Category Archives: Iraq

Horowitz versus Chomsky on the best way to get rid of a dictator

To harp on a theme, I hate those abuses of language which are just cute enough to be dangerous. The latest to come across my digital desk is from an old article in the Jewish World Review, authored by the slimy ex-socialist David Horowitz of FrontpageMag.

Horowitz chronicles an argument between himself and still-socialist sociology prof. Maurice Zeitlin. He sees a contradiction in Zeitlin’s being opposed to both Saddam Hussein and the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and others.

This phrase stuck in my gullet:

This cri de couer begs the most important question: What does it mean [for Zeitlin] to oppose Saddam Hussein’s “execrable regime” and at the same time to oppose the effort to change it?

Reread those last five words. I know Horowitz used to have better politics, but this comment is just fucking stupid. Yes, Zeitlin opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was certainly an effort to change the regime. But was it “the effort”? If Horowitz declines my advice that he take a pottery class, can I conclude that he opposes “the effort to improve himself,” rather than just this particular effort? Horowitz’s use of the definite article snakily suggests that Zeitlin rejects not just the invasion, but the very effort—that is, the idea of an effort being exerted at all—to change the regime.

Horowitz’s implication is doubtful in the highest. Zeitlin would not have opposed every imaginable effort to overthrow Saddam. Suppose Saddam had agreed to step down voluntarily. Let us further assume this was done according to some benign process which did not create a chaotic vacuum of power or other seriously bad outcomes. (Maybe S.H. converted to liberal democracy and had himself jailed—or something.) Surely, Zeitlin would not have excoriated Saddam for failing to remain in power. (Below, we will consider another scenario which he would have supported.)

Further, at any given time before 2003, there were other, actual “efforts” afoot to change the regime. (Indeed, the US intervened to crush a few of them.) Would Horowitz consider any of these, in their time, the effort to change the regime, requiring our support on pain of being numbered among Hussein’s apologists?

Add to this plurality of actual efforts any number of potential ones that might have been dreamed up: Suppose that in February of 2003, a crazy billionaire had dropped babies armed with pink umbrellas into Baghdad to fight the Republican Guard and topple the regime. Babies can’t fight with umbrellas, you say?—The billionaire has cast a spell which he feels strongly will allow them to. Surely this is an effort—somebody’s effort—to change the regime. Would it become the effort, then, demanding our allegiance?

In sum: Surely opposing some bad thing does commit to just any old “effort to change” it; just any solution someone can pull out of his ass doesn’t become a referendum on how authentically we oppose the thing needing changing.

The question is, rather: Is it a good effort, a sensible effort; one that can be reasonably assumed to (a) work, and (b) do so in a non-counterproductive way (that is, in a net sense of not creating so many bad, unintended outcomes that the overall outcome, even with the met goal, becomes bad). It should also (c) be better than other possible schemes to accomplish the same outcome.

The 2003 effort to remove Saddam has (a) “worked” in the meagre sense that it did remove him. But is has been (b)  counterproductive in the more important sense of exacerbating all of those factors that supposedly made removing him a good idea. I don’t want to take this space to make that point fully. Just to note:

*Instead of ending one WMD regime, the war has set two others (Iran and North Korea) in motion.

* The war created a jihadist enclave in the one place in the region where that threat had been completely pacified. As I have noted elsewhere, this was not the result of drawing in terrorists from other locations but of making new ones. Terrorist attacks against Westerners have spiked since the invasion. The balance of “our own” reports (Pentagon, State Dept., FBI, CIA, etc.) blame the War on Terror for this.

*The occupiers have killed and jailed far more innocents than Saddam. The Iraqi government remains a police state, complete with nightly curfews in the capital, bans on public assumbly, and the like. It has the worst human rights record in the region and is dollar for dollar its most corrupt.

*The war completed the process, begun with the sanctions, of bombing into the 3rd World what used to be the most technologically, economically and socially advanced nation in the Middle East. It is difficult to think of a welfare index which is not much, much, worse than before the war.

*Skilled human capital needed for reconstruction has fled en masse to the West with the middle class diaspora. The US has wrenched control of domestic oil away from Iraqis themselves toward “production sharing agreements” which get the oil flowing at the cost of redirecting its proceeds away from national development.

