Friday, April 11, 2003

Well, we've had the feel-good moment of toppling statues, with crowds on the streets. It sure looked great on camera -- provided you were looking at the right camera, at any rate. It looked just like Afghanistan.

Afghanistan, which actually did have something to do with September 11th. Afghanistan, which the short-attention-span crowd in the White House forgot, at first, to put in this year's budget at all. Afghanistan, where the central authority which we support cannot make its influence felt outside of Kabul, the warlords are feuding again, and the drug trade is booming. Afghanistan, where workers from NGOs no longer dare to travel the countryside, after a Red Cross worker was murdered in cold blood by the Taliban -- the very same enemy that we supposedly routed last year.

There's a response you sometimes hear from hawks when you bring up these little embarassments -- that they sincerely want to make something better happen in Afghanistan, but the place was a mess, so it will take a little time. Sooner or later, the influence of the Karzai government will grow. This would be more convincing if it were attached to a schedule -- a year or so for Kabul, next year Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif a year or two after that, and so on for a decade or so until we actually started dealing with the mess in the countryside where the drugs and terrorists were hiding out in the first place.

But hey, I started out talking about Iraq, and Iraq is different. Unlike Afghanistan, the Iraqis are a cosmopolitan, educated people, with no history of nasty internecine warfare, except for the Sunni ruling clique oppressing everybody else. It's only a temporary glitch, one hopes, that the looters in Baghdad, having stripped government offices bare, are now turning on shops and hospitals. So, when the Shiites start hacking each other to pieces over doctrinal disputes, it's not good. Particularly when the first victim was noted for his friendliness towards us.

This may not be the next Yugoslavia -- I certainly hope not. But no technical tricks can avert that, and a temporary armed occupation can only hold it off -- we just can't afford to keep that up forever, and other countries aren't exactly lining up to help pay the bill. What it takes is political and diplomatic fancy footwork, in getting groups with old scores to settle their differences, see their common interests, and work together. And we can only hope that Dubya's crowd shows itself better at that sort of thing than it has been till now.

More: Belly up to Billmon's whiskey bar for more on Dubya's peccable triumph; among other things, he notes that the coalition forces have sometimes been less than thorough in vetting the "sheikhs" they've invested with local authority, and in Basra, at least, they've... ahem... taken a Baath. And while you're there, don't fail to pay your respects to the King, who sometimes pops up where you least expect...

Yet more: Check out George Will, who is magnanimously willing to grant that armies other than our own, like the Germans, with their experience in peacekeeping, might have a useful role to play in cleaning up the Iraqi mess... but only if they beg for the privilege. He also carps at the amount of money the Germans spend on soldiers' salaries -- as if stiffing the servicemen, à la Dubya, were somehow a point of honor...

And yet more: Guest-blogging at the Daily Kos, RonK dares to use the Q-word.

Thursday, April 10, 2003

I join Bruce Rolston (permalinks still broken; see below) in saying that the "Monty Python Black Knight" jokes are not the best way of making fun of Iraq's former Information Minister, Muhammed al-Sahhaf, particularly with all of the genuinely dismembered Iraqis crowding the hospitals in Baghdad.

It's not just tasteless, it's unoriginal.

I was actually starting to look forward to seeing al-Sahhaf explain personally to American infantrymen on patrol how, as members of the cowardly, infidel invading forces, they would die a coward's death in the city that would be their graveyard, after which they would spend eternity in a thousand hells. I'm sure that, with their personal interest in these matters, they would have asked a few questions that didn't occur to members of the working press.

And he only missed his chance by a day. Such a pity.

Then again, there's the joke now reportedly circulating among his fellow Arabs, who know him better than us: "When al-Sahhaf died they sent him 63 angels. Three of them are asking him questions about his life, and 60 are trying to convince him that he's really dead"...

