January 2004

2004 01 14
[Safire on Iraq]

Two questions about Safire’s least loony column in a long time.

First, Safire writes:

The U.S. is committed to helping to build a unified Iraq, with no path to secession, and with representation based on geography, not ethnicity. The Kurds, a 20 percent minority in Iraq, are committed only to autonomy within a federal Iraq: they refrain from declaring independence, but require constitutional and security guarantees that they will not be tyrannized again.

Says who? Why does the U.S. get to make that call? As a Canadian who not too long ago faced the very real prospect of seeing his country break up, I can tell you that separation is an emotional, complex issue. And Safire is mistaken about long-term Kurdish goals, I suspect. I would not be surprised to see strong support for the succession option once the U.S. is out of the way. There aren’t any easy answers here. But it seems arrogant and hubristic for American commentators to be making these calls.

Second, Safire writes:

The key is the city of Kirkuk, which Iraqi Kurds consider their capital. But Arab colonists and indigenous Turkmen dispute that hotly, as does Turkey, worried about a rich Kurdistan attracting Turkish Kurds. Kirkuk sits atop an ocean of oil holding 40 percent of Iraq’s huge reserves.

Two factual questions here: First, my impression was that Kirkuk (and the surrounding area) did have a substantial Arab population in the region for a long time – it’s just that Saddam Hussein’s Arabization policies aggressively tipped the balance against the Kurds. So if I’m right about that, it’s very simplistic to claim that all the Arabs currently living in Kirkuk are “colonists”. (And I’ve long ago given up hope that the Times fact checkers would be allowed anywhere near Safire’s column.) The second factual question has to do with oil: I had Safire’s impression that Kirkuk was sitting on lots of oil. But Juan Cole keeps downplaying the significance of Iraq’s Northern oil reserves. What gives? Does anyone know for sure? What are the estimated extraction costs (the singlemost important thing to know about oil reserves) in the North as compared to the South?

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2004 01 12
[Safire, again]

Another silly Safire column.

It’s too tedious to discuss at length. Just want to point out one thing. Safire has a long list of things supposedly accomplished by Bush’s aggressive foreign policy. The enemies of the U.S. worldwide are, according to Safire, finally willing to bargain with a U.S. that clearly means business.

But here’s the thing: The U.S. military is now tied down and over-extended in Iraq. It has also lost a great deal of the diplomatic support it needs to wage wars. Still a force to be reckoned with, of course, the most powerful in the world. But it is less able now, far less able, to threaten its enemies militarily. That’s because everyone can see perfectly well that the military is tied down and the U.S. discredited diplomatically.

Nor is it really right to attribute gains to enhanced U.S. credibility. Do anyone really think before the invasion of Iraq that the U.S. wouldn’t invade a country if it seriously wanted to?

So I don’t think it’s right to interpret diplomatic progress with difficult countries as evidence that acting all tough works. Not at least if acting tough has obviously made you weaker.

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2004 01 12

This is a long, interesting, and sensible guest-post on the topic of evil over at Normblog.

I was thinking about this subject the other day as I read over an old Hitchens article in Slate criticizing people for sneering at Bush’s use of the term “evil”. Whether deliberately or not, Hitchens seems to miss the point. When people like myself sneer at Bush for using the term “evil”, we’re not sneering at the term “evil”, we’re sneering at Bush-using-the-term-“evil”. I agree with Garrard that the term “evil” is an indispensible part of our moral vocabulary and that objections to it are usually misguided. The problem with Bush’s use of the term include, but are not limited to, the following:

a) We feel that it is connected intimately with Bush’s moral arrogance, his refusal to examine his own behaviour. And we see that as dangerous.
b) We feel that, however justified the use is in a particular case, Bush comes by the application of the term dishonestly. For Bush, it is a symptom of lazy thinking (which we righly see as dangerous), even if many uses of the term aren’t a symptom of lazy thinking.
c) We feel that in the wrong hands the term functions (and is intended to function) as a debate-stopper rather than part of an attempt to inform or articulate a principled position. We can’t help noticing that many people who use it in the current political climate regard themselves as exempt from the need to defend their position in any detail, when in fact their own favoured position is not the only response to the evil we both recognize. The objection, then, is not to the use of the term “evil” – it is to the mere use of the term evil in contexts where more desperately needs to be said.

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