Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Generals' Revolt?

Interesting article from the Sunday Times: US Generals Will Quit if Bush Orders Iran Attack.

Money quote:

The threat of a wave of resignations coincided with a warning by Vice-President Dick Cheney that all options, including military action, remained on the table. He was responding to a comment by Tony Blair that it would not “be right to take military action against Iran”.

Earlier this month, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Peter Pace publicly distanced himself from administration claims that Iran's leadership was responsible for supplying our enemies in Iraq with especially deadly bombs called EFPs -- Explosively Formed Penetrators. Now there's talk of resignations. It seems clear that various people in the know, all the way up General Pace, suspect the administration is planning to attack Iran and are maneuvering to ensure they're not part of the propaganda leading up to it.

I see two possibilities: first, the administration really is trying to lay the political groundwork for an attack on Iran, and the leaks and other public counters are intended as impediments. Second, the administration isn't planning to attack Iran, but is trying to strike fear into the mullahs to gain diplomatic concessions, both nuclear and with regard to stabilizing Iraq.

My guess is, the administration is planning for both. The thinking is: "We'll play chicken with Iran. If the mullahs swerve out of the way, we win. If they don't, we collide, and that's fine, too. We win either way."

Here's another interesting quote from the article:

"Army chiefs fear an attack on Iran would backfire on American troops in Iraq..."

It's long been my sense that the country we most wanted to shock and awe by going to war with Iraq was Iran. Ironic, then, that our troops there have become hostages to a potential Iranian response. Neocons, take note: it seems that one of the opportunity costs of war in Iraq is our ability to wage another war in Iran.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Repercussions from Iraq

Did you know the name of the current US-assisted Baghdad security sweep is Operation Imposing Law? Don't our Pentagon people vet the acronyms formed by these operations? That, or some irony-loving staffer managed to sneak this one by his irony-blind superiors...

Lots of fascinating news this week. Time magazine analyzes the deepening, and spreading, sectarian hatred in Iraq. Mother Jones argues that our presence in Iraq has increased worldwide terrorism. The London Times finds that anti-American feeling is soaring among Muslims.

(BTW, I smiled at this line in the Time article, regarding the Shiite ceremony called Ashura: "The faithful march in the streets, beating their chests and crying in sorrow. The extremely devout flagellate themselves with swords and whips." In other contexts, flagellating oneself with swords and whips would be called "insanity." When the behavior is apparently religiously motivated, it is known as "devotion." Journalists in training, take note.)

Deepening sectarian hatred, an increase in worldwide terrorism, and soaring anti-Americanism. I see three ways to deal with these findings:

1. They are inaccurate.
2. Regardless of their accuracy or inaccuracy, they are irrelevant.
3. They are accurate and relevant.

As I've argued in many previous posts, I believe the findings are both accurate and relevant. If we think of the war in Iraq as part of a larger counterinsurgency campaign, we have to accept that we are losing hearts and minds. If you lose the hearts and minds of the subject population, you lose the counterinsurgency campaign.

It seems to me that we've started a fire in Iraq. Now we're trying to put it out. But what if we can't? Like all fires, it will spread. Our best hope, then, will be to direct it away from ourselves. How?

Attacking a Shiite nation (Iran, that is) right after we've attacked a Sunni one probably wouldn't do the trick. On the contrary, in fighting against the Arab Sunni Taliban, Arab Sunni Iraqi insurgents, and Persian Shiite Iran, we might just accomplish the difficult trick of uniting Islam's feuding sects and nationalities against us.

Perhaps there are ways that Sunnis and Shiites could be left to fight each other, instead? For the cold-bloodedly realpolitically inclined among us, perhaps such fighting could even be... encouraged? If the fire turns on itself, is there a better chance it could burn itself out without consuming the west, too?

You have to be careful with metaphors like these, I know. What's going on in Islam isn't exactly a fire. But are our leaders intelligently, open-mindedly, grappling with these questions?

The always estimable Christopher Hitchens, in a recent Slate article, said almost as an aside, "We cannot flirt, either morally or politically, with divide and rule."

But he never explained why, or what the alternative might be.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Real Issue on Hillary and Iraq

I'm intrigued by calls from various Democratic quarters for Hillary Clinton to apologize for her 2002 vote authorizing military action in Iraq.

Clinton has said that knowing what she knows now, she wouldn't have voted the way she did. Saturday Night Live hilariously interpreted her remarks to mean, "Knowing what we know now, that you could vote against the war and still be elected president, I would never have pretended to support it."

As a matter of logic, Clinton's position has merit. Some mistakes you never should have made (unjustifiable); others, you made reasonably, based on what you knew at the time (justifiable). And even though she refuses to utter the "M" word (taking her cue in this regard from President Bush), Clinton is simply arguing that her mistake was justified based on the faulty intel she received from the White House.

But I think there's something more important going on here than whether someone made a mistake in voting to authorize the war, whether the mistake was justified at the time, and whether the mistake warrants an apology. The real issue here is judgment.

