Monthly Archives: October 2007

Christopher Hitchens and his pet retort: Both losers

[Final five paragraphs revised 10-15-07. Thanks be to OCD.]

How Hitchens Loves to Dismiss the Terror Blowback Effect

In crude terms, the “blowback” effect of U.S. policy describes how our more heavy-handed interventions abroad unintentionally create new state enemies and new, often retaliatory violence. Since 9/11, it has been suggested that our policies in the Middle East have “blown back” in the form of the very “terror” we are presently “war[ring]” against. In turn, and increasingly since the London bombings of 2007, the War on Terror (WOT) is cited as a cause of increased anti-Western terrorism around the world.

Left apostate Christopher Hitchens likes to dismiss this type of suggestion by saying it incorrectly “assumes that the root cause of terrorism is the resistance to it.” (This is something of a pet phrase for Hitchens; I heard him give it first on the Lara Ingraham radio show in 2005, in connection with the London bombings, and twice since. (A quick Google search yielded two more references: Ron Reagan show and Scarborough Country)). However, it is far from deserving of the air he gives it.


On the one hand, Hitchens’ dismissal carries the rhetorical force of a tautology: It appears to merely point out that effects follow causes and not the reverse. When Hitchens says this, then, the implication is that his opponent has stupidly violated this elementary logical principle—as though he has alleged something akin to “the cause of my lunch is the eating of it.” Of course, “resisting” a particular terrorist activity or current could never “cause terrorism” in the sense of going back in time and creating the very current to which it is a response. Such an idea is clearly absurd—but just as clearly not what Hitchens’ targets could be intending.

Barring this insane, “time-warp” interpretation, Hitchens’ retort could only be saying that resistance to terrorism could not possibly proceed in such a way as to create future instances of terror additional to the ones being responded to.

But clearly, this is either (1) false or (2) pointless:

(1) It is hardly a crazy idea to assume that one could resist a thing in ways that created more of that thing. Many people have died “resisting” kitchen fires by dousing them with oil, thereby accelerating the blaze. Would Hitchens dismiss the fire marshal’s warnings against this practice as foolishly “assum[ing] the cause of the blaze is the resisting of it”?

The example illustrates the failure of Hitchens’ pet phrase to distinguish between effective and ineffective forms of “resistance,” implying that just any old response to terrorism will be OK. But methods don’t magically become effective just because a person performs them in response to terrorism; that is, just because someone calls it “resistance” doesn’t mean it actually, effectively “resists” anything.

(2) The only way Hitchen’s point could be valid (and escape the insane, hyper-idealist implication that whatever we call things is what they are) is if he is defining “resistance” as “acts which successfully curb terror.” On this interpretation, Hitchens would be correct that “resisting terrorism” could never be the cause of (more) terrorism. But he gets this at the expense that his criticism becomes trivially true, true merely by definition, saying in essence: “Acts which succeed in curbing terror succeed in curbing terror.” (Well, duh.)

But defining “resistance” in positive terms, and identifying this with WOT, prevents Hitchens from having to actually catalogue and defend those alleged ways in which WOT curbs terror. That it curbs terror is just assumed by calling it “resistance” in the first place. In logician’s talk, Hitchens is begging the very question at issue.

Contra Hitchens: The War is Clearly Increasing Terror

But what about this question, then? Our chosen way of “resisting terrorism”—not the fact that we are resisting it, mind you, but this particular way of going about it, i.e., waging invasions and occupations of whole countries—is indeed multiplying terror:

(i) Terrorist attacks world-wide have spiked since Bush declared war on them. Our government admits this: According to the State Department’s Annual Terrorism Report, the total number of attacks in 2003 hit a 20-year high. This figure increased by more than another 300 per cent in 2004, going from 175 to 651 and killing 1,109 people. (The jump embarrassed the State Department into announcing it would no longer publish such stats in its annual report—when the data was needed more than ever.) The newest State Dept. report records a whopping 11,111 terrorist attacks in 2005, rising to 14,000 in 2006. These figures reflect the full-blown resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq, where nearly half of the incidents have occurred. (Attacks on coalition soldiers are excluded from the count.)

