Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Friday, August 4th, 2006.

Good New, Bad News, Part II

Bush Administration, Iraq War, Middle East, Terrorism

Back to the new James Fallows article in Atlantic, which I discussed here

Recap: Fallows interviewed a number of experts to determine where we are in the “war” on terrorism. In spite of the Bush Administration’s multiple blunders, at the moment our national security situation isn’t all that bad. As explained here, the chance of al Qaeda or another terrorist group pulling off another September 11 is fairly small.

The fly in the ointment is Iraq.

About half of the authorities I spoke with were from military or intelligence organizations; the others were academics or members of think tanks, plus a few businesspeople. Half were Americans; the rest were Europeans, Middle Easterners, Australians, and others. Four years ago, most of these people had supported the decision to invade Iraq. Although they now said that the war had been a mistake (followed by what nearly all viewed as a disastrously mismanaged occupation), relatively few said that the United States should withdraw anytime soon. The reasons most of them gave were the need for America to make good on commitments, the importance of keeping the Sunni parts of Iraq from turning into a new haven for global terrorists, and the chance that conditions in Iraq would eventually improve.

One, I worry about the expertise of anyone who supported the decision to invade Iraq. Two, this article was written before the recent Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. I strongly suspect that whatever slim chance there might have been of a not-too-terrible outcome in Iraq is now utterly gone. And there’s no doubt the neocons are hoping to use the conflict to take the war to Syria and Iran.

“If the United States stays in Iraq, it keeps making enemies,” Fallows writes. “If it leaves, it goes dragging its tail.” The war is hurting us so many ways, from the misallocation of resources, growing deficits, erosion of civil liberties, and loss of moral high ground. Maybe a little tail dragging is in order.

The final destructive response helping al-Qaeda has been America’s estrangement from its allies and diminution of its traditionally vast “soft power.” “America’s cause is doomed unless it regains the moral high ground,” Sir Richard Dearlove, the former director of Britain’s secret intelligence agency, MI-6, told me. He pointed out that by the end of the Cold War there was no dispute worldwide about which side held the moral high ground—and that this made his work as a spymaster far easier. “Potential recruits would come to us because they believed in the cause,” he said. A senior army officer from a country whose forces are fighting alongside America’s in Iraq similarly told me that America “simply has to recapture its moral authority.” His reasoning:

    The United States is so powerful militarily that by its very nature it represents a threat to every other nation on earth. The only country that could theoretically destroy every single other country is the United States. The only way we can say that the U.S. is not a threat is by looking at intent, and that depends on moral authority. If you’re not sure the United States is going to do the right thing, you can’t trust it with that power, so you begin thinking, How can I balance it off and find other alliances to protect myself?

America’s glory has been its openness and idealism, internally and externally. Each has been constrained from time to time, but not for as long or in as open-ended a way as now.

I combed through the Fallows article looking for a compelling argument to stay in Iraq, other than “the need for America to make good on commitments, the importance of keeping the Sunni parts of Iraq from turning into a new haven for global terrorists, and the chance that conditions in Iraq would eventually improve.” No luck. If improving the security situation in Iraq by force of American arms were still possible, then perhaps those would be arguments for staying in Iraq. I doubt it’s still possible, however.

Yet note this from Billmon:

If the United States were to begin pulling troops out of Iraq now, it would be interpreted correctly throughout the Middle East as an open admission of defeat — one that would likely lead fairly quickly to a complete American evacuation of the country. (Maybe not literally by landing helicopters on the roof of the embassy, but all in the region would understand the military reality that as the force grows smaller it will become progressively more dangerous to keep it in Iraq.)

Such an outcome could well force Iraq’s Shi’a political leaders to snuggle up even more tightly to Iran, if only as a matter of physical survival. If the full-scale civil war everyone seems to expect were to break out following an American withdrawal, Baghdad might even feel compelled to call in Iranian troops. At a minimum, Iran could be left with enormous influence over, if not outright control of, the Iraqi government and its security forces. Access to Iraqi air space would give Iran a direct resupply corridor to Syria, and, through Syria, to Hizbullah. A ground presence could provide Tehran with a direct ground link — call it the Ayatollah Khomeini Trail — assuming the Kurds could be bought off and/or intimidated, or the Sunni belt pacified (one shudders to think of what that might involve.)

