August 2003

2003 08 31

Guardian Unlimited Politics | Special Reports | Revealed: How Kelly article set out case for war in Iraq

This piece is extremely misleading. Here’s an example:

Kelly’s article reveals a hawkish stance on Iraq which will come as some comfort to Number 10. ‘Iraq has spent the past 30 years building up an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction [WMD],’ he wrote. ‘Although the current threat presented by Iraq militarily is modest, both in terms of conventional and unconventional weapons, it has never given up its intent to develop and stockpile such weapons for both military and terrorist use.’

That just isn’t hawkish. Many people believed that the only way to conclusively stop Iraq’s WMD program was to wage war. I believed this myself. The hard questions were: how serious is the threat? (modest, Kelly believes); how does the threat compare with other current threats, i.e., would a major war be the most prudent measure, given the general strategic threat presented by the global proliferation of nuclear weapons?; would war be justified to deal with a “modest threat”; and so on.

It is the answers to these and other questions that determine whether you were hawkish about the war. If the piece has more evidence of Kelly’s position on these questions, it certainly doesn’t say.

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2003 08 31
[The 15 Minute Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict]

Recently, I posted an argument to the effect that the more likely the Palestinians are to accept a one state solution, the more likely they are to get a state of their own. Since then I wrote up the argument in slightly more polished form. Here it is:

The 15 Minute Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

No, I don’t have a solution that will tidy up the entire mess in the Middle East, just like that, in 15 minutes. But I do have a solution that would accomplish more in 15 minutes than the dangerously flawed Roadmap peddled by the so-called Quartet ever will. It’s not perfect, but its flaws will be shared by any viable final settlement, whereas its virtues are singular. It goes like this:

Arafat, or what’s-his-name, or some other respected Palestinian goes on television – excuse me, the radio – and makes the following speech: “My fellow Palestinians, all these years we’ve been fighting for a state of our own. But I’ve been thinking this whole state business over, and I’ve decided that it stinks. If we absolutely have to, I recommend that we settle for a state of our own. But think of what a state it will be. Suppose, best case, we get more or less the 1967 borders; a capital in Jerusalem; the evacuation of the settlements; and, most improbably, fair access to water. Even so, we would be left with an impoverished, militarily weak midget-state in a rough neighborhood of well-armed predators (and I’m not just talkin’ about the Israelis).

“No, no. I’ve got a better idea, and I think we should present it to the Israelis forthwith. Let’s say to the Israelis: ‘Hey, you want it, you got it. Let Israel’s true and undisputed borders stretch from the sea to the river, from the Golan (wait, wait, hear me out!) to Egypt. Let it encompass all of the occupied territories, except let’s stop referring to them as ‘occupied’. We only ask for one thing in return. Let us vote. This is the only price of the land. If the price is right, let’s make a deal pronto. If it’s not, go.’

I call this the 15 minute solution, because I think that’s how long it would take for Sharon to get on the phone with a considerably fairer offer to the PA than anything he’s so far been able to come up with. That’s because nothing gives hard line Israelis the willies as much as moderate Palestinians, and their least favorite moderates are the ones who urge the most intimate kinds of rapprochement between peoples. And in fact the vast majority of Israelis fears precisely this kind of demographic threat, even more than the prospect of many years of suicide bombing. I call this a sure attention-getter.

Nor is this merely a cheap trick to prod the Israelis towards compromise. Although the offer is unlikely to be accepted, the Palestinians ought to genuinely believe that this is the best option – a fact which has been obscured by the relentless focus on a two state solution.

Offering such a choice would be the single most effective way for the Palestinians to clarify the moral status of the noxious settler’s movement – a movement snuck in on the back of an occupation which began as an operation in legitimate self-defense, and ended up focused on the protection of the settlements. The paradox of the settlement activity is that the Israeli government has long coveted the land, without in the least coveting its inhabitants. But either the land belongs at the end of the day to Israel, in which case its inhabitants ought to be given the vote. Or it does not, and the settlement activity comes perilously close to the ideals of South Africa under apartheid (something no amount of fairness to Arab-Israelis could fix).

