Friday, April 04, 2003

Guess who's joining the American right in their ceaseless excoriation of Castro's Cuba? It's the French!

That's an editorial in Le Monde, which reads, fairly roughly, as follows:

Following the attacks of September 11th in the US, a political commentator expressed fear that they'd produce nasty side effects -- in other words that the war on terrorism might be seized on as a pretext by numerous dictators to liquidate their opposition. As the Chinese did in stepping up the repression against the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang; as the Russians did to martyr a few more of the Chechens; and by others as well, all too happy to profit from the situation by killing, imprisoning and torturing, all in the name of the sacrosanct war against terrorism.

It would have been astounding if Fidel Castro didn't join the crowd. And he has, in his own way. The Cuban dictator chose his own occasion; he waited for the war against Iraq to start before trying to decimate his own opposition. With the mixture of cynicism and brutality which characterises the Havana regime, Castro is counting on silence from the international press, preoccupied with events between the Tigris and Euphrates; he hopes to play on the passivity of western governments working to heal the rifts among them provoked by the Americo-Britannic military operations.

Just as operations commenced in the war against Iraq, the Cuban police kicked off one of the harshest repressive operations ever seen on the island in at least ten years. In two weeks, they arrested 78 dissidents. Their trials started April 3. It's being done in authentic "Moscow show trial" style: no lawyers allowed to examine dossiers before the proceeding; neither journalists nor diplomats present in the courtroom; indictments carrying prison terms which could go for life. Against who?

Against women and men whose sole misdeed is to try, within the framework of the law, to get some respect for at least basic liberty. Fidel Castro wants to wipe out the militants of Project Varela, a campaign launched last year to get democratic changes by constitutional means. The admirable Marta Beatriz Roque, economist, emblematic figure of resistance to the regime, is thus threatened with a life sentence; the poet Raul Rivero risks 20 years of prison; 23 independant journalists have been arrested, and likewise about 50 defenders of human rights. All chased down for improper opinions, for political dissidence, for having the courage to oppose the Castro regime.

Who will line up from them in the great cities of the west? The organization "Reporters without borders" has taken up their defense. A petition, signed by great European intellectuals, calls for their immediate release. Castro knows that the beginning of openness would be the beginning of the end for his dictatorship. So he has to choke off the very breath of liberty. He is counting on a diversion of attention because of the war in Iraq. On this point, at least, he must be proven wrong. So, we must talk about Cuba.

For what it's worth, this is one matter on which even Dubya's diplomatic corps finds itself, as if by accident, fighting the good fight...

From The Times, in the middle of this military roundup, a mildly hopeful note:

In the rear, where the coalition was fighting for the allegiance of millions of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, one of Iraq's most prominent Shiite clerics, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa, or edict, instructing Muslims to remain calm and not to interfere with allied forces seeking to defeat irregular troops.

From New York, Sheik Fadhel al-Sahlani, who is the grand ayatollah's representative in the United States, said by telephone that he had not received a copy of the fatwa. But he said, "the essence of such a fatwa is to protect the people from any fighting and war casualties."

"They cannot stand as if they are supporting Saddam and be the coalition's target," he said.

The fatwa seemed to be a reversal in tone. On March 27, the grand ayatollah, who may have been under pressure from Baghdad, issued a fatwa forbidding any cooperation with invading forces.

But it's only a reversal in tone, not in content; the bottom line, either way, is that Shiite civilians are being told to stay out of the fighting -- for now.

As to the main fighting, there's still a lot of uncertainty about what's going on. That the Republican guard around Baghdad would put up less of a fight than the regular army in the south seems too good to be true, and like the early reports of mass surrenders, news from this war which seemed too good to be true has often turned out to be too good to be true. (Which leaves me wondering a bit about the latest report of mass surrenders, 2000 troops or so from the Republican Guard themselves).

