Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Rumsfeld Redux

Not to worry, the second part of The Roots of Arab Muslim Sickness is on the way. But first...

Today Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave a speech to the American Legion's annual national convention in Salt Lake City. You can read more here and here.

The excerpts I've read are depressing. For example, the Secretary asked, “With the growing lethality and the increasing availability of weapons, can we truly afford to believe that somehow, some way, vicious extremists can be appeased?”

Quick question: does anyone here believe vicious extremists can be appeased?

I guess not. But then why... oh, I get it. The question is rhetorical. Its real meaning is, "If you disagree with our policy, you must favor the appeasement of vicious extremists."

Even if you think the Bush administration has been doing a fine job (took a lot of discipline not to say "heckuva job" there) of protecting the nation, isn't this kind of simple-minded demagoguery off-putting?

Back when I was in law school, I was taught that if you can win on the facts, argue the facts. If the facts are unhelpful, attack the credibility of the witness. That's what this is. If things were going well in Iraq and Afghanistan, members of the administration would rightly trumpet progress and success. But they're not. They're attacking their critics, instead. I guess they feel they have no choice. And maybe they're right. After all, what else are they going to talk about?

Rumsfeld also said, "This enemy is serious, lethal and relentless. But this is not well recognized or fully understood.”

Show of hands, please: anyone here who doesn't recognize and fully understand the serious, lethal, and relentless nature of our enemies?

Okay, good: we all agree on the nature and severity of the threat. But then why... oh, I get it. The administration senses it's vulnerable to a discussion of how it's protecting the nation. If you disagree with how, the idea is that you must not really understand what's going on. The implication, of course, is that you're... an appeaser!

Back when I was in the CIA, I was taught, "Deny everything, admit nothing, make counter accusations." Refusing to discuss what's going wrong in Iraq and how we might make it less wrong while accusing your critics of appeasement is straight out of the playbook. If I weren't so disgusted, I'd be proud.

The Secretary claims that the American news media is part of the problem because it tends to emphasize the negative rather than the positive: for example, there was more coverage of what happened at Abu Ghraib than to Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith's winning the Congressional Medal of Honor.

I feel tremendous gratitude and respect to all our fighting men and women, and particularly to anyone who has been awarded the CMH. From the heart, thank you, Sgt. Smith.

But I have a feeling that if misdeeds at Abu Ghraib received more coverage than Sgt. Smith's heroism elsewhere, it was probably because people rightly sensed the somewhat larger geopolitical ramifications of what happened at Abu Ghraib. I don't doubt that there's bias in the media, but suggesting that bias is what put and kept Abu Ghraib on the map to the exclusion of stories of individual heroism is silly at best.

For people who claim to have all the right ideas, Rumsfeld and company come off seeming awfully insecure. Do they know something that we... do?

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Roots of Arab Muslim Sickness: Part 1, Introduction

Not all Arab Muslims are terrorists. But most terrorists are Arab Muslims. It's therefore worth asking what in the Arab Muslim world is producing this uniquely widespread cultural sickness. After all, if we don't know the cause of the disease, how can we hope to cure it -- or, barring a cure, contain its spread?

Most of the explanations I've come across cite one of two factors, or a combination of both. First, poverty; second, western foreign policy.

I don't think poverty and western foreign policy are irrelevant to Arab Muslim terrorism, but they're no more the cause of the disease than oxygen is the cause of a fire. There's been plenty of talk about oxygen. I want to talk about the combustible material and what is causing it to ignite.

Muslim Arabia was once a thriving culture, a center of trade, an explorer in science. Today it is not. I may be wrong, and I'd be grateful if anyone could tell me if I'm missing something, but I'm unaware of any significant scientific, artistic, economic, or other such development emanating from the Arab middle east. What patents have issued? What literature has been written? What products are made and exported? From fashion to philosophy, I know of no contributions.

It seems that all the Arab middle east has to offer is what by happenstance exists under ground there: easily accessible, plentiful, high quality petroleum. A godsend, you would think. But in fact a curse. The countries "blessed" with oil did nothing to achieve it, so it can't be a source of pride. And Arab fecklessness becomes significantly harder to explain in the presence of all that black gold and the hundreds of billions of dollars it generates.

The question being asked over there, I imagine, must be this: "Why, despite our history, our numbers, and our oil, are we so moribund?"

If Arabs are indeed asking this question, the answer they've arrived at seems to be, "It's not our fault. After all, there's nothing wrong with us. How could there be? We have a rich history. We follow the one true religion. And we have all that oil. External forces must be to blame."

As with all good conspiracy theories, there's a germ of truth in this one. The United States has a long history of backing some of the world's most oppressive regimes as long as they're willing to pump oil (the imperative and the policy remain, despite President Bush's recent rhetorical veneer about promoting democracy in the middle east). If the Arab middle east had no oil, the area would have the same strategic importance to the west as sub-Saharan Africa, and we would have the luxury of policies driven by our ideals rather than by our addictions. But the oil does exist, our addiction does distort our ideals, and it's understandable that citizens in these repressive countries would resent the United States for supporting their oppressors.