The dubious moral status of the settlements is admittedly already clear to most observers. Still, the settler’s movement has gotten extraordinary mileage out of the Palestinian refusal to consider just throwing in the towel and joining Israel – a refusal which hasn’t done (non-elite) Palestinians a lick of good. By holding out for a state as the only solution, the Palestinians have allowed Israel to indefinitely defer tough choices about the settlements. “Sure, they’ll go some day. Let’s worry about it when the Palestinians have their own state, i.e., when everybody’s favorite source of non-kosher meat takes wing to the skies.” A Palestinian offer to take the land in exchange for the right to vote forces the main issue into particularly sharp relief: Take or leave it. You can’t do both.

It will be observed that Arafat, a scoundrel and worse, is as unlikely as Sharon to relish the prospect of such a deal. Fine. Let him offer it as a bargaining tactic. And anyway, quite a bit could be accomplished by ordinary Palestinians if they began to discuss the idea openly, to consider it a possibility. This kind of change in thinking doesn’t have to come from the leadership itself to have important effects on negotiations. Polls showing the idea gaining ground among ordinary Palestinians would sent a jolt through political elites on both sides of the bargaining table.

I admit this proposal suffers from the same defects as any other viable solution to the conflict: It can be hijacked by extremists willing to commit atrocities which provoke the other side into retaliation, and so on. Having backed their way into tight respective corners, both sides will find any compromise difficult now. But it’s easier to compromise when you have more options on the table. And oddly, the more willing Palestinians are to relinquish the dream of statehood, the more likely they are to get a state of their own.

If you think this analysis is unserious, consider this brilliant take on the peculiar logic of the settlers’ movement in today’s Ha’aretz.

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2003 08 30

Some conservatives are complaining that the left is relentlessly focusing on the negative in Iraq, even the point that it secretly prefers a bloodier outcome. Since Bush is thought to be more vulnerable the bloodier the outcome, critics of the admin actually prefer the bloodshed, this line of criticism goes, even though it is innocents who are dying.

I think there’s something to that, though it misses a lot of important points. The schadenfreude overseas is palpable. France, Russia, China, Germany and so on want to punish the U.S. for failing to consult them adequately. They want to decisively rebut the neo-con suggestion prior to the war that once the fireworks started, everyone would fall into line. If they don’t rebut this idea, the consensus seems to be, U.S. behaviour will only get more willful and more dangerous. I think it is clear that the lives of innocent Iraqis come a very distant second after this main priority among the major players.

At home, there is also palpable glee at the early failures in Iraq and a very real satisfaction in the failure to find WMD, even though the failure to find them hurts the U.S.’s reputation abroad enormously. The focus has tended to present the issue as an intervention which has already failed. Things do look terrible, as I have pointed out many times. But it is premature, I think, to conclude that they will stay that way.

Unfortunately, many people, right and left, are focussed on politics as a game in which points are awarded for various outcomes, and when a critic predicts a dire outcome for the country, it’s hardly surprising to see a wedge driven between his desire to see things come out well contrary to his predictions, and his pride in his ability to predict events.

So although it’s often difficult to tell what exactly is motivating particular critics of the admin, if I had a God’s eye view of the debate, I would not be surprised to see a bit of darkness in the hearts of admin critics.

But this misses many of the legitimate reasons to feel very passionate about how badly things are going in Iraq. I think conservative critics would do well to recall the kinds of charges that they made in the build up to the war. Anti-war groups didn’t support the troops (fuck off, we just didn’t want them killed for no reason); we’re all nervous nellies (look who’s nervous now); you’re a paranoid conspiracy monger if you doubt the admin’s intelligence on Iraq (uh huh); we can’t tell you how we know that Iraq is a threat because that would compromise sources (it’s safe no – where are they?); the anti-war crowd is naive about the ways of the world (who looks naive and foolish now?); the anti-war crowd doesn’t care about the suffering of the Iraqi people (you’ve just botched a great many chances to really help the Iraqi people). And so on. There was an enormous amount of abuse heaped on the anti-war movement prior to the war and much of it was desperately unfair. So it’s not hard to see why many people consider this payback time.

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2003 08 30

A short post over at the Volokh Conspiracy reads:

Consistency test? Today’s New York Times tells us that the bombing in Iraq, which killed a moderate Shiite leader, “dealt a blow to American efforts to establish order…” Other papers have said pretty much the same. But when the United States, or Israel, kills terrorist leaders, are we not told that dozens will rise to take their place, making the movement stronger than ever?