Just three days before the London subway attacks, the Sunday Times (UK) covered a British Home Office/Foreign Office report titled, Young Muslims and Extremism which—contrary to Blair’s public statements—identifies the Iraq war and foreign policy of Western nations toward Muslim ones “as a key cause of young Britons’ turning to terrorism.” Around the same time, no less than three additional studies emerged with parallel conclusions—a second from Britain (ex-military and -intel folks), one from the Saudi government, and one by an Israeli think tank. The last two confirm that some 95% of mujahideen captured or killed in Iraq are post-war recruits who had “never taken part in any terrorist activity prior to their arrival in Iraq.” (The Pentagon predicted this trend as early as 2004 in a report, commissioned by Rumsfeld, declaring the war has increased support for al-Qaeda-like groups.) The latest National Intelligence Estimate details “the rejuvenating effect the Iraq war has had on al-Quaeda” and the increased likelihood of a major attack on the “homeland.”

Recall, pre-war Iraq was the only place in the region where the threat of Islamist terror was completely pacified. Saddam viewed fundamentalism as competition and had long before 9/11 crushed anyone who gave these beliefs political expression. The invasion dismantled and reversed this scenario.

(ii) The Afghanistan war plays its part as well: Nine months after the invasion, the New York Times reported, “Classified investigations of the al-Qaeda threat now underway at the FBI and CIA have concluded that the war in Afghanistan failed to diminish the threat to the United States.” Rather, the war has “complicated counterterrorism efforts by dispersing potential attackers across a wider geographic area.” The diaspora allowed mid-level al-Qaeda operatives to forge bonds with other Islamist groups in the region. These groups, hitherto focused on domestic political matters, were drawn into the world of terrorist networks opposing the United States—thus dramatically increasing the pool from which future terrorists would be drawn. According to one official, “Al-Qaeda at its core was really a small group, even though thousands of people went through their camps. What we’re seeing now is a radical international jihad that will be a potent force for many years to come.”

(iii) Al-Qaeda’s tactics have explicitly changed due to WOT. In truth, this enemy has not always been frothing to kill “Americans.” “Soft” terror targets, though easier and often containing more people, were passed over in the pre-war years. Instead, U.S. embassies, the U.S.S. Cole, the World Trade Center (which was never expected to kill so many the second time) and the Pentagon were selected. These targets took more preparation and were more dangerous (even suicidal) for the attackers to execute, but each had the symbolic value of representing American power. The New York Times reports that senior al-Qaeda members, angered by the Afghanistan war, met in Thailand in January, 2002, where they “decided to turn from embassies [etc.], which were becoming better protected, to so called soft targets like resorts and schools.” They promptly bombed a nightclub in Bali—a target of no symbolic significance but stuffed to the gills with American tourists.

(vi) Finally, an escalation in the terror we are supposed to be “resisting” is what one would expect from our own intelligence: Clinton’s Presidential Decision Directive 62, issued in 1998, acknowledged that our military predominance, and our “flexing” it, leads enemies (actual or potential) to turn to “asymmetrical warfare,” or terror attacks, as opposed to the traditional toe-to-toe fighting at which they cannot hope to compete: “America’s unrivaled military superiority means that potential enemies—whether nations or terrorist groups—that choose to attack us will be more likely to resort to terror instead of conventional military assault.” A few months before 9/11, Rumsfeld repeated the basic point in his Quadrennial Defense Review report to Congress.

Contra Hitchens II: Why They Fight (And Why We Don’t Have To)

Saying that our chosen means of “resistance” to terror breeds more terror actually understates the causal connection—precisely because the terrorist activity which we are “resisting” is itself a response to phenomena of a character similar to this same “resistance.” Bin Laden, for instance, has long made clear his grievances in interviews with Robert Fisk. Michael Scheuer’s Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror summarizes nicely the main Islamist concerns; to paraphrase:

