Bagh Blog
Tuesday, May 25, 2004
  Andrew Sullivan writes:

What I'm saying, I guess, is that as long as the anti-war critics continue relentless negativism without any constructive alternative, they will soon lose the debate. Americans want to know how to move this war forward, not why we shouldn't have started it in the first place. Right now, the president has the best plan for making this work. What does anyone else have?

It's important to draw a distinction between the political debate over Iraq and the intellecual debate over Iraq. Sullivan's right that Democrats hoping to defeat Bush this fall can't simply throw up their hands, declare the whole Iraq enterprise a disaster, and hope the public ditches Bush for getting us into a mess. Especially since they've chosen a candidate who voted for the war, Democrats are obligated to tell the public what went wrong, what they would have done differently, and what their plan is for moving forward.

But, at the risk of playing mopey Jimmy Carter to Sullivan's optimistic Ronald Reagan, why should an intellectual analyzing the war begin from the premise that there is a "constructive alternative" to the president's proposals? It's at least possible that all our options are bad. Maybe the entire war was a mistake, because it was never possible to create a stable and democratic Iraq through invasion. Alternatively, maybe the president has made mistakes that have doomed the enterprise. If either of these things is true, proposing a plan to compete with the president's is beside the point. The anti-war side will inevitably win the debate as reality proves its position correct.

I'll cop to having an easier job than the president's. I can just catalogue problems and wonder how they can be solved. President Bush is in the unenviable position of having to take action. We both supported the war. He's obligated to deal with the consequences of that position, while I'm free to switch sides and start criticizing my previous opinions as ill-considered.

I didn't tune in to the president's speech looking for reasons to sneer at him or to abandon Iraq. I was hoping he'd have better answers to the questions I've been asking than I've been able to come up with. For once I didn't watch a political speech hoping to hear my own ideas read back to me, or expecting to disagree with someone on the other side of an issue. I am willing to be led by the president, and to support a clear policy that can bring security and democracy to Iraq. But, to continue my relenteless negativism without any constructive alternative, I ask (in no particular order, just off the top of my head):

1. What steps will we take to ensure the stability of a fledgling democracy in a country deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines?

2. What evidence do we have that Iraqis share our convictions that there can be free and fair elections in Iraq, and that such elections will confer legitimacy on the new government?

3. What evidence do we have that the security forces of a sovereign Iraqi government will be more powerful than the militias--Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish--we have failed to disband and are now accomodating?

4. Will an American or an Iraqi have ultimate responsibility for security within Iraq after June 30, and will US forces vacate the country immediately if asked to do so by the Iraqi government?

5. What authority will Americans have to craft, implement and veto Iraqi laws after June 30?

Until the Bush Administration offers a plan that deals in specifics, I don't feel particularly obligated to advance a counter-proposal. The focus on wished-for objectives, rather than concrete steps to acheive that objective, indicates to me that the president and his aides are just as baffled about how to proceed as the rest of us. 
Wednesday, May 19, 2004
  I give William Safire credit for audacity.

He writes today that "defeatists" are peddling "Four Noes" about the Iraq war:

The first "no" is no stockpiles of W.M.D., used to justify the war, were found. With the qualifier "so far" left out, the absence of evidence is taken to be evidence of absence. In weeks or years to come β€” when the pendulum has swung, and it becomes newsworthy to show how cut-and-runners in 2004 were mistaken β€” logic suggests we will see a rash of articles and blockbuster books to that end.

No one is immune, I guess, to being a bit smug when they're proven right. But Safire doesn't seem to have the patience to wait--he just asserts that future events will prove him right, and proceeds to be smug about that. At the risk of introducing nuance into the conversation: I wouldn't be surprised at all if someone discovers stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons hidden somewhere in Iraq--I was absolutely floored that they didn't turn up last summer.

But no one--including David Kay, once the tough-minded alternative to UN push-overs, now derided as the American Hans Blix--has turned up any evidence that such stockpiles exist. No Iraqi scientists have come forward to state their role in weapons programs, but some have come forward to say those programs were discontinued years ago. The Iraqi exiles who fed WMD evidence to US intelligence have been disowned by the US government, and Ahmad Chalabi has conferred hero status upon himself for his role in the deception. Everyone except the Times seems to be admitting that, whether or not weapons are ever found, the intelligence used to build the case for war was faulty at best.