Attacking militants in the occupied territories, especially when it kills bystanders, does presumably help to recruit more radicals. That’s because killing anyone tends to polarize groups of people, and adds to a general sense of instability. The killing of the “moderate” (relatively – he has a shady past, but was willing to cooperate in a limited and grudging way with the U.S.) Shiite leader hurts the U.S. precisely because he was moderate.

Kill moderates and moderates are less likely to take their place. Kill radicals, especially in a messy way, and you are likely to get more radicals.

So what’s the point? I don’t see a problem with consistency here.

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2003 08 30

If you’re looking to put your finger on the neo-con pulse, don’t miss Bernard Lewis’ piece, Fixing Iraq, which was originally published in the Wall Street Journal. Lewis makes one or two sensible points, but the piece is remarkable mainly for some astonishing howlers.

The praise for Lewis in the popular press, and especially on the neo-con right, is consistently rapturous, so I’m always a little surprised when I read him and find his arguments weak and his grasp of the facts poor. This is, after all, a hoity-toity professor at Princeton, and a man with real influence on the current admin.

What am I talking about? Here are a few examples:

Lewis begins with what he thinks is a surprising contrast between the American experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. You might think, he argues, that Iraq would go well and Afghanistan not, given their histories. In fact:

In Afghanistan, at first, things did indeed go badly, and there are still problems, both in the country and in the government, but they are manageable. Today with minimal help from the U.S., a central government is gradually extending its political and financial control to the rest of the country and dealing more and more effectively with the problem of the maintenance of order; in Iraq, after an easy and almost unresisted conquest, the situation seems to grow worse from day to day. While the Afghans are building a new infrastructure, Iraqis–or others acting in their name–are busy destroying theirs.

Minimal help indeed. What this proves is that even a professor emeritus looks stupid if he stops reading the paper. The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating rapidly, in large part precisely because of “minimal help from the U.S.” There is no central government, and efforts to rebuild the infrastructure are foundering on fresh attacks which occur daily. In fact, we’ve probably lost the best chance to rebuild Afghanistan (not that this means giving up) by squandering the very real momentum the U.S. enjoyed after the war.

Lewis goes on to argue that al Qaeda buys into the theory that the U.S. is a paper tiger. I think there’s a great deal to that, and bin Laden’s public statements give it some corroboration. However, Lewis goes on to argue that the vigorous U.S. response to Sept. 11th has undermined this notion:

The response to this attack, and notably the operations in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, brought a rude awakening, and that is surely why there have been no subsequent attacks on U.S. soil. But the perception has not entirely disappeared, and has been revived by a number of subsequent developments and utterances.

Lewis’ “not entirely” obscures just how much the notion has been rebuted by American action. It rests uncomfortably alongside the “surely” of the previous sentence, which is plainly idiotic: There have been no attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11 because they haven’t yet managed it and perhaps also because they really are on the run. But there is a difference between being on the run and being cowed. As for bin Laden’s own attitudes, Lewis – perhaps out of loyalty to the admin – overlooks bin Laden’s recent announcement crowing about his escape from Tora Bora, an escape which appears to have been made possible by U.S. military blunder and indecision. This is an astonishing omission on Lewis’ part because it is the singlemost important event for bin Laden since 9/11 and he emerged with his sense of U.S. (lack of) resolve confirmed. Let me just speculate that if a democratic president had been responsible for the getaway at Tora Bora we would be hearing a great deal more about it from Lewis, and from the press in general.

Lewis actually seems to me right about one source of anti-Americanism in the region, but he overrates it to the point of parody:

During the last few months the fear has often been expressed in Europe and America that democracy cannot succeed in Iraq. There is another, greater, and more urgent fear in the region–that it will succeed in Iraq, and this could become a mortal threat to the tyrants who rule most of the Middle East. An open and democratic regime in Iraq, inevitably with a Shiite majority, could arouse new hopes among the oppressed peoples of the region, and offer a corresponding threat to their oppressors. One of these regimes, that of Iran, purports to be Islamic, and was indeed so in its origins, though it has become yet another corrupt tyranny.

