Archive for category Iraq

Al Jazeera and a 21st Century Revolution

I love this photo, which was posted on the February 4th version of the al Jazeera website blog.  If you can’t follow al Jazeera live video streaming, their blog gives some of the best up to date information.   Just go to their website: http://english.aljazeera.net/, click blogs and go to the day’s blog (Egyptian time — it’s seven hours later than EST).

Most cable companies and satellite providers don’t offer al jazeera English language, which is too bad because without a doubt they are providing the best and most comprehensive coverage of the Egyptian revolution than any other English language television network.    The reason we can’t watch is because during the Iraq war the US considered al-Jazeera a propaganda voice for anti-Americanism.   Despite the fact that they were simply reporting what was really happening on the ground, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accused them of being dishonest and trying to undercut the US effort to stabilize Iraq.   The US even bombed al Jazeera’s headquarters, killing one reporter.

There is now an effort underway to demand that al jazeera English be added as an option on cable and satellite providers, and one person who should endorse this is President Bush.   President Bush had a few things right about the Mideast.   He got one thing very wrong, however.  He thought US power and military force could push the region in the right direction.   It turns out that the key ingredients may be media information and the force of youth.

President Bush noted that the governments in the Arab world were repressive and undemocratic.  That, Bush and others in his administration argued, is the core of the problem.   With most of the population under 22, these regimes are unsustainable and anachronistic.    If they hold on to power, the youth will see no alternative but to join extremists in trying to create a new order, one that might embrace ideals of Islamic fundamentalism and anti-western extremism.

They hoped that if they could install a democracy in Iraq that would be a model of stability and prosperity for the region, they could bring change.   The US would be positioned to help end dictatorships, spreading democracy and markets in the Arab world, undercutting terrorism and ushering in a new era.

Well, that didn’t happen.   People don’t like the world’s superpower coming in and trying to force change, and instead were outraged by the death, destruction and apparent arrogance of US policy.   For a brief time al qaeda and the radicals were emboldened, as the US suffered humiliation after humiliation.  President Bush’s vision appeared fatally flawed, and he now is looked upon as having had a failed Presidency.

That judgment is too harsh.  He was wrong about using military power as a means to bring positive change, but I suspect that was a lesson the US was doomed to learn the hard way.   Much of what President Bush saw as the core problems in the Mideast was right.   The regimes there cannot persist, they are anachronistic or, as the poster notes, “Mubarak is so 80’s!”

As the population boom starts to come of age (Egypt had 45 million people when Mubarak came to power, now they have 83 million), they are also getting news about the corruption and repression practiced by Arab governments.   The Qatar station, originally launched in 1996, has democratized information, undercutting the propaganda from state sponsored media.   Young people in the region have become better informed, and thanks to the internet and social media like facebook and twitter, able to organize political action effectively and spontaneously.

The leaders of Mubarak’s generation, as well as most foreign policy makers in the US, are slow to see the impact of the information revolution on politics.  They don’t understand the dynamics — or how this may be the tip of an iceberg that will affect not just the Arab world, but the entire planet.

Instead of the US trying to use it’s waning global power to force people to change, people are making the choice on their own, thanks in large part to the news station the US government so despised in 2003.  Al Jazeera is succeeding where President Bush failed, but in so doing, at least vindicating the motives behind the Bush Administration’s policies.  They had the ends right, but chose the wrong means.

Moreover, while choosing war to try to force change had the short term impact of helping al qaeda recruit and increasing Islamic extremism in the region, al jazeera is promoting modernism.    Today they showed video of Coptic Christians surrounding Muslims at prayer time, so the Muslims could pray without fear of being assaulted by pro-Mubarak demonstrators.   Average Muslims also came to the aid of Christians last Christmas, when Islamic extremists attacked.

The power of al jazeera, social media and the youth revolution is also one reason to expect that the cynics are wrong when they predict a well organized and disciplined Islamic extremist organization like Muslim Brotherhood will come out on top and create an Islamic state that despises Israel and wants to somehow spread its fundamentalist vision across the region.   That’s simply not what the youth want.   That’s not the way this new generation in the Arab world thinks.  They want to forge their own modern identity, not mimicking the West, but not going back to the pre-modern Arab world groups like al qaeda desire.

Hand wringing cynics point to the French revolution or the Russian revolution, and argue that history says this is likely to turn out very bad.   And, of course, it might.    But this looks more like the revolt against Communism in 1989 when people rejected a whole system of government and chose to expand freedom and reject control.   Such crowds could easily rise up against an Islamic extremist government (and it’s hard imaging in the Egyptian military tolerating a theocratic regime anyway).

History has not been written on the Egyptian revolution, but it appears to be the first real 21st Century revolution, spurred by the information revolution, new media, and the capacity of organizations like al jazeera to circumvent official sources and propaganda.    At this point in time the 20th Century seems a distant memory.

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You Say You Want a Revolution?

As the industrialized West fights with declining birth rates, threatening the capacity to maintain pensions and adequate health care as life spans expand and families have less children, a different phenomenon is taking place in the Arab world and northern Africa.   In Egypt half the population is under 24.   In Saudi Arabia the median age is 25,  22 in Jordan, 20 in Iraq, 21 in Syria, and in non-Arab Iran it’s 26.  For comparison, the median population age is 37 in the US, 44 in Italy and Germany, and 40 in France and Great Britain.

And in the Arab world population has grown dramatically, and will continue to do so as those entering their twenties start having children.  The population explosion and massive shift to youth in that part of the world has profound political implications.

For the past forty years, the US has pursued good relations with authoritarian leaders in northern Africa.   After Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel, the US has heaped aid upon Egypt, even as Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, rules with an iron fist (and a faint illusion of democracy).  He is currently grooming his son to take his place.  Egypt is more like North Korea than the US.  The Saudi royal family maintains its deal with the extreme Wahhabi religious sect of Islam, to the point that before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 the Saudis were considered more repressive than Saddam’s Iraq.    Syria’s Baathist regime also maintains a tyrannical iron grip.

If you look at rankings of democracy and human rights, the Arab world is last, making the least progress in moving to democracy or respect for human rights.   Only Israel and Iran boast democratic governments, though Iran is really only a semi-democracy due to the power of the clerics in the Guardian council.    The US learned how resilient such authoritarian repression can be when after overthrowing Saddam, massive amounts of aid and support could not build a functioning democracy in Iraq.   Iraq is now less democratic than Iran, riddled with corruption as more often than not local thugs run things on the ground.

The reason is obvious.   The Ottoman Empire, which came to power in the wake of numerous attacks on the Islamic world from the outside, put together a ruthless military dictatorship.   To support it they pushed aside Islamic rationalism — an interpretation of Islam which, if followed, could have catapulted the Islamic world into the modern age, and brought back a rigid, fundamentalist doctrine.    To be sure, the Islamic rationalists did reach the West, studied by Thomas Aquinas, laying the ground work for Europe’s move to modernism.

