Tuesday, May 31, 2005



I want to thank Eric for letting me onto his 'air' for this week (and at other times, for that matter). TTN is up tomorrow, followed by the resumption of your regularly-scheduled excellence as Eric gets back in the saddle - tanned, relaxed and ready, I imagine.

The Ultimate Exurb

Welcome to the new Colorado Springs


Any student of marketing - professional or 'gifted amateur' - learns that there are a few venerable 'Action Words' which have been tested exhaustively and shown again and again to have unique power in advertising. We all know them without really knowing we do, and, being aware of them doesn't necessarily diminish their power; you can laugh and roll your eyes all you want: advertisers use them because they work. 'Improved' is in the top tier, while the word 'premium' - a variation of 'improved' - has had a vogue for the last several years (our having been lately deluged with 'premium' versions of familiar products makes me wonder: what had we been buying all those years before the age of 'premium'? Crap?).

The enduring king of all Action Words is 'new'. Lesser signifiers (like the now laughable 'dry', the short-lived 'clear', and the derivative 'premium') come and go, but 'New!' endures as THE Action Word. It's not hard to see why. It's forward-looking, optimistic: New Day, New World...New Life.

Two excellent articles at Harpers.org report on the apotheosis of the 'New' as total marketing concept. They must be read to be believed. Soldiers of Christ, Part One by Jeff Sharlet focuses mainly on the powerful but lesser-known Pastor Ted Haggard, the founder of New Life, a church/political group/mega-business based in Colorado Springs, CO:

The true architectural wonder of New Life, however, is the pyramid of authority into which it orders its 11,000 members. At the base are 1,300 cell groups, whose leaders answer to section leaders, who answer to zone, who answer to district, who answer to Pastor Ted Haggard, New Life’s founder.

Pastor Ted, who talks to President George W. Bush or his advisers every Monday, is a handsome forty-eight-year-old Indianan, most comfortable in denim. He likes to say that his only disagreement with the President is automotive; Bush drives a Ford pickup, whereas Pastor Ted loves his Chevy. In addition to New Life, Pastor Ted presides over the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), whose 45,000 churches and 30 million believers make up the nation’s most powerful religious lobbying group, and also over a smaller network of his own creation, the Association of Life-Giving Churches, 300 or so congregations modeled on New Life’s “free market” approach to the divine.

Pastor Ted has a Total Marketing Philosophy, has remade the Christian religion according to the doctrine of 'Portion Controlled Servings' (PCS). Religion has always been a growth industry in the US, but Pastor Ted's approach is revolutionary:

In Pastor Ted’s book "Dog Training, Fly Fishing, & Sharing Christ in the 21st Century", he describes the church he thinks good Christians want. “I want my finances in order, my kids trained, and my wife to love life...... I want the church to help me live life well, not exhaust me with endless ‘worthwhile’ projects.” By “worthwhile projects” Ted means building funds and soup kitchens alike. It’s not that he opposes these; it’s just that he is sick of hearing about them and believes that other Christians are, too. He knows that for Christianity to prosper in the free market, it needs more than “moral values”—it needs customer value.

New Lifers, Pastor Ted writes with evident pride, “like the benefits, risks, and maybe above all, the excitement of a free-market society.” They like the stimulation of a new brand. “Have you ever switched your toothpaste brand, just for the fun of it?” Pastor Ted asks. Admit it, he insists. All the way home, you felt a “secret little thrill,” as excited questions ran through your mind: “Will it make my teeth whiter? My breath fresher?” This is the sensation Ted wants pastors to bring to the Christian experience. He believes it is time “to harness the forces of free-market capitalism in our ministry.” Once a pastor does that, his flock can start organizing itself according to each member’s abilities and tastes.

Loose Lips Sink Ships, Tom

One of Pastor Ted’s favorite books is Thomas Friedman’s "The Lexus and the Olive Tree", which is now required reading for the hundreds of pastors under Ted’s spiritual authority across the country. From Friedman, Pastor Ted says he learned that everything, including spirituality, can be understood as a commodity. And unregulated trade, he concluded, was the key to achieving worldly freedom. [emphasis mine]

Again, religion has always had a certain amount of show-biz, but this is really different. A visit to the Main Event in the 17,000-person capacity sanctuary at New Life:

The band stood. A skinny, chinless man with a big, tenor voice, Ross Parsley, directed the musicians and the crowd, leading us and them and the choir as the guitarists kicked on the fuzz and the drummer pounded the music toward arena-rock frenzy. Two fog machines on each side of the stage filled the sanctuary with white clouds. Pod-shaped projectors cast a light show across the ceiling, giant spinning white snowflakes and cartwheeling yellow flowers and a shimmering blue water-effect. “Prepare the way!” shouted Worship Pastor Ross. “Prepare the way! The King is coming!” Across the stage teens began leaping straight up, a dance that swept across the arena: kids hopped, old men hopped, middle-aged women hopped. Spinners wheeled out from the ranks and danced like dervishes around the stage. The light pods dilated and blasted the sanctuary with red. Worship Pastor Ross roared: “Let the King of Glory enter in!” Ushers rushed through the crowds throwing out rainbow glow strings.

Soldiers of Christ, Part two , written by Chris Hedges (author of War is a Force That Gives Our Life Meaning ), focuses more on a convention of religious broadcasters in CA....

Within the exhibition hall on the first floor, 320 display booths—and, at the far end of the hall, the twisted remains of an Israeli bus blown up by Palestinian suicide bombers in Jerusalem—float on an enormous sea of soft blue carpeting. The Israeli tourism ministry has one of the largest display spaces in the hall. People from the Christian Law Association hand out yardsticks filled with gum. A Virginia web-design company offers “church websites the way God intended.”

That last web-design item is one of the few laughs to be had in these articles. These groups are not on the laughable 'fringe' anymore. As he makes his way to the airport, Hedges muses:

I can’t help but recall the words of my ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, Dr. James Luther Adams, who told us that when we were his age, and he was then close to eighty, we would all be fighting the “Christian fascists.”

He gave us that warning twenty-five years ago, when Pat Robertson and other prominent evangelists began speaking of a new political religion that would direct its efforts at taking control of all major American institutions, including mainstream denominations and the government, so as to transform the United States into a global Christian empire. At the time, it was hard to take such fantastic rhetoric seriously. But fascism, Adams warned, would not return wearing swastikas and brown shirts. Its ideological inheritors would cloak themselves in the language of the Bible; they would come carrying crosses and chanting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Adams had watched American intellectuals and industrialists flirt with fascism in the 1930s. Mussolini’s “Corporatism,” which created an unchecked industrial and business aristocracy, had appealed to many at the time as an effective counterweight to the New Deal. In 1934, Fortune magazine lavished praise on the Italian dictator for his defanging of labor unions and his empowerment of industrialists at the expense of workers. Then as now, Adams said, too many liberals failed to understand the power and allure of evil, and when the radical Christians came, these people would undoubtedly play by the old, polite rules of democracy long after those in power had begun to dismantle the democratic state. Adams had watched German academics fall silent or conform. He knew how desperately people want to believe the comfortable lies told by totalitarian movements, how easily those lies lull moderates into passivity.

Adams told us to watch closely the Christian right’s persecution of homosexuals and lesbians....Homosexuals and lesbians, Adams said, would be the first “deviants” singled out by the Christian right. We would be the next.

Hyperbole? No one wants to sound like Chicken Little, but these people quietly wield tremendous political power already. President Bush, Senate Majority Leader Frist and countless other office holders owe their jobs - present and/or future - to these people.

Even though I've quoted a lot from these articles, I've given you only a very small taste. Selective quotation makes them seem hyperbolic: I don't believe they are. I'd urge everyone to take half an hour or so and read them both in their entirety.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Killing and Its Cost

Nations customarily measure of the "costs of war" in dollars, lost production, or the number of soldiers killed or wounded. Rarely do military establishments attempt to measure the costs of war in terms of individual human suffering. Psychiatric breakdown remains one of the most costly items of war when expressed in human terms.

-- Richard Gabriel, No More Heroes

I came across this quote while reading Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman's On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society and I felt that it would be an excellent introduction to today's discussion. Of course, today is Memorial Day, a day set aside to recognize the bravery, heroism, and sacrifice of our fallen soldiers. The poignancy of this day is brought into further relief by the realities of the ongoing conflict in Iraq. With 1657 military fatalities thus far, and no end in sight, the debt we owe these men and women compounds with each passing day. There is no honor that we could provide that would be too great.

Yet, as we freely genuflect before these fallen heroes, more and more I come to believe that there are indeed forgotten casualties that we must begin to recognize. As Richard Gabriel indicates above, the incidence of psychiatric injury far outpaces those of a physical nature. For example, in Vietnam, approximately 210,000 soldiers (PDF) were killed or injured as a result of that conflict. Compare this figure to the estimates of psychiatric trauma in this same population that range between 500,000 and 1.5 million (representing between 18 and 54% of all combat participants). And despite the frequency of these injuries, they go largely unappreciated.

So, why do these injuries escape our notice? There are, of course, many reasons. Psychiatric disorders are generally less visible than physical injuries. They also tend to carry a social stigma, making it more difficult for us to acknowledge their existence. However, on some level, we simply do not see psychiatric combat injuries as a significant. Soldiers are lauded for their heroism due to the physical risks that they assume. In the minds of civilians, it is the threat to one's survival that emerges as the most significant feature of war. And when we do consider psychiatric injury, we usually see the ever present threat of death as a catalyst for it. Surely nothing else could affect us so deeply.

But, there is something else. Something that, from a psychological perspective, is far more damaging. Moreover, it is something that we demand of all soldiers. We may ask that these men and women put their lives at risk, but we do not require that they be killed or injured in the line of duty. We hope and pray that such sacrifices will not be necessary, and we do all that we can to ensure that they are not. This something else, though, is the raison d'être of soldiering in wartime.

