July 30, 2007

New Bazaar, Same as the Old Bazaar, But With a Dangerous Twist

Ehud Olmert: "We understand the need of the US to assist the moderate Arab states which are in one front with the US and us in the fight against Iran, and on the other hand we appreciate the renewed and re-emphasised support for Israel's military and security advantage."

Put differently, we are trying to get a US $20B arms deal through for the Saudis and other Gulfies, and to keep the Israelis on board for this program, we've agreed to ratchet up our aid to them roughly 25% to 3B/annum (from approximately 2.4B/annum, or US $30B for the next decade). Still, some Israelis are nevertheless expressing concern the U.S. (with Washington all atwitter about a "Green Curtain" descending on the region) might be overreacting to the perceived Iranian threat by perhaps altering the strategic balance in the neighborhood somewhat:

According to the proposed arms deal, Saudi Arabia will receive thousands of Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) - a low-cost guidance kit that converts existing unguided free-fall bombs into accurately guided "smart" weapons...

...Senior defense officials praised the decision to increase military aid but said that the JDAM sale to Saudi Arabia was still enough to destabilize the strategic military balance in the Middle East. The advanced weapon, these officials said, would grant Saudi Arabia the capability to accurately fire missiles at strategic sites and installations in southern Israel.

"We do not have a way to defend ourselves against this weapon," a senior Defense Ministry official said, warning that the Saudi regime could be toppled and the advanced American weaponry fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.

Meantime, the Russians are (unsurprisingly) reportedly entering the fray, though less dramatically than Washington.

A few questions that jump to mind:

1) Is Washington over-reacting to the perceived Iranian threat by pushing for such a large arms sale to Gulf players?

2) Will Gates/Rice, on their impending trip to the region, convincingly link the sale to the Saudis cooperating better on Iraq policy?

3) Does this arms sale not further elicit chuckles about our 'forward democratization' strategy and "transformation" and all the other neo-con swill and Crawford messianism we've been subjected to these past years, given that regimes typically don't come much more authoritarian than Riyadh's?


4) Will Israel's qualitative edge truly be materially impacted by this sale if it goes forward?

My answers, for what they're worth, are (1) yes; (2) no; (3) yes; and (4) no.

Don't get me wrong. I wasn't born yesterday, and I know we've been supplying arms to the Saudis and other Gulf States for a good while now, often for legitimate strategic reasons I've been supportive of. But I think this deal arguably makes us look weak to the Iranians, because in its size and the precipitous (almost Pavlovian) manner we're pursuing it it signals irrational panic vis-a-vis the Iranians. And yes, the prospective deal, viewed through the prism of Bush's breathtakingly naive neo-Wilsonianism (married to evangelical zealotry), does have us looking strategically incoherent and hypocritical here.

As for Gates & Rice, I can almost see the dialogue with the Saudi royals now (we're moving to help you with the big sale, but you have to help us in Iraq, by ceasing trouble-making such as this, etc etc.) but the issue is Iran has us in something of a cat's paw in Iraq, which makes the Saudis changing their behavior a hard sell. Let me explain. The Iranians are providing occasional support to Sadr's JAM (and splinter factions) to keep pressure on U.S. forces, but Sadr is an Iraqi nationalist who could turn on Iran, and it is quite clear that the Iranians are only using him for short term tactical reasons (Iran certainly doesn't want to make the going any easier for the U.S. in Iraq, at least not while some in the crazed Lieberman-wing in Washington are beating the war drums to begin bombing Iran). The same logic applies to Iran's purported occasional support to Sunni extremists operating in Iraq, again, they are being used for short-term purposes to make it harder for the U.S. to stabilize Iraq and therefore more credibly consider military strikes on Iran.

Aside from the obvious take-away that higher than Ambassadorial level discussions with the Iranians to allay such concerns (not to mention not having Cheney prancing about on naval carriers in the region giving threatening speeches) might lead to better security cooperation with Iran in Iraq, there is another element too infrequently commented on. That is, what's likely most important for the Iranians longer-term, is enhancing SCIRI's grip in Iraq, as well as Dawa's too. Those are the real Iranian clients (albeit to different degrees and with varying shadings per specific political actors in each of said parties), not Sadr's men, and the Saudis (who have a different view of Maliki than our President) understand this backdrop better and realize their Sunni brethren in Iraq could be imperiled once 'moderates' like Maliki better consolidate their power.

So Gates and Rice will be asking the Saudis to "help" in Iraq but, even if they were supremely talented interlocuters (which at least one of them certainly isn't), they are unfortunately coming in with strategic assumptions that belie the realities on the ground, which in turn negatively impact their credibility, and so will likely leave the Saudis rather on the unpersuaded side. This said, as we're not even really in a position to persuasively 'link' better Saudi behavior in Iraq to the prospective arms sale (because of the Iran hysteria the sale must go through in some form, and the Saudis know it), my money says the sale does indeed go forward, albeit perhaps with some Congressional tweakage (Nadler, Lantos, etc) from some players on the Hill worried about its impact on Israel.

Regardless of all the above, let's just pause for a second and wonder, is it wise to pump in USD 50B of arms sales in this manner at this time (at very least, as Egypt will want its cut, and others too), and in a region where a growing civil war in Iraq could still potentially cross borders? With varied cross-border activity looking to pick up around Iraq, whether reports of U.S. special forces planning to assist the Turks to hunt down PKK, the Saudis likely not materially reducing their support to varied Sunni actors in Iraq, the Iranians continuing to stealthfully consolidate control in portions of Iraq (in a manner that will only get the Saudis more concerned as time goes on, leading them to butress Sunni interests there even more)--are we not perhaps risking not only bungling the war but also now even the containment of it?

Time will tell, but my gut tells me the Iraq crisis gets even worse before it gets better. Look, to a fashion, this is just the same old arms bazaar, and we've been here many times before. But this is the first time a civil war was gaining steam smack in the middle of the Sunni-Shi'a divide, with us trying to bolster a Shi'a government in Iraq that will ultimately align itself with Iran likely, while arming Sunni nations abutting Iraq (not to mention the 'right' Sunni tribes in Iraq) arrayed against Iranian interests, and with a Turkish-Kurdish conflagration (and now, as Novak's piece linked above claims, with potential direct U.S. involvement) always looming as a real possibility. In short, I don't see a coherent strategy here, in fact quite the opposite, and I therefore suspect this could end in a very ugly way. But hell, thank God we've learned these past years we have tremendously experienced policy-makers at the helm who innately understand the region well and whose judgments we can bank on!

Posted by Gregory at 12:52 AM | Comments (16)

July 29, 2007

Be Afraid: A "Green Curtain" Is Descending...

I don't know precisely when or how a middle-ranking power like Iran--rivaled in its immediate neighborhood alone by the likes of Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan--has somehow metamorphosed into America's mega-foe thereby presenting us with a full-blown "Cold War II" (I kid you not, do click through the link), but apparently among a certain bien pensant Beltway set this is what passes for foreign policy deep-think these days. I know I will be accused by some alienated or disgruntled readers for engaging in foreign policy analysis via resort to heaping doses of condescension, but apart from pleading time constraints (in terms of not spelling out in more detail the bill of particulars re: why this is so absurd), really, this is one of those res ipsa type things, no?

P.S. This said, we can almost imagine an AEI scrivener, can we not, re-jiggering Churchill's famous "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton, Missouri to read: "From Gaza in the Mediterranean to Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf a green curtain has descended across the Middle East. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of the Levant and north Arabia. Beirut, Damascus, Jericho, Ramallah, Baghdad, Basra, Isfahan and Tabriz; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Iranian sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Iranian influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Teheran."

