Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Tuesday, December 6th, 2005.

Acts of Cognition

conservatism, Iraq War

Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham writes in today’s Washington Post, “In my view, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were an act of war, not a mere crime.”

Senator Graham goes on to make a nice argument for why we shouldn’t torture detained terrorist suspects. I want to comment only on that first sentence, however.

I remember September 13, 2001, wandering about Manhattan. I walked from Grand Central to Times Square, then took the Seventh Avenue local train to 14th Street, then walked over to Union Square. The pain in the city was palpable. Pictures of the dead — we weren’t yet acknowledging they were dead, but we knew — were stapled or taped on every available surface.

I remember feeling a kind of numb emptiness, and not just from sorrow. I remembered thinking that it would have been easier to process what I felt if the perpetrators had been more well-defined, something solid that we could circle on a map and label “enemy,” instead of wraiths from a shadow world I barely knew. If we had been attacked by another country, we could redirect our pain into simple purpose –going to war, defeating an enemy. But on September 13 it was as if we’d been attacked by mist. What would we do? The lack of a clear, well-defined path of action made the present seem so much harder to bear.

Over the next several days we learned more, of course. We learned about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and we learned that much of that organization was being sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan. That was something tangible, with geographic boundaries. Yet we were not going to war with Afghanistan, but with something that could cross national boundaries as easily as smoke.

However, things are what they are. We have a lazy tendency to “understand” phenomena by sorting it into a pre-arranged file structure in our heads. But putting a label on something, or assigning a place for it in an ideological taxonomy, is not the same thing as knowing it as-it-is.

This is one part of my Zen studies that seems to have stuck. Words are not reality. Concepts are not reality. Zennies go way beyond thinking outside the box. Zennies are all about destroying the box altogether and evaporating all reference points in order to realize enlightenment. I can’t say I quite got to that point. But I still try to appreciate things as-they-are instead of by some system of classification.

It seems meaningless to me to classify the 9/11 attacks as either a war or a crime. They were what they were. Both, and neither.

You might have heard the old Hindu story about the blind men and the elephant; the men, feeling different parts of the elephant, got into an argument about whether the elephant was like a tree trunk, a snake, a fan, a wall, a spear, or a rope. Seems to me that arguing about whether 9/11 was an act or war or a crime is just about as blind. To understand it, you need to wipe former points of reference out of your head and take it in as-it-is. And you need to take it all in, not just whatever part seems most graspable.

Most of the chest-thumping bravado one finds on the Right makes me realize the chest-thumpers are looking at Islamic terrorism and seeing something entirely different from what I see. They’re seeing something like a conventional war; I do not. So many citizens (erroneously) embraced the invasion of Iraq out of emotional need to find a solid, tangible enemy to fight in a glorious little war. As I said, it makes processing the pain of 9/11 so much easier. But that’s an emotional crutch, not reality. And, as I argued this morning, all our thrashing around in Iraq is leaving us weaker and more vulnerable to real threats.

Real leaders would have helped us face reality while we processed our pain. Real leaders would have helped us understand the complex nature of what we faced while finding rational and effective ways to deal with it. Instead, we had Bush and Cheney. Not so much Dumb and Dumber as Dumb and Bleeping Delusional. Too bad for us.

Think of the Iraq War as the Mother of All Security Blankets. It’s what the Right clings to because they lack the fortitude (or brainpower) to face reality. And that’s why no amount of reasoning will persuade them to let go of it.

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Dear Democrats

Democratic Party

Please don’t nominate Hillary in ’08. Please.

Update: See also Leah at Corrente.

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Why We’re Stuck in Iraq

Bush Administration, conservatism, Democratic Party, Iraq War, Republican Party

The longer we stay, the bigger mess we create. Once we invaded, we set in motion a group of forces that inexplicably has taken us to this point. We can‘t change that by staying longer. We can make it worse.

We essentially invaded for other peoples‘ interests without understanding it. We made Iraq safe for al Qaeda, therefore, we really encouraged or pleased Osama bin Laden.

The Iranians detested Saddam‘s regime. He had invaded them and fought them for eight years. Therefore, seeing Saddam and his regime overthrown greatly pleased the Iranians.

It has also created a situation inside Iraq, fragmentation, that‘s leading to the creation of a regime that will almost inexplicably will be an Islamic republic much closer to Iran than to the U.S. or anyone in the Arab world. [Lt. Gen. William Odom (Ret.)]