This took what had been a progressive, tolerant civilization and put it in the deep freeze, with religious fundamentalists deifning Islam in a way that arguably veers wildly from what the Koran teaches.   In exchange for granting them that religious clout, the clerics gave unconditional support to the Ottoman Empire.   When the “young Turks” tried to reform it in the 19th Century, even as it was evident the empire was anachronistic and collapsing, they couldn’t.  It took World War I to finally bring the Ottomans down.

The corrupt and ruthless culture (by the end assassination was a common form of advancing ones’ career) they left behind is evident in the styles of Saddam, Assad, and even the Saudi royal family.   It is a very conservative, traditional and repressive approach to politics and life, rationalized with religion and custom.   It has continued despite globalization and outside pressure, in part because oil wealth gave the rulers the capacity to buy support.

However, modernism is a force that is hard to halt.  The youth of the Arab world (and in Iran) are not satisfied with their corrupt governments, and as their population swells, the old corrupt elite are not going to be able to maintain power.    After events last week in Tunisia surprisingly brought down a corrupt and brutal government, calls started to mount for Egypt to have its own revolution.

These weren’t calls from radical anarchists or anything, but included Mohammad El-Baradei, former head of the IAEA, and partial winner of a Nobel Peace Prize.   Whether or not this will lead to anything, it’s clear that change is going to force itself onto the Arab world, and the youth will not be kept down forever.  They are inundated with modern ideas, and the pace of change in such rapidly growing societies has already weakened tradition and custom.   It is only a matter of time until something gives, and it’s unlikely the corrupt leaders will have the capacity to hold back the storm.   In retrospect, the Arab elites of today may look a lot like the European aristocracy of the 18th Century – apparently on top of the world, but doomed by the trajectory of history.

What will this mean?   Although people like Osama Bin Laden have tried to feed off the discontent and the inherent anti-Americanism in that part of the world (our support for their corrupt leaders is pretty well known), he’s anti-modern.  He’s trying to fight against change.   Symbolically he’s fighting against the French revolution and the rise of reason and rational thought.  For him Medina in 622 AD is a model of how life should be today, western secularism, liberty and moral laxity are evils to be rejected.

Most young Arabs don’t think that way.  A few extremists will join that kind of cause, but what’s really impressive in the years since 9-11-01 is how little traction Islamic extremism has gotten in the Arab world.   The youth are unlikely to embrace puritanism and religious devolution as their future, especially as modern influences grow.

There is a danger, though, that if the US remains too associated with the hated regimes that have created this stagnant mess, anti-Americanism could be a unifying force, and that could prove harmful to US interests down the line.   If that isn’t tempered, anti-Israeli sentiment could be a unifying factor for these young people, as Arabs tend to see their defeats to Israel as humiliating and unjust.   Certainly the Israelis realize that the ticking demographic time bomb could be a real threat to their existence as a state if radicalism of any sort unites the Arab world against them.

We should find a way to get on the right side of history here, recognizing the inevitability that change and modernity will sweep the Arab world.    One clear way is to embrace respect for Islam; President Bush had the right tone when he proclaimed Islam “a religion of peace,” realizing that opposing and dissing a peoples’ faith is not a way to win friends.

President Bush also had one thing right in his choice to go to war in Iraq.   The old order cannot survive, and it would be best if democracy and markets could flourish.   He and his advisers under estimated the difficulty of pushing for change, ignoring both the power of culture and the inability of military power to effectively shape political and cultural outcomes.  But if war isn’t a way to bring positive change, then perhaps engagement and cooperation will be.   Moreover, this need not be governmental, it can be through citizens groups, non-governmental organizations and interfaith communities.

Because change is coming.   There will be revolutions of some sort.   The current order cannot last.   Perhaps if we can play a positive role we can repay an old debt.   Not only did Islamic rationalist philosophers point Thomas Aquinas to Aristotle, starting the move to modernism in the West, but Islamic ideas from Moorish Spain sparked the renaissance in Italy.   If not for Islam, the West might never have modernized.

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Guess Which War?

The President goes into a war, expecting a quick victory, telling the American people that we are fighting a tyrant and dictator who could disrupt the region and sow instability.  Moreover, the war is to spread democracy and enhance human rights.

Not long after the war began, it started to become clear that real victory in terms of setting up a stable regional order or stopping the slaughter of innocents would be far more difficult than planned.   While the President urged the country to “stay the course,” the White House was condemned for poor planning and having no exit strategy.  One pundit wrote “the road to hell was paved with good intentions, but muddled planning.”   Ethnic violence seemed immune to the super power technology being used to try to bring stability.

Moreover, the Powell doctrine, which required massive power and complete public support, was being ignored.   The President did not have the opposition party behind him, and soon was getting tremendous criticism for waging an unnecessary ‘war of choice.’    A long time government foreign policy elite who rose to become Vice President dismissed the Powell doctrine as a “paralysis doctrine.”   Senator John McCain criticized those who didn’t want to go all in, saying that “the costs of failure are infinitely greater than the price of victory.”   McCain believed that more troops should be sent, surging existing efforts in order to create the prospect of a real victory.   Nonetheless, as the White House and its allies strove to find an exit strategy, the human cost of the war rose, with most of the deaths being civilian, caused by ethnic conflict rather than American bombs.

A hawk in the Administration pushed for the use of US power.  In one conversation this hawk admonished Colin Powell about being afraid to use power: “what’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it.”   After leaving the administration Powell would later admit that upon hearing those words “I thought I would have an aneurysm.”   But the Administration clearly believed it was important to show that the US not only had power, but would be bold in using it in order to shape the 21st century into being one in accord with US values.  The war caused dissent within NATO, and severely harmed relations with Russia and China.    The low point came when the US, apparently through error, bombed the Chinese embassy.

Yes, I’m describing the 1999 Kosovo war.   The quote about the Powell doctrine being a paralysis doctrine came from Joe Biden, then speaking in his role on the Senate foreign relations committee.   President Clinton was quoted in Time magazine as urging Americans “to stay the course.”   And the hawkish administration official who almost gave Powell an aneurysm was Secretary of State Madeline Albright (though the conversation quoted took place in 1993, long before Kosovo, when Albright was still US Ambassador to the UN).

The differences between the wars are also significant.  The Kosovo war dragged out 80 days, not over seven years, and not one American or NATO soldier was killed.   It was purely an air war, as NATO politics prevented a ground invasion.  And though the conflict created divisions within NATO, it was a NATO effort, led by the US.   After the war the government admitted that it had overestimated the power of technology and the ability of to stop ethnic violence.   In Time magazine on June 14, 1999 reporting on what top Pentagon brass took from the war, reported “in the next conflict, they fret, a really smart foe won’t fight the US int he skies or on the ground — places where victory is very unlikely.  Instead it will be smart and strike far away from the war zone — in the heart of a US city, perhaps — with biological or chemical weapons.”   Just over two years later that prediction proved accurate, though hijacked airlines were the weapon the ‘smart foe’ chose to use.