Safire's protestations that Zarqawi's presence in Iraq proves a connection between Saddam and al Qaeda has already been demolished by Spencer Ackerman. NBC, as Slate notes, has reported that the Bush Administration had opportunities to smash Zarqawi's terror camps in Iraq months before the war, but chose instead to leave them in place--the better to argue that Saddam was harboring terrorists.

No more convincing is Safire's assertion that "defeatists" are claiming that the American abuses at Abu Ghraib are equal to Saddam's human rights abuses, and that the US has therefore lost the human-rights high ground. Having set his straw man alight Safire moves on, but this is actually important. Whether you buy Seymour Hersh's reporting or not, it cannot be dismissed out of hand. It calls into question Safire's assertion that the abuses can be blamed on "a few of our guards." At the very least the United States government implemented policies after Sept. 11 designed to block international oversight of American detention and interrogation of terror suspects. Even before the prison scandal broke, one could fairly have asked why blocking such oversight would be necessary if prisoners were being treated in accordance with international law. I didn't ask that question before the prison scandal broke, and neither did Safire. Reconsideration, not self-congratulation, is in order.

Part of the bad reputation we're earning in the Arab world is related to this insistence that the torture was not institutional and is antithetical to the "American" way of doing things. In other words, when an Arab dictator tortures his citizens, it indicates a rot in the political culture that warrants invasion. When Americans torture Arabs, it's actually a stirring example of American virtue--after all, we're going to throw the people responsible in prison. Except we're not--Donald Rumsfeld went in front of Congress and said, on television, that he was responsible. A few days later the Vice President lauded him as the best Secretary of Defense ever, and the President said he was doing a superb job. Of course, one might protest, when Rumsfeld said he was responsible he didn't really mean he was responsible. Perhaps we should look forward to the day when Iraqi political culture is sophisticated enough to understand the distinction.

In any case, Safire's deluded if he thinks any sizable segment of the American intellectual or media community is saying the US is as bad as Saddam's Iraq. The real question is how the scandal makes us look in the Arab world. It makes us look bad, and our response to the scandal--exemplified by Safire's instinct for self-congratulation--is making us look like hypocrites.

He finishes up by saying that "defeatists" believe that "no Arab nation is culturally ready for political freedom and our attempt to impose democracy in Iraq is arrogant Wilsonian idealism." Safire believes that, at some point in the future, this "position" will be seen as "an ignoble ethnic-racist slur." Of course, Safire isn't quite audacious enough to claim that there will be an Iraqi democracy. Even though he's looking to a glorious future in which he's been proven right, all he can muster is the assertion that "Iraqis will gain the power, with our help, to put down the terrorists and find their own brand of political equilibrium." Put aside the question of how Safire can tar his opponents as racists in one breath and then turn around and claim that Iraqis need our help to find "their own" brand of political equilibrium. I'm more interested in another bit of weaseling. What's this talk of "political equilibrium"? I thought we were there to create a democracy.

I've written at length about the problems I've seen in Iraq that make me doubt that the American project in Iraq will result in democracy. Much of this writing is full of ignoble ethnic-racist slurs, so browse the archives at your peril. I can at least say that I've tried to let what I've seen and what I've learned influence my opinions, while Safire seems to be a master of doing the opposite. 
Thursday, May 13, 2004
  I read tonight that Nick Berg, decapitated in Iraq, stayed at the Finar Hotel in Baghdad for a few days at the beginning of April. When I arrived in Baghdad in January I met my friends Jeff and Ray for the first time on the street in front of Checkpoint Three (down the street from the more colorfully named and more frequently bombed Assassin's Gate). I was getting out of a cab, they came over to catch it, and they told me the Convention Center, where I'd planned to register with the US Consul, was already closed. Instead I joined them for a sunset boat ride down the Tigris (some folks might remember a photo from this ride in which I'm brandishing a cigarette lighter that looked exactly like a pistol).