By the way, if you read French, these portraits of American soldiers are worth a look. One of their reporters spent three weeks with the Third Infantry Division, and met some interesting characters: A batallion commander who plays den mother and drill sergeant by turns as need requires; she may be the only female batallion commander in the division, but she doesn't know for sure, and doesn't much care. A sergeant with a mischievous look and a carefully guarded stash of cologne for whom the Army is less an adventure than a job -- a good job for blacks, he hastens to add, but he's not sure there'd be a war on if rich kids got drafted. An angel-faced nineteen year old fuel-tanker driver from Arizona, "in her element" in the Iraqi desert, who trusts in Jesus to keep enemy artillery away from her cargo; after military service, she'd like to be a nurse -- she can be very gentle, she says, and has nothing but fisticuffs for the "mockers" in her unit who dare to disagree. Very worth a read.

More news from Boston: Catholic Charities, against orders from the acting Archbishop here, Richard Lennon, will accept a $35,000 donation from lay group Voice of the Faithful. The archdiocese regards the mere existence of an independant fundraising effort as a challenge to its authority, and had ordered Catholic Charities to turn down the money.

Lennon is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, the now-disgraced Cardinal Law, who ordered Catholic Charities to turn down an earlier $56,000 donation. That didn't work either.

Lennon has decided that he won't respond to this provocation by trying to fire the Catholic Charities board that accepted the money. Not yet. How magnanimous.

And it's the same thing from here to China, where the authorities have found an equally self-defeating way of asserting their own authority -- issuing casualty figures for SARS pneumonia so low that the doctors in the hospitals complain about it...

Blogger bug watch:

Note to other blogger users -- permalinks more broken than usual? Since last Thursday, near as I can tell, Blogger has not been updating archive pages (the pages that permalinks link to) when you make new posts -- at least not for me, and apparently not for a lot of other people.

So, if you want your permalinks to work, you have to manually republish your most recent archive page after making new posts. You may also find that even this doesn't work unless you sign out of blogger and log back in; I frequently see weird Java errors, "Number format exception" being particularly popular.

I guess they're too busy working on that superneatokeen "audioblogger" stuff to bother with trivia like this...

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Well, against my expectations, and a lot of other peoples', the vaunted Republican Guard around Baghdad did put up less of a fight than the Iraqi regular army in the south; as of this morning, all reports are that Saddam's Baath regime in Iraq has collapsed.

So, what does this mean for the critics?

First off, there's one critique which seems, at this point, to be mostly right: that army troops aren't trained to deliver aid and restore order, don't like to do it, and aren't much good at it. The case is presented in detail by Jeanne D'Arc, but you can see a precis of it in some of the news stories -- the ones featuring widespread looting, amid general indifference from the troops, and shortages of critical supplies, including water. The British troops in Basra even refused a request to defend the hospital from looters, from a doctor who has been trying to protect it since the conflict began -- and remember, the Brits are supposed to be better at this sort of thing than the Americans, due to their experience in Northern Ireland. A sudden victory is what coalition forces were planning for; I would have hoped they'd have been better prepared to deal with it.

Just as clearly, another critique was mostly wrong -- the conflict was not doomed to turn the cities into meat-grinder urban battlefields, à la Stalingrad. The post-mortems on that will be interesting reads.

Which leaves the questions that time has yet to settle.

First, there's the question of what sort of government will be set up -- will it be Iraq for the Americans, or for the Iraqis? At his press conference in Ireland, Dubya was emphatic that the Iraqis would choose their own government, and the US wouldn't be putting anyone in particular in power. And yet, we also have stories about Americans awarding contracts to operate Iraqi infrastructure, Americans designing a new currency, American congressmen debating their cell phone standards, "Wolfowitz of Arabia" trying to get his favorite people into their government, and an American satrap in waiting in Kuwait, with experience as a defense contractor and ties to Israel.

Clearly, there needs to be some kind of a American administration of the territory in the short run, because the American armed forces are the only authority in most of the country. But if it looks like we're trying to set up a colonial regime and stay a while, rather than set the country back on its feet and get out, that will be trouble, inside Iraq (with the Shia majority, whose leaders have already been vocal on this point), and with the larger Arab world. This will have to play out over months, though there will be some early soundings -- the cell phone bill is just a disgrace.