There is some good evidence for this attitude towards Iraqi democracy in a number of states in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia. But this source of anti-Americanism depends, paradoxically, on belief in America’s good intentions. Lewis fails to note that, alas, confidence in U.S. intentions is not running particularly high these days. So it is a bit of a stretch to call it a “greater, and more urgent fear”.

So what should the U.S. do in Iraq?

The best course surely is the one that is working in Afghanistan–to hand over, as soon as possible, to a genuine Iraqi government. In Iraq as in Afghanistan, a period of discreet support would be necessary, but the task would probably be easier in Iraq. Here again care must be taken. Premature democratization–holding elections and transferring power, in a country which has had no experience of such things for decades, can only lead to disaster, as in Algeria. Democracy is the best and therefore the most difficult of all forms of government. The Iraqis certainly have the capacity to develop democratic institutions, but they must do so in their own way, at their own pace. This can only be done by an Iraqi government.

Fortunately, the nucleus of such a government is already available, in the Iraqi National Congress, headed by Ahmad Chalabi. In the northern free zone during the ’90s they played a constructive role, and might at that time even have achieved the liberation of Iraq had we not failed at crucial moments to support them. Despite a continuing lack of support amounting at times to sabotage, they continue to acquit themselves well in Iraq, and there can be no reasonable doubt that of all the possible Iraqi candidates they are the best in terms alike of experience, reliability, and good will. It took years, not months, to create democracies in the former Axis countries, and this was achieved in the final analysis not by Americans but by people in those countries, with American encouragement, help and support. Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress deserve no less.

It is difficult to know how to respond to someone who thinks that the U.S. approach is working in Afghanistan, but let me try to pick through this mess. I do agree that holding elections very quickly could easily lead to disaster. For one thing, doing this always favours groups who are able to hit the ground running, and in Iraq that means, remnants of the regime, tribal leaders with dubious principles and religious leaders. Holding elections at a time of maximum instability also means that the stakes are that much higher in the elections, and groups tend to be more vicious when they see themselves competing for their lives as well as votes.
But after talking a good talk about gradual self-determination, Lewis ruins his argument – utterly – by throwing in his lot for Chalabi. This is wrongheaded in a number of ways. Here are two. First, Chalabi would be, and would be perceived as, a foreign imposition. There’s nothing discreet about imposing Chalabi on the Iraqis. The man appears to have almost no backing in Iraq. He and the INC appear to be more of a laughingstock. And notice that there is not a single mention of Iraqi public opinion about Chalabi. Lewis doesn’t see that there is a difference between legitimate caution in the transition to a democratic government and complete disregard in the meantime for Iraqi public opinion.

The second is that Chalabi is, apart from the lack of support he commands in Iraq, apparently quite unreliable. It’s not just the banking scandals, the missing CIA money from the 90s, the run of the mill pre-war exaggerations about his support in Iraq. It’s the fact that he was the source of so much of the phony intelligence that (mis)led the U.S. into Iraq in the first place. The yolk on the faces of so many of Lewis’ friends in the admin comes from eggs painstakingly collected by Chalabi over the last few years. You would think that some bitterness toward Chalabi would be in order.

Far from bitterness, Lewis refuses the opportunity to reevaluate some of his assumptions about Chalabi. The man is detested not only by Iraqis, but also by significant portions of the U.S. government. A thinly veiled call to install him at the next leader of Iraq does not simply demonstrate that Lewis is out of touch with events in Iraq. It also demonstrates that he’s out of touch with American politics. Many people in Washington resent the egg on their respective faces far more than Lewis does. Chalabi is finished as far as they’re concerned.

Speaking of the domestic scene, Lewis’ remark about “a continuing lack fo support amounting at times to sabotage” is both dishonest and stupid. But Josh Marshall has already done a great take down on this bit, and I’d just be repeating what he says.

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2003 08 28
[Canada and Rwanda]

This from Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade:


Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham welcomed Rwanda’s first pluralist
election since its independence and its first election since the 1994

“Although irregularities were noted prior to the elections, we are pleased
that Rwanda appears to have committed itself to the path of national
reconciliation,” said Minister Graham. “We are all aware of the legacy and
consequences of the tragic genocide perpetrated nine years ago. This
election marks the end of the transition period and is a new step in the
country’s democratization process.”

