Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Serge in Iraq

I know, I know, it's not Serge in Iraq, it's Surge in Iraq. I spelled it that way to illustrate the power of words. Serge in Iraq sounds absurd, useless, suspiciously fay; Surge in Iraq sounds strong, manly, irresistible.

And that's part of the reason I don't like the idea. The word, which in the last week has cropped up everywhere in the media, is too easy to love. My sense is that, like the Vietnam era domino theory and the more recent examples of "ink spots" and "clear, hold, and build," the nomenclature does more to distract than it does to illuminate. Examined closely and thoughtfully, "surge" doesn't... well, it doesn't hold water.

A surge is a "sudden large increase, typically a brief one." Large? Where will the troops come from? The numbers most commonly discussed are in the 15 to 30,000 range. I'm not a military man, and have only common sense to apply here, but... if General Shinseki was right, and we needed at least 350,000 troops to secure Iraq almost four years ago when conditions were so much more favorable, I don't understand what an extra 15 to 30,000 that takes us up to about 150,000 is going to do now, when the situation is so much worse. As it stands, we can't even prevent saboteurs from cutting off Baghdad's electricity.

As for brevity, the talk is of six to eight months. Hard to see what can be accomplished in that timeframe, when in nearly four years conditions have become so dire. In any event, six to eight months doesn't sound like a long time for insurgents to wait for the surge to recede, after which we'll surely see surging insurgents.

Here's another concern: a surge is a zero sum game. A surge comes from somewhere, and wherever it comes from, there's an equivalent amount less there while the surge lasts. So where will the extra troops come from? We'll either extend deployments and shorten leave, which would put even more strain on the military, or we'll pull the troops from somewhere else, handing over more territory to insurgents in the process. Probably we'll do both.

Because surging in Baghdad means a vacuum in, say, the rest of Anbar province, the "surge" option would be more accurately labeled "pulling the goalie." AKA, a desperation move you try when time is almost out, you have no other options, and the game is otherwise certainly lost. Of course, "pulling the goalie" isn't as appealing a product name as "The Surge," and would therefore present a tougher sell to the public.

As I've argued before, Bush's goal now is to forestall further setbacks long enough to leave office without definitively losing Iraq. Whether the situation there will continue to deteriorate slowly enough, and whether the Republican establishment and the Democratic legislature will permit Bush to play it this way, is hard to say. At this point, all the possible outcomes are ghastly. My sense is that, like a defunct auto plant that is more expensive to close than to keep open, we won't make any real decisions on Iraq for quite some time, and not until things are dramatically worse there.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Only the Children?

It's holiday card time again, and again I've been struck by what seems to me a strange phenomenon. Most of the cards I receive from families include pictures only of the children, not of the parents.

I don't want to read too much into this practice, but... what does it mean? The parents don't matter? Only the children are important? Maybe the idea is that the children change rapidly from year to year, and so require a yearly photo to update the card's recipient, while the parents change relatively little. Or maybe it's the opposite -- the parents think they've changed too much, changes of which they'd rather not apprise their holiday card acquaintances.

A basic psychological test involves asking a child to draw a picture of herself, with no further instructions. The child's decision -- just the face? the whole body? is a family included? is there anything in the background? etc. -- reveals a lot about the way the child perceives herself. If the "children only" holiday cards test something similar, what do they reveal?

I don't think any of this is bad, by the way; I'm just trying to understand it.

Is the "only the children" approach purely an American phenomenon, or do other cultures do it this way, too? The holiday cards I receive from Japan tend to include photos of complete families, but the sample size is too small for me to be sure it means anything. I'm curious how holiday cards are done elsewhere.

Any other thoughts on the cultural origins and implications of the "only the children" approach? Am I alone in wondering?

Happy holidays,

Monday, December 11, 2006

Iraq Study Group: Success Through Failure

The first thing I noticed about the Iraq Study Group's report was the title of its policy prescriptions: The Way Forward. I couldn't help but smile when I saw it. "The way forward?" I thought. "Come on, what we're looking for is a way out!"

I know, I know, that makes me a "surrender monkey," too. Look, probably the heart of the matter here is that there are people who continue to believe Iraq is still salvageable, and that it is within US power to salvage it, on the one hand; and people -- like me -- who believe Iraq is past saving and that we therefore need to change our objectives to damage control. A shame the debate can't be conducted in a way that's respectful of the other side's motives -- except here on HOTM, of course... ;-)

Okay, substance. The meat of the report is in its diplomacy prescriptions: engage Iran and Syria and create something called the Iraq International Support Group, which would "include all countries that border
Iraq as well as other key countries in the region and the world."

My first reaction to all this was, are you kidding? Ain't gonna happen. Too many competing interests, too many countervailing motives. And even if you could put something like this together, what good would it do? Iran probably has some influence over various Iraqi Shiite factions, but the insurgency itself is still primarily Sunni. And even if Iran was restraining Iraqi Shiites from retaliating for Sunni provocations, it seems to have lost that capacity after the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra last February. And even if Iran had the continued capacity to tamp down Shiite violence in a material way, what could we offer the mullahs that would give them incentive to do so?

Now Syria. Suppose we really could "flip" Assad from the Iranian embrace and get him to back our goals in Iraq. How much impact would Syrian cooperation have? You'd have to believe that a significant amount of financial and material support for Iraqi violence is coming from Syria. That is, but for Syrian misbehavior, things in Iraq would be markedly better. I might be wrong, but that's not my read.

But wait, there's still more: The ISG also wants a reenergized Israeli/Palestinian peace process. At this point I was thinking, what do Israel and Palestine have to do with Sunnis and Shiites killing each other in Iraq? And if we can't get out of Iraq until the Israelis and Palestinians are at peace, we're going to be there for a very long time. I was tempted to dismiss the Report as a fantasy.

But then I looked at it on another level. And I think I see what the ISG is really up to.

My guess is, they're "enlarging the problem," as it's known in some policy circles. By engaging other countries on the solution for Iraq, we make them part of the problem of Iraq. Then, when the problem turns out to be unsolvable, we are no longer solely to blame. The narrative then becomes, "The whole middle east -- in the form of the Iraq International Support Group -- tried to fix Iraq, to no avail. It's not working, and we don't want to participate in this larger process anymore. So we're leaving -- not so much leaving Iraq, as leaving this useless regional forum. The failure was everyone's, and it's your problem now."

Remember, the Report also calls for substantial US troop reductions by 2008. Why 2008? Well, there's this presidential election then... and two years is about enough for all that aggressive regional diplomacy to prove itself useless so we can use it as cover to leave.

The ISG has also built in some solid CYA provisions. The Report's recommendations have to be enacted in toto, Baker and Hamilton have argued, otherwise none of it will work. They know no commission report in the history of the Republic has been accepted in toto, and that this one won't be, either. When Iraq disintegrates, therefore, they can say, "Not our fault. We told the president the only chance he had was if he adopted the whole report -- and he didn't."

Bottom line: Taken at face value, the Report's policy recommendations are useless -- practically irrelevant -- for quelling Iraqi violence. But quelling Iraqi violence was never what the ISG set out to do. Despite the silly "way forward" rhetoric, the real purpose of the ISG was to find us a way out -- and a year or two of the failed diplomacy it recommends has as good a chance of that as anything.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Iraq's Disintegration: What it Means

Well, tomorrow's the big day: the Baker Group issues its report on what we should do about Iraq. That the report has been so eagerly anticipated is a measure of the public's understanding of how bad the situation has become. The Bush administration has shown itself capable of managing almost nothing in Iraq; the hope now is that this bit of foreign policy outsourcing will help mitigate the disaster.

Ironies abound. The war was intended to put the fear of God into Iran and Syria; now, it seems, the Commission report will recommend that we seek their help in extricating ourselves. Want to take a guess at the Mullahs' price for cooperation? Stop interfering with Iran's quest for nukes. Translation: if we want the Mullahs' help in getting out of Iraq, we have to accept the nightmare scenario that was part of what brought us in.

I've been arguing since August 2005 that Iraq's disintegration is inevitable and that US policy should be to make the inevitable as least bad as possible. I get a decent amount of angry mail about this position, mostly of the "it's defeatists like you who will cause our defeat" type (the syntax is interesting; these letters won't acknowledge that the defeat is already an accomplished fact). I also get accused of being delighted at our defeat. That's absurd (although apparently comforting to people who like to level such accusations). In fact, I wish we could have relatively bloodlessly toppled Hussein and installed a democracy that would spread throughout the dysfunctional middle east. But it's not going to happen. I sound off about Iraq because I abhor denial, which has no survival value, and admire realism. And I believe the sooner the Bush administration accepts reality in Iraq, the fewer American families will lose sons and daughters there.

I don't understand why some people can't accept a foreign policy situation that has become unsalvageable. At an individual level, we don't have trouble with the notion of events that have moved beyond our control. We can understand the concept of inoperable cancer in an individual; what prevents us from recognizing the phenomenon in a country? Iraq is simply beyond saving now. The body is breaking down; further surgery won't save it, and might even hasten its demise. We need to shift our focus to pain management.

Last week, I asked if Iraq's further disintegration really is the disaster for the west that the conventional wisdom claims. The usual scenarios suggest that when Iraq disintegrates:

1) al Qaeda will establish bases there as it did in Taliban Afghanistan.
2) The Shiite south will become a vassal of Iran.
3) Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be drawn in on the side of the Sunnis, Iran on the side of the Shiites, and internal bloodshed will become a wider regional war. AKA, "instability in the middle east."
4) The price of oil would skyrocket.

Let's look at these one by one.

