Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Voting Guide

So maybe you were a Hillary Clinton supporter, and you still can’t get over how much more negative the media’s attitude was toward Clinton than it was toward Barack Obama (in particular, the palpable hatred of the Clintons by CNN pundit Carl Bernstein), how much rampant sexism there was in the primaries (from both the Obama campaign and the media), how few specifics really came from Obama and his campaign, how the Obama campaign’s playbook specifically stated to speak only in generalities, how Hillary Clinton, as the main loser in the primaries, was somehow required, with her husband, to do more at the Democratic Convention than any loser has in the past, and amazed at how some in the Obama camp still found that inadequate.

Or maybe you’re a long-time Bill Clinton supporter, and you’re still furious about Obama’s campaign saying that humanitarian Bill Clinton was racist when he dared to bring up the large percentage of black voters in the South Carolina primary, still dismayed that Obama would dare to conflate Bush and Clinton policies while praising Reagan.

Or maybe you were an early supporter of another potential candidate, an Al Gore say, and you were horrified from the beginning that Hillary Clinton would suck the money out of the Democratic Party like George W. Bush did to the Republicans in 2000, push out other favorable contenders, and leave the Democrats with either a choice that would rally Clinton-haters countrywide or present us with an untested choice with nothing to lose.

Speaking to Obama Believers is utterly infuriating, and distressing. You see the flip side of the Freepers (the nickname for the freakish right-wingers at, the true believers, who have left all rationality behind, who are living by associating themselves with a “movement”. It’s pure pack behavior, drones who’ve attached themselves to an all-powerful alpha male. If the pack is attacked, they roar back, with the most scurilous attacks. Then, the next minute, they’re playing victim, playing up the most minor criticism or comment into dirty politics. There’s a theory that ideological behavior is not linear, cut circular – the far left is not on the opposite end of the spectrum from the far right, but rather, the space is curved, and the behaviors begin to resemble each other. True believing, no matter the ideology, breeds totalitarianism.

The good news for moderates is: Obama appears to be not nearly as radical as many of his followers. He understands that a middle-class stimulus is important because two thirds of the economy is consumer demand, although he does seem to have a bit of that ideological disease – in general, it may be correct to acknowledge that progressive tax rates have basis in the economic fact that the upper class gains relatively more benefit per dollar than the poor, because of available money and connections, but it is probably foolish to raise any taxes in a time of recession. And, all must remember that the Supreme Court is currently a 4-4-1 split, and the liberals on the Court are ready to retire – the last thing this country needs is 7 or 8 conservatives on the Court. It would be best, of course, if the Court had 9 moderates (if such people exist anymore), but that seems to be an impossible task in this era. And Obama’s choice of Joe Biden must be respected – given the dangerous nature of Biden’s speaking style, this choice was clearly about governing and not politics.

And John McCain, the Great American Maverick, rather than hewing to classic general election strategy and heading for the middle, has fallen into the trap of attempting to resurrect the ghosts of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, presenting the country with a used-up, anachronistic world-view of American Exceptionalism and a domestic view of capitalists as American Brahmins. If Barack Obama could not convince the electorate with over 20 months of generalities, it only took an hour or two of the Republican Convention to remember that, until the GOP somehow regains it’s moderate voice, until we start seeing Republicans in power like Howard Baker and Charles “Mac” Mathias, that they cannot be trusted to govern this country, or to lead this world.

McCain has run one of the worst, and bizarre, general election campaigns in memory. It began perhaps out of his control, with the tired conservative tirades at the podium of the GOP Convention – apparently it is more acceptable to be a crazy conservative in this country than a crazy liberal. The reason for that would be that liberals don’t appreciate craziness nearly as much as conservatives. Extremism in either case resembles a type of xenophobia, which most liberals and moderates do not tolerate. And then, the craven and purely political choice of Sarah Palin, a pander to still angry Hillary Clinton supporters, and a salve to extreme conservative elements of the party – which these days seems to be a majority of Republicans.

What seemed a potentially brilliant political choice soured when it became apparent that Palin was virtually incompetent. It should have been no surprise that the current governor of a mini-petrostate, which draws one third of it’s economy from oil and another third from the federal government, and who has no federal experience (or apparently knowledge), would end up wearing poorly on the American public. Add to that McCain’s utterly irresponsible actions during the Congressional deliberations over the bailout, where he seemed to be merely looking for any group of cameras available, and Palin’s ridiculous accusations of terrorist associations and socialism, and McCain/Palin seemed more like the dangerous, reckless radicals rather than the classically safe GOP choice.

Was McCain fearful of an attack from the right? The only one out there was Bob Barr – was he really a threat? Would conservatives have really avoided the polls if McCain had attempted to embrace the center, or at least the right-of-center? Perhaps politicians and their consultants place too much emphasis on big rallies, even though we saw in the New Hampshire Democratic primary that huge crowds don’t necessarily translate into victories. Was this the main reason they picked Sarah Palin?

It is quite possible that had McCain picked an experienced moderate such as Tom Ridge that he would have won the election. Whatever he lost on the right he would have picked up in the middle and more. But the maverick who faced down his party until the last few years finally lost his nerve. The one dangerous play he should have made was to head for the center, to risk the support of the far right to gain the support of the American people. In the end McCain trusted the GOP more than America itself.

But, of course, there’s that Obama thing – he’s been more specific during the general election cycle, but it is hard to shake the feeling that he is floating along on this wave of unfounded admiration, buoyed by legions of accolytes, those folks who seem to have a need to belong, like those high-schoolers who felt subhuman unless they were accepted by the cool kids. But Obama himself does not seem to buy into that, and on the other side is that insane GOP.

So, the suggestion from these quarters would be: If you’re in a swing state, vote for Obama. Don’t do a Nader. Even if you have some friend whose has utterly ticked you off with his Obama support, don’t vote for Obama, but vote against the GOP by voting for Obama. But if you’re in a safe state, red or blue, and there’s a good alternative or you can write in, vote for someone you like. Check the polls – two great sites for tracking polls are and

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Daily Obama with Jon Stewart

Many of us who follow both politics and comedy, and in particular favor comedians who do political humor, were highly dismayed when the formerly brilliant comedian Dennis Miller decided to become a shill for the Republicans and George W. Bush. There is nothing less funny than a comedian with an agenda. Comedians are revered by being reliably cynical. They are supposed to poke fun at everyone in power, and take a hatchet to those who wish to attain power. Their job is to deflate the lofty hubris, and bring those secular deities down to earth. When a comedians take sides, the evasions, the prejudices, and the parochialism that they take such pleasure in bashing creeps into their own acts. They begin to smell as bad as the politicians they mock.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened with The Daily Show. With the occasional relief of Lewis Black, who continues to skewer all, the show has become the left wing’s equivalent of Fox News. On the positive side for The Daily Show, Jon Stewart explicitly states that his news is fake, unlike the Fair and Balanced lie that is perpetrated on Fox. But like Barack Obama, Stewart purports to hold himself to a higher standard.

One thing that a comedian should never become is a shill for a political party or a wing of a party. A comedian should especially never fall in love with a politician. Jon Stewart is head over heels for Obama, and anyone who comes even a little close to showing some sign of disrespect, anyone who does not bow down at the altar of Obama, is ripe for attack.

A prime example of Stewart’s new lack of perspective can be seen on his June 18, 2008 show, where he ridicules former Vice President Al Gore. Stewart mockingly refers to Gore as a “filmmaker”, suggests that Gore is terrified of Hillary Clinton, and then proceeds to compare Gore to a futuristic automaton and Jeff Foxworthy during a criticism of Gore for not endorsing Obama sooner.

This little bit of pique from Stewart ignores two pertinent facts. First, Gore had stated explicitly that he was not involving himself in this year’s Democratic primary process, even joking that he might disconnect his phone to avoid calls from the Obama and Clinton campaigns. Second, it ignores the ridicule that Gore endured following his endorsement of Howard Dean in 2004. And let’s add some speculation that the Obama campaign may have timed the endorsement themselves – Obama is starting up his general election campaign, and it would certainly make sense that they would schedule endorsement events over a period of time to take advantage of multiple news cycles, rather than having all major figures make their announcements on the same day.

