Follies of the occupation

2008 07 16
Recently read

Rory Stewart. Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq

“Those hopeless clods, blundering into Iraq without knowing a damn thing about it. They botched an occupation which might otherwise have gone smoothly. Imagine if individuals of character and integrity, with a real understanding of the West’s colonialist history in Iraq, an understanding of Muslim sensibilities, and a bit of bureaucratic savvy to boot, had been a part of the occupation.”

Except that, of course, the incompetence of the upper management in Iraq notwithstanding, there were many people of real ability, depth and nerve involved in that adventure. Rory Stewart was one of them, and he served as deputy governor of Amarah and then Nasiriyah, both in the South of Iraq. He is also a writer of real ability. He has written a book about his experiences, the upshot of which is bleak for anyone inclined to lean heavily on the incompetence defense for the disasters of the occupation. For he seems to have gone at the work of reconstruction and occupation with great energy, skill and determination, and he left with virtually nothing to show for it. Prince of the Marshes tells his story, and tells it well.

Vera Brittain. Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925

Vera Brittain lost her young fiance in World War I, and then two dear friends, and finally her brother. In 1915, she left Oxford to work as a nurse, caring for wounded soldiers, first in Britain, then Malta, and finally France. Her account of the war, and its shattering effects on her entire generation, is powerful, bitter, and moving. At the close of the war, she resumed her studies at Oxford, and on graduating moved on to a career as a novelist, journalist, and activist for internationalism and feminism. The whole tale is engaging, and Brittain writes persuasively and incisively about her causes, especially feminism. But it is the four deaths, and the struggle that follows to accept and understand the senseless waste of talent and energy they represented, that are so moving, and that form the emotional core of the story.

This is a wonderful book, tying together the personal and the political together in way that illuminates each. I got it out of the library after reading about it here. I’m grateful for the recommendation.

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2008 05 05
One man’s modus ponens…

…is another man’s modus tollens.

I really wanted to read this review, but after reading its first sentence, I realized that logic prevents me from doing so1:

If you are interested enough in epistemology to be reading this review, then you must read the marvelous book being reviewed.

1. Chris, this post is meant to make us philosophy types chuckle. No need to point out all the ways in which logic does in fact allow me to read the review and not the book. Just go quietly back to preventing future deaths of little kittens, OK?

(Thanks to noz in comments for helping me figure out how to make makeshift footnotes.)

Howls of outrage (5)

2007 09 18

I wonder how the Iraqi government’s move to kick Blackwater security contractors out of the country is going to play out. My (rather hazy) impression is that while Blackwater contractors in Iraq only number about a 1,000 (nobody seems to know for sure, but that’s the number I’ve seen floating around), they do stuff that the U.S. considers pretty important. It therefore seems a bit much to believe that they’re currently packing up and preparing to go home, whatever the Iraqi government thinks it can order them to do.

My guess: The U.S. leans hard on the Iraqi government over the next little bit and a (secret, of course) “compromise” is reached according to which Blackwater will lease the very same contractors to another outfit, or will set up a dummy company employing the same contractors. This way everyone can claim that “Blackwater” no longer has contractors in the country, when in fact it does.

UPDATE: Wrong! I’m surprised at how quickly and publicly the Iraqi government capitulated. Wow.

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2007 07 27

Norm writes:

A question I have put several times and have not heard an answer to is this: why did not more people who felt they couldn’t support the war in Iraq also not oppose it – in view of the plain fact that opposition meant leaving Saddam’s regime in power, free to continue torturing and murdering Iraqis? OK, they judged the consequences of the war would be worse than the consequences of leaving Saddam in power. But too many of them in doing that, even without taking the side of Saddam’s regime or of the subsequent Iraqi ‘resistance’, were rather more focused and vehement in their animus against the war effort and those prosecuting it than they were in expressing solidarity with democratic forces in Iraq or expressing anything much at all about the enemies of democracy there.

I don’t see what’s wrong with the answer he supplies here himself, which, contrary to what he suggests, he must have heard all over the place, if he was listening: that we opposed the war because we thought even worse things would come of it than Saddam Hussein in power – something we were right about, as Norm now accepts. As for the rest of it, I think we’re back to the argument from silence again. But here’s how it seems to me to work: Norm can construe rhetorical emphasis in opponents of the war in ways that are deeply unflattering to them, but when fairly obvious and problematic issues of rhetorical emphasis are pointed out in his own work, it’s not supposed to be an issue worth worrying about.