  • U.S. support for Israel’s occupation of Muslim Palestine
  • U.S. and other Western troops in every state of the Arabian peninsula
  • U.S. support for Russia, India, China, Phillipines and Uzbekistan against their Muslim populations and militants
  • U.S. pressure on Arab energy producers to keep oil prices low
  • U.S. military and economic sanctions on Muslim nations (sometimes through the U.N.): Syria, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, Somalia
  • U.S. support for apostate, corrupt, and despotic Muslim governments (often a vehicle for the above concerns)
  • And now, via the WOT: U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan; incarceration without trial of thousands of Muslims suspected of being mujahideen; pressure on Muslim governments to track, control and limit Muslim’s donations to charitable organizations; pressure on these governments to tailor school curricula to give a more pro-Western brand of Islam

In his Ingraham interview, Hitchens admits a couple of these as “root causes” of Islamic terror. But he includes others, like pop music, having nothing to do with foreign policy. We might call these “cultural” factors. Along these lines we could add sexy themes and imagery in Western media and the pursuit of materialistic “creature comforts.” This type of thing is what Bush, et. al., have in mind when they suggest the terrorists are motivated by hatred of our “freedoms” or “way of life” rather than foreign policy.

Hitchens prefers to stress the “cultural” aspects of the war with Islamism because it paints the conflict he champions as inevitable: We can’t end trash TV or no-fault divorce, so we have to fight those who would, maybe forever. It is correct that Muslim militants—with much of the Muslim world—would express objection to these more “cultural” phenomena of the West. But according to all of the evidence we have, they aren’t the reasons they leave their families to fight and die. Bin laden, of course, turned his guns from the Soviets to the Americans only when the latter set up shop in Saudi Arabia and made clear they weren’t leaving. Recalling the post-London studies, captured Mujahideen are very vocal about their motivations, and they cite foreign policy concerns uniformly.

Finally, to view “cultural” differences as the “root” problem overlooks the fact that for decades, anti-Western militancy in the Muslim world had a left-secular-nationalist flavor which took scant notice of the decadence, materialism and “freedom” of the West. The U.S. basically squashed this current without changing the policies that fed it: It destabilized or overthrew “Arab socialism” in Syria, Nasser’s Egypt, and Mossadeq’s Iran; supported, with Israel, the fundamentalist Hamas as a counter-weight to the secular PLO in Palestine; and the CIA even gave Saddam lists of suspected “reds” to torture and kill in the 1980’s. These policies left a vacuum for popular Muslim discontent which was filled by today’s reactionary religious forms.

All of this suggests that, not only are the “cultural” gripes of Muslim militants causally anterior to more “tangible” military and economic realities, the former are the expression or reflection of the latter. For an imperfect analogy: Islamists will include cultural concerns in their rhetoric in the same way a white man who is not normally overtly racist will use racial epithets when a black man cuts him off in traffic—though the traffic, and not the guy’s race, is the immediate grievance. He may be a closet racist, but he’s not cursing any and every black person that rides by, just the one that cuts him off. If he stopped being racist, he wouldn’t stop complaining about being cut off in traffic; he would just express it in another way—just as he does now when white people cut him off in traffic. (Maybe he calls them fat, or dumb, or simply the bad drivers they are.) His concern with race just “piggybacks” upon his concern with traffic. By analogy, ending pop music or sexy images by itself would no more curb Islamist militancy than ending racism would stop the angry white guy from road raging.

Lucky for us, what is driving the militancy of “the terrorists” are quite reasonable, morally compelling and technically solvable complaints. On this count and so many others, Hitchens—seriously—would rather be cute than right.


The Larry Craig flap and the poverty of classical liberal values

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby writes of Sen. Larry Craig’s solicitation of sex in a public bathroom:

Craig’s behavior was lewd and dishonorable, but—have you noticed?—that isn’t the main reason he has been excoriated. In much journalistic and political commentary, the senator’s real crime is not that he was trolling for anonymous, adulterous sex in a public bathroom, but that [given Craig’s homophobic views] doing so supposedly proved him a hypocrite.