Still, despite the very different natures of the two wars, the similarities are striking.   The Clinton Administration had a lot in common with the Bush Administration of a few years later.   They believed the war would be much easier than it was, they under estimated the situation on the ground in terms of the power of ethnic tension, they had no exit plan, didn’t really consider what to do if the air strikes didn’t work as anticipated, and going to war created domestic divisions.   They also believed that it was important that the US use its military power to spread democracy and human rights, and did not doubt that it was legitimate.   The US wanted to force a deal between the KLA (the Kosovo Liberation Army, which not much earlier had been deemed a terrorist organization by the State Department) and Serbia over the fate of the province of Kosovo in southwest Serbia.

The impetus had been a massacre of 44 people in Recak, Kosovo, in January.  When Serbia wouldn’t go along with a deal they felt was a breach of sovereignty in their struggle against terrorism, the US bombed.   After the bombing started massive human rights violations against the Kosovar Albanians began, including a mass exodus, rape, and mass murder.   The same question haunts the Clinton Administration in Kosovo as does the Bush Administration in Iraq: would the human cost been less if war had not been chosen?   In each case they point to Milosevic or Hussein, and note that the dictators had been brutal.   But would such atrocities as were later seen have happened without war?   Would a different path of pressure been better and more effective in human terms?

Kosovo’s lessons were not learned by the Bush Administration as it planned to invade Iraq.   Kosovo was, thankfully, over relatively quickly.   The White House and NATO declared it a success, forgot those agonizing months where things were going wrong, and in the public mind the war had been about all those refugees fleeing Kosovo, forgetting that that was a consequence of the decision to bomb.   Charles Krauthammer, the neo-conservative who would be important in arguing publicly for war in Iraq dismissed Kosovo’s woes as due to a “reluctant, uncertain” President.   A serious President would have gone all in to win decisively, Krauthammer insisted.

Still, the similarities are enough to lead me to three propositions: 1) the Democrats and Republicans were not as different at least within elite circles as it appears to the public.   Albright’s rhetoric sounds almost neo-conservative, the belief that power should be used and assumption of success dogged both Clinton and Bush; 2) just as the lessons weren’t learned after Kosovo, it’s very likely that despite the trauma caused by Iraq, many lessons here will be ignored too.   Perhaps most likely is that people will again make tactical criticisms, without addressing the real question of what the US role should really be in this post-Cold War and post-9-11 world, and how effective military operations are; and 3) politicians these days seem much more hawkish than the military leaders.   Powell reflected general Pentagon opinions for both Kosovo and Iraq; the military was far less keen on these wars than those in the White House.   The drumbeat of war was pushed in both the Clinton and Bush Administrations by people with no or very limited military experience.

Moreover, the Pentagon “warning” in the June 14, 1999 issue of Time is still valid — if we take the fight elsewhere, it very likely will be brought back to us here.   That’s a lesson the Russians learned today.  We now understand the dangers, but are we really ready?   Have we learned the lessons of Kosovo and Iraq?   And what about Afghanistan and al qaeda?   No time today to reflect further, but the similarities between Kosovo and Iraq suggest that our problem is not just that President Bush made some ‘bad choices,’ but is deeper within the US foreign policy/military policy mindset.

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Rumors of War

As the United States public settles into debates on the economy and health care, foreign policy and the “wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq fade from public consciousness.    Yet there are still soldiers over there, civilians are still being killed in the conflicts, and the future is uncertain.   Ultimately, solving these problems will be necessary to assure that the 21st century is stable and relatively peaceful.

Israel and Palestine: If only this could be settled, things would be a lot easier.  It appears on the surface that settlement should be easy.   The Israelis cannot push the Arabs into the desert, and the Arabs cannot push the Jews into the sea.   An secure viable Israel must exist alongside a secure viable Palestine.  Just as the Arabs can no longer claim Jews there are mostly “European colonists” trying to steal their land, the Israelis cannot deny Palestinian identity and say they are just Arabs who could live elsewhere.   The two peoples have linked destinies.

Yet the kind of commonsensical solution that seems so obvious to a neutral observer has proven virtually impossible to achieve.  Israel correctly fears that extremist elements could use a Palestinian state to continue a war against Israel, and the Palestinians correctly resent and want to end decades of humiliation and mistreatment at the hands of the Israelis.   Both sides see clearly their side of the issue and feel righteous; neither side has been able to adequately empathize with the other.  I think some top politicians understand, but publics are fickle and easily manipulated, especially when their emotions are played.

Iranian regional ambitions. Iran, buoyed by the fact the US military has proven relatively weak in the region, and that the American public does not want any more war, has set its sights on becoming a regional central Asian power.   Iran fancies itself as a major player between China and Russia in the region, with global import due to the world addiction to oil.   To secure its position, however, Iran must confront numerous threats.   First, there is American and EU opposition to Iran’s regime and its effort to expand its military might and potentially develop nuclear missiles.   Second there is the geopolitical rivalry against more powerful states, Russia and China.   Third, Iran’s regime is feared by Sunni Arab states who see the Shi’ite Persian Iran as a threat.   Finally, Iran’s influence will be limited by the rule Pakistan can play in the region, and however the Afghan situation develops.   Iran is the natural regional power, but faces intense rivalries and threats.

Iraq:  The failure of the US to turn Iraq into a pro-American ally has been key to Iran’s power play.  Once it became obvious the US could not pay the price it would take to dominate Iraq and subdue it, Iran slowly infiltrated all levels of Iraqi government and is very close to the current government of PM Maliki.   The Saudis and their allies would have no problem giving some support to al qaeda elements and Sunni Bathists to try to undermine the pro-Iranian Iraqi government and shift it to one more neutral.   Whatever one thinks of the old Hussein Bathist regime in Iraq, it was part of a stable regional balance of power.   Shifting Iraq to the Shi’ites and making it a defacto Iranian ally has been destabilizing.

Oil: Of course, all of this might be easy to ignore if not for oil.   China and Russia each see it in their interest to woe rather than work against Iran.   China wants access to Iranian oil, Russia fears a Chinese-Iranian alliance.   They also do not want American or western military action to expand in the region, because of the threat that might pose to their oil interests.  This gives Iran some cover as it pursues its goals.   As the planet runs shorter on oil, the price and regional geopolitical stakes will rise.  Iran knows that if it is to be a true regional power, a real player in future global battles over oil reserves, it has to position itself now.   That brings us back to Israel and Palestine.