Anyway, at this point we’ve whittled down the charge against the bulk of the anti-war types to the fact that we put too much emphasis on our criticisms of the war and not enough on expressing solidarity with Iraqis. Prior to the war, I think the following suffices: we had our hands full. We were trying to stop a disaster, and although it’s hardly the most pressing issue, it’s hard not to be ticked off at people who made a silly game of pretending that trying to avert this disaster meant we had some sort of defective moral sensibilities.

The more important point is that after the war, the criticisms of corruption in the so-called reconstruction were in significant part expressions of solidarity with Iraqis. Criticisms of long-term basing ambitions in Iraq were also in significant part expressions of solidarity with Iraqis. So too were criticisms of many of the other decisions, large and small, that forced Iraqis into a bitter choice between collaboration with a corrupt neo-colonialist invading force with long-term designs on the country and a wretched sectarian insurgency. And, again, Norm had very little to say about these aspects of the occupation (beyond the issue of torture), perhaps distracted by the moral idiocy of the critics of the war, which I suppose is just one more reason to think them naughty.

I’m pretty sure the occupation was doomed anyway, and that no amount of complaining from critics could have saved it. But as long as there was hope we really did need as much focussed criticism as possible of precisely those aspects of the occupation that exacerbated a bad situation. Ritualistic denunciations of the insurgency – people who were widely understood to be wicked, who weren’t listening anyway, and who weren’t accountable to voters – just weren’t a priority.

Howls of outrage (2)

2007 06 20
Arrowhead Ripper

Remember this:

[In Fallujah] The U.S. military turned back fleeing males [who had tested negative for explosive residue on their hands (NYT 11/13/04)] into a war zone ; it used chemical weapons (phosphorus) in the fighting; it preceded the invasion with weeks of fairly indiscriminate heavy bombing in civilian areas; and so on.

Well, here we go again. Meet “Operation Arrowhead Ripper”. From today’s NYT:

By the time dawn broke on Tuesday, the insurgent sanctuary in western Baquba had been cordoned off. Then, the American forces established footholds on the periphery of the section and slowly pressed in. �Rather than let the problem export to some other place and then have to fight them again, my goal is to isolate this thing and cordon it off,� said Col. Steve Townsend, the commander of the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Second Infantry Division.

Unlike Falluja, where most of the population fled in advance of the battle, thousands of civilians remain in the western section of the city.

American helicopters dropped leaflets last night urging the residents to stay in their homes. The hope was to keep civilians off the streets while American forces began to close in on the insurgents. The appeal appeared to have little effect, though, as large groups of civilians mingled on the streets Tuesday and some students even sought to go to the local university.

The presence of so many civilians on an urban battlefield affords the operatives from Al Qaeda another possible means to elude their American pursuers. If the insurgents do not manage to sneak out, some may hide their weapons and try to blend with the city�s residents.

To frustrate such plans, the Americans intend to take fingerprints and other biometric data from every resident who seems to be a potential fighter after they and Iraqi forces have gained control of the western side of the city. The Americans will also test for the presence of explosive material on suspects� hands.

Officers are hoping that local residents and even former insurgents who have split with Al Qaeda may quietly help the American troops pick out insurgents. American troops have already begun to work with more than 100 Iraqis on the eastern side of the city � a group American soldiers have nicknamed the �Kit Carson scouts.� To try to prevent insurgents from escaping, American commanders are also stepping up their reconnaissance efforts.

With the little media scrutiny that the atrocious Fallujah offensive garnered, and with US generals and political elites eager to have something to hang their hat on come September, you can bet that Operation Arrowhead Ripper is not going to be a pretty sight. Still, September will be an extremely important time for anti-war arguments. Powerful arguments will be made on the basis of the indiscriminate excesses of what was “necessary” in Fallujah in 2004, and still “necessary” in Baquba in 2007. Let’s hope the reporting makes such arguments possible. We know the US Military will do their part.

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2007 02 01
There’s an allegory in here somewhere

Paul Wolfowitz visits mosque, respectfully removes shoes, is revealed to have holes in his socks. Lack of foresight, is what I’m saying here. Certain problems are foreseeable, and if you plan properly you can avoid them, is what I’m saying.