We demand that they kill.


In our movies, books, and legends, the hero typically slays the villain without a thought, requiring only the moral justification provided by the storyline. Neither the hero nor the audience regret the act. In fact, rarely is this moment dwelt upon unless it is to portray the satisfaction our hero experiences after meting out such righteous justice. Often it occurs in passing, a background of event hardly worthy of notice and forgotten in the blink of an eye.

Of course, we don't have to be told that the reality of killing is different than that. But, it might surprise us to learn how different it really is. For a moment, imagine the experience of a soldier during World War II. During an attack, a marauding enemy closes in and threatens not only the life of the soldier, but the life of his comrades in arms and the noble cause that he serves. Moreover, he has been trained to loyally follow the orders of the commanding officer, who in this moment is demanding that he return fire in order to repel the attack. The soldier faces a decision to kill or be killed, and the decision to engage is supported by the control structure, peer pressure, and cultural justification (in that the conflict itself is deemed by society to be a "just war" against an evil aggressor).

How would a soldier in such a situation respond?

If you guessed that he would return fire, you would most likely be wrong. As surprising as it sounds, between 80 and 85% of World War II infantry soldiers refused to directly engage the enemy under any circumstances. This refusal was not driven by cowardice, as these soldiers did not flee or cower in fear. Yet, these men were rarely willing to fire their weapons at the enemy, despite the enormous pressures encouraging them to do so. Similarly, it has been noted that less than 1% of World War II fighter pilots were responsible for as much as 40% of all downed enemy aircraft, while the majority never fired their weapons at all.


To answer this question, Grossman convincingly argues that human beings are born with an incredible resistance to killing other members of our species. Evidence suggests that this resistance is so strong that it frequently overwhelms even our instinct for survival. In situation after situation, men have opted for any path that frees them from an obligation to kill. Death is actually preferable.

Clearly, this creates a problem for any military force, whose effectiveness is derived from its member's willingness to kill in combat. However, this problem is not insurmountable.


Historical accounts consistently document the difficulty that commanding officers have had in their attempts to persuade their soldiers to engage. This has undoubtedly been a military dilemma since the dawn of organized conflict. And in that time, many systems have evolved to assist men in overcoming this resistance.

Grossman's study examines these systems in detail. Here he identifies the important components of the authority that authorizes the kill along with the absolution for the act provided by the social unit. He also demonstrates the significance of distance between killer and victim. This distance is not merely physical distance (although that is important). It also includes emotional, cultural, moral, and social distance, each enhancing the killer's perception of the victim as an "other."

And then there's training -- also known as conditioning. Modern armies use a sophisticated arsenal of classical and operant conditioning techniques to increase the likelihood that soldiers will respond appropriately under fire. Today, soldiers rarely use neutral bull's-eyes during target practice. Instead, they fire at human shaped dummies that are rigged to recoil and bleed like a human target would. Soldiers who perform well during these exercises are rewarded with tokens of value (awards, weekend passes, etc.), while those who fail to perform adequately are punished.

At first glance, these conditioning techniques might appear rather benign. However, nothing could be further from the truth. On the one hand, many Vietnam veterans who were so trained describe their in-combat reactions as automatic, the engagement completed before they realized that they were not once again practicing on the target range. More importantly, we have hard data to document its effectiveness. As noted above, firing rates for World War II infantry soldiers hover between 15 and 20%. With the use of modern training practice, this figure rose to over 90% during Vietnam.


And thus, the modern soldier has been enabled to fulfill his duty at a level that was once considered inconceivable. Before entering the service, he would most likely choose to die before deliberately ending the life of another. Once trained, he kills reflexively. This willingness to kill is, of course, well-controlled. He fires only under orders and only at sanctioned targets. But he has successfully overcome one of the strongest natural instincts of the species. The resistance is not gone, but in the moment it is defeated.

Next comes the hard part.

Despite the existence of these enabling forces, soldiers almost universally experience strong reactions to the killing act. Among these reactions, revulsion, remorse, and regret are the most common. A number of factors can serve to increase or decrease the intensity of these emotions, thereby determining the effectiveness of the soldier's rationalizations. Predictably, the closer and more personal the kill, the more the killer must struggle to accept the reality of his actions. However, on some level, nearly any killing act is traumatic to some degree.

We can, and usually do, work as a society to assist those who have killed in our name (Vietnam being an egregious and shameful exception to this rule). By recognizing the soldier's noble service upon his return, we allow him to understand and accept his actions as justifiable. Moreover, the degree to which their act was committed in service of a greater good, understood as such by society at large, further serves to protect the veteran from the psychological consequences of his actions.

However, the processes by which we bestow absolution upon these men are far from perfect and, as demonstrated during the Vietnam era, are frequently lacking in certain respects. Likewise, certain combat theaters, especially those involving insurgent forces supported by the civilian population, create killing situations that are difficult to rationalize under any circumstances. Normally these men would have been prevented from these lethal actions by the aforementioned instinctive resistance. The greater the resistance that has been overcome, the more likely he is to develop psychological trauma as a result of his combat experience.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the kill or of the systemic efforts to reduce its consequences, the risk of trauma remains. And inevitably, a portion of combat veterans will submit to it.


Societies which ask men to fight on their behalf should be aware of what the consequences of their actions may so easily be.

-- Richard Holmes, Acts of War

Unlike Vietnam and the conflicts that preceded it, we as a society rarely experience the more trying aspects of our military excursions. We are not asked to sacrifice or to change our lives in any significant way. We are shielded from disconcerting images and the violent chaos of conflict. We have engaged enemies from positions of overwhelming strength, utilizing technology that serves to magnify our advantage even further. This fact, combined with advancing medical technology, has managed to limit combat fatalities to absurdly low levels. As a whole, war is not seen as the expensive proposition that it once was.

Yet, costs remain, even if they are more difficult to perceive. In fact, certain costs -- and specifically, the psychological costs -- are as great as ever. By transforming soldiers into the most effective fighting forces ever seen in the history of the world, we have predisposed them to psychological injury at rates never before seen. Military technology and training have advanced to an astonishing degree, but our ability to psychologically heal our combat veterans has not kept pace. The Iraq War is producing these injuries at an alarming rate and there is little we can do to stem the tide. It is an unavoidable, and hidden, cost of this conflict.

In fact, psychological trauma is inherent to all modern combat. We easily recognize the value of a soldier's physical health. We understand that our advanced weaponry is of no use unless someone is willing to carry it into the danger zone and pull its trigger. We freely mourn those who fall doing so. But, too often, we fail to recognize the hidden sacrifices that many of our soldiers endure simply because they do not bleed. But their scars are just as real, just as painful, and just as deep. It is a crime that we do not see this.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that occasionally necessitates the use of force. As the saying goes, freedom is not free. Frequently, our noble aspirations must be guaranteed at the barrel of a gun. However, the threshold of engagement can be fairly determined only when we are willing to account for all of the costs. If we refuse to recognize the full extent of the soldier's sacrifice, we risk deploying him in frivolous adventures. These men and women do the things that often must be done, things that we ourselves could not do. Too often, they do these things at the cost of their very soul. We must ensure that our ends justify these means.

The soldier is owed nothing less.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Visualize Victory - Obama, pt 2


I think the aforementioned worry about Obama is misplaced, for the reasons I gave in the previous post. But that's not to say I don't understand the fear people have of the feckless and lumbering 'DNC machine'. Such a 'machine' does still exist, but what is it really? For lack of a better term, I'd call it the DNC 'Consultantocracy', in league with the 'old guard' pols - the people who've brought us defeat and decline. But I'd submit that, to the extent they matter now, this Blob is taking their cues from the new younger politicians like Obama, John Edwards and Howard Dean, and operatives like Simon Rosenberg, rather than the other way around. I'm sure this transformation isn't complete, but that is clearly the trend. If you want to worry about the 'old guard' and 'cogs in a machine', worry about Kerry - and, to some extent, Hillary Clinton - in '08, not Obama now.

As far as interpreting Obama's 'civility' and 'playing the game' goes, the key dynamic to understand here is assertion vs reaction. Democrats have been in 'reaction mode' for 25-30 years. Reacting is acceding to your opponent's agenda. Obama is being courteous, careful, respectful - by choice. He could easily have decided to be a "progressive's" wet dream, a firebrand, a loud, lonely voice, etc. But he's more sly than that. He chose not to be that. At this point, the real political power comes from deciding your own route, from saying: 'You Republicans don't ruffle me at all; I don't care about your provocations and your cheap theatre - hey, knock yourselves out! I/we are going to calmly, deliberately build a new agenda and make YOU react to US. In the long run, we're not worried about you at all, politically; we will take you apart piece by piece: keep your eye on us 'new guys', because you have no idea what we're going to do'.

Building a new agenda means being constructive and serious, compromising when you can (like the very Senate-ish courtesy votes on Rice and Negroponte - votes which don't affect the outcome anyway), and being firm when you can't (Gonzales; bankruptcy). Kill them with kindness and beat them with steely resolve. Most voters don't care about the old liberal/conservative tropes, and they're right not to: what do they mean anymore? Let the Republicans wallow in their aging construct: their brittle ideological castle will be their political hospice. Let them do that while truly new (not 'New') Democrats methodically build a different and much more relevant structure around them, which, BTW, will be a broad coalition, not a insurgent 'wing' of the Democratic party (sorry).

Don't worry about Senator Obama. Act, don't react.