* * *

My main point is: (c) Was there another, a better option for removing Saddam? Will there be with the next guy? As Noam Chomsky has many times noted: Thug leaders who enjoy the support of the US are typically overthrown from within—at far less human cost than an outside force would inflict. Examples include Ceaucescu, Suharto, Marcos, Duvalier, Chun Doo Hwan, and Mobutu. In the case of Saddam, the US withdrew economic and diplomatic support on the eve of Gulf War and pinched Iraq with the severest sanctions regime in history. This course of action hurt precisely everyone in Iraq except the regime. It forced the population to cling to Saddam for survival, weakening the possibility for opposition currents to thrive. There is no reason to doubt the typical pattern would have held had the US taken a more “hands off” course.


Ron Paul: Not antiwar, not progressive (Not that it should matter if he were)

That Ron Paul’s campaign has emerged as a “progressive” option does not change the fact that the man, from a progressive view, has mostly reprehensible positions, and reprehensible (or incoherent, or tepid) reasons for holding his ostensibly un-reprehensible positions. Nor are these irrelevant.


Ron Paul’s Flaky Antiwar Credentials:

The Votes on Iraq and “Afghanistan”

Not that Ron Paul is “antiwar” in any sense of the phrase activists should find interesting. Certainly, such a stance is not deducible from his congressional record.

Paul’s “Statement Opposing the use of Military Force against Iraq” complains that the vote ceded warmaking powers to the President rather than, properly, to Congress. This reflects that goofy, crude Constitutional fetishism of Paul’s which quibbles over where the “proper authority” for engaging some action technically rests rather than whether whatever is being authorized is actually a good idea. An “antiwar” legislator would oppose ceding warmaking authority to Bush not because it violates some point-of-order clause, but because, damn it, the guy might use it to start a war.

Paul also objects that the Iraq campaign was begun with no clear definition of what it would mean to win it. This reasoning is sympathetic and one can only wish Paul could be counted on to apply it. His antiwar supporters don’t much talk about his 2001 vote to authorize “Military Force Against [the 9/11] Terrorists” in what would become the War in Afghanistan. Like the Iraq resolution, this vote both ceded authority to the President to use “all necessary force”—against whomever he determines, at any later date, committed the 9/11 attacks or gave any kind of aid to those who did—and does not specify what it would mean to win such a campaign. Indeed, how could it?—as it names no targets nor the means to be used to target them. It does not even assume the President had yet made up his mind about who the enemy would be.

Paul regrets, “I voted for the authorization and…the funding, and yet it was completely misused…I was deceived…I didn’t vote to occupy and nation-build.” Paul speaks as though the vagueness of the resolution—that it never says the words “occupation” or “nation-build[ing]” or “regime change” or “war” as opposed to the swift and modest and localized police action he supposedly preferred—is somehow a defense for his voting for it. But its vagueness and wide-open applicability is precisely the problem. It could have been used to start a war or an occupation just because it says nothing to rule out those types of “military force.” You can’t “misuse” something whose use is never specified.

Unlike Paul, Rep. Barbara Lee had the sense and valor to vote against this resolution. Her defense of this decision reads just like (the better sections of) Paul’s 2006 Iraq “Statement”: “…I could not ignore that [the authorization] provided explicit authority, under the War Powers Resolution and the Constitution, to go to war…It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the Sept. 11 events—anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit. In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration.”

This is precisely the thing Paul says he opposes in foreign policy, and he voted for it anyhow. Thus, if we believe him that his reasons for voting “No” in 2003 reflect long-standing principles, we must conclude that these are so flexible as to divest the word “principle” of all its normal meaning. (It isn’t as though his record is loyal to the rest of his stated values: His anti-tax, small government, free competition plank is belied by his heavy support for the same pork-barrel spending and corporate subsidies every other politician goes in for—including a weird coziness with the shrimp industry.)

Worse, by the time of Paul’s 2001 vote there was already so much evidence that Bush wanted the vote to “invade” and “occupy” Afghanistan (for starters) that blindness to this could only be willful. Within 24 hours of the 9/11 attacks, Bush had fingered the Taliban regime as a terrorist “harborer” and recalled the American ambassadors and UN delegates from Afghanistan. Paul knew Iraq had been the administration’s leading official “terrorist state” and held a policy of “regime change” against it, as well as against all the other top official terror sponsors. In fact, Paul believed what the U.S. was already doing to this “terror state” via the no-fly zones was an “occupation.” How, then, might he have been unaware that an “occupation” and “regime change” was off the agenda for “terrorist” Afghanistan? Add to this that Paul had by now heard Bush promise “a long [military] campaign, a determined campaign in a lot of countries.” (He would soon define “a lot” as “more than sixty.”) Secretary of State Powell had reiterated that the war “isn’t going to be solved with a single counter-attack against one individual, it’s going to be a long term conflict.” Bush’s use of mushy “War on Terror” phrasing only underscored this open-ended aspect.