Terrorism: One way Iran can counter the Sunni Arab efforts to limit its power is to emerge as a dominant force supporting the Palestinians against Israel.   That has emotional appeal in Arab lands, and could create chaos in the region which Iran might ultimately see in its favor.   Iran has supported Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi’ite organization ironically created in the early eighties in response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.   Iran has tried to make inroads with the Sunni Hamas organization, and is on good terms with the Syrian government.   Syria’s leadership is Shi’ite, though the public is overwhelmingly Sunni.   Syria is not a loyal ally of Iran, and even Hezbollah has shown it refuses to be simply an Iranian proxy, but Iran has positioned itself to benefit from on going tension between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Since the Hezbollah-Israeli war in the summer of 2006, the prospect of a joint Hamas and Hezbollah uprising against Israel, funded and supported by Iran and Syria, has been the nightmare of Israeli officials.  The power of these organizations has also helped marginalize Palestinian moderates who truly want to find a path to peaceful co-existence.  Fear, of course, inspires nationalists, and the right wing in Israel has used this to drum up support for anti-Arab sentiment.   This creates a powder keg waiting for a spark.

Right now, no state benefits from war.  Israel realizes that its ability to truly ‘defang’ Iran is limited, and worries that if they start a war, Hezbollah and Hamas will be able to respond effectively.   The US simply wants to leave Iraq, and the Obama Administration hopes to be leaving Afghanistan by 2012 — they know the American people are sick of war.  Iran wants to be a regional power, but knows its vulnerabilities.   A real war could mean the end of the Iranian regime, and they understand that.   The Sunni Arab states essentially want stability with the oil states hoping to milk their oil reserves for all they’re worth.

The wild cards are the terror organizations and oil.  Lacking a geographical center, terror groups have less to lose if things get out of control, and they often are motivated by emotional extremism rather than rational self-interest.   But that can be overstated.  Many terror leaders are very comfortable running something that is akin to an organized criminal organization — they do not want to risk their power for a quixotic cause.

If peak oil theory is correct and oil resources start running low once the world economy starts growing again, there will be an increased threat of oil wars.   States like the US, Russia and China could be involved directly, or through proxies.   Such a situation could escalate quickly.   Word is that Vice President Cheney wanted to attack Russian forces during the 2008 Georgian war.   That was rejected because it could have expanded into a broader war whose limits could not be predicted.  The same could happen if larger states, driven by the need for oil, are willing to risk military action.

The failure of the US operation in Iraq has shown the world how difficult it is to use military power to try to shape the region.   It should make it less likely that larger states will think it easy to achieve interests int he region through war.  The success of Hezbollah in 2006 makes an Israeli offensive less likely, especially against Iran.   The cost to Hezbollah of that success, however, makes Hezbollah less willing to risk all out conflict.  Given the loses they suffered, their ‘success’ was in some ways pyrrhic.

Still, however much we shift focus to domestic affairs, and however likely it appears that Obama will successfully end the US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan by 2012, the Mideast is still a dangerous place, and an even minor event could unleash a chain of  reactions that lead to major war.

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Credit and Blame on Iraq

In a rather surreal debate, Vice President Biden and former Vice President Cheney seemed to disagree about who gets “credit” for improving the situation in Iraq.   Cheney and those standing with him think that Biden and Obama, by opposing the war in Iraq should get no credit for helping bring stability.   Biden and those standing with him think that by engaging in such a disastrous undertaking and making so many mistakes in Iraq, Bush should get no credit for helping improve the situation.   Both are wrong.

Iraq was one of the most costly foreign policy errors in the history of US foreign policy. I am absolutely convinced that when we look at costs and impact of that war on the country and its place on the global stage historians will judge President Bush harshly for making a major mistake in the aftermath of 9-11.   By focusing on military victories in the Mideast as an effort to reshape the region and likely secure oil supplies for the distant future, Bush made visible the military vulnerabilities of the US, and helped array an anti-American coalition that undercut US status in the world.

Yet President Bush adjusted.   By late 2005 it was becoming clear that the neo-conservative dream for a “model Iraq” that would lead the region out of authoritarianism and towards market democracy.   In 2006 Iraq drifted into actual civil war between Shi’ite and Sunni forces.   US casualties increased, and the cost of the war in human and economic terms led to policies at home that fed a bubble economy.   The government wanted war on the cheap, so to avoid demanding sacrifice a period of hyper-consumption hid the cost.

President Bush faced one of the hardest challenges a leader can face.   He had to recognize his policy failed, make adjustments, and yet do so without appearing to vacillate and be weak.    His rhetoric retained a lot of the old bravado, but absent were insults to other countries and the “with us or against us” slogans that pushed allies away.   Instead he quietly patched up relations with the states Donald Rumsfeld called “old Europe,” improved ties with Russia and China, even though they clearly were positioning themselves as rivals to the US.   And in Iraq he totally altered the goals and strategies.

First, the neo-conservative dream of a close Iraqi ally to the US to pressure Syria and Iran, and thereby help Israel, was dumped.  In fact, even the idea that companies from US and US allies would control Iraq’s oil future got pushed aside.  All the dreams of reshaping the region were traded in for one goal: stabilize the country so we can get out.

No longer needing to have in place a pro-American regime willing to follow our desires (it had been thought that an easy US victory in Iraq would make the US a dominant power and the Iraqis would want our favor), the Bush Administration worked with pro-Iranian Shi’ite parties, made peace with Sunni insurgents, and focused only on putting down al qaeda forces that had gone into Iraq after the US invasion to de-stabilize the country.   By co-opting most of the enemy, this meant that only the most radical forces in Iraq remained committed to fighting the US.   The rest, seeing that the US would leave without demanding to have a strong say in the future of the country, suddenly saw it in their interest to work with the US.

Americans focused on the “surge” of forces to help create stability while pulling off this political change, but the change in strategy was far more important than the increased force levels.   What President Bush did was essentially recognize the failure of his policy, and then adjust to try to out of the situation with the least damage to the US and Iraq.   It isn’t easy for a President to admit failure by changing policy so dramatically.   Lyndon Johnson could not do that in Vietnam, and hence gave up his re-election bid.   George W. Bush did make that move — forced by circumstances, to be sure, but in a manner that showed resolve and good decision making.   For that, he deserves credit.

President Obama came in and has essentially continued and in some cases hastened the Bush policy change, but has not fundamentally altered the strategies that President Bush put in place in 2007.    He deserves credit for sticking with a policy that seems to be working, and avoiding the temptation to make changes for the sake of showing that he isn’t President Bush.   In short, Biden is right to blame Bush and Cheney for huge mistakes in 2002-03, costly mistakes which may ultimately be looked at as the key force that pushed the US into an era of decline.   That decline isn’t inevitable, but the politicians have to start working together if they’re going to make tough decisions to turn things around.   Cheney is right to say that the Bush Administration should get credit for the policies that started to stabilize Iraq.   And Biden is right that Obama should get some credit, but wrong to the extent that he wants to give the Obama-Biden Administration complete credit.

Afghanistan is a different story.   President Bush never got that conflict figured out, he was understandably more focused on the disaster in Iraq.  President Obama’s efforts in Afghanistan will be judged by history.   the Bush-Cheney Administration is to blame for much of what has gone wrong in Afghanistan; the Obama Administration will get credit for blame for whether or not their policies can improve things.