[UPDATE: The reason this stuff sticks in my craw, burns my beans AND chaps my hide is that Mr Sirrota has done (qualitatively) to Obama precisely what Bush/Cheney/Rove did to Kerry. It's very easy to take Congressional votes out of context - most especially in the rarified world of the Senate - and make them seem to mean what you want them to. If you happened to skim Mr Sirrota's piece and not actually check on - contextualize - his complaints, you could, in good faith, decide that Sen. Obama is selling out, somehow. Sirrota flings misleading charges at the Senator, and then quotes an unnamed 'political scientist' who speculates about cynical motives for these presumed 'offences'. This is a textbook hit smear piece, no different from one a Republican would write - except that this one is a 'friendly' hit smear. That it's 'friendly' doesn't make it somehow better, but worse! When people on the Right complain about Liberal intolerance and rigid self-righteousness, this is the kind of thing they (the honest ones) are talking about. I point it out because I care. A lot.

No blindfold, just a last cigarette! Ready...aim...]

Friday, May 27, 2005

Circular Firing Squad, part 2,593 (this year)


Apropos TTN's post yesterday about political parties rationalizing internal dissent, we get, as if on cue, David Sirrota's "What Happened to Barack Obama"? Sirrota writes:

...his first six months in office have given progressives a reason to be worried that he will be just another cog in the Establishment's machine, throwing his significant political capital behind some of the worst initiatives to move through Congress.

The 'worst initiatives'? Really? Like what?

Despite his anti-war positions as a candidate in 2004, Obama's second vote as a U.S. Senator was in support of confirming Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State. He also voted to confirm John Negroponte as Director of National Intelligence, despite Negroponte's involvement in Iran-Contra and other situations that clearly raise questions about his ethics and discretion.

Condoleezza may be an 'intellectual tart' , and Negroponte certainly does have an odious past, but this is the Senate, folks. You have to choose your battles. Senators traditionally confirm most of a president's nominees for anything, unless they are truly beyond the pale, like now-AG Gonzales, whose nomination Obama voted NOT to confirm, eloquently explaining why at the time.

Obama also voted for a bill to limit citizens rights to seek legal redress against abusive corporations.

This was the class-action lawsuit bill. Honorable people can disagree about this one. I'll leave it to the legal scholars to argue the merits, but it's hardly among the 'worst' initiatives to move through congress lately. I notice Sirrota doesn't bother to argue the merits. Knee-jerk is so much easier.

During the bankruptcy debate, he helped vote down a Democratic amendment to cap the abusive interest rates credit card companies could charge.

Obama (and Kerry) voted against this amendment because it would've overridden state laws limiting interest rates. Of course, Obama voted against the heinous Bankruptcy Bill itself.

And now, Obama cast a key procedural vote in support of President Bush's right-wing judges.

This was a 'key' vote? Nice wordplay, David. This was a fait accompli. Obama voted to avoid the nuclear option - voted to live to fight another day (SCOTUS-time).

Obama was supposed to be different - he was supposed to be a real progressive champion.

Projection anyone? Obama is exactly what he seemed to be. He never mislead anyone into thinking he was going to be Bernie Sanders. If people mislead themselves, that's not Barack's fault.

Senator Obama's record so far (six months) - both his votes and his statements - is very very good. He is one of the brightest lights of the Democratic party, and will probably be a national leader one of these days - if ideologues from his own party don't strangle him in his crib first.

Nothing 'happened' to Barack Obama. Let go of your pickle, David.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Error of Unison

So, did anyone around here catch Markos's rant against the dominance of single issue groups within the Democratic Party this week?
One of the key problems with the Democratic Party is that single issue groups have hijacked it for their pet causes. So suddenly, Democrats are the party of abortion, of gun control, of spotted owls, of labor, of trial lawyers, etc, etc., et-frickin'-cetera. We don't stand for any ideals, we stand for specific causes. We don't have a core philosophy, we have a list with boxes to check off.

So while Republicans focus on building an ideological foundation for their cause, we focus on checking off those boxes on the list. Check enough boxes, and you're a Democrat in good standing.

Problem is, abortion and choice aren't core principles of the Democratic Party. Rather, things like a Right to Privacy are. And from a Right to Privacy certain things flow -- abortion rights, access to contraceptives, opposition to the Patriot Act, and freedom to worship the gods of our own choosing, or none at all.

Another example of a core Democratic principle -- equality under the law. And from that principle stem civil rights, gender equity, and gay rights. It's not that those individual issues aren't important, of course they are. It's just that they are just that -- individual issues. A party has to stand for something bigger than the sum of its parts.
Pretty fiery stuff, eh? Of course, what set Markos off was NARAL's endorsement of Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee over Democrat Jim Langevin. According to Markos, this is a foolish position for NARAL because doing so helps to preserve the current Republican majority in the Senate. As a pro-choice Republican, Chafee is likely to vote against attempts to further regulate abortion. However, a Democratic Senate majority would be unlikely to allow such legislation onto the agenda at all. Therefore, NARAL has essentially sacrificed the long-term goal of defeating all antiabortion efforts in order to have an additional "no" vote against the legislation we are likely to see while Frist rules the chamber -- a vote surely to be cast in vain. A fairly convincing analysis, if you ask me.

Moreover, this seems to be fairly elementary stuff. NARAL has been around the block and knows how the game is played. It's not that they necessarily should have endorsed a pro-life Democrat, but they certainly had the option to remain silent on the issue. Instead, they chose a path that leads away from the ultimate goal: control of the agenda.

What gives?

Naturally, theories abound to explain such events. However, while many theories provide compelling insights, I often find that they fail to address one of the most important factors that motivate human behavior: the psychology of the social unit.

In this instance, for example, Markos refers to NARAL as "myopic fools" who don't understand that "abortion and choice aren't core principles of the Democratic Party." Personally, I'm not persuaded by this argument. The basic implication here is that the NARAL administrators are idiots who don't get the big picture. To be sure, this was a strategic blunder. But, I'm not prepared to blame it on abject stupidity. NARAL is far too successful and sophisticated for such a label to apply.

Unfortunately, intelligent people sometimes do incredibly stupid things.

In April of 1961, under the direction of the Kennedy administration, 1500 Cuban exiles landed on the southern coast of Cuba with the intention of sparking a popular uprising against Fidel Castro. However, the expected insurrection failed to materialize, thus allowing the invasion to be easily repelled. Over a thousand of the invading exiles were captured by Cuban forces, requiring the United States government to provide $53 million in food and medicine to Cuba in order to secure their release. This event, known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, was an enormous embarrassment to Kennedy, served to further Castro's heightened sense of paranoia, and directly led to the Cuban Missile Crisis shortly thereafter.

The Bay of Pigs Invasion is also considered to be a classic example of groupthink. First coined in 1972 by Irving Janis, groupthink is the tendency of insular social units to produce irrational decisions that its membership would not support individually. The proposed dynamic is one where group members unconsciously attempt to conform to a perceived consensus. If there are no systemic controls to encourage internal dissent, the group's actual consensus has a tendency to shift toward extreme and/or irrational conclusions.

The important thing to take from this theory is that this phenomenon is not indicative of stupidity or psychological disorder. Rather, it arises in groups of healthy and socially aware individuals as they react to the stresses of certain specific social situations. As such, it is the immunity to groupthink that should be considered to be deviant. Since it occurs in otherwise healthy and intelligent social units, it has to be systemically managed. Failure to do so leads to things like the Bay of Pigs, the Invasion of Iraq, and -- I would suggest -- certain strategic political blunders that we have been discussing.

NARAL is far from the only interest group to fall prey to the pitfalls of groupthink. Of late, the religious right has been pushing issues that serve to highlight its extremist tendencies. They seized upon the Schiavo situation and forced their congressional representatives to intervene in a decision considered by most to be personal family matter. More recently, they have been apoplectic with respect to the Memorandum of Understanding that averted the "nuclear option" showdown, despite the fact that they achieved much of what they set out to do. As Publius put it
Essentially, Frist used the credible threat of cheating and breaking the Senate rules as a successful negotiating tactic to get a few judges through and to create a climate in which it will be at least marginally easier to get more extreme nominees through going forward. Bush's confirmation rate will now rise above 95%. If the Dobson wing were sane, it would realize just how successful Frist has been in getting the Bush nominees through and would shut up and work in the shadows to get their people on the bench.
Of course, it's not about sane or insane -- it's about the social structure of the group. But, that nitpicking point aside, the religious right isn't reacting rationally to the situation and may, in fact, be working against their best interests.

So, rather than haranguing single issue groups for failing to see solutions that they may be systemically unable to perceive, it might be better to engage them in such a way that they would be forced to cope with dissent. The insular nature of single issue advocacy gives these groups a certain degree of power and authority. But, it also makes them vulnerable to strategic gaffes that undermine their efforts and those of their allies. It doesn't have to be that way. The party (either one) can be an agent for solving this problem for the interest groups that reside within its tent.

The advantage goes to whichever side figures this out first.

Interloper Introductions

Howdy folks! TTN at your service. Welcome to the show.

I'm not one to get sidetracked by pleasantries or ritual, but I just wouldn't feel right without taking a moment to thank Eric for letting me rant on his stage. It's a tremendous vote of confidence that he would be willing to pass me the mike during his absence, and it's a responsibility I take very seriously. Here's hoping it works out for all of us.

And, without further ado…

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Hump Day Quiz


Greetings! While Eric is off being a temporary 'day trader' in the Fastest Growing City in America, TTN and I are here for the week, slaving over glowing text editors, keeping the blood flowing through TIA's extremities....

Who doesn't like a lighthearted quiz now and then (especially after the bathos of the latest Constitutional Crisis)? This one's not really very hard, and there's no overarching political comment implied within, except, I suppose, that we live in 'interesting times'. I've tried to take care to use statements which stand on their own as much as possible so as not to be contextually unfair; obviously, any statement has a context, but these quotes do at least mean what they seem to mean and are contiguous - there's no Brit Hume funny business goin' on.