But the list of countries with plenty of poverty and heartfelt grievances about being oppressed by the US is long, and for the most part it's only Muslim Arabs who have responded with unrelenting suicide bombing. What makes Arab Muslims different from all the people of the world who are more interested in getting ahead than in nursing a grudge?

I don't know the specific answer, but I suspect it's rooted somewhere in the nexus of Arab history and Muslim religion. As for the general answer, the psychology is clear: it's painful to acknowledge that a failure is your own fault, and comforting to believe that the failure is the fault of some Other. If the failures are monumental, so too must be the treachery of that Other, and therefore the hatred the perceived treachery justifies and breeds.

The problem with concluding that something isn't your fault is that it's the same as concluding it isn't your responsibility. And concluding that you have no responsibility for something you care about is the same as concluding you have no power over it. The Arab Muslim psychology, it seems to me, is therefore one of extreme powerlessness.

The human psyche abhors a sense of powerlessness and will rebel against it. And the most fundamental, primitive way of asserting a sense of power is by demonstrating a power to hurt. I can't get what I want, I can't persuade you to change your behavior by positive means... but I can still matter to you, and convince myself of my own power, if only I can hurt you.

This, then, is the vicious cycle in which the Muslim Arab world finds itself: I am victimized by outside forces. Nothing is my fault, meaning I am powerless. Being powerless is abhorrent and robs me of my dignity. I will recover my dignity by hurting the outside forces responsible for my misery. But hurting others does nothing to change my circumstances, so I am left with nothing to care about but my ability to hurt. And thus my sole modern contribution to the world, my innovation, my emblem, my identity, is the suicide bomber. And what was once a thriving culture becomes merely a death cult.

Next week: Part 2, Palestine

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Israel, Hezbollah, and Lebanon

It's a little hard to understand what's going on in Lebanon right now, but here's what I think.

Hezbollah wasn't expecting the magnitude of Israel's attack, and over the month of the war sustained significant losses.

Israel wasn't expecting the ferocity of Hezbollah's resistance, and over the month of the war realized it couldn't break Hezbollah without sustaining heavy losses.

Hezbollah was afraid that continued Israeli attacks would erode its position in Lebanon. Israel was afraid that Hezbollah would continue to fire rockets at Israel and inflict casualties on Israeli troops, further denting the IDF's reputation and enhancing that of Hezbollah. So both sides were looking for a way to stop the fighting, and that's why they accepted the latest UN resolution.

But the resolution calls for Hezbollah's disarmament and removal from southern Lebanon. If the motivated, capable IDF wasn't able to achieve such an outcome, it's hard to imagine any UN force, or the feckless Lebanese army, doing it instead.

In other words, Israel has accepted a resolution that it knows will leave Hezbollah armed and in place in southern Lebanon -- exactly the conditions Israel went to war to change.

I don't know exactly how to explain the situation, but I think Israel's thinking goes like this:

The optimistic view was nicely expressed by Michael Young, the opinion editor at The Daily Star, an English-language newspaper published in Beirut. Young writes, “For the next two or three years, Hezbollah will be like the Salvation Army, tied up in rebuilding. But the party cannot put Shiites through such trauma again for the foreseeable future, maybe a decade, which means its ability to attack Israel will be limited. The reason Hezbollah is so eager to rebuild is that they know the condition of Shiites today could turn the community against them if it’s not dealt with effectively.”

The great unknown is what the Lebanese population, Shiites included, makes of Hezbollah's role in the war. Hezbollah's declared aims were the return of Lebanese prisoners of war and of disputed territory called the Shebaa farms. Neither of these aims was achieved, at a cost of horrific destruction in Lebanon. Even if Hezbollah does a magnificent job of helping people rebuild, will they forgive Hezbollah for provoking the destruction in the first place?

If not, then maybe the combination of Hezbollah's weakened military condition and weakened political base will force it to make compromises with the Lebanese government that will weaken it further still. Maybe.

The pessimistic view would hold that, with massive Iranian aid, Hezbollah will quickly rebuild, rearm, and retrench, and then, at some point in the future, renew its attacks. The question is, what will Israel do then?

With a new casus belli, Israel will go to war again, this time with better tactics based on a new understanding of Hezbollah's military capabilities. At this point, Israel would claim that it had been mistaken to put its trust in the UN force, which had proven itself unable to fulfill its responsibilities in disarming Hezbollah and removing it from southern Lebanon. Israel would warn UN forces in the south to leave, and host countries, not having any political reason to explain casualties to voters, would comply. Israel would then use leaflets to warn the entire Lebanese population south of the Litani river that after a certain date anyone south of the Litani will be treated as an enemy fighter and killed. Israel would then bombard the south massively and indiscriminately, cut off and lay siege to whoever survived the bombardment, mop up what was left, and defacto annex a depopulated southern Lebanon. The destruction and displacement would be far worse than what just occurred.

Israel must already be concerned that its stalemate with Hezbollah will embolden its other enemies. It won't allow another draw, meaning Lebanon won't survive the next war.

I hope the optimists are right.

