The Blind Left

In light of hypo’s claim that ‘it’s all about the oil’ in Iraq, let me offer a quote from Postel’s book ‘Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran‘ (the book Chris doesn’t need to read).

The picture gets further complicated, and the Left gets further flummoxed, over the role of Empire in the Iranian context. The memory of the 1953 coup burns furiously in the minds of many Iranians to this day. Because anti-imperialism is our primary conceptual organizing principle, leftists are of course highly attuned to such sentiments. Particularly in this era of Empire fever and regime-change mania, we reflexively and viscerally oppose US interference in other countries – and understandably so. Anti-imperialist pronouncements coming out of Iran thus have a certain resonance for many leftists. The supreme cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has characterized the students as “American mercenaries.” As the Middle East scholar Juan Cole points out, that kind of accusation “has resonance in a country where US conspiracies to change the government – like the 1953 CIA coup – have actually succeeded.” (It should be recalled, however, that the Islamists deploy the 1953 coup in bad faith: not only did they oppose Iranian president Mohammad Mossadegh for his secularism and liberalism; they even had their own plans to take him out. And after taking power in 1979, they obliterated the Mossadeghi National Front Party. This little footnote has largely been forgotten but is hugely relevant to the present situation.)

The problem is that denunciations of US Empire in Iran today are the rhetorical dominion of the Right, not the Left. It is the reactionary clergy, not the students, who wield the idiom of anti-imperialism. Regime hard-liners “legitimate their suppression of the students,” Brecher points out, “as necessary to guard against ‘foreign forces”‘; the mullahs denounced the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Shirin Ebadi as “the result of the cultural hegemony of western civilization,” a tool “intended to serve the interests of colonialism and the decadent world.” This kind of talk can run an interference pattern on the ideological compasses of many leftists.

In contrast, for students, feminists, human rights activists, and dissidents agitating for pluralism and democracy in Iran today, opposition to US imperialism is not the central issue. The student movement’s principal demand, as Brecher notes, is “to eliminate the power of the self-perpetuating theocratic elite” over the Iranian state. A simple stance of “hands off Iran,” end of discussion, is not what those struggling for change in Iran need from progressives around the world. Of course we should be steadfast in opposing any US military intervention in Iran – that’s the easy part. But it’s not the end of the discussion. Iran is, as the Iranian anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hossein puts it, “a state at war with itself.” Progressives everywhere should take sides in that war and actively support the forces of democracy, feminism, pluralism, human rights, and freedom of expression.

It’s not that the students and other reformers in Iran are pro-imperialist. Quite the contrary. Ebadi, for example, has made it perfectly clear that she opposes US military intervention, advocating instead a nonviolent, internal transformation of Iranian society. But US imperialism is simply not the central issue for them – and this, I think, is a stumbling block for many American leftists, because it is the central issue for us. We’re better at making sense of situations in which the US Empire is the foe and building our solidarity with other people around that. That was the case in Guatemala – as it was in Indochina, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and East Timor.

But that model simply doesn’t apply to situations in which the struggles of oppressed groups are not aimed directly against American imperialism. And that’s a serious blind spot. It creates myopia on the part of American leftists. Anti-imperialism can turn into a kind of tunnel vision, its own form of fundamentalism. Cases that fall outside its scheme simply get left out, and our solidarity with struggles around the world is determined by George Bush, rather than our principles.

(emphasis added)

Ya think?

Mo’ Ronery

AJ Strata has a very good post up on the issues I’m debating w/commenter Chris below.

What does this all mean? Well the American people are leading the surge away from the hyper-partisans and the muck-raking, purity wars. Not only were the parties raging against each other – they had turned on the moderate middle and attacked with visceral hate towards anyone who could ’sell out’ and reach compromise. And of course the support for both sides of the aisle tanked as each end of the spectrum tried to see who could denigrate the midstream voters the most.

