Patrick McGoohan, dead at 80.
Israel is in one of the periodic periods of Hot War that it’s long-simmering conflict with it’s neighbors goes through. And the usual cast of thinkers are out in force, explaining why what Israel is doing is wrong, must be stopped, and – most important of all – why the US must withdraw our support from Israel.
I want to take a few moments and lay out some thoughts on why it is that we’re right to support Israel, why it is that our support matters to us and to them, and why our visible support of Israel matters a lot to Israel’s Arab neighbors, in the Palestinian proto-state and the surrounding countries.
The major reason to support the people and nation of Israel is because of the kind of people they are. Not the Jewish kind – but the kind of people who have elections and where power changes hands without people being thrown from the tops of buildings. That the Israelis are the kind of people who I believe have the capability to kill all of their enemies, but lack the desire to do so. I think at this point that this represents the truth: “If Israel chose to murder the Palestinians, they would be dead. If the Palestinians chose peace with Israel, there would be peace.”
It does not mean that Israel holds no blame or responsibility – not at all. But the people who bitterly oppose Israel – who are products of a culture based in large part on opposing Israel, the West and everything they stand for – are my enemies as well.
But even as my enemies, I am unwilling to write them off.
And here’s the problem. As I never tire of reminding people, the disparity in power between Israel and the Palestinian proto-states (and the entire Arab world) is immense, driven in large part by the cultural gap between the westernized Israelis and the balance of the Middle East.
I’m no expert, but I have to believe that the day Israel gets tired of this stalemate and simply starts playing by Hama rules, it will be a matter of days before there simply are no more Palestinian people.
And here’s the problem – the same problem I’ve worried about since 2001. How do we prevent this from seeming like a good idea?
Well, the strongest way is for Israel to know that it’s not alone.
And we’re doing a worse and worse job of that.
As Western societies increasingly isolate themselves from Israel – as the EU states and the UK backpedal in the face of the one-two pressure from the academy and from the poor Muslin neighborhoods (which sits nicely with the native anti-Semitism of the elites there), one risk is that Israel feels less and less compelled to care about what those countries think, and so less and less restrained in its behavior.
And from the Israeli POV – reading about the government acquiescence in the UK, EU, Australia, Turkey and other countries to demonstrations calling for the elimination of Israel, for the death of the Jews – you have to ask at what point foreign opinion becomes irrelevant to their behavior.
They can’t be autarkic – they are tied to the world economy, and still get billions from the US. So there is a clear limit on their disconnection.
But when the issue on the table is their survival – whether the Jewish inhabitants of Israel will have to flee for their lives in the face of the collapse of the state that defends them against people who have been (in part because of Israel’s policies, to be sure) raised from birth to hate them and wish them dead – we on the outside need to be aware that Israeli behavior may become less and less constrained as Israelis feel more and more isolated.
Clinton’s comments as a Presidential candidate – that she would respond to an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel with nuclear weapons – were designed to reassure Israel as much as win domestic votes. We need to keep reassuring Israel, not only because they are ‘our kind of people’ but in the interests of the Arab world as well.
Juan Cole (and others) continue to argue that we should massively withdraw our political, military, and financial support of Israel. You have to ask yourself who will be the ones to really suffer from a policy like that.
So we’ll be flying to DC on Sunday, and flying out Thursday – me to Boston for a meeting, and TG home. We’re staying in Virginia with some kind friends.
I just wanted to take this chance to offer a shoutout to the Secret Service folks checking me out online…and to see if any of you folks will be hanging in DC. We will have all day Weds free, once we wake up…
We aren’t up for one this year (we didn’t deserve one, but watch out for us next year!), and I’ll be commenting tomorrow on some of my choices.
But the Battle Royal right now is between Michael Totten and Juan Cole for best Middle East and Africa Blog. It’s not just that Michael posts here, that he and I are on a page ideologically; or that that he’s a great, generous guy. It’s not just that he actually goes out and puts his eyes on what he writes about and offers original reporting, rather than recycled 1950’s international politics.
It’s that he’s an honorable guy, who plays straight in his writing and life. Cole, on the other hand – famous for ‘disappearing’ his mistakes (scroll to the bottom) on his blog, famous for whining about how MEMRI was lawyer-lettering him – only to have been outed as someone who had done the same thing to Martin Kaplan.