1) AQ will establish bases in Iraq as it did in Taliban Afghanistan.

Maybe, maybe not. I don't think anyone knows what things will be like on the ground as Iraq continues to break apart. But certainly the Sunnis -- and AQ is a Sunni organization -- will be under a lot of pressure from the Shiites. And certainly the US will maintain "over the horizon" quick reaction forces in Kurdistan and Kuwait capable of attacking AQ and anyone else as we deem appropriate.

2) The Shiite south will become a vassal of Iran.

I don't buy it. Once upon a time, this was the conventional wisdom about China and Vietnam, too: they're both communist, so Vietnam will do China's bidding. In fact, within four years of America's departure, Vietnam and China were at war again, as they had been intermittently for a thousand years. My bet is that, in ignoring the differences in Persian and Arab culture, history, language, and geopolitics, we are making the same mistake in Iraq. In other words, what unites Arab Shiites and Persian Shiites is America's presence. Deprived of a common enemy, they'll be inclined to fight each other. More on this in a moment.

3) Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be drawn in on the side of the Sunnis, Iran on the side of the Shiites, and internal bloodshed will become a wider regional war. AKA, "instability in the middle east."

Possibly. But is this so bad? Why do we insist on taking responsibility for all the middle east's problems? Why not let the neighbors have a go at sorting things out for a change?

There's a natural schism between the Sunnis and Shiites throughout the region and indeed the world. In many ways, America's presence in Iraq has helped both sides paper over their differences (witness popular Sunni Egyption support for Shiite Hezbollah, and Hezbollah's training of Sunni Hamas militants). If, after the US departs Iraq, the Sunni/Shiite feud there spreads to reignite regional sectarian animosity, I think we can live with that. I'd rather Sunnis and Shiites fighting each other than united against us.

That hoary foreign policy phrase "middle east instability" needs to be reexamined. It's been said too often, and now has all the clarifying freshness and insight of a mantra. The middle east is unstable and always has been. Outside powers haven't managed to stabilize it yet, and our latest efforts have coincided with a resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; the election of Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza; the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon; a Syria/Iran alliance; the Israeli/Hezbollah war; and a resurgent Iran on the threshold of becoming a nuclear power. I wonder if a laissez-faire would do worse. It would certainly cost less.

4) The price of oil would skyrocket.

Yes, with the remnants of Iraq's oil production taken off line, and possible disruptions elsewhere in the region, the price of oil would rise. Our economy might take a short term hit. I think that as a society we ought to be willing to endure this rather than continuing to send young Americans to be killed for no real gain.

But here's the beautiful part: the economy would adapt. Economies are like organisms, and grow stronger in response to graduated stress. Japan's multinationals, for example, had a tough time of it during the 90's when the yen was at an all time high against the dollar, but they adapted their tactics and actually became more competitive in the face of exchange rate stress.

I once owned a salt water aquarium, and learned that marine fish are among the most fragile organisms because they've never had to adapt to change. They've evolved in an environment of constant temperature, pH, and salinity. Alter any one of those variables even a little, and marine fish die because they've never had to adapt to change before.

The tragedy of US petropolicy is that its sole aim has been to maintain the constancy of the external environment, rather than focusing on how to increase the underlying organism's adaptability. As a result, our economy is as vulnerable to an oil shock as a marine fish is to sudden change in salinity. If we had any sense, we would manage a process of gradual change -- that is, a gradual increase in the price of oil through a carbon tax -- so the economy would learn to adapt, and grow stronger. A managed process would have been less painful than the inevitable course of events imposed from outside. But still, our economy will survive those events, and, after the initial pain of adjustment, will emerge stronger than it was before. Despite us, in other words, rather than because of.

What do we do? Accept the inevitable. Draw down to garrisons. Ride it out. The fall of Saigon was going to be the end of the world, too. But thirty years later, Vietnam is a capitalistic, albeit authoritarian, nation, on the brink of WTO entry and a bulwark against a resurgent China. We'll survive the current misadventure, too. The only question is, how much worse will we make things first. We'll have a better idea tomorrow, when we find out what the Baker commission recommends, and how the Bush administration reacts to it.

P.S. I guess I'm on a Monty Python kick... but the way Bush keeps talking about "finishing the job" in Iraq made me think of this scene from The Holy Grail...

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Montie Python and the Bush Administration

I know this is flip, but... here's Montie Python's take on the Bush administration's continuing determination to avoid calling Iraq's civil war a civil war. As in the skit, over time, reality will trump denial, although hopefully the action the administration then takes will be more useful than a trip to another pet shop...

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Civil War in Iraq

I wonder when the White House will finally bow to reality and acknowledge that what what's happening in Iraq is in fact civil war. The administration's terminology is slow to evolve, and tends to change only when it's been lapped by actual events. Remember how long Rumsfeld and company refused to say the word "insurgency?" "Civil war" will be an even harder pill to swallow -- or phrase to cough out -- because as soon as America accepts that Iraq is in a civil war, the voters will conclude the situation is hopeless, none of our business, and not worth any more American blood and treasure. In other words, "Civil war" is a linguistic trigger that will result in a broad consensus that the war is lost (as it is). The administration understands this, and therefore refuses to adopt the phrase.

There seem to be three general stages to the adoption of terminology. First, no one uses the word. Second, some parts of the media start using the word, forcing the administration to argue that the word is inapplicable. Finally, everyone, the administration included, uses the word, and no one any longer questions its applicability (again, think "insurgency"). After this week's unprecedented butchery, we're close to that third stage with regard to "civil war." When we reach it, our withdrawal will begin soon afterward.

Many people place great hope in the recommendations coming from the Iraq Study Group, aka the Baker Commission. These hopes are misplaced. The ISG will offer no new insights into how we might extricate ourselves from the Iraqi quagmire. Every possible insight has already been aired and vetted in the blogosphere, the media, and among our more astute politicians. Instead, the ISG's function, and its purpose, is to provide political cover for the administration to end our involvement in Iraq. This is what commissions do. They don't think of things others couldn't think of; they offer an imprimatur for what needs to be done. In other words, commissions are not about what; they're about who. The Baker commission is no different. The point isn't what the ISG will recommend. The point is that whatever it recommends, the administration will feel politically able to implement it.

Put yourself in the ISG's shoes for a moment. Civil war is raging. The American public is disgusted with the progress of the war. Both parties want us out soon; the Republicans, because if the war goes on they will lose the White House in '08; the Democrats, because they don't want a Democratic president to be crushed by the burden of ending the war. With these three factors in mind, what would you recommend?

My guess: (1) a dramatic reduction in troop levels; (2) a pullback to garrisons (these days called Forward Operating Bases or FOBs... sheesh, what was wrong with "garrison?), perhaps only in Kurdistan; (3) talks with Iran and Syria.

Let's take these one at a time. The first satisfies voters that we're really withdrawal (and in fact constitutes that withdrawal). The second at least theoretically permits us to respond with Special Forces units to al Qaeda sightings. If this really works, there's an obvious substantive benefit, but even if it doesn't, there's a political benefit because it looks like we'll still be able to respond to terrorists on the ground.

The third seems like a substantive waste of time to me. I don't know what we could offer Iran and Syria that would entice them, and we have nothing left to threaten them with. Some people say that Iraqi disintegration frightens Iran and Syria, thereby offering a foundation for cooperation. Maybe so, but I doubt Iran and Syria need us to explain to them what they ought to be frightened of. And if they are frightened, why are they abetting the insurgency, as the administration claims? Still, even with no substantive benefits, talks with our enemies demonstrate to the American public that we're leaving no stone unturned in our efforts to find a solution.

As I've argued before, Iraq will continue to disintegrate no matter we do. Because it's certainly coming, we ought to be realistically discussing and otherwise preparing for it. So next: is that further disintegration really the disaster for the west that the conventional wisdom claims? And what do we do about it?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Just spent a few days in Amsterdam researching scenes for the new Rain book, Requiem for an Assassin. Amsterdam is a beautiful city with a lot to recommend it: historical architecture, charming canals, great public transit. You have to be careful about impressions formed in a single city over the course of 72 hours, but my sense is that there's a strong sense of national identity here. I like the atmosphere. The people are friendly, but there's business in the air -- maybe not the kind of uncut capitalism that supercharges Saigon, but enough to make the Netherlands one of the EU's most thriving economies.

The economic dynamism exists side by side with (or despite? because of?) the country's famously practical approach to drugs and sex. As an American, I find it odd to stroll by women displaying themselves in windows like produce in a supermarket, or to see people doing bong hits in coffeehouses, but the cohesiveness of Dutch society and the strength of the Dutch economy suggest that western civilization won't be doomed if the government gets out of the idiotic business of prohibiting the use of drugs and the sale of sex.

(Did John Rain indulge himself in any of Amsterdam's coffeehouses, you ask? Read Requiem for an Assassin, out on June 26, and find out... ;-))

But Amsterdam holds lessons larger then the desirability of ending prohibition. The very success of the Dutch model -- in contrast with the dramatic failures of America's "War on Drugs" -- makes me wonder why, in the 21st century and with so much evidence to the contrary, America goes on clinging with rigor mortis determination to an obviously failed policy.

Probably part of the answer lies in our Puritan roots. Sex and drugs feel good (then-drug czar -- and nicotine addict -- William Bennett tried to deny it about drugs, but come on, why else do people like them?). Maybe the Puritan underpinnings of our collective unconscious say, "Pleasure... bad! Must prohibit!" Or something like that.