Presto: one Shi’a crescent to go.

The Israel situation has, um, complicated it all:

Of course, it might not actually come to this — or if it did it might not come quickly. But the fact remains that the U.S. Army is the only significant force standing between Iran and it’s closest allies, and thus between Iran and Israel. If, as it now seems, Washington and Jerusalem both perceive Iran as the primary threat (and/or target for aggression) in the region, then there is no real distinction between America’s occupation of Iraq and Israel’s intended re-occupation of southern Lebanon. They are, in essence, both part of the next war.

It seems increasingly probable that that war will come soon — perhaps as early as November or December, although more likely next year. Israel’s failure to knock out Hizbullah with a rapid first strike has left the neocons even deeper in the hole, enormously ratcheting up the pressure to try to recoup all losses by taking the war to Damascus and Tehran.

In other words, it’s almost time for the ultimate “flight forward” — the one that finally pushes the Middle East into World War III.

You’ll like this — Sidney Blumenthal writes in Salon,

The National Security Agency is providing signal intelligence to Israel to monitor whether Syria and Iran are supplying new armaments to Hezbollah as it fires hundreds of missiles into northern Israel, according to a national security official with direct knowledge of the operation. President Bush has approved the secret program.

Inside the administration, neoconservatives on Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security staff and Elliott Abrams, the neoconservative senior director for the Near East on the National Security Council, are prime movers behind sharing NSA intelligence with Israel, and they have discussed Syrian and Iranian supply activities as a potential pretext for Israeli bombing of both countries, the source privy to conversations about the program says. (Intelligence, including that gathered by the NSA, has been provided to Israel in the past for various purposes.) The neoconservatives are described as enthusiastic about the possibility of using NSA intelligence as a lever to widen the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah and Israel and Hamas into a four-front war.

While the much-derided Condi Rice muddles ahead with something that might resemble a foreign policy if you squint and cross your eyes when you look at it, the neocons are actively trying to marginalize her. Condi mostly has been buying time for the Israelis to continue to bomb Lebanon,

But the neocon scenario extends far beyond that objective to pushing Israel into a “cleansing war” with Syria and Iran, says the national security official, which somehow will redeem Bush’s beleaguered policy in the entire region.

Of course, it’s desirable to get the American people on board with the program. Back to Billmon:

A number of wealthy pro-Israel donors, including Ronald Lauder, the perfume heir, have given millions to something called the Israel Project — a “public education” cum PR cum grassroots lobbying machine — to fund a program specifically aimed at building support for a military strike on Iran. You can’t turn on Fox News these days without finding James Woolsey or Newt Gingrich or Bill Kristol or some other pro-Israel mouthpiece demanding war with Syria and/or Iran, and painting it as the only way to stop the rockets falling on Haifa.

Billmon writes that even if the Dems finally speak out against Iraq, he predicts they will remain loyal spear carriers for Israel.

I don’t want rockets falling on Haifa, and I believe most Americans don’t want rockets falling on Haifa. But at some point the American people need to have a serious discussion about how far we’re willing to go, and how much of our own security we’re willing to risk, to keep rockets from falling on Haifa. And, especially after more than three years in Iraq, I think many Americans could be ready to establish some boundaries.

It’s true that the latest Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll shows that Americans think recent Israeli actions in Lebanon are justified, 59 to 28 percent, with 13 percent unsure. 50 percent of Americans believe the U.S. should remain aligned with Israel, although a hefty minority, 44 percent, think the U.S. should be neutral. None of the poll questions mentioned risk or cost, however. None of them asked Would you still support Israel if you knew that Israel’s actions are making the security situation in Iraq even worse? If it means drawing the United States into war with Iran and Syria? If it means inspiring new and better armed groups of jihadists to attack the U.S.? Are you willing to risk your life, or the lives of your loved ones, to keep rockets from falling on Haifa?

Of course, we’re not going to have that conversation, except perhaps on the blogosphere.

The President of the United States is lost in space. The Vice President and Secretary of Defense are delusional. The Secretary of State is incompetent. Republicans in Congress are yes men. A few Dems are finally standing up against the last war — the one started three years ago — but it’s unlikely they’ll stand in the way of the next war.