There are first-rate minds who live in second-rate people, and we excuse their behavior because of what they add to our store of knowledge, art, thought, or beauty. Note that I’m not saying I think Cole is a first-rate mind (I’m doubtful – but I haven’t read his real scholarship); just that I try and separate the thinking from the living. In Cole’s case, though, the living is problematic enough that I’d really hate to see the guy rewarded.
Plus, he’s massively wrong on Israel, on the role of ‘colonialism’ in modern international relations, and on pretty much everything he writes about US politics.
So go on over and vote early and often (you can vote every 24 hours).
My ex-wife’s nephew – my ex-nephew? Antoine Pierlot was an irritatingly charming little French kid when I last saw him.
He’s now a handsome, talented French kid who made the finals in the Telerama magazine “Victories of Classical Music 2009.”
They have videos online, and you can vote – for him, if you think he deserves it (I did, although I was impressed by the bass as well). You can go to this url to vote, and also to listen to/ watch the contestants.
Note that you’ll have to give your first name, last name, and email, and the two checkboxes at the bottom of the page are acceptance of the TOS and an opt-in for all kinds of interesting French spam.
Check out the Indian Government’s dossier and timeline on the Mumbai attacks.
This is what was given to the government of Pakistan for their followup and reaction.
Guest post by Marcus Vitruvius
This is a response to Armed Liberal’s and Nortius Maximus’ questions of where do we go from here, in the Iraq 2009 discussion.
Where we go from here depends on a lot of factors, the most important of which is, “What are we trying to achieve?” I’d say, provisionally, that what we’re trying to achieve is the elimination of Islamic terror, without other loss of national power and influence. (Ideally, while increasing it.) That’s a tall order. Frankly, to phrase it as the elimination of a tactic from a group makes it completely impossible without eliminating the group, so let’s scale that back to a goal of greatly diminishing the prospects of Islamic terror.
One of the central debates of this goal has been whether the reduction of Islamic terror is a military matter or a police matter, and the unsatisfying but correct answer is, “Neither and both.” Once terrorists are on our soil, it is (typically) a matter for our police forces. While terrorists are on friendly soil, it is (typically) a matter for the police forces of the friendly nation, even if those police forces are their military. While terrorists are on unfriendly soil, unfriendly police forces may even be complicit, and the task becomes one of delicately convincing that unfriendly nation that it is in their best interest to realign their policies with our, which may require military violence, or the threat of it. Finally, while terrorists are on uncontrolled soil, the task becomes one of building a trustworthy local police force, which may require military force to combat terrorists while more military force is helping strengthen those local police forces. Direct military conflict with terror forces would seem never to be the desired goal, but still seems likely to be necessary in the future.
This is why I have thought for years that this goal, the reduction of Islamic terror, is best prosecuted as the reformation of certain societies. I think of terror reduction as a non-local police matter, requiring that the police forces in the area be strong and opposed to terror, and the society in which those police are based to have a reasonably peaceful outlook.
So much for goals and abstracts. Looking across the board, I see two strategic targets: Iran, and Pakistan. They are certainly not the only strategic targets, but I think they are the most important ones: Iran, because it is a thoroughly vile regime that funds operations across the Middle East; and Pakistan because in its weakness, it allows for al-Qaida and related groups to stage operations into Afghanistan, Kashmir, and India.
Of those, I think Iran is probably more manageable over the short term (five to ten years.) Iran and its terror operations are a grand system, as it any national grand strategy; any strategy to oppose it should look at the elements of the system, and act in a way which maximizes disharmony between the elements of the system.
One large and important piece of the Iranian system is oil money; when the price of oil was high, at unsustainable levels of $150/barrel, the Iranians looked (and must certainly have felt) very strong indeed. With coffers overflowing, they could fund operations elsewhere with impunity, and even play games like threaten to take oil off the dollar standard. With oil prices fluctuating in the $35 to $50/barrel range, that is no longer the case. One thing we should certainly do is act to keep the price of oil as low as possible, for as long as possible. I don’t think that will be a problem in the short term of a year or two– OPEC production threats have been met with giggles by the consumer community, because we are all in recession, at the same time. My gut hunch is that in three to six months, prices will deflate further once the Chinese economy fully digests the impact of a United States and a Europe with less use for Chinese imports.
Now, in similar situations in the past, Saudi Arabia has been convinced to stab OPEC members in the back by refusing to implement meaningful cuts. I have read convincing analyses that their motive here was not altruism to the West, but very long term profit motives, with the idea of damaging other oil exporting countries economies and picking up market share in the long term. It seems at least plausible that the Saudis could be enticed to play this game again.