First, I share none of Jacoby’s concern with “lewd[ness]” or “trolling” and little for the “adultery.” (These terms are amalgams, each covering too mixed a set of behaviors to license wholesale judgment.) But as to the preoccupation with Craig’s “hypocrisy,” the author is certainly correct, a point he proceeds to document. I only came across Jacoby’s article in a search of my own after hearing sex columnist Dan Savage call Craig a “hypocrite” on The Colbert Report. All of which prompted the following reflections:

(1) Simply behaving in a way that contradicts one’s words is insufficient to qualify one as a hypocrite. Hypocrisy is a species of insincerity, whereby one claims to hold certain values but actually doesn’t. It amounts to not believing one’s own words. Larry Craig’s bathroom come-on, then, is a mark of hypocrisy only if it is evidence that he does not believe his own pronouncements against homosexuality. This, in turn, can only be assumed if we cannot imagine anyone ever doing something they think is wrong. Of course, inflammation of the “passions,” foundering will power, and the simple failure to think in ethical terms at all in the face of temptation have led each reader to commit acts that she knows are—in her view, anyhow—wrong. As noted by one Time columnist, “[I]f Craig truly believes homosexuality is wrong, his fault would be weakness, not hypocrisy.”

(2) Focusing on the Senator’s “hypocrisy” suggests that what is mainly problematic about his anti-homosexual statements is that they conflict with his deeds. This seems to imply that he would be undeserving of our criticism if only the statements and deeds matched up: Imagine that, contrary to 25 years of allegations, Craig had never engaged in a homosexual act—or that he were magically “rehabilitated” of these tendencies. Either way, Craig could go on producing homophobic statements and votes with pure “consistency.” This would erase the “hypocrisy” of his views; but surely it would not satisfy those “progressive” critics of Craig’s who talk like this is the main problem. So more than “hypocrisy” must be at issue.

Indeed, consistent practice can yield all kinds of nasty outcomes (all the nastier, sometimes, for its consistency). All manner and degree of horrible acts can be perpetrated by persons whose words are perfectly in step with their behavior. In such cases, the absence of “hypocrisy” does not temper our criticism of the crime. (Hitler—at risk of taking the cheap shot—would still be a sonuvabitch if he’d said he loved the Jews and was acting for their good.)

(3) Just as evil does not become less interesting when you subtract the hypocrisy, good or neutral behaviors do not become interesting just because someone performs them hypocritically. Consider, for a thought experiment: I could make statements that checkers are too dull to be worth the playing, yet pursue the game on the sly. Maybe I’m even a Senator and my previous statements on checkers have been published in a light-hearted article about how I pass time on the campaign bus. In itself, this “hypocrisy” is hardly worth noting. It is certainly not newsworthy.

But mine is the same “hypocrisy” as Craig’s! They both deserve condemnation, or neither. That the Senator’s “hypocrisy” is about a much more serious issue than checkers does not change this; for the issue is one thing, the hypocrisy about it, another. (To say that expressing a bad idea hypocritically makes the hypocrisy bad is like saying that expressing a bad idea in metaphor, or English, or by megaphone makes the metaphor, the English, or the megaphone bad.)

(4) This is compounded by the fact that all wrong acts (when committed by sane persons) are on some level hypocritical. This is true by definition: It would be impossible to morally criticize a person—to hold him responsible for his behavior—if we did not believe that the actor knew what he was doing was wrong. We could lament the behavior, regret that it happened, even educate the person to avoid the conduct in the future; but we could not hold him responsible. (This also works in reverse: In some cases we stop holding a person responsible after it is determined that they were, after all, insane, sleepwalking, or on a bad Ambien trip.) So the revelation that some misconduct is “hypocritical” is all the less interesting to the extent that every misconduct is (already) hypocritical.

* * *

To sum up so far: Craig may be a genuine hypocrite—He could, for all we know, think homosexuality is just fine after all. And this hypocrisy may be a bad thing. But, point being, it it isn’t clear that it is all that interesting a thing—certainly not in relation to the man or his wider “corpus” of bad works. In short, Larry Craig’s views on homosexuality are interesting not because they may conflict with some of his private behaviors, but because the views are fucked up dead wrong.