But that’s a different war.   For Iraq it seems clear:  The Bush Administration made a monumental mistake in starting a war that has hurt the US immensely.   For that they should be blamed.   They deserve credit for altering the policy goals, objectives and strategies to try to figure out a way to achieve some kind of stable exit from the country.   The Obama Administration deserves credit for continuing that policy and in general handling Iraq well.   If the US can leave in a timely manner and Iraq avoids stability, much of that will be due to actions by the Obama Administration.

But in the beltway world credit and blame cannot be shared, so the politicians will keep fighting.

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The Reality Decade

The first decade of the 21st century is about to come to an end.  To those who say the new decade doesn’t start until 2011, I’d say that’s like saying a baby isn’t really alive until it’s first birthday.  From Y2K to today, we’ve just put an interesting ten years behind us.

I’ve called the 1990s the decade of illusions, and noted how this decade has shattered those illusions.  Others, from Time magazine to pundits on the news have labeled the “aughts” the ‘decade from hell.’  So where are we as 2009 comes to an end?

The difficulties of the last ten years started early.  On March 11, 2000 the NASDAQ hit its high of 5011.  Lou Dobbes quite his job as a news anchor to get involved in the dotcom craze, being a part of space.com.   Jim Cramer said the NASDAQ could reach 8000 by the end of the year.  The Bush-Gore campaign focused on how to deal with the budgetary surpluses that were expected — enough to pay off the debt within a decade or so.   With the collapse of Communism, most people thought the future was bright — capitalism and democracy would expand, as would economic prosperity.

By summer the stock market had crashed.   That fall into winter the US would endure a bitter contested election, one which a number of people would always consider illegitimate (though Vice President Gore graciously accepted the result).  Then in 2001 the US would be hit by a terrorist strike that was a decade in the planning.  Suddenly the invulnerable superpower had seen it’s economic euphoria and its military invulnerability punctured.  In October 2001 the US invaded Afghanistan to try to capture Osama Bin Laden and destroy al qaeda.

In 2003 the US, defying most of the rest of the world decided to launch a war against Iraq, claiming the country harbored plans to build weapons of mass destruction.  The reality was that the US wanted to dramatically alter the landscape of the Mideast to bring democracy and human rights to the region — and assure US corporate control of massive oil reserves.  This would both protect the US from terrorism (democratic opportunity would diminish the allure of extremism) and assure that as oil production starts to decline, the US would be in control of its distribution.  On both counts, the effort failed miserably.

For awhile, though, the US avoided confronting the reality of the collapsed illusions.  In Afghanistan, the war was declared all but over, as the Bush administration dithered on how to handle the fact that Bin Laden survived and al qaeda was not destroyed.  They put off any decisions on Afghanistan and focused on Iraq — where more American troops were engaged, and more oil was on the line.   In Iraq the US at first claimed it was just ‘more difficult’ than expected, and we had to ‘stay the course.’  By 2006 the collapse of Iraqi society into a brief civil war made it impossible to put lipstick on the war and declare it successful.  The public turned against the Bush Administration and the war, and the Democrats rode the wave to control both Congress and after 2008, the Presidency.

The US also hid economic reality for awhile with a cheap credit policy that fostered a real estate bubble, as from 2004-06 hyper-consumerism defined the economy.  Savings rates went to zero, home equity loans based on the bubble fueled a spurt of consumption that created a brief illusion of renewed prosperity.   That started to collapse in2007, and the oil spike of 2008 punctured that bubble completely, and put the entire US financial industry in peril of collapse.  Only massive government intervention prevented total collapse, but the result was record deficits and debt.

Then in 2009 the final illusion — the idea that a new leader would come to suddenly and dramatically bring change and renewal — died as well.    No President can wave his hand and change deep structural circumstances.  Afghanistan worsened, attempts to stimulate the economy increased debt, and on the world stage the US suddenly found itself with a level of impotence never experienced since the end of WWII.  The right would blame Obama, saying he wasn’t assertive enough, but the reality is that the US is a diminished power — not because of Obama (that over-estimates the role of the President — President Bush was even more marginalized at the end of his term) but because of the economic and political realities of 2009.

A decade from hell?  Perhaps, but if so an inevitable one given the imbalances built up over the previous decades.   To be sure, in many ways the 1970s were even worse — a lose in Vietnam, the Cambodian genocide (in part caused by US intervention in Cambodia), Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, two oil shocks, the Iranian revolution, Americans held hostage, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.   Yet the US in 1980 didn’t have severe debts and deficits, and was still the primary world economy by far.    I prefer to see the “aughts” as the “Reality decade.”  Reality bites, the saying goes, and in the last ten years we were forced to part with the illusion that the US was an invincible dominant superpower.

The United States is a world power, but one currently in decline.   Those who deny this fall increasingly into myths — they blame Obama or focus on emotional issues like wild conspiracies about global climate change (the most bizarre being the idea that scientists are engaged in some kind of massive multi-national fraud in order to gain research dollars), or other short term peripheral issues.   Just as some over-estimated the ability of one person to change things, the other side makes the same error by ignoring reality in order to simply blame the President.   Myths are built around national symbols, fantasies about a ‘war against Islam’ or some kind of utopian solution — if only the right policies were chosen, all ills would heal.  But that is fantasy.  We fell for that in the 1980s, and thirty years of trying to deny reality through debt and deficits brought us to this point.

That’s what it’s like when an empire falls.   The nationalists look for scapegoats and try to deny the inevitable as long as possible.   Pragmatists like Obama try to fix things, but refrain from questioning the core conditions that put us on this path.  Those who benefit from the status quo try to fight needed change, worried that they’ll be worse off afterwards.  The result is a continual drift downward, with small crises accentuating and hastening the decline.  Whether it ends in collapse or drifts downward until at some point we simply are forced come to grips with the loss of power, the course right now is clear.

Yet there is one hope.  The people might decide that we can re-embrace core values, retreat from trying to control the planet, cut unnecessary military spending, decentralize power from the central government, take on big money — the corporate and financial interests that have their tentacles deep into both political parties — and somehow break out of the hypnosis caused by bombardment from a mass media selling illusory narratives based on feeding emotion in order to gain viewers or readers.   In a best case scenario, the reality decade will wake us up, and we’ll demand change.  Obama’s election was indicative of that desire, even if the idea that one man could change this trend was misplaced.

The public is aware something is wrong.   Populist propagandists are aware of this too, and are trying to lure the public into simplistic solutions — blame some scapegoat, promise an easy solution.   We’ve seen that before — Mussolini and Hitler were classic examples.   The solution is far more complex, and requires a rethinking of what kind of country we are entering the next decade.  Are we up to it?    And what exactly needs to be done?   Those questions will be the challenge of the next decade.

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Delusions

T. Boone Pickens told a Congressional caucus that US oil companies were entitled to contracts to develop Iraqi oil, thanks to the fact that over 5000 Americans died, 65,000 wounded, and $1.5 trillion spent to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein.   Pickens is criticizing the fact that Iraq’s oil auctions are based on the best offer and not on rewarding the US for all it has spent in Iraq.  Instead, contracts have gone to China and BP so far.