But, at the same time, Iraq is finally stable enough to think about serious oil exports. Six months ago, Iraq opened six oil fields and two natural gas fields for development. On December 31, they offered up nine more oil fields and two more gas fields. There are something like 45 billion barrels of reserves in those fields, with a projected rate of over three million barrels per day. Even taking those numbers with a grain of salt, half that amount of oil coming on line over the next five years should continue to depress oil prices. Therefore, what we should do specifically in Iraq, about oil, are these things:
1) Continue to act as security guarantor in Iraq for as long as needed. McCain’s notion of a Korean-model was not wrong. Physical security in Iraq is essential to continuing oil development
2) Grab as many of those fields as possible, and develop them as cheaply as possible.
3) Try as much as possible to get other Western countries in on the other oil fields to develop them as cheaply as possible.
Those second two points are essential because Western models of oil extraction are extremely efficient in comparison to others. The range of technologies is part of this, as is Western style budgeting and planning. We must get the Iraqi government used to doing these things in a Western style fashion, because it just works better. It might bleed over to the rest of the nation as well.
(Incidentally, low oil and gas prices have harmful effects on the economies of two other governments we don’t like: Russia, and Venezuela. To keep the pressure on Russia, as well, we should be accelerating the revival of Libyan oil and gas fields as well, and encouraging Libya to integrate its gas fields with Europe via undersea Mediterranean pipelines.)
Another large and important piece of the Iranian system is its numerous proxies and clients, especially Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria. It is possible that they are playing games in Afghanistan, too, although I haven’t read anything that makes me think that in particular; it is just a motif, and they certainly have the geographic proximity to do so. Part of what makes the proxy problem so difficult to fight is that, when Iran has oil money, it is fairly easy for them to regenerate their proxies, and more so when they have Syrian help. However, if the oil strategy outlined above works, then the regenerative strategies of Hamas and Hezbollah are significantly reduced. Therefore, if oil prices can be kept low for a few years, I would let Israel have a re-match with Hezbollah. I would practically encourage it, and give them whatever technical assistance they need in the gambit.
One certain way to make this easier would be to secure Syria’s assistance, which I think is not as far fetched as it seems. Syria and Israel had been making noises about a peace treaty for a large part of last year, and if it is possible for Egypt and Jordan to make peace with Israel, it is certainly possible for Syria to do so. The nominal peace treaty could be achieved in exchange for the Heights, while the deeper matter of flipping Syria out of Iran’s orbit and helping dismantle Hezbollah might be achieved in exchange for significant influence over Lebanon. This sounds like a demonic deal. It is. But the Lebanese have not been masters of their fate for a very, very long time anyway. It might be worth it, although I’d prefer to see it happen without promising Syria anything.
A third and final important part of the Iranian system is their demographics. Iran is young, poor, and ethnically and religiously diverse in its traditions, more so than is widely recognized. That the population is young is not really in dispute; it’s a matter of demographic record. That it is poor is not obvious, until one realizes how much the Iranian government spends on subsidies to keep its people happy. That it is diverse is not apparent until one realizes that it contains large Kurdish, Baluchi, Arab, Azeri, Turkmen populations and more, and also has a good Sunni minority. Demographically, this is not a stable country, which is partly why it is repressive in the first place, and why they spend so much money. So at roughly the same time that Israel should be encouraged to degrade Hezbollah, and the Saudis and Iraqis are being encouraged to degrade oil prices, the Iraqis and the United States should be doing everything in our power to encourage those groups to assert themselves, with the ultimate goal being a crumbling of the Iranian government and its reformation into something more human.
This strategy is not without its flaws. Any number of players here might simply not play. Or, the Iranian government might not crumble, but shatter, leaving the entire stretch from Iraq to India as mountainous, ungoverned crap. And certainly Iran will be very angry and reacting to this with force of its own, through proxies. But it is a strategy, and it’s a little more sophisticated than, “Go home, and hope for the best.” This at least has the virtue of turning the Iranian system inside out, causing them to need more money than ever at a time when less is available.
The second strategic target is Pakistan, and the militants (and al-Qaida) within them. Here, the militants have become very adept at using the existing system of India, Afghanistan and Pakistan against us. Clearly, the militants have something of a safe haven in Pakistan, both politically and geographically– it is nasty, nasty terrain. Pakistan military support is necessary just to keep the militants from striking into Afghanistan, but every time that support gets too meaningful, the militants can play the India card. Meaning, launch a devastating terror attack on India; India is forced to rattle sabers toward Pakistan; Pakistan is forced to move its military from the Afghan border to the Indian border; the militants have far less pressure on them and can continue their efforts into Afghanistan. All of this is exacerbated by the nature of Pakistan’s ISI lending tacit support to the militants, Pakistan’s overall highly fragile nature, and their status as main corridor into Afghanistan.