P.P.S. And then there is the irony of course, that here we are as the "Green Curtain" ominously descends (ribald fare, eh?), and we're busily helping prop up some of the key actors draping said terrifying curtain through the region. After all, who are Iran's major clients in Iraq, at the end of the day? Mahdi militia, you scream?!? Well no, more accurately, Abdelaziz al-Hakim's SCIRI and Maliki's Da'wa. Our friends of course. So even if this were Cold War II, a hilariously hyperbolic claim, we'd be botching the execution like naive imbeciles. Someone wake me up when this nightmare ends, please.

Posted by Gregory at 02:19 AM | Comments (40)

July 25, 2007

Sane Conservatives: They Still Exist

Bruce Fein, a real conservative, has been on fire recently. Witness today, in the opinion pages of the FT:

To borrow from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, upon what meat doth this our vice-president, Dick Cheney, feed that he has grown so great? Mr Cheney’s imperial vice-presidency has trampled the conservative constitutional philosophy of the Founding Fathers. He has used the law to evade checks and balances. For example, he declared himself part of the legislative branch – as president of the US Senate – to exempt his office from President George W. Bush’s order governing classified information. But days later he draped himself in the mantle of the presidency to defend the confidentiality of vice-presidential communications and claim immunity from suit for any constitutional violations.

The constitution entrusts the vice-president with a single puny chore: to preside over the Senate, without a vote except to break ties. Occupants of the vice-presidency have bewailed its insignificance. Their typical tasks have been handing out blankets after earthquakes and attending state funerals. Presidents have been characteristically jealous of their constitutional turf.

Mr Bush is a monumental exception. He entered politics not because of philosophical conviction or even a raw desire for power, but for a lack of anything better to do. His policies fluctuate like a human weather vane. Mr Bush eagerly agreed to Mr Cheney’s tacit demand that the lion’s share of the presidency be outsourced to the vice-president’s office. Unlike Mr Bush, Mr Cheney craves unchecked power....

...Chastened by his time as chief of staff in a weakened White House under President Gerald Ford after Watergate, Mr Cheney has endeavoured to aggrandise the executive at the expense of Congress and the judiciary. He has urged the people to trust the Cheney-Bush duumvirate to act wisely and benevolently.

But what about the Iraqi quagmire; Abu Ghraib; the National Security Agency’s unrestricted spying on Americans in contravention of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; the detention of citizens and non-citizens as enemy combatants on the president’s say-so alone; claiming the US as a battlefield where lethal military force can be employed to kill or maim al-Qaeda suspects; playing judge, jury and prosecutor and using secret evidence in the trials of war crimes; creating a secretive government shielded from legal or political accountability by the invocation of executive privilege or state secrets; and secretly kidnapping and imprisoning terrorist suspects abroad? To justify these misadventures and excesses, the vice-president has vastly inflated the dangers of international terrorism.

But the Cheney doctrine of an unchecked presidency is now unravelling. The Supreme Court has rebuked the executive branch over military commissions and its unfettered authority to detain citizens as enemy combatants. A federal appeals court has held that resident aliens may not be detained indefinitely as enemy combatants without accusation or trial. On Capitol Hill, Congress is demanding White House documents and witnesses pertinent to the firing of US attorneys and the legal rationale for the NSA’s spying on Americans. A popular and congressional crescendo is growing against keeping US troops in Iraq. Some Republicans are scheming to remove Mr Cheney from office prior to the November 2008 elections. And the vice-president’s approval rating is minuscule and plunging.

Congress is too timid and constitutionally illiterate to be awakened to the need to impeach Mr Cheney for his acts against the nation. Like old soldiers, he will simply fade away after the expiry of his term, but probably in disrepute. Whether any of the Cheney doctrine will survive is uncertain. The events of September 11 2001 are still distorting the judgments of many Americans and office-holders. [emphasis added]

NB: Subscription only, but I've excerpted generously.

Posted by Gregory at 08:26 PM | Comments (16)

July 24, 2007

It'll Be 6 Years On......

Michael Gordon floats the latest trial balloon: "sustainable security" by the summer of '09. It's pretty clear whoever comes into office in January of that year, whatever he or she decides to do, will be grappling with the reality of some approximately 120,000-160,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq, barring quite dramatic events before then either on the ground or domestically in Washington.

UPDATE: A golden oldie:

Feb. 7 '03, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to U.S. troops in Aviano, Italy: "It is unknowable how long that conflict [Iraq] will last. It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months."

Or, goodness gracious, 6 years! But who's counting?

Posted by Gregory at 03:39 AM | Comments (6)

The Democratic Debate

I have to dissent from Andrew's kudos to CNN for their "historic" (Wolf Blitzer's hyperbole) YouTube debate. While I only caught the latter half, I must say I found myself wincing through the vast majority of the YouTube interrogatories. Don't get me wrong. There were some heart-felt queries, and I do not want to appear elitist, or unsympathetic to genuine concerns being aired by the electorate. But the incessantly theatrical solipsism I found nauseatingly bad, and it wasn't a format I found hugely revelatory either. (And, horrors, I wondered: is this what blogs feel like to the uninitiated, with a cascade of quasi-stream of consciousness tirades, yelps and shout-outs? Well, very sorry, if so!)

P.S. Contra the C.W. (well, at least Jeffrey Toobin's), I found Obama's answer on the 'would you speak to the rogues' the most refreshingly honest and direct, with Hillary's answer purposefully trying to gain positive coverage at Obama's expense via cheap posturing (masquerading as supposedly statesmanlike, yet disingenuously unconvincing, 'I shan't be used for propaganda purposes') . Obama's answer wasn't meant to signal he was going to jump into bed with Kim Jong, Castro, Bashar, Ahmadi-Nejad and Chavez in some fantastical orgy of appeasement with ye olde rogue's gallery, he was simply saying: sometimes it pays to speak with your adversaries. His point was clear, and well taken.

UPDATE: Re: the first part of my post, I might have put it instead that I'm perhaps just "old-fashioned" that way. Meantime, re: the second part of my post, David Corn has a markedly different take (hat tip: RCP).

MORE: On the other hand, Duncan and Matt have a similar take to B.D's re: this little Obama/Clinton kerfuffle.

STILL MORE: Zathras unloads in comments:

About half of these people looked like rejects from "America's Most Humiliating Home Videos." They were there for entertainment, not edification -- the dope with the snowmen, the clown moaning in verse about his taxes, Backwoods Bob with his assault rifle. It could have been worse. Candidates were not asked about their personal hygiene, or invited to tell us about a time they got really drunk. No one made a speech about Medicare through his buttcheeks, and all the people who went on camera were fully clothed if often no more than half-groomed. Expect part or all of that to change if CNN thinks it will help ratings.
Posted by Gregory at 03:04 AM | Comments (16)

July 22, 2007

You Voted Wrong, See?

Basic common sense from Colin Powell here, and well worth reading additional background from Alastair Crooke here. Of course, such advice will fall on deaf ears among the mediocrities 'policy-making' in Washington. It's almost like we'd like to see al-Qaeda take root in Gaza, or such...

UPDATE: Related fare.... "(W)hat would Chris Hill do"?

Posted by Gregory at 03:10 PM | Comments (11)

Grand Strategy Musings as Deflated Souffle

I've just waded through over 12,000 words this Sunday morning to learn, well, that great power politics still exist, the U.S. is still big boy on the block, and (rest assured) that we can still kick around any bad guys push come to shove.

