September 2003

2003 09 30
[More Plame]

The other day, I guessed the culprits in the Plame affair would turn out to be Libby and Rove.

I confess, this was utterly by the seat of my pants, and not based on any evidence.

Now, it appears that Rove has assured people that he didn’t do the deed. But I’m not ready to take Rove’s word for it. It’s too soon to call the Rove theory dead yet.

As for Libby, I don’t know why I guessed it would be him. But one reason to think so is that the original Wilson article made Cheney in particular look bad, of all the people in the WH.

And, of course, most of the evil in the WH comes from Cheney.

OK, so it’s not very scientific. But that’s my theory. I’m sticking to it for now.

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2003 09 30
A quick note about the Plame affair

Remember that Tenet initiated all this by asking for an investigation, and probably really initiated it by leaking juicy details to the WaPo. So . . . the shit that hit the fan recently was flung by Mr. Tenet, if you’ll excuse the expression.

Why? Well, a couple of motives are plausible, and they’re all compatible. The first is obviously to shore up institutional support within the CIA. The agency takes a dim view of this sort of thing, and Tenet is already disliked by many for failing to stick up to the agency. Screw the WH, problem (partly) solved.

The second is revenge and deterrence. Remember Condi’s absurd attempt to blame Tenet for the whole uranium thing? No one is going to fuck with Tenet when he’s holding so many damn trump cards. And that includes the assholes in the WH who might be tempted to have Tenet take the fall for the mess in post-war Iraq.

But the most obvious reason is cover. This story broke – and has consumed everyone’s attention, including mine – exactly around the time that a new report came out slamming pre-war intelligence. Without this scandal, I think everyone would now be talking about how Tenet’s time has finally come. He’s simply presided over too many screwups.

As things are now, I think it would be very hard to get rid of him. Dumping Tenet at this point would create the impression that the WH was trying to punish him for initiating the Plame investigation.

But if Tenet has succeeded in putting himself off limits for criticism from the WH, I don’t think he’s put himself off limits for anyone else. We shouldn’t remember this as we push the Plame story, however legitimate it is in its own right. We should remember that Tenet has done his job poorly, and his job is to protect us. That’s both frightening and an appropriate focus of criticism.

Now, ahem, back to Plame.

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2003 09 28

Let’s bet on the Plame leaker. For no reason other than a hunch, I’ll put my chips on Libby and/or Rove.

Ah, could be wrong. But sometimes ya just gotta plunk yer chips down.

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2003 09 27
[Dictators, etc.]

Now, if I had a hand in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy, one priority would be to try to avoid a mistake that the U.S. made throughout the Cold War: to support dictators uncritically as the lesser of two evils. I think it’s fair to say that many in the U.S. now rue the decision to treat Saddam Hussein with kid gloves during the 80s, to take just one example.

One area to focus on would be the stans around Afghanistan: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, especially. These are strategically important areas, and I think I can see why the U.S. would consider it in its short term interests, at least, to cultivate the cooperation of the leaders of these countries. But it has been clear to me for some time that the U.S. government is making one of its classic mistakes here: They are aligning themselves with wretched tyrants, and for little long term advantage.

Support for corrupt dictatorships doesn’t work. If you go in for morality, rely on that as your reason to reject current policy. But also reject it if you’re a cold hearted realist: It won’t work. In the long run, societies get ruined more quickly and more thoroughly if their brutal crackdowns are supported by global powers. And when societies are thoroughly ruined, they make for the kind of instability that breeds violence.

Check out this piece in the WaPo.

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2003 09 25
[France bashing on the right]

Much of the right has been foaming at the mouth for a year or so now over France. Question: Is there some consistent ideological basis for this, or do these chumps march in lockstep to the martial tunes emenating from the White House?

There’s actually a very easy test to settle this question: Find a country which has behaved in ways that are relevantly similar to France and see whether it comes in for the same kind of abuse in the right wing press. As I’ve said, this isn’t hard to do. Perhaps you’ve even heard of this country. It’s called Russia.

Russia presented as serious an obstacle as France to U.S. policy in the buildup to war, and for many of the same reasons: greed for oil, a fundamental lack of concern about human rights in its foreign policy, and the kind of deep resentment and rivalry that is felt particularly keenly by has-beens. Since then, besides making the odd friendly noise, Russia has been interested in one thing only, which is to drive a very hard bargain with the U.S. for its support on projects that are really to the mutual benefit of both countries. I suppose it makes sense for the U.S. to bribe Russia to curtail assistance to Iran’s nuclear program, for example. But it is beyond me how the U.S. does this without suffering deep resentment. After all, it’s idiotic for Russia to encourage an unstable nuclear power so close to home. Why does it need to be bribed for this kind of thing?