But unless Saddam can somehow drag his neighbors into the fighting in a major way, he can't hold out forever. So, barring that event, or a stunning battlefield reversal (it's not yet beyond possibility that we've been led into some sort of elaborate trap, using all the stuff which hasn't shown up in battle reports, for whatever reason), we're back to the questions we started the war with: how ugly he goes down, which could be very ugly yet, and more importantly, what happens in the aftermath.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

A quick note on the battle of the Pentagon battle plans: it's sometimes described as "Rumsfeld vs. the generals". But according to Seymour Hersh's much noted New Yorker article on the fracas, it would be better to describe it as Rumsfeld's generals vs. all the others:

Gradually, Rumsfeld succeeded in replacing those officers in senior Joint Staff positions who challenged his view. "All the Joint Staff people now are handpicked, and churn out products to make the Secretary of Defense happy," the planner said. "They don't make military judgments?they just respond to his snowflakes."

In the months leading up to the war, a split developed inside the military, with the planners and their immediate superiors warning that the war plan was dangerously thin on troops and matériel, and the top generals -- including General Tommy Franks, the head of the U.S. Central Command, and Air Force General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- supporting Rumsfeld.

From which we can draw two conclusions. First, when Rumsfeld and Franks say that the current battle plan is the Franks plan, not Rumsfeld's, they are probably telling the simple truth. But also, what they're trying not to say is that Franks and Rumsfeld together overrode the Pentagon's normal planning process. (And for what it's worth, Rumsfeld did overrule Franks, according to Hersh, on at least one key point -- the decision to go ahead without the 4th division in place).

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

I'm a decent boy just landed from down near Hyderabad
I want a situation and I want it very bad
I've seen employment advertised -- let's help Iraq, says I
but the dirty blaggard ended with "No Muslims need apply"

"Whoa," says I, "that's quite an insult"
but to get the place a try
so I went to see the blaggard with his
"No Muslims need apply"

Some do tout it our misfortune to be named Ali or Rais
But defense of Muslim honor must be worth a mighty price

I rushed to Rehman Enterprises running like a race
And waved the bloody advert right in Abdul Rehman's face
But from US Army paperwork he quoted his reply:
"Only process applications when no Muslim has applied"

Then I gets my dander rising
and I'd like to black his eye
Why's a guy named Abdul Rehman
say "No Muslims need apply"?

Some do tout it our misfortune to be named Ali or Rais
But defense of Muslim honor must be worth a mighty price

To put an end to tyranny they came to Arab lands
A beacon of democracy they'll kindle in the sand
That's what they say, at any rate, but if it's true, then why
When they're hiring dock workers, say "No Muslims need apply"?
Well, at long last, there does seem to be a little good news from the war zone, both in the rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, and more importantly, the Americans' reported success in blowing through the Republican Guard around Karbala (which leaves that city isolated, but not yet captured). Given my general gloom and doom tone over the past few days, I might as well lead with this; I will, of course, be even more pleased if the army somehow proves me wrong about the prospects of streetfights in the battle of Baghdad as well. Let's just hope that, unlike the Iraqi 51st division, the Republican Guard units stay out of action once conquered.

A sidelight: some sort of attack around Karbala was prefigured over the past few days in the mysterious Russian web site which claims to be reporting summaries of Russian military intelligence -- they've been right about some things quite early, but they've also been vague or occasionally just plain wrong about others. And, as I've noted before, these guys are being a lot more free with their alleged signals intelligence than any professional Western intelligence agency. Which means that we may just be looking at well-educated guess work -- but on the gripping hand, isn't that what all intelligence ultimately boils down to anyway?

The reason I raise this is an absolute bombshell which is quietly buried towards the end of this report:

Russian military analysts are advising the Iraqi military command against excessive optimism. There is no question that the US "blitzkrieg" failed to take control of Iraq and to destroy its army. It is clear that the Americans got bogged down in Iraq and the military campaign hit a snag. However, the Iraqi command is now in danger of underestimating the enemy. For now there is no reason to question the resolve of the Americans and their determination to reach the set goal -- complete occupation of Iraq.

I could have stopped quoting after the first nine words: "Russian military analysts are advising the Iraqi military command." Say what?

