Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Flawed Arguments, Part I

This truly has me scratching my head. The president is saying on the one hand that any premature withdrawal from Iraq will create the world's worst terrorist state, and on the other hand he is saying we have to stay and help this young democracy. On the surface that seems reasonable enough; who wouldn't want democracy instead of a terrorist state? But while I agree that premature withdrawal is not a sane option (I will have more to say on this later), I'm disturbed by the logic here; if he really believes that American military might is the only thing keeping Iraq from becoming a terrorist state, then he is a) tacitly admitting that his administration's pre-war assumptions about post-war Iraq truly were as wrong as they could possibly have been, and b) acknowledging Iraq's own utter helplessness in creating a democracy. How then are we to believe the prevailing "conservative" wisdom that Iraq can be a beacon of democracy in the heart of the Middle East, emboldening the supposedly pro-American people of places like Iran? This argument doesn't add up: if Iraq cannot build a democracy without a long-term American military presence, why should we believe that places like Iran can? I hear guys like this one on NPR saying Iran is ripe for democracy, but I see no compelling proof; just lots of wishful thinking. Frankly, I'm a jaded man when it comes to any form of optimism about that part of the world, which I have unfortunately seen firsthand (twice). If the people of Iran or anywhere else want democracy, why should they need any help or encouragement from us if that's really what they want? Rise up, depose your tyrants, and proclaim yourselves a democracy if that's really what you want, by God. Where is that good old-fashioned, self-help, do-it-yourself conservative philosophy we used to preach? Why doesn't it apply to our foreign policy, where suddenly conservative values like prudence and realism have become bad words, cynically derided as "defeatist"?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Home of the Assassins

Another op-ed about the need to break up Iraq in order to save it. And it's always mildly entertaining, if a little depressing, when an American official like Attorney General Gonzales visits Iraq and talks about "the rule of law." The people of Iraq have never known anything like the rule of law--as we define it--in modern history. They have only known the rule of violence and terror, either from an absolute tyrant or various factions vying to be the absolute tyrant(s). I'm reading a good book by Michael Oren about the Six Day War of 1967, and the first chapter alone is a good primer for novices (i.e., most of our elected officials) who know very little about the turbulent history of the modern Middle East. Long before Israel ever arrived on the scene, the entire region was a case study in the worst aspects of human behavior practiced on a massive, societal scale. This is the same part of the world that gave birth to the word Assassin. I hope to hell the people of Iraq can beat their own history and use this chance we gave them--albeit at no invitation of theirs--to build a better future, but as always when it comes to human beings, I remain skeptical. If some alien civilization had occupied the heart of Europe and given us a democratically elected government in the middle of the Dark Ages, I would be about as optimistic. Maybe a little moreso, actually.

The Islamic Way of War

As Andrew Bacevich writes in the September 11 edition of The American Conservative: "It’s time for Americans to recognize that the enterprise that some neoconservatives refer to as World War IV is unwinnable in a strictly military sense. Indeed, it’s past time to re-examine the post-Cold War assumption that military power provides the preferred antidote to any and all complaints that we have with the world beyond our borders." While I disagree with Mr. Bacevich that there is anything uniquely Islamic about the "way of war" being fought by insurgents and terrorists in the Middle East, I think his larger point is well taken. There are a number of politicians in this country--mainly self-identified "conservatives"--who believe that conventional military force can reshape that region of the world to our liking. I disagree. We certainly have the ability to destroy any number of regimes we don't like, but when it comes to the harder work of building stable, peaceful democracies in a climate of age-old ethnic and religious violence--and somehow expecting that if only the American people can toughen up and quit whining, our conventional military forces can prevail in that task--we are relatively powerless and horrifically naive. It's not that I think the president's vision of a democratic Middle East is all bad; it's that I think his strategy for realizing that vision is flawed. No amount of open-ended occupations and conventional military force alone will ever produce the results he wants, nor will they produce the results that Israel wants in Lebanon.