Canada’s team of observers in Kigali confirmed that the August 25
presidential election went relatively smoothly with no major incidents and
that the electoral process was followed. The high participation rate at the
polls deserves mention, as the observers indicated that over 80 percent of
Rwandans turned out to vote.

This is silly. Is an election only marred by what happens on polling day? The “although” that kicks off the penultimate paragraph is insulting to the reader’s intelligence. You can’t fix serious irregularies in the leadup to an election with a peaceful turnout.

Kagame seems to have passed up the chance to hold a genuinely open election, as and that’s what Canada should say.

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2003 08 28
[Israeli-Palestinian dispute]

All Sides Failed to Follow ‘Road Map’ (

An unusually good piece on the conflict.

I’m not sure where we go from here. I do have my own pet solution to the conflict, though I admit it suffers from defects of its own.

First, I agree with a growing number of critics of Oslo that defering “final status” issues is a disaster. If they’re going to make peace, both sides are going to need to have a final deal in view. If the quartet absolutely insists on the “matching concessions” model, then they have to take responsibility for monitoring the concessions. Both parties will try to cheat. The cheating needs to be roundly denounced, on both sides.

Second, any final deal with look like this: roughly 1967 borders, with a few swaps for land around Jerusalum. And I’m not talking about swapping shit for prime real estate. The swaps have to be minor and fair. Water issues need to be addressed, not swept under the table. The rest of the settlements have to go. The Palestinians have to give up the right of return, in return for compensation funded liberally by Western governments (especially European ones, and in particular Germany).

Speaking of compensation, there is an idea now floating around that radically liberalizing Western immigration laws for Palestinians might do something to lesson political and population pressures in a fledgling state. As a Canadian, I would be very happy to support this. We might consider some small atonement for the permanent stain on our honour attaching to our rejection of boatloads of Jews fleeing the holocaust. We owe this.

This would give the Palestinians what they say they want: a state of their own.

But for my part, I can’t see why they want it.

Even a fair deal would leave the Palestinians with a tiny, impoverished state, suffering from the aftermath of the destruction of so much of its civil society, and permanently at the mercy of much stronger neighbours in a very tough neighbourhood. If I were Palestinian I would be interested in rethinking the assumption that Palestinians need a state of their own. Statehood seems to me second best.

Here’s how to achieve this second best option: Offer Israel a choice between the best and the second best option. The best option involves joining Israel in a pluralistic state. Absurd to talk about at this point, I admit, but here’s how to solve the conflict in 15 minutes. Arafat makes a major address to the Palestinian people which goes like this: “My fellow Palestinians, all these years we’ve fought for a state, and for what? A state of our own would be a disaster at this point. I have a better idea. Let’s say to the Israelis, hey, you want it, you got it. Let Israel’s true and internationally accepted borders reach from the sea to the river, and from the Golan (wait, hear me out, this is in our best interests!) to Egypt. Let it include all the occupied territories, except let us no longer refer to the territories as occupied. We only ask for one thing: Let us vote. Make us cititizens. This is the only price of the land.”

Now, Israel is never going to take them up on this, but allowing for this possibility would tend to bring things into a clearer focus. Either Israel accepts the deal, in which case (however unlikely), the Palestinians can bring their fight straight to the ballot box. Or (far more likely), Israel comes under enormous pressure, far more pressure than terrorism could ever exert, to make a deal and quick or face the reality that their country is more and more resembling an Apartheid regime (straight up comparisons are unfair because Arab Israelis, for all their problems, enjoy many benefits that blacks could only dream of under Apartheid). It would also bring the settlement issue into focus: “What are you doing with this land,” everyone could ask, “if you don’t accept responsibility for it? If you accept responsibility for it, make the people who live on it citizens. Otherwise, get the hell out of there.” As it is, many Israelis want to have their cake and eat it too: Framing the issue this way would force them to make the choice.

It’s heretical to suggest this, but these are the only two long term solutions to the conflict.

I confess the main problem with this plan is that people are far too polarized at this point, far too bitter, to agree to much. Both sides have backed into a corner, and extremists can derail any conceivable deal by provoking the other side into retaliation. Still, if you want a solution, this is it.