That, in turn, plays into the reaction from the Arabs and the larger Muslim world. Already, Tom Ridge is talking about lowering the terrorist alert level, as if the major terrorist organizations were agents of Saddam, without command structures of their own. Terrorist response will play out, not over months, but over years. Bin Laden wanted this war badly -- not as a trigger for operations, but as a recruiting tool. Recruits need to be trained. They need to be organized. They need to be infiltrated into their target communities. All that takes time -- after which, they will act. The terrorist response to Gulf War I came after -- years after.

Of course, it makes a difference what we do, or don't do, in the meantime, to keep them motivated -- events in Iraq and elsewhere in the middle east will be critical here.

And one last note, on the criticism of the war plan. In the end, it succeeded, and that will be taken by some as vindication. But it was a closer-run thing than it needed to be. Consider, for instance, the pause, about a week in, in the rush towards Baghdad. The third division had to pause -- it was low on supplies, and its troops were exhausted. If this war had been fought according to standard Army doctrine, as I understand it, there would have been another force coming up behind them, fresh, and ready to keep up the fight. Instead, the American ground forces were just stuck in the desert, immobilized by exhaustion, unable to take advantage of their own successes by pressing the battle further to the enemy, or to vigorously defend their own supply lines.

And in the end, none of this mattered, because their opposition was literally the gang that couldn't shoot straight -- the headline on this reporter's diary is "Thank God the Iraqis can't aim". Which, you'll recall, is why the hawks wanted to go for Baghdad first, as opposed to, say, North Korea -- they were perceived as a pushover. And the last army that was defeated by Rumsfeldesque strategy was the Taliban, an even worse trained force that we conquered, to a great extent, by bribing their army out from under them. (Or did we? They'rrre baaaack...) If the neocons continue on their plan for conquest, we won't always be so lucky in our choice of opponents... witness this report of an encounter with much better trained Egyptian and Syrian forces, who suckered Marines into a costly ambush, and fought to the death.

In short, Barry McCaffery still looks to me like a more informed, more cogent and incisive commentator on this battle plan than Steven den Beste.

But, like most war opponents, I wasn't opposed because I feared defeat, but because I feared the price of victory -- the literal price in terms of the cost of rebuilding, and the diplomatic cost in friction regarding other problems in the world, expected an unexpected, some more urgent than Iraq. Time will tell.

Late addition: Oh yes, one more thing. I almost forgot. Weapons of mass destruction. The failure of Saddam's regime to use whatever it had in its own defense, even in extremis, has got to count against American claims that they were anything like an imminent threat. And I doubt anyone will shed terribly many tears for Saddam's regime in any event. But if we can't build a credible case, even with full control of the country, that will be an embarassment at the very least...

Yet more: For a more sanguine, and perhaps less sanguinary, whack at a post-mortem on the military strategy, from a retired professional military officer to boot, see Bruce Rolston's (except his permalinks are busted as I write, so go here and scroll down). He winds up praising the plan a lot more than I do, but also regards the Americans as being fortunate in their choice of their opponent. As does John Keegan, who, drawing on his vast, magisterial knowledge of military history, gives Saddam's war plan a kind of military Golden Turkey award as "one of the most inept ever designed"...

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

At Daily Kos, Billmon describes the diplomatic posture that Dubya's forcing on the rest of the world -- saying "nice doggie" to us until they can make themselves a sharp enough stick.

Think China and Europe can't find one? For now, you're right. The Chinese are working to change that, and over decades, they have the resources.

Jim Henley's faith in guns as a guarantor of civil rights has been shaken by the news that residents of Iraq had plenteous guns -- and no civil rights. How can this be? He's dragged reluctantly to the conclusion that hunting rifles in private hands, or even, as in Iraq, Kalashnikovs, are no match for an organized modern army. (Gee, I could have told him that).