We wound up at the Finar bar after that, where we bumped into Sketchy Dave. Long-time followers of my misadventures will remember tales of Sketchy Dave trying to kick down doors at the Sheraton Hotel, Sketchy Dave trying to enlist me, Jeff and Ray to help him steal a laptop from the Sheraton lobby, and Sketchy Dave fleeing Baghdad when it became clear his ex-landlords were looking to kill him for skipping out on his rent (all this within maybe five days of our first meeting). The night I met him, though, he seemed like a charming enough guy and the four of us were thinking about getting an apartment together.

That's when Andrew Robert Duke, an entrepreneur from Boulder, overheard us and said he knew a guy who could get us a place. His spiel ended with the promise, "I can even get you pork chops." Duke is one of the friendliest guys I've ever met, and it's his biggest asset. He seems to have met everyone in Iraq, and I remember another night when I sat at a table in the Finar with Duke, an American expat who'd lived in the Philippines for decades, and a couple Englishmen whose Britannic reserve floated precariously on an ocean of gin. There was some unguarded talk about attempts to influence politics in the Caucasus through assassination.

I spent a couple weeks in Baghdad before I found the expat community. It's a different scene from the community of journalists. Journalists don't have to explain themselves--they're supposedly in Iraq for the story. It's a good cover for whatever personal reasons bring them to places like Baghdad. One of the wonderful things I found in Baghdad in January was the variety of Americans and westerners who were there for absurd, dubious and glorious reasons. Jeff and Ray have funded trips to around 100 countries partly with money from an unlicensed t-shirt business (they made hundreds of thousands of dollars by selling "YANKEES SUCK" shirts outside Fenway Park). They wanted to compare the occupation of Iraq to the occupation of the West Bank, which they'd seen first-hand for several months. Duke is a businessman--a key part of the largest private donation of meat to Iraq, a player in the revamping of the power grid. Sketchy Dave... well, he's a pathological liar, a guy who claimed to be an AFP photographer while browsing the internet looking for photos to steal for his portfolio. He narrowly avoided a thrashing at the hands of Jeff and Ray when he stole Jeff's towel on his way out of Baghdad.

The government said it warned Berg to leave Iraq. You have also been warned to leave Iraq. Andrew Sullivan, whose combination of confidence and thoughtfulness I respect, scoffs at the idea that Berg's execution can shake American resolve: "They think they terrify us by this? The gang-murder of an unarmed, innocent civilian?" He's right that it won't terrify America, as embodied by its government and its military. But as a civilian bound again for Iraq early next month, I can't say I'm so sanguine. I enjoy hanging out with expats for selfish reasons--they're interesting and they're sources for stories. But I had a sense in January that they were also important to the resurrection of Iraqi civil society. They were an example (for better or worse) of Americanism separate from the military and the CPA. They were Americans on a human scale, not encased in armor and laden with assault rifles.

Now expats are being forced into the same fortresses that protect employees of the American government. Aid agencies and journalists are similarly handicapped. There's apparently a lot of phone journalism being conducted from Baghdad hotel rooms these days. A couple American freelancers I knew in Baghdad are heading elsewhere in the Middle East, partly because the security situation has made it difficult to work. Terrorizing American civilians in Iraq doesn't have to drive out the US military to be successful. Right now it's successfully isolating Americans of goodwill from the Iraqi people. That, and not the possibility that Americans will be targeted because of the torture of Iraqi prisoners, may be the real import of the scandal. More and more, Iraqis will know Americans only to the extent that they come into contact with the occupation, or else through the media. Pick your poison. 
Monday, May 10, 2004
  Spencer Ackerman of The New Republic and Mackubin Thomas Owens of National Review are debating whether Iraq is circling the bowl and, if so, whether errors made by President Bush are the problem. The whole thing is interesting, but I was struck by this passage of Owens':

The fact is, the enemy has adapted his approach to ours, and we have had to adapt to him in turn. The war originally envisioned by some, a repeat of Desert Storm, evolved into something else. It is a tribute to our military at all levels that they have been able to adapt to these changes.