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2003 08 28
U.S. Now Signals It Might Consider U.N. Force in Iraq

U.S. Now Signals It Might Consider U.N. Force in Iraq

The focus these days is on whether and how the U.S. should back down on the issue of internationalizing the occupation of Iraq. Not enough attention is being paid to the fact that, if the occupation is internationalized, it won’t just be the U.S. backing down. Much of the force of the rhetoric coming from Germany, France, and co. in the buildup to the war came from an implied threat: if that’s how the U.S. wants to be, then it’s not going to have any help afterwards. So although everyone is now kicking and screaming to see things internationalized, that may be partly because they’re doubtful that the U.S. is going to call their bluff. After all, calling the bluff means that these countries can no longer punish U.S. misbehaviour prior to the war, and giving that up means retrospectively diminishing the force of the rhetoric. And in international relations, you avoid doing this if you can.

Not only that, but Iraq is, everybody notices, quite dangerous. Suppose you internationalize the occupation with very generous concessions from the U.S. which make it irresistable for more parties to get involved. Given the unpopularity of the war, how many casualties, exactly, can other countries be expected to bear? Or more to the point, how many casualties will public opinion in these other countries tolerate? My guess is that the number is vanishingly small in many of the countries where the war was least popular.

Failure to see the implications of this is now fueling pie-in-the-sky hopes that the whole thing would work out if only we could get everyone on board.

People are content to talk about internationalization, but at the end of the day it would still be the internationalization of a conflict that the international community has decisively rejected. Add to this the fear that internationalizing the conflict would retrospectively legitimize it, and you can see that it’s easier to get on your soapbox and sound off about internationalization than to describe how exactly the very real rift between the parties could be mended.

This is not to knock internationalization, of course. The point is simply that the time to internationalize the conflict was before the war. You can’t press recklessly ahead with some plan and then bring everyone on board once it’s a fait accompli. After a while they dig their heels in – not just out of pique (though, lord knows, it includes that), but out of desire to make a point that will get them a more effective hearing the next time.

So don’t expect a compromise to emerge from the latest wrangling at the U.N. The U.S.’s allies are unlikely to hand the U.S. even a rhetorical victory on this one, and if they do, don’t expect much substance from it. I’m afraid that with its rhetoric the Bush admin has succeeded in mobilizing a powerful desire to contain the U.S. Containment won’t, of course, take particularly active forms. Rather, it will most likely take the form of a slow, passive refusal to help where help is needed.

And now more than even help is needed.

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2003 08 27

Perle Cites Errors in Iraq, Urges Power Transfer

This is the closest to self-criticism Perle’s ever going to get. My favorite line:

“Our principal mistake, in my opinion, was that we didn’t manage to work closely with the Iraqis before the war, so that there was an Iraqi opposition capable of taking charge immediately,” he said.

Principal mistake, indeed. Translation: “State and the CIA didn’t go along with my Chalabi-lovin’ friends at the AEI. They’re to blame.”

There’s another worrying suggestion that you can expect to see pick up steam, on both the right and the left, in the next few months:

Today, the answer is to hand over power to the Iraqis as soon as possible,” he added.

This is predictable advice, from someone who was willing to play the “Don’t you care about Iraqis?” card, but surely never really gave a shit about the people he wanted to “liberate” (unlike people like Hitchens, who, I believe, really were sincere). Prematurely transfering power would also have predictable results. For better or worse, the U.S. has no made a committment, and to pull out too early would be disasterous and disasterously irresponsible.

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2003 08 27
[More war?]

Bush, Speaking to Veterans, Says Iraq May Not Be Last Strike


Unlike the earlier rhetoric, this is just bluster, perhaps in anticipation of the N. Korea talks. By invading Iraq, the U.S. has severely restricted what it can now do – precisely the opposite of its intended effect.

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2003 08 27

Follow this link to get a taste of theastonishing ignorance among top leaders of Hamas.

Again, I hate Israeli policies: they’re mostly stupid and counterproductive. And I think I’m open to quite radical critiques of the occupation. But there is a serious question here: How do you make peace with this?

