -- except perhaps with regard to the Baghdad security sweeps -- and once embedded it's very hard to gather useful information on Iraqis killed). In the most recent period they covered, June 2005 to June 2006, 26% of total deaths were caused by occupying forces, roughly half due to air-strikes.

Perhaps stung by criticism of their coverage of the first Iraq mortality survey, the major papers have jumped to cover this story -- and to bury it at the same time. The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post each put it on page A12 and the New York Times, never to be outdone in snootiness, put it on A16. While the sometimes silly standards of journalism probably require that the North Korea situation remain the number one situation, I can't imagine how this is anything but the number two story, at least for a day.

A more detailed analysis and methodological note is forthcoming, but these are the highlights.

Posted at 11:40 am

October 9, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- You, North Korea, and the Nuclear Bomb

North Korea just dropped a bomb. So to speak.

They didn't drop it on anyone. It was what all the members of the formerly so much more exclusive nuclear "club" like to call a "test," and the rest of us call an "explosion." No, it was no Hiroshima or Nagasaki, although if you judged solely from news reports and angry reactions from governments, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Bad things are likely to happen. All countries are united in condemnation, including China, which issued a rather strong statement, and South Korea, which postponed a planned aid shipment. The Japanese debate over acquiring nuclear weapons will be reignited. North Korea will presumably suffer from a sustained aid cutoff and some sort of Security Council sanctions, at the very least.

But before the world rushes to punish North Korea, there are a few things they ought to think about.

North Korea is a paranoid state, with a government whose authority feeds on and creates isolation, which then reinforces the paranoia.

It comes by that paranoia honestly. If you feel a little paranoid about North Korea, that's understandable, given the tone of media coverage on the issue. But now consider for a moment the events that have made North Korea paranoid.

After World War 2, when Koreans rose up and helped defeat the Japanese, the United States and the USSR treated Korea like a defeated enemy. The USSR occupied North Korea, imposing a totally authoritarian regime and helping to introduce and then prop up Kim Il-Sung; the United States came and took the Japanese collaborators out of jails and public opprobrium and put them into power, helping them crush the political leaders who actually represented Koreans at that time with an iron fist. After five years of escalating violence, insurgency, counterinsurgency, on June 25, 1950, North Korean forces swept across the border (which, of course, the genuine Korean nationalist forces that had opposed the Japanese did not recognize) and the United States assembled a multinational force under a UN flag and went to war.

The war was horrific for North Korea. U.S. bombing made what it later did to Vietnam look civilized by comparison. In Vietnam, there was a lot of talk about bombing the dikes on the Red River, flooding agricultural areas and mass starvation; in Korea, they did bomb the dikes and impose starvation on untold numbers.

As Sahr Conway-Lanz documents in his excellent book, "Collateral Damage: Americans, Noncombatant Immunity, and Atrocity After World War 2," the Korean War was where the wonderful American concept of collateral damage was forged. It was applied in an interesting way. Although the principle of distinction between military and civilian targets was not explicitly abandoned, as the war progressed, the definition of military target steadily grew broader. In the last half of the war, if a town had a road, that road might be used for troop transport, so the town was a military target; if it had food supplies, they might be eaten by the troops, so ditto.

Unlike in the Vietnam War, where the most brutal shelling and bombing was confined to the countryside and the occasional town (like Hue), in North Korea entire towns were essentially wiped off the map. Douglas Macarthur wanted to go further and detonate a string of nuclear bombs along the border with China, making it impassable due to radiation.

The war induced a permanent fear of total destruction by the United States in the North Korean regime, exacerbated by the fact that the war never officially ended. Over the decades, as North Korea isolated itself more and more from the rest of the world, and especially after the collapse of the communist bloc threw it into crisis, that sense of paranoia has simply grown stronger, expressed and reinforced by the doctrine of juche, self-reliance, which says that North Korea cannot depend on anyone for anything.

In the first nuclear showdown with North Korea, in 1994, the great peacemaker Clinton was on the verge of war; he even ordered an advance team of soldiers to set up logistical headquarters for an invasion. Fortunately, Jimmy Carter, apparently sent with the blessings of the Clinton administration, managed to broker a deal, the so-called "Agreed Framework."