Since Eric didn't leave us the key to the 'goodie closet', there'll be no prize for correct answers other than gloating self-satisfaction. I'll reveal the answers and supply sources later in the day.

[UPDATE: Well, that was a rip-snorter. The answers: 1E; 2D; 3C; 4E; 5A; 6B; 7G. I realize this has been an unusually busy news day - lots of drama on the Senate floor, and more promised for tomorrow; not to mention the usual, everyday, official terror elsewhere in the world.

Just a quick note about Bolton: If you've been around long enough and/or have had enough bosses over the years, chances are you've come into contact with someone like John Bolton (I have). There is a difference between a 'screamer' who more or less consciously uses anger and toughness to get the desired results, and someone who actually gets off on bullying for its own sake, even notwithstanding terrible results. Bolton is definitely the latter. Once you've known someone like that, the type is much more comprehensible. If you have a spare minute, look up Antisocial and Paranoid Personality Disorders in your DSM (you have one, don't you?), or do a google.

Perhaps one of the unintended legacies of the Bush Administration as a whole (not just vis a vis Bolton) will be some sort of national reckoning with our long-neglected national mental health problems. I know Laura has a different (and worthy) pet project, but mental health will surely figure in some of History's ledes about this administration. TTN tomorrow. (FWIW, sources have been added below the quotes.]


"Both Whites and Blacks were more civilized in the 1950s and I think that was a good thing. And while the 1950s people were living in a society with high standards and strict rules, they were mostly self-disciplined!"

- White Future


"I know the idea that there is an extra constitutional dimension to constitutional law is heresy. And given our recent history, it is a very scary thought. But I am slowly coming to [think] it is hubris, carelessness, and lack of candor of judges that should concern us - not the label 'active' or 'passive'. If judges tell us honestly what they are doing, we do know something about the world view that animated the American Revolution and formed the basis of our constitutional documents. The Founders were committed to individual liberty. Liberty, not license. And not openness."

- Janice Rogers Brown (pdf)


"We live in a time when most people exist in a schizophrenic state, caught between a public reality created by social attitudes and the news-entertainment media, and a more realistic assessment of what is real based on our experiences in the physical, practical world. We're accustomed to going to war in the name of "democracy," yet realizing that, when all is said and done and the money is in the bank, the war is being fought to preserve our oil supply so we can remain a first-world superpower. This schizophrenia makes it difficult to recognize any truth other than the obvious."

- Nazi.org


"When politics develops to a certain stage beyond which it cannot proceed by the usual means, war breaks out to sweep the obstacles from the way.... When the obstacle is removed and our political aim attained the war will stop. But if the obstacle is not completely swept away, the war will have to continue till the aim is fully accomplished.... It can therefore be said that politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed."

- Mao Tse-tung


"We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman."

- F. T. Marinetti, from the 'Futurist Manifesto'.


"We have become a submissive people, which is particularly true of whites where race is an issue."

- Robert Bork, from 'Slouching Toward Gomorrah', p. 246


"In the year 3535/Ain't gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lies./Everything you think, do and say, is in the pill you took today....Woah-oh"

- Zager and Evans, from the '60s pop song: In the Year 2525

A.) F.T. Marinetti
B.) Robert Bork
C.) Nazi.org
D.) Janice Rogers Brown
E.) White Future.org
F.) Mao Tse-tung
G.) Zager and Evans

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


Your humble narrator will be departing for a much needed vacation tomorrow, and will relinquish my blogging duties to two more than capable hands during my getaway. I've been in a crunch to get last minute law firm related work finished, so I'm not sure if I'll be able to get anything more substantive up today.

No worries though, as a couple of blog-friends have agreed to generously donate their time and efforts to keeping TIA warm while I'm off engaging in more debaucherous pursuits. First, TIA's most frequent guest columnist, and blogospheric commenter extraordinaire, Mssr. Jonnybutter of
Crush All Boxes will be authoring semi-regular posts. Alternating with Jonny will be TTN of Threading The Needle - somewhat new-ish to the game, Threading The Needle is an interesting and thought provoking read on a regular basis. I think you'll enjoy what each of them brings to the table, and the fresh perspectives will provide a welcome change.

As for me, I'll finally be escaping the perpetually cold and rainy confines of London NYC to frolic in the sweet swelter of the desert. Viva Las Vegas baby.

(please note: should I somehow strike it rich in Vegas, you might not ever hear from me again...but in reality, I'll see you all again June 1st.)

Friday, May 20, 2005

Is This Torture Or Misplaced Outrage?

Someone ask Rush Limbaugh whether the following account from an internal Army investigation would constitute torture. Maybe this is just another example of fraternity type hazing, or just some soldiers blowing off steam in a harmless, but irreverent, manner. While you're at it, please inquire with Senator James Inhofe's office as to whether or not my display of disgust over this incident will lead to his outrage. He has been known to lose patience with the complaints of us shocked at torture-sodomy-and murder crowd. Apparently, we offend his Christian sensibilities.

Even as the young Afghan man was dying before them, his American jailers continued to torment him.

The prisoner, a slight, 22-year-old taxi driver known only as Dilawar, was hauled from his cell at the detention center in Bagram, Afghanistan, at around 2 a.m. to answer questions about a rocket attack on an American base. When he arrived in the interrogation room, an interpreter who was present said, his legs were bouncing uncontrollably in the plastic chair and his hands were numb. He had been chained by the wrists to the top of his cell for much of the previous four days.

Mr. Dilawar asked for a drink of water, and one of the two interrogators, Specialist Joshua R. Claus, 21, picked up a large plastic bottle. But first he punched a hole in the bottom, the interpreter said, so as the prisoner fumbled weakly with the cap, the water poured out over his orange prison scrubs. The soldier then grabbed the bottle back and began squirting the water forcefully into Mr. Dilawar's face.

"Come on, drink!" the interpreter said Specialist Claus had shouted, as the prisoner gagged on the spray. "Drink!"

At the interrogators' behest, a guard tried to force the young man to his knees. But his legs, which had been pummeled by guards for several days, could no longer bend. An interrogator told Mr. Dilawar that he could see a doctor after they finished with him. When he was finally sent back to his cell, though, the guards were instructed only to chain the prisoner back to the ceiling.

"Leave him up," one of the guards quoted Specialist Claus as saying.

Several hours passed before an emergency room doctor finally saw Mr. Dilawar. By then he was dead, his body beginning to stiffen. It would be many months before Army investigators learned a final horrific detail: Most of the interrogators had believed Mr. Dilawar was an innocent man who simply drove his taxi past the American base at the wrong time.

The story of Mr. Dilawar's brutal death at the Bagram Collection Point - and that of another detainee, Habibullah, who died there six days earlier in December 2002 - emerge from a nearly 2,000-page confidential file of the Army's criminal investigation into the case, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times.
As the Armchair Generalist put it, naturally, I blame Newsweek for this. Or perhaps Dan Rather is implicated in some way. If all else fails, there is always the familiar target of the New York Times to take aim at. But before you scoff at my snark, consider this post from Arthur Chrenkoff. He actually does blame the media - and liberals too, to the extent that he bothers to differentiate between the two. So much for the ideology of personal responsibility. You see, its not that these heinous incidents occurred, its that those nasty, back-stabbing liberals went and told everybody about it. I guess things would be better if our press would just ignore the messy, discomforting little details and only reported the positive, kind of like....why, Arthur Chrenkoff! That way we can finally paint over whatever remaining window there is into understanding how and why the rest of the world view us the way they do. The warm, anesthetized embrace of a cocoon.

Speaking of the increasingly quaint notion of "responsibility," and how our actions translate on the world stage, I wonder if anyone will be held accountable for this:

"There was nothing that prepared us for running an interrogation operation" like the one at Bagram, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the interrogators, Staff Sgt. Steven W. Loring, later told investigators.

Nor were the rules of engagement very clear. The platoon had the standard interrogations guide, Army Field Manual 34-52, and an order from the secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, to treat prisoners "humanely," and when possible, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. But with President Bush's final determination in February 2002 that the Conventions did not apply to the conflict with Al Qaeda and that Taliban fighters would not be accorded the rights of prisoners of war, the interrogators believed they "could deviate slightly from the rules," said one of the Utah reservists, Sgt. James A. Leahy.

"There was the Geneva Conventions for enemy prisoners of war, but nothing for terrorists," Sergeant Leahy told Army investigators. And the detainees, senior intelligence officers said, were to be considered terrorists until proved otherwise.
I have a better idea, why don't we defend, laud, pin medals on, promote or retain everyone involved in any way in justifying torture or arguing that the Geneva Conventions don't apply (Gonzales, Bybee, Woo, Rumsfeld, etc.). Here's the trick: just don't let the press report this to the rest of the world, and they'll never know.

By all means though, read the rest of the Times story for what is still just a partial accounting of the many horrific events in just a handful of the overall cases of abuse that occurred all over Iraq including, but not limited to, Abu Ghraib, as well as Afghanistan, Gitmo, and numerous ghost detention facilities dispersed around the globe. After you're done, see what the conservative blogosphere has to say about these incidents. Here is Time Magazine's
Blog of the Year (via what would have been a far better choice, Digby):

I really think that calling Newsweek's blunder "the press's Abu Ghraib" is unfair to the low-lifes who carried out the Abu Ghraib abuses. After all, they didn't even hurt anyone, let alone kill them. And the people they abused were almost certainly terrorists. One can't say the same for the people who were murdered in the riots that foreseeably followed Newsweek's story.
No one died huh? Really?