Stewart’s passion can be appreciated. But perhaps the best tactical move for an Obama supporter would not be to attack those coming out to support him. Unfortunately, the left, in the person of Jon Stewart, has provided yet another reason to not vote for Barack Obama – this time for moderates who have supported Gore.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The New Dittoheads

Scott McClellan was not the first former Bush Administration official to commit apostasy, but he was possibly the most prominent, having been the main conduit for what would pass for information from that administration. He also had the most history with George W. Bush among those who have spoken out, having worked for Bush since he was Texas Governor.

Of course, the political world knew what would happen next. Every GOP hatchet man (and woman) would come out of the woodwork to attack, to say that McClellan was cravenly trying to sell books, or that he was disgruntled, that he was not really involved in discussions, or perhaps that he had simply lost his mind. It was almost amusing that the ultimate hatchet man of the late 20th century, Bob Dole (is he still alive?), felt compelled to chime in.

Such results are bound to ensue from a Cult of True Believers. They are a secular religion unto themselves, and their gods are of this world and political. They place not only their party above country, but that part of their party to which they identify. All others are infidels, and all other speech is an ignoble attack upon them and theirs. All of their attacks, and their misdeeds, are merely the handiwork of the one and true God.

Of course, the basis of the Bush Administration’s secular religion – the ideals or ideology – was difficult to discern. What at first seemed to be potentially rational, though extreme, policy positions, yielded to emotion. In particular, the stated policy of a humble non-interfering foreign policy transformed via the trauma of 9/11 into one of the more aggressive foreign policy stances this country has ever seen, resulting in the Iraq War. It did not matter to the followers that basic tenets of their beliefs had not been maintained – followers believe their leaders in religions, the True Belief is not in ideas but in group identification.

And now we have come full circle in the ideological realm in this country. The conservative reign of the true believer is coming to a close – McCain is almost as untrusted among Bush’s conservatives as the first Bush. The day moderates – what few seem to be left – and liberals have yearned for, the end of political irrationalism, had seemed to be at hand. We have weathered the manipulations of Gingrich and DeLay and Bush, with 14 years of attempting to have a rational disussion with a dittohead or freeper beginning to fade into history. We had hoped that simple disagreement would no longer yield to petty name-calling or deep hatred.

But this is not to be so, and the biggest surprise is that it is the Democratic Party (or, as Bob Dole might say, “The Democrat Party”, gripping his pen ever more tightly) that is the perpetrator of the New Cult. Over the last few months this writer has witnessed on so-called liberal blogs behavior eerily reminiscent of Bush disciples. The overwhelming percentage of members on these blogs seem to be Obama supporters. The proportion of Obama supporters would make sense from a policy position – Bill Clinton was a leader of the Democratic Leadership Council, and he held some positions that are antithetical to liberal beliefs, such as support for free trade agreements and the death penalty. But the irony is that the followers of a man that purports to be able to “Bring People Together” have such unfettered hatred for their opponents. And then follows the paradox that these followers, these disciples, who argued against Bush and his people for their blind loyalty have matched their predecessors in that blindness.

Perhaps it is because the target is the same, but many attacks used by Bush, Cheney, Rove, and Gingrich have been repeated almost verbatim out of the mouths of Obama supporters. Comments like “You wouldn’t want Bill Clinton wandering around in the White House with nothing to do” after years of saying that Bill Clinton’s personal failures shouldn’t diminish his value as President. And then there is the fake outrage, the most ambitious being the wonderful tantrums thrown by Obama surrogates over Hillary Clinton’s use of RFK’s assassination to note the timing of the primary season – this is a classic conservative tactic.

But that is politics, and anything goes in politics. It is only galling because the Obama camp has spouted this line about “New Politics”. It is difficult to abide hypocrisy no matter what the underlying policy positions. The late, great Sydney Pollack’s character in “Michael Clayton” points to a law firm apparatchik and says “He’s an asshole. But he knows it.” There is great truth in that line. The greatest danger is that a leader is an asshole and doesn’t know it. The Clintons know that they are. Bush was one and didn’t know it – the same goes for Obama.

What is truly hilarious about this campaign is that Obama has succeeded mightily by using Old Politics with new technology pioneered by Howard Dean’ campaign in 2004. He wisely concentrated on caucus states, knowing that his upper-class followers would have a much better ability to turn out there. It did not matter to him whether he won the majority of the popular vote. And it was Clinton’s failure to assume that she would win so early that her great support in Florida and Michigan would not be necessary. It was more important to her to attempt to win early in Iowa and New Hampshire.

This is similar to the situation in 2000, when Gore did not ask for a recount of the entire state. The GOP kept saying phrases like “Get Over It!”, and “Follow The Rules”. Again, the Obama camp is parroting the GOP lines. To them, it is about the delegates, not the popular vote. And it is not important to them that everyone’s vote is counted. Of course, Clinton agreed to the rules as well. Gore must be blamed for his strategic error in 2000, and Clinton must be blamed for hers this year. But where does that leave the people whose votes are not counted? We will not hear a peep from Obama, because he is playing Old Politics. (Another article is being planned on reviewing the anti-democratic effects of caucuses on the primary process.)

The absolutely most disturbing attribute of the Obama people is their seeming inability to discuss in a rational manner statements and mistakes made by their candidate. Two statements stick out: Obama’s professed admiration for Reagan, and his analysis that lower-class whites sought out guns and God because of declining economic fortunes. The former statement is basically incorrect – Reagan did not transform politics markedly, because he did not usher in an era of GOP rule that lasted. Reagan’s achievement was a cult of personality. The true transformational character was Gingrich.

The latter statement in particular showed the true character of Obama and of his followers. First, Obama’s analysis was off the mark, with the exception that feelings toward immigrants has always been influenced by economic conditions. Economic conditions have not had that powerful an impact on issues of guns or religion, and this showed that Obama has a lack of understanding of these communities. So, the conclusion would be that Obama seems smart, he sounds smart, but he’s really not that smart.

But the truly troubling part of this scenario is that Obama’s people agreed with his statements. The reason? Because Obama said it. On liberal blogs and bulletin boards it was impossible to get the members to even engage in a rational analysis of either the correctness of the statement itself, or the potential political impact of the statement. The proof of the statement’s negative political effect reverberated from Pennsylvania through West Virginia and Kentucky during the primaries. Yet all Obama’s supporters could do was offer a variety of redneck jokes.

Obama’s followers are truly The New Dittoheads. This writer has never even considered voting for a Republican in a Presidential election for 30 years, but the thought of 8 more years of tolerating the members of a political religion seems a bit too much to ask. Those who consider themselves to be The Pure And The True, whatever their political persuasion, must be considered a danger to the country.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Reality Check 2008

It has become a mantra among the Obama folks that he will be able to win a number of traditionally red states in the general election. This is perhaps the result of various slogans such as “Yes We Can!” and “He Brings People Together!”. It is a wonder that they continue to believe the latter slogan after the incredibly contentious meeting of the DNC Rules Committee this past weekend, but in general it was time to get some polling state-by-state.

For this, the site proves useful. It is currently showing head-to-head matchups in each state between McCain and both Obama and Clinton. After compiling the information on June 2, 2008, assigning half the electoral votes in the case of a polling tie, the results are:
   Obama 296 – McCain 242
   Clinton 343.5 – McCain 194.5

Following are the states currently in the columns of McCain, Either Democrat, Obama and Clinton ((*) denotes a tie; the states not in Obama’s column are McCain in a Obama-McCain matchup, and similarly for Clinton):

McCain Dem Obama Clinton
Alabama California Colorado Florida
Alaska Connecticut Indiana (*) Kentucky
Arizona D.C. Iowa Michigan (*)
Arkansas Delaware Virginia (*) Missouri
Georgia Hawaii Wisconsin Nevada
Idaho Illinois  North Carolina
Kansas Maine  West Virginia
Louisiana Maryland   
Mississippi Massachusetts   
Montana Minnesota   
Nebraska New Hampshire   
North Dakota New Jersey   
Oklahoma New Mexico   
South Carolina New York   
South Dakota Ohio   
Tennessee Oregon  
Texas Pennsylvania  
Utah Rhode Island  
Wyoming Vermont  

The most interesting aspect of the map is that, although Obama’s followers have a dream of turning red states blue, it is Clinton who would have the great impact in that area.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Limits to Loyalty

Former Senator George MCGOVERN: I have to tell you something I've never said before publicly. I voted for him in 1976.