The piece closes with a grave admonishment that the "era of grand expectations" is over and done with. Why, you don't say? And not a trace of irony in this grim closing, eh, perhaps accompanied by a serious acknowledgment of the growing debacle that is American policy in the Middle East, cheer-led by many of the author's intimates?

To be frank, I feel like I've just had to suffer through a badly botched souffle, brimming over and soggily capsizing under the weight of its warmed-over fare (power politics still live on! the world looks different from Moscow than it does from Washington!), over-used nostrums ("the return of great power and great games"!, expectations ain't what they used to be!), among other trotting out of group-think cliches. Can't we do better in our 'elite' discourse?

P.S. There is a bonus section on how to deal with Islamic extremists: "If retreat is impossible, perhaps the best course is to advance. Of the many bad options in confronting this immensely dangerous problem, the best may be to hasten the process of modernization in the Islamic world: more modernization, more globalization, faster."

A riveting apercu! Perhaps a 'faster, please' might be tossed in too, followed, say, by a 'heh, indeed!'

Posted by Gregory at 02:33 PM | Comments (7)

July 21, 2007

Hold Forever, or Gradually Fold?

Tom Friedman writes: "(q)uitting Iraq would be morally and strategically devastating."

There is a broad consensus, from McCain/Lieberman, to Friedman/Pollack, even to Zinni/Batiste, that the consequences of an Iraq withdrawal, precipitate or otherwise, are profoundly dismal. But would quitting Iraq, over 20 months, say (logistics likely require such a protracted time-frame), be so terrible, unleashing regional conflict, genocide and other horribles? Perhaps not.

First, check out this Thomas Ricks piece:

If U.S. combat forces withdraw from Iraq in the near future, three developments would be likely to unfold. Majority Shiites would drive Sunnis out of ethnically mixed areas west to Anbar province. Southern Iraq would erupt in civil war between Shiite groups. And the Kurdish north would solidify its borders and invite a U.S. troop presence there. In short, Iraq would effectively become three separate nations.

That was the conclusion reached in recent "war games" exercises conducted for the U.S. military by retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson. "I honestly don't think it will be apocalyptic," said Anderson, who has served in Iraq and now works for a major defense contractor. But "it will be ugly."

In making the case for a continued U.S. troop presence, President Bush has offered far more dire forecasts, arguing that al-Qaeda or Iran -- or both -- would take over Iraq after a "precipitous withdrawal" of U.S. forces. Al-Qaeda, he said recently, would "be able to recruit better and raise more money from which to launch their objectives" of attacking the U.S. homeland. War opponents in Congress counter that Bush's talk about al-Qaeda is overblown fear-mongering and that nothing could be worse than the present situation.

More interestingly, read this lengthier piece too (PDF) (while it's a few months old, it remains very relevant):

A truly rapid withdrawal is not endorsed in this report. But raising the prospect of desperate deterioration in Iraq and its environs after an American military disengagement necessarily tends to obscure two things. First, the presence of U.S. forces has not stabilized Iraq thus far. Second, conditions for instability have become structural elements of Iraqi politics. Given these facts, how long should the U.S. keep troops in Iraq, when its military presence only delays an inevitable escalation of intra-Iraqi fighting?

Military disengagement will be a severe blow to the United States, which staked its prestige and defined its security on the basis of a war to disarm Iraq and transform its politics. Disengaging will signify the inability to achieve these strategic goals. American resolve will likely be questioned. In the near to medium term, this could make it harder, perhaps much harder, to influence Middle Eastern governments when Washington most needs their cooperation to stabilize Iraq and push back against Iran, without further stoking regional sectarian rivalries. The dismal irony is this: Proponents of an indefinite commitment of U.S. forces seek above all to preserve the core American interest in demonstrating resolve; but that demonstration cannot ultimately be sustained and, in any case, has been devalued by the fundamentally flawed nature of the intervention and its aftermath. The jihadis already believe that they have won while Iran is convinced that it has the upper hand, despite the tenacity of U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq.

It is possible that neighboring countries will intensify their competition by proxy within Iraq and foster even greater violence. The problem to fear is the transfer of heavy weapons to the contending factions by outside supporters. The more heavily armed the combatants are, the more noncombatant casualties will result from the fighting. U.S. and
UK forces, however, have not been notably successful in controlling the borders thus far. This is a hazard that will have to be contained primarily through regional diplomacy backed by accurate intelligence. The Turks are apprehensive about the transformation of Iraq and might be tempted to intervene if they perceive a Kurdish state with significant resources rising from the wreckage of a sinking Iraqi state. This would not be in the U.S. interest, but many Turks know that an intervention would be no less a disaster for them than it was for the United States. A reflexive Turkish invasion of northern Iraq is not an ineluctable result of American disengagement.

Jordan, an important U.S. ally, has been imperiled by the war, in part because it has been the object of attacks by the Zarqawi network and, perhaps more dangerously, has emerged as the obvious destination for an estimated 750,000 refugees, over 10 percent of its indigenous population. U.S. forces, in their current numbers and configuration, are not going to solve this problem. Until Iraqi politics cohere, Jordan most needs financial aid and competent technical assistance to house, sustain, and control the second and third waves of refugees who lack resources of their own. The fact is that long term prospects for the Sunni states friendly to the United States may be clouded, but they are unlikely to face unmanageable subversive challenges as a consequence of an orderly U.S. disengagement from Iraq over a twelve-to-eighteen-month period.

Although a regional conflagration is conceivable, it is not the likeliest consequence of civil war in the Middle East. Civil wars in the Middle East have not been rare occurrences, yet with the partial exception of the Lebanese civil war, which involved Israel and Syria, such wars have largely been contained within the divided state itself.
Nor have wars between states submerged the entire region in violent disorder. The Iran-Iraq war raged for a decade but did not engulf the region. Arab-Israeli wars have not led to inter-Arab wars. Indeed, the only recent aggressor in this mode was Saddam Hussein, when he attacked Kuwait in 1990. Arguably, that war did engender a broader conflict—in the form of a sustained al-Qaeda campaign against the United States—but it did not turn
into a regional war.

In 2004, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy to Osama bin Laden, said of the U.S. intervention: “America is between two fires. If it stays in Iraq, it will bleed to death; if it leaves, it will lose everything.” His forecast comes disturbingly close to describing current circumstances. It need not, however, be prophecy. More than three years after the
intervention began, to be sure, the United States finds itself in an agonizing strategic position. The time has come to acknowledge that the United States must fundamentally recast its commitment to Iraq. It must do so without any illusions that there are unexplored or magic fixes, whether diplomatic or military. Some disasters are irretrievable. Having staked its prestige on the intervention and failed to achieve many of its objectives, the United States will certainly pay a price for military disengagement from Iraq. But if the United States manages its departure from Iraq carefully, it will not have lost everything. Rather, the United States will have preserved the opportunity to recover vital assets that its campaign in Iraq has imperiled: diplomatic initiative, global reputation, and the well-being and political utility of its ground forces.

This is a relatively high-brow version of the argument for a gradual redeployment a la Baker-Hamilton. A more 'popular' version might be found here (around the 1:45 remaining mark, or so...):

Make no mistake. Kenny Rogers aside, there are hugely serious stakes at play here. But the Iraq mission, per any reasonably broad-based assessment, has been lost. So I'm in damage control mode, not "victory" mode. Maybe I'm just a defeatist coward, however, and time spent with stolid burghers (say, the Kagan clan) might toughen me up. Or instead, perhaps, I'm grappling with reality rather than fantasy. Who knows?