Monday, August 28, 2006

A polite but firm letter to Hezbollah

When I read about Kofi Annan demanding that Hezbollah turn over the two captured Israeli soldiers, I was reminded of the Simpsons episode where Mayor Quimby says, "People, take it easy. We are all upset about Mr. Burns' plan to, uh, block out our sun. It is time for decisive action. I have here a polite but firm letter to Mr. Burns' underlings, who, with some cajoling, will pass it along to him or at least give him the jist of it. Also, it has been brought to my attention that a number of you are stroking guns. Therefore, I will step aside and open up the floor." Mr. Annan is in the same hopeless position as Mayor Quimby. Ultimately it's not the U.N., but a bunch of angry guys with guns in Lebanon and Israel who will determine the fate of those two nations.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

More dissent in the ranks

More Republican dissent on Iraq as top GOP frontrunners jockey for position in '08. I had forgotten about Cheney's "final throes" comment until reading this. I also seem to recall Rumsfeld at first denying there was an insurgency, then saying it was only a few hundred strong, and then gradually admitting it was in the thousands. Now the media is saying it's stronger than it's ever been, and a dwindling number of hardcore Bush loyalists are all but convinced that the insurgency/civil war is a complete fabrication of the media's. Now the president himself is saying he and his administration have always said Iraq would be a long, hard conflict. That's not true, of course, unless one remembers that the administration views the war in Iraq and the War on Terrorism as one and the same. Anyhoo, it will be an interesting barometer of the party's mood to see how much traction guys like McCain and Hagel get out of their criticism of the president and the war.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Hagel speaks out (again)

Wouldn't it be nice if a GOP presidential candidate actually ran against his party's Johnsonian spending habits and utopian foreign policy and won the nomination? Probably ain't gonna happen, but one can dream.

Federalism for Iraq

News like this is hardly anything new when it comes to Iraq, but it does make one wonder--yet again--how such a bitter religious division can be overcome to forge a stable, enduring democracy. Tocqueville believed, and many conservatives used to believe, that the mores/habits/values/practices of a culture largely predetermined whether a successful democracy could take hold. Today, many conservatives (or perhaps more accurately, neo-conservatives) believe the opposite: that democracy can transform even the most alien culture for the better. They believe in what Pat Buchanan derisively called "the salvific power of free elections." For proof of this salvific power, Wilsonian idealists will most commonly cite post-war Japan. But Japan is a poor example for the case in Iraq, since it has none of the ethnic or religious divisions--indeed, is probably the most homogenous nation on Earth--and did in fact already possess, prior to our occupation, many of the mores that tend to make democracy work, like self-discipline, thrift, and respect for the law. A much better example for the neo-conservative case is probably India, which has managed to muddle along with a functioning democracy in spite of serious ethnic and religious divisions. But if one looks to India as a model for Iraq, one must remember that democracy only took hold there after the partition of 1947, which created the nation of Pakistan. So this raises the valid question, should Iraq be partitioned? It already has a de facto sovereign Kurdish nation within its borders, one that will almost certainly clamor for full independence as all de facto states eventually do. Could there be a Sunni and Shiite partition as well? Peter Galbraith is one of the leading American advocates for a three-state solution in Iraq, but so far this position has been derided as defeatist by the administration, which clings to a utopian view of Iraq where free elections somehow defeat terrorism and end more than a millenium of bitter religious violence. What is most baffling about this position is that our own nation survived--in fact thrived--because our founders recognized the wisdom of joining our original 13 states into a federation in which they could all still enjoy a strong degree of autonomy. Certainly the issue of slavery posed a serious challenge to our system of federalism, and the Civil War changed it forever, but there are few sane scholars today who would argue against the ultimate success of our system. So why do neo-conservatives cling to a utopian vision of democracy and bitterly reject practical solutions based on historical precedent? If anyone has a good answer, I'd like to hear it.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

What the...?

"We will defeat the terrorists by strengthening young democracies across the broader Middle East."? Huh? Is that what we're doing in Lebanon? I hate to sound like a broken record, but I don't think Lebanon's young democracy got any help from 34 days of sustained devastation, and I don't think anything our government has said or done from the beginning of that conflict to date has helped Lebanese democracy in any way whatsoever. All we did was countenance the same failed strategy we've used in Iraq, where the insurgents and terrorists are as strong today as they've ever been. It's kind of hard to build a stable democracy when your people are getting shot at and blown up every day.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Israeli soldiers speak out