Larry KING: What?

MCGOVERN: When he -- yes, I did. And at Thanksgiving dinner that year, I never said anything about this to Eleanor or to her five children. But I told them at Thanksgiving time I had voted for President Ford, even though he lost. And I told them why, because I thought he had come in at a difficult time. I didn't know President Carter very well then. And I just felt more comfortable somehow with Gerry Ford. Whereupon my wife Eleanor said, so did I vote for him.

We went around that table -- this is hard to believe -- all five of my kids voted for him. So they get seven votes out of the McGovern family for President Ford and Senator Dole, my long-time Republican friend.

I voted for Carter again in 1980. So with my brand of political luck, I voted against Carter when he won, I voted for him when he lost. But I can justify both of those votes.

KING: What a great story. Thank you, George McGovern, on the occasion of the passing of Gerald Ford.

MCGOVERN: Could I also add one -- could I add one thing?

KING: Yes.

MCGOVERN: Larry, I supported the pardon for President Nixon. I suppose I was the person that suffered more from the cover-up of Watergate while I was running against Mr. Nixon than anyone else. But I supported that idea of a pardon even before President Ford granted it.

I called Barry Goldwater and asked him, at 6:00 one morning in the summer of '74, what would you think of you and I on a bipartisan basis calling for a pardon for President Nixon? He wasn't enthusiastic about it.

Larry King Live, January 2, 2007

Rumsfeld and Cheney and the president made a big mistake in justifying going into the war in Iraq. – Former President Gerald R. Ford, in an interview with Washington Post Reporter Bob Woodward

"I haven't made any decisions. I just haven't even thought about where my place is," (Former Rhode Island Senator Lincoln) Chafee said at a news conference Thursday when asked whether he would stick with the Republican Party or switch to be an independent or Democrat.

When asked if his comments meant he thought he might not belong in the Republican Party, he replied: "That's fair."

Chafee unsure of staying with GOP after losing election

After allegations of sexual misconduct, current California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show with his wife Maria Shriver during the California state recall election in 2003. Shriver and Winfrey are old friends. beginning in the 1970s when both were reporters in Baltimore. Winfrey has not openly discussed her party affiliation, but it is difficult to imagine that she would be a conservative, or a supporter of President Bush. And, of course, Shriver is a member of the Kennedy clan, a paramount symbol of the Democratic Party in America. Yet, here both women were supporting Schwarzenegger, a huge supporter (at the time) of President Bush.

And thus, family and friends trump principle. Even though John Kerry won California in the 2004 Presidential election, every so-called moderate voice such as Schwarzenegger’s helped Bush win. So, it is possible to hypothesize that Maria Shriver and other members of her clan (and the word “clan” is meant in the most primitive way) and Oprah Winfrey indirectly helped George Bush win a second term.

The few remaining Republican moderates in the Senate, Lincoln Chafee, Arlen Specter, Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, through their continued membership in the Republican Party, enabled the most extreme elements in American politics to control the Senate. Similarly, House GOP moderates such as Christopher Shays enabled the extreme politics of Tom DeLay. In each case these moderates went against their principles, first by ensuring that the Republican caucuses held majorities in each chamber thereby providing radical conservatives with committee chairmanships, which reduced oversight and increased corruption, and by voting with their party on party-line votes, with certain exceptions, notably Lincoln Chafee’s vote against the Iraq War authorization.

Perhaps these moderate GOP politicians thought that the pendulum would swing back, that their actions were necessary for the survival of their kind. But since the first President Bush’s apostasy – renouncing choice, and reversal on the concept that supply-side economics was “voodoo economics” – the moderate faction of the GOP has been on an inexorable decline, and is now nearly extinct. The reason for this is precisely that the GOP moderates did not stand up for moderate principles, making it more and more likely that moderate Democrats and independents would not vote for them. Lincoln Chafee, with more than a 60% approval rating, lost for this very reason, along with the knowledge that any Republican, even a liberal, could still provide the GOP caucus a majority, giving conservatives status as the majority party and important committee chairmanships.

On the other side of the aisle, liberal Democrats must be aghast at former Senator and presidential candidate George McGovern’s admission that he voted for Republican Gerald Ford in the Presidential election of 1976. McGovern, the hero (along with Eugene McCarthy) of the anti-war movement in the Vietnam War Era, voting for the man who pardoned Richard Nixon. The man who had the most reason to never vote for the Republican Party, did, putting his principles above simple party loyalty.

Perhaps the late, former President Gerald Ford could have taken a lesson from McGovern, and instead of requiring that Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, and others, wait for his death to publish interviews expressing his serious reservations on the war in Iraq, had put those views out into the public realm when it might have made a difference. It is unfortunate that even such a good man would put loyalty to his party above loyalty to his country.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Limits of Comparison

Weekly Standard Editor FRED BARNES: "Well, in truth, as Senator [Harry] Reid said, the President is not doing what his commanders on the ground have urged, mainly because their policy has failed. Baghdad is not secure. It's the center of great chaos and turmoil and violence in Iraq, so he's done what Abraham Lincoln did. When your commanders are not winning, you bring in new commanders. And, after all, he is the Commander-in-Chief. ..." – Roundtable on Fox News Sunday, January 7, 2007.

New York Daily News Columnist Michael GOODWIN: I think the reality about Iraq, Lou, the president as well as a lot of members of Congress are hiding behind the generals, whatever the generals want, the generals, the generals, the generals.

CNN Anchor Lou DOBBS: You're right about this, I am so sick about hearing this president and the previous defense secretary, say whatever the commanders say is what we'll do. There was a chain of command.

GOODWIN: It wasn't true in many cases. But ultimately the commander in chief is supposed to decide. I'm reminded of Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War. He was firing people left and right until he got the people he wanted to do what he wanted.

Lou Dobbs Tonight, January 5, 2007

President Bush is being compared to Lincoln. In an apparent turnaround (crueler observers would deem it a “flip-flop”), the Commander-In-Chief is asserting his constitutional role and has essentially fired Generals John Abizaid (retirement) and George Casey (kicked upstairs) because they did not believe in the wisdom of his new Iraq strategy (although there have been reports that Abizaid eventually came around). The turnaround is that, previously, the President portrayed the selection of commanding generals as something akin to the Immaculate Conception, without any input from the executive branch, and that he was merely following their requests and recommendations, whereas now he has actually selected generals who will follow and believe in his new plan.

The comparison to Lincoln is this: During the course of the Civil War, Lincoln relieved many generals of their commands (many entries at Lincoln Timeline), especially after losing battles, and even after winning battles if the general’s actions were insufficient. The most famous example of the latter is Lincoln’s firing of General George B. McClellan, commander of the Union armies, after the general’s defeat of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s forces at Antietam, because McClellan did not pursue Lee’s retreating Army of Northern Virginia.

The comparison fails on other levels. At the onset of the Civil War, Lincoln submerged himself in the study of military strategy and tactics. He felt free to discuss very particular aspects of military plans with his generals – see examples at Lincoln Letter 1 and Lincoln Letter 2. It is difficult to imagine our current President taking such detailed interest in military planning.

And Lincoln wrote his own speeches, some of the most remarkable documents ever produced by an American leader. They reveal a combination of passion and logic, a concision that emanated from an individual who had great knowledge. President Bush’s flat and diffident delivery of his speech on Iraq policy and strategy – he seemed to be reading something that was written for him, a figurehead reading a list prepared by bureaucrats. We have no recordings of Lincoln’s speeches, but surely Lincoln showed more passion and knowledge when he spoke than the current President.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Executioner's Holiday

It was surprising that President George W. Bush did not attend the ceremony honoring the late, former President Gerald R. Ford under the Capital Dome last Saturday. It makes sense that Vice President Richard Cheney would give a eulogy in that ceremony, given his previous relationship with the late President. But President Bush's complete absence from the proceedings was odd. Bush did not appear at the equivalent ceremony for former President Ronald Reagan in 2004, but Bush was then hosting the G-8 Summit in Sea Island, Georgia. During the remembrance for Ford, Bush was in Crawford, Texas, with no apparent scheduling conflicts.