This is a Gordian Knot of a problem. I can identify any number of elements of that system which could change and result in a huge advantage for our operations. The problem is, none of them seem particularly likely to happen. India is not going to give up Kashmir. India is not going to stop threatening Pakistan when militants attack it. Pakistan is not going to magically defang its intelligence service and play nice. I don’t know how to change our system.
Pakistan’s militants are very, very good at never facing pressure from all angles at once. If we cannot change our system, it is tempting simply to let the strategy be, “Force their system under pressure from all sides at once.” After some time with Petraeus shaping the political and military ground in Afghanistan, team up with the Indian intelligence forces and declare open season on recalcitrant ISI members and encourage them to launch operations across Pakistan’s border to destroy known terror camps.
There are two problems: First, that’s harder than it sounds. The strikes would have to be effectively simultaneous. Second, Pakistan could fall, with the attendant problems of nukes getting loose and the loss of our transport corridor into Afghanistan, crippling our operation. They could achieve the second part even without a collapse, by simply denying us transport rights.
I think that leaves us with three alternatives:
1) Make a plan to route around Pakistan, squeeze the Pakistani militant system, and see what happens. Frightening.
2) Work actively with the Pakistani government to help them clean out their military and intelligence services. This would be painfully slow, and who knows if the Pakistani government would even cooperate?
3) Pursue options against Iran, and use Iran as the alternate transport corridor into Afghanistan… then pursue plan 1 above.
Sequencing is important here: Pursuing options against Iran while working with the Pakistani government is certainly an option. Under the best possible circumstances, we would be left with multiple corridors into Afghanistan and a potentially more useful Pakistani government to be used when the time comes.
But admittedly, this second section has been a large amount of words and letters amounting to, “There are no good short term options in Pakistan.”
There’s a massive amount of crazy talk about ‘proportionality’ right now, centering on criticism of Israel for their bombardment and invasion of Gaza.
I instinctively was quizzical when the issues was first raised, and want to take a few moments to talk it through and suggest why I think it’s an absurd notion – as it is frequently misused in the blogs and newspapers. International law seems pretty clear on it (and shockingly reasonable).
Proportionality also came up during the Iraq war when the issue of Iraqi dead vs. US dead in the 9/11 attacks was raised.
Okay, Mr. Bush…NOW are we even for 9/11? Or whatever reason you went into Iraq?
And somehow it felt very Old Testament to me; kind of well, you killed my brother, raped my sister, and stole 50 sheep. So I’ll kill your brother, rape your sister, and steal 50 sheep and we’ll call it even.
And as I read the commentators talking about Israel and Gaza – here’s Dennis Kucinich:
[The Israeli attacks] do, however, “increase the possibility of an outbreak or escalation of conflict,” because they are a vastly disproportionate response to the provocation, and because the Palestinian population is suffering from those military attacks in numbers far exceeding Israeli losses in life and property.
So, in essence, Israel is allowed to kill as many Palestinians as Palestine kills Israelis. With all due respect to Cong. Kucinich, that’s nuts.
Look, if someone attacks my wife and I with a knife, and she’s armed with a shotgun – she’s not obligated to put the shotgun down and go get a knife. A threshold of deadly force allows me to use whatever force is necessary and available to stop the threat (i.e. if she could have stopped the threat with a Taser, but didn’t have one, she’s not a bad person).
Actual international law is clear in saying pretty much the same thing.
When international legal experts use the term “disproportionate use of force,” they have a very precise meaning in mind. As the President of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Rosalyn Higgins, has noted, proportionality “cannot be in relation to any specific prior injury – it has to be in relation to the overall legitimate objective of ending the aggression.” In other words, if a state, like Israel, is facing aggression, then proportionality addresses whether force was specifically used by Israel to bring an end to the armed attack against it. By implication, force becomes excessive if it is employed for another purpose, like causing unnecessary harm to civilians. The pivotal factor determining whether force is excessive is the intent of the military commander. In particular, one has to assess what was the commanderâ€™s intent regarding collateral civilian damage.
