Thursday, January 25, 2007

Just Pigs?

Fascinating article in today's Wall Street Journal: "Pigs Get the Ax In China TV Ads, In Nod to Muslims." The gist: next month, China rings in its once-every-twelve-years Year of the Pig. And the state-run national television network has banned all references to pigs, spoken and visual, from commercials, so as to avoid offending Muslims.

The ban strikes me as strange -- reminiscent of, yet exceeding, the self censorship practiced by the Western media over last year's Mohammed cartoons imbroglio. China's 20 million Muslims represent less than two percent of China's population, and, I gather, are offended by pigs. For China's non-Muslims, though, the pig has positive associations, including prosperity, good fortune, and fertility -- so positive, in fact, that the average Chinese eats 80 pounds of pork per year. Ninety-eight percent versus two percent... on strictly quantitative grounds, a ban on pig depictions in advertising in China seems a significant imposition by a minority on a majority.

But there's a qualitative element, too. Do Muslims really find pig imagery so offensive that they want it banned? In the press, I always read that Muslims consider pigs "unclean," but why would that lead to animus? I consider dogs unclean, but if you want to live with one, go for it. Getting upset about a picture of an animal seems strange to me, but then I'm not Muslim nor even religious. Are there any Muslims reading this blog? If so, I'd welcome your thoughts.

I guess you could argue there's an implicit balance going on here. Sure, it's only two percent... but if the two percent feel *very* strongly, and accession isn't that big a deal for the majority, why not accede? A question, then: if Chinese Muslims, or Muslims generally, wanted to do away with the very notion of a Year of the Pig, should the Chinese government accede to that, too?

Culture is a hard thing to quantify, but you tend to know it when you see it. In China, the pig is big. In Japan, you take your shoes off before entering someone's house. In America, English is the lingua franca. Demanding that the majority culture change to accommodate a small minority's tastes or even beliefs seems boorish at best... the same kind of boorish behavior for which "ugly Americans" are lambasted when they engage in it overseas.

I wonder what's next, and where?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Slippery Verbal Redundancy

I'm always intrigued by redundant modifiers. Why does the media insist on using phrases like "brutally raped" and "brutally murdered?" Is it possible someone could be gently raped, or tenderly murdered? And what does it mean to be "cautiously optimistic?" What would you make of someone whose optimism was heedless or wild-eyed?

Sometimes the second clause of a sentence means everything. In the summer of '05 I saw a huge poster in a record store: "Sin City DVD, Available Now!" Excited, I approached more closely, and saw the next line, in significantly smaller print: "for pre-order."

Leave aside for the moment the redundancy in the notion of pre-ordering something... probably it's just what you do once you've finished pre-planning. What really got me was the 180 degree turn the second clause caused. Available now for pre-order? If you can only order it, that's the precise definition of *not* available! Sheesh.

Anyway, I paused today when I saw this first sentence in a New York Times article:

"General George Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, said today that the additional troops being sent to Iraq could begin to be withdrawn by late summer if security conditions improve in Baghdad."

That "if" clause interests me, much in the way of the unnecessary "brutal" qualifier. It made me wonder, was there some possibility the troops *wouldn't* be withdrawn if Baghdad's security conditions improve? Doesn't it go without saying that if security conditions improve, we'll start bringing home our troops?

So... why the redundant clause?

Because most people won't notice it. They'll focus instead on the first part of the sentence, and indeed the headline of the article is, "U.S. May Cut Troops in Iraq by Summer, General Says." That sounds like good news, the kind of good news that will maintain domestic support for the war. Then, later, when the good news fails to materialize, the general can point to that exculpatory "if" clause, and note that the necessary condition, sadly, hasn't been fulfilled. Benefits of the first clause today; benefits of the escape clause tomorrow.

I couldn't help thinking of the following pristine example of having one's verbal cake and eating it, too, from then Director of Central Intelligence Porter Goss's February '05 Congressional testimony:

"It may be only a matter of time before al Qaeda or other groups attempt to use chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons."

"Only a matter of time" means it's inevitable: not whether, but when. For example, for each of us, death is only a matter of time. Death is inevitable. With regard to AQ and WMD, this is scary rhetoric! And therefore not a bad way to increase your budget while simultaneously sounding prescient should disaster strike. But wait... it only "may" be a matter of time. Which means, it might not be inevitable... but wait, if something might not be inevitable, isn't that the same as saying it's *not* inevitable?