Was Bush’s absence simply disregard for a "lesser" President? Was it pique at Woodward's revelation that Ford opposed the Iraq War? Was it the same lazy inertia that kept Bush in Crawford at the beginning of Katrina? Why would Bush pass up the most positive of photo ops?

It has been an odd week or so, a confluence of high-profile endings. The death of James Brown, not just a musician, but also an important element in and commentator of social change from the 1960s. Then came Ford's passing, immediately followed by Bob Woodward's previously recorded interviews with Ford. And, finally, the announcement and execution of Saddam Hussein's death sentence.

These news-cycle-worthy events occurred during the period of Bush's "listening tour" and planning new policy for Iraq, designed to help the attention-deficit prone American public forget that the Iraq Study Group ever existed. It seems that The Decider is performing a strategic procrastination, dillydallying to avoid doing something willynilly in the midst of the hullaballoo and hurlyburly that is Iraq – at least that’s the idea. (This is what happens to writers who read Safire's "On Language" column.) Also, the other member of the Iraq War Club, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, was vacationing at Robin Gibbs' home in Miami.

Now this would have been perfect timing for Saddam’s execution, with the leaders of both the US and UK out of range, during the holidays with it’s slow news cycles. But Ford’s death and the following commemorations threw a monkey wrench into the works, forcing various members of the Administration into the public eye, except, apparently, for Bush. It doesn’t seem right that the 3 hours a day that Bush is working on Iraq would prevent him from attending.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Suggested Reading

Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book, Imperial Life In The Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone has recently come out, and he’s been making the rounds. Chandrasekaran, now an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post, tells the story of the first year in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, when the reconstruction of Iraq was overseen by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) led by L. Paul Bremer III. Chandrasekaran witnessed the events as the Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief. The suggestion is not to buy the book itself (although that is an option), but to check out some free avenues to review what’s in it – even an overview is a frightening look at a real travesty.

In an adaptation of the book written by Chandrasekaran for the Post, one can get a taste of the corrupt and nepotistic hiring practices of the White House’s liasion to the Pentagon, where an applicant may be asked his or her vote for President in 2000, or views on abortion, even if the job was to head the reopening of the Baghdad Stock Exchange (which was handed to a 24-year-old Bush loyalist with no background in finance). Side note: Yes, Jim O’Beirne is married to that Kate O’Beirne – some things are no surprise.

The review in the New York Times Book Review by Michael Goldfarb will only be free until next Saturday or Sunday. It contains a couple more nuggets of bureaucratic idiocy and corruption.

For those who would like a break from the reading, see Chandrasekaran’s interview (Part 1 and Part 2) on The Daily Show.

All this material is both disturbing and disheartening, almost to the point of being funny. It is one thing to hear about the utter lack of preparation for Iraq's reconstruction, or, say, how a blockheaded Defense Secretary could not adjust to his enemy. But Chandrasekaran’s book brings into even better view that, on some basic level, the Bush Administration's hubris causes them to really think that anyone who likes them, no matter how unqualified, is better for any job than someone they're not sure about. It the worst kind of identification politics leaking into the bureaucratic sphere.

Blog note: For the holiday, the posts could be light until after the New Year.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Strategic Delay

After the Iraq Study Group’s report came out, the country was anticipating an announcement of the results of the ongoing policy review by the Bush Administration. But this announcement has now been postponed to January. One guess had been that the Administration wanted the press flurry from the ISG report release to cool off. President Bush stated that one reason was to allow the newly confirmed Defense Secretary, Bob Gates, to add to the discussion.

But the timing seemed off – The Decider can’t seem to, well, decide. It has been more than a month since Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation was accepted. Then the Administration stated that they were waiting on the ISG report before any change in Iraq policy would be announced. But then there was a crush of press coverage on the ISG report, emphasizing the suggestion that the Baker-Hamilton Commission was sent to fix the problems created by the current Administration. Perhaps the embarassment of this group of elder statesmen, led by the ultimate fixer James Baker, has led the Bush Administration to attempt it’s own display of gravitas through massive consultation. But there seemed to be something missing. Democratic strategist Paul Begala thinks that postponing the new policy announcement until January would be a mistake, because that month is usually reserved by an administration solely for the State of the Union, which normally provides a boost in presidential poll numbers. Begala can’t help but think of events in their political context, but perhaps he missed another major consideration.

Incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has stated that she would use the first 100 hours to “drain the swamp” created by 12 years of Republican rule. Rep. Henry Waxman, who will become chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, is intent on using his new position to open a variety of investigations into the Administration. And Sen. Patrick Leahy, the incoming Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is planning to subpoena members of the administration to testify at congressional hearings.

Perhaps the delay in announcing a new Iraq strategy is just another Rovian political calculation. In January, the United States will swear in the first female Speaker of the House, the highest ranking woman ever in government. The new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate (although the tenuous nature of the Democratic majority in the Senate has already been exposed by the illness of South Dakota Senator Tom Johnson) would inspire a new round of press coverage. Given that many in the Bush Administration are still clinging to the now discredited slogan of “stay the course”, perhaps they view a “major announcement” of Iraq policy as a mere political tool, just the thing to divert attention from the new Congressional regime.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary:
  • ideology – The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture.

  • dogma – 1. A system of doctrines proclaimed true by a religious sect. 2. A principle, belief, idea, or opinion, esp. one authoritatively considered to be absolute truth : TENET. 3. A system of principles or beliefs.

  • orthodox – 1. Adhering to the established and traditional faith, esp. in religion. 2. Adhering to the Christian faith as set forth in the early Christian ecumenical creeds. 3. Conforming to accepted standards or established practice.

In November 2001, the campaign to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan was proceeding smoothly and was nearing it's completion. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's idea of a light mobile force was a smashing success. Public approval of the operation in Afghanistan hovered around 90%. Rumsfeld was a rock star; people from across the political spectrum tuned into Defense Department briefings to see this enigmatic leader. And Osama bin Laden, the evil mastermind and financier of the 9/11 attacks, was in the mountains of Tora Bora, surrounded.

But there was a problem. Even after days of raining down daisy cutters on Tora Bora, Bin Laden was still alive, hidden in a complex of caves and tunnels. The force holding down Tora Bora was predominantly Afghan, with very few American soldiers. This was the way most of war had been conducted -- American Special Forces assisting Afghan troops. This was Rumsfeld's design.

There was sufficient time to replace or augment the Afghan contingent with an American force. This was before the beginning of the Iraq War, so there were more than enough American troops available. But to do that would alter Rumsfeld's design, which had worked so well.

The result is well known -- Osama bin Laden escaped into the netherworld of the Pakistani tribal areas, where he, more than likely, remains to this day. (See an account at How bin Laden got away.) The speculation is that members of the Afghan force assisted Bin Laden's escape, which is not farfetched given that much of the progress in the Afghanistan War resulted from troops merely switching sides. Loyalty to any particular cause did not seem to exist. Rumsfeld's military ideology didn't take this very flexible loyalty into account, even with all the evidence. That's the problem with ideology.

The definition of ideology given above is succinct and beautifully accurate in it’s seeming vagueness. Ideology is inverted logic – the principles are fitted to an desired end result. It’s really more than desire, it’s a need, like the jonesing of a heroin addict. Without ideology, members of many groups would lose their self-identification, they would be people without a country.

Ideology does not just infect the right wing of the political spectrum. At the onset of the war itself, many stated that invading Iraq was “immoral”. Committing the US blindly to an adventure in Iraq may have been foolish, impractical, and not nearly the most important and reasonable use for the military at the time, but it certainly wasn’t immoral. A typical case for this stand of immorality states that “No one has the ‘right’ to attack another person because they ‘suspect’ that person is planning to attack them. This holds for nations as well. A preemptive war is legal and moral only if there is overwhelming, objective evidence that the offending country or people are actively trying to destroy the defending country. A guess is not a moral premise for war.” This may be true when the countries in question are civilized democracies, but is overthrowing a repressive dictator immoral? Would it have been immoral to attack Hitler’s Germany if the only reason were to stop the Holocaust? Many have called for intervention in the Sudan to stop the genocide in Darfur, yet the Sudanese haven’t attacked us, nor do they plan to. Would an invasion of the Sudan to stop genocide be immoral? This discussion of the immorality of the Iraq invasion was prompted to a great extent by the initial bogus reason given by the Bush Administration, that Iraq was in possession of WMD, but it is sheer Rovian twisting of fact to use this as a basis for analysis.

