It was an under-reported item from 7 February - so much else was going on, what with the Senate arguing over which side really didn't want to discuss the Iraq War at all, with NBC's Tim Russert taking the stand in the Scooter Libby trial and saying the whole premise of Libby's defense was a lie (as if it mattered at all now), with another helicopter full of our guys shot down west of Baghdad (that's five in the last three weeks), with the Baghdad crackdown finally starting, and two thousand of the promised eight thousand Iraqi Army troops actually showing up (they're all Kurds from the north and since they don't have a dog in this fight don't quite see the point in reporting in). So of course the item in question didn't get much notice - the United Nations finally got fifty-eight countries to sign a long-negotiated treaty prohibiting governments from "disappearing" individuals or keeping anyone in secret detention. So it was a no-brainer for us - we define ourselves by our refusal to use anything like totalitarian, police state practices, We're the good guys.
But times do change. We refused to sign this treaty. We've made our decisions in that matter. Sometimes the good guys just need to do things that seem not so good at all. Are we defined by what we say about ourselves, or by what we do? This is not pretty. But then, we chose this president. Tom Friedman just explained - "Voters basically fired Bush in the last election. Now we're watching him clean out his desk." It is hardly that simple.
And the Senate had decided not to debate any anti-escalation resolution at all. Defenders of the president argued long and hard that even discussing alternatives to what the president was planning, and starting to do, would "send a message" to our enemies that we were quitters and in disarray - and we could not afford to have anyone think that now - and, more importantly, they argued the morale of our troops would be crushed if they heard any words that their escalation mission might not be the best way to fix things. We must support the troops, so keep your alternative ideas to yourself.
Actually, the troops might know that this is nonsense and soldier on regardless, because you do the job you're given, as a matter of honor and duty, and with and for your buddies beside you. The geopolitical stuff is not your concern. You have faith that those for whom such things is their concern - the folks back in Washington who have that part of the whole business as their full-time job - have thought this through, and are continually thinking this through, and are discussing it all. You probably hope that there really is a debate. You're doing your job in the war zone, and damn it, they should be doing their job. "Shut up and do your job" is for the war zone, and "think, rethink, and think again," is what is supposed to be happening in Washington. Heck, it had better be happening, or you and your buddies are really screwed.
And wonder of wonders, Defense Secretary Gates, actually stood up to the Republican senators and explained that - a Senate debate of any anti-escalation resolution doesn't hurt troop morale at all. They fully expect someone is thinking about the big picture, and on the job. And General Pace, the chair of the Joint Chiefs agreed. So, if we are defined by our decisions, working out what we agree is best - letting everyone have their say and voting on what seems the best decisions - might just be the right thing to do. Pace and Gates floated the idea that this is how things are supposed to work. The White House cannot be pleased.
But again, things aren't that simple. One of Andrew Sullivan's readers lays it out -
One of the main arguments against an American pullback or pullout is the likelihood of a genocidal and brutal civil war that would "force" the U.S. to come in to stop the slaughter.
I think it is appropriate to assume that there would be massive killing. I've heard arguments to the contrary and I've heard arguments that Syria/Iran, etc. would not permit it, but assuming that it would not take place is as foolish as assuming that everything will be just fine. So we should assume that there will be incredible slaughter, religious dislocation and depravity - at least in the non-Kurdish areas - if we get out.
Query: Do we have the discipline to stay out and to be presented night after night with scenes of unimaginable slaughter that we will be accused of being "responsible for"? Because if we don't have the discipline - or the cold-heartedness, if you will - then that's a strong argument to continue with Bush's approach.
I hope that General Petraeus achieves some kind of miracle in Baghdad. I doubt it, but of course I hope for it - if it means a space for a real, national government to emerge, and not just a way to pacify some Sunni areas before the Shiites really get to work. But if or when it fails, will we be able to face the moral consequences of withdrawal or redeployment?
… The great drawback of my own position is that it requires the United States to stand back as genocide takes place. The great drawback of the president's position is that we are already policing and enabling a genocide at a slower pace but comparable scale. History suggests that Americans can leave a place to hell. America was tough enough to watch the Vietnamese boat people. But of course it makes me pause. It should. The choices before us are all dreadful. But sometimes the best decision is the least palatable in the short term. I say we have no side in a Sunni-Shi'a war; and if we have no side, we should be in no war.