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2003 08 26
[Going to war]

The Best of George W. Bush – The bravest thing he ever did. By William Saletan and Ben Jacobs

The fact that the decision was made to go to war in the summer of 2002 is finally getting some play. Here’s another example.

Remember, you heard it here first . . . if you were reading me then, which you were most likely not.

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2003 08 26
[Iran’s atomic program]

UN watchdog eyes Iran’s atomic program

More evidence of Iranian shenanigans. Now, the theory was that invading Iraq would help transform the region, not only by breaking the OPEC cartel but also by allowing the US to put more direct pressure on Syria and Iran. And in fact critics of the admin often bought this premise, including myself: One of the big fears on the left was that that invading Iraq would empower the admin to do even riskier things, that it would lead to even more reckless adventurism. I think it’s fair to say that this very assumption was a selling point for some people in the pro-war camp. (We also worried that what is happening would happen. But I think that I’m describing a real pre-war fear here.)

We were all to the extent that we were afraid of this, wrong. Now, as the U.S. turns its attention to the Iranian nukes program, it finds itself a) enormously burdened down by complications in Iraq; b) enormously burdened by the diplomatic damage it recklessly incurred in the buildup to war; and c) fighting an up-hill battle in terms of credibility, which has been shredded by the rhetoric it used in the buildup to war.

All of this means that the U.S. has considerably less freedom of movement now than it did a year ago. Now that’s it has put its chips on the table, it can’t easily threaten to move them anywhere else very quickly.

Now, there are two kinds of criticism you can level here. The first is the moral criticsm of the policy, focusing on hypocrisy, viable alternatives to war, etc. The admin clearly doesn’t give a crap about that. The other criticism is to argue that the policy is incompetent: that, given the goals of the admin, the policy has been poorly formulated to achieve them. Although it’s likely to be brushed off too, I think this one stings people in the admin, who see themselves as masterfully competent.

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2003 08 24
Taking Arabs seriously

Taking Arabs Seriously

Check out this piece by Marc Lynch in Foreign Affairs, the journal where the establishment goes to talk to itself. Lynch’s point is that a number of flawed assumptions dominate thinking about the Middle East. Here’s a consise statement of the main ones:

One such assumption is that Arabs respect power and scorn attempts at reason as signs of weakness — and so the way to impress them is to cow them into submission. Another assumption is that Arab public opinion does not really matter, because authoritarian states can either control or ignore any discontent. Still another is that anger at the United States can and should be disregarded because it is intrinsic to Islamic or Arab culture, represents the envy of the successful by the weak and failed, or is simply cooked up by unpopular leaders to deflect attention from their own shortcomings. And a final, increasingly common notion is that anti-Americanism results from a simple misunderstanding of U.S. policy. Together, these concepts have produced an approach that combines vigorous military interventions with a dismissal of local opposition to them, offset by occasional patronizing attempts to ‘get the American message out’ (through well-intentioned but ineffective initiatives involving public diplomacy, advertising, and the promotion of radio stations featuring popular music). Not surprisingly, the result has been to alienate the very people whose support the United States needs in order to succeed.

You might think that all this is too obvious to need stating . . . until you look at the policies and the people who make them. (It is nice to see the idea that Arabs are singularly impressed by “strength” challenged. If you were casting about for a racist stereotype, wouldn’t you look in the other direction? Just asking!)
Rather, argues Lynch:

The United States needs to approach regional public diplomacy in a fundamentally new way, opening a direct dialogue with the Arab and Islamic world through its already existing and increasingly influential transnational media. Such a dialogue could go a long way toward easing deep-seated anger over perceived American arrogance and hypocrisy and could address the corrosive skepticism about Washington’s intentions, which colors attitudes toward virtually everything the United States does. It might also help nurture the very kinds of Arab liberalization that the Bush administration claims to seek.

And again:

Rather than shun them out of pique, the United States should try to change the terms of debate in the Arab world by working through them and opening a genuine dialogue. Doing so effectively, however, will require more than simply sending more officials onto talk shows, especially because all too often such appearances only confirm the viewers’ worst stereotypes. On one recent al Jazeera program, for example, a running survey tallied votes on the question, “Is the United States acting as an imperialist power in Iraq?” The longer a prominent former U.S. official talked, the more voters said yes, with 96 percent voting yes by the end of the show.