Howls of outrage (3)

2007 01 18
Prediction: The fate of Iraq’s new oil law

I should make more predictions: they’re good at forcing me to think through an issue, and they’re nice and testable, which gives me a chance to look back later on and weep or cheer, as the case may be. On the soon-to-come second incarnation of this blog, I will have a wildly expanded list of categories, including one for predictions, which will make it that much easier for my friends and foes to weep or cheer, as the case may be.

Anyway, let me make a prediction about Iraq’s newly drafted oil law. The proposed law might make it through Iraq’s political process to become the law of the land, but it hardly matters: Renationalizing the Iraqi oil industry will become a test of will and credibility for Iraqi politicians for as long as it takes to renationalize the oil industry. If I was an oil exec, I would be very reluctant to bet on this law. It doesn’t have a chance.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 12 31
Two comments on the execution of Saddam Hussein

1. Dude, if you can fuck up the trial of Saddam Hussein — Saddam Hussein, the butcher of Baghdad, whose crimes are legion, and very well-documented — then there is really nothing on God’s green earth that you can’t fuck up.

2. While disappointed with many features of the trial, I applaud the Bush administration’s vigorous defence of the principle that heads of state are legally responsible for actions they, and their underlings, take while in power. Let’s see where that one takes us, shall we?

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2006 11 28
A Middle East Pony Conference

Obviously Iran is up to a bit of monkey business in Iraq now, and I’m willing to believe that Syria is not being 100% helpful. Still, I never bought the hysterical versions of these claims, pushed most often on the right. The violence and chaos in Iraq seems mostly a mix of homegrown dysfunction and foreign occupation, into which have also stepped various foreign radical groups who are often fiercely opposed to both Syria and Iran. That’s why I have so little faith in the idea that a regional conference with Iraq’s neighbours, in particular Syria and Iran, will help much. They’re not really where the trouble begins, and they’re hardly likely to be able to end it. I do hope that no one is seriously putting a lot of faith in the idea: it seems almost as desperate as staying the course.

Howls of outrage (4)

2006 11 06
Hard case

I’m having a hard time making up my mind about the recent verdict in Saddam Hussein’s case. Although I’m an opponent of the death penalty, I can see that if anyone deserves it he does. On the other hand, I can see why a good case can be made for refusing to apply it even here. I can also see good reasons to have had the trial in Iraq, conducted by Iraqis, as well as good reasons to have had an international tribunal instead. I can see good reasons for trying to prevent Saddam Hussein from grandstanding in court, and also good reasons for having as open a process as possible. I could understand that a little earlier on one judge’s behaviour was inappropriate in ways that called into question his independence, but I was also unsettled at the manner in which he was removed. I can see that the everyone wanted a trial that was quick and focused, but I also worry that the larger goals of the trial were undermined by that focus, since everyone knows that the Americans were afraid to include crimes in the indictment in which they might be complicit.

I watched a video of Saddam Hussein in the court. It was very nice to see him in that position, for all the flaws in the process. All the same, if you’re going to go through all of that trouble, at such cost, to bring someone to justice, you want to do it properly. Even allowing for the very difficult circumstances of the trial, I can’t help feeling that they really lost an opportunity to really show justice done in a comprehensive, honest, and open way.

Howls of outrage (8)

2006 10 20
The Gelb plan to partition Iraq

Right, as I complained a long time ago. The very fact that this plan is being tossed around by Americans is frustrating. It isn’t their choice. It just isn’t. And even if it were the best solution for Iraq, it would be wrong and dangerous for the U.S. to play a crucial role in bringing it about or in taking credit for it afterwards.

Howls of outrage (2)

2006 10 01
Blog, blog, metablog, Normblog

Update: Thanks to Norm for the link. I’ve put up a brief response here.

Norm Geras responds to a critical post by Timothy Burke. I thought I’d say something (quick and partial) since I just recently posted something critical of Norm. When I first saw Burke’s post, I thought some of the points went a bit far; Norm points out a few of the places where it does so.
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Howls of outrage (4)

2006 09 28
Shitting and Pissing on Iraqis?

Sorry, this is just too rich to continue my non-blogging ways: the shit and piss is finally starting to fall on those cursed Iraqis. Mission accomplished! (Nod to Kevin Drum.)