But I think there's something else going on. Sometimes we're not good at separating ends and means, objectives and tactics. When we don't like something and wish we didn't have to deal with it, the means we choose become at least as important as our objectives. We wish people wouldn't use drugs, so we make them illegal. We wish people wouldn't buy and sell sex -- ditto. We wish Castro hadn't come to power -- embargo (can anyone think of other examples? There are a ton, but enumerating them would make for a very long post. But hints: war on terror, AIDS prevention and condoms...). In all these examples, the primary benefit of the chosen policy is to make us feel virtuous, uncorrupted, uncompromising. Meanwhile, the stated objectives of the policies -- eradicating drugs and prostitution, deposing Castro -- go unmet. In fact, the policies achieve perverse side effects, empowering criminals, undermining elected governments in Latin America, and empowering Castro by providing him with an excuse for his own economic failures.

(What was that typically deliciously dry phrase The Economist had about the Castro embargo? "Forty years is a long time for a policy to fail.")

We need to remind ourselves that the policy and its objectives are not the same thing. Then we need to pick realistic objectives (for drugs, I would define the objective as a level of national use low enough to have no material impact on society as a whole). Finally, we need to choose the policies most likely to achieve those objectives, rather than the ones that primarily benefit our narcissistic desire to feel holier than thou.

You don't have to be in favor of drugs, prostitution, or Fidel Castro to want to end prohibition, decriminalize the sale of sex, and end the embargo on Cuba. In fact, your personal feelings on any of these subjects ought not even to be relevant. What matters is the result that's best for society, not the policy that's best for our egos. Holland gets this. Why can't we?

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Outsourced Presidency; New Linguistic Clues on Iraq

Looks like my friend the Slugg nailed it back in April when he suggested the Presidency was being outsourced.

Bush Sr. has now appointed Robert Gates, his Director of Central Intelligence, as de jure Secretary of Defense (subject to Senate confirmation); James Baker, Bush Sr.'s Secretary of State, is de facto Secretary of State (who has more influence on US foreign policy today: Condi Rice or James Baker? You won't see it on an org chart, but Rice reports to Baker). Between oversight from the new Bush Sr. appointees and a Democratic legislature, I'm hopeful that Bush Jr.'s performance will improve.

On Iraq, as usual, I'm fascinated by the clues to be found in President Bush's diction. He no longer speaks of "democracy" in Iraq, but instead of "representative government." And apparently we no longer seek to "win" there, but instead to "prevail." "Victory" is no longer the goal; rather, "success."

I consider these linguistic changes signs of progress. I've argued before that one means of extricating ourselves from the Iraqi quagmire will be to change our own perceptions of our role and objectives there. That change in perception requires a change in language. Bush's new delivery is a good start.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Republicans: Ideology, Principles, Competence

I understand that ideology is important. But so are principles. And so, certainly, is competence. The Republican party, in its current incarnation, fails on all counts.

Start with competence. The list of disasters is as long as it is familiar. There's Iraq, of course, but also a nuclear North Korea and an ascendent Iran. That's the Axis of Evil right there, remember -- three for three.

Pause here for a moment if you're a Republican. Ask yourself how you would feel if a Democratic president and congress had executed the Iraq war as Bush and the Republican congress have. What would be your take on a Democratic president if, six years following his inauguration, Kim Jung Il tested his first atomic bomb? And if that president had accomplished nothing in those six years to slow Iran's march toward possessing nuclear weapons? Would you give him a pass -- especially if he himself had named these three countries as the greatest threats to America's security?

Katrina is usually included as a primary exhibit in the list of Republican incompetence. Rightly so, although Louisiana's Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco, and New Orleans' Democratic mayor, Ray Nagin, can rightly take bows, too. But "the Democrats were incompetent, too," is hardly a ringing defense.

Even if, ideologically, you believe we ought to be torturing -- or rather, subjecting to alternative interrogation techniques -- terror suspects, you have to acknowledge that Abu Grahib was a public relations fiasco and a terror recruitment bonanza. Abu Grahib was many things. Competence wasn't one of them.

What are the Republican's substantive achievements since capturing all three branches of government in 2000? Arguably, the economy is doing well, although anyone can maintain a temporary facade of prosperity by living on credit cards. The American homeland hasn't been attacked since 9/11, but it's difficult to prove a correlation between Republican policies and the lack of a follow-up attack.

In fact, I believe both of these Republican "successes" have been achieved the same way: by borrowing against the future. In the case of the economy, we've financed "prosperity" by going into hock (the debt is held by China, BTW); in the case of security, we have distracted existing jihadists to Iraq at the cost of creating many more new ones. Or, as President Bush himself has said, "If we leave, they will follow us." The very definition of debt.

Now principles. The explosion in earmarks (up tenfold since the Republicans captured the house in 1994) and other pork isn't a reflection of Republican incompetence, because reckless Republican spending has been deliberate. Rather, the reckless spending, and the quarter trillion dollar deficit it has created, is the result of the divorce of the Republican party from conservative principles, indeed, from principles generally.

In fact, in many areas, what at first glance looks like Republican incompetence is evidence instead of a lack of principle. If Mark Foley had been a Democrat, would Dennis Hastert and company have dealt with him as they did upon first learning of his behavior? And what can be said of Jack Abramoff, Randy "Duke" Cuningham, Tom Delay? As Ian Fleming said: once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.

That test again: if you're a Republican and find instances of Republican corruption to be isolated and not a reflection of the party generally, ask yourself if you would be equally sanguine if the criminals and the party in question were all Democrats.

Now, if Republicans are incompetent and have few principles beyond clinging to power, what can we say of their ideology?

All that seems left of Republican ideology, or all that it's become, is what Andrew Sullivan calls Christianism (as distinct from Chistianity. I like the word for its parallel with Islamicism, and for its resonance with Stephen Colbert's notion of "truthiness"). What in the last six years has roused the federal government to swift action (aside from periodic incompetent attempts at damage control)? Terry Schiavo and the notion of giving taxpayers rebates to buy gasoline when a barrel of oil hit $75. Oh, and posturing against gay marriage. Oh and wait, I'm forgetting the Freedom Fries movement. Obviously, all of them the critical national issues of the day.

To me, conservatism has always been more about ends; liberalism, more about means. Conservatism, the forest; liberalism, the trees. Conservatism, the brain; liberalism, the heart. (Neither focus is inherently right or wrong, and I don't think you can build a healthy society without both.)

More than anything else, conservatism has always been more about results; liberalism, more about intentions. Which makes it all the more remarkable that there's still any support for today's Republican party among people who think of themselves as conservative. The results, as discussed above, are disastrous, whatever the intentions. As for ends and means, if the end is preventing abortion and saving lives, it's hard to understand means that rule out condoms and stem cell research (even if you think stem cell research involves murdering human embryos, don't you have to balance that evil against the good of lives potentially saved? Isn't that what we're supposed to be doing in Iraq? Aren't conservatives supposed to be good at making the hard moral decisions?). And "Conservative" commentators appeal to the heart in arguing the worthiness of our enterprise in Iraq, while issuing a pass to the unprecedentedly acerebral manner in which the war's aftermath was planned and conducted.

President Bush is not a conservative (Peter Beinart's arguments notwithstanding). On foreign policy, he has embarked on an unprecedented mission of nation building in the Middle East and has declared that our goal must be to "end tyranny." Fiscally, he has presided over record spending and record deficits. Socially, he tried to endrun state court decisions by turning Terry Schiavo's fate over to federal courts (a stunning double word score of anti-federalism and support for judicial activism). In every way I know, he has betrayed traditional conservative principles in favor of a radical ideology, incompetently executed.

We have to ask, then, how even nominal conservatives can stick with this manifestly unconservative crew. In the absence of conservative ideology, principled deeds, and fundamental competence, I can only conclude that some percentage of America's population (30%, with regard to congress; 40%, with regard to the president) continues to support Bush (and by extension the Republicans) because Bush seems to be their kind of guy. He's plain-spoken (that's one way of putting it); he likes Nascar; he clears brush at his ranch. And he claims Jesus is his favorite philosopher. That is, simply put, Bush's supporters sympathize with his intentions in spite of his results. Which, in a possible triple irony, makes them classic liberals who continue to support radicals masquerading as conservatives.

I'm a conservative. And I'll be voting a straight Democratic ticket on November 7. A Democratic victory in one, and hopefully both, houses of congress is the only way I can see of shocking the Republicans back to ideology, principle, and competence. If you care about the party, and about the country, this time you'll vote Democratic.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Conservatives and Iraq

I read David Brooks' NYT column this morning. Wow.

"Partitioning the country would be traumatic, so after the election it probably makes sense to make one last effort to hold the place together. Fire Donald Rumsfeld to signal a break with the past. Alter troop rotations so that 30,000 more troops are policing Baghdad.

"But if that does not restore order, if Iraqi ministries remain dysfunctional and the national institutions remain sectarian institutions in disguise, then surely it will be time to accede to reality. It will be time to effectively end Iraq, with a remaining fig-leaf central government or not. It will be time to radically diffuse authority down to the only communities that are viable — the clan, tribe or sect."

It's one thing when Democrats call for change in Iraq (although most of them are "bold" enough to criticize the course we're staying, but too chickenshit to offer specifics on what course to adopt instead). But when mainstays of conservatism like Brooks and George Will say the war has failed, it has failed. President Bush famously said he would not change course even if his only support came from Laura and his dog. That day seems fast approaching.

The only point Brooks made that I don't understand is this: "A muscular U.S. military presence will be more necessary than ever, to deter neighboring powers and contain bloodshed."

Besides hating the word "muscular" when used to describe foreign policy or military presence ("muscular" is all about appearance, rather than action or even ability), I don't know what our troops will be able to accomplish in the midst of what even Brooks describes as "not so much a civil war as a complete social disintegration."