Odom, who served as head of the National Security Agency during the Reagan administration, came out for “cutting and running” before Jack Murtha did. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, he said, serves only the interests of Osama bin Laden, Iran, and extremists in both Palestinian and Israeli political circles. It ain’t doin’ a dadblamed thing for the United States, even though we’re pouring something like $6 billion a month into the effort. Odom has called the Iraq invasion the “greatest strategic disaster in United States history.”

I only wonder why the Right hasn’t gotten around to sliming Odom. I can only assume they haven’t noticed him yet. Or else they did slime him and I missed it.

Our Iraq policies are stuck on stupid because our political leaders, with few exceptions, refuse to lead. Republicans have tied their political careers not only to the war but also to the talking points, e.g., speaking out against the war helps the enemy. I’m sure that right now some of them (especially those facing re-election next year) are struggling to come up with a way to speak out against the war without, you know, speaking out against the war. (Good luck with that.) Meanwhile, the Democrats are struggling to find a way to say they’re against the war now, even though many of ’em voted for the October 2002 war resolution, without looking like flip-floppers or weenies on national security.

We citizens are left to debate the war among ourselves. But this is impossible because the pro-war side dismisses anti-war arguments as nothing but character flaws. Liberals, the righties say, are against the war because they hate America, hate freedom, and want our soldiers to die (workplace note: mute the sound on your computer before you click on that last link). Thus they dismiss our objections, no matter how factually based. Your standard rightie can no more address, never mind discuss, actual issues honestly than spinach can tap dance.

This leaves the rank-and-file Left to discuss Iraq among ourselves. But we fail sometimes too. On one hand are the liberal Iraq War “hawks” who supported the invasion and only recently (if at all) have come around to seeing the essential folly of it. And on the other hand are those who refuse to consider any option but immediate and total withdrawal, never mind potential consequences to the stability of the Middle East. In the middle are those of us willing to consider just about any option but “stay the course” — or, heaven forbid, escalation — that will put us on the path to withdrawal.

Until Congressman John Murtha presented his plan for “over the horizon” redeployment, there wasn’t much in the way of options to discuss. Now we’re hearing from Gen. Wesley Clark, who writes in the New York Times,

While the Bush administration and its critics escalated the debate last week over how long our troops should stay in Iraq, I was able to see the issue through the eyes of America’s friends in the Persian Gulf region. The Arab states agree on one thing: Iran is emerging as the big winner of the American invasion, and both President Bush’s new strategy and the Democratic responses to it dangerously miss the point. It’s a devastating critique. And, unfortunately, it is correct.

While American troops have been fighting, and dying, against the Sunni rebels and foreign jihadists, the Shiite clerics in Iraq have achieved fundamental political goals: capturing oil revenues, strengthening the role of Islam in the state, and building up formidable militias that will defend their gains and advance their causes as the Americans draw down and leave. Iraq’s neighbors, then, see it evolving into a Shiite-dominated, Iranian buffer state that will strengthen Tehran’s power in the Persian Gulf just as it is seeks nuclear weapons and intensifies its rhetoric against Israel.

Clark argues that a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops risks broader regional conflict. He calls for keeping troops in Iraq, but with a drastically modified strategy that focuses mainly on controlling the borders and training Iraqi security forces. This would be combined with political and diplomatic efforts –for example, outreach to insurgents, enforcing the ban on armed militias, reducing sectarian influence.

I personally prefer Murtha’s plan to Clark’s, but I just wish the Democrats and moderate Republicans could get behind something so we can begin to make it happen. If we leave matters up to the Bush administration, we’ll lurch from disaster to disaster until circumstances force us to withdraw. And circumstances tend to get messy. But most Democrats seem unwilling to get behnd anyone’s plan but their own, even if they don’t have one.

Lt. Gen. Odom presented another perspective on last night’s “Hardball”:

MATTHEWS: Where do we concentrate our forces if we had an allied strength? If we were put together now the way we were before the Gulf War under President Bush the first, how would you arrange our power over there? Where would you put it?

Jack Murtha is talking about getting our troops out of Iraq and putting them nearby where they can be projected in on notice.

ODOM: I would try to keep some forces in Kuwait. But I don‘t really care where they would be in the region initially.

The main thing is to get out, let it develop and see where it makes sense to come back in. There are a number of things I would want to do before I raced back in with additional forces. I think getting back into the fight in Iraq would be almost as stupid as having gotten in the first place.

So I don‘t want to be spring loaded, ready to jump back in. I want to let the Europeans say what they think we ought to be doing there, because they are going to have to carry some of this load. And until they have had some say, they are not going to sign up.