Other Considerations

Ron Paul’s foreign policy is always fundamentally informed by his America First-ism, with all the moral and logical implications this kind of thing ever carries. This is marked by his frequent use of the dismissive phrase “in a foreign land thousands of miles away” to describe whatever situation he is urging us to stay out of. In brief, it isn’t clear how selfishness at the national level should be any more defensible than selfishness as a quality of persons.

Paul has said he does not want to dismantle the global network of military bases, but simply stop making (as many) new ones. Historically speaking, if a dominant military force has a weapon—and bases, among other purposes, are just a complex species of military technology—it tends to use it. Just assuming there is a point to these bases at all, Paul is by no means “anti-interventionist.” And are those “permanent bases” in Iraq the exception, the only ones to be dismantled? Paul hasn’t said so. Will the insurgents stop attacking the bases if we tell them the war is over?; Or are we not to fight them back when attacked? But if we fight back, in what sense will the war have been ended?

None of this need matter, as even regular foreign “interventions” of any scale are perfectly justifiable on straight libertarian principles. Globalization has taken those domestic interests needing of protection from “force or fraud” by the “minimal state,” and flung them across national borders. Not only could most American wars be justified rhetorically as defense of these interests, each was, more or less explicitly, more or less about this in fact. Global capitalism did not emerge without the blunt hammer of military force, nor could it be maintained without it—any more than domestic capital would be safe for five minutes if the threat of protection—i.e., cops, mostly—were removed.

Paul’s resistance to foreign aid rubs against his anti-intervention prejudice. Recalling his fight with Giuliani in the Republican debates, he is quick to note the “blowback” effect whereby a meddling American foreign policy angers its victims to retaliate. But if “just leav[ing]” occupied lands in the Middle East is a necessary condition of remedying this effect, things have gone too far for it to be sufficient. The grievances feeding Islamist anger are widespread in the Muslim world and won’t be satisfied without massive reconstruction and reparations. (This is also required by international law, and human decency.) The dreaded “entanglements” are already in place. A Ron Paul presidency makes reparations unlikely, which makes Islamic terrorism against the U.S. more likely, along with continued “interventions” which in a Paul presidency would be justified for “national self-defense.”

Finally, there is Paul’s racist view, expressed in the debates, that “we don’t understand the irrationality of Middle East politics.” (He attributes this to Reagan, an intervention-aholic who invented the first War on Terror in Central America.) It isn’t clear how, on such a view, Paul could confidently subsitute diplomatic negotiation for force or aid to resolve conflicts in the region. By definition, irrational people can’t be reasoned with. (Further, one might ask, negotiate with what, if not force or aid?)

Capitalism Needs War, and Ron Paul Needs What Capitalism Needs

Finally, as president Ron Paul would do nothing to challenge the free-market policies that make wars inevitable—and even necessary: It is not just that a capitalist “ruling class,” in Marxist terms, desires conflicts to protect its interests; the capitalist system itself requires “interventions” for its smooth functioning.

The story, in simple and short, is two-part:

(a) There is an enormous—and under normal conditions, growing—amount of finance capital in search of investment outlets; capitalist profitability requires that all of this be invested, and the commodities this investment will produce be absorbed by a market at a price covering production costs plus a profit. This is a concern not only of local capitalists but of the nation-state whose health depends on the health of the same domestic economy. But the “home” markets of the big national producers provide neither a means for absorbing these commodities nor sufficient opportunities for investment of the free capital.

Acting as competitors on behalf of local capitals, nation-states seek these conditions abroad: New outlets for capital investment, creating new markets to absorb commodities. And to compensate for the residual that is not invested, or sold, they seek control over raw materials to make production cheaper—just as domestic capitals seek to lower the cost of labor inputs by cutting wages and benefits. However, the world is finite, and so are the opportunities for expansion, while the sums needing investment (ideally) keep growing. Conflicting global interests lead to actual conflict.

(b) Normal consumer goods are a two-fold problem for capitalists: They need, again, to be absorbed in a market, plus they “feed back” into the same productive process they came from as they mentally and physically sustain the workers who consume them to produce another day (and allows them to produce tomorrow’s new workers—their children); this maintains [the growth of] the whole productive “machine” and thus the whole pressure for reinvestment. So one way to offset the pressure for profitability is to find some product which does not need to be absorbed in markets, and which does not “feed back” into the productive process. Heavy arms production, funded through taxes and loans from the state, is one such product. Arms are simply destroyed in use or lay fallow. Of course, these must be employed in the field of battle often enough to justify the state’s expenditure. The arms economy of World War II saved the U.S. from the Great Depression where the New Deal (alone) could not. (War also simply destroys vast amounts of productive capital—factories, crops, etc.—for many local competitors at once, leading to the same effect.)