Howls of outrage (2)

2006 09 18
On the Elasticity Theory of Imperial Ambition

Matthew Yglesias has been doing yeoman’s work beating down various versions of the “Incompetence Dodge,” the idea that it was reasonable to support the Iraq War prior to its initiation because it was impossible to foresee how incredibly incompetently the Bush administration would handle the war. Here’s Andrew Sullivan, for example, taking up one aspect of this view:

The more we find out about the spectacular recklessness of this administration’s conduct of the war the less persuasive it is that this operation was always doomed to failure. In my view, although the war was always going to be extremely difficult, it wasn’t necessarily doomed from the start. It was the administration’s relentless, politicized incompetence that doomed it.

Now suppose that more troops had been sent into Baghdad, and imagine that it had been possible to keep them there. Imagine also that these troops had been instructed to prevent the looting that plagued the country immediately after the war. Imagine further that the Iraq army hadn’t been disbanded, the Sunnis alienated unnecessarily, and so on. In other words, imagine that things had gone much better in the first year of occupation. I submit that the U.S. would still be in trouble today, though Iraq itself might have been a bit better off. An explanation for this is provided by the Elasticity Theory of Imperial Ambition, which, applied to today’s world, states that the imperial ambitions of the Bush administration will always expand to fill the available space. If the first year in Iraq had gone better, the Bush administration’s ambitions for Iraq and the region would have been correspondingly grander, and the consequences just as, or even more, dire, once the backlash caught up to them. The basic problem here is that more wars were in the offing, and very little in the way of real representation for the people being liberated. The Grand Plan here is not one that would have ever worked, and the fact that the Bush administration stumbled on the first, rather than the second or third step, couldn’t change that.

The Elasticity Theory of Imperial Ambition explains why the Incompetence Dodge dodges nothing at all: Less incompetence in Iraq would have just entailed greater encouragement to mess things up later.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 04 11
Bush on private military contractors

Here’s a video of an exchange between President Bush and a student asking him a question about private military contractors in Iraq. It’s a decent question, and she asks it well, and awfully politely. She explains that she had managed to ask Rumsfeld a few months prior to the exchange with Bush what law governs private military contractors in Iraq, given that the U.S. military’s own code doesn’t. According to her, Rumsfeld’s answer was that “presumably” – I love that “presumably”; it’s just so Rummy that she must be quoting directly – Iraq’s own laws governed military contractors. The questioner was concerned that this was obviously inadequate, since Iraq lacks the means to enforce those laws. The result has been a lot of heavily armed men operating without any effective legal restraints in an extraordinarily stressful environment. This has proven problematic (e.g.).

So anyone who follows the news in Iraq knows that that is a damn good question. Shootings by contractors (many who have been killed working under incredibly dangerous conditions) seem to be a real grievance Iraqis have with the occupation. The worries about military contractors in Iraq are also connected to the issue of the current American military transformation. The position you take on these worries – whether you think they’re tractable or not – is bound to influence your views about the prudence of some of Rumsfeld’s controversial ideas about the modernization of the American military (though, of course, the use of military contractors pre-dates Rumsfeld). Part of the transformation of the military has involved precisely this shift to an increasing reliance on military contractors to perform a wide range of duties that would formerly have been taken up by the military.

There are two ways of reading what follows the student’s question. The optimistic reading is just that Bush is incredibly comfortable lying in public, and that he was doing so on this occasion. Of course he knows that there’s a serious issue about the legal status of private military contractors, since there’s been quite a debate about this subject, and at some point Biden, or Rice or Powell before he left said something to make him aware that this was an issue. So when Bush acts surprised by the question and completely stumped by it – when he really looks as if he’s never heard anything about this issue – it’s just an act.

The pessimistic reading is that this really is the first that Bush has heard of the issue. On this more terrifying reading Bush is actually unaware of an issue that is at once a) a significant source of resentment among Iraqis, poisoning good will essential to his project even further; b) a serious moral and legal issue arising from the occupation; and c) a necessary piece of information for judging the future direction of the American military.

Bush manages to splutter something about delegation, and then moves on to the next question. I think his response nicely captures the basic problem with the “The President is a Moron but he Delegates Well” theory of Presidential Aptitude, a theory my father was always fond of applying to Reagan back in the day. On the pessimistic reading, which I lean towards, Bush is so out of touch that he is both unable to delegate properly and unable to assess the results of his delegation.

Howls of outrage (8)