Friday, April 16, 2004

A quick thought to end the week. Our extreme right wing has given us pro-life murderers. So, why not a democratically-minded strongman?

Thursday, April 15, 2004

The latest tinfoil-hat conspiracy story running around is that the US is not only planting weapons of mass destruction in Iraq now, but has deliberately stirred up the current unrest as a cover for that activity. There are problems with that story. If they're going to plant weapons at all, why do it now, after multiple teams of U.S.-endorsed experts have already scoured the country and found it clean? And it also implies an unhealthy willingness to spill Iraqi blood in large amounts for the sake of nothing more than cheap propaganda points. So at first glance, at least, this is not a very likely story.

And you could say the same for lots of conspiracy theories of the past. Take the "domino theory" -- that the North Vietnamese Communists were the spearhead of a grand plan of the Chinese and Russian leaderships combined to convert the entire Indo-Chinese peninsula to Communist rule. But the North Vietnamese government were fundamentally nationalist autocrats, with a little Communist veneer, who were actually playing China and Russia off against each other, and didn't have much interest in spreading Communism past their borders. The only other domino that fell was Cambodia, and that because we had destablized it with our own bombing campaigns. What's more, when the Khmer Rouge regime there got to be too much to take, it was the North Vietnamese who chased it out (and the U.S. actually supported the Khmer Rouge in the subsequent diplomatic byplay -- I never understood why, unless it was just spite). So we can now say for certain that that was a crock. But for years, people at the highest levels of our government believed it.

They believed it because it was, at least superficially, credible. It was credible because these things are sometimes true -- as in Iran-Contra, where we really did sell arms to the Iranians, violating our own declared embargo, in order to use the proceeds to fund guerillas trying to overthrow governments that a Republican administration didn't like in Central America, violating yet another ban on arms trafficing imposed by Congress. Or, even more to the point, the Communist plan to infiltrate spies into sensitive areas of our government (remember Klaus Fuchs?), and establish puppet regimes all over Europe (they'd already done it in the east).

So, let's consider the conspiracy now uppermost in the minds of Americans -- Osama bin Laden's conspiracy to topple governments throughout the Muslim world, and replace them with a caliphate which endorses more or less his own style of theocracy (of which the Afghan Taliban can be considered a kind of preview).

Now, it's an error to assume that all religious Muslim radicals are necessarily part of the same grand scheme -- the religious disputes between, say, the terrorist-sponsoring Shiite theocrats of Iran and the extreme Sunni leadership of al-Qaeda matter a great deal more to them than they do to us. However, you really can't understand what's going on in one local scene there without looking at action over the borders. Fighters are sometimes recruited in one place for action somewhere else (as when we recruited a certain young Saudi to help us kick Communists out of Afghanistan). And if nothing else, atrocities in one place may wind up being used as propaganda points elsewhere. Our current trouble in Fallujah, for instance, was apparently triggered, and almost certainly worsened, by Sharon's assassination of a Palestinian leader in the West Bank. (If you liked that, stay tuned. There may be more coming.)

Besides, radical Muslims of all stripes share certain interests regardless of their own factional disputes -- which can be briefly summarized as getting rid of us (and our friends, and our proxies). So, even if it's oversimple to paint Osama as the sole radical Muslim mastermind wanting to topple the relatively secular and U.S.-friendly dominos governments now in power throughout much of dar el-Islam, it's nevertheless the case that the establishment of a radical regime, or a radical movement, in one place, may catalyse action against another, in a different place.

So, taking the long view: the U.S. knocked over the secular power in Iraq. Our leaders, such as they are, plainly had the idea that they could replace it with the regime of their choice. Real life is more complicated. But Iraq per se is not hugely significant right now. Not nearly as significant in itself as what it may portend for other Muslim states of greater significance -- say, Saudi Arabia, or nuclear Pakistan.

Which leads to the truly crappy conclusion that we might have been better off leaving things be -- leaving the potentially noxious Saddam in power, on a leash, and leaving the civilians he oppressed, and the kids dying of preventable diseases because of our crackpot embargo on antibiotics, in the position of that kid in The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. There were, after all, worse places in the Muslim world, particularly for women. But I've been arguing that since before the war.