James Fallows’s article — again, written before the Israel-Lebanon conflict began — ends on a hopeful note. He says this is an ideal time to declare victory in the “war on terror” and launch realistic and practical policies for long-term security and anti-terrorism efforts. Too bad that won’t happen.

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Bush Administration, Middle East

A bit of an exchange among Todd Purdum, Kate O‘Beirne, and Mike Barnicle on Wednesday night’s Hardball:

BARNICLE: One of the themes in your “Vanity Fair” magazine piece this month, the presidents 41 and 43, both Bushes, is the streak of stubbornness that is akin to both of them. This stubbornness, apparently this is stay the course all the way in Iraq.

PURDUM: It does seem a little bit like stay the course. And of course in some ways, stubbornness is a very admirable quality and both Bushes got where they are because they are stubborn and they are willing to fight against the odds and prove the smart money wrong.

But this feels so much more in a way something like Lyndon Johnson or a slow, steady drip, drip, drip in which it‘s impossible to get any other good news and there are glimmers of good news here and there, to get any traction because of the ongoing drain of the war. It colors everything.

O‘BEIRNE: Of course, one man‘s stubbornness is another man‘s resolve frankly and one thing the people have admired about George Bush, and I think Republican rank and file continue to admire it, is his resolve when it comes to fighting this threat we face.

Oh, yes, resolve. President Bush is one resolved man. He is like a rock in a storm; nothing moves him.

So let’s see how the President is applying this resolve — Condi has been dispatched to do the diplomacy thing; this week the President decided to focus on his domestic agenda. No, seriously. Peter Baker of the Washington Post reported that last Sunday the President went on a bicycle ride and hosted a children’s T-ball game on the South Lawn. Then he flew to Florida to have dinner with “community leaders” who turned out to be “a bunch of former Miami Dolphins football players, an actor and the flamboyant host of a raunchy and ribald Spanish-language variety show,” according to Dan Froomkin. Tuesday he had his annual physical. Wednesday he was in Ohio meeting with “firefighters and other rescuers who helped flood victims in Lake County.” He also attended a fundraising dinner for gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell. Thursday he flew to Texas and delivered a speech on immigration reform. Today he’s at the ranch, beginning his August vacation.

But what’s this — he’s only going to be on vacation for ten days this year? Not the whole month? Does that mean he’s going to do some work this August?

White House press secretary Tony Snow says Bush is taking a shorter break not because of criticism but because he has other things to do, including campaigning for Republican candidates in the fall elections, pushing for immigration reform and attending a family wedding in Kennebunkport, Maine.

OK, never mind.

Meanwhile, back in Iraq

American generals have laid bare the facts: Baghdad is on the brink of chaos, and the specter of all-out civil war looms. …

… The stakes could not be higher: The fate of the U.S. mission in Iraq is on the line as fighting in Lebanon to the west and the rise of a militant Iran to the east threaten American interests throughout the Middle East.

Without a firm grip on Baghdad, the U.S. and its Iraqi allies cannot control the country. But Baghdad’s diverse population of Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkomen and Christians makes for a volatile mix as the country’s religious and ethnic groups compete for power in the new Iraq. All the tensions that threaten to tear the country apart play themselves out in Baghdad.

As I mentioned this morning, Shiites in Baghdad held a huge anti-American and anti-Israel rally. Anger at Israel’s bombing of Lebanon is driving Iraq into further chaos, as many predicted. Violence in Lebanon increases. Shit is, um, happening.

President Bush delegated foreign policy to his Secretary of State and went on vacation. President Bush is totally dissociated with whatever is happening in the Middle East. This isn’t resolve; it’s pathology.

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Good New, Bad News, Part I

Bush Administration, Iraq War, Middle East, National Security, War on Terror

From James Fallows’s new article in the current issue of Atlantic Online (emphasis added):

No modern nation is immune to politically inspired violence, and even the best-executed antiterrorism strategy will not be airtight.

