Friday, November 14, 2003

The rich are different, said Fitzgerald to Hemingway. Replied Hemingway, they have more money.

Do the differences end there? Well, at the very least, they seem to have a different court system. By which I refer not so much to the acquittal of Robert Durst, who did in fact shoot his neighbor, dice the body, and dump the pieces in the ocean (the prosecutors charged murder one, and... ahem... didn't prove intent), as the strangely uncivil lawsuit of Pritzker vs. Pritzker.

The basis of this action, as you may have heard, is that young Liesel Pritzker was stunned to discover her personal trust fund reduced to a mere $160 million, and wants to know what the hell happened to the rest of it. To most of us, this might not sound like a very sympathetic position -- if someone told me I could have $160 million, but no more, I'd find a way to cope. But Liesel insists it's not about the money:

"This is not about cash," insists Liesel, who speaks animatedly, in a slightly husky voice. "It's not like I think if we win, it'll be: 'Buy the Bentley! Bling bling!'" Why pursue the case? "I filed because I wanted to know what happened. It's going to be tricky, and it will take a long time. But I just need to know what happened."

And astoundingly enough, there may be something to this. Not only has Liesel been barred by the courts from actually seeing the terms of her own family's trust agreements, but even the legal arguments concerning the ban are themselves off limits.

Meanwhile, the litigation has yielded a few hints of what the family is trying to keep quiet. What has become public so far is that the family has been engaged in a decades-long project of tax evasion avoidance involving shipping the family money to trusts in off-shore tax havens. Curiously, the dodge is illegal for anyone who tries to start now, but old trust funds like the Pritzkers' have been grandfathered in. And it's not entirely unlikely that there's something even more, well, aggressive that they're trying to keep under wraps.

Still... ummm... Liesel, honey, in the interest of making yourself sound at least realistic: if you've got $160 million, the Bentley is already well within your budget. You're asking for airplane bling at the very least...

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Many liberals have been of the view that we didn't want this war in the first place, but having invaded, we have no choice but to make a success of the occupation. I've been one. I'm starting to doubt.

Consider this account of, among other things, the reaction of a Baghdad cabdriver to the UN bombing some time ago now:

"They hit the U.N., they've hit the U.N. They must get out, they must get out." He was an older man who looked to be in his 60s, well-spoken but overly excited; he could not restrain himself.

It was immediately clear to me who he was referring to. When he said, "They must get out, they must get out," he wasn't talking about Saddam loyalists or Arab fighters who have supposedly crossed into Iraq. He was speaking of the Americans. It was the United States, he said, that was responsible for the anarchy that now characterizes Baghdad; not because the U.S. military and the CPA have failed to provide security but because their very presence is destabilizing. His perspective -- which I heard repeated a number of times by many different types of people -- stands the traditional thinking on its head. From this perspective, it was not a question of more soldiers, different types of forces (military police instead of regular army), or different countries such as India, Turkey or Pakistan contributing troops. Unless the United States leaves Iraq, he was saying, Iraq will not experience stability.

The guy who got this lecture -- Samer Shehata, a professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown -- doesn't detail the argument much more than that, but even having it stated does raise the question: just what are the Americans doing there, anyway?

One answer would be in Centcom briefings, which recount Americans doing things like painting schoolhouses to improve the lives of Iraqis. I seem to have a different reaction to these stories than what Centcom intends. I want to know why that American soldier has been dragged away from his family, halfway around the world, to take a job away from some now-unemployed Iraqi who would be at least as capable of wielding a paintbrush. A complaint which extends to our larger reconstruction efforts as well, as in the case of an Iraqi cement plant, now running after being fixed up by the workers for a quarter million dollars, over the objections of occupation authorities, who wanted to do the Iraqis a favor with a gold-plated repair proposal that would have taken a year and $23 million, leaving the Iraqis themselves completely idle in the meantime.

So, Americans are not providing sound business practice or know-how; they are not providing security (not even for their own allied agencies, which are rapidly being chased out by bombings, much less for the Iraqi population at large), but they are very clearly serving as a magnet for terrorists from all over. ("Flypaper", anyone?) And their presence also raises unrealistic expectations, as in this interview with a Shiite from Baghdad who is waiting anxiously for his ayatollah to declare jihad, but you'll never guess why. Try it.

Here's the reason:

He believes that jihad against soldiers here will force the American government to pay attention. Force them to act more decisively in fixing the mess they created. Change will only come if enough Americans go home in body bags.

He believes that we can clean up the mess, and that the only reason we haven't, is because we don't know they're upset. And that killing a few soldiers is the best way to tell us. In fact, of course, what it's likely to provoke is even more confrontational behavior on the part of American troops -- the American army's top priority has been to protect itself, and as Trent Lott mused a few weeks ago, the logical conclusion of that policy is to just "mow the whole place down".

So, let's remember again why we started this. There was the WMD case, but that threat never seems to have existed, and it's certainly gone now. And then there was the Tom Friedman case -- that the WMD threat was overblown at best, but that this "optional war" provided an opportunity to clean up the country, to demonstrate the benefits of Western ways of doing things, and to show that we are not the barbaric conquerors portrayed by bin Laden et al. But "mow[ing] the whole place down" would demonstrate that we are exactly that, whether or not we're willing to admit it to ourselves.

It didn't have to be like this. The State department had detailed plans which might have worked much better, but they fell prey to internecine battles in Washington, which is how we wound up with an occupation authority in which almost no one speaks Arabic. We could try dusting those off, but some participants in that planning process recently wound up an interview by saying it's too late now. Internationalization might have brought in expertise from overseas if the neocon clique had been willing to listen, but they view France as even more of a threat than Foggy Bottom, and it would be hard to persuade anyone else at this point to take over peacekeeping in what has clearly become a war zone. That seems to leave us with the current occupation authority, which is badly botching the job, or nothing. And if no one in Washington has a better idea of what to do now, or how to bring in someone who could do the job better, then our choices boil down to this: to continue the occupation, which is doing active damage to both the Iraqis and to us, or to withdraw. Given those choices, it would indeed be better to withdraw.

Late edit: if you think of "Iraqification" as an alternative, you might want to consider the views of Professor Shehata, who got a good look at it in his brief stay in Baghdad:

Throughout the two-day course the U.S. soldiers made the Iraqi recruits repeatedly yell the word "professional"-- in English and in a loud, booming military voice -- as if somehow this would transform the recruits into well-trained, competent security guards. If the CPA believes that this type of training will help address Iraq's security dilemma, that repeatedly yelling "professional" will help hold fear at bay in Baghdad, they are delusional -- and Iraq has a very serious problem.

Yet more: Here's another call to destroy Iraq in order to "save" it:

There are no innocents in the Sunni Triangle. No longer can we afford such fine distinctions. The people we are dealing with have forsaken any claim to humanity. Three hundred thousand Iraqis, lying in mass graves, bear mute and terrible testimony. Not that it should be required.

So, first we kill them all, and then we can liberate the corpses. Brilliant! Of course, this Solon also believes that the whole Iraq thing is somehow revenge for 9/11 -- even though Dubya's crew has avoided stating outright that there was any direct connection, for lack of evidence.

If you prefer to read sane people, you might be better served reading Riverbend's scathing analysis of the Iraqi governing council -- half local thugs and half pampered dilletantes...

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Veteran's Day is a good time to reflect on how the Bush administration really values the new veterans it's creating. There's a lot to be said on that subject -- but Steve Gilliard keeps it short and sweet. Or at least, short.

Still catching up on things, but things should start to pick up in a day or two...