Update: The Agonist reports that rumors of Russian advisors to the Iraqis seem to have cropped up in major Western media. Confirmation, or are they all just quoting Venik?

Yet more: The Agonist now cites this UPI article, which explicitly references, the original source of the analyses which are also appearing on -- UPI even quotes the same dispatch I did. So the mainstream press reports don't seem to be independant confirmation after all.

And now for something completely different: entertaining new developments in the charming field of tax fraud. In this case, a bunch of rich folks are trying to avoid paying their legitimate debt to the society that made them rich using a tax exemption written into the law decades ago for very small insurance companies. The way it works is that they set up a holding company for their assets which does a small amount of insurance business (for their own offices, or the like), and maintains those assets as a huge reserve, which they get to manage tax free.

Why, oh why, do these people hate America?

A sidelight on the war -- in case you were wondering why the US was so late taking out the phones in Baghdad, one possible reason is that for the first week or so of combat, American forces were telephoning Iraqi officers themselves to try to persuade them to defect.

Now there's a cold-call sales pitch I'd like to hear. Pity I don't have time to write a sample script myself...

More news from Boston: well, it wasn't just the unlamented Cardinal Law. The local archdiocese has once again been offered the choice between serving the needy, and trying to preserve its own power, in the form of a $35,000 donation from Voice of the Faithful to Catholic Charities. Voice of the Faithful was formed as a lay pressure group trying to force reform of the hierarchy, and out of general hostility to the very notion, the current Archdiocesan leadership has once again ordered Catholic Charities to turn down the money.

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

So Yasser Hamdi was captured in dodgy circumstances in Afghanistan, and Jose Padilla was a gangbanger with serious al-Qaeda contacts. Both are now American citizens imprisoned indefinitely, without a charge, allowed contact with absolutely no one, not even a lawyer.

Do you think that in the United States of Ashcroft it couldn't happen to someone like you -- a quiet, respectable professional with a good job and a nice family? Think again.

via TalkLeft.

Well, it looks like the Iraqi Shiites won't be rising up in support of the American army any time soon. Their leader has told them not to. On the other hand, he's warned that if we evict Saddam and don't immediately leave ourselves, we can expect him to sponsor an uprising against us.

Which could become a problem, as Rumsfeld's crew seems to be planning to stick around a while.

But tossing Iran into the "Axis of Evil" made for such a nice rhetorical flourish...

Monday, March 31, 2003

In contrast with their attitude towards the threat in Iraq, Dubya's crowd doesn't seem to have done much about the WMD programs in North Korea or Pakistan. But they're stepping up the pressure -- they have announced sanctions against both the AQ Kahn labs in Pakistan, home of their nuclear program, and North Korea.

So, what does this mean?

In fact, the weight of the sanctions is principally symbolic, officials said, because neither the Khan laboratories nor North Korea do business in the United States. Yet the move is meant to carry a message at a time when the Bush administration is seeking to isolate Pyongyang.

They're still not willing to actually talk to the North Koreans face to face, but they're sending a message. With another slap in the face. But hey, they're doing it because they love...

Tom Friedman continues to cling to his comic-book weltanschauung, pitting the "World of Order" against the "World of Disorder". And to some of his other mistakes as well. Witness his latest:

At this new historical pivot point, we're still dealing with a bipolar world, only the divide this time is no longer East versus West, but the World of Order versus the World of Disorder. But here's the surprise: the key instrument through which the World of Order will try to deal with threats from the World of Disorder will still be NATO. Only in this new, expanded NATO, Russia will gradually replace France, and the region where the new NATO will direct its peacekeeping energies will shift from the East to the South. Yes, NATO will continue to be based in Europe, but its primary theaters of operation will be the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and possibly the Arab-Israel frontier.

I guess he's spending so much time hobnobbing with international elites that he's just hasn't noticed Russia's position on our current operations in Iraq:

The war is "in danger of rocking the foundations of global stability and international law," Putin said. "The only correct solution to the Iraqi problem is an immediate end to military activity in Iraq and resumption of a political settlement in the UN Security Council."