But the overall prospect looks better than many Americans believe, and better than nearly all political rhetoric asserts. The essence of the change is this: because of al-Qaeda’s own mistakes, and because of the things the United States and its allies have done right, al-Qaeda’s ability to inflict direct damage in America or on Americans has been sharply reduced. Its successor groups in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere will continue to pose dangers. But its hopes for fundamentally harming the United States now rest less on what it can do itself than on what it can trick, tempt, or goad us into doing. Its destiny is no longer in its own hands.

“Does al-Qaeda still constitute an ‘existential’ threat?” asks David Kilcullen, who has written several influential papers on the need for a new strategy against Islamic insurgents. Kilcullen, who as an Australian army officer commanded counter-insurgency units in East Timor, recently served as an adviser in the Pentagon and is now a senior adviser on counterterrorism at the State Department. He was referring to the argument about whether the terrorism of the twenty-first century endangers the very existence of the United States and its allies, as the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons did throughout the Cold War (and as the remnants of that arsenal still might).

“I think it does, but not for the obvious reasons,” Kilcullen told me. He said the most useful analogy was the menace posed by European anarchists in the nineteenth century. “If you add up everyone they personally killed, it came to maybe 2,000 people, which is not an existential threat.” But one of their number assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The act itself took the lives of two people. The unthinking response of European governments in effect started World War I. “So because of the reaction they provoked, they were able to kill millions of people and destroy a civilization.

“It is not the people al-Qaeda might kill that is the threat,” he concluded. “Our reaction is what can cause the damage. It’s al-Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger.”

That’s a point I attempted to make on C-SPAN last February. There’s aren’t enough jihadists in the world to invade and occupy the United States and destroy our government and our military. Only we can do that.

And I say we’re doing a heck of a job.

Fallows interviewed a number of experts — some from military intelligence, some from academia — to understand exactly where we are now, antiterrorism-wise. The essential point of Fallows article is that, although the threat of terrorist attacks in the U.S. remains, there is reason for optimism. In some ways America is safer, he says.

However, as I read the article it struck me that, in just about every area where problems remain, the Bush Administration is heading in the wrong direction.

The good news: The experts that Fallows interviewed say that the old al Qaeda, the one that existed on September 11, no longer has operational ability. Among jihadists Osama bin Laden is not much more than a “Che Guevara–like” symbol. What we have now is “a global proliferation of ‘self-starter’ terrorist groups.” These groups certainly can inflict damage — the London and Madrid bombings, for example — but they lack the resources and organizational ability to pull off another September 11. This, some speculate, is the primary reason there hasn’t been another terrorist attack in the U.S. since.

At the moment about the only way a terrorist group could equal or top September 11 is with a nuclear weapon. And “if nuclear weapons constitute the one true existential threat,” the experts say, “then countering the proliferation of those weapons themselves is what American policy should address, more than fighting terrorism in general.”

Naturally, the Bush Administration has taken a different approach.

The Department of Homeland Security, on the other hand, is, um, probably not the reason there hasn’t been another terrorist attack in the U.S. since. “Indeed, nearly all emphasized the haphazard, wasteful, and sometimes self-defeating nature of the DHS’s approach,” Fallows writes.

Muslim Americans are another reason we’ve been terrorist-attack free for almost five years.

“The patriotism of the American Muslim community has been grossly underreported,” says Marc Sageman, who has studied the process by which people decide to join or leave terrorist networks. According to Daniel Benjamin, a former official on the National Security Council and coauthor of The Next Attack, Muslims in America “have been our first line of defense.” Even though many have been “unnerved by a law-enforcement approach that might have been inevitable but was still disturbing,” the community has been “pretty much immune to the jihadist virus.”

Something about the Arab and Muslim immigrants who have come to America, or about their absorption here, has made them basically similar to other well-assimilated American ethnic groups—and basically different from the estranged Muslim underclass of much of Europe. … most measures of Muslim disaffection or upheaval in Europe—arrests, riots, violence based on religion—show it to be ten to fifty times worse than here.

Muslims in Europe are not always economically disadvantaged. They just don’t assimilate:

The difference between the European and American assimilation of Muslims becomes most apparent in the second generation, when American Muslims are culturally and economically Americanized and many European Muslims often develop a sharper sense of alienation. “If you ask a second-generation American Muslim,” says Robert Leiken, author of Bearers of Global Jihad: Immigration and National Security After 9/11, “he will say, ‘I’m an American and a Muslim.’ A second-generation Turk in Germany is a Turk, and a French Moroccan doesn’t know what he is.”

