Thursday, November 20, 2003

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Istanbul today, Tony Blair explained in a press conference the importance of Iraq in the struggle against terrorism:

... here is why Iraq is important in this: because in the end [the terrorists'] case ... is that we are in Iraq to suppress Muslims, steal their oil, to spoil the country. Now we know, you know, that all those things are lies. They know therefore that if we manage to get Iraq on its feet as a stable, prosperous, democratic country, the blow we strike is not just one for the Iraqi people, it is the end of that propaganda and that is why they are fighting us.

True enough, as far as it goes, though the terrorists wouldn't be able to make that case if we hadn't invaded Iraq in the first place (which is one of the reasons that I, among others, argued that the attack might be a bad idea).

But while you can't disagree that we should "get Iraq on its feet as a stable, prosperous, democratic country" if it's at all possible, it's a different question whether anything our troops are doing now actually contributes to that end. As I noted last week, it's not obvious to me that they are actually helping. The feel-good press releases from Centcom about painting schoolhouses don't amount to much; the Iraqis could paint their own schoolhouses perfectly well if our troops weren't in the way. Our assistance in business has been inept at best, as in the case of an Iraqi cement plant, fixed up by the Iraqis themselves for half a million dollars because they couldn't wait for the $23 million boondoggle proposed by US Army engineers.

And the troops are unable to guard agencies like the Red Cross, which have been chased out by the "insurgents". Increasingly, they're being pushed back onto their own bases, from which they emerge only on heavily armored raids that do nothing to win over the Iraqis. Kevin Sites, embedded in Tikrit, paints a frightening picture of the isolation of US commanders:

The Army, which has turned acronyms into the opposite of their intended use of making things easier to remember, calls its battlefield information headquarters a TOC, short for Tactical Operations Center. There the commander sits flanked by his XO, executive officer, battle captains, S2 (intelligence officer) and S3 (operations officer) sucking in the information flow and knitting together daily missions that help them to accomplish their overall mission.

In the TOC in Tikrit, 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry commander Colonel James Hickey, tells me the mission here is to, "defeat the enemy and stabilize the region." The enemy as he defines it is FRL's (former regime loyalists) like Baathists and the Fedayeen. ... Unlike some soldiers, he is not confused about his mission. It is not for hearts and minds, but to defeat the enemy. ... He has a reputation for being one of the most aggressive commanders in the theatre -- and if things goes well here, he likely get his first general's star.

"I have a military problem here and I'm applying a military solution," he says with complete confidence. "Our adversaries are not militarily effective. They are mercenaries, terrorists and pirates and they will be defeated."

... in this room, where every piece of information is broken down quantitatively--number of patrols, number of raids, number of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), number of detainees, number of weapons -- and put back together in the form of a task completed or a mission to be accomplished, Operation Thunder Road, Operation Ivy Cyclone, the problems and solutions seem remarkably clear an seductively simple.

Blips show up in the map on the TOC, are identified as targets, and are disabled, by the application of whatever force is required -- lately, around Tikrit as all over Iraq, including aircraft and missile strikes. And here's what it looks like to Iraqis on the ground:

...residents expressed bewilderment at the offensive and the choice of targets in territory fully controlled by coalition forces, and said there was no sign of any guerrilla activity in the area before the strikes.

"They (the Americans) called on us from the tanks to stay at home because they were going to hit targets and they also said: 'If you want to watch our show you can go to the rooftops,'" Hamziya Ali, a housewife living near the plant, said Wednesday.

"But me and my children spent the night shaking. We do not want to be their targets. Yesterday, they hit the factory and open fields which have not been used by any resistance members."

The Iraqis are wondering: why hit an open field? They don't understand: it's a target on a map. And it has been disabled. And so that patch of grass will never threaten Americans again. But the people who got bombed -- now they have a reason, as Riverbend, writing from Baghdad, explains in her outraged response to Col. Hickey's attacks on Tikrit:

How can that ass of a president say things are getting better in Iraq when his troops have stooped to destroying homes?! Is that a sign that things are getting better? When you destroy someone's home and detain their family, why would they want to go on with life? Why wouldn't they want to lob a bomb at some 19-year-old soldier from Missouri?!

The troops were pushing women and children shivering with fear out the door in the middle of the night. What do you think these children think to themselves- being dragged out of their homes, having their possessions and houses damaged and burned?! Who do you think is creating the 'terrorists'?!! Do you think these kids think to themselves, "Oh well- we learned our lesson. That's that. Yay troops!" It's like a vicious, moronic circle and people are outraged…

But how can she understand the military details of the situation? She may speak the language, while most of our officers don't, but they've got a TOC, an XO, and a really slick map.

(A note to trolls: why no, I'm not blaming the troops for this mess. I'm blaming the officers, and their superiors in Washington. If your notion of "supporting the troops" is supporting a policy that gets them killed and maimed in large numbers to no useful purpose, you certainly have a right to it).

So what are we achieving -- what can we achieve by staying in? Hesiod has a more limited view than Blair; he just wants us to keep the country from descending into chaos, with armed factions competing against each other. But that is starting to happen around us: someone just attacked a Kurdish political party in Kirkkuk.

Perhaps the best we could achieve along these lines is to hand political power to a faction which seems best able to keep it -- say, one of the main Shiite factions (since they're the majority), with sufficient guarantees for everyone else that they won't immediately start blowing things up. This would, in effect, make us the handmaiden to a Shiite theocracy -- certainly not what the "beacon of democracy" crowd had in mind when we started this mess. But it may be the best achievable outcome.

Does that sound defeatist? Unpatriotic? Tell it to the "administration officials" who more or less floated the idea in today's New York Times. Why, oh why, do these people hate America?

Speaking of the "beacon of democracy" crowd, by the way, Daniel Pipes, who was a member of that crowd before the war, is saying something rather different now:

"We have no, no moral responsibility to the Iraqi people," he said. "Our moral responsibility is to ourselves. I very much disagree with the name 'Operation Iraqi Freedom.' It should have been 'Operation American Security.'" This met with applause. "Our goal is not a free Iraq," Pipes continued. "Our goal is an Iraq that does not endanger us." What we need, he says, is a "democratic-minded strongman."

The contrast with Blair's remarks this morning couldn't be more stark. And anyone who speaks of "a democratic-minded strongman" is lost in a wilderness of the mind where words have no meaning. But let's try to take his words at face value anyway. There's no reason to believe Iraq was endangering us when we started this. There were no weapons of mass destruction. And, no matter how much Douglas Feith keeps shopping around the same cherry-picked hints and rumors of some sort of connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, they still don't amount to much. As Pipes' motives shift and mutate, I'm reminded somewhat of Col. Kurtz's report in Heart of Darkness:

... it was a beautiful piece of writing. The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, 'must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings -- we approach them with the might as of a deity,' and so on, and so on. 'By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,' etc., etc. From that point he soared and took me with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence -- of words -- of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: 'Exterminate all the brutes!'

You'd rather it were about the oil...

Edit note: Riverbend quote added late...


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