The worse Republicans do on Tuesday, the more urgently they will seek to end our Iraq misadventure before the presidential election in November '08. As a side benefit, they might even conclude that juvenile, intelligence-insulting, mendacious political ads don't work and ought to be abandoned.

How did the old Nixon ad run? "Vote like your life depended on it."

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Personal, Petty, Pathetic Politicians

A few things are clear to me after John Kerry's recent gaffe. First, a well-delivered joke and John Kerry are as comfortable together as oil and water. Second, the judgment of Kerry's advisors, and of Kerry himself, in equipping the senator with a joke is wretched. Watching Kerry give this freebie to the Republicans reminded me of what my friend Hank Shiffman wanted to call the (so far unwritten) history of the dysfunctional startup where we used to work: One Car Pileup.

Third, Kerry's attempted joke was mean-spirited. Here is what his advisor's claim he meant to say: “Do you know where you end up if you don’t study, if you aren’t smart, if you’re intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush.” As illuminating as it is hilarious. (What came out, of course, is "You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq." Which brings to mind Secretary of State Elihu Root's response to President Teddy Roosevelt, when Roosevelt asked Root what he thought of Roosevelt's defense of his taking of the Panama Canal: "You have been accused of seduction, and you have conclusively proven that you are guilty of rape.")

Faced with the predictable Republican counterattack (Bush: Kerry's comments were “insulting and shameful"); Cheney: "He was for the joke before he was against it”), Kerry had this to say: "I'm sick and tired of a bunch of despicable Republicans who will not debate real policy, who won't take responsibility for their own mistakes, standing up and trying to make other people the butt of those mistakes."

Slow down there, Senator Kerry. What did your botched joke have to do "real policy?" How about a taking some "responsibility" for the lameness of the attempted joke itself, and not just for its botched execution?

All right, enough about Kerry, he did what he did and meant what he meant. Still, for just a moment, I imagined a world in which President Bush, rather than responding in kind, might have shrugged when reporters questioned (baited?) him and said, "I've seen the tape, and I recognize that Senator Kerry was trying to insult me, not our troops, whom I'm sure as a combat veteran and a patriotic American he fully supports. So I consider this a non-issue, and hope we can now move on to more substantive topics."

Imagine it! The dignity! The leadership! The Christian charity! The bearing in keeping with the gravitas of the office itself! Not to mention the newsworthiness, too, in an era where Virginia Senator George Allen is actually running against the sex scenes in James Webb's novels. And who knows? Maybe other Republicans, and Democrats, too, might take their cue from Bush's gracious lead. Maybe our politicians as a class would start acting slightly less... juvenile?

But my little daydream ignores one important dynamic here: the Republicans don't want to talk about the real state of the country and the world, any more than the Democrats know how to. So both parties prefer to sling bullshit. It protects them from having to say anything real.

Mixed in with all this is my nagging sense that, in a democracy, even one as gerrymandered as ours, the fault lies not in the politicians, but ultimately, instead, with the voters who put up with them.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Iraq: Prescriptions and Predictions

Great piece in Newsweek by Fareed Zakaria and well worth reading to understand not only what we should do in Iraq at this point, but also what we will do.

As I argued last week, there's a struggle right now between the architects of the war (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld) and the rest of the Republican party (anyone running for reelection; its elder statesmen, like Jim Baker). After November 7, I expect the balance of power in this struggle to tilt decisively away from the architects. The architects are frightened for their legacy; the rest of the party is frightened for its future.

"Stay the course" is dead, as even the administration admits (all the while trying to explain that by "stay" they always meant "continually adjust"). After November 7, therefore, expect to see some combination of the following options:

1) timelines, timetables, milestones -- that is, what the Iraqi government is expected to achieve, and by when;

2) engagement with Syria and Iran to find common interests in stabilizing Iraq;

3) a reduction in US troop strength, and a redeployment to garrisons, perhaps in Kurdistan.

The Bush administration has endorsed some sort of milestones already, albeit with all sorts of silly linguistic hedging (timelines are cutting and running; timetables are staying the course). A lot of smart people argue for engaging Iran and Syria, but I don't see much hope for stability in this direction. Iran and Syria know how badly hobbled we are by our misadventure in Iraq, so they have little to fear from us. As for finding common interests, a common desire to prevent chaos and refugee flows will probably be trumped by a desire to see further US humiliation.

1 and 2 give us political cover to get started on 3. Sure, maybe milestones and engaging Iran and Syria will substantively further stability, but even if they don't, we're then better positioned to say, "We've tried everything, and no longer owe the Iraqis our presence there. Their future is now up to them." Meanwhile, our shrinking military footprint offers hope of improving stability by forcing Iraqis to look more closely into the abyss they are approaching; is cheaper and therefore more sustainable; and is a step on the road to an even smaller force presence. And if or when the country really does start to violently split in three, we won't have to be right in the middle of it, with all the casualties that would entail.

One way or the other, expect our exit from Iraq to begin on November 8. Just don't expect the Bush administration to call it what it is.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Activist Courts...?

Lots of discussion about whether the recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision on gay marriage was activist or not. President Bush and the Wall Street Journal cry activism; the New York Times and Andrew Sullivan say nay. One writer at Slate says activism; another says no. Virginia senator George Allen, who seems to be against sex in novels, says activism.

Who's right? It depends on how you look at it.

When a court interprets a constitution (in the New Jersey case, its own, state constitution), it might come to a conclusion that a majority of citizens don't support. If you don't think courts should contravene public opinion (an odd view, given that the constitutions courts are bound to interpret protect minority rights), courts that do will seem activist. If you focus instead on whatever constitutional language the court is trying to interpret, and find the court's interpretation compelled by logic, you won't see activism at all.

The US Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, is instructive. In finding "separate but equal" violative of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause, the court moved more quickly than public opinion (particularly in the south) might have been ready for, and certainly more quickly than Congress. By this standard, the Brown decision was activist. Was it, I ask opponents of gay marriage, therefore wrong?

If Brown was not wrongly decided -- if you support the Brown decision -- and you oppose gay marriage, you have to find a way to distinguish Brown's application of the equal protection clause with regard to blacks and education from its application to gays and marriage. I don't think such a distinction exists -- but if anyone can offer one, I'm listening.

Because I can't find that distinction, I support gay marriage. I'll go further: I disagree with those conservatives (such as the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal) who argue that gay marriage is a question best left to the states. If you believe gay marriage should be best left to the states, you must also believe that separate but equal education should have been left to the states -- that is, that Brown was wrongly decided, and that separate but equal was, and remains, right.

There are arguments for going slowly on this issue (as the New Jersey court seemed to recognize, in leaving to the legislature the question of whether gay unions ought to be called marriage): respect for anti- gay marriage sentiment, no matter how wrongheaded; fear of a legislative or other backlash. But those arguments are based on tactics, not on the requirements of constitutional law.

Strange, that when a court ignores public opinion and focuses on the constitution itself, it gets tarred as activist. If that's activism, what are we going to call courts that bow to public opinion by finding a way to deny equal protection to gays?

Ah, I know. We can call them... reactionary.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Failed States, Insurgencies, and Civil Wars

Although most people agree that there is such a thing as a failed state, it's hard to agree on exactly what the term means. There is overlap between failed states, insurgencies, and civil wars, and at the margins it's impossible to tell when one becomes another, but the concepts are distinct.

To me, a failed state is one in which the central government is unable to prevent its territory from being used as a launching pad for significant acts of violence abroad. An insurgency is an armed group powerful enough to engage a country's military, but not powerful enough to threaten the government's fundamental control. When an insurgency becomes that powerful, you're probably looking at a civil war.

Let's try some examples. Taliban-era Afghanistan was not a failed state. The Taliban permitted al-Qaeda to run Afghan training camps, and welcomed Osama bin Laden as a guest. These were not failures on the part of the Taliban, but rather policy. And the conditions that led to the Taliban were not those of a failed state, but rather civil war.

Iraq in its current form is not yet a failed state. Certainly the government's reach is limited, but for now, violence there is mostly internal. I would say that Iraq is in the midst of a civil war in which the presence of foreign troops is dampening some of the violence. If that violence begins to spill across border, Iraq will be a failed state.

Various governments in Latin America are unable to control their narcotics traffickers, who are heavily armed, control significant territory, clash with government forces, and smuggle billions of dollars of their product abroad. I wouldn't argue, though, that the states in question should yet be considered "failed." If these groups continue to grow in power, the insurgencies they represent could worsen, perhaps eventually into civil war. But as long as the violence is primarily internal, we aren't dealing with a failed state.

It's widely recognized that the United States is unable to control its borders, with regard either to people or drug smuggling (I know "control" here is a controversial term. I use it to mean "achieve a desired policy outcome"). Is the US a failed state? Again, I would argue not: illegal immigration is primarily an internal matter, and the drugs smuggled into the US are consumed within US borders.

What about Mexico, then? It can't stop its people from crossing illegally into the US, right? True, but I would argue that Mexico doesn't want to stop these crossings. Illegals in the US remit a huge amount of money to relatives back home. If it's policy, however, tacit, by definition it isn't a failure. Moreover, the movement of people itself isn't violence, although it does raise the question of whether even without violence a cross-border phenomenon can become serious enough to invoke thoughts of failed states.

Lebanon, it seems to me, is the current poster child for failed states. The elected government is unable to control militias (chiefly Hezbollah); the militias control significant territory (southern Lebanon); they use that territory as a launching pad for significant acts of violence abroad (rocket attacks and the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, provoking this past summer's war with Israel).