Then there's Glenn Reynolds criticizing fellow conservative Andrew Sullivan (via the more principled conservative,
Greg Djerejian):

"When Andrew was a champion of the war on terror, writing about martial spirit and fifth columns composed of the "decadent left," did he believe that nothing like Abu Ghraib would happen, when such things (and much worse) happen in prisons across America (and everywhere else) on a daily basis? If so, he was writing out of an appalling ignorance"
I am by no means a champion of the prison system in the United States, nor an apologist for what goes on behind bars, but this is taking it a bit far. There have been over two dozen deaths at American detention facilities - some of them ruled homicides despite the obvious pressure to conceal the circumstances of these deaths. Reynolds' attempt to explain away these events as par for the course is unacceptable. The deplorable condition of the one does not excuse the other.

The obvious retort might be that both these quotes reference Abu Ghraib and not Bagram or the many other locations where abuse, torture, murder and sodomy occurred. My response to that is as follows: these guys insist on using "Abu Ghraib" as a euphemism for all such facilities, while ignoring the inconvenient evidence to the contrary, and in the process attempt to minimize the full range of events to one narrow geographical and temporal sliver. I'm not going to accommodate that effort. When they own up to the full range of murder, sodomy, sexual assault, torture and violence that occurred, then we can talk about parsing words.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Yeah, But Has She Ever Been To Australia?

Twice in a matter of days, blogs I regularly read have linked to Iraqi blogger Riverbend, so I think it time that I pass on the recommendation (via Laura Rozen and Juan Cole). Riverbend offers an unvarnished, on the ground account of events in Iraq that should be invaluable to any outsider - and probably quite a few in closer proximity.

Er, but don't tell
Arthur Chrenkoff who would likely dismiss many of her posts as rank pessimism. Would she qualify as "mainstream media"? She may actually be in Iraq, but has she ever observed Iraq from the perspective of Australia like Chrenkoff? Until then, her vision is limited, and her ability to "Chrenk-off" remains woefully underdeveloped. So pardon her myopia.

Both Rozen and Cole link to Riverbend's
unsettling account of the uptick of violence in Iraq. This post paints a vivid picture, complete with sensory evocations that leave the reader with an unsettling nearness to the carnage.

The last two weeks have been violent. The number of explosions in Baghdad alone is frightening. There have also been several assassinations- bodies being found here and there. It's somewhat disturbing to know that corpses are turning up in the most unexpected places. Many people will tell you it's not wise to eat river fish anymore because they have been nourished on the human remains being dumped into the river. That thought alone has given me more than one sleepless night. It is almost as if Baghdad has turned into a giant graveyard.

The latest corpses were those of some Sunni and Shia clerics- several of them well-known. People are being patient and there is a general consensus that these killings are being done to provoke civil war. Also worrisome is the fact that we are hearing of people being rounded up by security forces (Iraqi) and then being found dead days later- apparently when the new Iraqi government recently decided to reinstate the death penalty, they had something else in mind.

But back to the explosions. One of the larger blasts was in an area called Ma'moun, which is a middle class area located in west Baghdad. It's a relatively calm residential area with shops that provide the basics and a bit more. It happened in the morning, as the shops were opening up for their daily business and it occurred right in front of a butchers shop. Immediately after, we heard that a man living in a house in front of the blast site was hauled off by the Americans because it was said that after the bomb went off, he sniped an Iraqi National Guardsman.

I didn't think much about the story- nothing about it stood out: an explosion and a sniper- hardly an anomaly. The interesting news started circulating a couple of days later. People from the area claim that the man was taken away not because he shot anyone, but because he knew too much about the bomb. Rumor has it that he saw an American patrol passing through the area and pausing at the bomb site minutes before the explosion. Soon after they drove away, the bomb went off and chaos ensued. He ran out of his house screaming to the neighbors and bystanders that the Americans had either planted the bomb or seen the bomb and done nothing about it. He was promptly taken away.

The bombs are mysterious. Some of them explode in the midst of National Guard and near American troops or Iraqi Police and others explode near mosques, churches, and shops or in the middle of sougs. One thing that surprises us about the news reports of these bombs is that they are inevitably linked to suicide bombers. The reality is that some of these bombs are not suicide bombs- they are car bombs that are either being remotely detonated or maybe time bombs. All we know is that the techniques differ and apparently so do the intentions. Some will tell you they are resistance. Some say Chalabi and his thugs are responsible for a number of them. Others blame Iran and the SCIRI militia Badir.

In any case, they are terrifying. If you're close enough, the first sound is a that of an earsplitting blast and the sounds that follow are of a rain of glass, shrapnel and other sharp things. Then the wails begin- the shrill mechanical wails of an occasional ambulance combined with the wail of car alarms from neighboring vehicles - and finally the wail of people trying to sort out their dead and dying from the debris....

While I'm linking to Laura Rozen, though on a different topic, don't miss this illuminating, if not enraging, exchange between the new, highly partisan chair of Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Ken Tomlinson, and NPR talk show host Dianne Rehme. Makes you understand why I thought this Digby post was so worthy.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Defusing A Bomb

Robert Pape has an interesting column in today's New York Times entitled, Blowing Up An Assumption, which summarizes some of the findings from his extensive scholarship on the subject of suicide bombers. As the title would implicate, his discoveries buck certain trends in conventional wisdom:

Over the past two years, I have compiled a database of every suicide bombing and attack around the globe from 1980 through 2003 - 315 in all. This includes every episode in which at least one terrorist killed himself or herself while trying to kill others, but excludes attacks authorized by a national government (like those by North Korean agents against South Korea). The data show that there is far less of a connection between suicide terrorism and religious fundamentalism than most people think.

The leading instigator of suicide attacks is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion. This group committed 76 of the 315 incidents, more than Hamas (54) or Islamic Jihad (27). Even among Muslims, secular groups like the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Al Aksa Martyr Brigades account for more than a third of suicide attacks.
I willingly confess to ignorance regarding the frequency of suicide bombings by the Tamil Tigers, and for this bit of edification I am thankful. However, I am a little concerned that the inclusiveness of Pape's sampling might dilute the force of some of the conclusions he derives from this data - especially because the Tamils are completely secular and non-religious and as such might be skewing the overall numbers in a misleading direction. In that respect, I prefer the methodology of Marc Sageman - the former Foreign Service Officer, forensic psychiatrist and author of Understanding Terror Networks who created psychiatric/biographical profiles of a very narrow group of terrorists.

Sageman turned his attention to what he terms Salafist jihadists like Al Qaeda - terrorist groups that espouse the twin goals of: First, creating a unified Muslim caliphate (or nation) which would encompass both current and formerly held Muslim lands stretching from the Philippines to Spain; and Second, ensuring that strict Sharia law, as in effect circa the time of the prophet Mohammed, would govern this pan-Muslim "utopia" (for the closest modern example, think the Taliban). Sageman deliberately ignored the broad range of localized terrorist groups and various regional struggles because of the fact that, in his opinion, too wide a sample could render any data or noted trend less useful and, further, that the most pressing threat to US interests comes from the very group he focused on. To paraphrase his methodology, it is less crucial that we understand the rationale and methods of the Tamil Tigers than Al Qaeda and their fellow travelers. More on Sageman below, but first, let's look at how Pape extrapolates from his data:
What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks actually have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in seeking aid from abroad, but is rarely the root cause.

Before Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, there was no Hezbollah suicide terrorist campaign against Israel; indeed, Hezbollah came into existence only after this event. Before the Sri Lankan military began moving into the Tamil homelands of the island in 1987, the Tamil Tigers did not use suicide attacks. Before the huge increase in Jewish settlers on the West Bank in the 1980's, Palestinian groups did not use suicide terrorism.

And, true to form, there had never been a documented suicide attack in Iraq until after the American invasion in 2003. [emphasis added]
So far, so good - sort of. Pape is right to note that, historically, suicide attacks have been most prevalent in the context of national struggles, with the aim of expelling a foreign presence (or perceived foreign presence), but there are certainly other motivations involved and there seems to be too powerful a causation vs. correlation claim here. More importantly, perhaps, he seems to ignore the possibility that this tactic might have been given life in such contexts, but has been adopted by others not necessarily involved in such a dynamic. It is true that religion, absent some struggle (or perceived struggle), doesn't cause suicide bombing, but he underestimates the role that the jihadist version of Salafism can play in the process (in terms of manufacturing a conflict or otherwise), and overstates the extent to which Al Qaeda could be characterized as a group struggling for national sovereignty. As such, his thesis begins to fray when he moves to Iraq, and to Al Qaeda in general.

At the moment, our best information indicates that the attackers in Iraq are Sunni Iraqis and foreign fighters, principally from Saudi Arabia. If so, this would mean that the two main sources of suicide terrorists in Iraq are from the Arab countries deemed most vulnerable to transformation by the presence of American combat troops. This is fully consistent with what we now know about the strategic logic of suicide terrorism.
This is a bit of a stretch - at least in terms of the non-Iraqis. According to the Pape theory, the Saudis and other non-Iraqis are either pre-emptively defending their own nations from potential subsequent occupation or identifying with their fellow Iraqis as one homogeneous people. Or is it that mere regional proximity is enough of a factor in this case, and if so why here and not in Palestine or other locales? Even this trans-national modification would begin to alter Pape's secular, nationalist, "homeland" theory to the point of vacuousness. But the linkage gets even more tenuous.

Some have wondered if the rise of suicide terrorism in Iraq is really such a bad thing for American security. Is it not better to have these killers far away in Iraq rather than here in the United States? Alas, history shows otherwise. The presence of tens of thousands of American combat forces on the Arabian Peninsula after 1990 enabled Al Qaeda to recruit suicide terrorists, who in turn attacked Americans in the region (the African embassy bombings in 1998 and the attack on the destroyer Cole in 2000). The presence of nearly 150,000 American combat troops in Iraq since 2003 can only give suicide terrorism a boost, and the longer this suicide terrorist campaign continues the greater the risk of new attacks in the United States.

