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.