Right up there with Lebanon is Pakistan. The Pakistani government is unable to control its tribal areas, which are used by the Taliban and al-Qaeda to attack Afghanistan. If it's true that the government was unaware of A.Q. Khan's nuclear trafficking (doubtful), it raises that interesting question about non-violent but serious effects again: is a government's inability to control something as monumental as trafficking in nuclear technology and know-how something we recognize as state failure?

France is unable to control its Muslim-dominated suburbs. Attacks in those suburbs are getting worse; police describe the situation variously as an intifada and as civil war. But the attacks are internal; the "no-go zones" are not yet being used to launch significant attacks abroad. So France, it seems to me, is facing a gathering insurgency, which, given the percentage of Muslims in France and our increasingly connected, open-sourced times, could eventually become a civil war. But France is not a failed state.

There's a lot of room for discussion about the terminology in this post, I know. I'm looking forward to comments, and then to offering some policy prescriptions.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Vietnam Roars

Last week I was in Saigon, researching the next Rain book. Here are a few photos from the trip.

I was struck by many things about this remarkable city. Three stand out.

First, Vietnam is getting rich. It has a long way to go, but when you see a cosmetic surgery clinic and electronics stores are selling $4000 massage chairs, you're talking about a post-agricultural society, and then some.

Second, the business drive in Vietnamese culture is remarkable. Things may be different in the north, and I wish I'd had more time to visit more regions in the country, but Saigon is all business. Everybody wants to give you an impromptu motorcycle taxi ride, everywhere you look someone has set up an improvised street stand to sell secondhand engine parts or watches or watermelon juice. Business and capitalism seem to be part of the culture's DNA.

Third, the people I met have a positive, enthusiastic view of America and Americans. Again, things might be different in the north, but still: we killed three million Vietnamese during the war. I'm flabbergasted that I encountered no lingering ill will. I'm not sure what accounts for the lack of animus: perhaps in the south America is remembered as an ally, not an enemy (although no ill will for eventually abandoning our allies to the communists?); perhaps the culture's Buddhist roots; perhaps the Vietnamese are too busy making money and improving their lives to indulge in bitterness about the past. Still, the contrast with Muslims who are still stewing over the crusades is stunning. Any guesses on which culture has a brighter future: the one excited about tomorrow, or the one furious about yesterday?

Here's more on the country, from today's New York Times.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Remain Calm! Don't Panic!

Now Iraq's leaders are urging the US and the UK not to panic.

Question: has there ever been a time when an official urged something like, "Remain calm! There's no cause for panic!" when panic wasn't fully warranted?

(See also: "I can explain this" and "This isn't what it looks like.")

Not to worry. Not only is the Bush administration not panicking, Bush is actually assuring Iraqi Prime Minister Malaki that there are no plans to oust him (that is, that we aren't going to support a military coup). That's another one of those phrases, BTW, that's perfect for making prime ministers feel all their fears were silly and groundless: "Don't worry, Nuri, we have no plans to depose you in a military coup."

Actually, some people think a military coup would be a good idea. Personally, I doubt the Iraqi military is cohesive enough to impose order. See the excellent, clear-eyed, depressing analysis here.

There also have been reports that the White House has issued Iraq ultimatums (should that be ultimata?): crack down on militias and show other security progress, or we're outa here. The White House says there have been no ultimatums; just a "collaborative effort."

I don't think it matters much whether it's all hugs and kumbaya, or whether Bush is making Malaki an offer he can't refuse (but anyone want to be which it really is?). What's going on is, the White House is trying to develop a set of criteria by which America can leave Iraq with as much blame as possible for the debacle that follows shifted onto the Iraqis.

About a year ago, I argued that the war's architects would never be the ones to end it, because doing so would deny them the fig leaf of later being able to claim "We had turned the corner (or some other metaphor) and the shiftless, spineless administration that came after us snatched defeat from the jaws of victory." I reiterated the argument about a month ago.

But now I don't think we're going to stay in Iraq in any meaningful way all the way until January '09, when a new team takes over the White House. What's changed, I think, is that Iraq has become such a catastrophe that all elements of the Republican party other than Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld are intent on ending our involvement before the next presidential election. Their fear is that, if we're still bleeding in Iraq for no discernible reason in November '08, the fig leaf Bush and the war's other architects want to keep in front of themselves will mean armageddon for the Republicans, who will probably be turfed out not just from both houses of Congress, but also from the White House and possibly a majority of governors' houses, as well. To mix a couple metaphors: Sorry about having to strip away that fig leaf, pal, but we're not letting it sink the entire Republican ship.

In sum: denied the opportunity to blame the next administration for our failure in Iraq, the administration seems to have decided to set up Malaki, instead.

At least they're not panicking.

Monday, October 09, 2006

What Now For North Korea?

In my last post, What's Kim Up To This Time?, I suggested that Kim Jung Il would hold off until closer to the US midterm elections before carrying out his threat to test a nuclear weapon. Obviously, I was mistaken, perhaps because I overlooked the timing of another important event: Japanese Prime Minister Abe's weekend summit meetings in Beijing and Seoul. As I said at the end of that post, though, the timing of the test matters less than the question of how the US should handle Kim generally. This post will suggest the necessary general policy.

The key to regulating Kim's behavior, indeed, the key to his departure or his survival, is China. China provides North Korea with oil and food without which Kim's regime couldn't survive. It follows that, without China's cooperation, we cannot achieve our policy aims in North Korea. As I mentioned in my last post, those policy aims are chiefly: (i) prevention of war on the Korean peninsula; and (ii) preventing Kim from transferring nuclear materiel and know-how.

(The previous policy objective was to prevent North Korea from going nuclear. Obviously, that objective failed. As Gavin de Becker points out in his outstanding book The Gift of Fear, what we fear is always what might happen next. Once that thing has happened, we're by definition no longer afraid of it; our fear has moved on to the next thing. So it is with policy to North Korea. We're no longer afraid of a nuclear armed DPRK; we're afraid that Kim will use his nukes or sell them).

Kim makes a lot of trouble for China, and his most recent antics have embarrassed his chief patron, who had publicly cautioned him not to proceed. Why, then, does China support him?

Because China fears two things that would follow Kim's collapse: (i) millions of desperate, starving North Korean refuges crossing into China; and (ii) a US military presence on China's border.

These are powerful fears. Can they be reduced? And are there any enticements, or other fears, that could outweigh them?

One thing China fears at least as much as the results of Kim's collapse is nuclear proliferation in Asia. If Kim survives and continues to behave as he has, within a decade, if that, China will very likely be surrounded by nuclear neighbors. A nuclear Taiwan would substantially complicate any attempt by China to capture the island by military force. And, given the countries' fraught history, China is horrified at the prospect of a nuclear Japan. Recent events, therefore, have clarified that China has to choose. Which is worse: refugees and encroaching US military power, or a nuclear South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan?

This calculus is hardly a revelation, of course; China ought to have managed to weigh the possibilities well enough even in the absence of Kim's nuclear test. But as economists like to tell us, people tend to discount the importance of future possibilities. China has traditionally been more focused on the immediate dangers of Kim's collapse than on the distant and indirect possibility of nuclear encirclement. As the possibility of nuclear encirclement becomes less distant and indirect, it will assume greater weight in China's planning.

To put it another way, China is more afraid of nuclear encirclement today than it was yesterday. If that fear comes to outweigh its fears of Kim's collapse, China will act. The question then becomes: can we do anything to reduce China's fears of Kim's collapse so that China's fears of nuclear encirclement achieve greater weight?

I think we can. For a variety of reasons, we're already drawing down our forces in South Korea. That process could be accelerated. As for refugees, we should convene a conference, perhaps in conjunction with the UN, perhaps with only the five powers most concerned with North Korea (China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the US) to prepare money and infrastructure to deal with the coming DPRK collapse. The first will reassure China about the presence of the US military on its border; the second will demonstrate that China will not have to bear the pressure and expense of a North Korean refugee crisis alone. For more, see Robert Kaplan's excellent piece "When North Korea Falls" in the October Atlantic.

Neither of these actions will be easy (getting anyone to trust us after Iraq and Katrina on our competence at disaster relief will be... difficult. Making the effort multilateral should help), nor can they be accomplished without an overall reexamination of our view of and approach to China. We need to stop thinking that there is an unbridgeable divide between democracies (exemplified by us) and authoritarian regimes (exemplified by China). The real divide is between status quo powers -- that is, powers who accept the rules of our increasingly globalized world and expect to excel in it (by which definition China is the preeminent new example), on the one hand, and powers who recognize that in a globalizing world their ideology dooms them to irrelevance, and who therefore are compelled to try to sabotage globalization's march (North Korea, al Qaeda and other Islamic fanatics), on the other. Within such a framework, a drawdown of our forces in, and their eventual removal from, South Korea makes perfect sense. And the creation of a multilateral fund, process, and logistics for dealing with Kim's inevitable collapse can take place on a broader, sufficiently sturdy foundation. For more on the US and China, I highly recommend the always insightful and outside-the-box http://www.thomaspmbarnett.com/weblog/.

It's past time for South Korea, Japan, and the US to accept that sending food and oil aid to a despot like Kim is wrongheaded. We have to understand this dynamic: Kim has taken his population hostage and is starving and freezing much of it to death. He then says to us, "Send me food and oil or more people will starve and freeze!" And we comply.