Advocates of the invasion, many of them, thought they had a better idea. But the people leading it rejected not only the plans which had been put together with great care by the State Department, but the whole process of planning. We will have to live with the result.

But we still have choices. And, unfortunately, the Americans broadcasting transparently phony whitewashes of the military action in Fallujah are choosing, by giving our enemies splendid propaganda, to make things worse -- in Iraq or elsewhere. (But they're only transparently phony to people on the scene; you wonder if their attention is more on voters in the U.S.)

More generally, a bad occupation hurts us -- more so, to be completely cold-blooded about it, than would even a civil war, where some of the blame would necessarily fall on the belligerents, and not on us. I'm not sure what motivates our invasion -- or the continued occupation. To judge from the guy currently tipped as the successor to Bremer, it's not the milk of human kindness. But hard-hearted realism ain't it either...

Which brings us back to the question of why Dubya's crew might plant weapons now. Like I said, it doesn't strike me as the likeliest of stories, if only because of the timing. Then again, they may have been deep enough in their self-delusion to expect to actually find something real before now -- and associates of the current administration, including one now tipped as Bremer's successor, have not been overly squeamish in the past about spilling the blood of, as someone once said, "dark-skinned people". So, you never know....

Late edit: I managed to post this one without the last paragraph of the main body, which made the postscript look a bit weird; and subsequently added yet another. Ooops...

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

A powerful performance yesterday evening -- passionate, determined, and backed by a will that would not be denied. Andrea Gillis can really belt 'em out.

A much better use of one's time than listening to that press conference...

There's a quip I've heard attributed to Noam Chomsky about the first Gulf War. When someone asked him about it, he's said to have remarked that he didn't believe any such event had occured -- a war, he pointed out, involves two armies fighting, and it seemed that in that instance, one hadn't fought.

As applied to the first Gulf War, which did have a large set-piece tank battle or two, that's just wrong. As applied to the second, I'm not so sure. One of the enduring mysteries, at least in the public mind, is the sheer ineffectiveness of the Iraqi military, whose elite forces quite literally never fought. They didn't manage to even blow up bridges in their rear as they were retreating. (I remember hearing an explanation of that on Nightline, when Ted Koppel, in full anti-chemical regalia, explained with great solemnity that we had air-dropped laser-guided bombs, targeted precisely enough to clip the wires going to the detonators. Someone probably earned a case of beer from his buddies for getting Koppel to believe that). But the mystery cleared up at least a little bit later, when it came out that key Iraqi commanders had been bought off to not fight.

Fast forward to now, nearly a year after Bremer summarily fired the entire Iraqi military, when our forces are being subjected to a massive campaign of, among other things, harassing our supply lines by blowing up bridges.

The massive urban meat-grinder battle which many had feared going into the war never happened. Or at least, it hasn't happened yet. Let's hope it was avoided, and not merely postponed.

Further note: Chad Orzel suggests in email that Chomsky may have cribbed the line from the stand-up act of Bill Hicks...

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Baghdad Bob, meet Baghdad Dan:

"We are pleasantly surprised at the progress on the political front," Senor said, citing Iraq's new interim constitution. After detailing what he said was political progress in the country, he acknowledged that "there is no doubt the security situation is a problem."

As Senor spoke, a mortar round landed near the former Sheraton hotel, which houses many Westerners, at the edge of Firdos Square. Explosions continued in central Baghdad through the early morning.

via Billmon...

Google is in the news, and not in a good way: the top result for "Jew" on a Google search is now an anti-semitic hate site, but Google refuses to change it, saying "the objectivity of our ranking function prevents us from making any changes."

The objectivity of their ranking function does have its limits though -- as a company called SearchKing found out. They were in the business of boosting clients' rank in search results, including Google's, and found rather suddenly that the Google search rank of all their clients' web pages had suddenly dropped to near-invisible. Suspecting deliberate action on the part of Google, they sued -- and rather than deny it, Google claimed instead that they had a perfect right to rank documents any way they liked. The judge agreed, and the case was dismissed.

