Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Go Blue

The death of Gerald Ford, America’s only unelected President, brings to mind a number of things. He gets credit for healing the country in the wake of Richard Nixon’s impeachment, but his pardon of Nixon left wounds which never healed. While basically a decent man and a solid politician, he was thoroughly ill equipped to be President, getting the job because, in the wake of Spiro Agnew’s resignation, Nixon needed someone who would be approved quickly by Congress, and who better than the House minority leader? As President he pardoned Nixon, fought inflation by suggest people wear buttons with the letters WIN on them, for Whip Inflation Now (seriously, he did that), and ended the Vietnam War – not that he had a choice there, since we had lost. This is not a sterling record, yet his moderation looks so, well, decent in retrospect that we yearn for that kind of person in the White House.
He was an All-American football player at the University of Michigan and never forgot those roots. We think of red and blue states by their modern designation, especially since the sharpness of the divide encapsulates the political nature of America in the twenty-first century. But that designation came from the TV networks on election night, not from any historical nature. In England, the Conservative Party (the Tories) has blue as its color, the left-wing Labour Party uses red – in fact, the phrase “true blue” comes from an electoral area which is solidly, unchangeably, Tory. So when color TV was invented it was natural, given the political antecedents, for the networks to assign blue to the Republicans and red to the Democrats. The 1976 election was very close, as Jimmy Carter took most of the eastern states, and Ford rallied as they headed west. Late in the evening, Ford was being interviewed by one of the networks and when the nature of the network’s electoral map, red in the large eastern states with more and more blue as they went west, Ford responded as any loyal Wolverine would – “Go Blue!”
Ford’s blue rally fell short that night, and subsequently, the networks reversed the colors, I assume because they didn’t feel comfortable using red to designate the Democrats with a hard-core anti-communist like Reagan as the Republican nominee. I can’t imagine a modern Presidential candidate doing that kind of open interview on election night with the race still up in the air. I think we all miss his kind of decent partisanship – clearly rooting for his party, supporting his ideas, without destroying the other guy.

Monday, December 18, 2006


The Iraq Study Group’s call for negotiations with Iran and Syria over Iraq has met with great praise from the moderate press, as well as many politicians and talking heads. After all, it can’t hurt to talk and you negotiate for peace with your enemies, not your friends. I find this argument less than compelling.
Negotiations take several forms. There’s the basic negotiation which dominates labor-management and most international diplomacy – I have something you want, you have something I want, let’s make a deal. There’s also the uneven version of that – you have something I want and I won’t break your legs if you give it to me. We can call that the Godfather school of negotiations, but it sometimes shows up internationally and in labor talks as well – give me wage and conditions concessions or I’ll move your job to India; this is how the U.S. negotiated with the Native American tribes. Then there’s the sham negotiations – where the sides talk, and maybe one of them wants to make a deal, but the other is just buying time and seeing what they can get. Most negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians have been like this, but history is full of these – the U.S. and North Korea in the 1990’s, Chamberlain at Munich, and Roosevelt at Yalta are the best examples. These tend to feature a complete lack of enforceability, with one side happily agreeing to do (or not do) something and then proceeding on its merry way to do whatever it wants. They produces lots of photo ops and good press, but no real results for the side that really cares. That is the most likely result of our dealing with Iran and Syria. If we could stop Iran’s support of the militias with arms and money, we could do it now. But the money comes in suitcases, not wire transfers, and the arms come in the dead of night, not in crates marked “Product of the Republic of Iran”.
There are many positive examples of negotiations between warring sides. But the deal is not struck between the actual fighting sides but between the non-militant representatives of the people the fighters represent. The British (who are the experts at this), negotiated in India with the Congress party of Nehru and Gandhi, not the militants, they negotiated with Ben-Gurion and Meier, not with Begin and the Irgun, and with Sinn Fein, not the provisional IRA. The Middle East lacks the “good guys”, which is why Israel hasn’t been able to really negotiate with the Palestinians – they never trusted Arafat, and surely don’t trust Hamas and Hezbollah. Are we really going to trust Ahmadinejad and Assad when they promise to help us in Iraq, when we can’t enforce anything they agree to?
The ISG pretty much says the negotiations with Iran would be unlikely to succeed, especially since we aren’t going to talk about nuclear issues (which the ISG says should not be on the table). They want them to show the region we’re trying, and it couldn’t hurt to talk, right? But in a media-dominated world, it can hurt to talk. When the Iranians and Syrians agree to help in return for the lifting of all trade sanctions, or removal of support for Israeli settlements, or some other issue which we won’t or can’t give them, the world will see the talks fail because we were unwilling to do anything. Sitting down at a table with your enemy gives him instant credibility. This isn’t the 19th century, when envoys can be sent across an ocean and no one would know about it. We can, and do, talk to Syria – we just do it through back channels, where failure is not publicized. Talking to Iran seems pointless – as long as Ahmadenijad is in power and makes no clear concessions to the world regarding nuclear development, negotiations with Iran should be off the table.