* * *

But while hypocrisy is pretty uninteresting, charges of hypocrisy like the ones launched against Larry Craig are interesting for what they say about the state of ethical discourse in our culture. Such charges reflect the [classical] liberal ethos which identifies “the individual” as the ultimate source of value. This individualism further unpacks into the idea that a person is doing well to the extent that he is free—that is, undetermined by any source external to himself; and the equation of this freedom with free choice. The liberal idea of “the good life” means freely choosing values for oneself and acting in accord with these.

Under this ethical framework, the only genuine moral transgression possible for the “choosing individual” is inconsistency. The idea is captured in the criticism that some person has failed to “be true to himself” or, in a hipper vein, to “be real.” [Without exception, every “house” reality show has a dramatic thread wherein one contestant sustains a campaign to discredit another as being “not real.”] Calling Craig a “hypocrite” is just another criticism of this basic type. Each example accuses an individual of failure to consistently live out the values he has chosen for himself.

To the extent we cast ethical questions as matters of consistency, moral discourse becomes corrupted—confused and limited in scope. Again, a person could “be real about” or “true to”—that is, consistently maintain—all sorts of reprehensible values and opinions. If we can only, or mostly, criticize “bad behavior” in light of how it may conflict with someone’s chosen values (e.g., as embodied in their statements), the vast scope of human behaviors will escape our moral lens.

[Note: Not that I believe many “liberals” would consciously assent to the view that their morality is limited in this way. But this is just to say that they do not consistently hold to their values. (Indeed, they can’t be consistently held.) But just as one needn’t know that her views reflect, say, racism, provincialism, or ignorance to be racist, provincial, or ignorant, one needn’t know her views imply a corrupted moral framework for them to actually do so.]

Given the liberal framework, those human behaviors that don’t “escape our moral lens” can only be critiqued on a rudimentary, insubstantial level. One illustration is the lover’s reproof that “It isn’t that you cheated on me, but that you lied to me about it.” (A lie being action inconsistent with what the actor says he wants, or values.) “You should have just told me you wanted to see other people.” Of course, in the typical case, the one making this statement would not take in casual stride a revelation that a long-time, committed lover around whom the cheated has organized her life would suddenly prefer to date outside the couple. But a climate of liberal values renders the weak charge of inconsistency the most ready-to-hand type of criticism. This moral reductionism prevents the full character of the transgression from ever being articulated: The culprit is left uneducated as to his real fault, “free” to commit the crime again, next time only “consistently.” (Conversely, the accuser is let off the hook, allowed to cast stones, perhaps unfairly, without doing the real work of building a strong case against the target.)

A liberal moral climate cuts the other way, too: For instance, to the extent that Pres. Bush gets great moral purchase from touting his “steadfastness”—again, his consistency—alone, he doesn’t really have to articulate those (alleged) initial values to which he is being steadfast. The issue becomes only whether he stays “true to” or wavers from some values, whatever these might be. (Of course, if the values are bad ones, we might much prefer a leader who waffles on them over one who consistently applies them. At least the former will be right about half the time.)

Petraeus on Iraq: Same shit, different schill; or, Iraq still a clusterfuck (just a little more clustered)

1. On Petraeus’ Role as Surge Salesman

As brand-new commanding general in Iraq, it made sense for Petraeus to lend his credibility to the “troop surge” plan in a public way—as he did beginning in Jan. 2007 with his first Senate speech; conversely, his nomination for commander was due in part to his friendliness to the plan, in development long before his confirmation. But neither his nomination nor his affinity for the “surge” were primary cause of the other. Both circumstances flowed from a third and prior source: Early this year, Petraeus was selected by Bush to, as the President told his only real biographer, “sell…progress [in Iraq] to the American people.”


The political skill demonstrated to this end from January through the September hearings explains this selection better than either the General’s reliability as a reporter or his results in the field ever could: Recall, first, his peppy op-ed for the Washington Post in Sept. 2004, describing “tangible progress” and “gather[ing]…momentum” in various Iraqi “institutions” which were all much better off than now. The essay focused on the Iraqi Army which Petraeus was then charged with reconstructing; this endeavor proved especially challenging after the General allowed its entire procurement budget of $1.2b to be embezzled. Today, the “rebuilt” army remains quite possibly the most corrupt legal institution in the world.