Friday, August 11, 2006


As visitors to HOTM know, I'm no fan of President Bush. But he certainly got it right yesterday when he said of Wednesday's foiled terrorist plot, "This was a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists."

In some ways, Bush's construction was odd. After all, according to the administration, we're in a Global War on Terror -- or, if you prefer, in a Struggle Against Violent Extremism. Why, then, didn't the president say, "This was a stark reminder that this nation is at war with terror and violent extremism?"

Because terror is a tactic and extremism a mindset, and wars can be fought against neither. Real wars, as opposed to the "moral equivalent" or other metaphorical variety, can only be fought against human actors. And the human actors who are in fact the enemies of our civilization are defined and identified by the nexus of Muslim religion (Islam is the only true way, everyone else is an infidel who needs to be killed or converted, etc.) and fascist ideology (the state should be all powerful and control the personal behavior of all its citizens, who exist to serve the state). Hats off, then, to President Bush for, whether deliberately or instinctively, correctly identifying the enemy: Islamic fascism (the terminology I prefer is Islamofascism and Islamofascists because the focus feels tighter to me, but this is a quibble).

The president's new terminology is welcome not just because it's correct, but for other reasons, as well. The language of tactics is the language of law enforcement. Acts are illegal, not the people who do them. From running a red light to bank robbery all the way to murder, the law prohibits acts. War is different. We didn't fight World War II against Panzer or kamikaze attacks. We fought it against the Germans and Japanese. If we really are in a war now, and I believe we are, I hope other leaders and the media will take their cue from the president and stop obscuring the issue with language that smacks of law enforcement. War is the sword, law enforcement the shield. They are different tools and we ought to be clear about which we're using and for what purpose.

Another benefit of using the proper nomenclature is that doing so tends to linguistically wrongfoot the Islamofascists. Monikers like Islamicists, Militant Islam, militants, Mujahadeen, and jihadis are points of pride to these people. Why are we acceding to their attempts at self-branding? They're islamofascists. Let's attach that powerful word -- fascism -- to its proper recipients and let them explain why they're really something else.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Iraq: It's Over.

A year ago I wrote an opinion piece for the Philadelphia City Paper that asked how and when a society would admit a war was lost. Now we're finding out.

Don't think it's over yet? Remember, whatever officials say in public, they're probably an order of magnitude more pessimistic in private.

Here's General John Abizaid, commander of US forces in the Middle East, testifying before the Senate last week: “I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I’ve seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war.”

Look at the qualifiers in that last clause. It's "possible" that Iraq "could" "move towards" civil war. My guess is that General Abazaid, mindful of what happened to then Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki when Shinseki publicly disagreed with SecDef Rumsfeld, is protecting his political flank (he also described himself as "optimistic"). But if the general is talking this way in public, on the record, what do you think he's saying in private? What do you think he really believes?

Also, the outgoing British ambassador to Iraq says in a leaked memo that "the prospect of a low-intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely" than a stable democracy.

Okay, leave aside the pronouncements, publicly hedged and privately leaked. What's going on on the ground?

The Economist reports Shiite and Sunni militias are dividing Baghdad into de facto ethnic sectors. In the former Yugoslavia, this was known as "ethnic cleansing." The UN reports that over 100 Iraqis a day being killed in sectarian strife, mostly in Baghdad. (It'll be interesting to see at what point a public consensus emerges that what's happening in Iraq is indeed a civil war. Remember, the Pentagon at first refused to call what we were fighting following the fall of Baghdad an "insurgency." But events have a way of slipping past linguistic attempts to bottle them up, or deny them.)

Not long ago, the administration was taken with the so-called "Oil Spot Strategy," in which we would focus our efforts on improving conditions in already relatively untroubled parts of Iraq, then extend those improvements like a spreading oil spot to more troubled regions. I don't know whether the strategy was seriously attempted or whether it could really work, but it seems things have gotten so bad in Baghdad that the administration is afraid the city will act like caustic detergent on whatever oil spots might drop around it. Now, to try to halt Baghdad's slide, we're sending more troops to the city, and the oil spot approach seems forgotten.

I'm not a military man, but it's hard to see the increase as grounds for General Abazaid's professed optimism. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman describes the increase, to about 135,000, as a "sustained spike." "You're going to see that spike," he said last week, "that is a sustained spike, for a while, and you're going to still have force rotations that take place."

Quick question: is a "sustained spike" the same as a "long term development?" Just asking.

But when do we really know the game is over? Shouldn't we give our efforts just a little more time, maybe another six months? For an answer, google "six months Iraq." I've been curious about this apparently critical moving six month window for years now. Tom Friedman of the New York Times, who I think ought to be in charge of US foreign policy, has referred to it pretty much since the war began, and at some point I started to suspect that Friedman was unconsciously moving the magical six month window forward because he couldn't face that the war was lost. But in his most recent op-ed piece, called "Time for Plan B," Friedman writes, "It is now obvious that we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq. We are baby-sitting a civil war." There's no mention of six months in the piece. Friedman is writing about now.

How will things end? Check out "What do we do about Iraq."