Understanding that suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation rather than a product of Islamic fundamentalism has important implications for how the United States and its allies should conduct the war on terrorism. Spreading democracy across the Persian Gulf is not likely to be a panacea so long as foreign combat troops remain on the Arabian Peninsula.[emphasis added]
Now he's gone too far, and this is where I will rely more on the work of Sageman (as an aside, for a great summary of Sageman's book, check out this site via this post on LAT which itself has a good discussion in the comments section). I don't think spreading democracy across the region would be a panacea, but neither would removing US troops from the Arabian Peninsula - or even a combination of both. Sageman, like Gilles Kepel in The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, traces the evolution of Al Qaeda - a basic understanding of which is helpful in seeing why Pape is oversimplifying matters, and squeezing the facts to fit his theory.

Two interesting phenomena detailed by these authors are worth noting: First, Al Qaeda's roots are really in the Egyptian, not Saudi or Afghan, struggle between Salafists and the secular Egyptian regimes of Nasser and Mubarak. As such, the primary raison d'etre of these conflicts centers around the belief that these secular regimes are apostate in character and "against Islam" and as such must be overthrown and replaced with a regimes governed by Sharia law (such process to be replicated across the region until there is the contiguous quasi-mythical Salafist caliphate as referenced above). Nowhere is the presence of foreign troops a linchpin.

Second, many of these Egyptian activists (like Al Qaeda's ideological leader Ayman Al Zawahiri), were fleeing repression at home when they joined the Afghan jihad against the U.S.S.R. linking up with other Arabs and Muslims like the Saudi Osama Bin Laden - which then led to a cross-pollination of the Salafist ideology, world view, and goals with others in related movements. Two events led to the self selection of Al Qaeda within this context. Initially, when the Afghan campaign ended, many jihadists went home leaving behind only the most die-hard and those incapable of returning home (often one and the same). Then, this core group migrated to Sudan but was expelled from that safe-haven in the mid-1990s (returning to then Taliban led Afghanistan) which again caused a winnowing of the ranks until only the most committed and, increasingly, the most anti-American were left behind to form "the base" or vanguard of the Salafist jihadist movement.

At this point, there was a shift in strategy. Zawahiri counseled in favor of targeting the "far enemy" (read: the United States) as a means to expedite the toppling of local apostate regimes (the "near enemy") since those corrupt regimes were being propped up by the U.S. and thus appeared immune to the local efforts to usurp them (in addition, the targeting of fellow Muslims was not as popular as needed for their grand designs, and a series of setbacks in achieving the realization of Salafist regimes in Chechnya, Bosnia, and even Sudan caused a recalibration of objectives). Osama bought into this shift in focus, and began issuing calls for action against the U.S. interests everywhere.

With this in mind, Pape takes a very complex set of strategies, intentions, and policies and boils it down to:

The presence of tens of thousands of American combat forces on the Arabian Peninsula after 1990 enabled Al Qaeda to recruit suicide terrorists, who in turn attacked Americans in the region.
Not quite. Al Qaeda's core leadership was in place and active in various arenas before there even were U.S. troops on the Arabian Peninsula, and the goals of the leadership supersede ejecting American troops by leaps and bounds. Further, as Sageman notes in his groundbreaking psych-profiles of the Salafist terrorists, including the 9/11 crews, the issue of U.S. troop presence was not of tantamount importance in any significant way. More prevalent was a sense of alienation from society (often caused by the physical disconnect from family and culture felt by Muslims living in non-Muslim countries) and a reaching out for community at local mosques spurred on by the same. As such, a common biographical occurrence was a recent personal reaffirmation of religiosity in the form of dedication to Salafism (given impetus by attendance at the area mosque which was, in turn, caused by feelings of isolation and lack of community).

The decision to employ suicide bombing as a tactic by Al Qaeda represented the culmination of strategic and ideological goals that existed quite separate from the presence of American troops on Muslim lands, and this fact was not what made this route feasible to the leadership, nor was it the primary selling point to the foot-soldiers and actual suicide bombers. There were religious/ideological/logistical concerns that were all more important, causally and otherwise, to the Al Qaeda led suicide attacks.

Therefore, suicide bombing in certain settings might be tied to the presence of foreign troops and thus might be alleviated by the withdrawal of these troops, but there are strains of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism that will not recede into oblivion just because U.S. troops are completely removed from the theater. I'm not saying that their presence is not a powerful rallying cry and propagandistic tool for Bin Laden and his ilk, but Pape is dead wrong if he thinks Al Qaeda's overall mission will in any way be undermined or satisfied by the absence of U.S. troops, or that Al Qaeda's ability to recruit suicide bombers and carry out suicide attacks is in any way causally linked to the presence of U.S. troops on Muslim lands. Unfortunately, the Salafist jihadists have broader goals, and more wide ranging appeal, and suicide attacks have evolved into what many perceive as a legitimate tactic to be employed in asymmetrical conflict in a broader array of circumstances than those described by Pape.

(Note: As a result of the lightening pace of the blogosphere, while I was composing this piece,
Dan Drezner, Praktike, and Stygius all weighed in on the topic in one form or another - with Stygius doing some heavy lifting)

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Iraq? Don’t Think Salvador in the ‘80s, Think Nicaragua -- With the U.S. Role Reversed

TIA Guest Spot: Allow me to introduce Bill Barnes to the TIA audience. Like me, he is an attorney with a penchant for all things political. In this piece, Mr. Barnes draws an interesting historical comparison between current US foreign policy vis a vis Iraq, and that of various US administrations in relation to Central America in the 1980s. Rich in historical fact, and insightful of current trends, it is an all around solid piece. Enjoy.

With the caveat that it makes little or no sense to talk about the intersection of elections and insurgency in the abstract or across widely disparate cases, because of the complexity of the historical sociology and political science involved, let me suggest that if there is an instructive parallel between contemporary Iraq and the Central America of the 1980s, it's not El Salvador but Nicaragua.

There are some parallels between the Iraqi and Salvadoran cases. It is interesting to note that the constant refrain of the Salvadoran right during the 1980s was that the FMLN was nothing more than "5000 terrorists" with no popular base, depending entirely on outside support from Nicaragua and Cuba. During the first eight months or so of the Iraq insurgency, the official Bush administration line was that the insurgency consisted of only "5000 terrorists" without a popular base, sustained by outside support from international Jihadist networks. While such depictions were wildly wrong in both cases, equally or more important is the fact that the two insurgencies, and the historical and structural contexts, are completely incommensurate. The only thing that is similar between the two situations is the ideology and practice of the two U.S. administrations involved, the disagreement of most of the rest of the world with that ideology and practice, and the fact that in the El Salvador of the 1980s, as in Iraq today, the most powerful institution in the country was the U.S. embassy.

Comparing the current Bush administration policy in Iraq with the application of the Reagan Doctrine in Central America circa 1982-87 is an excellent topic, but nobody is getting it right. The Bush administration and its apologists are flat wrong, but left critics aren't really getting it right either (and many on the "hard" or sectarian left are getting it very wrong), and they are wrong to dismiss out of hand everything that the "liberal hawks" say. This debate is a good vehicle for trying to get critique of the Bush/Neocon Middle East policy right, why the liberal hawk alternative is still wrong, and what a real center-left alternative might look like.

The idea that the Salvadoran experience showed that "elections suck the oxygen out of insurgency," and that might be a model for Iraq, put forward by Pentagon officials and NYT columnist David Brooks last September (focusing on the Salvadoran elections of 1982 and 1984), was and is simply wrong. More recently the Pentagon and some military commentators have claimed that U.S.-trained, advised, and equipped Salvadoran counter-insurgency brigades and commando teams effectively defeated the FMLN and "neutralized" much of its underground infrastructure during the mid-to-late 1980s, and, again, this could be a model for Iraq. I haven't seen anybody put these two discussions together, but in fact, the idea of combining elections and such counter-insurgency tactics, as two sides of the same coin, has been a mainstay of strategies of Third World interventionism for 40 years. What tends to be ignored by those who have advocated such strategy is the strict limits to the "democracy" achieved by such elections, the human costs and limited strategic success of such counter-insurgency tactics, and the major role in any broader and lasting peace-making and democratic success of factors that go unmentioned.

Some details on Salvador. At least (or particularly) with regard to the 1982 constituent assembly election, it was considered to be dangerous to fail to vote. Soldiers and police would frequently ask to see the identity documents on which certification of having voted was to be stamped, in a context in which the FDR- FMLN had called for a boycott of the election, and death squads linked to the army and the police were killing on the order of 800 people every month for suspected links to the FDR-FMLN. Defense Minister Garcia advised the public that failure to vote would constitute treason, while electoral authorities advised that abstention equaled "support for subversion." (Cites available). More generally, the 1982 election was not part of anything positive, rather it was part of the 1974-83 retreat from meaningful elections in the major urban areas (and continuing disallowance of meaningful competitive political activity in the countryside) and part of the right's finishing off the driving out of open politics of the real champions of electoral democracy, the center-left, whose last gasp was the short-lived 1979 Junta. The 1984 election of Napoleon Duarte as president was much closer to a free election, and did feature what was, for El Salvador, massive turnout. And death squad activity and human rights violations in general were well down from their peaks of the early 80s, largely due to U.S. pressure. But the Duarte regime and the Christian Democratic Party became moribund after 1985, ARENA came to the fore, human rights violations increased, the civilian "pacification" arm of the U.S.-designed counter-insurgency, "United to Reconstruct," was a failure, the FMLN adapted to the new counter-insurgency tactics, and a costly military stalemate ensued.