[Prussian General Helmuth von Moltke's] observations apply to what happened, and continues to happen, in Iraq. The commander, wrote Moltke in a riff on Clausewitz, must keep his objective in mind, "undisturbed by the vicissitudes of events."

He continued,

"But the path on which he hopes to reach it can never be firmly established in advance. Throughout the campaign he must make a series of decisions on the basis of situations that cannot be foreseen. The successive acts of war are thus not premeditated designs, but on the contrary are spontaneous acts guided by military measures. Everything depends on penetrating the uncertainty of veiled situations to evaluate the facts, to clarify the unknown, to make decisions rapidly, and then to carry them out with strength and constancy."

A look at every war in history validates Moltke's observation.

Much of our problem in understanding what is going on in Iraq stems from atrocious reporting. This is not a call for the press to whitewash the news, but some context would help. One can only imagine how the modern press would report the carnage on Omaha Beach 60 years ago next month.

The fog of war, as Clausewitz pointed out, makes military decision-making difficult, and long-term predictions next to impossible. Owens is right that we shouldn't be alarmed just because we find ourselves in a conflict unlike the one we'd expected (we hadn't expected to still be involved in a conflict, but that's another story). Despite the rise of violence over the past month and a half, the US military is in no danger of losing Iraq to insurgents on the battlefield.

But Clausewitz also wrote that warfare is the continuation of politics by other means--that military action should serve some identifiable political end. This is one reason the comparison to Omaha Beach is inexact. Omaha Beach was bloody and did not go according to plan. But the problems there (which Owens details in his post) were tactical and had been overcome by sundown on D-Day. Omaha Beach was a successful component of a spectacularly successful plan that served the clear end of inflicting military defeat on Nazi Germany.

What political end is served by the current fighting in Iraq? If the answer is that we're fighting for a peaceful and democratic Iraq, there should be some evidence that the United States is pursuing a political strategy that is both practical and likely to result in peace and democracy. The evidence is scant. Over the past year we've seen an inability to understand Iraqi culture, multiple changes of course, no clear plan for completing the revolutionary transition from tribalism and totalitarianism to liberal democratic federalism, and a growing belief among Iraqis that we're both incompetent and don't have their interests at heart.

The importance of Iraqi opinion is another problem with using Omaha Beach--or any World War II analogy--to defend shifting tactics in Iraq. World War II was remarkable for the ferocious willingness of all the major powers involved to suffer military casualties and slaughter enemy civilians (there is no moral equivalence between Allied and Nazi tactics, but we should not forget that British and American strategic bombing killed around 600,000 German civilians, including over 100,000 children). The struggle was existential and remaking the internal politics of vanquished foes was a secondary concern. Not so in Iraq. Arguments like Owens' may convince Americans that the casualties it's suffering are worth it, but those arguments are less likely to resonate with Iraqis and with the other Arabs who were supposed to see Iraq as a model for their own political futures.

Many, many, more innocent Iraqis than US soldiers have been killed since last spring. They've been shot by mistake by American soldiers, used by insurgents as human shields, gunned down by death squads at courthouses and on university campuses, and blown to pieces in their hotels, in front of their police stations, and at their sacred shrines. We now know that at least a few Iraqis have died while in the custody of their American torturers.

Perhaps the continuing alienation of Iraqi civilians from the United States and its goals is simply a result of tactical blunders. But at some point these small failures must begin to pile upon one another and call the overall strategy into question. Clausewitz might look at Iraq and marvel at the tactical flexibility of the US military, but he might also ask whether the violence there is serving a political end, or simply serving to perpetuate itself.

β€œThe political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and the means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes.”
Sunday, May 09, 2004
  William Kristol and Robert Kagan have an article in the Weekly Standard arguing for what seems to be the new conventional wisdom--that elections should be held in Iraq as quickly as possible. This is the key passage, describing the benefits of early elections:

First, it would change the subject. Instead of focusing on their anger at Americans, Iraqis would be compelled to begin focusing on the coming elections, where each and every Iraqi adult will have a chance to participate in shaping the future. Second, with elections coming quickly, those who continued to commit violence in Iraq would be understood to be attacking not only the United States, but also the elections process, and therefore democracy. The insurgents would be antidemocratic rather than anti-American.