This makes sense to me, too. Unfortunately no American politician dare come out and say that we’re going to listen to Europeans. The VRWC and its media echo chamber would go on the warpath. Europeans are the most evil and untrustworthy people on the planet, after Muslims. And Asians. And Latinos. And of course nobody listens to Africans. And we don’t think much of Canada any more, either. Last I heard we still trust Australia, which ought to be a source of worry to the Aussies. But let’s go on …

Odom has argued that “I don’t believe anyone will be able to sustain a strong case in the short run without going back to the fundamental misjudgment of invading Iraq in the first place. Once the enormity of that error is grasped, the case for pulling out becomes easy to see.”

Well, good luck with that. In spite of the mountains of direct, smoking-gun evidence, most of the Right is still in denial about the, shall we say, misrepresentation of intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s WMDs. But I want to point to this bit from “Bush’s Lost Year” by James Fallows in the October 2004 Atlantic Monthly:

As a political matter, whether the United States is now safer or more vulnerable is of course ferociously controversial. That the war was necessary—and beneficial—is the Bush Administration’s central claim. That it was not is the central claim of its critics. But among national-security professionals there is surprisingly little controversy. Except for those in government and in the opinion industries whose job it is to defend the Administration’s record, they tend to see America’s response to 9/11 as a catastrophe. I have sat through arguments among soldiers and scholars about whether the invasion of Iraq should be considered the worst strategic error in American history—or only the worst since Vietnam. Some of these people argue that the United States had no choice but to fight, given a pre-war consensus among its intelligence agencies that Iraq actually had WMD supplies. Many say that things in Iraq will eventually look much better than they do now. But about the conduct and effect of the war in Iraq one view prevails: it has increased the threats America faces, and has reduced the military, financial, and diplomatic tools with which we can respond.

“Let me tell you my gut feeling,” a senior figure at one of America’s military-sponsored think tanks told me recently, after we had talked for twenty minutes about details of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. “If I can be blunt, the Administration is full of shit. In my view we are much, much worse off now than when we went into Iraq. That is not a partisan position. I voted for these guys. But I think they are incompetent, and I have had a very close perspective on what is happening. Certainly in the long run we have harmed ourselves. We are playing to the enemy’s political advantage. Whatever tactical victories we may gain along the way, this will prove to be a strategic blunder.

And here is the cost of our blundering:

Step by step through 2002 America’s war on terror became little more than its preparation for war in Iraq.

Because of that shift, the United States succeeded in removing Saddam Hussein, but at this cost: The first front in the war on terror, Afghanistan, was left to fester, as attention and money were drained toward Iraq. This in turn left more havens in Afghanistan in which terrorist groups could reconstitute themselves; a resurgent opium-poppy economy to finance them; and more of the disorder and brutality the United States had hoped to eliminate. Whether or not the strong international alliance that began the assault on the Taliban might have brought real order to Afghanistan is impossible to say. It never had the chance, because America’s premature withdrawal soon fractured the alliance and curtailed postwar reconstruction. Indeed, the campaign in Afghanistan was warped and limited from the start, by a pre-existing desire to save troops for Iraq.

A full inventory of the costs of war in Iraq goes on. President Bush began 2002 with a warning that North Korea and Iran, not just Iraq, threatened the world because of the nuclear weapons they were developing. With the United States preoccupied by Iraq, these other two countries surged ahead. They have been playing a game of chess, or nerves, against America—and if they have not exactly won, they have advanced by several moves. Because it lost time and squandered resources, the United States now has no good options for dealing with either country. It has fewer deployable soldiers and weapons; it has less international leverage through the “soft power” of its alliances and treaties; it even has worse intelligence, because so many resources are directed toward Iraq.

Read those paragraphs above to any rightie, and pay attention to the response: You lefties are against the war because you hate America. You might as well argue with a doormat, or any other insentient object. If you find a rightie who actually listens and then says, well, I disagree because (followed by reasonably lucid sentences that actually address the subject and do not devolve into character assassination), that would be progress. I don’t believe there are such people, though.

Yesterday we learned that no one is taking charge of disaster preparedness. Billions for Iraq; not one cent for communications systems for first responders. This is just one symptom of our national disease — that our nation is being guided by emotionally adolescent ideologues who prefer the easy gratification of shooting “ragheads” to the unglamorous, policy-wonk work of making our nation safer. And, frankly, until and unless we can wrest some power away from them there won’t be any changes of policy in Iraq.

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