He goes on:

It began with Joe Lieberman in CT when that state – very democrat – rejected the hyper-partisan Dem Ned Lamont for the moderate (e.g., “traitor”) and independent Senator Lieberman. It continued on as George Allen and Rick Santorum and host of other strong conservatives were replaced by more moderate democrats who straddled the center line of politics. And it continues on today with McCain leading the GOP contest, causing all sorts of emotional breakdowns on the right, and Obama on the verge of ending the divisive and destructive (to the dems) Clinton era.

Interestingly, AJ’s a conservative, but thinks the left (Obama) will do better in tacking to the middle. And I’ll point out that he regrets it. He also nails the role of the blogs:

The blogosphere and AM talk radio brought together the large community of political junkies who are, by their nature, probably closer to hyper-partisans than average Americans. Talk Radio and political blogosphere sometimes forget they are not a majority but a micro-minority that was starting to gain the ear of America. My feeling is many Americans, who are not hyper-partisans, have started to turn away from these media because they are repulsed, embarrassed or simply tired of being insulted.

Here’s where I get to drag out my favorite Schaar quote:

“Finally, if political education is to effective it must grow from a spirit of humility on the part of the teachers, and they must overcome the tendencies toward self-righteousness and self-pity which set the tone of youth and student politics in the 1960’s. The teachers must acknowledge common origins and common burdens with the taught, stressing connection and membership, rather than distance and superiority. Only from these roots can trust and hopeful common action grow.”

Read the whole thing, as they say.

I’m Not So Ronery

In the comment thread below, commenter Chris & I play ping-pong with the question of whether my views hold any relevance to the Democratic Party. My initial response to him was:

Chris, I don’t know that I feel so lonely – I’ve got a leading D candidate (Obama) who is at least philosophically in touch with my beliefs about the nature of domestic politics, and whose domestic policies I find largely appealing; I’ve got a leading R candidate (McCain) whose foreign policies are largely appealing to me and whose domestic policies don’t make me sick. Compared to the Netroots crowd’s wishes, I’d say US politics is orbiting pretty close to where I want it to be.

Now Ed Kilgore weighs in over at TNR (is Foer still the editor there or what?):

- His message was a remarkably faithful and wholesale adoption of the Crashing the Gates-style netroots analysis of the parties, of Washington, of the Clintonian Democratic tradition, and of galvanizing value of “fighting populist” rhetoric. It was crafted with the help of the maestro of this approach, Joe Trippi. Yet it did not rouse much in the way of support from its intended audiences. In the end, most of the Deanian excitement in the campaign flowed to Obama, who consistently deployed a rhetoric of post-partisanship that is anathema to the point of view advanced by Edwards, as Edwards himself suggested on many occasions. It’s telling that Edwards lost his critical contest, Iowa, where he had every advantage at the beginning, after hoping for a low turnout dominated by older voters and previous caucus participants.

…as I was saying…

Flashman and Iraq

Eric Red has a post up on the Saddam admissions – the ones where he explained that he was ‘bluffing’ about WMD for regional reasons. In it, one of his commenters pokes at my suggestion that the bluff made Saddam culpable for the invasion.

Other folks, (Democracy Arsenal) also make the point that much of the sturm und drang that we are so geopolitically sensitive to is in fact inter-regional – i.e. the sabers being rattled are not necessarily aimed at us.

Eric follows up with a post suggesting prudence in our stance wrt Iran based on this.

My response in comments at Eric’s site was:

Short version: by the time Saddam started complying the invasion had an institutional logic – we weren’t going to invade in summer, fall or winter, nor leave 200K troops sitting in Kuwait for the summer. The meta problem is that ‘seeming’ to have a gun will readily get you shot. Having said that, I’ve called the invasion a ‘strategic failure'; and believe it is, even in the face of the apparent tactical success flowing from the surge.

Let me try and unpack this a little and talk about three things: The rickety and unpredictable nature of large-scale human action; the humility planers and actors need to have in the face of that ricketyness; and the interaction between inter- and intra-regional issues – in a kind of homely metaphor.