All this assumes Iraqis are inspired by the prospect of a democratic Iraq, and see democracy the same way most Americans see it: as an impartial process that gives each individual and each interest group a fair shake. I hope Iraqis feel this way, but I'm wary of taking it as a given. Leading Shi'ites support "democracy," understood as a majority-rules system that will leverage Shi'ite numerical superiority into Shi'ite political supremacy. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq may support a democratic process, but, as its name suggests, its ideology and its goals for Iraq are not what Americans would recognize as democratic, let alone liberal. Sunnis could be very wary of democracy, which they may understand to be a system whereby the majority ethnic group takes political power. Lectures from American or United Nations technocrats that the Sunni insurgents are "antidemocratic" will only be persuasive if Sunnis believe democracy is a good idea.

The Kurds are a separate case, but only a tiny fraction of Arab Iraqis--those who were exiled in the West--has any first-hand experience of what democracy is. Iraqis were called out by Saddam Hussein to ratify his rule in sham elections. Iraq is currently occupied by the mistrusted military of the world's most powerful democracy. Israel, Turkey and Iran, none all that popular in Iraq, are the only countries in the region which are democratic (Iran has a fully-developed democratic process, it just gets over-ruled all the time by mullahs). In short, preaching the virtues of democracy may be a hard sell.

Terrorists and insurgents would surely attempt to disrupt any democratic process. As this piece notes, that's a no-win situation, because delaying democracy while waiting for the security situation to improve isn't a great idea either. But one proposed solution--rolling out elections only in areas that are peaceful enough to hold them--may only exacerbate the feeling of some Iraqis that they're being marginalized as some kind of American plot, or through the machinations of their political and ethnic rivals.

I don't know what the solution is. It may be early elections. But we should make sure early elections are a solution that resonates with Iraqis and fits in with Iraqi priorities, not just a solution that makes sense to Americans, and is in line with American priorities. 
Monday, May 03, 2004
  I don't know if I'm still groggy from traveling or disoriented by being out of Iraq, but I'm having trouble getting a handle on the two big stories that broke while I was hanging out in the Amman airport and sitting in coach on Turkish Airlines for 11 hours.

As far as I can tell, the United States invited an ex-Baathist general with Fallujah connections to take over (or at least take the most visible role in) the military campaign in the city. Before the whole thing fell apart it didn't seem like a terrible idea to me. We have, almost literally, tried everything else. In March the outgoing 82nd Airborne colonel in Fallujah told me that the job of the Marines would be to exploit the growing capacity of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and other American-trained security forces. He predicted a marked decline in violence in April and May. In the event, violence has ramped up and the ICDC has failed to do its job (I'll always remember the disinterest of Fallujah ICDC as the charred corpses of American contractors hung just across the Euphrates).

The second option was to forget the ICDC and simply unleash the Marines to pound the insurgents into submission. Certainly the Marines have the training and the firepower to smash the insurgency and seize the center of Fallujah. But the insurgents put up more of a fight than the military seemed to anticipate, and there seemed little point in winning a military victory if civilian casualties would alienate moderate Iraqis from the US and its Iraqi allies.

So, option three was a negotiated solution, with the city fathers acting as intermediaries between the insurgents and the US. Unfortunately (and obviously), Fallujah's political and religious leaders are either supportive of the insurgents in their midst or utterly intimidated by them, and therefore the deal the military made with local leaders was meaningless.

If you can't rely on the Iraqi forces you've trained, you can't do the job yourself, and you can't cut a deal with the enemy, what's left? Putting the campaign in the hands of a former Iraqi general who's from the area isn't the worst idea ever, assuming he's not guilty of atrocities (which is quite an assumption, I guess). But he seems to have the same problem as Fallujah's city fathers: he's unwilling, for whatever reason, to side with the coalition and say the insurgents are acting against the will of their friends and neighbors. He says, for instance, that there are no foreign fighters in Fallujah. So, he's been pushed aside.