And, of course, there is nothing the US can do to make Iraq comply with such a request.   President Bush explicitly denied that it was a war for control of oil, and  President Obama has already pledged to withdraw the troops.  Most Iraqis realize that the American people don’t want a long term major US commitment.

In Afghanistan President Obama is struggling with the decision of whether or not to send more troops there, and if so, what their task will be.   While former Vice President Cheney says Obama is “dithering” (Bush and Cheney dithered on Afghanistan from 2003 to 2008, to be sure), the fact is that this is a very consequential decision, and there is no need to hurry.    The President is correctly taking the time to examine the options and not simply make an easy political decision of going with McChrystal’s recommendation.   His job is to make the policy call, the general’s job is to figure out how to implement the policy effectively.

Striking about each of these “wars” is how early military victory — the US defeated the Taliban within a month, Saddam fell within weeks of the initial attack — turned into lengthy quagmires with no clear exit strategy or no sense of what victory would look like — or if it were even possible.

The US went into these wars guided by the heady ideology of neo-conservatism, a belief that the US was a “unipolar polar,” uniquely capable of creating a new world order which would expand democracy, reinforce market capitalism, and be good for American business.    Their argument seemed powerful.  The US economy in 2001 had a budget surplus, and the early Bush tax cuts were designed to rekindle another economic boom, negating the impact of the stock price collapse in 2000.   The Soviet Union was dead, there was no other major power on the horizon, so the US seemed at its peak — economically vibrant and the only major superpower.    The world was ours if we have the will to use our power and shape reality to fit our ideology and interests.

The thing holding the US back, the neo-conservatives argued, was too much concern with what the rest of the world thought about us, timidness in foreign policy, and a lack of will to do what is necessary to reshape the world.   Unipolarity doesn’t last along time, the neo-conservatives warned, we should use the power while we have the chance.   It was a heady, bombastic, and extremely confident ideology.   It mixed idealism (spread democracy and enforce human rights) with raw self-interest (protect US control of oil reserves, promote US corporate interests).   It’s audacious confidence attracted hawks, it’s lack of concern for what others (especially “Old Europe”) thought of us attracted nationalists.

9-11 was the pivotal moment for this group.   The attacks would give the American people the will to take the aggressive moves necessary to reshape the world.   Most did not doubt success was likely.   Afghanistan seemed to fall quickly, as few questioned the move to eliminate a regime as hated by the left as by the right.   After 9-11, the quick victory over the Taliban seemed to demonstrate US resolve and power — even if Bin Laden himself slipped away.   But, as Donald Rumsfeld noted, Afghanistan doesn’t have many targets.   The place to really make their move and assert US dominance was Iraq.

The plan was to take Iraq, install a pro-American government, show that democracy can work in the Mideast, and make sure oil is in the control of pro-American forces.    These actions would put Iran, Syria and every other nation in the region on alert that the US is willing and able to use its power.   That would also allow the US to achieve peace in Israel by weakening those who support the Palestinians, and geopolitically trump Russia, China and the EU in the quest to secure long term oil supplies.  The war wasn’t really about WMD in Iraq, even though that was the way it was sold.   Nor was it about how repressive Saddam was — others in the world, including our allies in Saudi Arabia, are just as repressive.  It was about a grand vision of reshaping politics in the Middle East, and assuring another “American century.”

“Everyone wants freedom,” the President claimed with confidence.   The neo-conservatives boldly predicted that the “modern, secular” Iraqis could not only make democracy work (some said it was ‘racist’ to claim otherwise), but even pay the cost of their “liberation” with oil revenues.  Instead, Iraq and Afghanistan have become symbolic of America’s decline.  When the US leaves, Iraq will not be a true democracy, not be pro-American, and won’t even give the best oil contracts to US companies.   It will have tarnished US moral legitimacy in the eyes of much of the planet, made American military threats less credible (not only didn’t we succeed in Iraq, but the public is sour on war and the world knows it), and fed into an economic crisis which continues to threaten the very status of the US as a major super power.

In Afghanistan the situation is even worse.   Because of the size and demographics of the country, an Iraq-like “surge” won’t stabilize things.   In Iraq security improved when the US chose to make allies of their former Sunni adversaries.  Few expect the US to become allies with the Taliban in Afghanistan.   If Obama chooses to continue with an unclear, open-ended mission this risks becoming a conflict that could eat his Presidency alive.   Yet to end it inconclusively would at the very least be humiliating to the US.

After 9-11 the US suffered numerous delusions, which together created a self-image of a country second to none, economically vibrant, and with the right approach to politics and economics.   In my last post, I outlined the delusional thinking which over thirty years set up the current economic crisis.  Senator Fullbright once called this kind of attitude “the arrogance of power.”   As a country we — especially the political leaders — got so caught up in the belief that we are something special, we are the best, we’ve found the right way to govern the country and run the economy, that we started to embrace delusions as reality.    We saw ourselves as superior to others, yet isolated ourselves in an orgy of consumption, with little regard for trying to understand the rest of the world, or even acknowledging that reality of the suffering that takes place over so much of the planet.   The cause of our current woes was delusional thinking.

Unfortunately, it continues.    The anti-Obama rhetoric from the right tries to deny reality by blaming everything on Obama, with weird claims that he’s trying to impose socialism or somehow destroy our way of life.   The left focuses on health care and the politics of the moment.   The President has spread himself thin by tackling numerous issues, but has yet to really focus the country on the challenges ahead with a clear and coherent vision about how to move forward.

I will only be optimistic about the future when most Americans become realistic about the present.

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Obama’s Moment

President Barack Obama came into office with a wave of support and popularity not seen in a long time.  Early approval ratings bumped up against 70%, and the Democrats held a commanding majority in both the House and Senate.   Today his approval rating as per Real Clear Politics is 51.2%.    The Republicans have dominated the air waves with arguments on health care and other issues, while the economy has continued in the doldrums, and the news from Iraq and especially Afghanistan gets worse.   Obama was elected, yet the problems remain.   The public is uncertain.

Just as many over-estimated Obama’s strength early on, it would be dangerous to over-estimate the strength of the Republican opposition now.   The town hall meetings and GOP rallies represent a small politically motivated subsection of the US population, one already vehemently opposed to the Democrats.   Moreover most people don’t pay much attention to politics in the summertime.     There is disquiet and concern in the country over the economy, deficits, and the overseas wars.   Obama’s support has dwindled because he’s not seen as having done a lot about these things.

In 2002 President Bush had similar problems in the run up to the Iraq war.  The strategy put together by Rove and company was clear: ignore August, come out guns blazing (politically) in September.   President Obama seems set to follow the course.  He was relatively quiet in the end of summer — any strong push on his part would have been drowned out by the summer vacation mood of the country, and he had to let the opposition (town halls and the like) have their moment.   Now, Obama has to come forward and actively lead.  So here is some political advice for the President, what Iwould tell him if I were a strategist trying to figure out how to turn around recent trends.