So we have three questions to ask when judging this: Is it in response to a deadly threat? Yes, even though folks like Glenn Greenwald seem to think that letting Hamas kill a few Israeli citizens a month is kind of a Jizyah. Is it specifically intended to end the threat while taking reasonable steps to minimize civilian casualties? Yes, again. And is it likely to end the threat? Here we move into more treacherous ground.
Because in reality, the support for Hamas, and Hamas-like positions in Gaza is deep and wide, based both in Hamas’ demonstrated willingness to brutally kill anyone who doesn’t support their positions and in the generation-long indoctrination of Palestinian youth that we’ve funded and permitted to happen.
So can Israel accomplish anything with this attack? Because if not, morally, it is certainly questionable.
Marc Lynch raises these questions in a post at his home at the excellent new Foreign Policy blog. (My goal for Winds, by the way, is to be a single-A or double-A farm team for sites like FP)
I spent the morning at a lecture organized by GWU’s outstanding Homeland Security Policy Institute’s Ambassador’s Roundtable Series featuring Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Sallai Meridor. It was a profoundly dismaying experience. Because if Ambassador Meridor is taken at his word, then Israel has no strategy in Gaza.
On the other hand, there’s this fascinating post over at Kings of War:
Following a link of a KOW reader teegeegeepea I ended up on his rather interesting blog Entitled to an Opinion where he has posted a fascinating presentation by an Israeli intelligence scholar-practitioner Isaac Ben-Israel Fighting New Terror–Theory and Israeli Experience. I think it’s a better guide to Israeli strategy in Gaza than anything else that I’ve seen lately. The gist of it is this:
In general, the underlying idea is: each system has its own critical point. If I know where it is, I hit this point and destroy the whole system. If I do not know this, I will have to go on hitting different components of the system until I accidentally hit the critical point. The more components I damage, even without hitting the critical point, the closer is the moment when the system disintegrates.
And there is a certain connection between “q” – which is the percentage of component interconnection – and “Q” which describes the probability of the whole system collapse.
In reality, my own belief is close to this. That the intention is to degrade Hamas effectiveness – military and other – by hitting as many high-value nodes as possible.
What effect will that have? I’ll argue, simply, that the belief is that given time it is likely that Hamas will collapse. And so the issue becomes kicking the can far enough down the road to see if Hamas will simply collapse.
I’m not sure that’s probable – possible, certainly.
And so we have a hard question of moral calculus , whether this kind of limited action with the toll it will take (of Palestinians as well as of Israeli soldiers) is worth the marginal improvement in conditions and the possibility Hamas will collapse down the road. It’s not a simple question.
And asking it is something that Israel has to do, because – to go back to my homely analogy – the fact that my wife has a shotgun in a confrontation with a man with a knife, even if he is clearly the aggressor and in the wrong, places a especial obligation on her to do everything reasonably in her power to keep from having to shoot him.
So we just got tickets to the Inauguration (long story…).
And managed to get flights to DC, thanks to my ridiculous amount of travel over the last two years.
And now we need a place to stay. Hilton has a bunch of rooms at $2K/night…um, no.
So – anyone out there in DC a) want to host a blogger and his amazingly tolerant wife? or b) know of a reasonable place to stay in DC from Sunday – Thursday?
We’re housebroken, disarmed (for this trip at least), great company and happy to buy you nice dinners or offer a reasonable stipend…drop me a note at armed-at-armedliberal-dot-com.
Pass it along…
Part of my time away from blogging was a real effort to mull over what I know and feel about Iraq, and to try and think though my own views – given the facts on the ground – about my own support for the war and my opinions on where it’s brought us. this isn’t meant as a tour d’horizon on what’s going on there today – it’s a reflection by someone who supported the war and is looking back and wondering about his own views.Before the war started, I said that
If we are going to invade Iraq, we need to make two public and firm commitments:
1) We aren’t in it for the oil. Not in the short run, anyway. A prosperous, stable Middle East would doubtless want to sell and exploit their natural resources. We’d want to buy them. Sounds like a deal could be made.
2)We’re in this for the long haul. We don’t get to “declare victory and go home” when the going gets tough, elections are near, or TV shows pictures of the inevitable suffering that war causes. The Marshall Plan is a bad example, because the Europe that had been devastated by war had the commercial and entrepreneurial culture that simply needed stuff and money to get restarted. And we’re good with stuff and money. This is going to take more, and we’re going to have to be willing to figure it out as we go.