In El Salvador, an electoral regime became meaningful and began to play a positive role only very gradually and against the grain of the policies of the first Reagan administration. Such evolved out of the combination of (1) the work of elements of the Church, and in particular UCA's (the Jesuit-run university) Social Projection, Ignacio Martin-Baro's development of IUDOP (public opinion institute), his and (UCA head) Ignacio Elllacuria's appearances on Canal 12 television, their insistence that there could be no military victory for either side; (2) the impact on U.S. policy of the partnership between Congressional Democrats and the anti-intervention movement in the U.S. and the leverage that gave to the moderate professionals in the State Dept and AID against the Reaganauts (the hardcore Reaganauts, after Duarte's election and Reagan's reelection, took Nicaragua policy entirely for themselves while leaving Salvador largely to the moderates at State); (3) the Reagan administration's need to compete with and try to outshine the 1984 Nicaraguan election; (4) the unraveling of Iran-Contra, leading to some defanging of the Reagan Doctrine vis-a-vis Salvador (the Reagan Doctrine, parallel to current Bush/neocons, stood for the pipedream that military defeat of Third World "Communists" would lead automatically to the emergence and success of "democracy"); (5) Oscar Arias' work; (6) the profound delegitimation of the Salvadoran military by its 1989 murder of the UCA's Jesuit leadership, and the Bush administration's bowing to that delegitimation; (7) the shocking of the right by the strength of the FMLN's 1989 offensive; (8) the gradual revival of the center-left in Salvador at the end of the 80s and the gradual recognition by both ARENA and the FMLN that they should accept a growing role for such, the latter made possible (for both ARENA and the FMLN) by the fall of the Soviet bloc (9) the UN's massive and sustained presence and commitment to peace negotiations and processes, and the courageous service of prominent people in various truth and reconciliation commissions, and the Bush administration's willingness to countenance all that and lend some support, including to the purging and reduction of the Salvadoran military and security apparatus. It is impossible to imagine either the first Reagan administration, or the similarly deluded current Bush administration, behaving in a parallel manner.

There are no functional equivalents to most of these things at the present moment re: Iraq. And of course it took a full ten years (1984 to 1994) in Salvador to get to elections that were beginning to be what passes for free and honest, and elections continued to have low participation (35-40% of the voting age population) for another 10 years. Something that is parallel between the two cases is that in both El Salvador and Iraq, a highly centralized and militarized government had profoundly suppressed civil society, except for religious leaders and groups, who were killed if they became too political, but otherwise allowed to survive and maintain their institutions. But in Salvador the Church/the religious were split only along left/center/right lines, and the most powerful institutional presence, UCA and the Archbishop, were superhumanly committed to what amounted to center-left, pro-democracy, anti-militaristic positions. In Iraq, religious leaders and groups are much more highly fragmented in much more sectarian ways (compounded by profound geographical and ethnic splits, non-existent in El Salvador), neither they nor their cadre having experience with elections or democracy; many are pro-insurgency; many are only conditionally anti-insurgency (in Salvador the cadre and leaders of Christian Democracy and Liberation Theology had a good deal of experience with elections from the 1960s and 70s). Is there any potential for Sistani to play a role parallel to Ellacuria and Martin-Baro in Salvador?

Now lets consider the parallels between Iraq and Nicaragua. In earlier times, the U.S. government had supported the regimes of authoritarian, quasi-fascist caudillos in both countries (the Somozas in Nicaragua and Saddam Hussein in Iraq). The manner in which those regimes were overthrown, and the character and initial strength of the new regimes, were of course very different. But after that, all we have to do is flip the U.S. role and we get some striking parallels. The FSLN regime in Nicaragua, and at least some elements among its foreign partners (the Soviet bloc and Cuba), thought the Sandinista revolution could be a model for the "democratic" overthrow of traditional authoritarian regimes throughout Latin America (the liberal middle class elements of the anti-Somoza coalition thought they were achieving something else --Costa Rica). The Bush administration, sponsor of the new Iraqi government, thinks the Iraqi "democratic revolution" can have a massive demonstration effect leading to the "democratization" of authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East (Shi'a political parties and clerics think they are achieving something else -- a very different vision, with which liberals are quite uncomfortable, as liberals were uncomfortable with the Leninist version of Sandinismo). In the Nicaraguan case, Argentine, Guatemalan, and U.S. right-wing extremists were determined to prevent any such exemplary success of the Sandinista revolution and started organizing the remnants of the Somoza National Guard and security services, with some help from neighboring Honduras, to launch terrorist attacks in Nicaragua. Elements of the first Reagan administration, in the CIA and the National Security Counsel in particular, increasingly funded and helped organize those anti-Sandinista efforts. All of this bears some comparison to the outside help the Iraqi insurgency is getting from foreign Islamic jihadists and from some Baathist elements in Syria.

In Nicaragua, by 1983, the Contra insurgency was becoming much bigger and obtaining both some broader support among elements of the earlier anti-Somoza coalition, and concentrated bases of support among the traditionalistic middle peasantry of the northern mountains and the indigenous population of the isolated Atlantic coast (unlike El Salvador, Nicaragua has some important geographical and ethnic divisions, though not on the scale of Iraq). This happened, I would argue, largely because the top leadership of the FSLN regime, and of the security services and army in particular, and much of their leading cadre, were unfamiliar with the people of the mountains and the Atlantic Coast, and were ideological in a way that rendered them quite obtuse about distinguishing between opponents who deserved to be treated as "terrorists" and deadly enemies and those who didn't. In Iraq, U.S. commanders, troops, administrators and their Iraqi clients are guilty of exactly the same kind of obtuseness, with exactly the same kind of results (this also was the case in El Salvador - much of the FMLN base and armed fighters were people whose family members had been killed by Salvadoran army and security personnel - though in Salvador, as in Guatemala and Argentina, the security forces, beyond obtuse, added a particularly large dose of fascist blood-thirstiness).

In Nicaragua in 1984, the Sandinistas held an election that they hoped would suck the oxygen out of the Contra insurgency. An important chunk of the anti-Sandinista opposition, at Reagan administration insistence, refused to participate, just like the Sunnis in 2005 Iraq (and like many Sunnis today, they came to regret that abstentionism). For the majority of Nicaraguans, the 1984 election was an inspiring and hopeful exercise in democracy, but for several important minorities, it was a sham. The FSLN leadership made some genuine efforts to draw segments of these minorities, along with the "participating opposition," into their new political system, the new parliamentary politics, and the writing of the new constitution (and the degree to which this was genuine vs. cynical cooptation varied greatly among different elements of the Sandinista leadership and regime). Again parallel to Iraq at the moment. But while part of the FSLN regime was genuinely devoted to developing democratic dialogue and competition with the "participating opposition," the top FSLN leadership and the security services and army remained obtuse in the sense referenced above. From 1985 to the 1988 Sapoa cease-fire, the FSLN increasingly defeated the Contra militarily, while increasingly losing the respect of larger and larger minorities of the population, in large part because of government administrative failures, inability to alleviate the increasing material hardships of on-going war (an impossible task given U.S. policy -- not nearly as destructive as the impact of Iraqi insurgents on Iraqi security and infrastructure, but still somewhat parallel) and the simultaneous corruption of many government ministries, turned into fiefdoms by particular leadership cliques (the same is reported to be happening now in Iraqi ministries). Many Sandinistas knew all this, and fragmented efforts at correction were made, but in their 1989-90 election campaign, they resumed being obtuse in spades.

The best example of a single election sucking the oxygen out of an insurgency would be Nicaragua 1990, sucking the oxygen out of the Contra insurgency - But only because that insurgency was so highly dependent on an outside sponsor, the U.S., and that sponsor had changed its policy during 1987-88 to favor elections and compromise over continuing insurgency, whereas the Reagan administration's policy had previously been the reverse (the 1984 election had no effect on the Contra insurgency because the Reagan Administration didn't want it to). Real elections, establishing real reformist government during the decade before 1979 might have sucked the oxygen out of the Sandinista insurgency, and real elections establishing real reformist government in El Salvador during the 1970s might have forestalled full insurgency there (as might the survival and reformist evolution of Luis Somoza in mid-60s Nicaragua, or the survival of Arbenz in Guatemala). But the U.S. government refused to support such developments in either country, because, in the Cold war context, the U.S. government (Republican Party and right in general) regarded suppressing the left as a higher priority, trumping any local reality. U.S. support for a form of electoral politics constituting a genuine recognition and acceptance of democracy and the center-left was not in the cards as long as the Cold War was in effect. And such is not in the cards now because of the hegemony of the Republican right and the Neocons.

One bottom line: Even when "well-intentioned," rightist U.S. policy-makers, civilian and uniformed Pentagon leadership and their allied think-tank intellectuals, and CIA/Special Forces cadre -- like Leninist leaders and cadre -- can never be trusted to distinguish on their own (i.e. without being embedded in and regulated by a system of broad "multi-partisan" professional deliberation and democratic accountability) between, on one hand, criminals and those who deserve the label "terrorist," who deserve whatever they get, and, on the other hand, other kinds of political opponents. Once you give CIA/Special Forces cadre and their indigenous protegees legitimacy, and relative freedom of action, they end up doing a lot that -- even by the policy-makers' own announced standards -- is both counter-productive and unconscionable, i.e. committing atrocities, killing the wrong people, producing substantial avoidable collateral damage, engaging in or countenancing torture and all kinds of human rights violations, getting diverted into private vendettas, power games, corruption and gangsterism -- alienating the hearts and minds they claim they're trying to win. Prone to obtuse homogenization of opponents, guilt by association, willingness to treat collateral damages cavalierly, obtuse about side-effects and unintended consequences (Vietnam Phoenix program). Counterinsurgency as a form of "seeing like a state" (Jim Scott). The Leninist elements of the FSLN of the 1980s were characterized by a degree of the same kind of thing, but more constrained by their need to maintain leadership over the rest of the Sandinista movement and sustain a good image with foreign allies and public opinion - as the Salvadoran military became constrained during 1983-85 and after its murder of the Jesuits in 1989.