By the way, Google owns Blogger and Blogspot, and at least three Google searches were conducted in the course of preparing this blog entry. Incidentally, Google is also coming under fire for its upcoming email offering. Some of the complaints, particularly about the privacy policy, may be legitimate -- I haven't checked. But some nimrod in the California legislature is whining about ads in the email, and that is, as Rafe Colburn explains, utterly bogus...

Spam advertising spamming and spam hosting services is old hat. However, I have now received spam that advertises "fraud hosting".

So, if you feel that your fraud hosting provider has misrepresented their services, what do you do?

A little news from Boston: sports talk radio here is still spitting blood over the booing of the American national anthem at a hockey playoff game in Montreal a couple of days ago. Anent which, one caller phoned in and reported in high dudgeon that the lyrics, as posted on the scoreboard at an earlier Montreal Canadiens game, had a question mark after "home of the brave".

But the scandal goes further. If you visit the Library of Congress web site, and read the first verse in Francis Scott Key's own handwriting -- all that's usually performed at sports games -- you will find that it ends in a question mark. And for no better reason than that the verse itself ends in a question.

Why, oh why, does the Library of Congress hate America?

Sunday, April 11, 2004

A few months ago, I was cynical enough to suggest that if our occupation wasn't actually achieving much on the ground, as it didn't seem (by neutral reports) to be, then our best strategy might be to simply withdraw to minimize the blood on our own hands.

Comes now this week, with the rival factions crystallizing into a coordinated opposition against us, and the best, brightest, most committed, most compassionate soldier we could ever have would still find himself, as Jim Henley says,

hitched to an engine called circumstance dragging him down a hard black road to a destination labeled GROZNY, and he will claw at the pavement the whole way there trying to slow his progress and in the end he will get there anyway, because the outskirts are visible already: "artillery was brought in for the first time."

The question from some war proponents of the beginning was this: why wouldn't we choose to establish a beacon of democracy at the heart of the Arab world, so that all other peoples and states in the region would follow its lead? I never understood why they were so sure we'd be able to do that -- nor, for that matter, why they thought anyone else in the Arab world would follow its lead.

But in the event, we seem to have blown it. We have a Governing Council which is referred to routinely, even by the sort of liberated women who ought to be our natural supporters, as "the puppet council", and even they are starting to resign when confronted with our latest attacks. On which Col. Lounsbury has a quip which is worth a treatise:

One's pimpdom is over when your own whores don't want to be seen with you.

So, a few months ago, we had two clear options: withdrawal, or continued occupation. (Imagine "third way"s all you like, you still must choose: take troops out or leave them in). Now, we have two clear options: withdrawal, or bloody battles to put down the insurrection -- after which, the cities conquered, we would -- what? hand them back? Well, that's what we say we're going to do.

In which connection, it's worth thinking a bit about what the "beacon of democracy" was supposed to achieve. At the very least, it was supposed to show the world that we were not the brutal, sadistic conquerors of bin Laden's propaganda. And yet, looking at the pictures of "collateral damage" which have been saturating al-Jazeera since we went in, we seem to be showing them that's what we are. And there may be a touch of propaganda to it, but we would be unwise to dwell on that -- they're a news organization, and this stuff is certainly news. (Though, speaking of selection bias, check out this framing of the issue, from a Centcom spokesman:

I think it's important, Rush, to keep in mind well over 95% of the country is at peace, returning to normalcy, and the population is really just trying to get back to life. They want to improve their socioeconomic status, they want to exercise their new rights. I mean that sort of stuff doesn't get enough attention, and it's so important because the rights that these people are exercising now are unheard of in this part of world, and that's the snapshot you get as you travel across the country.

Sure, 95% of the country is at peace. It's just the cities that are going up. Most of the country is empty desert).