So, if guns don't guarantee liberty, how, then, can libertarians justify their gun fetish? Henley finds a way:

...gun rights as canary in the coal mine. On this theory, the right itself is less important than the possible loss of it - that is, when a government ceases to trust its citizens (if we can still use that term) and a people cease to trust themselves and their neighbors to responsibly wield potentially lethal force, that society has become chronically . . . cowardly? decadent? distorted? This argument I accept wholeheartedly. We are talking about a process that unfolds over time, but when we see Britain first confiscate guns and then propose curtailing jury trials, things suggest themselves. Ask a western Canadian about Canada's gun restrictions and you can probably get a list of similar baleful developments.

There's only one problem with that argument: Henley is writing from inside a country where the right of habeas corpus has been effectively suspended, where dissent is being increasingly stigmatized, where a government espionage apparatus is being increasingly directed at the online activities of its own citizens, and where proposals are in the air to define even peaceful protest as "terrorist activity" with draconian penalties, including loss of citizenship -- all by an administraton which fetishizes gun rights. Ashcroft demands the right to know what books you're reading at the library, but your gun purchase records are sacrosanct.

Henley promises next to deal with guns and crime, at which point he might deal with the awkward fact that American urban neighborhoods with widespread guns tend to be those where law-abiding residents have the least liberty in practical terms -- say, the liberty to walk safely on the street at night...

Update: Jim responds, saying that this argument "suffers ... from more attention to party politics than to structure." Since I never mentioned party politics, I have no idea what he's talking about -- as Jim mentioned later in his own piece, politicians of both American major parties voted for the PATRIOT act.

The case is simple -- Jim proposes that, so long as gun rights are secure, other rights will be secure as well. Current events show that's just not so. End of story. Party politics have nothing to do with the argument, and bringing them up is just a strange sort of displacement.

But then again, that's how this started. Jim observed that in Iraq, firearms by themselves were no guards of liberty -- and responded, not by trying to find other guards of liberty, but by trying to find another way to justify the libertarian gun fetish.

On the other hand, while party politics have nothing to do my argument, they do have something to do with the events -- it's Ashcroft and Co. who set the match to the Bill of Rights; the worst you can say about the Democrats is that they're hanging around the bonfire, afraid that people will think they're not cool kids if they don't show up. Which is something of an embarassment for a lot of soi-disant "libertarians", who have been voting for years for the major party with the least commitment to personal and civil liberties. But again, I could have warned them about that. Oh wait, I did.

Monday, April 07, 2003

Some non-war related reading:
The BBC reports on China's SARS policy, which has the government telling the population absolutely nothing because it wants to avoid a panic, and the people doing panicy things like buying all available vinegar because they know there's something going on, and have no good information.

And the government believes, sincerely in its own way, that they're doing this to protect the citizens... even though they would rather risk an epidemic than tell them to wash their hands.

Well, the news from Iraq could certainly be worse. With regard to civilian casualties, for instance, it's not as if the Red Cross is complaining about trucks full of the body parts of mutilated civilians.

Oh, wait. They are:

"There has been an incredible number of casualties with very, very serious wounds in the region of Hilla," Huguenin said in a interview by satellite telephone.

"We saw that a truck was delivering dozens of totally dismembered dead bodies of women and children. It was an awful sight. It was really very difficult to believe this was happening."

Judging by Google News, this seems to be a story that the American media is remarkably unwilling to report -- rather like the Russian opposition to the war (which, by the way, Putin has moderated of late).

And what of the future? Dubya's crowd is, they insist, not planning on invasions of Iran and Syria -- the same way that they were not planning anything in particular about Iraq last August. But Tony Blair has already said he wants no part of those conflicts, which would leave the United States in a position of magnificent isolation. Or perhaps not; the might of Palau might still be with us...

For the next few years, no one in the world will be able to do anything about it. But the prospect of a superpower knocking off threats at its whim will give lots of people reasons to try.