It's easy to forget that before the war, the Bush administration was hardly alone in believing Saddam Hussein had or soon would have WMD. So Senator Clinton is entitled to her position that she authorized the war based on what turned out to be faulty intelligence. But she's avoiding the harder, and more relevant question, of whether war made sense even if the intelligence had been accurate.

Kim Jung Il has long had a universally acknowledged active WMD program (which has subsequently led to an actual North Korean nuke) and is a demonstrated missile and nuclear know-how proliferator. The al-Saud fund hate-inculcating madrasses worldwide and supplied three quarters of the 9/11 hijackers. Iranian sponsorship of global terrorism is well documented. We know the Pakistani government was complicit in AQ Khan's nuclear proliferation efforts, with North Korea, Iran, and Libya as Khan's customers. Yet of all these demonstrated WMD and terrorist threats, we made war only on Saddam Hussein.

I wish Senator Clinton and others (including myself) had thought to ask: if we can live with Kim Jung Il and the al-Saud and the Iranian mullahs and Masharraf's complicity with AQ Khan, why can't we live with Saddam? And if we *can* live with him but are going to attack him anyway, what is the real motive for the attack? There might have been good, persuasive answers to these questions, but Senator Clinton didn't ask, and President Bush didn't volunteer them.

My own take: The Bush administration honestly believed Iraq had WMDs or dangerous WMD programs. But they never adequately considered alternatives short of war because the exigencies that inhibit us from going to war with North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and (so far) Iran were all absent in Iraq. Bush didn't intentionally invent Saddam's WMD, as many on the left have accused him of doing, but nor did he deal with the WMD possibility honestly. Instead, he thought, "Hussein's WMD are a threat. Yes, we could manage the threat another way, as we have with threats posed by Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia... but if we deal with the threat by invasion, we can simultaneously intimidate Iran and Syria, and possibly the al-Saud; we can rebuild Iraq's sanctions-crippled oil industry and lower the price of a barrel in the process; and we can even unleash a wave of democracy in the middle east."

I can understand the appeal of such a plan before the fact, but its implementation has been a catastrophe. Perhaps the catastrophe could have been mitigated, or even avoided altogether, if the Senate and House (and the media) had probed Bush's real objectives -- which, as the counterexamples above demonstrate, could not logically have been solely about WMD, no matter how honestly Bush or anyone else believed those WMDs to exist.

The real question, then, isn't whether Senator Clinton's mistake in voting to authorize the war was justified by what turned out to be faulty intelligence. The real question is, why didn't she ask why war was necessary even if the intelligence was accurate? Why if we could deal with so many other dangerous regimes short of war, we had to go to war in Iraq?

Hard questions like the ones above would have shown real depth of consideration and judgment -- the kind showed by, say, Barrack Obama, who spoke out against war, though as a State senator he could have kept his mouth shut and had it both ways later.

I'm afraid Saturday Night Live got it about right about Senator Clinton.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Iran: What, Where, Why

I'm curious about the timing of the publicity the Bush administration is currently giving Iran's involvement in Iraq.

For the past few days, CNN, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal have all led with stories about Iranian-supplied "EFPs" -- Explosive Formed Projectiles, aka Explosively Formed Penetrators. EFPs are bombs that can punch through the toughest armor, and which apparently have killed 170 American and allied troops in Iraq.

Is Iran supplying our enemies in Iraq with EFPs, and otherwise "meddling" there? I don't doubt it. Iran has many motives to try to worsen our predicament in Iraq, not least their fear that, if we ever got Iraq right, we might turn our attention to Iran next. And Iran's geographical proximity and cultural ties to Iraq's Shiites certainly give Iran the opportunity. Motive plus opportunity... if I had to guess, I'd guess that hell yes, Iran is doing everything the Bush administration has accused it of, and probably a lot more.

The question, then, isn't whether Iran is working against us in Iraq. The question is, why is the administration pushing this story now? After all, according to the Defense Department's own briefers, Iranian supply to Iraqi Shiites dates back to at least 2004. Why wasn't the administration publicizing Iran's role three years ago? Six months ago? Why now?

The only plausible explanations I can come up with are:

1. The new accusations are intended to divert attention from the administration's failures in Iraq by blaming Iran.

2. The administration hopes that by "calling" Iran on its behavior, it can frighten Iran into desisting (although still, why not try this six months, a year ago, three years ago...).

3. The new accusations are part of the administration's case for an attack on Iran. Paul Krugman suggests this in today's New York Times.

If anyone can think of something else, I'd like to hear it.

Maybe the most important thing to note with regard to the timing of the administration's Iran accusations is this: the White House has enormous power to create news. We heard little about Iran in Iraq until the White House decided to make it a front page story. The White House said little about North Korea, keeping that country largely off the front page, right up until the day Kim Jung Il went nuclear. Most of all, of course, there was the PR push the White House engaged in during the run-up to the war in Iraq, including nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

When you read a story -- or especially stories -- in the media, ask yourself not just about what the story says, but also where it's coming from. And why.