Note: if you find this interesting I strongly recommend the comments, as Sam had a lengthy one with a different point of view and I have a lengthy response.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Hip Deep In The Big Muddy

The subject of this post comes from a song which was mildly popular in the late ‘60s. It was an anti-war song, the refrain of which was “we’re hip deep in the Big Muddy, and the damn fool says ‘push on’”. Well, we’re up to our hips in it again, and although things are a lot drier in Iraq, the fools keep telling us to push on.
I watch a reasonable number of talking heads on TV, the Newshour/Charlie Rose types for information, the Chris Matthews types for inside the beltway “wisdom”. It’s not that the reporters who show up on the latter are ignorant, they’re all smart people with a goodly amount of knowledge. It’s that they are all getting information from the same sources and talking to the same people, which leads most of them to the same conclusions. It’s also useful to know what the perceived wisdom is in Washington – since that often determines policy (rather than actual wisdom).
Regarding Iraq, the perceived wisdom is that we can’t leave. If we leave, the place will collapse, quite possibly spreading a war throughout the region. This was the viewpoint of the ISG, it is the viewpoint of the military, and almost no one of consequence is willing to buck that. Yes, this reflects a stunning lack of political and moral courage, but that is life in the big city.
The most interesting occurrence of the last week was Thomas Freidman’s NY Times article suggesting that the best chance for Iraq involves our setting an exit date. When Tom speaks, especially on Middle Eastern issues, NY and DC listen. Charlie Rose was actually referring to the column in questioning people about Iraq. If Freidman, who pimped for the war back in the day, actually has made this suggestion, surely it is worthy of discussion. Well, not all that worthy, it turns out. Perceived wisdom trumps bold ideas every time in DC.
Of course, in the near future, this doesn’t matter much, because George W. Bush is never pulling out of Iraq. Not on his watch. History may say many things about Dubya, but he will make sure that it never says that he lost the war in Iraq. That’s for the next President to do – or the one after that. And when that happens, Bush and his cadre of supporters will claim that it was a lack of will that lost Iraq, that his policies would have worked if we had the intestinal fortitude to stay the course (or whatever phrase is not readily mockable at that time).
Apparently Bush will be giving us his Iraq update early next year instead of before Christmas. This means Dreamgirls will have opened and will be in America’s consciousness. Maybe the best move for Dubya would be to sing his speech – since the big number in the show seems quite apropos to his view of the world.

And I am telling you
I'm not going,
Even though the rough times are showing.
There's just no way, there's no way!

Tear down the mountains,
Yell, scream and shout.
You can say what you want,
I'm not walking out.
Stop all the rivers,
Push, strike and kill.
I'm not gonna leave there,
There's no way I will!

No, no, no, no way,
No, no, no, no way I'm living without you.
I'm not living without you,
I'm not living without you.
I don't want to be free.
I'm staying, I'm staying,
And you, and you, and you, you're gonna love me.
Ooh, you're gonna love me.
You're gonna love me!

Well, 35% of us will love him – that’s something. As for the rest of us -- keeping with our musical theme, I suggest Takin' It To The Streets.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

What is a Camel?