The question isn't whether the coalition can occupy Fallujah--if it's important enough the Marines will bring their firepower and training to bear and occupy the town. The bigger problem is the perception growing among the Iraqi people that the Americans are cruel and murderous, but also weak and incompetent. Our response in Fallujah has moved down a checklist of Arab conspiracy theories (the operation itself provides propagandists with an opening to compare Iraqi to Palestine; bringing a Kurdish ICDC unit to Fallujah feeds fears that the US is favoring that minority and fomenting civil war; bringing in an ex-Baathist lends credence to rumors that the US wants to re-install Saddam or his cronies). We'll eventually figure something out, and the city will quiet down for a while. But while defeating the insurgency is important, so is inspiring Iraqis to support a fledgling democracy. Even a successful response at this point may be too little, too late.

I don't have much new to say on the humiliation and torture of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers and contractors at Abu Ghraib. I agree with the outrage everyone's expressing, so I'll talk about a few other things. Victor Davis Hansen had a pretty good article about this in the print edition of the Wall Street Journal this morning, but toward the end he warned pundits in the States not to jump to conclusions--after all, the soldiers in Iraq are the ones taking the risks. Hansen's not arguing that the alleged perpetrators should get off easy because, hey, they're in a war zone. I think he's just warning against sanctimony on the part of people who haven't experienced the stresses of living in a combat zone.

I can't speak for my friends who are still in Iraq, but I'd wager that, like me, they're more outraged by this than people in the States--in part for purely selfish reasons. It impacts the safety of Americans and other westerners in Iraq. It's easy to be glib and say, "Iraqis already believe the worst, so even if the worst is proved true it doesn't change anything." But that's simply not true. It's one thing to believe abstract conspiracy theories, and quite another to see photographs of humiliated men and dead bodies splashed across every TV station and newspaper. It's no coincidence that kidnappings and killings of western non-combatants spiked when Iraqis perceived that the US was inflicting collective punishment on the people of Fallujah. We'll soon see if the insurgents, or other thugs, decide to pay back the US for Abu Ghraib by kidnapping a few Americans and doing horrendous things to them.

It's worth noting that it's unlikely Iraqis are paying much attention to the fine distinctions the military, the CPA and some western commentators are making--distinguishing individual American soldiers from the military at large; assigning varying degrees of blame to the military police, military intelligence and the military in general; and so on.

Part of this is a local tendency to blame larger groups for the transgressions of their members, but it's also not clear that Iraqis are wrong to scoff at such distinctions. Seymour Hersh's piece in The New Yorker lays out evidence that the abuse of the prisoners was an approved tactic of the people doing the interrogating at Abu Ghraib. That would mean that torture was, at least at some level, official policy. The moral implications of this, and the implications for our moral standing to help Iraqis create a humane government, are obvious.

On a more practical level, it calls into question whether we have any damn sense. I'm not absolutely opposed to roughing up a known insurgent if doing so will certainly save lives. But what possible information is worth sexually humiliating scores of Arab men? The interrogators and the guards seem to have understood enough of local culture to understand that parading men nude in front of a woman, or forcing them into sexual poses with one another, is even more degrading for Iraqis than it would be for an American. But apparently no one paused to consider that Iraqis are unlikely to forgive and forget (even less likely than an American would be in similar circumstances); that they are likely to hold "Americans," and not particular guards or the prison staff, responsible for what happened to them; and that abusing one man means his entire extended family may turn against the coalition.

Given the stunning lack of morals and common sense on display at the prison, it's worth asking how the CPA and the top military commanders in Iraq allowed the place to operate beyond effective supervision. When you place men and women in a violent place, give them authority over foreigners who may also be geurillas or terrorists, and tell them their job is to extract information from those prisoners to save American lives, the potential for abuse is obvious. That's why it's no excuse for the CPA to claim it didn't know what was going on. That in itself is damning. 
Taxis without seatbelts, AK's without permits, and commentary without edits. A freelancer's life in Baghdad, by Charlie Crain

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