It's not easy, and if we embed our guys, as planned, in the Iraq Army, to help them get halfway competent, we may be in real trouble. Some units of the Iraqi army are Shi'a, really, and some Sunni, and some made up entirely of Kurds. If they decide to have at each other, and we're fighting beside them, embedded within, will our guys, when it comes time to take out the troublemakers, participate in firing on, and killing our own guys on the other side of the battlefield? Who gets to say who is the troublemaker? It could get that messy.
Decisions have consequences. Someone should be thinking this through. We owe it to the troops to do that. They're kind of depending on it.
There is, of course, all sorts of planning occurring, what Sidney Blumenthal calls the Pentagon's not-so-little secret -
Deep within the bowels of the Pentagon, policy planners are conducting secret meetings to discuss what to do in the worst-case scenario in Iraq about a year from today if and when President Bush's escalation of more than 20,000 troops fails, a participant in those discussions told me. None of those who are taking part in these exercises, shielded from the public view and the immediate scrutiny of the White House, believes that the so-called surge will succeed. On the contrary, everyone thinks it will not only fail to achieve its aims but also accelerate instability by providing a glaring example of U.S. incapacity and incompetence.
The profoundly pessimistic thinking that permeates the senior military and the intelligence community, however, is forbidden in the sanitized atmosphere of mind-cure boosterism that surrounds Bush. "He's tried this two times -- it's failed twice," Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said on Jan. 24 about the "surge" tactic. "I asked him at the White House, 'Mr. President, why do you think this time it's going to work?' And he said, 'Because I told them it had to.'" She repeated his words: "'I told them that they had to.' That was the end of it. That's the way it is."
So no one is telling the president, or the public, or congress, but someone is thinking things through. It's not a bad idea.
Blumenthal also notes the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq that finally came out on February 2 - the National Intelligence Council, representing all intelligence agencies, just isn't into wishful thinking either -
The Intelligence Community judges that the term "civil war" does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al-Qaida and Sunni insurgent attacks on Coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence. Nonetheless, the term 'civil war' accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements.
It's bad - the Iraqi government, army and police force that cannot meet the challenge in any imaginable time frame - and a reversal of "the negative trends driving Iraq's current trajectory" can happen, as Blumenthal puts it, "only through a sequence in which all the warring sects and factions, as in some unexplained way, suddenly make peace with one another." In short, no one much sees how anything will get better. In fact, what is reported to be most likely is "an abrupt increase in communal and insurgent violence and a shift in Iraq's trajectory from gradual decline to rapid deterioration with grave humanitarian, political, and security consequences."
The Senate can debate all it wants, but -
The reception of the latest NIE, even more than the NIE itself, indicates again Bush's and Republicans' denial of objective analysis from the professional intelligence community. The October 2002 NIE was produced under intense pressure from the White House, especially Vice President Cheney, to validate its preconceived views. "The administration used intelligence not to inform decision-making, but to justify a decision already made," Paul Pillar, the national intelligence officer for the Middle East who oversaw the assembling of that NIE, wrote a year ago. In the shadow of this travesty, the new NIE was written with great care; its frightening descriptions, therefore, should be considered to be deliberately guarded and reserved in tone.
Just as Bush and the Republicans rejected the bipartisan wise men of the Baker-Hamilton Commission, they have now rejected the objective assessment of the professionals. By thwarting the bipartisan Warner-Levin resolution, they have declared that they will operate on their own fanciful criteria, even against their own political interests.
So be it. And decisions define you, don't they?
Here we have this -
The Senate Republicans' vote to suppress the resolution on the war was the moment when they irrevocably aligned themselves completely with a president who rejects objective analysis. Unable to shield him or themselves from the inevitable consequences, they have made a conscious decision to place the president's delusions above the welfare not only of the Republican Party but also of the troops sent into the deadly labyrinth of Baghdad. Quietly and calmly, as the Republicans hype the "surge," the war planners prepare for the worst.
Deciding for delusional hope against the advice of everyone and in spite of the facts is itself a decision. And to point out that it might be a bad decision is now close to treason.
But is there an alternative, really?