The fecklessness – that Hamlet-like internal debate which clearly signaled our lack of commitment and strengthened the commitment of those we opposed – was our biggest mistake (and knowing we’d be feckless, it’s a damn legitimate question to ask whether we should have gone). yeah, I know this is the Glenn Greenwald/Yglesias ‘Green Lantern’ theory, and when either of them rouses themselves from their Upper West Side torpor and does anything in the world, I’ll be happy to discuss the issue with them. People who – you know – do stuff know that commitment matters.
The right-side is happy to stamp their feet, whistle, and point at the left side of the aisle on this, but you know what? It’s Bush’s fault, pure and simple.
Here’s what I said in 2003:
Most wars have to be sold. Seldom is the perceived need for war strong enough overcome people’s reluctance to fight until the enemy is at the gates…at which point it is often too late. Much of Thucydides is about the efforts of various Greek leaders to rally the reluctant city-states to support the Persian war.
This is damn hard to do in the modern era, because the ways wars are seen…unfiltered, raw, live on television, tends to focus our attention intently on the costs of war. Blood, carnage, pain, suffering, grief. That’s good television. Good visual journalism shows the policeman executing the bound civilian-clad captive with a bullet to the head; it can’t give the backstory where the captive was a captured enemy assassin who was executed in the middle of a running battle. I’m far from sure that the backstory justifies the brutal act…but it frames it into an understandable human context, without which it is simple brutality.
And it is especially hard to do in the context of the modern philosophical crisis, in which we in the West seem to almost yearn for our own destruction.
But Bush has failed to sell this war in three arenas.
He has failed to sell it (as well as it should have been) to the U.S. people. The reality of 9/11 has sold this war, and our atavistic desire for revenge is the engine that drives the support that Bush actually has.
He has failed to sell it diplomatically. Not that he could have ever gotten the support of France or Germany; as noted above, even with an AmEx receipt for the 9/11 plane tickets signed by Saddam himself, France would find a reason to defer this war. But he should never have let them get the moral high ground, which they have somehow managed to claim.
He has failed to sell it to our enemies, who do not believe today that we are serious about achieving our stated goals. This is, to me the most serious one, because the perception that we are not deadly serious is a perception that we are weak; and we will have to fight harder, not because we are too strong, but because we will be perceived as too weak.
We needed Churchill or Roosevelt. We got Warren Harding. I believe that Bush is a far better President than he is ranked today. But he could be a far better President than he is given credit for and still be too mediocre for the challenge of the times. Peggy Noonan nails it, in her great book ‘Patriotic Grace':
Three facts of this era seem now to be key to the fraying of our national unity.
2002: the Republicans had it all-
One: In 2002, the Republicans had it all – the presidency, both houses of Congress, high approval ratings, a triumphant midterm election, early victory in Afghanistan. The administration had been had been daring and gutsy, but I think the string of victories left them with illusions about their powers. <snip>
Two: It was during 2002, when the administration was on top, when it had proved itself to itself – and it should be noted here that these were people who had been forced to flee the White House by foot on 9/11, that they’d been handed by history a terrible challenge, that they could not know, as human beings, that they would be able to meet it, and then seemed to themselves to be proving they were meeting it every day – that they should have been swept by a feeling of gratitude, and ascribed their triumphs not only to their own gifts and guts but to … well, let’s leave it at a phrase like “higher forces;’ and the sacrifices of men and women in the field.
At that moment they should have reached out in an unprecedented way to the Democratic Party, included them in their counsels, created joint executive-congressional working groups that met often, shared the enjoyments of victory in Afghanistan, shared credit for it, thanked them for their support, been politically generous. This would have won for them – for the country – a world of good feeling, and helped the nation feel a greater peace with itself. Instead, in January 2002, barely four months after 9/11, Karl Rove went before an open meeting of the Republican National Committee, in Austin, Texas, and announced the GOP would use national security as a club against the Democrats. This marked the first deep tainting of the political atmosphere by a powerful figure, removing things from the patriotic level and putting them back down on the partisan.
Would the Democrats have been gracious in the same circumstance if they’d been in charge?
Oh my goodness, let’s just agree the answer is, “Not all of them!” But that is not the right question. The right questions are: “What did America need after 9/11? What did the country need, a sense of good faith and unity at the top, or a weary knowledge that the old political warfare would once again commence?” Which, of course, it did. And never stopped, not to this day.