The left wing has currently equated the Iraq War with the Vietnam War, even though there are palpable differences (as outlined in Outcomes II). It is as if any war that is badly executed, fundamentally lacks the backing of the country backing the war, has endemic violence caused by insurgents, and turns into a “long, hard slog” (in Rumsfeld’s immortal words) is the Vietnam War all over again. The absolute illogic of equivalencing Vietnam and Iraq is a perfect example of purely ideological thinking. The left identifies itself with their victory of the US leaving Vietnam, and is craving a similar victory in Iraq. This is not to say that leaving Iraq is the best overall course given current circumstances. But the left’s equation relieves itself of thinking of any future consequences of leaving.

Not every war that is bogged down is equivalent to Vietnam. The American Civil War was bogged down until Lincoln fired McClellan. The Reconstruction, which was in all ways a war between Southern racists and blacks and their federal protectors, was also a long hard slog, and because of the weariness and lack of support of the North, combined with political factors, was forfeited to the South, guaranteeing almost 100 years of brutal repression.

Ideology infects every area of political and economic thought, from Democrats holding on to fossilized welfare systems that had the unexpected effect of destroying family structures to Republicans demanding stimulative tax cuts when the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates to cool off the economy to minimize the threat of inflation. Both sides are guilty of using ideology to ignore the potentially painful gray areas to paint falsely definitive images in black and white. Only when we ignore ideology, and see the entire range of potential outcomes to any proposed solution, will we be able to understand the full impact of our decisions.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Civil War

If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is. – Former Iraq Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, in an interview on BBC Sunday AM, March 19, 2006

Stewart: But getting back to the civil war in …
Oliver: Uh buh buh buh buh buh – the ongoing scuffle between sectarian insurgent groups
Stewart: OK, but the that …
Oliver: Hold on hold on -- the internal sovereignty challenge, or, uh, the faith-based melee.
Stewart: Alright.
Oliver: That’s a nice one.
Stewart: But why can’t we just say and call it a civil war?
Oliver: Because to American ears the phrase civil war conjures horrible jaw-dropping images of bloodshed panned across slowly by Ken Burns.

Stewart: 3000 Iraqis died just, just this month, arguing over what to call it seems like semantic quibbling.
Oliver: Semantic quibbling? Well, I wouldn’t call it that.
Stewart: What, what would you call it?
Oliver: A minor linguistic flareup between two parties of differing terminological points of view.

-- Jon Stewart and John Oliver on the Daily Show, November 27, 2006

For months now the White House has rejected claims that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated into a civil war. And, for the most part, news organizations like NBC have hesitated to characterize it as such. But after careful consideration, NBC News has decided a change in terminology is warranted -- that the situation in Iraq with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas -- can now be characterized as a civil war. -- Matt Lauer on the Today Show, November 27, 2006 (reported at

With Matt Lauer’s certification of the conflict in Iraq as a civil war, there has been an outbreak of semantics, so let’s partake. First, some definitions from a 20 year old dictionary:

Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary
  • civil war – War between factions or regions of a single nation.

  • faction – A group of persons forming a cohesive, usu. contentious minority within a larger group.

  • war – A state of open, armed, often prolonged conflict carried on between nations, states, or parties.

So, the requirements are:
  • Open, armed conflict – With estimates from 10s of thousands to 100s of thousands of dead Iraqis, this condition is satisfied.

  • Extra credit: Prolonged conflict – The US involvement in Iraq is now longer than it’s involvement in World War II, so the credit is granted.

  • Factions – Besides the Sunni/Shi’a split and the infusion of Al Qaeda, there are a plethora of factions and militias to choose from in Iraq. The best known are the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr centered in the Sadr City district of Baghdad and the Badr Organization based in Karbala in southern Iraq.

  • Single nation – That would be Iraq.

The definition of civil war would seem to be fully satisfied. Yet the Bush Administration disagrees. Perhaps Webster’s is oversimplifying. Let’s take a listen to Tony Snow.

Q: Tony, a couple of minutes ago, you said one of the goals in Iraq is to prevent civil war. Can you take a minute and give us the definition that the President is working with? Because he continues to say it's not at that state yet; lots of analysts do say it's at that state. What's the threshold that the administration is working with --

MR. SNOW: I think the general notion is a civil war is when you have people who use the American Civil War or other civil wars as an example, where people break up into clearly identifiable feuding sides clashing for supremacy within Iran.

-- from Press Briefing by White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, October 20, 2006

Snow seems to be saying that a further condition is that the factions are “clearly identifiable”, and that the Iraqi factions are not. However, it is more likely that the factions are not clearly identifiable only to the Bush Administration. Unlike the very easy to identify sides in the American Civil War, the entire structure of Iraq is a byzantine composition of, in order from highest to lowest: federations, tribes, clans, houses and families. (See a description at Arab Tribes in Iraq.) While this structure may be fairly opaque to American eyes, it is more than likely that each of these groups can clearly identify their enemies.

In my Outcomes post, I used the phrase “sectarian conflict and civil war”. Sectarian conflict and civil war are not mutually exclusive – using the entire phrase is a way to describe the type of civil war that is occurring. The phrase “sectarian conflict” would not apply to the US Civil War, for instance, but would apply to Yugoslavia’s breakup. But again, the Bush Administration disagrees. Notice how, in this excerpted testimony from the August 3, 2006 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the term “sectarian violence” is used as condition that is mutually exclusive from “civil war”:

Gen. John ABIZAID, Commander of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM): As the primary security problem in Iraq has shifted from a Sunni insurgency to sectarian violence, Al Qaida terrorists, insurgents and Shia militants compete to plunge the country into civil war.


Sen. Carl LEVIN (D., MI), Ranking Member:

The British ambassador made the following assessment, according to USA Today: that the British ambassador to Iraq -- it's Mr. Patey, I believe, P-A-T-E-Y -- has warned that Iraq is descending toward civil war. And he said it's likely to split along ethnic lines. And he's reported as predicting that Iraq's security situation could remain volatile for the next 10 years.

Do you agree, General, with the ambassador from Britain to Iraq that Iraq is sliding toward civil war?

ABIZAID: I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war.


Sen. John WARNER (R., VA), Committee Chairman:

But now, in the words of General Abizaid, we're on the brink of a civil war.
And I don't have the exact words before me, but I was struck by General Chiarelli's statement the other day that in his 35 years of military training, he really never had spent a day preparing for what faces him as our commander of forces in Iraq: sectarian violence, civil war.

What is the mission of the United States today under this resolution if that situation erupts into a civil war? What are the missions of our forces?

Gen. Peter PACE, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Sir, I believe that we do have the possibility of that devolving to a civil war, but that does not have to be a fact.



I think it will move toward this equilibrium in the next five years. That doesn't mean that we need to keep our force levels where they are, but I am confident that the Iraqi security forces, with good governance, coupled together, will bring the country toward equilibrium because the alternative is so stark.

They've had the experience of Lebanon. All you gotta do is go ask the Lebanese how long a civil war will last, and you'll know that you must move toward equilibrium.

It would seem that the Bush Administration thinks there is some dividing line between sectarian conflict and civil war, that if the current horrendous, open, armed conflict that is called sectarian violence gets worse, then it transforms into something else called civil war at some point. While this may be true in a sense - there may be sectarian violence that is not civil war - it would be helpful if they could provide a more complete definition. Is it a difference in degree or a difference in kind? Perhaps, given Tony Snow’s description, they expect the factions to break out uniforms at some point, maybe something in a blue or gray. Luckily for us, Matt Lauer has resolved the controversy.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Turned Out / Turnout

Turned Out

Many conservatives are interpreting the mid-term election results as a punishment for abandoning conservatism. George Will, in his election post-mortem, states that Republicans are “guilty of apostasy from conservative principles at home (frugality, limited government) and embrace of anti-conservative principles abroad (nation-building grandiosity pursued incompetently)”. The idea of limited government may be often stated as a conservative ideal, but it has seldom been followed in any administration since the New Deal. In particular, it was certainly not followed by that conservative deity Ronald Reagan, who merely ballooned the deficit with tax cuts while paying mere lip service to reducing the size of government. And nation-building was fully embraced by conservatives in Vietnam and to some extent (again, during Reagan’s administration) in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

But contrary to the protestations of old-line conservatives, there were only two main factors in the fall of the Republicans from power – Iraq and Katrina. While Katrina was seldom mentioned, and, it seems, is almost forgotten, it was the turning point in the public’s perception of the Bush Administration and it’s Republican enablers in the Congress. It emboldened the media, finally, to engage in full criticism of the government, and revealed to the American people the government’s outright incompetence. There was no filter available to the Bush Administration to obscure the results of their inaction, no ability to claim that dissent was unpatriotic as they had done with any critique of the Iraq War.