But paying ransoms only encourages more hostage taking. Worse, when the hostage is the despot's own population, the ransom doesn't even save lives. A dictator like Kim knows he can hang onto power with x percent of his population starving or freezing. Higher than x percent and he'll face unacceptable unrest and other challenges to his rule. If we offer no aid, he must divert (or create) resources to keep the death rate at x percent. If we offer aid, he diverts resources to his military. Either way, the death rate stays at x as long as Kim is in power. We can't save Kim's hostage population while he is in power, and it is counterproductive to use aid to try.

If Kim's latest provocation prods the US to reassess its policy as suggested above, we may look back on the test as a positive development. After all, as long as the DPRK's nuclear capability was ambiguous, other governments were free to live in denial (that discounting of future possibilities dynamic again) about where all this was heading. If Kim's test has removed some of that denial, that's a good thing. As long as what replaces it is good thinking and sound execution.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

What's Kim Up To This Time?

Last week, the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea (yes, that's really what they call themselves) declared that it "will in the future conduct a nuclear test under the condition where safety is firmly guaranteed." The statement claimed that "The U.S. daily increasing threat of a nuclear war and its vicious sanctions and pressure have caused a grave situation on the Korean Peninsula in which the supreme interests and security of our State are seriously infringed upon and the Korean nation stands at the crossroads of life and death."

I can't help asking... do North Korean communiques read like this in the original Korean, or is the stiltedness and bombast always inserted in the translations? You can read the full text of the Foreign Ministry's statement here.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill responded by saying, “We are not going to live with a nuclear North Korea, we are not going to accept it.” Huh? The CIA believes North Korea already has the bomb, acquired with the assistance of Pakistan's A.Q Khan (but certainly not with the complicity of Pakistan's government!) in exchange for missile know-how. So aren't we already living with, have we not in fact already accepted, a nuclear North Korea?

If the US already believes North Korea is nuclear armed, why would the North announce a test? The announcement must have perceived independent value, otherwise the North wouldn't have made it -- they would have just carried out a test (for substantive weapons development reasons, for example), or not, without an announcement. Also, an announcement must entail at least some risk: if the test doesn't occur, Kim looks like he's backing down, or that he doesn't have nukes to begin with; if the test is attempted and fails, it looks like those NK nukes aren't ready for prime time after all.

My theory is, the DPRK is trying to force the Bush administration to offer concessions by threatening, just ahead of midterm elections, to remove the fig leaf of nuclear ambiguity behind which the administration has been sheltering. It just wouldn't look good for Republicans, who bill themselves as the national security party, to have Kim detonate an atomic bomb on their watch. Presumably Kim knows this, and is now trying political pressure where more substantive pressure has previously failed him.

The "Midterm Surprise" theory gets a little backing from Li Dunqiu of China's State Council Development Research Center, a Cabinet-level think tank. "If the U.S. removes sanctions," Mr. Dunqiu says, "then tensions can be eased. Otherwise launching a nuclear test is unavoidable for North Korea.''

I think that can safely be translated as, "immediate concessions, or we'll cost you the midterm elections."

Some or the articles I've read say a test is expected as early as this weekend. I don't buy it. We're still a month away from the midterm elections. Why wouldn't Kim let the threat stand -- in fact, why not reiterate it -- to continue to pressure Bush and the Republican Congress? Once the test is carried out, Kim's leverage is gone.

Another possibility, of course, is that Kim isn't trying to exact concessions; he's actively trying to influence the outcome of the midterm US elections. If that's the case, again, I wouldn't expect a test right away. The elections are over a month away; I'd expect more threats first, then a test closer to the elections, to ensure that the inescapable fact that North Korea has nuclear weapons is front center in the minds of voters.

The strategy could backfire, of course: in response to a test, the Bush administration could announce stiff countermeasures, such as a blockade (which we wouldn't call a blockade; blockades are acts of war, which is why JFK called our blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis a "quarantine"), which could in turn lead to a "rally round the president" effect that would tilt elections to Republicans.

My guess is, Kim has decided it's time to remove any doubt that the DPRK is a nuclear power. China, Japan, and South Korea all claim such a move would be counterproductive, but would it? What leverage would any of them apply to a demonstrably nuclear-armed DPRK that they haven't applied already? Kim's negotiating stance will simply have gone from, "give me what I want or I'll build a nuke" to "give me what I want or I'll build more nukes... and possibly sell them, too." All the reasons behind the world's historically feckless approach to Kim will remain in place and continue to drive policy just as they have been driving it. By conducting a test, Kim can have his nukes and eat them, too.

All the North's nuclear saber rattling begs a larger question, of course, because whether the DPRK has nukes, or whether the country is merely determined to acquire them, the imperative of our policy there remains the prevention of war on the Korean peninsula and counterproliferation. So how do we achieve those twin objectives? I think that will be my next post, which I'll be writing from Tokyo.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

More Verbal Tics

They're back... the phrases that make me crazy!

Verbal and oral are not the same. Verbal means words; oral means the mouth. I guess oral carries certain, uh, baggage that makes people hesitate to say it in polite company. And so, striking a blow, if you will, for linguistic accuracy everywhere, I declare, "Oral! Oral! Oral!"

Disinterested and Uninterested are cousins, not identical twins. Disinterested means you don't have a stake; uninterested means you don't care.

What's a "Think Piece?" Isn't it a given that an article is predicated on thought? So we're really talking about just... an opinion piece. And what's wrong with a nice opinion? This one, BTW, reminds me of Bush's futile and misplaced attempt to bring into vogue the term "homicide bomber" instead of "suicide bomber." When someone plants a bomb, we can assume homicide was the objective. The bomber taking his own life in the process is a distinguishing characteristic (although, sadly, increasingly less so).

Can we just say orient instead of orientate?

For God's sake, don't say "monies!" The only way to sound more incompetently self-important is to talk about "persons" instead of "people."

I like that prisons are disappearing in favor of correctional facilities (domestic) and detention centers (abroad). No one is being imprisoned, thank you very much; just detained and corrected. And how bad can that be?

What's a muscular foreign policy? The phrase seems to have the wrong focus: "muscular" is about appearances, not results. What's wrong with "strong," which describes capabilities? Or "aggressive," which describes a behavior or attitude? What's next, enhancing foreign policy with steroids?

Ikea says "temporarily oversold" instead of "sold out." How can you oversell something? Is it like overbooking a plane? Next someone will be selling "pre-owned" cars... oh, wait, they already are.

And now, from the Department of Redundancy Department...

hoary old (hoary new?)

past experience (future experience? This one even finds its way into the Economist!)

targeted assassination (random assassination?)

overhype (for when hyping it just isn't enough...)

refer back/ahead (refer is sufficient)

past history (future history?)

Why do presidents feel compelled to have "doctrines?" It seems to me that "doctrine" is just a self-important way of saying "obvious policy that anyone could have figured out." Alternatively, it can mean "Divisive and bad idea for which I'm trying to develop unstoppable momentum by attaching to it the big D word. Don't argue -- if it was good enough for Monroe, it's good enough for me."

(Don't forget, Brezhnev was reputed to have a doctrine, too. It was, "What's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine.")

Why is it that newspapers call people fighting the Sudanese government "rebels," while people fighting the Iraqi government are labeled "insurgents"?

Can you flagellate someone else, or can you really only self-flagellate?

I always find it odd when someone feels compelled to declare himself not just married, but "happily married" (or worse, "very happily married"). Was there any doubt? Is he worried we might think otherwise? Could he be... protesting too much? I'd like to do a study on divorce rates of people who describe themselves this way. I'll bet it's higher than the norm.

In May, the Government Accountability Office released a report on America's public diplomacy efforts around the Islamic world. The report is titled, "State Department Efforts Lack Certain Communications Elements and Face Significant Challenges."

Now there's an example of clear communication, right there in the title. I wouldn't want the report to be called, "State Department Efforts to Woo the Muslim World Ineffective." Maybe the State Department has been taking its communications cues from the GAO?

Let's end on a happy note. Thomas Pfeffer of the American Heart Association in Los Angeles, says, "Having a smoking section in a restaurant is like having a peeing section in swimming pool."

Hard to argue with that.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Terrorism: Nature vs Nurture

The recently leaked, and now partly declassified, National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq and global terrorism has served as a kind of inkblot test, offering insight into the worldviews of the public and politicians who are arguing over its contents.

First, there are those of the "nature" persuasion. These people argue that terrorists are born, not made, and so our actions in Iraq or anywhere else do not -- indeed, cannot -- make terrorism worse. With regard to the NIE, the argument expresses itself this way: "It's silly to argue that the war in Iraq is making terrorism worse. After all, we weren't in Iraq on 9/11."

(For a nice illustration of the "nature" point of view, see Tony Blair's Sept 26 speech).

Second, there are those of the "nurture" persuasion. These people argue that terrorism is a response to western policies; that through its policies the west has created terrorism, and that by adjusting those policies we can ameliorate it. With regard to the NIE, the argument expresses itself this way: "Abu Ghraib, foreign soldiers doing house-to-house searches, collateral damage... all are radicalizing Muslims and creating new terrorists."

Both arguments are half right. And both are entirely wrong.

Probably there are individuals who are born to fanaticism. If they're born Muslim in the middle east, they become Islamists. If they're born Catholic in Northern Ireland, they would be IRA. The problem is in their genes, or in some equally irreducible aspect of their environment, and almost no external influence could have diverted them from extremism.

And probably there are individuals who never would have dreamed of carrying out a suicide bombing, but who decide to do so in response to some western policy, for example the stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia to protect the kingdom from Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. In other words, individuals who "but for" (as the tort lawyers like to say) western policy would never have become terrorists.