Now suppose that you think the U.S. has good reasons for these policies. Suppose that it actually makes sense to look the other way when it comes to Russia’s authoritarianism or its grotesque human rights abuses in Chechnya. It still doesn’t make any sense for the right wing press – which is free of the diplomatic constraints imposed on the administration – to look the other way. In fact, Russia has all the features that conservative commentators find so maddening about France, and a whole lot of other quite disgusting details thrown in gratis on top.

As long as neo-cons find France’s failure to provide decent air conditioning for its senior citizens less worrying than Russia’s crimes against humanity in Chechnya, or its deteriorating and corrupt economy, I’ll know I don’t have to take their outrage seriously.

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2003 09 23
[Open investment and Iraq]

Los Angeles Times: Open Investment Policy Looks Like ‘World Occupation’ to Iraq Merchants

Look, this just can’t be true. It can’t. It’s too awful to be true.

I’ve been arguing that the U.S. can’t leave now, even though the war itself was unjustified. Leaving would create a terrible power vacuum with very serious consequences for Iraq and the region. But if you’re going to screw it up utterly, perhaps there is no point in trying.

This is close to being the last straw for me.

Look, you can love the markets as much as the next guy. You can sleep with Hayek under your pillow. You can swoon at the sight of the Wall Street Journal. But you should still admit that there is an embarassing abundance of empirical evidence suggesting that rapid transitions to market economies lead to disaster. If you really want to turn Iraq into a free trade zone (and I thought that might have been a decision for Iraqis to make on their own), you don’t suggest that that sort of wrenching transformation be initiated simultaneously with several other wrenching transformations.

So, I hear a little voice asking, do you really think this is more horrifying than Ba’ath party rule? No, of course not. Not in itself. But it is worse for America than Ba’ath party rule in Iraq, for starters. Also, I desperately want the reconstruction in Iraq to go well, to be proven wrong in my resistance to the war. Unlike so many on the left, I believe that the U.S. has a positive role to play in the world, if it will only play it. But the way things are going, Iraq is sure to be transformed into a burning shithole, and that doesn’t help anyone. Not Iraqis. Not Americans. Not even the Frencch.

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2003 09 17
[Pipes on Oslo]

The Oslo Mistake

What went wrong with Oslo. Daniel Pipes explains:

Many things, but most important was that the deal rested on a faulty Israeli premise that Palestinians had given up their hope of destroying the Jewish state. This led to the expectation that if Israel offered sufficient financial and political incentives, the Palestinians would formally recognize the Jewish state and close down the conflict.

Oh, I get it! It had nothing to do with Netanyahu or the settlers or the wretched conditions in the occupied territories, the closures, the deprivations, the abuse.

I love the use of “the Palestinians” throughout, as if they are a monolithic block of likeminded terrorists.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Pipes’ fantasy is that all of it rests with the Palestinians. This, please remember, is the Bush admin’s recent choice of top thinkers on peace.

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2003 09 17

I have to believe that in the long run the Internet is going to force real changes in the way the press works. Take this piece by Brad DeLong complaining about the way his comments to a reporter at the New York Times had been distorted. DeLong’s post is brief and utterly persuasive. What’s more it manages both to critique the particular distortion and to place it in the context of a general critique about the way the press works. And you just know that the reporter will read it. And will be embarrassed. And annoyed . . . hopefully with himself.

In the past, the expert would have lacked this opportunity. Sure, he could complain very loudly, and then some fraction of the people who read the original story would learn about the distortion. But the effort required would be quite high. DeLong can hammer away at this sort of thing all day. Eventually, people will either stop asking him for his opinion (unlikely, since he’s a big shot; and because his blog must surely enhance his reputation), or will take the damn time to get his comments straight.

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2003 09 17

You would think that all the recent criticism of the U.S. decision in the 80s to back Saddam Hussein would lead to a bit of soul searching about regimes that the U.S. is currently supporting for strategic reasons. You would think.

Look, if we learned any lesson from all that, isn’t it that often we would have been better off from a strictly prudential point of view if we had just followed our consciences and refused to support evil dictators, however convenient it seemed at the time?

I think the situations in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, in particular, demand more attention from our press. These are countries that are slipping further every day into totalitarian nightmares of precisely the sort that breed instability and lawlessness in the long run. And yet they have the U.S.’s support, and the U.S.’s military aid, because they are considered important in the war on terror. I’m telling you, whatever they’re giving the U.S., it’s not worth the long term price.