Latest sign of the apocalypse

Ron Paul on Issues Beside the War

But it isn’t enough that Paul’s “progressive” followers establish his antiwar credentials. It is not enough even that these credentials be measured favorably against his less progressive views (which includes pretty much the rest of his politics). What Paul would do on non-war related matters must be weighed against what he could actually get away with doing—in a net sense, in a lasting way—on the antiwar front.

A President Paul would liquidate or outsource as much of the good and useful parts of government he could get away with—federal protection for abortion, civil rights legislation, labor regulations, campaign finance reforms, environmental legislation, and Social Security. In turn, he’ll secure tons of tax relief for the wealthiest wealthy. He would work to see Roe v. Wade repealed and has introduced bills to end the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the federal minimum wage, the most prominent and longstanding antitrust laws, federal environmental regulations including all federal regulations on fuel production, and all restrictions on individual or business campaign contributions. In 2006 he voted not to renew the Civil Rights Act of 1964 desegregating schools and ending Jim Crow in the South, and he opposes the 1965 Voting Rights Act securing minority access to the polls. (In this vein, Paul even introduced a bill to deny student aid to any student who happens to be Iranian.) (See the voting record here.)

Most of what Presidents “do” has nothing to do with warmaking or peacemaking; and most of what Paul would do as to this majority is glaringly regressive. His record, combined with his meagre antiwar chops, suggest that the damage Paul would do by simply behaving during the presidential phase of his political career as he has behaved in its pre-presidential phase, is not at all clearly better than the best case scenario: A single president, initiating withdrawal from a single (phase of a single) conflict, somewhat earlier than it might have otherwise been initiated; leading to a massive, enduring backlash against “Ron Paulism” by the forces invested in “staying the course.”

Why Progressives Should Not Vote for Ron Paul, Whatever His Antiwar Credentials Look Like: A Sketch

More must be said about these “forces,” as it were, that “govern the governor.” A president, strictly speaking, no more just “makes” policy than those liberal reporters Bill O’Reilley harps upon “make” the news. Ron Paul would be subject to the same hard constraints Ralph Nader (or Karl Marx) would face as president. These constraints explain why those “neocons” Ron Paul says have hijacked our foreign policy haven’t been able to achieve, in eight years of supposed power, even close to their maximal program—attacking Iran and Saudi Arabia and imposing a royal Hashemite dynasty on Iraq. They also explain why historically, in terms of the issue of troop redeployment, a candidate’s word about what he will do is worth precisely nothing in assessing what he will actually do when elected.

These constraints are alternately describable as what Marxists call “material conditions,” or that social “ruling class” of capitalists in the role of responding to these conditions. One of many angles to this basic story is that: A “serious” president—that is, someone for whom the job is not performance art; someone who cares about not running the whole machine into the ground—is concerned about more than one issue, and looks beyond than one “moment” in his political life and the life of his Party. This requires compromise with other politicians and the monied forces that got him (and them) elected. Some of these forces will push for the foreign aid and military assistance which they have always pushed for. In face of these, a strict adherence to “principle” will marginalize Paul and ensure his replacement by someone they can work with. (These “principles” also ensure that Paul will never become President in the first place.)

But if Ron Paul offers no long-term solution to “War,” this still leaves the possibility of voting for Ron Paul as a short-term solution to this particular conflict. I suppose this is what Paul’s “progressive” supporters are up to. But even if he ended the Iraq war, this brings problems of its own, as does support for any “progressive” candidate that does nothing to challenge the (re. capitalist) power base of the major parties.

In short, the whole history of progressive movements shows that those which actually challenge the power base of these parties (and most don’t) have to work outside of them to avoid being co-opted by them (which would ultimately enhance these bases of power and make them harder to tackle the next try around). But successfully working outside of this system requires construction of an alternate social power base or risks being either destroyed by or absorbed back into the dominant one all the same. In this way, working for a progressive candidate (or a progressive movement—like the antiwar movement—which is attached to a candidate) minus the right conditions is always counterproductive in the longer term.

Understanding this dynamic is especially relevant on the eve of an election year and warrants a freestanding post, to arrive in the near.

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.

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.