We have a lot more experience with assimilating people here, of course. Yet we cannot be complacent. Anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. is up (thanks loads, Ms. Malkin) and extreme views can be found among American Muslims. Seeing to it that the rightie hatemongers don’t screw up one of our few advantages ought to be a priority.

There’s another gain against terrorism that we’re in the process of losing. In most Muslim countries support for jihadist violence among “civilian” populations has eroded —

“Like Tourette’s syndrome, they keep killing Muslim civilians,” says Peter Bergen. “That is their Achilles’ heel. Every time the bombs go off and kill civilians, it works in our favor. It’s a double whammy when the civilians they kill are Muslims.” Last November, groups directed by al-Zarqawi set off bombs in three hotels in Amman, Jordan. Some sixty civilians were killed, including thirty-eight at a wedding. The result was to turn Jordanian public opinion against al-Qaeda and al-Zarqawi, and to make the Jordanian government more openly cooperative with the United States.

Israel’s attacks on Lebanon blew that one out of the water, I’m afraid. We had already blown it in Iraq —

There, insurgents have slaughtered civilians daily, before and after the death this spring of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. But since American troops are also assumed to be killing civilians, the anti-insurgent backlash is muddied.

In fact, according to Caleb Carr, the only thing that keeps al Qaeda alive at all is Iraq.

Back to the original point:

In the modern brand of terrorist warfare, what an enemy can do directly is limited. The most dangerous thing it can do is to provoke you into hurting yourself.

This is what David Kilcullen meant in saying that the response to terrorism was potentially far more destructive than the deed itself. And it is why most people I spoke with said that three kinds of American reaction—the war in Iraq, the economic consequences of willy-nilly spending on security, and the erosion of America’s moral authority—were responsible for such strength as al-Qaeda now maintained.

“You only have to look at the Iraq War to see how much damage you can do to yourself by your response,” Kilcullen told me. He is another of those who supported the war and consider it important to fight toward some kind of victory, but who recognize the ways in which this conflict has helped al-Qaeda. So far the war in Iraq has advanced the jihadist cause because it generates a steady supply of Islamic victims, or martyrs; because it seems to prove Osama bin Laden’s contention that America lusts to occupy Islam’s sacred sites, abuse Muslim people, and steal Muslim resources; and because it raises the tantalizing possibility that humble Muslim insurgents, with cheap, primitive weapons, can once more hobble and ultimately destroy a superpower, as they believe they did to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan twenty years ago. The United States also played a large role in thwarting the Soviets, but that doesn’t matter. For mythic purposes, mujahideen brought down one anti-Islamic army and can bring down another. …

… “Many believe that the United States, bloodied and exhausted by the insurgency, stripped of its allies, will eventually withdraw,” Brian Jenkins writes of the jihadist view. From that perspective, “this defeat alone could bring about the collapse of the United States, just as collapse followed the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan.

The rest of the article catalogues the many ways the war in Iraq is hurting the United States and helping jihadists. And time and time again, the Bush Administration follows Osama bin Laden’s original game plan. We fell into bin Laden’s trap, in other words. And even though bin Laden himself is not reaping the benefits, other jihadists certainly are. Staying in Iraq will continue to drain the United States and strengthen jihad. There are serious perils to leaving, also. There’s no happy remedy to the mess Bush made.

But the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate. The Associated Press reports:

Hundreds of thousands of Shiites chanting “Death to Israel” and “Death to America” marched through the streets of Baghdad’s biggest Shiite district today in a show of support for Hezbollah militants battling Israeli troops in Lebanon. …

…Al-Sadr followers painted U.S. and Israeli flags on the main road leading to the rally site, and demonstrators stepped on them — a gesture of contempt in Iraq. Alongside the painted flags was written: “These are the terrorists.”

Protesters set fire to American and Israeli flags, as well as effigies of President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, showing the men with Dracula teeth. “Saddam and Bush, Two Faces of One Coin” was scrawled on Bush’s effigy.

The Shiites were the people we “liberated,” remember.

I’ve got more to say about Iraq and the James Fallows article, but I’ll say it this afternoon.

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