There are three cutting edge issues which he has to address, with efficacy, if he wants to turn around his fall in popularity, and the improving prospects for the Republicans.

1.  Health care.   He needs to not only get a health care bill passed, but he needs to be perceived as the one who made it happen.  If he can do that, the failure to get progress on health care this summer might play into his hands, as people will say “Congress couldn’t do anything, it took Obama getting involved to make something happen.”   Word is that he will give a major public address on this issue soon.   He needs to be aggressive, giving the public the real statistics, cost, and dangers of doing nothing.   He needs to allay the fears of others by noting how the rest of the industrialized world has health care systems that guarantee coverage, and even conservatives in those countries overwhelmingly support it.  If it were as scary as Republicans make it out to be, why don’t people who have such systems oppose it?   He needs to challenge Congress to pass his plan, even through reconciliation (to avoid a filibuster) as a last resort.   He needs the speech to be popular, and for the discourse to turn towards his framing of the issue.   He should praise the concern and activism of his opponents, but say they are being misled by those who profit from the current structure.

2.  Debt and Deficit.   The biggest substantive criticism I have with Obama so far is the massive increase in the size of the debt this year.   I know some economists, including nobel prize winner Paul Krugman, believe that we need to increase debts and deficits at this point in order to spur growth and allow us not to slip into depression.    Perhaps.   I’m not convinced, neither is the country.  Obama needs to put forth a realistic and credible debt reduction plan that includes his health care reforms, and does something that is certain to get liberal groups angry: address the unsustainable rise in the cost of entitlements.   He needs to be make that argument clear and cogent, and should tie debt reduction (and entitlement reform) directly to the issue of health care reform:  Make health care part of a debt and deficit reduction plan.

3.   Iraq and Afghanistan.   Obama cannot win, just like Bush could not win these wars.   The public sees our country in dire straights, and correctly wonders what we’re doing over there.   We’re not going after Bin Laden or al qaeda, we’re trying to create security in nations riveted by sectarian violence and distrust.   We’re trying to reshape political systems, not fighting terrorism.  It makes no sense.   Yet Obama is caught in the dilemma of a superpower.  How can the US just say, “oh well, it’s not worth it,” and walk away?   That could do immense political damage as well.  Thus he has to find a process to extricate the US so that it doesn’t feel like defeat.   Richard Nixon did that in Vietnam, Obama can do it here.

First, he needs to define the terrain.  These wars are not to spread democracy, create stable governments, or defeat Islamic extremism.  Rather, their sole purpose was and is to counter terrorism.   As part of a counter-terror campaign it is not necessary to create stable governments, nor is it even a disaster for the Taliban to retake parts of Afghanistan.  As much as we might think those governments illegitimate, the world is full of bad governments and places that operate in ways that counter our values.   It isn’t our business to try to fix different parts of the world, nor do we have the capacity to socially engineer other cultures.

Once the focus is put on terrorism, clear counter-terrorism techniques can be ennuciated which allows us to begin a withdrawal that extricates us from situations we simply cannot afford to be involved in.   This may include creative diplomacy, on going covert operations, and some military ventures, but in general, Obama and the US can’t afford (and the public won’t tolerate) the price it would take to make a major effort to reshape either country, let alone both. 

If Obama can push through some kind of real health care reform, develop a credible debt reduction plan, and start a real extrication of the US from wars that are counter-productive, then he’ll have regained control of the agenda, and the prospects for real change increase.    His Presidency depends on him being able to lead on the principles he was elected upon, and to take risks.   He has played it relatively safe so far, but the times require bold decisions, and he has enough political cover to make them.

Now is the time for Obama to prove he has the capacity to deliver what his campaign promised.

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Peace with Honor?

The United States has had troops in Iraq now for over six years.   The heady early goals of creating a stable model democracy, with Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurd side by side, has given way to hope that somehow we can get out of there without Iraq ready to implode.    A mixture of internal exhaustion and the efficacy of the counter-insurgency campaign led by Gen. David Petraeus has moved Iraq away from the chaos of 2006, when the country was in what can only be described as civil war.     But where is it now, and where is Iraq going?

The Iraqi government recently announced that it had given up trying to reconcile with the Saudis.   While this story has flown under the radar, given American distaste for even thinking more about Iraq, it is telling.   To the Saudis, Iraq remains a proxy for Iran, a Shi’ite state that is more dangerous than helpful for the region.  Iraq has also had tensions with Kuwait, going back to disputes about the 1991 war.    Meanwhile Prime Minister Maliki’s anti-graft campaign seems to be going nowhere, the Kurds cling to their autonomy in the north, and the central government has yet to really penetrate into Sunni regions.

Telling is the change taking place with Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army.  Officially the army disbanded, and al-Sadr went to Qom, in Iran, to continue his theological studies.   His long term plan is to become an Ayatollah, and have claim to a more powerful role in Iraqi politics and society.    His old army, however, is not really gone.  It has become an underground militia, capable of acting again if called upon, but also very involved in protection rackets and other aspects of corrupt Iraqi life.   This works against real rule of law, or reconciliation with the Sunnis.

If you read news reports from Iraq, Sunni areas are relatively peaceful, but protected by American forces.  There is a real fear that the Shi’ite dominated government will clamp down hard against the Sunnis once the Americans leave, and hatred between the two groups remain.  The long sought after and promised “reconciliation” remains elusive, perhaps unachievable.   The Sunnis, the original anti-American insurgents, now hope the US stays longer, realizing that they are a minority and vulnerable to the Shi’ites.   And as the US tries to counter an Iran with nuclear aspirations, the Iraqi government remains uncomfortably close to, and perhaps infiltrated by, Iran.

Iraq is not that much different than in 2006, except that the violence is down (though there has been a recent uptick).   That is important, but raises questions about just what the US can accomplish or should accomplish before finally departing.    Will US departure simply allow a renewed Shi’ite-Sunni civil war and blood bath?  Will internal Shi’ite disputes boil over and create instability?   Or will Maliki, or some other Iraqi figure, emerge as a new “strong man,” a Saddam without the regional military ambitions.

In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak continues to rule with an iron fist, rejecting American calls for more democracy.  He has to.  A democratic Egypt could tear apart at the seams, and risk the rise of increased extremism, endangering the peace with Israel.  Mubarak believes Iraq needs a similar sort of leadership.

Meanwhile, with the Taliban on the rise in Afghanistan, and the US devoting more troops to that “first front” on the once called war on terror, the US cannot afford to stay too long in Iraq, or risked being pulled into a deeper conflict.   President Obama knows that the Iraq war made it possible for him to win his job; it could also be his undoing.