The answer to the question in the subject is: a camel is a horse built by a committee. The Iraq Study Group has built its own unsteady steed to ride out of Iraq, featuring all the finest efforts of a committee seeking unanimity – compromises, waffling, wishful thinking, and at times, incoherence.
The Bush administration, through official public liar Tony Snow, has proclaimed that the report is in sync with much of the current Bush thinking. The Democrats have taken a couple of small steps away from it, while at the same time, happily endorsing its blazing criticism of the Bush/Rumsfeld Iraq performance.
The key is the committee’s description of the Iraq situation as “almost hopeless”. In spite of this they have a huge collection of things that can be done to turn things around. They have 79 separate things to be done, and, they say, all have to be done in concert. Make no mistake, the members of this commission were all politicians and political operatives and they all know the first rule – don’t get blamed. If you have to do all of these things for it to work, then just doing some, even most, of the things in it, absolves the ISG of any responsibility for its failure.
Let’s look at some key elements:
Diplomacy – this is a big one for Baker. You have to talk with your enemies. And when the ISG talked with Iran and Syria, they were told that the last thing they wanted was Iraq collapsing into chaos, causing a flood of refugees. A reasonable person might ask: if you’re so afraid of Iraq collapsing into chaos, why aren’t you supporting the Maliki government instead of Al-Sadr’s militia, or preventing arms and terrorists from crossing the Syrian border? The answer is obvious – they enjoy the current level of chaos and aren’t going to do anything to stop it. They will happily negotiate with us and if they can get something from us will pretend to do something, but they have no reason to solve our problems and it’s a fantasy to believe they will
I just watched Sandra Day O’Connor on the Newshour. She pointed out that during WW II we talked to Stalin, even though “he was our enemy”, because he could be helpful Yes, she actually referred to a country losing millions of men to the Germans as “our enemy”. It is this deep understanding of history which clearly qualified her for this position.
The second diplomatic prong is solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue. You see, all the governments in that region told the ISG that this was key. Of course, if you asked them why they aren’t democracies, they would say the same thing. If you asked them why they don’t diversify their economies, they’d blame Israel for that too. It’s talking point number one.
Military Deployment – The group recommends an emphasis on training and supplying the Iraqis – who, based on their research, are just this side of useless. Half the army won’t leave the areas they live in. They get paid in cash (there are no banks), so they take their money and leave for home, to give their family money, then return when they feel like it. The police are only used to fight insurgents, not prevent crime – they aren’t able to stop it and they don’t investigate. In fact, they don’t even have the authority to protect property. That falls to a separate force, under the Interior Ministry, which is run by Al-Sadr himself. He hires members of his own militia and basically the government is paying the Mahdi Militia, which is also fighting it.
But the ISG figures this can be solved and recommends embedding U.S. advisors and support troops in Iraqi Army units. They don’t speak directly to any redeployment of combat forces, but they do say that by the first quarter of 2008, all combat divisions should be out, leaving just the embedded support troops. This may be the stupidest idea they have. It leaves behind personnel who could end up, because of where they are, in the middle of sectarian warfare with no ability to protect themselves. There is a potential for random killing of U.S. soldiers and the very real possibility of them ending up as hostages.
Realism – The ISG described the situation in Iraq as “grave and deteriorating”. Yet here is where the problem with a committee rears its head. It was reported that the one partisan split in the ISG was over a timetable for withdrawal. They ended up with the vague mess they now advocate – getting most troops out by the first quarter of 2008, although that could also change if facts on the ground warrant. They are adamantly opposed to a fixed date for withdrawal, but, and here’s the best part, are equally opposed to an “open-ended” commitment. Well, if there is no end date, by definition, the commitment is open-ended.
This entire report is basically a desperate attempt to win when the chances of doing so are incredibly small. Sometimes, when you draw to an inside straight, you hit it. But you shouldn’t bet your life – or the lives of our soldiers – on it. That is what this report is doing. It is not realistic, and because the likelihood of failure is huge, there is a need to prepare for that. That is why leaving some troops in harm’s way is so dangerous and why not setting an end date for our direct involvement is so disingenuous. This report is a nice dose of reality for those who still believe in the Bush methodology, but it is not a blueprint for anything but more pointless deaths.