What's misleading about the terrorist nature/nurture argument isn't just its fallacious assumption that all terrorists are either born or made, when a little common sense quickly suggests that both types exist. The real problem is that the argument focuses on cases that are almost certainly exceptional. After all, isn't it likely that the vast majority of people exist somewhere in the middle range of the nature/nurture continuum? They're not born to extremism, but the right combination of events can lead them into extremism's embrace. Some are more susceptible, others less, but for most people, the environment matters. So the appropriate question isn't, "are or are we not creating terrorists," but rather, "How are our actions enabling terrorism? And can we fine-tune to mitigate while still accruing the benefits of the actions in question?"

The language choices in these questions are important. We're always talking about "the terrorists" -- as though terrorist/non-terrorist is a binary category (remember "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists"?). But what enables terrorists is much more than just the people who strap on suicide vests. What about financiers? People who provide safe haven or other assistance? People who could have provided a warning or other intelligence, but now decide not to? Asking whether our policies create or don't create terrorists is misleadingly narrow. We need to ask as well whether our policies foster conditions that enable terrorism, as well.

For every suicide bomber, I'll bet there were at least a hundred active or passive accomplices and enablers. Those accomplices and enablers are the marginal cases, the fence sitters, the ones who our policies -- including our blundering in Iraq -- are most likely to tip one way or the other.

In other words, even if no western policy could possibly cause even a single additional Muslim to don a suicide vest, are we confident that no policy could tip others into mindsets and behaviors that enable the suicide bombers to carry out their atrocity?

Another problem in the debate is that nature proponents make their point too strongly. Rather than claiming that Iraq isn't worsening terrorism, they claim that Iraq can't be worsening terrorism. The first point badly needs to be discussed (Robert Kagen's piece in the Washington Post is an excellent start, IMO). The second is just silly. It flies in the face of the lessons of every counterinsurgency campaign ever conducted. If the right tactics can quell an insurgency, how could it be that the wrong ones couldn't create, enflame, and sustain one?

Here's a thought experiment. Should we airdrop pig offal and American flags onto Mecca and Medina? Why not? If our actions can't create terrorism, what difference could it make?

If you're a "nature" proponent, don't try to wriggle out of the experiment by saying "there would be no benefit." Maybe not, but if you believe our actions can't fuel terrorism, you have to accept that there would be no cost, either. In which case, the offal and flags would do no harm, right?

I think part of the reason the nature crowd tends toward a "we can't make terrorism worse" line of argument is because suggesting that we have some influence over terrorism sounds close to suggesting that we're responsible for it. But the two concepts are not the same. Effective policing can reduce the crime rate. That doesn't mean the police are responsible for crime. It does mean they're responsible for effective policing.

Let's stipulate that our actions can worsen terrorism. Let's stipulate too that we are not responsible for terrorism. Now we can get down to the hard work of asking what "worsening" terrorism really means, of examining how we might be worsening it, of weighing costs and benefits, of taking informed risks and making difficult choices.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Iraq War Increases Terror Threat

A leaked National Intelligence Estimate, which represents the consensus of the sixteen US spy services, concludes that the war in Iraq is fueling Islamic terrorism.

The logical possibilities:

1. The NIE is wrong. The war in Iraq is beating back Islamic radicals and we should "stay the course" there.

2. The NIE is right, but the war's strengthening of Islamic radicals is an unavoidable consequence of a larger, long term strategy that will eventually weaken Islamic radicalism to below pre-war levels. IOW, some medicines make you feel sicker before they start to improve your health, and the war in Iraq is one of them.

3. The NIE is right, and if we maintain our current approach in Iraq Islamic radicalism will continue to benefit. We must therefore change our approach.

I don't see any other high level logical possibilities -- am I missing any?

Democrats have predictably (and, in my view, rightly) seized on possibility #3. It'll be interesting to see what Republicans have to say. What I've seen so far, from John McCain and Bill Frist, are variations of #2. Despite the obvious temptations, I don't see how the administration can suggest that the answer is #1; if it did, people might start asking why we're spending so much on all these intelligence services (and do we really need sixteen of them? Couldn't policymakers just read The Economist instead?). The closest the White House can reasonably come to a #1 strategy is to say that excerpts have been taken out of context -- which it has done, declaring that the New York Times report is "not representative of the complete document."

The always superb Tom Barnett has a somewhat contrary take on the import of the report. To oversimplify a bit, Dr. Barnett's argument boils down to "terrorists are going to get angry no matter what we do." This is a fair point, but if the war is indeed fueling Islamic radicalism, I think we need to measure that cost against the war's benefits, and also ask whether there are alternatives that offer a better cost/benefit ratio. You don't have to be a naysayer to ask whether there's a better way.

In related news, Iraqi political leaders have agreed to discuss a bill that would turn Iraq into three largely autonomous countries. The Kurds and Shiites want the autonomy option; the Sunnis have been blocking it. I know I'm a broken record on this, but... how are we going to keep these people married when 80% of them want a divorce?

The legislation won't take effect for 18 months after it is approved. If it's approved six months from now, it'll take effect just in time for the 2008 US presidential election. At that point, I expect both nominees will be talking about "respecting the will of the Iraqi people" and similar such rhetoric, and using the Iraqi parliament's vote for tripartite autonomy as the fig leaf we need to substantially reduce our military presence there.

So -- no surprise -- we'll be "staying the course" for as long as the war's architects are in office. We'll be changing course immediately afterward. This has nothing to do with politics and egos, of course, and is all carefully calibrated to do what's best to protect America and reduce the threat of Islamofascism.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Let's Talk Torture

It's not easy to talk torture. First, you have to get around the verbal pitfalls. Are we talking about rules, or a lack of rules? Are the people being interrogated detainees, or prisoners? Terrorists, or suspected terrorists? Prisoners of war, or enemy combatants?

I'm going to try to avoid those verbal traps by jumping straight to the HOTM. Which we can get to via two questions: (1) what is torture; and (2) does it work.

What is torture? It's easy to define torture at the margins, but the margins are always easy. An ocean view room at the Ritz Carlton Maui is not torture. Having your fingernails pulled out is.

But somewhere in the middle things become much more subjective. Is keeping someone in an uncomfortably cold room torture? What if the room has inadequate light? Is interrogating someone for four hours straight torture? Eight hours? Twenty-four? Intruding into someone's personal space? Yelling in his face? What about solitary confinement? Silence vs noise? Insults? Threats of violence?

Let's put aside the first question for a moment and examine the second. And then we'll see how they're linked.

Doe torture work? That is, does it lead to effective intelligence? I'm not sure. I've never tortured someone and I've never been tortured. But my guess is that the answer is, it depends. On the kind of information you're after; the amount of information you already have (by which you can judge the quality of what's extracted); the kind of torture employed; perhaps most of all, on the strengths, weaknesses, determination, susceptibility, and other idiosyncrasies of the person being tortured.

In other words, the honest answer to the question of "Does torture work?" is probably... sometimes.

Okay, then. Why not just employ the practice wholesale? When it doesn't work, nothing lost. When it does, much is gained.

Let's back up there a minute, and take a look at that notion of "nothing lost." If torture really did cost nothing, we'd be doing it all the time. And we wouldn't stop at waterboarding, either... as Ving Rhames' character Marsellus Wallace put it in Pulp Fiction, we'd just "get medieval." That we're not suggests some inherent awareness of torture's inherent costs as well as its possible benefits.

I can imagine several costs. First, the practice brutalizes its practitioners and by extension the society that condones it. Second, it spreads easily because it's an easy substitute for more exacting, nuanced, and effective forms of interrogation. Third, it produces a lot of false data along with the occasional actionable intelligence because the person being tortured will offer up anything to make the torture stop.

Let's look at two extremes. First, we torture wholesale. By doing so, we extract every bit of meaningful intelligence the subjects have in their minds. But we also incur enormous costs, as detailed above, including so much false information that the real leads are largely obscured and rendered useless in the process. Conclusion: wholesale torture doesn't make sense.

Second, we do everything we can to make interrogations pleasant. We keep the subjects in five star hotel rooms; we feed them three gourmet meals a day; we submit questions to them only with their express consent and desist the moment they tell us they're tired. We incur none of the costs detailed above. But we get no useful intelligence, either.

It seems, then, that somewhere in the middle lies an optimum balance -- tactics tough enough to be effective (what is torture?) without being counterproductive (does it work?). And the fact that those tactics are effective without being counterproductive enables our society to justify them, and to bear them, as an ugly necessity.

Torture offers benefits, but also costs. Opponents ignore the former; proponents, the latter. The uncomfortable truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Roots of Arab Muslim Sickness: Part 3, Solutions

1. Many Causes

In the first post in this three-part series, I discussed the roots of Arab Muslim sickness: failure; blaming an external party for that failure; implicit belief in one's own powerlessness; rebellion against that sense of powerlessness by demonstrating an ability to hurt the external party; chosen means (suicide bombs) that can only cause my condition to worsen; more suicide bombs; cultural stagnation and moral depravity; repeat. In the second part, I discussed these roots as they manifest themselves in Palestinian culture and ongoing failure. The question I'd like to address here is, what can the west do to cure, or at least contain the spread of, the sickness?

We need to start by asking what conditions permit the propagation of the disease. The question is initially daunting, because there seem to be so many factors at work: among them, the nature of Islam; Arab history and culture; political repression and economic despair; the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. And many others.

Take a step back, though, and you'll find there's some good news here. Because although the causes of the disease are many, they aren't redundant. That is to say, if we can find a way to inhibit even one causal factor, we can dramatically reduce the incidence and effects of the disease.

Think malaria for a moment. What causes it? Malaria parasites? Mosquitoes that carry the parasite? Mosquitoes biting people? Swamps where the mosquitoes breed? The climate that permits the swamps?