Here is a nice piece from Eurasianet on the deteriorating situation in Uzbekistan which emphasizes the dilemma it poses for U.S. policymakers.

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2003 09 13
[Napalm, again]

I did a final search for ‘napalm’ in Lexus-Nexus. Nothing about the U.S.’s recent use of napalm in Iraq in the New York Times or the WaPo or . . . virtually anywhere in North America.

Scratch this up as a victory for Google’s new News Service, which allows you to monitor news based on a keyword. The collection of stories is quite random: an editorial from Al-Jazeera, a piece from an Indian newspaper, etc. But it’s exactly that randomness that put the napalm story in my e-mail inbox. If I relied on the editorial sensibilities of the mainstream press I would never have known.

(I’m not saying that napalm use per se presents any greater moral problem than bullets and bombs. Perhaps it does, but I haven’t made up my mind about that yet. I do think it raises difficult questions for the U.S. that it used what is obviously a chemical weapon in this context. No?)

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2003 09 13
[Humanitarian interventions]

Among the rationale’s cited for the war in Iraq was the humanitarian one. I think many well-meaning people (including myself!) who wouldn’t ordinarily have trusted Bush to pick up their groceries were moved by this line of argument. Perhaps not moved all the way, but nevertheless moved. And I noticed a general pattern which I came to term ‘Iraqitis': the more people knew about Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the more they were willing to sanction anything, just anything, to get him out of power. I think I had a touch of Iraqitis a few times during the buildup to the war, as I read Human Rights Watch reports and the like, though never severe enough to short-circuit my brain when it came to forecasting the likely outcomes of an invasion.

The same considerations moved many progressives and liberals over Kosovo: this sick in the stomach feeling that enough is enough and that force is the best option. (In fact, I think Kosovo played an important and underappreciated role in lowering – even further – the American threshold for the use of military force. Whether you supported Kosovo or not, that was one of its effects. So don’t forget to weigh it in the balance of good and evil achieved by the war.) Before then, it was the failure to act in Rwanda – and I believe that Rwanda called for a military response – that gave an extra force to the notion, as people in the West began to digest what they had allowed to happen.

Fair enough.

As I said, I’m at least open to this kind of argument, even if it’s unpersuasive in particular cases.

But humanitarian justifications for war are becoming popular enough that it’s very important now to recognize how very dangerous they can be and how open to abuse they are. What is desperately needed now is more historical context, because I think that a number of historical cases give us special reasons for humility, and special reasons to put humanitarian justifications for particular wars under intense scrutiny, even if we accept them in principle. Today, I have in mind two examples. The first is the conquest of the “New World”. This was, it is astonishing to recall, promoted by appeal to humanitarian concerns: the desire to stamp out cannibalism (save them from themselves!), whose prevalence was greatly exaggerated, and the desire to save their souls for Christianity. The Crusades were also promoted, perhaps even sincerely, by appeal to goals which were religious and moral. And we could go on.

The examples do not debunk the notion of a humantarian justifications for war. But they ought to teach us to be extremely suspicious of them.

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2003 09 13

An interesting piece on Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. The piece rightly calls attention to the failure of Western governments to denounce the very flawed vote Rwanda recently held. Western governments are rightly ashamed of their earlier failure to stop the genocide, and I suppose it is understandable that they would be reluctant to decry a rigged vote after that failure. Still, silence about the flawed vote is no solution – in the long run our reluctance to tell the truth doesn’t do anyone any favours.

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2003 09 13
[Powell rejects French proposal]

Powell Rejects French Proposal (

What’s going on here? Well, there are two questions: How much control of the occupation should the U.S. be prepared to hand over for now? And second, how quickly should the occupiers hand over power to Iraqis?

As far as I can guess, Powell seems right that the French proposal about turning over power to Iraqis is awfully quick. It’s easy for the French to go on about self-determination, but if things are turned around really quickly, they will disintegrate really quickly – and it will be the U.S. on the hook for the failure and not France. My guess is that the French are offering something they know the U.S. couldn’t and shouldn’t accept so that they will be rebuffed again. At least this way they will not seem obstructionist.

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2003 09 10
The lie of self-determination

In the coming months, I predict we will find a good number of lefties agreeing with a good number of righties about a crucial aspect of the future of Iraq. This will be no small agreement, and the consensus among these vocal groups will put considerable pressure on the occupation of Iraq and may well influence its eventual outcome. In short order, I predict, both sides will agree on the great value of Iraqi self-determination. They will do so for different reasons, of course. From the right, I think, we can usually expect cynicism. This will be no exception. Promoting the ideal of self-determination will give the neo-cons who supported the war, but never really wanted to pay for it, a good out. We tried, the line will go, and now matters are up to ordinary Iraqis to work out. From the left, alas, I think we can often expect naiveté. This will be no exception. The ideal of self-determination sounds great and seems the best way of demonstrating respect to a people who’ve gotten the short end of the stick for a very long time.