But the point here is that, regardless of one's view, we should begin better gauging what the impact of a U.S. withdrawal 12-24 months out is likely to be, as it's increasingly likely given political trend-lines. Some massive al-Qaeda safe haven? I'd bet smaller than the one in Pakistan, frankly, when not being decimated by Shi'a killing squads. Genocide against more moderate Sunnis on an epic scale? Certainly odious ethnic cleansing in mixed population centers like Baghdad would pick up if the U.S. vacated such neighborhoods precipitously, but are we going to stay there so long, perhaps decades, that the scars of this conflict will have faded so that such revanchist urges will have simply vanished, wholly disappeared? Is Iraq really Korea all over again, a decades long commitment? Somehow, I doubt it, for a variety of reasons. And, last, a risk of regionalization of the conflict? Turkey may well come in whether or not U.S. forces are there, and I'm hard pressed to see a proxy Saudi-Iranian conflict actually leading to those two countries openly coming to direct blows.

In other words, if you believe, as I do, that the surge can only cause, at very best, short-term improvements to localized security conditions, rather than significantly impact the future direction of Iraqi politics, or materially mitigate sectarian hatreds, so as to convincingly help sketch out a new, long-term destiny for Iraq--one must likely conclude American soldiers are currently dying mostly in vain. Further, and (somewhat) relatedly, if you believe the ramifications of a gradual withdrawal aren't as horrific as many claim, you start thinking, to put it in the vernacular, that's it's time to fold 'em, rather than hold 'em, even if gradually over a year or two. That's, more or less, where we're at, at least in B.D's view. Let's start focusing intelligent policy-making energy on how best to accomplish an orderly withdrawal (hint: regional diplomacy with Iran and Syria are part of the puzzle...), rather than pursue 'hail-mary', chimerical visions of "victory" capital V.

Put differently, can Petraeus' men (even backed up by Ryan Crocker's Embassy) calibrate a balanced re-Baathification effort, or solve the competing claims to Kirkuk, or persuasively manage the tensions between the PKK and Turkey, or referee varied Shi'a factions fighting for hegemony in southern Iraq, or hammer out oil revenue sharing protocols, and so on? Oh, you say, be fair, don't erect cheap straw-men, these men are only meant to provide better security so as then to allow for better conditions for such compromises to take root, rather than creating them themselves. But these necessary conciliations and power-sharing arrangements will play out over decades, and we are increasingly but a passing diversion, wouldn't you say? We can't "win", per se, so shouldn't we think about how best to mitigate our losses, trying to preserve our remaining precious resources in blood and treasure now five years into a conflict that we blundered into with abject recklessness?

Posted by Gregory at 02:51 AM | Comments (19)

We'll Try To Liberate Ourselves, Thank You Very Much...

Akbar Ganji, arguably Iran's leading dissident, exhorts the U.S. to summon the basic common sense (harder than it seems, these days...) not to mount a calamitously misguided attack on Iran. A representative excerpt below, though I'd recommend reading the whole piece:

A military attack on Iran would also yield terrible political consequences. It would foster the growth of fundamentalism in the region, which would be bad for the United States and other Western countries and even worse for the Islamic world. Fundamentalism—with its inhuman view of women, hatred of freedom and democracy, and denigration of human rights—is a significant factor in the underdevelopment of Islamic communities. Fundamentalists largely reject Western art, morality, philosophy, culture, and science, though they make an exception for technologies of violence. This narrow-minded view of some of humanity’s great achievements is particularly harmful to Muslims. But a military attack on Iran would reignite the conviction that the Judeo-Christian West, led by the United States, is assaulting the world of Islam, from Afghanistan and Palestine to Iraq and Iran; and it would encourage the view that fundamentalist methods are the best way to fight the non-Muslim invaders. Western governments must not equate the battle against fundamentalism with a battle against Islam—as President Bush does when he describes the “war on terror” as a “crusade,” or when he speaks of “Islamic fascism.” It not only isolates moderate and democratic Muslims; it also provides fertile ground for fundamentalists among them.

We can already see this dynamic at work. After the 1997 election of Mohammad Khatami as president of Iran, civil society, human rights, and political freedoms became the dominant concerns in Iranian political life. The current U.S. military threat has given the Iranian government a freer hand in repressing Iran’s budding civil society in the name of national security, provided a pretext to entrust key political posts to military and security officers, and so eclipsed democratic discourse that some Iranian reformists see themselves caught between domestic despotism and foreign invasion. [emphasis added]

Put differently, Washington's neo-cons, as well as Teheran's, are engaged in a vicious cycle of fear-mongering.

Posted by Gregory at 02:09 AM | Comments (2)


In an otherwise relatively routine op-ed calling for the U.N. to ratchet up its involvement in Iraq (wise), Zal Khalilzad writes: "(s)everal of Iraq’s neighbors — not only Syria and Iran but also some friends of the United States — are pursuing destabilizing policies." "Several" and "friends" plural connotes more than one, so ostensibly he's not just speaking of Turkish saber-rattling in the north. Surely the Kuwaitis or Jordanians aren't causing any trouble? Is there a message for the Saudis here, or?

Posted by Gregory at 01:52 AM | Comments (1)

July 12, 2007

Two Views of the Basra Precedent

Tom Friedman:

The minute we start to withdraw, all hell will break loose in the areas we leave, and there will be a no-holds-barred contest for power among Iraqi factions. Our staying there with, say, half as many troops, will not be sustainable.

Look at the British in Basra. The British forces there have slowly receded into a single base at Basra airport. And what has happened? The void has been filled by a vicious contest for power among Shiite warlords, gangs and clans, and British troops are still being killed whenever they venture out.

As the International Crisis Group recently reported from Basra: “Basra’s political arena is in the hands of actors engaged in bloody competition for resources, undermining what is left of governorate institutions and coercively enforcing their rule. Far from being a model to replicate, Basra is an example of what to avoid. With renewed violence and instability, Basra illustrates the pitfalls of a transitional process that has led to the collapse of the state apparatus.”

Well, perhaps. But I find Robert Malley & Peter Harling writing here rather more convincing:

TO IMAGINE what Baghdad will look like after the surge, there is no need to project far into the future. Instead, just turn to the recent past. Between September 2006 and March 2007, British forces conducted Operation Sinbad in Basra, Iraq's second largest city. At first, there were signs of progress: diminished violence, criminality, and overall chaos. But these turned out to be superficial and depressingly fleeting. Only a few months after the operation came to an end, old habits resurfaced. Today, political tensions once again are destabilizing the city; relentless attacks against British forces have driven them off the streets; and the southern city is under the control of militias, more powerful and less inhibited than before.

Operation Sinbad, like the surge, was premised on belief that heightened British military power would help rout out militias, provide space for local leaders to rebuild the city, and ultimately hand security over to newly vetted and more professional Iraqi security forces. It did nothing of the sort. A military strategy that failed to challenge the dominant power structure and political makeup, no matter how muscular it was, simply could not alter the underlying dynamic: A political arena dominated by parties -- those the British embraced, no less than those they fought -- engaged in a bloody competition over power and resources.

So, what happened? While British forces were struggling to suppress the violence, the parties and organizations operating on the public scene never felt the need to modify their behavior. Militias were not defeated; they went underground or, more often, were absorbed into existing security forces. One resident after another told us they witnessed murders committed by individuals dressed in security force uniform. This, of course, with total impunity since the parties that infiltrate the security services also ensure that their own don't get punished.