Three: The Democrats in Congress were, in general, unserious in their approach to the Iraq war, and not up to the era’s demands. When the war was popular with the country they looked for ways to oppose it without political cost. But there’s always cost. Thoughtful, tough, historically grounded opposition – and along with that, the need to answer the question “What exactly should we do rather than move on Saddam, what path should we take in the Mideast, and against terrorism; what is best now?” – would have taken a political toll; there was no way around it. When the war was less popular, and then unpopular, Democrats acted as if it were now, finally, a partisan issue that worked to their advantage. But it wasn’t a partisan issue. America was on the line,
And then I step back and think; one book I reread over the holiday was McCullogh’s Truman; and as I read the section on the Korean War, I realized that incompetence, ignorance, self-interest – the litany of the Flashman model of history to which I really subscribe – really do describe the way the world works.
So I’m not as bothered about the cascades of error, bad faith, and stupidity that are woven integrally into our history in Iraq as some. I think everything we do is like that, and to demand that it will be different – than any human enterprise will rise above our real nature – is to make the demand Portia makes of Shylock – that he recover the pound of flesh he is owed while spilling
…no jot of blood;
The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh:’
Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;
But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.
Does that mean that I’m content with what has happened?
As I’ve said before, in terms of the strategic justification that I bought into – of shocking the state sponsors of terrorism against the West into closing down their pay windows – I think it was a failure. The Saudis, Iranians, Syrians, and Pakistanis have taken superficial steps to sweep their own front porches – but from everything I’ve read it continues to be largely business as usual. We’ve badly weakened Al-Quieda itself, by financially constricting it, killing or imprisoning much of its senior leadership, and most of all, by letting the Arab world see what psychopathic thugs they really are.
But the overall violent Islamist movement was not truly broken in Iraq.
Let me talk for a second about ‘movements.’ Because the reality is that we are not fighting Osama Bin Laden; it’s not like a conflict with a nation-state where there is command-and-control downward. We are fighting a bazaar, as John Robb puts it – a marketplace in which people, ideology, training, cash and weapons are constantly being exchanged among a like-minded group of people. There is no “head” who can surrender, nor whose death will collapse the bazaar in one stroke.
The major thing we have to do to win is offer alternatives – ideological alternatives, lifestyle alternatives, a counter-ideology that diminishes the attractiveness of joining that marketplace. We’ve been a colossal failure at that for the last eight years, and that’s one of the things I hope will change in the next four.
The secondary thing we have to do is to raise the transaction costs within the marketplace; we’ve done a decent job of that and continue to do so, and Bush deserves credit for that.
So it’s time to step back and think about what Act Two will look like and what our plans, goals, and means will be.
But there’s another point to consider before we do, and that is the Iraqi one.
While Iraq may well have been a strategic failure, it may well be developing into a tactical success.
If you mapped the political stability of Iraq against any other Middle Eastern state – excluding Israel – it’s on a par, while having – for one of the first times since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – a real national politics.
The Iraqi people and Coalition soldiers paid a price in blood for that, and the full bill is not yet in. But to have created the opportunity for politics – rather than coup and countercoup, or changes in government that take place by throwing opposition figures off of buildings – is itself a damn good thing, and something that has happened far faster than I believed it would. Talking about Greg Djerejian of Belgravia Dispatch (someone whose entire blogging career filled me with admiration), I commented:
I’ve been amused at his attacks on the ‘six monthers‘ – those who think the next six months will see all as well. But then again, I’ve always been more of a ‘six yearer‘ myself. I do think, with some confidence, that the next six years will determine the outcome of this conflict.
This was in 2006; I still tend to think that we’ll really be able to judge the soup that we made in Iraq around 2012. But I think it had advanced enough that even today we can say that it’s pretty good soup, and that the lives of 28 million Iraqis are likely to be better for the war. Was it a good bet? Would I have supported it for that reason alone?
No, probably not. We can’t spend blood and treasure freely everywhere there is injustice.
Will there be an ‘ink spot’ effect from Iraq, as other Arab people see what political life is like? Can the changes in Iraq be a part of the process of creating an alternative to Islamist politics? That, to me, is what the balance of our effort in Iraq needs to be about.
Glorious things happened in Iraq; the bravery of the people of Iraq, of their own soldiers, the bravery and charity of our own soldiers.
Horrible things as well, some of them done by us.