And this change in perception, in full circle from when President Bush stood on a pile of rubble in Manhattan after 9/11, carried over into the administration’s conduct of the Iraq War. Instead of the public continuing to give the government the benefit of the doubt, aided by the rampant spin of the conservative public relations machine, the debacle of Katrina has continued to color every statement uttered by the administration. In the “fog of war” it is difficult to prove incompetence – it is easy to point to a evil and clever enemy as the reason for any setbacks. But Katrina was the proof. And Iraq has become a dull pain in the American side, killing soldiers and draining the treasury with what seems to be no change for the better.

But if it were not for the current quagmire in Iraq and the devastation of Katrina, would the American public have noticed the “apostasy from conservative principles” that George Will describes? The same cronyism, the same profligate lobbyist-directed spending, the same hubris has infected the Bush Administration from the very beginning. The great nation-building exercise that is the Iraq War was well under way in 2004, yet George W. Bush was reelected. Abandoning conservative principles had nothing to do with the election results – this election was about competence, or the lack thereof.


Depending on the source, percentage turnout for the 2006 mid-term elections was estimated at either the average since 1972 to the highest since 1982 – in both cases the percentage turnout is around 40%. One estimate has the Democratic share of the vote at 17.9%, with the Republican share at 16.8%. These numbers could be interpreted to mean that less than one-fifth of the voting age population have decided which party controls Congress, along with the fate of 36 Governorships.

The highest turnout occurred in Minnesota with more than 59%; the lowest was a close race between Mississippi and Louisiana, with between 26 and 28%. The turnout numbers seem to lack correlation with the closeness of the major races in the states. South Dakota had the second highest turnout at almost 58%, yet in the two statewide races, for Governor and the single House district, the margins were 26% and 40% respectively. Yet Maryland, with seemingly tight races for both US Senator and Governor (several late pre-election polls had both races within the margin of error), registered between 40-50%, depending on the estimate.

There’s been much gnashing of teeth from Joe Lieberman’s win over Ned Lamont in Connecticut. But here are the numbers:
  • In the Democratic primary, Lamont won by 146,587 to 136,468 for Lieberman out of 696,823 registered Democratic voters. Although turnout increased to 40% from the average primary turnout of 25% (the Connecticut primary is held in August), Lamont was determined to be the Democratic candidate by only 21% of registered Democrats. His vote in the primary was 12% of the total votes cast in the general election, and 7% of the voting age population.

  • In the general election, Lieberman won by 563,725 to 448,077 with a total vote of 1,131,692 from a voting age population of 2,086,609. Although Lieberman received 50% of the votes cast, he was elected by only 27% of the voting age population. Such are the vagaries of the American election system.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Outcomes II

The primary error in judgment during the Vietnam War wasn't troop levels or strategy or operational tactics -- it was misinterpretation of the goals and aspirations of North Vietnam's political leadership. The West saw the North Vietnamese as proxies of the Communist Great Powers. It was assumed that the NVA and Viet Cong were wholly-owned subsidiaries of the Soviet Union and China, acting as forward divisions of an expansion through Southeast Asia, all in line with the Domino Theory. Surely, if Vienam fell into the Communist sphere, then all of Southeast Asia would follow.

What the West did not realize, or care to even investigate, was that the aspirations of the Vietnamese Communists were not related to the international Communist movement. They wanted control of their country, and to subjugate their own population economically and politically, but they were not interested in creating a broader sphere of influence in Southeast Asia for the Soviets and Chinese.

The Vietnam War was a true nationalist insurgency. It’s goal was to rid the country of invaders (the US and it's allies) and a corrupt (South Vietnamese) government. This is the reason it spread throughout the civilian population so thoroughly. Women and children strapping themselves with bombs to kill American soldiers is a sign of civilian support. When a movement is not deterred even when 3 million are killed, that signals that something other than a proxy war is taking place.

The question now is: Is Iraq another Vietnam? There are certainly similarities. Like Vietnam, the reasoning for intervention in Iraq was based on an abstract political theory, similar to the old Domino Theory -- but this time it is a democratic seed that would spread. There is the difficulty in separating combatants from civilians, with the resulting huge numbers of civilian casualties. There are even similarities at the tactical level, with what are essentially Vietnam-style search-and-destroy missions that are not designed to hold territory. And Iraq, like Vietnam, is a quagmire -- there is constant violence and loss of life without any sort of visible improvement.

But what of the differences? Vietnam did not threaten military or economic strategic interests of the West. It did not become a base of operations for attacks on the US and it's allies. Even though it became, and remains today, an extremely repressive government, Vietnam has not directly affected the West in any measurable way since the US left.

Now before the US invaded Iraq, a similar statement might have been made, that Saddam Hussein's regime had very little effect on the West. The Iraqis would occasionally shoot at US planes, and there was certainly evasion of sanctions, but Hussein was "in a box", to repeat Colin Powell's famous phrase, and he was staying there.

But with the invasion and the toppling of Saddam, the situation has changed. It is an irreversible process that has occurred. Take a piece of steel and heat it to a high temperature. If the steel is allowed to cool at a slow rate, it will return to it's original state. But if the steel is dipped in a cold water bath and cooled quickly, in a process known as "quenching", the steel will harden with the introduction of martensite -- it cannot return to it's original state. Like quenched steel, Iraq cannot return to it's original state. It is no longer ruled by a weakened dictator. Iraq now contains various factions which have at least the possibility of desiring to support direct terrorist action against the US. So the idea that removing US and British troops from Iraq will increase or maintain our safety is not necessarily correct.

Another huge difference between Iraq and Vietnam is that our opponent in Vietnam was a single entity -- there was no civil war after our exit. Whereas Iraq is experiencing conflict among at least three main ethnic groups with many more subgroups, factions and militias. Various outside entities have their hands in Iraq as well, including Iran, Syria and Al Qaeda, and there will be an additional problem with Turkey if the Kurds decide to become independent.

With all these groups involved, it is impossible to predict what the outcome in Iraq will be if US troops leave. Of course, the predictions of those who began this war were as far off as predictions can be. And, as discussed previously, an even worse error was the Bush Administration assuming that their sole prediction had a 100% probability, ignoring the lessons of Yugoslavia and post-World War II reconstruction among others.

So, given the recent history, every well-meaning rational individual who espouses total troop withdrawal must do the following:
  • Delineate the potential outcomes resulting from withdrawal, i.e., US-friendly democracy, Iran-leaning theocracy, civil war leading to partition, terrorist haven, etc.

  • Supply proof for each scenario by relating to a previous historical situation. E.g., post-Tito Yugoslavia is an excellent example of the "civil war leading to partition" outcome.

  • Assign numbers for the increase or decrease in casualties and money spent that would result from each outcome, in both the short term and long term.

  • Give probabilities for each outcome.

  • Provide contingency plans for outcomes with negative impacts.

See, that's what the Bush Administration should have done in preparation for this war. But if the criticism is not enough planning, or unrealistic expectations, then the critics must provide what they think is missing. And we cannot simply return Iraq to some initial pre-invasion state – unfortunately the Bush Administration has already removed that option.

In Vietnam the US misunderstood our opponents’ intentions, and we paid for it with more than 58000 dead. Although we have paid for our foolish and irreversible adventure in Iraq with almost 3000 dead, we need to now be rational and coldly analytical about whatever future steps we will take there.

Friday, November 10, 2006


It was a strange sight seeing President Bush at his press conference on Wednesday, chastened and defeated, confronted by a press that for one of the first times did not seem cowed. A certain lightness was in the air, even for the president himself.