All of the above. But you don't need to (and anyway couldn't) eliminate every one of these causes to dramatically reduce the incidence of the disease. If you can attack even one cause cost effectively, the benefits can be significant.

As it happens, pesticide-treated nets, each of which costs just a few dollars, seem to be the most cost effective way of bringing malaria under control. Is there an equivalent we can bring to bear on the sickness propagating from Muslim Arabia?

There is indeed, and it's the one the Bush administration has at best ignored and more often undermined: reducing our dependence on petroleum.

2. The Most Treatable Cause

As NYT columnist Tom Friedman has pointed out in The First Law of Petropolitics, there is an inverse relationship between freedom and the price of a barrel of oil. If Friedman is right about this inverse relationship -- and logic, common sense, and empirical evidence indicate he is -- and President Bush is right in thinking that the root cause of Islamic terrorism is a lack of freedom in the Arab world -- then Bush's implementation of the so-called "Freedom Agenda" is impossible without a dramatic decrease in the price of energy.

I think Bush is right in believing that repression contributes to terrorism. And I think Friedman is right is suggesting high oil prices contribute to repression. But the link between oil prices and terrorism isn't just indirect, in that petrodollars prop up some of the world's most repressive (and dangerous) regimes. Petrodollars also directly contribute to the spread of the disease. Saudi Arabia uses them to fund madrasses that inculcate children with intolerance and hatred of the west. Iran uses them to arm Hezbollah -- "The Party of God" -- in Lebanon and pursue nuclear weapons of its own.

The most important US security imperative today is to reduce the price of a barrel of oil. We can't hope to contain the disease by killing mosquitoes one by one. We have to drain the swamp. For how to do it, read Gasaholic Communists.

If we succeed in reducing the price of oil, all our other initiatives against the disease -- public relations, security, law enforcement, intelligence, and military, can succeed. If we fail in the primary imperative, we will fail in everything else.

3. Iraq is a Distraction

Is there reason for optimism?

Some. The efforts of the Bush administration remind me of what Winston Churchill is supposed to have said about America: "You can always count on America to do the right thing... after it has exhausted all the other possibilities."

The Bush administration certainly is exhausting those other possibilities with Iraq. What were our first priorities after toppling the Taliban? Capturing or killing Bin Laden and his #2, al-Zawahiri and building a stable Afghanistan. This morning, on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, al-Zawahiri released another video. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, opium production is at record levels and the Taliban is resurgent. By diverting so many military, intelligence, financial, and other resources to Iraq, Bush reduced the chances that we would successfully complete the dismantlement of al Qaeda and the reconstruction of Afghanistan. We can argue about the relevance of Iraq in the overall battle against the disease of Islamofascism. But I don't see how we can argue that, in attempting three monumental undertakings simultaneously instead of only two, the Bush administration dramatically increased the likelihood that we will fail at all of them.

I believe Iraq is the greatest foreign policy mistake in US history. We lost many more people in Vietnam, and we were there for longer. But how did General Abazaid, the commander of US forces in the Middle East, put it recently? "If we leave, they will follow us." No one ever said that about the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld famously asked in a leaked memorandum whether we had metrics to determine whether we were capturing and killing more terrorists in Iraq than we were creating. As far as I know, the administration never provided an answer. But maybe they didn't need to. Thanks, Paul, for the painfully hilarious link.

4. Getting Out of Iraq

How do we get out of Iraq? First, we have to change our rhetoric. The story we need to tell the world -- and ourselves -- is that "we already won the war; the rest is up to Iraqis. If they prefer civil war to unity and prosperity, we can't help them. If by their actions they indicate that they prefer a breakup of the country, we won't stand in their way. Our task was to topple Hussein and verify no WMD; that mission has been accomplished."

Back in April, I suggested breaking the country into three. In May, Joe Biden endorsed the idea, too. Since then, events on the ground have continued to create momentum for a three-state solution.

A breakup won't be smooth. Probably there will be a civil war, worse than the relatively low intensity Sunni/Shiite conflict already raging. But if the Sunnis and Shiites want to fight each other, why are we trying to stop them (and how long can we keep them from going at it)? Cold-blooded realpolitik suggests that we'd be better off with Islamofascists divided along sectarian fault lines rather than being brought together, as Hezbollah has partly managed to do by inspiring Egyptians and Saudis.

But most likely, we're going to waste another two and half years in Iraq. I believe it's politically, emotionally, and psychologically impossible for the architects of the war to acknowledge the magnitude of their mistake. Instead, they'll try to hold on and leave it to the next administration to get us out of there -- at which point, they will write in their memoirs that we had turned the corner and Iraq was won, but that the cowards in the new administration snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

There is a similar school of thought on Vietnam: that by 1972, we had destroyed the Viet Cong and rearmed the South sufficiently so they could stand up to the North. But after the Cambodian incursion came to light, Congress cut funding for the whole enterprise and the South was then helpless against the continued Soviet and Chinese supplied onslaught from the Northy. If Bush can just keep us in Iraq until the next administration takes over, he will have created the conditions for a similar fig leaf argument for himself.

It's possible, though, that things will get so much worse so rapidly in Iraq that Bush will be denied his fig leaf. In August, the Marines concluded that Anbar province, including much of the Sunni Triangle, is a lost cause.

And the troops we've repositioned to save Baghdad must have left a vacuum behind them. The news coming out of Iraq is only going to get worse.

So sooner or later, we'll get out. We'll rethink our strategy and refocus our resources. Here's what I hope to see then.

5. After Iraq

First, meaningful steps to reduce the price of oil (actually, I hope we don't have to wait years before implementing those steps, but I'm sure we will).

Second, expanded but refined law enforcement and intelligence work. Assassinations, kidnappings, and interrogations on a small, discreet, deniable scale (actually, I don't want to see the assassinations, kidnappings, and interrogations -- if I do, it means it's been done sloppily and will be counterproductive).

Third, devotion of appropriate resources to securing loose nukes. Absent WMD, al Qaeda doesn't threaten our civilization (only our own overreactions and stupidity can do that). But there's little doubt that if AQ could acquire and deploy WMD against America, they would. The Soviet Union had the means but was deterrable; AQ is undeterrable but lacks the means. We must make those means unavailable to them.

Fourth, less bombastic war rhetoric. If Bush really believes we're engaged in the "decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century," why did he commit so few troops to Iraq? If Rumsfeld really believes “we face similar challenges [to the rise of Nazi Germany] in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism,” why is the country not mobilized as was during World War II?

Fifth, more cleverness, less venting of rage. It's natural to want to lash out after a terrorist provocation might seem to offer a temporary salve for our collective ego -- this was the emotional underpinning for the march into Iraq -- but ego ought to have little to do with our objectives. It may be that we'll have to exercise patience and restraint in the face of horrible provocations. Doing so will be difficult, but as James Fallows argued in the September Atlantic Monthly, our own overreactions will be the biggest obstacle to victory in this fight (thanks David Terrenoire for the link).

Sixth, examination of new approaches to Israel and Palestine, based (ironically) on the rise of extremism in the region. It used to be that repressive Arab regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia used Israel to distract their populations from the government's domestic repression, inability to provide jobs, and other failings. Now, hatred of Israel is fueling the rise of Iran and Hezbollah -- the hatred is slipping out of the control of these governments and becoming more dangerous than it is useful. Accordingly, conditions might exist for accommodation from Egypt, Saudi, and elsewhere. A long shot, but possible.

Finally, we may need to reconsider the feasibility of bringing freedom to people the name of whose religion, which provides the core of their identity, means "submission."

6. A Different Metaphor

Less than a generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world is again engaged in a great game for power. Our opponent this time is not communism, but Islamofascism. But the roots of that earlier conflict provide a framework for understanding the nature of this new one, and could, if sensibly applied, help us to prevail once again.

Communism was an ideology that by its own tenets was guaranteed to fail in competition with the west. Command economies are inefficient; they cannot win in a capitalist foot race any more than a runner who insists on tying his shoelaces together can win against an opponent operating under no such self-imposed handicaps. The only way for communism to "win," then, was to sabotage its opponents. Married as it was to its own stunted ideology, it really had no choice.

Islamofascism is the same. A society that eliminates half its productive workforce by refusing to permit women to drive or vote or go out unaccompanied by men cannot compete against societies that lack similar constraints. The unconstrained societies will inevitably prosper and progress; the constrained societies will inevitably weaken by comparison. The only choice for the constrained is to try to bring the unconstrained down.

For a while, anyway. In 1989 I wrote, "'Workers of the world, unite!' was the birth cry of communism; 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em,' sounds like its death knell." If we effectively contain Islamofascism, there is hope that eventually it will undergo a similar metamorphosis (for possible philosophical models for modernized Islam, read George Packer's excellent "The Moderate Martyr" in the Sept 11 issue of The New Yorker).

If that metamorphosis does occur, the Arab psyche can rightly be flush with pride at its own positive achievements. The sense of indignity, humiliation, and helplessness in which the disease has taken root will pass, and the Arab middle east could become a productive part of the 21st century. If it doesn't, the Arab middle east will become an isolated seventh century theme park. Geopolitically, either outcome would be acceptable to the west.

What's most encouraging, but in some ways, most nerve-wracking, is that the outcome is largely up to us. Islamofascism appeals outside the Arab Middle East only by contrast to the perceived depredations of the west. If we stop perverting the implementation of our ideals by our addiction to oil, if we rediscover our better, truer selves, if we choose our means carefully, the disease will go into remission.

To put it another way: Islamofascism can't win this struggle. Only we can lose it.