Whoever wants to engage in politics at all, and especially in politics as a vocation, has to realize these ethical paradoxes. He must know that he is responsible for what may become of himself under the impact of these paradoxes. I repeat, he lets himself in for the diabolic forces lurking in all violence. The great virtuosi of acosmic love of humanity and goodness, whether stemming from Nazareth or Assisi or from Indian royal castles, have not operated with the political means of violence. Their kingdom was ‘not of this world’ and yet they worked and sill work in this world. The figures of Platon Karatajev and the saints of Dostoievski still remain their most adequate reconstructions. He who seeks the salvation of the soul, of his own and of others, should not seek it along the avenue of politics, for the quite different tasks of politics can only be solved by violence. The genius or demon of politics lives in an inner tension with the god of love, as well as with the Christian God as expressed by the church. This tension can at any time lead to an irreconcilable conflict. Men knew this even in the times of church rule. Time and again the papal interdict was placed upon Florence and at the time it meant a far more robust power for men and their salvation of soul than (to speak with Fichte) the ‘cool approbation’ of the Kantian ethical judgment. The burghers, however, fought the church-state. And it is with reference to such situations that Machiavelli in a beautiful passage, if I am not mistaken, of the History of Florence, has one of his heroes praise those citizens who deemed the greatness of their native city higher than the salvation of their souls.
If one says ‘the future of socialism’ or ‘international peace,’ instead of native city or ‘fatherland’ (which at present may be a dubious value to some), then you face the problem as it stands now. Everything that is striven for through political action operating with violent means and following an ethic of responsibility endangers the ‘salvation of the soul.’ If, however, one chases after the ultimate good in a war of beliefs, following a pure ethic of absolute ends, then the goals may be damaged and discredited for generations, because responsibility for consequences is lacking, and two diabolic forces which enter the play remain unknown to the actor. These are inexorable and produce consequences for his action and even for his inner self, to which he must helplessly submit, unless he perceives them. The sentence: ‘The devil is old; grow old to understand him!’ does not refer to age in terms of chronological years. I have never permitted myself to lose out in a discussion through a reference to a date registered on a birth certificate; but the mere fact that someone is twenty years of age and that I am over fifty is no cause for me to think that this alone is an achievement before which I am overawed. Age is not decisive; what is decisive is the trained relentlessness in viewing the realities of life, and the ability to face such realities and to measure up to them inwardly.
And another great one from Atul Gawande’s great book, Complications:
We look for medicine to be an orderly field of knowledge and procedure. But it is not. It is an imperfect science, an enterprise of constantly changing knowledge, uncertain information, fallible individuals, and at the same time lives on the line. There is science in what we do, yes, but also habit, intuition, and sometimes plain old guessing. The gap between what we know and what we aim for persists. And this gap complicates everything we do.
What I am saying, I think, is that to judge the war in Iraq or the decisions to support or oppose it against an unrealistic standard is a serious error, because in reality no human enterprise can be judged against that kind of standard. And looking back or going forward – most important of all, going forward – it’s important that we acknowledge and embrace that uncertainty as a real part of what we have to deal with. It’s my hope that the left, having hammered Bush over this, will be kinder to Obama. And that the right – who ought to be more attached to the notion of national interest – will be as well.
For myself, I’ll leave off with an answer to a question John Quiggin posed in the comments to the post criticizing Yglesias:
Following up, would you like to specify an outcome in Iraq that you would regard as justifying the war. Taking what looks like a pretty optimistic scenario, suppose that the various Sunni, Shia and Kurd groups establish effective control over the areas that they occupy now, violence falls back to, say, 2005 levels, and US troops are mostly withdrawn by 2009. Would you regard such an outcome as proving Yglesias wrong?
I’ll interpret this question as asking whether in the end, the costs of the war were worthwhile given that kind of outcome. I think I’ve covered this above, but let me try again and close by saying that the only justification I imagined for the war was to change the Arab states willingness to support Islamist movements abroad as an outlet for their state interests and as a way of blowing off the pressure built by internal oppression and discontent. I’m far from believing that we’ve accomplished this goal, and believe that the root of that failure lies in the Bush White House and their flat inability to conduct a real war of ideas or information.
I think we’ll easily meet Quiggin’s standards, and that the lives of Iraqis themselves will be far improved by the removal of Saddam – which may itself be worth the cost. And that it’s important to remember that we were faced with a series of bad choices in 2000 and 2001 regarding Iraq as the sanctions regime collapsed under corruption.
The impact of what our war has created – a real political space within the Iraqi nation – remains to be seen. We have the option of making it a good, even great thing if we can sustain it and help it tip the other Middle Eastern states away from a one-dimensional choice between oppressive secular dictatorships and oppressive Islamist ones.
That’s what I believe about Iraq today, and that’s what I hope to discuss in the next year.