Then again, it's not just Friedman. A Google News search on "Iraq Putin" turns up only a handful of articles in American media. I guess they're too busy beating on the French.

Monday was opening day for the Red Sox. They were pitching Pedro Martinez. Their opponent was the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, widely derided as one of the worst teams in the league. They shocked and awed the Rays by scoring three runs in the top of the first, before Pedro had even thrown a pitch. And then the management's innovative new "closer by committee" theory (cutting strongly against conventional wisdom) proved a bust as the Rays scored five runs on two homers in the bottom of the ninth, to win 6 runs to 4.

You know what the Pentagon needs? More Red Sox fans.

Sunday, March 30, 2003

There is some good news in the world today. China, whose continual food and oil shipments make it the only other state with any leverage at all over North Korea, has lately made it plain that continued development of the North Korean nuclear arms program could have consequences for the government there -- by, among other things, shipping no oil through their pipeline for three days straight. That's a turnabout for the Chinese, who had previously been opposed to any sanctions regime, as I've noted earlier. Via the Agonist.
And yet more good news... the anti-war march from Boston Common yesterday went off without a hitch -- 25,000 people by police estimates, 50,000 by the organizers, and absolutely no arrests. It was, all things considered, quite a show, featuring dozens of puppets (some quite elaborate), two or three percussion ensembles, several large traveling murals (including a replica of Guernica), six uniformed delegates from the IngSoc party, and a brass band.

A good time was had by all -- regrettably to little effect, though, as the mayor had done all he could in advance to paint the demonstrators as irresponsible thugs.

Hang on to your seats folks; from here it goes downhill in a hurry.

And now for some point-counterpoint:

Point, from Dubya's radio address yesterday:

In the last week, the world has ... seen the nature of the young men and women who fight on our behalf. They are showing kindness and respect to the Iraqi people. They are going to extraordinary lengths to spare the lives of the innocent. Our forces are delivering food and water to grateful Iraqi citizens in Safwan and Umm Qasr. The contrast could not be greater between the honorable conduct of our liberating force and the criminal acts of the enemy.

Counterpoint, from The Times of London, a generally conservative paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, describing a little collateral damage inflicted by American forces near Nasiriya:

One man's body was still in flames. It gave out a hissing sound. Tucked away in his breast pocket, thick wads of banknotes were turning to ashes. His savings, perhaps.

Down the road, a little girl, no older than five and dressed in a pretty orange and gold dress, lay dead in a ditch next to the body of a man who may have been her father. Half his head was missing.

Nearby, in a battered old Volga, peppered with ammunition holes, an Iraqi woman -- perhaps the girl's mother -- was dead, slumped in the back seat. A US Abrams tank nicknamed Ghetto Fabulous drove past the bodies.

This was not the only family who had taken what they thought was a last chance for safety. A father, baby girl and boy lay in a shallow grave. On the bridge itself a dead Iraqi civilian lay next to the carcass of a donkey.

As I walked away, Lieutenant Matt Martin, whose third child, Isabella, was born while he was on board ship en route to the Gulf, appeared beside me.

"Did you see all that?" he asked, his eyes filled with tears. "Did you see that little baby girl? I carried her body and buried it as best I could but I had no time. It really gets to me to see children being killed like this, but we had no choice."

Martin's distress was in contrast to the bitter satisfaction of some of his fellow marines as they surveyed the scene. "The Iraqis are sick people and we are the chemotherapy," said Corporal Ryan Dupre. "I am starting to hate this country. Wait till I get hold of a friggin' Iraqi. No, I won't get hold of one. I'll just kill him."

These folks had tried to leave Nasiriya over a bridge guarded by Marines with orders to shoot anything that moved, so, awful as this may be, it's not as if they're knowingly firing on civilians. For that, you need to go to the New York Times:

"We dropped a few civilians," Sergeant Schrumpf said, "but what do you do?"

To illustrate, the sergeant offered a pair of examples from earlier in the week.