Most of these complaints address logistical problems, but for those interested in the strategic issues of this conflict, here's something to ponder: in 1967, Israel defeated the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria in just six days. In 1973, Israel defeated the combined forces of Egypt and Syria in just 20 days of conflict. In 2006, Israel failed to defeat Hezbollah in 34 days of fighting.
Does this mean that Israel is getting weaker? While the complaints of these soldiers suggest some serious problems of military planning and organization, the answer is no. The reason Israel could not destroy Hezbollah--contrary to the early claims of the Israeli and U.S. government--has to do with the nature of the conflict. Hezbollah, like the terrorists we are fighting in Iraq, is an irregular force that fights and hides among civilians. Unlike conventional forces, they don't wear uniforms or line up in formations and march into battle. The only sure way to completely destroy an irregular force like Hezbollah is to completely destroy the civilian populace; any claim to the contrary is simply absurd.
As our own government has begun to realize and acknowledge in Iraq, any victory against an enemy like this must ultimately be a political--not a military--victory. The terrorists and/or insurgents must be completely alienated from the people. Unfortunately, Israel's ill-conceived invasion of Lebanon has achieved the opposite result. It may have temporarily damaged Hezbollah's fighting ability, but it has strengthened its political standing and its support among the Lebanese people.
No, Israel's military is still strong. It's their government's strategy that's weak.

Plan of Attack

I recently finished reading Plan of Attack. Woodward interviewed key members of the administration, including the president himself, and was therefore able to present a very vivid picture of the inner debates and meetings that ultimately led to the invasion of Iraq. There are no shocking revelations in the book, but it does give one a better sense of how and why the CIA got the WMD issue so wrong. Embarrassed by their failure to prevent 9/11 and paranoid about future attacks, they were all too eager to feed the White House crumbs of questionable intelligence about Iraq, figuring it was better to err on the side of extreme caution, and the White House (especially the vice president) was all too eager to seize those crumbs to justify an invasion that many warhawks considered long overdue.
Republicans still smarting from Watergate tend to be suspicious of anything Woodward writes, but the truth is that this book, like the preceding Bush at War, does not present Bush in an unflattering light. Yes, there are the odd Bush moments that make you cringe, but more often than not I found myself somewhat more sympathetic to a president I don't otherwise hold in much esteem.
For those interested in the president, his foreign policy and his key advisors, this book actually makes a good sequel not only to Bush at War, but to James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans as well.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

More on Hezbollah

The New York Times has a piece this morning about Hezbollah's gaining stature in the aftermath of Israel's invasion. As I've already said, the most predictable result of this conflict was a gigantic boost to Hezbollah's political standing in Lebanon, which marks neither a defeat of terrorism nor an advance for democracy in the Middle East. If anything I think it's safe to say that Lebanon is further from the Western democratic fold today than it was last year.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Future of Cuba

I don't know why anyone was surprised that Cubans weren't dancing in the street when Fidel Castro relinquished power to his brother Raul. American foreign policy remains anchored on two hugely flawed assumptions: first, that people in places we don't like (Cuba, Syria, Iran, North Korea, etc.) are hungering for democracy and poised for revolution, and second, that isolating and threatening these regimes will push their people ever closer toward a form of government we prefer. In fact there is plenty of evidence to the contrary; that confrontational policies toward nations like Cuba tend to increase anti-American sentiment and ultimately strengthen their leaders while more rational policies of engagement toward Communist nations like China and Vietnam have tended to produce, if not actual democracy, at least some of the necessary preconditions for democracy (like economic growth). If our government is serious about seeing a democratic Cuba in the future, the best thing it can do is drop our asinine, counter-productive policies toward that nation and attempt to engage Cuba in the same way we've successfully engaged Communist regimes across the Pacific.

Friday, August 04, 2006

... who needs enemies?

The current state of affairs between Lebanon and Israel demonstrates two fallacies guiding President Bush's foreign policy: first, that democracy in the Middle East is the "antidote for terror," and second, that "democracies don't fight democracies." Far from striking a blow against terrorism or making a friend of Israel, Lebanon's democratic elections last year only strengthened Hizbollah's political standing and even gave them a semblance of respectability; a semblance that has been hugely amplified throughout the Middle East by their "victory" over Israel (one has to remember that to the modern Arab mind, anything but complete and utter defeat is a victory, especially against Israel or America). With democratic friends like Hizbollah's Lebanon and Hamas' Palestinian Authority, who needs enemies?

My thoughts exactly, Sir

Yesterday on NPR, a retired Marine officer and Vietnam veteran spoke up about the incident at Haditha. I believe his thoughtful commentary reflects the opinion of most military officers on the subject of war crimes. It certainly reflects mine.