Following up the last couple of posts, on deteriorating conditions in Iraq — Sidney Blumenthal writes in Salon (via True Blue Liberal):
This latest â€œturning pointâ€ reveals an Iraqi state without a social contract, a government without a center, a prime minister without power and an American president without a strategy. Each sectarian group maintains its own militia. Each leaderâ€™s influence rests on these armed bands, separate armies of tens of thousands of men. The militias have infiltrated and taken over key units of the Iraqi army and local police, using them as death squads, protection rackets and deterrent forces against enemies. Reliable statistics are impossible, but knowledgeable reporters estimate there are about 40 assassinations a day in Iraq. Ethnic cleansing is sweeping the country. From Kirkuk in the north to Baghdad in the middle to Basra in the south, Kurds are driving out Turkmen and Arabs, Shiites are killing Sunnis, and the insurgency enjoys near unanimous support among Sunnis.
So what does Bush have to say about it?
In his speech on Monday referring to another â€œturning point,â€ President Bush twice spoke of â€œvictory.â€ â€œVictoryâ€ is the constant theme he has adopted since last summer, when he hired public opinion specialist Peter Feaver for the National Security Council. Feaverâ€™s research claims that the public will sustain military casualties so long as it is persuaded that they will lead to â€œvictory.â€ Bush clings to this P.R. formula to explain, at least to himself, the decline of his political fortunes. â€œBecause weâ€™re at war, and war unsettles people,â€ he said in an interview with NBC News last week. To make sense of the disconcerting war, he imposes his familiar framework of us vs. them, â€œthe enemyâ€ who gets â€œon your TV screen by killing innocent peopleâ€ against himself.
In his Monday speech, Bush reverted yet again to citing Sept. 11, 2001, as the ultimate justification for the Iraq war. Defiant in the face of terrorists, he repeated whole paragraphs from his 2004 campaign stump speech. â€œThatâ€™s just the lessons of September the 11th that I refuse to forget,â€ he said. Stung by the dissent of the former commanders of the U.S. Army in Iraq who have demanded the firing of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Bush reassured the audience that he listens to generals. â€œI make my mind up based not upon politics or political opinion polls, but based upon what the commanders on the ground tell me is going on,â€ he said.
Yet currently serving U.S. military commanders have been explicitly telling him for more than two years, and making public their view, that there is no purely military solution in Iraq. For example, Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. commander, said on April 12, 2004: â€œThere is not a purely U.S. military solution to any of the particular problems that weâ€™re facing here in Iraq today.â€
In defending the war, righties like to point to the alleged high-minded goals. What is it about bringing democracy to the Middle East you don’t like? they sneer. And, y’know, I’m fine with democracy in the Middle East. I’m sure that Condi and Dick and crew are right that if Iraq and other nations of the Middle East were to become stable and democratic the whole world would benefit. The catch is that this is not the sort of goal that lends itself to a purely military solution. If, indeed, one nation could lead another nation — a nation on the other side of the world with a hugely different culture — to democracy, I suspect the way to do it is through the slow, patient work of cultural, economic, and political diplomacy. But the Bushies figured they could do the job a lot quicker through a purely military solution. All they had to do was invade and destroy the current government, and the Iraqis naturally would revert to the universal default form of government, democracy.
What the Bushies didn’t realize is that people of other cultures have very different notions of what is default.
At this point the rightie is dancing around, yelling what about Japan? Well, what about it? I realize that American popular history says 1940s Japan was a monarchy until General MacArthur gave them a democratic constitution and a representative government, but that is not exactly so. First, the role of the Japanese emperor before the war was not analogous to that of a European king; he had influence, but political power rested in an oligarchy made up of the ruling class. Emperor Hirohito didn’t have much to do with governing Japan, even though on paper he was the sovereign.
In the 1920s political power in Japan shifted away from the nobility and toward its elected parliament — yes, I said elected parliament — and democratic political parties. The democratically elected parliament had been established by a constitution adopted in 1889.
In the 1930s the military establishment — men who advocated purely military solutions — came to power and began to call the shots. Literally. And a few years later Japan was utterly crushed.
The postwar constitution, adopted in 1947, gave sovereignty to the people and guaranteed basic civil liberties for the first time in Japan. But as a practical matter the form of government the Japanese enjoyed after World War II was not as different from what they had before as Americans imagine.
There are myriad other distinctions, such as the fact that the Japanese had a unified national/cultural identity that Iraqis lack. After the war the Japanese people could still look to their own emperor as their symbolic head of state. And I suspect the Confucian/Buddhist ethical sensibilities imported long before from China made a huge difference as well, although that’s too complex a topic to take on right now. But the larger point is that the United States did not introduce representative government to Japan for the first time and turn a monarchy into a democracy. And without Japan, examples of totalitarian nations successfully forced to become democratic by another nation, through a purely military solution, are mighty hard to come by.