For militia members, it's an easy call: By joining the security forces, they get a salary, government-paid weapons, and political cover to boot. Security services are divided along partisan lines. Fadhila -- the governor's party -- controls the Oil Protection Force, responsible for safeguarding oil wells, refineries, and pipelines; the small Hizbollah party has a strong presence in the Customs Police Force; the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council dominates the intelligence service; and the Sadrists have penetrated the local police force.

Likewise, little was done to rebuild the city. Instead, the leading parties maintained their predatory practices, scrambling to take advantage of available public resources, contracts, or jobs. Oil contraband is an open secret, acknowledged even by a fighter in Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, who told us that "when Moqtada al-Sadr met with representatives . . . in Basra, he scratched his nose and said, ' I smell the smell of gasoline' -- his way of accusing his own representatives of smuggling oil." Fadhila siphons diesel off at the source; others drill holes into pipelines. The public sector as a whole is rife with corruption -- instance of mammoth-sized projects that have delivered virtually nothing are legion -- malfeasance and partisan hiring.

In short, Operation Sinbad, at best, froze in place the existing situation and balance of power, creating an illusory stability that concealed a brutal and collective tug-of-war-in-waiting. Once the British version of the surge ebbed, the struggle reignited.

For Baghdad, the implications are as clear as they are ominous. Basra is a microcosm of the country as a whole, in its multiple and multiplying forms of violence. In the southern city, strife generally has little to do with sectarianism or anti-occupation resistance, both of which are far more prominent in the capital or Iraq's center. Instead, it involves the systematic misuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighborhood vigilantism, together with the rise of criminal mafias that increasingly are indistinguishable from political actors. This means that even should the armed opposition weaken, even should sectarian tensions abate, and even should the surge momentarily succeed, Basra's fate is likely to be replicated throughout the country on a larger, more chaotic, and more dangerous scale. [my emphasis throughout]

On a related topic, some of the more asture commenters here have been chiding me that I seem to be cheerleading the ISG as some panacea without being critical enough. In that vein, please note I plan to react to the criticisms from Korb/Podesta and Stephen Biddle shortly (thanks to Matt Yglesias for the links, as well as commenter David Tomlin). Last, I note yet another resurgence among some elite opinion-makers to 'pull all the troops to Kurdistan' as a solution to our Iraq woes, and plan to again explain why this too isn't likely to be of particular help ultimately.

Posted by Gregory at 01:25 PM | Comments (36)

July 10, 2007

In-House News

I'm returning to New York City after a stint overseas tomorrow. When time allows, new content will typically come on-line here after 9-10 PM EDT weekdays, and intermittently on weekends. Thanks.

Posted by Gregory at 10:35 PM

Coalition of the Willing (Part II)

We've finally found a willing partner for Joe Lieberman's proposed Iran campaign (it's the Gordon Brown era in the UK, after all, so one must look further afield these days). Norm Podhoretz can help put out some of the initial feelers, perhaps, when not tutoring Rudy on the finer points of Middle East policy, that is.

Posted by Gregory at 07:48 PM | Comments (4)

Quote of the Day (II)

Ryan Crocker:

"You can’t build a whole policy on a fear of a negative, but, boy, you’ve really got to account for it,” Mr. Crocker said Saturday in an interview at his office in Saddam Hussein’s old Republican Palace, now the seat of American power here. Setting out what he said was not a policy prescription but a review of issues that needed to be weighed, the ambassador compared Iraq’s current violence to the early scenes of a gruesome movie.

“In the States, it’s like we’re in the last half of the third reel of a three-reel movie, and all we have to do is decide we’re done here, and the credits come up, and the lights come on, and we leave the theater and go on to something else,” he said. “Whereas out here, you’re just getting into the first reel of five reels,” he added, “and as ugly as the first reel has been, the other four and a half are going to be way, way worse.”


In the interview, which was requested by The New York Times, he said, “We’ll give the best assessment we can, and the most honest.” Unusually for American officials here, who have generally avoided any comparisons between the situation in Iraq and the war in Vietnam, he compared the task that he and General Petraeus face in reporting back in September to the one faced by Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and Gen. Creighton W. Abrams Jr., the two top Americans in Vietnam when the decisions that led to the American withdrawal there were made nearly 40 years ago.

Meantime, from the WaPo:

So the president has mapped out a best-case scenario for Iraq on Jan. 20, 2009, that would still see considerable numbers of U.S. troops on the ground, but in a different role. If events work out as Bush hopes, aides said, U.S. forces by then will have sharply reduced their mission, pulling out of sectarian combat and focusing instead on fighting al-Qaeda, guarding Iraq's borders and supporting Iraqi troops. Instead of operating under a U.N. mandate, the United States would negotiate an agreement with the Iraqi government for a smaller, long-term presence.

Such a reduced mandate would resemble the vision advanced in December by the Iraq Study Group, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.). A Pentagon study last year concluded that even the more limited mission would require about 120,000 U.S. troops, compared with about 160,000 today, according to administration officials. But officials said it could be done with 60,000 to 100,000 troops.

Bush hopes the net result would be a situation stable enough that the next president -- even a Democrat with an antiwar platform -- would feel confident enough to sustain some form of U.S. mission despite domestic pressure to pull out altogether. But Bush aides said they are acutely aware that every forecast they have made for Iraq over the past four years has proved wildly optimistic.

I respect Ryan Crocker, and his refreshing candor with the Vietnam analogy is appreciated. For the grim realities are these: we are in a massive and exceedingly dangerous mess in Iraq, one where if we pull out precipitously, neighbors are likelier to come in full-bore, the civil war will turn even more brutal, and genocidal actions on a scale not yet seen since the American invasion could result. Meantime, it is crystal-clear, given these stakes, that an immediate withdrawal is not going to happen, even if you think it's, all told, the wisest course, as no consensus can be built around such a policy at this time. Even harsh Administration critics like Tony Zinni counsel against it.

We are therefore left with a feeling that our best hope is the ISG plan, which I don't think has been overtaken by circumstances simply because its findings were published over six months ago. If anything, its findings are even more urgent, with regionalization of the conflict looming with the Turks massing more troops on the Kurdish frontier. And is the situation no longer "grave and deteriorating", as the ISG found? Only more so, of course, as the clock keeps ticking.

But here's the dirty little secret. The nation lacks a top diplomat with the requisite skill and standing to implement the "diplomatic offensive" called for by the ISG, including variants as per Chuck Hagel's recent piece in the FT. While we have a pretty strong team with Gates and Petraeus at DoD, we lack players of the requisite caliber at State and the NSC. So while the security situation in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Gaza worsens, while a refugee crisis builds in Syria, while Jordan and Saudi get ever more skittish, while Iran gets more lebensraum in Iraq, and while the Maliki government continues to fail in getting essential compromises hammered out among the Iraqi factions, Condi Rice is giving interviews such as this one.

Feeling confident? In earlier days, Wise Men would have corralled Bush and insisted he appoint a James Baker, say, to supplement Tony Blair's Palestinian institution-building, the better to rush to the region on a non-stop basis to build a regional consensus for an American withdrawal from Iraq that doesn't leave a massive power vacuum in its wake. Instead, we're flailing. Badly. It's amateur hour, and the fires are only growing worse.

More soon, I hope, on what a sufficiently empowered special envoy of caliber could hope to accomplish, including per Hagel, a non-American one. But with Bush in power and this approach so unlikely, one is left feeling as if counseling such action is but a waste of time. I believe Robert Novak recently reported that Hagel's letter to the President, along the lines of his FT piece, was only responded to by a third level functionary. The President doesn't like to listen to critics, alas, and so the folly continues.