"There was one Iraqi soldier, and 25 women and children," he said, "I didn't take the shot."

But more than once, Sergeant Schrumpf said, he faced a different choice: one Iraqi soldier standing among two or three civilians. He recalled one such incident, in which he and other men in his unit opened fire. He recalled watching one of the women standing near the Iraqi soldier go down.

"I'm sorry," the sergeant said. "But the chick was in the way."

Now, let me first say here that the initial hope that Iraqis would rise up to support the invaders was not completely unreasonable. The regime doesn't have universal support in the country even now. The Arab News, for instance, reports that at least some of the people picking up food supplies on TV were chanting pro-Saddam slogans only because they were terrified of a Baathist purge -- a point on which I'm inclined to give that generally unreliable source at least a little more credit than the spokesmen for any government. And there are even reports of Iraqi refugees feeding American Marines, which certainly speaks to some degree of sympathy for the invaders, at least as much as it speaks to the stunning failure of American logistics.

But there are also the persistent reports of Iraqi exiles, even regime opponents, wanting to come back to fight against the invasion, even if that involves lending temporary support to a regime which they loathe. "I am anti-Saddam, but I wish him all the best in defending my country", explained one Iraqi living in Cairo who I heard this morning on the BBC, adding that his regime is a problem, but "it's our problem".

I wouldn't expect a statistically reliable poll to come out of Iraq anytime soon, but support for the invasion seems tentative at best, and probably can't take much of Corporal DuPre's chemotherapy. I think it could actually take a bit, if it were part of a quick campaign followed by the equally quick establishment of decent law and order -- this is, after all, a war. But that's not how things are shaping up. Which is why it's important for our forces to keep Dubya's promise to "[go] to extraordinary lengths to spare the lives of the innocent", even if it puts them at risk, as it pretty much has to; if the Iraqis get the impression that we value our lives more than theirs, we are setting ourselves up for an occupation that will make the West Bank look like a theme park. But if any Iraqis saw what The Times calls "the bridge of death", they could draw no other conclusion. Let alone Marine sharpshooters who fire on civilians just because "the chick was in the way."

But that's all of a piece with the general unreality of what's coming from the leadership of the campaign these days, with assurances that there is "no pause" in the advance of American units towards Baghdad, even though those units have ceased to advance, and that the operation is, in the words of CentCom spokesman Gen. Vincent Brooks, "on plan", as if any reasonable plan would have soldiers short of water in the middle of a desert, only days into the operation. He went on:

General Brooks drew a distinction between the grunt's war -- the "tactical level" -- and the generals' war -- the "operational level." He said things might occasionally go awry for the soldiers and force changes in the war-fighting plan. "But at the operational level," he said, "with what we seek to achieve, it remains unchanged."

He elaborated, "And so that's what we're talking about at this level, at the Centcom level. There's a different view down on Planet Earth, if you will, as you described it. The closer you get to the line, the more precise the realities are."

Lacking a full transcript, I don't know if any reporter posed the obvious follow-up question -- what's the weather like on their planet? Perhaps there aren't any sandstorms.

Last October, I wrote a piece suggesting that Iraqis might put up more of a fight than Dubya's hawks were expecting. I can't claim all that much credit for that insight; I was riffing on a column by Robert Novak, which obliquely raised the same issue. But I can, perhaps, claim a bit of credit for this:'s not as if Cheney and Rumsfeld are just Bush I retreads trying to redo the Gulf War. It's important to remember they're older than that. They are, in fact, Nixon administration retreads trying to redo Vietnam --- a war where technical superiority and early large set-piece victories (the lonesome cry of the cold war hawk: "The Tet offensive was a military defeat for the Viet Cong!") didn't exactly prefigure success.

The degree to which Vietnam-era patterns have reasserted themselves is stunning -- and profoundly worrisome.

Many links courtesy of the lively comment sections at The Daily Kos and The Agonist.

Late edits: Added a bit more of the BBC quote, thanks to a rebroadcast; also added some clarification elsewhere.