Newsweek reported this week that the U.S. military, in fact, is no longer pursuing a strategy for â€œvictory.â€ â€œIt is consolidating to several â€˜superbasesâ€™ in hopes that its continued presence will prevent Iraq from succumbing to full-flown civil war and turning into a failed state. Pentagon strategists admit they have not figured out how to move to superbases, as a way of reducing the pressureâ€”and casualtiesâ€”inflicted on the U.S. Army, while at the same time remaining embedded with Iraqi police and military units. It is a circle no one has squared. But consolidation plans are moving ahead as a default position, and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has talked frankly about containing the spillover from Iraqâ€™s chaos in the region.â€
Yet Bush continues to declare as his goal (with encouragement from his polling expert on the NSC) the victory that the U.S. military has given up on. And he continues to wave the banner of a military solution against â€œthe enemy,â€ although this â€œenemyâ€ consists of a Sunni insurgency whose leadership must eventually be conciliated and brought into a federal Iraqi government and of which the criminal Abu Musab al-Zarqawi faction and foreign fighters are a small part.
Bushâ€™s belief in a military solution, moreover, renders moot progress on a political solution, which is the only potentially practical approach. His war on the Sunnis simply agitates the process of civil war. The entire burden of progress falls on the U.S. ambassador, whose inherent situation as representative of the occupying power inside the country limits his ability to engage in the international diplomacy that might make his efforts to bring factions together possible. Khalilzadâ€™s tentative outreach to Iran, in any case, was shut down by Washington. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for her part, finds herself in Bulgaria, instead of conducting shuttle diplomacy in Amman, Jordan; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Ankara, Turkey; and Tehran. The diplomatic vacuum intensifies the power vacuum in Iraq, exciting Bushâ€™s flights of magical thinking about victory: I speak, therefore it is.
Bush’s Iraq policy, insane as it is, makes sense to hard-core righties. It makes sense to people who divide the world into two basic groups — “Americans” and “foreigners.” It makes sense to xenophobes who believe the foreigners want nothing more than to be just like Americans. It makes sense to authoritarians who assume that the only smart way to deal with people is by force. Diplomacy is for weenies. Considering foreigners’ point of view is appeasement. Appeasement is weak. Force is strong. We are strong. Therefore, we use force.
The whole insanity of the Global War on Terror is that righties insist it must be a literal, shoot-’em-up, John Wayne landing on the beach-type war. But you send armies to fight other armies, not a tactic. If your goal is to change peoples’ hearts and minds, shooting at them seems a wrongheaded way to go about it.
Righties insist on a hard, rigid approach to fighting terrorism. But terrorism is fluid. It is not bound by territory. It perpetually seeks new channels for expressing itself. In time, what is fluid will nearly always defeat what is hard and rigid, like water wearing away a rock.
Nothing in the world is softer and weaker than water.
Yet nothing is better at attacking the hard and strong.
There is no substitute for it.
The weak overcomes the strong; the soft overcomes the hard.
Everyone knows this, but no one puts it into practice. — Tao Teh Ching, verse 78
Bush doesnâ€™t know that he canâ€™t achieve victory. He doesnâ€™t know that seeking victory worsens his prospects. He doesnâ€™t know that the U.S. military has abandoned victory in the field, though it has been reporting that to him for years. But the president has no rhetoric beyond â€œvictory.â€
Bushâ€™s chance for a quick victory in Iraq evaporated when the neoconservative fantasy collapsed almost immediately after the invasion. But the â€œmake-believeâ€ of â€œliberationâ€ that failed to provide basic security set in motion â€œfratricidal violence,â€ as Nir Rosen writes in his new book, â€œIn the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq,â€ based on firsthand observation of the developing insurgency in the vacuum created by U.S. policy.
Whether Bush is or isn’t the flaming idiot we sometimes make him out to be is a matter of opinion. But it’s plain he has a rigid mind, as well as a lazy one. And, I suspect, his thinking remains parochial — he views the world through the prism of American national politics. What is actually happening in Iraq may interest him less than the war’s value to him in political capital. In that sense, what the American people think is happening in Iraq is the only relevant reality.
On May 15, Karl Rove, Bushâ€™s chief political advisor, gave a speech revealing one of his ideas about politics. â€œI think,â€ he said, â€œthereâ€™s also a great utility in looking at game changers. What are the things that will allow us to fundamentally change peopleâ€™s behavior in a different way?â€ Since Sept. 11, Rove has made plain that terrorism and war are the great game changers for Bush.
But while war may be the game changer for Bushâ€™s desire to put in place a one-party state, forge a permanent Republican majority, redefine the Constitution and the relationships of the branches of the federal government, and concentrate power in the executive, Bush has only the rhetoric of â€œvictory.â€ He has not stated what would happen the day after â€œvictory.â€ Although a victory parade would be his political nightmare, now the absence of victory is his nightmare. With every proclaimed â€œturning point,â€ â€œvictoryâ€ becomes ever more evanescent. He has no policy for victory and no politics beyond victory.
To a rightie, those who speak against purely military solutions to America’s foreign policy problems are “anti-military” and “self-loathing.” We liberals, they think, oppose the “very defense of the world’s one true beacon of freedom. … we do not own that freedom but are tasked with her defense and care by default.”
We liberals think that shredding the Constitution and allowing the chief executive to take on unlimited power and operate in near total secrecy is not the smart way to defend freedom. We think sending our mighty military halfway around the world to get bogged down in sand is not a smart way to defend the nation. Righties cannot understand that our problem is not with their high-minded goals, but with their stupid solutions.