Posted by Gregory at 11:13 AM | Comments (21)

Quote of the Day

Ehud Olmert: "Bashar al-Assad, you know that I am ready for direct talks with you."

Heh. Guess Olmert finally prevailed on Bush (read: Cheney, Abrams, etc) to let him put out a feeler to his counterpart in Damascus. Still, they'll be many a long face around the AEI conference room tables this week at this renewed display of cowardice. Bolton will be livid (his cheeks will turn a deep scarlet, and his moustache will bristle, helped along too by the summer heat). Ledeen will sputter on rabidly and, of course, incoherently ( about "Syran" or such). Pletka will nod her head knowingly in agreement, expressing deep woe, and rueing yet another display of Olmertian meekness. Juniors will then join and holds hands too, and someone will call Elliott wanting to know how it all happened. And so on.

Then everyone gets to go home to sleep in Chevy Chase or Bethesda, far from the crisis zones. Which is the point with all these 'more Catholic than the Pope types', no? They rant from afar, while your quotidian Israeli has to live with his or her neighbors, however unsavory, for a helluva long time. That's why you talk to enemies sometimes gang, cuz it's a big, mean world out there, at least outside the fantasy world of 17th Street, where one can simply topple the Saddams and Bashars and Ahmadi-Nejad's, hand out the Federalist Papers to the rapturously grateful masses in the main square of the capital, and swiftly move on to the next scheduled gig.

Meanwhile, the Syrians reportedly say (rather predictably) 'nyet' for now (which will precipitate the AEI crowd frothing even more loudly that this was display of abject weakness, click through NRO's Corner later today, there will doubtless be a reference somewhere...), but nonethless you can be certain there's more complex back-channeling than that afoot, and regardless such feelers, even if not leading to imminent talks, at least have as effect reducing the chances of another disasterous summer war...

P.S. Meantime, and with an obliviousness to his ignorance on foreign policy matters so total that it can only be described as somehow charming, if in a poignant way, Glenn Reynolds is proudly manning the ramparts of the blogospheric 'know-nothing' brigades, as is his wont, announcing simply: "Syria Invades Lebanon", sans the merest smidgen of context. Well, yes, Glenn, Syrian troops might have gone 3 kms into Lebanese-Syrian border areas, as they've done for many decades, and by that standard, you can be assured Turkey has invaded Kurdistan, Iranians agents parts of Iraq, even potentially special Saudi forces Sunni areas of Iraq abutting the Kingdom, Israel Gaza, and so on and on. So what should we do now Glenn? Invade all those bastards messing with our allies Olmert and Maliki and give 'em a good licking, Nashville style? Tell us more, please, at least when you're not busily spewing out links to assorted ignoramuses dumping on just about each and every sane policy prescription of the past half-decade (Note: I'm not speaking of Totten here, a well-meaning blogger whom, while I don't read him regularly, at least by the post Glenn linked to appears to have gotten a bit carried away by all the charms of Beirut during his various pass-throughs...). Anyway, I propose a new motto for Glenn: Think before you link, even for just a second or two, or at least provide a modicum of context, as any reasonably educated Yale Law alum might deign to do. But I'm keeping my expectations very low, as prior experience would amply counsel...

Posted by Gregory at 09:51 AM | Comments (19)

Iran Policy

Someone much smarter than little old me will someday need to explain how our policy of refusing to talk to Iran on non-Iraq issues until they cease uranium enrichment makes sense. Are we trying to "pressure" them with "sticks" so they think twice and slow down? What riveting deep think! And fat chance of that, petrol rationing of late or not. Throw in the residual Cheney-Wurmser types still beating the war drums, Lieberman chomping at the bit for the missiles to launch from the arrayed flotillas, and even sane, talented fellows like Roger Cohen intimating of late if Plan A doesn't work we might consider stoking minority nationalist revolts and such in Iran (creative destruction!), it's no wonder the Iranians are rushing ahead in case things get nastier soon. As they tunnel about their nuclear program facilities, however, I'm sure uppermost in their minds and giving them real pause is Condi Rice's offer to speak anywhere, anytime--but only if they suspend uranium enrichment. That's just the ticket to try to slow down their progress towards a bomb, well, at least if you're a cluelessly obstinate amateur, that is...

Posted by Gregory at 09:31 AM | Comments (3)

July 09, 2007

Oh My

Bill Kristol:

Here's what I gather is a basic lesson of tactics: When you find yourself in an ambush, attack into the ambush. Don't twist and turn in the kill sack, looking for a way to retreat. Especially when the ambush is not a powerful one, and the Democrats' position (to mix military metaphors) is way overextended. The Democrats are hoping the president will break and run. They will not allow him a dignified retreat or welcome him with compromise. They will spring to finish him off completely. It doesn't matter what the president's motives are. Some of his advisers are trying to persuade him that he needs to go for a grand bargain now so as to build bipartisan support for his policies when he's gone. But the only way to do that is to hold firm now--and to counterattack. Those who try to convince him otherwise offer nothing but defeat, for the troops, for the mission, and for the president.

What's a good pedigreed intellectual like Mr. Kristol doing handing out street fighting tips of late? We expect a more noble demeanour from our intellectual aristocracy, please!

Posted by Gregory at 08:24 PM | Comments (3)

David Brooks & The ISG

David Brooks, on PBS NewsHour July 6th: "And, then, the final thing, the problem with the Iraq Study Group--and Mark is absolutely right. I think the Bush administration bitterly regrets not embracing that now."

Ah, but where was David on the ISG back in the day, you know, when it counted most? Here he was on January 11th of this year, busily poo-pooing the ISG's findings ("pulling a tooth slowly"), just as debate had been raging as to whether Bush should adopt same: "So we are stuck with the Bush proposal as the only serious plan on offer."

And thus Mr. Brooks breezily designated the collective output of the ISG, methodically researched, debated and compiled over many months, with the hands-on involvement of internationally regarded foreign policy experts, as largely irrelevant in the august pages of the New York Times. Now, it is true, this wasn't quite the denigrative 'surrender monkey' fare of lesser local competitors, but comparing Baker-Hamilton to a botched tooth-extraction certainly wasn't a resounding endorsement either, nor frankly particularly serious itself. Now dear reader, come along and fast forward a 'Friedman' or so with me, and David Brooks advises us there is now "bitter regret" in the land (well, at least in the esteemed councils of power 'round the Potomac) that the ISG's recommendations weren't implemented when originally proposed. Pity David hadn't helped more back in the day, who knows, more Pete Domenicis might have crawled out of the woodwork, even!

Meantime, this additional snippet from Brooks, in its guileful counter-intuitiveness, is worth a trip down memory lane too (from the Dec 15 '06 NewsHour):

So I think, when you look back on the lasting effect of the Iraq Study Group, I think it will have prolonged our presence in Iraq, because I think, after the election, people could have said, "The voters sent a message. Let's get out of Iraq." Then you had the likes of Republican Senator Gordon Smith saying, "I'm at the end of my rope." Without the Iraq Study Group, you could really kind of brought kind of momentum, "We're out of here." But the Iraq Study Group froze the debate for a month, and then said, you know, slow, gradual withdrawal. And so I think, perversely, the end effect was to keep us there longer. [emphasis added throughout]

Like a modern-day Delphic oracle, David grandiloquently proclaimed that Baker-Hamilton's "lasting effect" would be, drum-roll please, "prolong[ing] our presence in Iraq"! Yes, James Baker and Lee Hamilton's call for a draw-down of our combat forces in theater by March '08, coupled with a massive "diplomatic offensive" to help achieve same (a phrase they probably, and erroneously it turns out, thought would appeal to Bush's sophomoric martial machismo, as in, 'we gotta say on offense!'), that's what proved a lead causal contributor to us getting further ensnared in the Mesopotamian bog, at least in the alternative universe Mr. Brooks appears to inhabit on the issue.