It seems to me likely that at least over the next few years, the new Iraqi government will duplicate many of the faults of the Sandinista government of the years after the 1984 Nicaraguan election--and probably few of its virtues. This is probably the best we can hope for. Equally likely is either full civil war and the breakup of the country, or a quasi-Leninist Shi'a theocracy. The liberal middle class (and its U.S. sponsors), as in early '80s Nicaragua, will be left feeling that once again they've been robbed of their birthright and their country taken off on a pathological detour - except possibly for the Kurds if they are able to move toward viable autonomy.

(comments and feedback below or to BarnesWAB@aol.com)

Monday, May 16, 2005

Good News For People Who Love Bad News


The Wall Street Journal editorial page's online presence has grown weary of the steady drum beat of bad news issuing forth from Iraq and has enlisted the aid of Australian blogger Arthur Chrenkoff to provide a round-up of the "good news" stories for their website that he regularly compiles on
his own blog. Chrenkoff is an interesting character to say the least. According to him, his blog's mission (and by proxy, that of the WSJ editorial page) is to redress the imbalance of news being reported from Iraq in the dreaded mainstream media - which he considers to be slanted toward the negative with too little recounting of the positive. As Tim Dunlop points out, these claims are dubious to say the least. For one, Chrenkoff's effort to correct the inadequacies of the mainstream media relies on that same mainstream media as the primary source for his stories. In other words, he culls the positive stories from the same sources he claims ignore the positive stories.

I suppose it comes down to a point of emphasis then. Chrenkoff shines a brighter light on stories he feels are overshadowed by the bad news - and the overshadowing itself, according to Chrenkoff, is the product of an undercurrent of bias against the Iraq campaign flowing through the supposedly liberal mainstream media. But are Chrenkoff's charges fair? There certainly has been much coverage over the past three-weeks detailing the escalation of insurgent violence, and insurgent activity generally hordes a good deal of media attention. But this, I would argue, is inevitable given the scope and reach of the destruction and bloodshed.

Consider this fact, the population of the United States is roughly 11 times that of Iraq's. With that in mind, extrapolate the number of Iraqi deaths (excluding insurgents killed) witnessed over the first two weeks of
May alone: 475 - comprised of civilians (approximately 310) and soldiers and policemen (approximately 165). In American terms, that would equal roughly 5,225 dead. The attacks of September 11, as horrific as they were, resulted in approximately 2,800 deaths. So, with that perspective in mind, is the media too obsessed with the level of violence in Iraq which can reach September 11th proportions on a weekly basis?

Conversely, would it have been better, for balance sake, if the US media had reported on all the positive stories occurring in the United States on 9/11 because not everywhere was Washington DC, NYC, and Pennsylvania? I doubt it. In truth, the scale of the violence and the loss of life, which is by no means limited to early May 2005, demands that the media take notice and prioritize these accounts. They are a pertinent reminder of the state of the mission in Iraq, and the unbelievable hardships the Iraqi people endure on a daily basis. Would it be better, again for balance sake, if these stories were relegated to the backpages while news of a school re-opening after being re-built out of the rubble of collateral damage was given prominent coverage? Would that give the reader a better sense of Iraqi daily life? Or is it, perhaps, that stories of Iraqi deaths are becoming old hat, passe even, and thus don't really raise an eyebrow anymore from those growing tired of our Middle Eastern campaign.

In effect, Chrenkoff's mission generally drifts toward becoming an exercise in supreme tautology: parsing through the chaos to declare, "See, not everything is bad in Iraq" - a sentiment that he confidently declares day after day from his safe European Australian home, thousands of miles away from the scene of events where the reporters he chides are stationed. Thanks for the clarification Dr. Chrenkoff. By the way, has there ever been a situation where
everything was bad? And despite the protestations of Chrenkoff, it's not as if the mainstream media doesn't cover many other aspects of Iraq - from reconstruction efforts, to elections to jockeying for power in the nascent cabinet and government in general. Where, do you suppose, all those photographs of purple stained fingers came from? Not to mention the cameras on the deck capturing the fanfare of Bush's Mission Accomplished touchdown.

Which brings me to my next point, so ably illustrated by Fubar from
Needlenose. Fubar waded through some of the "good news" accounts provided by Chrenkoff and reported on the WSJ's editorial page website, and took note of this one:

There are many good-news stories cited, but one of the cited stories that stood out was that of Rhode Island businessman Blake D. Henderson who is 'working hard at rebuilding the country' and is puzzled by all the negative coverage:

Baghdad and many other parts of the country are not the lawless places portrayed on the nighttime television news, Henderson said.

"It happens all the time, when people see something on TV in Baghdad and they'll call and ask, 'Are you OK?' and I'll say, 'I don't even know what you're talking about,'" he said. "In Baghdad, every day 7 million people get up in the morning, send their kids to school and go to work, but you don't see that on TV. All you get is the worst of the worst."
However, he goes on to clarify a point or two:

Henderson said SGE has had no problems during the past year with Iraqi insurgent forces and takes measures to deter potential threats. Members of SGE's paid staff are required to carry a firearm at all times, even at home or in the office, and body armor is requisite apparel outside the firm's compound, Henderson said.
Henderson said the heavily fortified SGE offices are located near the airport, outside the "Green Zone," so local workers may come and go without attracting attention to themselves or inciting insurgents.

Every time an SGE crew is out on a job, an Iraqi is behind the wheel of a traditional Iraqi vehicle, with all aboard wearing local clothing that shields their body armor and weapons as much as possible, Henderson said.

"I've been there three times now, with another trip planned, and every time, we seem to get better and better at it," he said. "The Iraqi people don't seem to take any notice of us, but I know we've been pulled over everywhere we go by the American forces, and then they see who we are and let us on our way. The key is being as invisible as possible."
Fubar sums up what could be described, with an eponymous adjective, as a bit of contradiction in Henderson's account:

As you can see, everything is going great--as long as you carry firearms... and wear body armor... and hide your real identity. But other than that, it's pretty rosy out there.
Have no fear though. Chrenkoff is here to set the record straight.


I gather Mr. Chrenkoff will not be including this
Fred Kaplan column in his daily ode to boundless optimism. Kaplan relies on two reports put out by the US government, the latest quarterly report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, and the State Department's "Iraq Weekly Status Report" dated May 4, to paint a grim picture of the reconstruction efforts and their relation to stability in Iraq in general. He begins by noting yet one more example of how Iraq has morphed into a Catch-22, wrapped in a conundrum, concealed in a labyrinth.

The paradox that stumped the U.S. occupation forces two years ago, shortly after the fall of Baghdad, continues to stump them today. On the one hand, their efforts to provide security won't succeed until they restore essential services. On the other hand, they can't restore essential services until the country's key assets - especially its roads, oil pipelines, and electrical generators - are secure.
In terms of oil production and electrical output, some two-plus years after the toppling of the Hussein regime, both, shockingly, remain below pre-invasion levels.

Yet crude oil production has flattened out at around 2 million barrels a day, well below its prewar level of 2.5 million. Electrical power production hovers around 80,000 kilowatt hours - considerably short of the 100,000 KWH output before the war and far below last summer's declared goal of 120,000. Baghdad homes have electricity for nine to 11 hours a day; in other cities, the figure drops to eight or nine hours.
Kaplan then provides a sector specific analysis of the sluggish pace of spending on reconstruction efforts - partially the result of mismanagement but mostly attributable to the dire security situation. Either way, the money is not being spent where it needs to be, nor are projects advancing with any discernible progress.

In some sectors, the flow of aid is barely a trickle. For instance:

  • For the oil infrastructure, $1.72 billion was allocated; just $1 billion has been appropriated to specific projects; only $263 million - about 15 percent of the original amount - has been spent.
  • For transportation and communication, $509 million was allocated; $327 million has been appropriated, just $70 million (14 percent) spent.
  • For health care, $786 million was allocated, $557 million appropriated, and only $77 million (less than 10 percent) spent.
  • For water resources and sanitation, $2.16 billion was allocated, $1.06 billion appropriated, a mere $117 million (5 percent) spent.
But wait, it gets worse. According to Kaplan, even these figures understate the scope of the problem. For one, the costs of these projects are rising as a result of the persistent security concerns and, at least in some examples, the costs were underestimated from the beginning. As Kaplan puts it:

Therefore, if, say, half of a project's budget has been spent, it's probably less than half-finished; actually completing it will cost more.
With that in mind, are things better in Iraq than the media portrays or worse? Do Americans need more Arthur Chrenkoffs in order to salve our collective conscience and fortify our resolve, or should we be told the story straight with no chaser? Isn't it the case already - from embedded journalists whose independence is compromised, to Pentagon vetted reports, to self-censorship - that the media has been mostly neutered as a result of policies implemented in reaction to the problems caused by the proximity of reporters to the action in Vietnam? We, as Americans, are already shielded from up close images of the horrors of war that other media sources like Al Jazeera beam into the living rooms of the rest of the world - from dead bodies (including children), to blood and gore, to the large scale destruction of lives and property. Now, I suppose, good soldiers like Arthur Chrenkoff want to finish off the white wash into abstraction - providing war with the pristine luster of a feel good Hollywood ending. That's why, in many ways, his good news is bad.

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