Before that, Petraeus had been in charge of securing the city of Mosul against the “insurgents.” Here the General applied tactics which would become core to the “surge.” Months after his withdrawal, the city was overrun by the anti-occupation forces he had come to fight, who eagerly seized the 200,000 weapons the General had left for Iraqi police.

2. What Exactly is the “Surge” and What is it Supposed to Do?

A few preliminary points on the idea of the “surge”: Contrary to its enthusiasts, the “surge” hardly amounts to a strategic shift, being neither new nor in itself a coherent strategy at all. It is, rather, a complex of tactics used elsewhere and before in the war in varying combinations. In addition, we have seen “mini-surges” in Iraq each time relatively large contingents of troops are redirected internally to new areas. Often enough such redeployments are paired with like combinations of tactics. Neither these “mini-surges” nor tactical shifts are generally correlated with “progress” (more on just what this means to follow) along the lines now being claimed for the surge, making the plan as questionable a choice from a military standpoint as that of its chief coordinator.

It is tempting to to view the surge plan as a symptom of the U.S.’s confounded lack of political influence in the country, which forces the administration to think of problem-solving in terms of the rather crude military-force options it can actually execute: “Things going badly? Gotta pump in more soldiers!” (This prejudice probably explains why Crocker the diplomat hasn’t earned nearly the hype of his soldier counterpart.) And yet, it is unclear that a meaningful “surge” has even taken place: Yes, there are 30,000 more troops in Iraq now than in January, but January numbers were scarcely above the war’s low point and thus are an unfair baseline to use; nor do the present numbers constitute a high point—we had virtually the same number of soldiers on the ground in December of 2005. The point is compounded when you consider the dwindling numbers of coalition troops from other countries; the increase in U.S. troops has at best merely replenished the allied losses of the last two years. In short, if the numbers weren’t enough to get things done before, how are they supposed to do so now? (The tactical reconfigurations accompanying the numbers won’t make the difference, as these are either (a) more “labor-intensive” than those of 2005 (i.e., new emphases on holding cleared areas), or (b) in themselves likely to seed sectarian violence rather than curb it (i.e., the six-fold increase in indiscriminate air attacks)).

A broad official goal of the surge is to “secure” the capital city of Baghdad. Military figures claim that since January the U.S. has gained control of just under half of Baghdad. This is still less both in terms of the previous numerical “high point” and in qualitative terms of controlling key areas as opposed to less critical ones. Far less widely reported is the leaked Pentagon report citing the U.S. is able to “protect the population” and “maintain physical influence” over less than a third of the city. But consider that whatever the real figures, it isn’t clear what “securing the capital” actually gets us: In Afghanistan, control of Kabul has meant virtually nothing in terms of the “security” situation of the nation as a whole. Securing Baghdad is not being presented as a jumping-off point for some much broader campaign and it isn’t clear how it could function this way. The purely “linear” interpretation of this—that these 20,000 “surge” troops are intended to precede other contingents to secure other areas—is simply not on the agenda. And yet it isn’t clear how the alleged gains of Bush’s new plan are supposed to be extended to the country as a whole any other way: Military officials (still) argue that we need something like twenty-five times the number of additional troops Bush has called for to do for Iraq what Bush thinks he has done for Baghdad.

3. (More) Prima Facie Reason to Mistrust Petraeus’ Reporting

“Securing” Baghdad entails the component goal of lowering sectarian killings in the city, which Petraeus himself claims have been reduced by 75% in recent weeks. Other U.S. officials claim a 52% drop in civilian deaths in Baghdad (a trend we would expect insofar as sectarian violence is the main cause of civilian casualties). The figures are impossible to evaluate directly as the military refuses (against demands from all quarters) to provide the hard numbers or the evidence from which they are derived. We can confirm that they are contradicted by every other agency of the government reporting and the same military itself (and doubted on on their face by American diplomats and experts of every shape).

We have already noted Petraeus’ infamous op-ed piece, calling into question either his judgment or his honesty. Consider further: The General is reporting on his own performance in executing his own plan; and his coziness with the very administration whom he is to independently “oversee” is shown in that “his” draft report was—for God’s sake—written by the White House. All of which suggests a very strong lower limit on negative findings.