If a WMD attempt (that's smooth, too... it doesn't have to be an actual attack, just an "attempt," however that might be defined) happens, Goss gets to say, "Told you it was inevitable." If it doesn't happen, he gets to say, "I only said it may be inevitable, not that it was inevitably inevitable." As Borat would say, Nice!

George Orwell put it best: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

Ask yourself, why does the government feel compelled to play these verbal games with regard to Iraq?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

War with Iran

Back in April, I asked:

"If both the Iranian mullahs and the Bush administration both believe they'll gain politically from an American attack on Iran, how likely is it that the attack will happen?"

Keep that question in mind when examining the following recent domestic developments:

The US is now pursuing and arresting Iranians in Iraq. As national security adviser Hadley put it, “We intend to deal with [Iran] by interdicting and disrupting activities in Iraq, sponsored by Iran, that are putting our troops and Iraqis at risk."

BTW, I like Cheney's take on the roles of the executive and the legislature: "[Bush is] the guy who's got to decide how to use the force and where to deploy the force. And Congress obviously has to support the effort through the power of the purse. So they've got a role to play, and we certainly recognize that. But you also cannot run a war by committee."

Congress "has to" support the president. Interesting. They taught me different in law school, but that was Cornell, a notoriously liberal institution. Probably I was being subverted.

Question: What happens if the Iranians we pursue inside Iraq fight back?
Answer: We kill some of them. They kill some of us.

Question: What if, after engaging our troops in Iraq, Iranians flee back into Iran?
Answer: We pursue them and kill them there, perhaps with others. They kill or capture some of us.

Question: What happens at that point?
Answer: The administration has the casus belli it needs to attack Iran. We launch air strikes at Iranian nuclear and command and control facilities. Think adding 20,000 troops to the war is "doubling down?" Try war with Iran, instead.

But wait... doesn't congress need to authorize that sort of thing?

Not according to the administration. See the links above. And leaving the Constitutional niceties aside, the advantage of an attack on American troops is that it leaves Americans at home feeling pugnacious enough to go to war without those awkward Congressional hearings. And Congress, sniffing the political wind, can be counted on to play along.

See: Remember the Maine. See also: The Tonkin Gulf incident.

Here's the heart of the matter: If you believe Bush, Cheney, et al are decent, responsible, competent leaders, you'll trust their judgment and their motives on how far to push things with Iran. If you are cynical, you'll suspect that they're maneuvering us into war with Iran -- partly to retard Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, partly to distract from and dilute their failure in Iraq. If you're really cynical, you might think many of our recent military maneuvers in the region -- the extra troops, the deployment of a second aircraft carrier and escort ships -- are preparation for a fait accompli attack on Iran.

Imagine this conversation:

Cheney: We really have to do something about those Iranian nukes, Mr. President. It's bad enough Kim Jung Il went nuclear on our watch.

Bush: I agree, I agree... but the country is so disillusioned with war, and, though it's unfair, with our ability to wage it competently. They'll never go for an attack on Iran. Even the recent escalation... I was told I couldn't call it that. We had to package it as just a "surge."

Cheney: I'm not saying it'll be easy. But Ahmadinejad, with the Holocaust denial conference and the rest, plays into our hands. He's the perfect pin-up boy for evil. And we know there are Iranians in Iraq, training the insurgents to make IEDs that can penetrate the armor of an M-1 tank.

Bush: Wow. Are explosive devices that can penetrate an M-1 really still improvised?

Cheney: Never mind that. The point is, the Iranians are meddling in Iraq. If someone complains about our hunting them down, we say the complainers don't support our troops. Eventually, the Iranians shoot back, or we chase them in to Iran in "hot pursuit." Our forces engage Iranian forces on Iranian soil and we take some casualties. The American people will demand that our fallen be avenged and that Iran be punished. With a second carrier in the region, we can immediately launch air strikes against the Bushehr reactor and other nuclear sites. We'll simultaneously stop the Iranian nuclear threat, redeem the whole enterprise in Iraq, and restore our reputations. You'll be remembered not as the man who lost in Iraq, but as the man who prevented the mad mullahs from going nuclear.

Bush: I like it.

"Meddling," by the way, is the administration buzzword on Iranians in Iraq. It's an interesting word. We don't meddle, only other countries do... plus, it invites such wonderful verbal accouterments. For example, if you're a meddler, I feel you deserve to have lackeys. And who doesn't want his own lackey? And meddlers have goatees, which they stroke nefariously... they also occasionally let out a sinister "mwhahahahahah" laugh while contemplating the fruits of their meddling.