It provided that North Korea would renew its commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and let nuclear inspectors back in; in return, the United States was to normalize diplomatic relations, provide North Korea with two light-water nuclear reactors, and most important pledge not to attack North Korea with nuclear weapons. Although initially North Korea kept its end of the bargain, the US never even started to. Nine years on, when the US still couldn't manage the non-aggression pledge – a basic requirement the NPT imposes on all nuclear powers with regard to non-nuclear nations and thus something the United States had already in principle agreed to – the system broke down and the second nuclear confrontation emerged.

We have now a paranoid state that was treated with brutal violence in the past, with brutal duplicity more recently, and with constant threats of violence. At the same time, it is in a total internal economic crisis, which at one point led to the starvation of millions, and it is now faced with a cessation of aid that will imperil millions and with further isolation, which will further reinforce its paranoia.

This is rank idiocy and very dangerous. When dealing with North Korea, the sensible thing is to speak very slowly and softly, in a soothing tone. Bush can perhaps manage the slow, but the rest is beyond both him and any other American leader. There is no great threat from North Korea, unless an overreaction by the world and a stepped up internal political crisis creates one – unfortunately, that's the way things appear to be headed. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean everyone else isn't, in fact, out to get you.

Rahul Mahajan is an author and publisher of the weblog Empire Notes ( He has been to occupied Iraq twice and reported from the first siege of Fallujah in April 2004. His books, "The New Crusade: America's War on Terrorism," and "Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond," have been described as "mandatory reading for anyone who wants to get a handle on the war on terrorism." He can be reached at Posted at 10:37 am

October 2, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- The Torture Impunity Act

Salim Ahmed Hamdan was a hired driver for Osama bin Laden. He denies having any role in the commission or planning of terrorist activities. His misfortune was to be thrown into the black hole of Guantanamo; his surprising good fortune was to have Lieutenant Commander Charles Swift, one of those strange people who think a defense lawyer should defend his client, as his attorney. Hamdan filed a habeas corpus petition; it finally went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Bush did not have the right to arbitrarily constitute military tribunals that recognized neither the Geneva Conventions nor the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

As a result, the matter of military tribunals was referred to Congress. Had their bill, passed in its final form last week, been in effect earlier, Hamdan would not have been able to file his habeas petition.

Habeas corpus, the right whereby an authority detaining a person must, if challenged, produce the person and show cause why he or she is being held, was well-established English common law before the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. It was explicitly upheld by Act of Parliament in 1679 and it is enshrined in Article I of the United States Constitution, which says that habeas corpus "shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it."

Over 400 of the inmates at Guantanamo are held without charge, the majority of them probably innocent people in the wrong time at the wrong place, either fingered by bounty hunters eager to turn in anyone in return for thousands of American dollars, or fingered by ignorant, trigger- and detention-happy U.S. troops who couldn't tell a taxi driver from a terrorist. According to Erik Saar, a translator who worked there, most of them are no longer even interrogated. They now have no way to argue their innocence.

The new "Military Commissions Act of 2006" is full of such atrocities. Try this one on:

"No person may invoke the Geneva Conventions or any protocols thereto in any habeas corpus or other civil action or proceeding to which the United States, or a current or former officer, employee, member of the Armed Forces, or other agent of the United States is a party as a source of rights in any court of the United States or its States or territories."

What this means is that, although the United States may, out of the goodness of its heart, recognize a few of its Geneva Convention obligations, it is not required to. And how will the United States determine which Geneva protections it will deign to bestow? "The President has the authority for the United States to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions."

Louis XIV once famously said, "L'etat, c'est moi" – "I am the state." But the state over which he ruled was a pitiful thing, corroded by corruption and weakened by the promiscuous sale of offices. When the most powerful state in world history adopts the same principle for its president, that is indeed cause for worry.

This new law is billed as an advance, because at least it provides for military trials with some rules – although it does not require the government to bring detainees to trial. They will be funny trials if they happen – evidence obtained by "torture" is supposedly inadmissible, but any evidence obtained by December 30, 2005, in which "the degree of coercion is disputed" is admissible if a military judge finds it to be of "sufficient probative value." Since by definition, the United States does not torture, this means that anything will likely be admissible.

Hearsay is also allowed. The defense will have to prove that hearsay evidence is unreliable – but if the evidence is classified, they will have to prove that without access to the actual evidence. That would be a neat trick even for John Yoo or Jay Bybee.

12 Senate Democrats and 32 in the House crossed party lines to vote for the new Torture Impunity Act. They now share complicity for all the torture, rape, murder, hostage-taking, beating, electric shock, stress positions, and humiliation carried out in the past five years in the name of civilization.

Posted at 10:42 am
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