The timing of all of this is suspicious enough, the military hinting at a huge, almost miraculous turnaround in casualty numbers in August—that is, in the month nearest the reports and, given the “stats-lag,” hardest to verify before they are delivered. It is also convenient that on the whole the other agencies that contradict these claims, like the nonpartisan Government Accounting Office (GAO) [see two links back], cover the violence through July, just “out of reach” of the military’s August miracle.

We also know that the U.S. systematically undercounts these things: The Iraq Study Group attributed this to “a tracking system…designed in such a way that minimized the deaths of Iraqis.” For example, “attacks” are counted but are so narrowly defined as to exclude casualties from, for example, “simple” murders of Iraqis, and car bombings or rocket and mortar attacks that don’t kill any Americans. Also, when the Pentagon released its June 2007 count of civilian casualties, it shadily revised its old count for March 2007, upping the latter retroactively by nearly 2,000 dead—thereby making the June (post-surge) numbers appear lower by comparison. In any case, self-reporting is not divested of its conflicts of interest when it is performed by an occupying force; the high stakes, secrecy and past deceptions just complicate this situation further.

4. But What Has the Surge Accomplished?

Not only is the surge unsustainable, but even if we accept the military’s figures, it would be unfortunate if it (or its effects) were sustained:

First, the Baghdad figures in themselves don’t mean a net improvement of anything, as any decrease in violence in one area is formally compatible with an increase elsewhere. This is, in fact, just what to expect with any concentrated military “push”: a scattering or displacement of violence like the one which fed the Mosul insurgency after Fallujah was cordoned.

But the present situation is actually worse than a mere displacement: The Associated Press tallies civilian deaths across Iraq at 1,809 for the month of August, up from 1,760 in July. The Iraqi Interior Ministry confirms civilian deaths are up 20%. Contrary to Petraeus, et. al., August marks the high point for casualties not only among the surge months but for the entire year. (An Interior Minister gave the New York Times even higher figures of 1,980 dead for July and 2,890 for August). Overall, says the AP, Iraq is enduring double the number of war-related deaths across the country compared with last year.


Surging the hell out of them

The Red Crescent reports the number of internal refugees more than doubled during the surge period. 100,000 Iraqis fled their homes during each surge month. 83% of these fled from Baghdad, a quarter of them, as the UN reports, leaving their homes at gunpoint. These numbers reflect another ugly effect of the surge—an increase in the process of ethnic cleansing which has turned a city which was 65% Sunni to one now 75% Shiite. The latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) confirms that those pockets in the capital where “conflict levels have diminished” are thanks to this trend of ethnic cleansing. Identical conclusions are drawn by the Jones report, drafted by a 20-member military panel led by Gen. James Jones. Recent reports by McClatchy Newspapers, the New York Times and the Independent (UK) describe Sunni ghettos carved off from the Shiite neigborhoods with towering concrete blast walls topped with searchlights and razor wire, designed to block car bombs and militia incursions. The “cleansed” areas have acquired a relative peace simply because there are no people left there to kill. (In this way, Iraq, like capitalism, only ever gets “better” by getting worse.)

(Let us not overlook that American prison detentions of Iraqis are up 50% during the surge months; virtually none of these detainees are, if the Red Cross is telling the truth, guilty of anything—not that they will ever be charged or convicted if they are. And they will be subject to the violations documented in the upcoming quarterly UN human rights report—which Ambassador Crocker convinced the organization to delay so as to not dampen the hearings.) Finally, the rate of dead American soldiers, too, has increased during the surge months.)

After Baghdad, the surge is chiefly concentrated in Anbar province. Military officials tout success for this region even more vigorously. The downturn in violence in Fallujah has been cited as an example. Of course, nearly 90% of Fallujans had already abandoned the city when the U.S. prepared its 2004 “mini-surge” against it. Tens of thousands of these have not—that is, cannot—return as the American siege reduced three quarters of the city to rubble, never to be rebuilt. Large parts of the city have been totally without water or electricity for the 3 years since. No hospitals or ambulances have operated since and employment is virtually nil. A total ban on vehicle traffic was put in place this past May (just in time to contribute to the August “miracle”). In this way, Fallujah—and to a lesser extent other Anbar cities like Ramadi and Samarra—represents another example of how a technical relative “peace” can reflect on balance very undesirable conditions. (If I killed or relocated almost everyone in your family, I could soon take credit for diminished family squabbles.)