In spite of all the talk that no one has a better idea of any kind - especially the Democrats - on February 8 Governor Bill Richardson delivered a major address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. From a conference call the night before he suggests what cannot be spoken aloud in congress. He has seven proposals -
- Repairing international alliances by working with traditional allies and reengaging them in our foreign policy;
- Renew the U.S. commitment to international law and treaties, including abiding by the Geneva Convention, shutting down Guantanamo, rejecting torture as a policy device;
- A "wholesale assault" to reduce global warming, including going beyond the Kyoto protocols in establishing national benchmarks for environmental protection;
- Engage our enemies by having direct talks with North Korea, Iran, and Syria;
- Refocus on the "real international threats" including nuclear proliferation and the threat of nuclear terrorism;
- Engage Latin America on a range of issues from immigration reform to economic, energy, and environmental cooperation;
- Fight international poverty.
From the conference call you get troop redeployments this calendar year, a conference of nations in the region to help negotiate solutions that would keep Iraq a unified state, and a reconciliation conference to bring the Iraqi sects to the table to devise a governance plan. This cannot be discussed? Why?
And from one of the participants -
I asked the Governor the obvious question: since the administration isn't going to push for any of those things, what happens next? Recognizing the Constitutional role and responsibility of Congress, Richardson believes that Congress should de-authorize the war. He says [just as] they passed the resolution to go to Iraq, they should now pass a resolution to de-authorize it, as well as cutting funds for the escalation.
Given that the escalation is going to happen under already-authorized funding, I asked Gov. Richardson if he would be willing to support defunding the war. His reply: of course. He wants to see a "date certain" by which funds will be cut and troops redeployed, and would like to see those dates preceded by a series of benchmarks. From a political standpoint, those benchmarks could be used to gain Congressional support across the aisle.
It's a plan. No one has the courage to stand with this guy on it. But it's a plan. There are alternatives. Other decisions can be made.
Those decisions won't be made, and there's that elephant in the room.
It's not just Iraq. In an interview with Foreign Policy, the wonk magazine, constitutional scholar Bruce Ackerman discusses whether the president can order air strikes against Iran -
FP: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has told her colleagues that if President Bush wants to take the country to war against Iran, the House of Representatives would take up a bill denying him the authority to do so. Does the House have the ability to do that?
BA: The president has to get another authorization for a war against Iran. It isn't up to Nancy Pelosi or the House to prevent him; he doesn't have the constitutional authority to just expand the war. He does not have the authority to unilaterally invade Iran....
FP: What about actions short of invasion: air strikes or hot pursuit?
BA: Air strikes would be an invasion. It's an act of war of an unambiguous variety... On a major incursion into another large Middle Eastern country, I believe that, when push comes to shove, the president will once again request the explicit authorization of Congress. When he was contemplating the invasion of Iraq, he was in a much stronger position politically - and he was still obliged to request authorization. And the same thing would happen again.
Sometimes you just cannot avoid a debate about this decision or that.
But Matthew Yglesias notes this may not be so clear-cut -
Ultimately, the question is less whether or not the president is "allowed" to order attacks on Iran than what happens if he does order such attacks. Say Israel bombs Natanz and Bush supports the Israelis diplomatically and warns Iran against retaliating. Then in Iraq there's some dramatic attack against US forces. In response, the President proclaims that the attacks were organized by Iran and orders, without first asking congress, a retaliatory bombing of Revolutionary Guard facilities. The military is going to obey that order, right? And congress isn't going to impeach and convict Bush, thus removing him from office, replacing him with Dick Cheney, right? In practice, I don't see much restraint on the president's war-initiating authority at all. Congressional control over the purse-strings can affect the course of a conflict once initiated, but the only thing to stop the president from ordering some country bombed would be a military coup.
What's more, it's worth saying that my guess is that if a war with Iran began the way I outline in this post that it would initially have considerable popular support. Not from me. But in the press it will be presented as Bush responding to a clear act of Iranian aggression and most people will buy it.
So he really is "the decider," or in his most recent rephrasing, "the decision-maker." The recent elections? The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group? The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq? Piffle - gnats - or the Texas equivalent. He hasn't really been fired. He's hardly cleaning out his desk.
Ah, we will probably live with the decision, and if Yglesias is right, we will no doubt initially think it is a great decision, no matter what the consequences.
The consequences of what this man has decided already - or what his advisors had told him to decide, with Cheney at one elbow and Rove at the other - have changed who we are.
But what really changed - for better or worse - is the result of our own decision. We elected him, sort of. We are as much responsible for all the decisions. This is a democracy, of sorts.
Perhaps we should be more careful next time.