First of all, let me reiterate a point I think I’ve made over and over again, but which I obviously haven’t made well enough, about the nature of large-scale human action.

As someone who has on occasion led large groups of people – I mean like twenty or thirty people – I have profound respect for the limitations of organizational precision. What Clausewitz called ‘friction’ is apparent in all human affairs – none so much as war – and it is important in discussing any large-scale human activity – whether business, politics, bureaucracy, or warfare to keep in mind that the world looks a lot more like George McDonald Frasier than like Tom Clancy. In fact, I would strongly recommend the Flashman books, not just as a good set of reads, but as a good window into how I think real human affairs really transpire.

Boorish, selfish, limited people with incomplete information, bad communication, and half-blind views of the world – when they are sober – collide. They follow leaders who are noble and visionary primarily in retrospect.

It’s interesting that I picked up two other relevant books while I was in France – ‘The Black Swan‘ by Taleb which was my read on the flight out, and ‘On The Psychology of Military Incompetence‘ by Dixon which I picked up used at Shakespeare & Co in Paris.

I’d strongly suggest reading both of these.

The reason is that actors on a large scale – at a national scale – have to take this slop into account. Which is why brinksmanship is so fraught with risk – and why I don’t think it’s a good idea when it comes to Iran.

Think of it as the “World War I” model; we’ve got these armies, and we’ll posture with them, secure in the notion that we have absolute control. Except, of course, that we don’t.

And when we’re signaling ‘threat’ the problem is a fractal one; the risk and uncertainty applies at a small scale as surely as at a large one. I talked about it at length here:

…not to try and parse the blame for whatever faulty intelligence there may have been between Republicans and Democrats; I say it because reasonable, smart, well-informed people other than those in the Bush Administration believed that Saddam had WMD, and was willing to use them.

And so to look at the decision made to invade, we have to look not in the light of the perfect information of hindsight, but in the context of the imperfect information available – to the question of whether it was a toy gun or a real Desert Eagle.

There are absolutely legitimate questions to ask about the quality of our intelligence about Iraq – from before the first Gulf War until today. There are absolutely legitimate questions to ask about whether an invasion was the appropriate response to the risk of WMD.

But those aren’t the questions we’re asking.

And before we do, let’s step further into the reality of the pre-invasion world, and move away from an Anthony Dwain Lee innocently holding a prop, standing at a party, and to Alan Newsome:

Alan Newsome never thought his BB gun would kill anyone. When he brandished it in the hallway of his Harlem apartment building, it was just something to help scare some cash out of a burger joint deliveryman. But the deliveryman turned out to be a cop, and when Newsome pulled the fake gun, the cop’s partner shot the 17-year-old three times in the chest, killing him.

The threat posed by Newsome – brandishing a realistic looking pellet gun – was one that any reasonable person would have responded to with deadly force.

Saddam may have thought he had WMD because his staff lied to him. He may have thought he could use the empty threat to bluff.

But the fact of his behavior moves him from the Lee category to that of Newsome.

The risk one takes when you walk down the street brandishing a fake gun is that a very real policeman will come by and decide it’s real – and you’ll get shot.

Now it’s critical that we understand the regional context of what actors in the Middle East are doing; and I’ll suggest that we continue to do a crappy job of that. But it’s something where the moral weight isn’t all on one side.

This is something that progressives – because they tend to see the world through the prism of American power and imperium – tend to do; they tend to place all the moral weight on our side of the equation. This isn’t some neocon fantasy – Danny Postel talks about it in ‘Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran‘.

Sorry, but that doesn’t hold water. The leaders in the Middle East – Saddam, Ahmadinejad, and others – may have as their prime focus regional dominance (actually their prime focus is staying in power in their own fiefdoms), and I genuinely believe that the root of their anti-American babble is posturing to their local audience – but the problem they have is the same one – having whipped their armies into a rage – the institutional inertia becomes difficult to control.