The greatest success claimed for the surge in Anbar (and probably overall) is the enlistment of Sunni tribes in fighting “al-Quaeda” insurgents. Our new Ba’athist-nationalist allies have turned neither pro-occupation nor anti-insurgent overnight; they have fought the Islamists and the occupiers since the very start. The recent “alliance” is one borne of convenience: The U.S. (a) has simply “joined ‘em” whom they haven’t been able to beat and (b) want to be on the side who is actually winning against “al-Quaeda”; while the Sunni leaders are happy to take their money while it lasts. Meanwhile, as noted by Dahr Jamail, one of the only “unembedded” reporters in Iraq, “[t]here is no area in Andar where U.S. soldiers walk around or go outside their bases without using armored vehicles or as part of a large operation.” It is these operations, along with air strikes, that keep most Anbar residents inside while insurgent attacks roll on much as always. (Note also: Al-Quaeda in Iraq represents a few per cent of anti-occupation fighters. The Sunni tribes are fighting, rather, “al-Quaeda,” which represent around another few percentage points of the whole. Either way, these tendencies are not in any sense the hard-core of the “insurgency” and wiping them off the map—which won’t happen—would leave U.S. troops in virtually the same position vis-a-vis “winning.”)

The final objective of the surge is to help bolster the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Bush’s “New Way Forward” talking points describe the effort as “creat[ing] space for political progress”; other officials speak of “buying time” or “giving breathing room” for Maliki to act. But what exactly these metaphors mean is unclear. Perhaps cooling the violence in Baghdad should in itself lend credibility to the government. Certainly, the Sunni population, largely alienated from the Shiite-dominated parliament, is supposed to see surge tactics as reaching out to them, inspiring a reconciliation. In any case, nothing like this has happened. The surge has helped Maliki’s “coalition government” go from being a non-government—in the normal sense “government” conveys of passing and enforcing legislation to address important problems—to being a non-coalition: The one Sunni group that had been on board has pulled out of the government altogether, as have the other three political parties, all of them Shiite. (And those Sunnis fighting “al-Quaeda” are largely unsympathetic to Maliki and were happy to see their fellow Sunni politicians abandon him.) In brief, the government is in tatters and would collapse altogether if American troops left—not that anything would change if it did.

5. Conclusion

Like the person of Petraeus himself, the troop surge is more about Washington than Baghdad. The General has hinted that recent “progress” should permit a drawdown of 4,000 troops by December, to be followed by further reductions. The most favorable official estimates predict 130,000 remaining U.S. troops in Iraq by the close of 2008. But this figure merely sets us back to the numbers right before the surge. Again, we’ve come down from “surge” numbers before, yet nobody thinks we’ve been in a meaningful “withdrawal” phase since 2005. (Consequently, 130,000 is the precise number of troops in Iraq when Bush swooped in to declare the end of major combat operations–in 2003.) So Bush gets to leave office with the “drawdown” everyone wants, while leaving forces adequate for the long-term occupation of Iraq that our “permanent bases” imply. (Bush envisions this along the lines of South Korea, where we have been in force for 60 years.)

All of which explains Iraqi opposition to the surge and all its works: A new ABC/BBC/NHK (Japan) poll of Iraqis indicate a majority believe the surge has made security worse; and numbers of Iraqis calling for a total withdrawal of U.S. troops has increased across the surge period. Not that anyone is listening: All polling of Iraqis confirms the occupiers are unwanted. (The occupation itself, in the form of Bremer’s CPA, used to poll high majorities opposed to the American presence, sympathetic to attacks on Americans, and the like. These were conducted under Donald Hamilton, Bremer’s PR director, who admitted the “pretty grim” results weren’t much good for PR after all.) It just isn’t about what the Iraqis think.