In particular, with the official announcement of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation (which was in actuality a firing), America entered an entirely new political climate, one where the commander-in-chief would actually fire a prominent member of his administration. It was not an act of taking responsibility, there was no admission of guilt or mistakes, but rather the move was actually designed to correct a situation – something we have not seen in this country in a long time. We’ve seen the Bush Administration mark a scapegoat, like former FEMA Director Michael Brown, but never a new appointment intended to correct or change course. The fact that this change of direction may have emanated from the first President Bush's camp does not diminish the importance.

Later in the day, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopolous of ABC News, and CNN’s Lou Dobbs, finally used the “L” word – they said that the President’s statements to reporters that Rumsfeld would stay as Defense Secretary through the remainder of the Bush Administration was a lie.


For the last two election cycles, the Republicans have bred fear as a campaigning tactic. They have conflated everything they can think of with the “War on Terror”, including Iraq. They have even stated that if we lose the war in Iraq, then hundreds or thousands of terrorists will come to America to fight in our very streets.

It is ironic that a major reason for the huge Republican losses was exactly the emotion they thought served them best – fear. It was not the fear they had hoped for, not the fear of invading terrorists, but rather fear of an arrogant group of men and women isolating us from the world, increasing anger against us everywhere, using up our treasury for poorly conceived military adventures, ignoring catastophes at home, and invading our privacy for unknown purposes without oversight. The American public has seen what one-party Republican rule is, and they have come away, finally, terrified.

So, it was with an unexpected relief that many of us greeted Wednesday morning. It was not a surprise that there would be relief – we expected that. But it was not just the release of tension, waiting for the election results, nor did it involve just the release of anger at our opponents. The power of the relief made us realize just how much fear we had been experiencing, that if the American public could not correct the situation we were in more trouble than we could handle. Well, even with the election results, we’re still in grave danger. But we feel like we can breathe again, and there is hope. Transformation!

Rumsfeld Resignation

Rumsfeld said that Iraq was too complex for others to understand. But it is clear what we should understand about Rumsfeld. His stated goal was to make a more agile and deadly force, but he was not agile enough to adjust his own strategies.

One of his greatest failures was not realizing that his use of Afghan troops without loyalties, which worked so well to oust the Taliban, would not work to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora. And his strategy of using a light mobile force, which was so effective in ending Saddam Hussein's regime, was not altered when it became obvious it was not the solution to provide security for the post-war environment.

He seemed to imply that he was a sort of intellectual and military historian, but he ignored lessons in military and political history from World War II to Yugoslavia. And when others disagreed with him, he just removed them – so much for the logic of the argument being the ultimate persuader.

Many on the left have suggested that Rumsfeld was just carrying out the orders of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. But this man had full and utter control of the Pentagon, and he was a cancer on the military.

John Kerry Presidential Hopes, R.I.P.

What are the qualities that are needed in a successful presidential candidate? The ability to think on one’s feet may be primary, but even more important is the ability to reverse a mistake as quickly as possible.

John Kerry should have scheduled an exclusive interview with a reputable reporter and anchorman, for instance Wolf Blitzer or Charlie Gibson, with the requirement that the entire clip of his “controversial comments” be played. Then Kerry should have pointed out the obvious context, reprimanded the media for taking his comments out of context, apologized if the feelings of troops were hurt by the misrepresentation by both Republicans and the media, and then said that he would cancel appearances for the rest of this campaign cycle so that Iraq would not be eclipsed as the main story.

But instead, Kerry was caught flat-footed, well into two news cycles. His first response seemed arrogant, and his second statement was surrender. It’s never obvious what type and variety of advisors and consultants a prospective candidate is listening to at any particular time, but it doesn’t matter. Kerry has had two election cycles to get his team and his message right, and he has failed.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Nation At War

Like the Second World War, our present conflict began with a ruthless, surprise attack on the United States.  We will not forget that treachery, and we will accept nothing less than victory over the enemy. – President George W. Bush in speech at Air Force Commencement, June 2, 2004

I had other priorities in the '60s than military service. – Then Future Defense Secretary Dick Cheney in an interview with Washington Post reporter George C. Wilson, April 5, 1989

Colbert: "Do you support the war in Iraq?"

Jones: "I do support the war in Iraq."

Colbert: "So, why aren't you serving in Iraq?  You're a healthy guy."

Jones: "I'm doing my part by running for Congress and supporting them."

-- David Nelson Jones (age 25), Republican candidate for U. S. Representative in California’s 30th district, in an interview (see video pt. 2) with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report, November 1, 2006

Somewhere at a Starbuck’s, there’s a clatch of members of the Young Republican Club from the nearby university. Biff and Chip and Herbert III are sipping their lattes, as they discuss their futures in finance, taking the reins of their fathers’ companies, the upcoming Republican victory in the midterms, and the war in Iraq.

They are laughing about John Kerry’s supposed gaffe, theorizing that this is some kind of Freudian Democrat slip. (One of the few times they use less than proper English, using the lower-class adjective “Democrat” instead of the more proper “Democratic”, in allegiance to their leaders who’ve decided that the proper adjective gives too much credit to their opposition.) “Why don’t the Democrats support our troops?”, wonders Biff, as he eyes a blueberry scone. “They don’t share our values”, responds Chip. “By the way, Herbie, have you ordered the strippers for the frat party?”

We are not a country at war, at least not in the way we were in World War II. There are no victory gardens, tire drives, war bonds, rationing. The streets around recruitment offices are not crowded with young men eager to go to Iraq. During WWII there were incidents of suicide by men who were embarrassed at not being able to enlist due to 4F status. Despite the quantity of yellow magnetic ribbons on the backs of SUVs, Iraq and Afghanistan are sideshows to American life. The families of troops may feel the constant weight, but the great majority of Americans pay little attention to the ongoing sacrifice.

During the less than 4 years of World War II, almost 20 million individuals served in the military (see World War II casualties: Casualties by branch of service) out of a population of less than 150 million (see Historical Census Data (1790-1990)). At any one time, upwards of 10 million were serving. As of 2004, the total in the armed services was about 1.5 million, in a population over 300 million (see Military of the United States: Personnel in each service). So, for more than twice the population, we have 15% of the military personnel that we did during WWII.

It always seemed odd that a World War II hero like the first President Bush would pull strings to get his son into a Texas Air National Guard unit that was certain never to go to Vietnam, to essentially help his son evade service. However, as we saw in 1980, when George H. W. Bush left behind his principles for a spot on the Republican ticket, the first President Bush was at base a pragmatist. He did not see service in Vietnam as important as service in World War II; he knew that US survival did not depend on the outcome of the Vietnam War.

It is no surprise that today’s conservative youth, whose idols, including Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, never saw combat, would skip the route with the highest potential sacrifice. So while young men during the World War II era were ashamed when they could not serve, even the most vociferous supporters of the Iraq War truly feel no lack of honor in not only avoiding service, but also in not even thinking about it. Perhaps this is an implicit acknowledgement that, even with all the hype, conservatives don't really believe that the outcome of the Iraq War is all that important.

Let’s face it. We're not a Nation At War. We're a Nation At Starbuck's.

Friday, October 27, 2006


A dictatorship of long duration comes to an end. The country, a manufactured conglomeration of multiple ethnic groups, devolves into civil war. Militias headed by power-hungry leaders utilize religious differences to promote violence and sow terror among the civilian population. Even in formerly peaceful multi-ethnic enclaves, suspicion and retribution rip apart the social fabric.

The country being described is Yugoslavia after the death of Tito. Yugoslavia was created out of remnants of Europe including the Austro-Hungary and Ottoman Empires after World War I. Like Yugoslavia, the national entity called Iraq did not exist before the 20th century. It was constructed by the British from the remains of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

So here we have in Iraq a parallel situation to the Yugoslavia of the 1990s – the end of dictatorships resulting in sectarian conflict and civil war. It seems a natural occurrence, a set of seemingly incompatible elements trapped together in a pressurized container, exploding when the lid is removed. We’ve seen this type of process before: the partition of British India into India and Pakistan, and eventually Bangladesh; the explosion of the Soviet Union’s republics that continues today with uprising in Chechnya and tension between Russia and Georgia.