And therein lies the rub. Because even if we accept the most benign interpretation – that the ‘death to America’ chants are bravado, posturing designed to keep a political leadership’s grasp on power, the problem is that the movements they launch, incite, and support may not be any easier to control than the alliances and armies in Central Europe were in 1914.

So yes, institutional inertia on the part of American armies was a large part of why we went to war in 2003. But it wasn’t the only part.

I’ve suggested that there were legitimate reasons to depose Saddam – both as a way of trying to change the behavior of the more intractable states, and as a way of liberating his own people.

Yes, sanctions were working – and ironically, I’ll bet a lot that many of the people who wag fingers and tell us that sanctions were doing just fine are the same people who in 2001 accused sanctions of killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children and argued for lifting them (a fun research project, if anyone’s got the time). And, without question, we can say that sanctions were collapsing.

Jeff Weintraub summed up the contradictions well back in 2002:

Thanks for sending me yet another petition opposing war in Iraq. As my last message should have made clear, I can’t sign it in good conscience … though I do agree very much with SOME of the points in the statement (and I disagree with others).

Some key points in the statement happen to be mutually contradictory. For example, one reason offered against war is that the sanctions imposed on Iraq are killing Iraqi children, and constitute a major human-rights violation. On the other hand, another point suggests that military action is unnecessary because “the policy of containment [is] working well.” One characteristic passage reads:

“In briefings calculated to query the administration’s persistent sabre rattling towards Iraq, unnamed officers told the Washington Post that the policy of containment was working well and that the alternative, a military assault, was too riddled with risk to be worth pursuing.”

Perhaps, but this contradicts the previous point. Sanctions against Iraq are a crucial part of the “policy of containment.” If the sanctions are criminal, then how can the policy be “working well”? And if the sanctions are removed, the “policy of containment” will collapse. You can’t have it both ways.

No, you can’t.

Some Encouraging News About Blogs

Over at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell has an interesting post up on partisanship in the blog world. He cites a study (behind a paywall) examining the linking behavior of blogs.

Eszter and her colleagues work from a sample of 40 well-known political blogs, and examine how these blogs did or didn’t link to each other over three week-long periods. Like previous studies, they find that the majority of links are between blogs sharing the same ideological position. However, over the three weeks examined, only five of the conservative blogs never link to a liberal blog, and only three of the liberal blogs never link to a conservative one. In general, they find that there is evidence that blogs are somewhat insular (they are far more inclined to link to other blogs like them than to blogs with different ideological positions), but far from being insulated (there still is a fair amount of left-right conversation going on). In general they find “no support for the claim that IT will lead to increasingly fragmented discourse online.”

More interesting still, Eszter and co. do some basic content analysis on the substance of links between left and right wing blogs.

I’m dying to read this study; go over and read the whole post at CT (and ignore the trollbait in the comments); we actually have some interesting empirical data to work with – let’s explore where it takes us.

I’ve been noodling over a similar project for several months, based on Memeorandum.

Looking at the link clouds that develop around stories there, it appears superficially that left and right blogs don’t link – at all – to the same stories. If true, that’s depressing. One of these days I’ll get the time to do some analysis and see if it’s true or not – unless one of you readers beats me to it.

Public Editor talks about Killer Vets

The NY Times public editor responds to the criticism of the ‘Killer Vets’ series:

The Times was pointing out terrible examples of something the military itself acknowledges: large numbers of veterans are returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with psychological problems. And, as the initial article said, a Pentagon task force found last year that the military mental health system was poorly prepared to deal with this wave of distress.

The Times was immediately accused – in The New York Post and the conservative blogosphere, and by hundreds of messages to the public editor – of portraying all veterans as unstable killers. It did not.

But, the first article used colorfully inflated language – “trail of death” – for a trend it could not reliably quantify, despite an attempt at statistical analysis using squishy numbers. The article did not make clear what its focus was. Was it about killer vets, or about human tragedies involving a system that sometimes fails to spot and treat troubled souls returning from combat?