This is bound to end in disaster. This is not because there is anything wrong with self-determination properly understood, but rather because the term can mean a great many things, some of them worse even than occupation. Self-determination, in the best case, means that ordinary Iraqis are given some genuine control over the political processes which determine the nature of their new state.
It means that the barriers to effective participation in political life are not obstructed by violence, intimidation, or extreme poverty. In the worst case, self-determination means that the guys running the show are Iraqis, and it implies nothing at all about what sort of show it is.

I think the calls for self-determination for Iraqis will derive much of their appeal (beyond the fact that they let the U.S. off the hook) from the attractiveness of the first ideal. I’m afraid that they will be used to support the second, ugly kind of self-determination.

I am all for internationalizing the occupation, though I fear that the time to do that really effectively has now passed. But make no mistake, for the real kind of self-determination to emerge, some sort of occupying force has to create the conditions for it. Democracy is not impossible for Arabs, or Iraqis, or anyone. But it is very difficult for a country emerging from the hell that Iraq was under Saddam Hussein. An early withdrawal of some sort of stabilizing force would favour established groups within Iraq (i.e., clerics, tribal leaders, and remnants of the former regime) because it would leave nascent groups without the time or the protection to develop a standing within a new democracy. Although the tensions between various ethnic groups in Iraq should not be overstated, they are exactly the type of divisions that are easily exploitable by political leaders in conditions of extreme instability.

We’re lying to ourselves if we think that an early withdrawal will lead to anything other than a vicious story of the strong persecuting the weak, a matter of trading one kind of occupation for another. You can call that what you want. I’d rather not call it self-determination.

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2003 09 09
[Schell on Iraq]

I couldn’t disagree more with a recent piece by Jonathan Schell in Alternet. Schell writes:

United States must learn to lose this war – a harder task, in many ways, than winning, for it requires admitting mistakes and relinquishing attractive fantasies. This is the true moral mission of our time (well, of the next few years, anyway).
The cost of leaving will certainly be high, but not anywhere near as high as trying to “stay the course,” which can only magnify and postpone the disaster. And yet – regrettable to say – even if this difficult step is taken, no one should imagine that democracy will be achieved by this means. The great likelihood is something else – something worse: perhaps a recrudescence of dictatorship or civil war, or both. An interim period – probably very brief – of international trusteeship is the best solution, yet it is unlikely to be a good solution. It is merely better than any other recourse.

This is awful. Look, the U.S. shouldn’t have started this war. But as bad as things as, and as bad as I fear they may become, leaving isn’t the right thing to do. The U.S. is morally obliged to try to help now. And it can help. Things are bleak but they are not hopeless. If the U.S. does not help, I am convinced that a civil war, or a return to a terrible sort of tyranny, is inevitable. If it does, these things may still happen, but they aren’t inevitable.
Schell concludes:

The good options have probably passed us by. They may never have existed. If the people of Iraq are given back their country, there isn’t the slightest guarantee that they will use the privilege to create a liberal democracy. The creation of democracy is an organic process that must proceed from the will of the local people. Sometimes that will is present, more often it is not. Vietnam provides an example. Vietnam today enjoys the self-determination it battled to achieve for so long; but it has not become a democracy.
On the other hand, just because Iraq’s future remains to be decided by its talented people, it would also be wrong to categorically rule out the possibility that they will escape tyranny and create democratic government for themselves. The United States and other countries might even find ways of offering modest assistance in the project; it is beyond the power of the United States to create democracy for them.
The matter is not in our hands. It never was.

Bullshit. Referring to the “people of Iraq” and the claiming that Iraq’s “future remains to be decided by its talented people” in this context borders on dishonest. It isn’t the people of Iraq who will decide what happens if the U.S. pulls out, except metaphorically. It will be the strong Iraqis who prey on the weak. It’s cowardly here to fall back on the lie of self-determination or to pretend that we’re helpless to do precisely the things that would actually help Iraqis achieve genuine self-determination. (Schell writes as if the international community had never intervened to help rebuild a society. He writes as if the “organic process” or building democracy couldn’t ever be protected or nurtured by force.)

I agree, the Iraqis don’t like being occupied any more than anyone else. I agree, the U.S. should not have started this war. I agree, things look bleak. I agree, democracy is “an organic process that must proceed from the will of the local people.” But it does not follow that the U.S. can or should leave now.

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