Yet the current civilian and military leadership seem to have been taken by surprise by the turn of events in Iraq. Following is some testimony from the August 3, 2006 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Sen. John MCCAIN (R., AZ): …

General Pace, you said there's a possibility of the situation in Iraq evolving into civil war. That correct?

Gen. Peter PACE, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: I did say that, yes, sir.

MCCAIN: Did you anticipate this situation a year ago?

PACE: No, sir.

MCCAIN: Did you, General Abizaid?

Gen. John ABIZAID, Commander of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM): I believe that a year ago it was clear to see that sectarian tensions were increasing. That they would be this high, no.

Defense Secretary Donald RUMSFELD:

Are there still Taliban around? You bet.

Are they occupying safe havens in Afghanistan and other places -- correction -- in Pakistan and other places? Certainly they are.

Is the violence up? Yes.

Does the violence tend to be up during the summer and spring, summer and fall months? Yes, it does. And it tends to decline during the winter period.

Does that represent failed policy? I don't know. I would say not. I think you've got an awful lot of very talented people engaged in this. And the decisions that are being made are being made with great care after a great deal of consideration.

Are there setbacks? Yes.

Are there things that people can't anticipate? Yes.

Does the enemy have a brain and continue to make adjustments on the ground, requiring our forces to continue to make adjustments? You bet.

Is that going to continue to be the case? I think so.

Is this problem going to get solved in the near term about this long struggle against violent extremism? No, I don't believe it is, I think it's going to take some time.

The entire Rumsfeld testimony is included just for, well, pure fascination. (Does a man who answers all his own questions ever really listen?) The particular line relevant to the discussion is “Are there things that people can't anticipate? Yes.” In a multi-ethnic former dictatorship, sectarian violence leading to civil war would seem to be an outcome with high probability, or at least some probability. The idea that personnel of experience in the Pentagon could not possibly anticipate this result is utterly fantastical.

In general, how could military leaders make the assumption that the war could have only one outcome, that the result would be a US-friendly democracy. Or, put another way, that Iraq becoming a reasonable democracy post-Hussein had a 100% probability. That the leaders ignored the possible outcomes of either 1) civil war resulting in partition, 2) an Islamist republic tilted toward Iran, or 3) some sort of stateless anarchistic terrorist haven and incubator that would outstrip the Taliban’s Afghanistan in significance -- is gross incompetence bordering on malpractice.

As the elder Bush's administration realized, removing Saddam would open a Pandora's Box, potentially releasing the demons of civil war. What has resulted is a Greek tragedy.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Strategy I

For al Qaeda, Iraq is not a distraction from their war on America -- it is the central battlefield where the outcome of this struggle will be decided. -- President George W. Bush in a speech to the Military Officers Association of America, Sept. 5, 2006

As the hobbits are going up Mount Doom, the Eye of Mordor is being drawn somewhere else. It's being drawn to Iraq and it's not being drawn to the U.S. You know what? I want to keep it on Iraq. I don't want the Eye to come back here to the United States. -- Sen. Rick Santorum (R., PA) in an interview with the editorial board of the Bucks County Courier Times, October 17, 2006

So I guess I would rather fight them there than here. I know I would rather fight them there than here, and I know would rather fight them there than in other remote parts of the world, where it may be more difficult to find them. -- President George W. Bush in an interview with Brit Hume (Fox News) Sept 22, 2003

All warfare is based on deception. -- The Art of War By Sun Tzu, 6th century BC

Frodo Baggins and Sam Samwise Gamgee don’t seem to fit the profile of agents of the massive Department of Homeland Security, if we are to realize Santorum’s analogy. They are portrayed as profligate gourmands, however – perhaps that’s some sort of clue that they’re a metaphor for DHS. On the other hand, hobbits don’t wear shoes.

Our mission in the war on terror is to prevent a repetition of the 9/11 attack, an operation involving perhaps a few dozen people and about $500,000. Various studies from credible sources indicate that the Iraq War is increasing the number of terrorists, at least in Iraq. In addition, much of the violence in Iraq is not emanating from groups espousing some sort of pan-Islamic caliphate; it is violence by sectarian and tribal warlords in the simple quest for local and regional power.

So, is it realistic to assume that US involvement in Iraq is somehow using up Al Qaeda resources to the extent that they cannot plan or launch another terrorist attack in America? It seems likely that Bin Laden still has a half million dollars and the services of at least 19 fanatics ready to give their lives for him. And he seems to have regained a stable base for his operations in that netherworld along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Al Qaeda-type cells have certainly been able to launch attacks in Madrid and London.

So let’s consider the “fight them there” strategy from Bin Laden’s point of view. The US is tied down in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Our military is overextended. We are bleeding money. In fact, the US military has been handing over control of Afghanistan operations to NATO forces, further removing us from Bin Laden’s theater of operations. Our “eye” is on Iraq and not on the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

The real reasons that the Bush Administration chose to go into Iraq have been much debated. Their own stated reasoning has been extremely malleable: beginning with the now debunked WMD and Al Qaeda connections, the reasoning has morphed into bringing democracy and “fighting them there”. It is impossible to know whether they believe what they are saying, or whether it is mere public relations.

Perhaps the evidence that the Administration believes what they are saying is that they also seem to believe Bin Laden’s pronouncements about Iraq being Al Qaeda’s central front, rather than realizing that Bin Laden’s strategy and statements may also change with the situation.

But it doesn’t matter what the Administration believes, at least from Bin Laden’s point of view. Not only does the US have insufficient forces to pursue him directly, but our perceived incompetence and weakness has forced Musharraf to make a tenuous deal with the Taliban. It is safe to assume that Bin Laden is simply ecstatic about our venture in Iraq. We have played into his hands. And who knows which Mount Doom he has chosen for his next target?

Friday, October 13, 2006


I had a glass in my hand grabbing ice cubes from the ice bin of the refrigerator. One of the cubes slipped, and in my effort to catch it I dropped my glass on the floor, where it shattered into many tiny fragments. This is what happened to the Bush Administration in the Middle East. All they could see was the Saddam ice cube, while the glass (Afghanistan/Pakistan, Iraq instability, Iran resurgence) shattered on the floor.

Iraq was presented as a false choice: invade or not. Leave Saddam in power or topple him. The media's apparent capacity to carry only one story in any particular news cycle played into this. This environment allowed any tenuous, dubious contact between Iraq and Al Qaeda to be elevated to monumental status. When all that is being discussed is Iraq’s contacts with Al Qaeda, instead of, say, the connections between Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and both Al Qaeda and the Taliban, all sense of scale is lost. Minor contacts were raised to the level of dangerous collusion.

The correct procedure would have been to prioritize the threats. The US and it’s allies certainly began on the right course with the invasion of Afghanistan. But after the great debacle of Tora Bora, where, ironically, Rumsfeld’s ideal of a light flexible force and dynamic tactics yielded to the inertia of using Afghani mercenaries, the most important target was clearly the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Most of the world supported the US after 9/11, and that support continued with the war in Afghanistan. The US appeared strong and focused. This would have been the ideal time to get Pakistan’s cooperation to attack both the Taliban and Al Qaeda on both sides of the border. Pakistan’s President Musharraf could have proceeded with our support, even though Islamists in the opposition and his own ISI would have protested.

But now, all such opportunities have been squandered. The great illogic of attacking Iraq, along with the capricious waste of our troops there, have made us look confused and weak. The pragmatic Musharraf has been forced to accept a dubious treaty with Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas (see Pakistan's Tribal Areas map from Frontline). The Taliban and Al Qaeda have secured a region in which they will be able to plot future attacks. (See excellent reporting on this situation by PBS’s Frontline at Frontline: Return of the Taliban.)

One of the reasons given for the invasion of Iraq is that everything was different after 9/11. That is certainly correct, but the resulting change in policy was the exact opposite of what was logical. Before 9/11, we had the luxury of dealing with a resolution to the Hussein question. After 9/11 we needed to prioritize targets, to start with the targets that would provide the greatest benefit to our long-term security. Before September 11, 2001, both Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice spoke of Hussein’s weakness, with Powell famously declaring that Hussein was “in a box”. Today, Iraq is not in it’s box, and we don’t even know where Al Qaeda’s box is.