Finally, while many of the 121 cases found by The Times appeared clearly linked to wartime stresses, others seemed questionable.

There’s some discussion of how the process may have failed…

Purdy urged me not to get lost in the numbers as I looked at the first two articles. I agree with that, but I believe The Times tangled itself in numbers right at the start. Bill Keller, the executive editor, said the newsroom’s computer-assisted reporting unit normally screens articles with statistical analyses. Some of the problems might have been avoided if someone in the unit had read the first article before it was published. But Terry Schwadron, the editor who oversees the unit, which created a database for the 121 cases, said that did not happen. “I read the story in the paper, and I shared some concerns” with Purdy, he said.

And, finally, we understand why the reporters care so much about the story:

Purdy defended the series. “It is an intimate exploration of a devastating cost of the war that merits national attention and focus but has not received it,” he said, because “it is playing out in one community at a time … with no comprehensive attention from the military.”

Keller agreed. “I believe this series is an important public service that explores in riveting detail the emotional stresses war places on this important community and the problems the military faces in coping with those stresses,” he said.

No, Politics Ain’t Beanbag

Sitting in an East Coast hotel watching TV (I actually may have to get TV at home for this election…) I’m thinking a bit about the election (note: I haven’t given up on my point that long-war hawks may want to consider voting Democratic – I’ll go back to this soon).

And I wanted to highlight the point Jonathan Chait made in the LA Times today – ‘Is the right right on the Clintons?‘. As I note in the title, politics ain’t beanbag, and to me the fact that the Clintons can play as rough as anyone isn’t – necessarily – a bad thing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a shrinking violet as President.

But – I’m more concerned about our toxic domestic politics, and I need to see some kind of uplifting vision balancing the ruthlessness. And I’m watching Hillary talk, and what I don’t see – is enough vision to counter the sharp elbows.

Oh my God – CN just cut away from Hillary’s speech…I wonder what that means? Interesting inside baseball…they didn’t cut away from Obama’s… I guess he is the media’s darling.

But you know what – I was kind of done with her generic stump speech anyway. Maybe they are just good at judging audience reaction.

So here’s the problem. I want to support a Democrat, if I possibly can. But you know, I don’t think I can support Hillary. Now she may be able to leverage the racial divide in the vote in South Carolina (Obama didn’t break 35% of the white vote – again) into white backlash against Obama, as some commentators have suggested.

But I really, truly wonder if she can win the general election. This isn’t a new question. She’s hated, and you have to wonder why it is that she is so polarizing. Well, the gracelessness of the speech I just watched – where she had a chance to say more than a passing congratulation to Obama – is a good start. People in the public eye, at some point reveal their real character. We’re seeing Hillary’s.

So I wonder if she can win the race, and to be honest – I now wonder if she should.

How in the world are the Democrats in this situation today? How is it not going to be a coronation for the Democratic candidate?

Interesting…for me, I’m waiting to see where my opinions will lead me in the general – if Obama’s weak (sadly very weak) national security policies will tip me to the GOP, or if my belief in the long-term benefit of giving the Democrats ownership of the problem outweighs those concerns. See K-Lo at the Corner for a counter.

Saddam Talked About WMD

This is going to trigger some interesting discussion. And very timely, considering the ‘935 lies‘ campaign.

Saddam Hussein initially didn’t think the U.S. would invade Iraq to destroy weapons of mass destruction, so he kept the fact that he had none a secret to prevent an Iranian invasion he believed could happen. The Iraqi dictator revealed this thinking to George Piro, the FBI agent assigned to interrogate him after his capture.

For me, this remains one of the logical answers as to why Saddam didn’t come clean on his programs, and why Bush would have risked the obvious problems resulting from lying about the intelligence.

I’ve talked in the past about this:

Why are Missing WMD Like Bad Software?

WMD, or the Risk of WMD?

Leo Strauss and the Missing WMD

Rooking Saddam

Yellowcake and Selling Cars

…and some more, but those will do as starters.