I remain convinced that a tripartite solution is the most viable future for Iraq.   Kurdistan is never going to truly integrate into Iraq; their support for the government is contingent on their autonomy.  They are already defacto independent.  With the Shi’ites overwhelming the Sunnis in the rest of Iraq by a 3 to 1 margin, it’s unlikely there will be any true effort at reconciliation.  The Shi’ites don’t have to, and in a state with intense corruption and a recent civil war, radicals can sabotage any attempt to unite the two sides.   A consociational solution would require the Shi’ites to be more united than they are.

One possibility is that the US negotiate a Dayton like accord for Iraq, dividing the country into three autonomous zones, with deals on oil, territory, and scope of rule.   The US could also negotiate a long term presence for a stabilization force, perhaps multilateral.   The idea is that this force could be stationed at bases in Sunni and Kurdish regions, be relatively small, and there only to keep the agreement in force.   But if the Shi’ia don’t go along with such a plan, do we still have leverage?   Or will we simply end up having to go, and hope that things don’t fall apart completely?

The “surge” did not end the conflict in Iraq, or bring success.  It did help stop a civil war, and it creates the possibility of a Nixonian “peace with honor.”  We’re not cutting and running, when we leave, we can claim we helped stabilize things.   But, of course, Nixon’s peace with honor lasted only two years.  In 1975 the North took over South Vietnam completely, and in short order Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge.

Starting a war is easy; getting out of one when the locals are engaged in corruption, ethnic conflict, and governmental instability is a different story.   Although relegated to “yesterday’s news” in today’s short attention span media, Iraq remains one of the most important tests of Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

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Darth Cheney

Back in 1991 it was ‘treasonous’ for Jimmy Carter to work to prevent a war with Iraq, and in 2002 Al Gore and others were lambasted by the right for trying to slow the process of going to war with Iraq.  You don’t act in a way that undercuts a President’s foreign policy, you certainly aren’t supposed to suggest that a President’s actions are making the country less safe.   Apparently Dick “Darth” Cheney believes that only applies to attempts to “undercut” war efforts.  Working to undercut diplomacy is another matter.  I suspect that in the view from the Dark Side undercutting diplomacy is good because it makes war more likely.

As I’ve noted before, I’m not one of those who believes George W. Bush to be bad; I’ve praised his ability in his second administration to recognize that initial policies in Iraq had failed and adjust.   He also, according to numerous reports, soured on Vice President Cheney’s foreign policy perspective, realizing that he was impervious to the possibility that events were proving him wrong.   Bush displayed the capacity to recognize error and change direction.   By the end of his administration I found myself having sympathy for the President.   He had sacrificed everything for the war in Iraq, believing it would spread democracy and make America safer, and even though he realized he was wrong and changed directions, that one error in judgment — goaded on by the Sith warriors around him — would haunt his legacy forever.   Who knows what he might have accomplished if not for the way in which Iraq swallowed his Presidency and destroyed his domestic agenda.

Cheney, however, is another story.  Reading Bob Woodward’s account of the 1991 Iraq war, operation Desert Storm, it becomes clear that then Defense Secretary Cheney was not only the hawk’s hawk, but also someone with a disdain for Congress and the democratic process.   Having been Chief of Staff to President Ford in the wake of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, Cheney had experienced the White House at its least powerful.  The Democrats had a huge majority in Congress, and President Ford was leading a wounded administration.  At that point, it seems, Cheney embraced the dark side.  Congress came to be not the tool of democracy, but the enemy of the Executive Branch.   The goal was power in a zero sum game and if he was part of the Executive Branch, he wanted to make sure the power was there.

When President Bush announced that Cheney would serve as Chair of his Vice Presidential search committee, I was relieved.  I had heard his name mentioned at a possible VP, and that made me nervous.  But Chair of VP Search committees never get themselves named as the Vice Presidential candidate.   Somehow, Cheney managed the process not only in a way that got him the position, but he was praised as adding ‘gravitas’ to the Bush candidacy.  Bush was inexperienced at foreign policy and national policy, but Cheney had been Secretary of Defense for the first President Bush.

Cheney also helped assure that so-called neo-conservatives like John Bolton got high positions in government, and after 9-11 he knew how to appeal to the fearful mood of the nation and President Bush’s idealist notion of spreading democracy to push for an aggressive foreign policy.  Gen. Wesley Clark reported seeing plans to invade seven countries in five years in order to reshape the Mideast.  Bolton and Cheney rejected CIA intelligence and created their own pseudo-intelligence office.   Cheney’s Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby, would ultimately be the one victim of the Palme affair, convicted of perjury and being forced from his position.

With Cheney still extremely influential, the most fatal and damaging decisions of the Bush Administration were made, as the young and still inexperienced President relied on his Vice President for advice and motivation.   As Bush learned more about the war and how government works Cheney’s influence waned.   But the damage had been done, even as the President turned to Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice to try to find a way to minimize the impact and find a way out of the quagmires.

During this time Cheney was mostly silent.  He was the most secretive member of the administration, getting his house wiped off google earth, refusing to release numerous documents, and even being secretive about the nature of his job.   Cheney made the phrase ‘undisclosed location’ famous.  Now, however, he has found his voice and uses it to attack the policies of the Obama administration.

Perhaps the most disturbed about this are Republicans.  Cheney has become the least popular and least trusted politician in America.  If he is the face of opposition to Obama, it has to help Obama.   And Cheney isn’t sticking to Republican talking points like fiscal discipline, taxes, and liberty.  He’s making his stand defending methods that are considered torture by many.  He’s trying to recapture the mode of fear that existed in 2002 — fear feeds the dark side after all!

Perhaps he’s hoping for a new terror attack to put his kind of fearful aggression back in vogue.  Perhaps he simply hasn’t come to grips with the fact his approach to post 9-11 policy has been shown wrong headed and he is widely seen as a failure.   Maybe he’s hitting Obama because nobody else is, and he has nothing left to lose.   His punches have no sting, however, they just provide more material for comedians like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.

When one looks at the rhetoric of the far right — talk radio and right wing blogs — it is often angry and vehemently anti-Obama.    It is common to hear about the ‘downfall of America’ and ‘death of American values,’ something only the most extremes of the left said about Bush.   Maybe our Sith Warrior Darth Cheney hopes for a rebirth of the fear and anger that might lead the country to embrace aggression and efforts to silence opposition.   It’s possible.

Yet I suspect most Republicans as well as Democrats would prefer to focus on the important issues facing the country.   That includes serious opposition to Obama — his deficits are huge, there are concerns about the nature of government intervention in the auto industry and the nature of the financial bailouts.  There are real questions to ask about policies towards Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as how to contain or engage Iran.   Because, Darth Cheney’s fear mongering not withstanding, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans represent the “dark side.”   It isn’t good vs. evil as far as American politics is concerned, but overwhelming good intended folk of different perspectives and beliefs trying to work out what’s best for the country.   That’s what works.

UPDATE:  I’ve been informed that I have my Star War references wrong, that when someone else compared Cheney to Darth Vader, George Lucas replied that the correct comparison is to the Emperor.

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