On a more serious note: the "meddling" verbiage concerns me. It's one of those indications that we don't understand how others perceive us. If we don't understand how others perceive us, how can we be effective in the world?

Prediction: We will attack Iran as soon as we have sufficient forces in the region. At this point, as the fictional Cheney above points out, the administration motive is compelling. Creating the casus belli is easy. The rest is just logistics.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Long Goodbye

Hi everyone, sorry I've been away so long. It was crunch time on the new manuscript and I barely had time to keep up with the news, let alone think and blog about it. But the book is done. I'm thrilled with it... and thrilled to be back to trying to get to the heart of the matter of things.

The big news today is President Bush's announcement that we will send an additional 20,000 troops to Iraq. In trying to figure out what this means, I've started with the following question:

If we had committed an additional 20,000 troops four years ago when we first went in -- when conditions were infinitely more favorable -- would the outcome have been substantially different?

I'm no military expert, but the answer to this one seems to be no. It's hard for me to imagine that the current debacle could have been avoided if only we'd sent in about ten percent more troops four years ago. It's even harder for me to imagine that the increase will turn things around today, when Iraq is in a civil war.

Yes, I know the troops are only being sent to Baghdad. But even if the small increase were sufficient to pacify Baghdad, I can't help but wonder: if control of Baghdad could lead to control over the whole country, why didn't we just focus on Baghdad to begin with? What am I missing?

So if the 20,000 increase is -- at least logically -- bound to be useless, why are we doing it?

Here I see three possibilities.

First, as I've discussed before, the architects of the war are intent on doing all they can to continue the war long enough to hand it off to the next administration, thereby saddling someone else with the responsibility of ending it -- and of being blamed for its outcome.

Second, the architects are trying to force the Democrats to cut funding, cap troop levels, or otherwise refuse to give the administration what it's asking for. If the Democrats don't accede to all the administration's requests, the administration's narrative will become, "We had a plan, and we were about to win by implementing it, but the Democrats prevented us, therefore the Democrats lost the war."

Third, by explicitly holding Iraqi Prime Minister accountable in the speech and articulating various benchmarks for measuring Iraqi progress, the administration can shift the onus of failure onto the Iraqi government when things continue to deteriorate. In other words, we simultaneously demonstrate that we are going the extra mile with the additional troops, while articulating the criteria by which we can blame Maliki when the extra mile proves too short.

Note that what these three possibilities have in common is the notion of blame-shifting. Note also that they're not mutually contradictory.

For a while, I thought the Republican establishment and the new Democratic legislature would come together to end our involvement before the 2008 presidential race begins in earnest. Now I wonder if I wasn't being naive.

Democrats will be reluctant to to anything decisive that Republicans could use to blame them for the war's outcome. Rather than taking a stand now that could cost them the White House, I think Democrats will instead do little, thereby keeping the blame for the war pinned squarely on the Republicans; capture the presidency; and deal with the mess at that point. Various Republicans will figure out what the Democrats are up to, and will react by further distancing themselves from the administration's decisions. This Republican dance might save some individual Republican seats in '08, but it won't do anything to end the war before then. So, in the vacuum created by Democratic cynicism and Republican fecklessness, the administration will continue to do pretty much what it wants until a new president takes office.

Maybe I'm being too cynical. Maybe the president really believes the 20,000 troops and other already-tried half-measures he outlined in his speech will make a difference. Maybe the Democrats will feel the call of conscience more strongly than the lure of expediency, and act accordingly. But if I had to bet, I know where I'd put my money.

You can't blame the politicians, at least not entirely. My sense is that American society isn't yet ready to face the magnitude of the Iraqi fiasco, or of our irredeemable losses there. What happens Iraq after we leave, particularly to anyone who might be viewed as having collaborated with us, will be appalling. Apparently, the only way we'll be able to face those horrors is if we suffer more beforehand. Then, when we pull out and the sectarian bloodletting begins in earnest, we'll be able to tell ourselves we did all we could to prevent it, we had no choice, it wasn't our fault, the outcome was beyond our control.

In other words: the function of our men and women who will continue to die and be maimed in Iraq is to create American losses severe enough to enable us to at last abandon our hopeless enterprise there. That's what the war is about now. And it's likely to run on for at least two more years.