Reality check: everybody on the planet knows that we could, if we chose, start playing by Hama rules. Diego Garcia isn't going anywhere, and B-52s can still fly out of it. And if we do, or just as much if we engage in a full-scale urban battle, running the population through a meat grinder while not even letting them escape (we aren't, if they include military aged males -- do we want them to keep shooting at us?), we will have proven that we are the kind of people who do that.

Which, anon, a few of us seem to be -- we've got a New York Post columnist here calling for the whole neighborhoods to be pulverized by B-52s, and a letter to the editor here calling for the firebombing of Fallujah. The first would be an atrocity to at least rival 9/11; the second would beggar it. And then there's Senator Trent Lott, who wanted to just mow the whole place down months ago.

If we withdraw though, the hawks say, we look weak. That will certainly be what bin Laden and Co. will say -- it's his best line, under the circumstances. But if we stay in, following anything like our current policies, he'll say we're butchers. He's got a great line, either way. So, if you're pondering which of these things you'd prefer to see in Osama's next recruiting tape, please consider that one of these alternatives does not involve American kids getting blown up.

One final note: It's not as if I think withdrawal is a great option. It sucks. I'd love to see a better one. But continuation of the current policy under the current leadership ain't that. Nearly a year ago, they were telling us that resistance was the dying embers of the Baathist regime. I'm not sure they were ever right about that, but regardless, rather than snuff them out, they've fanned the flames to the point where they threaten to consume the country. A UN transitional regime under European leadership, with a strong Arab presence for day-to-day security in the cities might yet have a chance, if it had friends among the Iraqi leadership -- Sistani is a theocrat, to be sure, but he's got enough human decency to not want a civil war, which is the only reason we went as long as we did without an uprising. And it would be a face-saving way out for us. But I have a hard time seeing Dubya's crowd agreeing to that unless their sweetheart deals for Halliburton were preserved up front. They have their priorities.

But the longer we go without some kind of change, the more we just compound the damage. Our hawks keep saying that bad as Iraq is, it's no Vietnam. After a year, neither was Vietnam. If we keep screwing up long enough, though, then fifty years on, someone's going to be saying that as bad as we blew it in Vietnam, it was still no Iraq.

Links via Atrios, Billmon, and their commenters...

Update: As I was writing this, occupation leadership was having second thoughts; for the moment, at least, they're trying to negotiate with the insurgents. See survey posts by Juan Cole and Billmon. If the negotiations succeed, maybe we can find a way to get out without a bloodbath first. But as both point out, any success will be a significant climbdown by Bremer's crowd. Muqtada al-Sadr is hardly likely to passively agree to submit to arrest by coalition authorities. So what happens to that warrant? And of course, poor follow-through from the American side, or worse, perceived insincerity, lands us right back in the soup...

Further update: According to this Reuters report, our military staff isn't yet entirely clear on the whole "negotiation" concept. Via Atrios...

More folks on the right are suggesting that if there's another terrorist attack, we should cancel or postpone the election. Because you wouldn't want issues forcefully brought to peoples' attention while they were casting their votes, or anything.

It's a notion of small-d democratic politics in which the purpose of an election is to allow a passive, unruffled people to ratify choices which have already been basically made for them -- a perspective that shines through in this headline of the week:

Politics Can Get in the Way of Keeping Papers Secret

Secrecy is the normal state of affairs. Politics is an imposition.

(Which is also the kind of democracy they're trying to bring to Iraq -- the Iraqis will be allowed to elect Chalabi, once all the leaders who have actually been living in Iraq have been coopted, bought off, or suppressed).

Lincoln held an election in the middle of the Civil War, against a candidate who was openly calling for an armistice that would have left secession as a fait accompli.

So, Condi Rice's claim that "we didn't know" now boils down to saying that the August 6 PDB did not mention hijacked airliners being used as missiles. It just talked about the immediate near-term possibility of hijacking, or maybe something involving a building.

So, if they had clear information about imminent use of airliners as missiles, that would have justified immediate drastic action. But if it's just plain old hijacking -- well, there's no need to disturb anyone's scheduled vacation for that.

Note also the comments on this thread from Billmon, which points out that this one released text may not be the whole story; some even question whether they released the whole document...