Let's quote the ISG:

By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq. At that time, U.S. combat forces in Iraq could be deployed only in units embedded with Iraqi forces, in rapid-reaction and special operations teams, and in training, equipping, advising, force protection, and search and rescue. Intelligence and support efforts would continue.

In short, it's pretty clear that the ISG was pushing for a relatively expeditious phasing out of our force posture in Iraq, rather than patrolling myriad Baghdad neighborhoods until Jan 2009, say. But no, suddenly Gordon Smith and other assorted Congressional waverers espied a renewed committment was required per the ISG, rather than an orderly re-deployment operation, accompanied by energetic regional diplomacy (yes, I know, I'm asking for too much here....)

Indeed, it's quite interesting that Mr. Brooks mightn't identify, say, the half-baked cogitations of 30-something AEI'ers ringing the victory bugles from their 17th Street Power-Point stations, the better so that the Kristol-wing could fete McCain and Lieberman at another think-tank gab-fest heavy on rhetoric and short on reality. It's such ribald festivities--where new hi-falutin' 'strategy' was rolled out to rapturous acclaim, along with guffaw-inducing arguments that even considering a Plan B would only be counter-productive--that could be said to have had as "lasting effect" a more "prolonged presence in Iraq." Recall, on predictable 'victory is nigh' cue around the time of the AEI rally, with the pom-poms still being cleared out by the janitorial staff, the President proceeded to ship another 20,000-30,000 Americans to theater.

This deployment occurred without having given nearly enough serious (that word again!) thought to creating a new dynamic either within the Maliki government, among various Iraqi factions or, indeed, with key neighbors--so that the surge might more convincingly be seen to be contributing to some over-arching revised strategic direction, rather than still playing whack-a-mole chasing insurgents around the 'belts' of Baghdad in pursuit of some chimerical "security", all the while with the civil war in Iraq deepening, a Turkish intervention in the north looming ever likelier, and Iranian influence steadily growing through large swaths of the country, not least the southeast around Basra, ostensibly where Joe Lieberman wants us to supplement the few thousand Brits with, oh I don't know, perhaps National Guard from the great State of Connecticut, as prelude to the storied cross-border raids to come? (And regarding relative successes in places like Ramadi, ask yourself, why the Anbar "Awakening"? Could it be, in large part, because the local sheiks believe U.S. forces are more likely to protect them from Shi'a revanchism than al-Qaeda? And, in a grim historical irony, is it too much to predict that Shi'a killing squads will ultimately massacre many of these Sunnis, or at least their cousins in Baghdad, much like Saddam had the Shi'a Marsh Arabs, when another President Bush had summoned them to rise up, similarly promising more than he could ultimately deliver?)

But no. Commentators like David Brooks, one of the few intelligent conservative columnists writing today (cue outraged comments that I dare praise the man, but he is no dumbie), called Bush's surge the only "serious" plan on offer (take that Baker-Hamilton, Gelb-Biden, etc!). And so, despite all the strategic blundering and gross adventurism previously manifested, despite the "casual swagger" in which we rushed to war, and attendant negligence with American lives (a form of reckless gambling better suited for 3 AM at the roulette wheel of the Bellagio than the battlefields of Iraq), this President's war policy yet again gained the imprimatur of gravitas among some elite opinion-makers.

Well, now 6 months on, some 520 Americans have died since the surge began. For what did these men die? So that husband and wife teams can entertain us with fantastical sketches chronicling varied triumphs in the pages of the Weekly Standard? So that we learn, with the cost more blood shorn, that counter-insurgency tactics that arguably worked in Tal Afar will doubtless fail, when applied to a city of some 6 million inhabitants in the grips of sectarian chaos, given the current troop mix and strength, and lack of adequate police forces? Yes, historians will analyze for decades hence how it came to be that the attack on the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan led to 18 year old kids from the American heartland patrolling mixed Sunni-Shi'a neigborhoods in Baghdad, acting like local gendarmarie, in a struggle of which they know almost nothing, and which has little impact on our national security (or will Sadr's men follow us home if we leave or some such?).

But, regardless, please Mr. Brooks, do not lay this bloody denouement at the doorstep of those who, if belatedly, were at least trying mightily to extricate us, in a reasonably responsible manner with some tiny vestige of honor, from a failed engagement, rather than those who were advocating insertion of 28,000 men into Iraq as some supposed panacea to stem raging sectarian conflict, without being accompanied by sustained diplomatic engagement with the very states that could have the most influence on Iraq's stability. You called that plan "serious", but it had more the trappings of bull-headed stubborness, no matter the talents of General Petraeus (which are considerable), or the chest-beating of Beltway dead-enders.

Posted by Gregory at 08:08 AM | Comments (31)

July 06, 2007

The Libby Commutation Sullies America

The commutation of Lewis Libby’s sentence presents yet another fetid example of the Bush Administration treating the Executive Branch merely as vehicle for governance by quasi-autocratic fiat. There are reasons, after all, that the Framers attempted to inject checks and balances, not only to escape the legacy of monarchical England, but also because they realized concentrated power too often corrupts terribly. The gross over-reaching of the Executive in the Bush Administration, in areas ranging from detainee treatment, to a politically inspired putsch of federal prosecutors, to the Vice-President’s primitively brazen ‘argument’ his office is not even a part of the Executive Branch, all have conspired to badly shake the public’s trust in our system of government. (And as I argue below, while it is certainly a presidential prerogative to commute sentences, this specific instance failed to meet the spirit with which such powers were imparted).

Indeed what all these excesses showcase, particularly when combined with a dismal dearth of intelligent policy-making, is that errors of judgment tend to cascade one on top of the other, thus imperiling the national interest, with long-standing protections previously afforded our citizens, and others whose care is entrusted us, steadily eroded. What is left is a profoundly damaging legacy that historians will likely view as one of the true nadirs in America’s overall standing in the history of the Republic (sadly, I write this knowing full well matters could turn even worse, perhaps with another reckless military adventure, this time in Iran).

In short, we have an Executive Branch still staffed at senior levels, despite some notable comings and goings, with pugnacious ideologues, many of them manifesting a frequent tendency towards lawlessness, a Legislative Branch only now beginning to stir from its prior supine slumber, and a Supreme Court increasingly oriented towards potentially too expansive views of Executive Power. Throw in the constant threat of a new terror attack (real or perceived) precipitating a re-invigorated round of jingoistic sloganeering (witness the hysteria surrounding pitiable plots on the order of Piccadilly, Glasgow, JFK, and Fort Dix, and imagine what would come if another truly professional attack were to transpire on the ‘homeland’), Patriot Act Part Deux (this time, on even greater steroids), and preemptive, or ginned up, expeditions to new fronts in the “Global War on Terror”, one must conclude our nation finds itself in a perilous place.