And once again:

It is conceivable, therefore, that more honest and less overbearing diplomacy by the Bush administration might have produced greater international support for a campaign against Saddam, even in the Arab world. But Washington chose not to go that route, relying instead on calculations that Arab public opinion would be won over by a quick and clean American victory in Iraq followed by images of Iraqis welcoming U.S. troops as liberators. Radicals would be shocked and awed by U.S. military prowess, the argument ran, while mainstream Arab publics would be impressed by the gratitude of the Iraqi people for their newfound freedom. Anti-American voices would be discredited, opening a window for new thinking and self-criticism.

The current American attempts at propoganda in the Middle East and simplistic and naive. What’s needed is a more genuine dialogue:

Arabs and Muslims recognize and dismiss such efforts as propaganda, something they are quite familiar with from their own regimes. They are angered at being treated like children and feel the sting of contempt in being objects of manipulation rather than true interlocutors. As one Egyptian bitterly complained, “Americans think Arabs are animals, they think we don’t think or know anything.” Only by treating Arabs and Muslims as equals, listening carefully and identifying points of convergence without minimizing points of disagreement, will a positive message get through. It may be uncomfortable — particularly for this administration — but Washington needs to put its own interests and viewpoints up for discussion as well, rather than focusing solely on Arab pathologies. And words will have to be matched by deeds if they are to have any chance of persuading a highly suspicious and skeptical audience. . . . Successful dialogue requires minimizing power considerations and demonstrating mutual respect. Obviously, no U.S.-Arab dialogue could or should avoid the reality of American power, but invoking that superiority too directly would cripple efforts at rational persuasion. Arab and Islamist commentators focus obsessively on the imbalance of power and hardly need to be reminded of their weakness. Relying on “shock and awe” to win respect will alienate far more than it will persuade. Threats of force, no matter how useful in the short term, will entrench the impression of American hostility and ensure future conflict.

This is about as sensible a piece as you’re likely to read in Foreign Affairs. Unfortunately, it is also defective in the conventional-wisdom way that Foreign Affairs is so often defective. The author spends almost the entire piece talking about a respectful dialogue, and precious little time on the fundamentals of the policies that people in the Middle East find so abhorent. Yes, I concede that the Arab media is, as far as I can tell, as biased and unfair as Fox News. But doesn’t Lynch fall into the trap of condescending to Arabs by focussing so intently on American rhetoric rather than American behaviour? (He does, towards the end of the piece, address some real policies that are also a problem. But his recommendations are shallow and so incomplete that they would still leave U.S. policy deeply and persistently unjust.) Without a serious change in American behaviour, no amount of window dressing is going to solve the U.S.’s PR problem in the region, and to think otherwise really is to fall into the trap of seeing Arabs and gullible, naive, and easily manipulated.

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2003 08 23
Arafat halts purge

Telegraph | News | ‘Road map’ in shreds as Arafat halts purge

The PA is now claiming that Arafat was on the verge of ordering a purge of militant groups . . . if only Israel hadn’t assassinated a leader of Hamas! This is a fairly transparent lie – so transparent that there is no excuse for that stupid headline. Every single Israeli strike is followed by some such announcement, often that Hamas was on the verge of proclaiming a ceasefire. When you look at the details of the “ceasefire”, though, the fine print always has a “and the Jews will be pushed back to the sea” clause.

The Israeli assassination policy is idiotic and immoral, but let’s not kid ourselves. Arafat had no intention of ordering a purge.

(By the way, the PA line all along has been that this was too difficult without significant concessions from Israel. Now they were going to pull it off after tensions have been racheted up that many more notches? Give me a break. Either he could or he couldn’t. If he could, he should have earlier. If he couldn’t, then this is a silly lie.)

(Also by the way, the NYT noted in a piece recently that the Hamas leader killed was actually – by Hamas’ standards – fairly moderate. Precisely the sort of person you would want to attempt, if you were serious about peace, to coax into a more moderate position. It’s not surprising that the IDF went after him. Potential moderates are the most dangerous militants of all, and the Israelis, just like the Palestinians, never miss a chance to pass up an opportunity.)

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