But this prologue aside, it must be said there is something to the Libby commutation that still manages to jar mightily despite this extensively grim backdrop of too aggressive Executive Branch encroachments on our constitutional order of late. And I say this not as one of those who relished some Lewis Libby auto-de-fe, eager for another neo-con scalp, and poised to jubilate in the streets if the man were incarcerated. Who regales in the plight of others during times of immense professional disaster, after all? Even the angriest of us must try to temper the schadenfreude we feel at the utter debacle that is modern neo-conservatism today, with its leading financial backers (Conrad Black) and intellectual lights (Paul Wolfowitz) badly bruised and bloodied, despite the unconvincing noises all’s just peachy, with the public countenances rich with forced cheer, playing pretend the house of Podhoretz and Kristol has never been stronger. (In reality, it’s tottering mightily, and Americans are getting angrier and angrier, as soi disant policy and regional experts are increasingly being unmasked as agenda-ridden charlatans, for whom incidentally summoning a genuine mea culpa now and again appears to simply not be part of their basic DNA).

But yes, the noxiousness of the Libby commutation nonetheless rankles on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps it is the grotesque transparency that Libby very likely took the bullet for Cheney (metaphorically, in this case, not as per the fabled hunting party), and so was rewarded with a vacating of his entire jail term (rather than a reduction of half of it, say, to 15 months, with lawyers now scurrying to determine what probation really means precisely when you don’t even serve a de minimus portion of your sentence)? Or is it instead the breathtaking hypocrisy of this President, who assured us that anyone who was involved in the outing of a CIA agent would no longer serve in his Administration (save, it would appear, Karl and Dick)? Or is it rather the titanic disingenuousness shown by the President when, at the very moment he announces the Libby commutation to the world, he has the gall to aver that he “respect(s) the jury’s verdict”, only to then totally hurl over-board the logically-mandated sentencing the verdict would demand in the very next breath?

But no, perhaps it is instead the aggressive insults to our intelligence that disturb the most? Say, for instance, the notion, as the Washington Post recently reported, that there had been wide-ranging and intensive discussion occupying various Administration players, about what to do about Scooter, as if weighty deliberations were undertaken by all hands with utmost responsibility and judiciousness. Come now. The minute the going was about to get nasty, with hard jail time imminent, the President dutifully stepped in to protect the man whose fealty so ably protected Papa Dick. It’s just that simple, I fear. No consultations with the Department of Justice, save perhaps furtive calls to the supremely over-employed Alberto Gonzalez (whom Gore Vidal quipped recently--in a crude manner obnoxious to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, but nevertheless too delicious to pass up--would have made a fine Attorney General of Mexico, if not these United States). And, surprise, no one deigned to consult with Special Counsel Fitzerald, the very man charged with prosecuting the case on behalf of the Government. Thus Fitzerald, son of an Irish working class Catholic family, whose father was a doorman in Manhattan, was all but spat on by the President, in a display of pugnacious arrogance perfectly in keeping with this repugnant Administration.

And as we’re dealing with amorally devious types of the Cheney/Addington variety, there is always a particularly galling coup de grace, no? In this case, it’s that with the appeal still pending with regard to the probation and fine (a $250,000 slap on the wrist, and with $5MM already in the defense fund coffers, and more doubtless to come, the relatively minor blow is cushioned even more), a commutation rather than a full-blown pardon serves to preserve Libby’s 5th Amendment privileges as the appeals process grinds on, not unhelpful either given the civil suit the Wilson family has mounted. Meantime, ongoing appeals and legal machinations serve to provide Cheney with a continued convenient rationale to refrain from commenting on the case, or better yet, being hauled before the klieg-lights of the Congress.

But yes, it gets even better, with the anti-climatic ‘coming soon’ coda--that is, the President, fresh on the heels of a scandalous commutation, follows this by swiftly putting us—ye pitiable masses fiddling about this increasingly fief-like neo-monarchy--on notice that he rules nothing in, nor out, with regard to later granting a full pardon to Libby. Translation: Libby got his get out of jail free card when things were about to get hot and heavy, meantime Dick Cheney’s been adequately mollified and protected (not to mention perhaps the President himself, to the extent he was sentient on matters surrounding the Plame outing, or indeed, Iraq policy generally), and then, when the time is ripe come January 2009, Libby gets the all-clear via a full-fledged pardon.

There are rewards for silence, after all. Not only in the wilds of Palermo, but also in Bush’s pestiferous Washington. Of course, in Mondo Bush, Team Rove will have prevailed, that is, ‘won.’ After all, who but a weak-kneed rule of law type cares a whit if the credibility of our jury system, where every man is meant to be an equal before the law, is severely wounded by having an important jury’s findings and resultant sentence ingloriously dismissed, with for good measure, the criticality of ensuring truth-telling under oath before the nations’ courts dealt another body-blow by our titular ‘leaders’?

Now, it’s true, there have been myriad pardons bestowed these past decades Administration after Administration, whether Ford of Nixon, Bush 41 of the Iran-Contra crowd, and of course Clinton’s notorious one of Mark Rich. (This last I found particularly sleazy, not least given Clinton’s New York Times op-ed at the time defending it--recall he even stooped to employing, en passant, the ‘blame the Jews!’ canard, stating a major reason for the Rich pardon was that the Israelis were hankering for it so).

But here’s the rub. None of the above pardons involved obstruction of justice issues impacting higher-ups still being potentially shielded from the special prosecutor’s inquiry (like Cheney and Bush, say). We must never forget that Libby was not only charged with perjury, as serious a charge as that is, but also obstruction of justice. That is, he was facilitating a cover-up with his lies (sorry, lapses of memory, after all, how could Fouad Ajami’s Fallen Soldier ever stoop to lie?). As Patrick Fitzerald said: “There is a cloud over the vice president…That cloud is there because the defendant obstructed justice."

I was angry when I believed Clinton was perjuring himself during the Paula Jones going-ons (how surreal and silly it nevertheless now seems), and I’m angry too to see Libby's jail sentence annulled (it might more defensibly have been halved given his long-standing public service, however dubious at times). A digression: George Bush and Lewis Libby both went to Andover for secondary school. So did I. The first rule you learn in the disciplinary code enshrined in the so-called “Blue Book” passed out to new students is the paramount import of honesty. Without it, the integrity of any community crumbles, whether 14 year olds in dorms in New England, or elite policy-makers in the Executive Branch. Lies feed on themselves and dishonesty prevails. But to lie to protect your superiors or close friends (and I am not an ethicist), one might argue that loyalty is thereby pitted against the importance of telling the truth. So, while never thinking of perjury as a ‘process crime’ or such, in this instance, I can understand the moral turmoil Libby might have had to grapple with.

But, and this must carry the day, the bottom line is that a jury of his peers found he was guilty of obstructing justice. His sentence was reasonable, per relevant benchmark sentencing guidelines. If Bush disagrees with this verdict, he should have pardoned him, full stop. This commutation, to doubtless be followed by a pardon at a more convenient time, does not evoke, as David Brooks writes (rather incredibly): “(j)ustice only rear(ing) its head at the end”. It smacks of the continuation of a cover-up, with a corrupt Vice-President asking the President for a favor to spare his former loyal aide jail time, and in the process, help protect his own skin as well. It stinks to high heaven, but, sad to say, it happened in the America we live in today. As Andrew Sullivan has said, get angrier.

Forget Libby, a historical footnote ultimately. It’s about the Vice-President, and the President who went along with his perniciously obsessive penchant for secrecy and Executive Branch over-reaching. It is about an Administration that has repeatedly violated its trust with the American people, whether because of its utter lack of competence, its abuses of power, or its epidemic violation of our best traditions. It is an Administration that has sullied our national repute and standing with abandon. I am deeply pained and embarrassed to have ever supported them.

Posted by Gregory at 07:42 PM | Comments (97)

About Belgravia Dispatch

Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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