Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Making Decisions

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

Notes on Being Bold and Being Right

Thursday the 24th the New York Times published this account of a joint patrol in Baghdad, part of the "surge" or "Plus-Up," or whatever it is, bringing Iraqis and Americans together to clear a neighborhood. The Iraqi forces first didn't show up. When they did, they were useless - bemused spectators, as it were -

    When the Iraqi units finally did show up, it was with the air of a class outing, cheering and laughing as the Americans blew locks off doors with shotguns. As the morning wore on and the troops came under fire from all directions, another apparent flaw in this strategy became clear as empty apartments became lairs for gunmen who flitted from window to window and killed at least one American soldier, with a shot to the head.

    Whether the gunfire was coming from Sunni or Shiite insurgents or militia fighters or some of the Iraqi soldiers who had disappeared into the Gotham-like cityscape, no one could say.

    "Who the hell is shooting at us?" shouted Sgt. First Class Marc Biletski, whose platoon was jammed into a small room off an alley that was being swept by a sniper's bullets. "Who's shooting at us? Do we know who they are?"

Andrew Sullivan sees a microcosm here -

    In the next few months, we are going to ask young Americans to die in large numbers to pursue this strategy. When the casualties start piling up, and the government we are supporting appears to be part of the problem, does the president really believe he can continue?

Add this -

    In an interview, Pelosi also said she was puzzled by what she considered the president's minimalist explanation for his confidence in the new surge of 21,500 U.S. troops that he has presented as the crux of a new "way forward" for U.S. forces in Iraq.

    "He's tried this two times - it's failed twice," the California Democrat said. "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.' "

    Asked if the president had elaborated, she added that he simply said, "'I told them that they had to.' That was the end of it. That's the way it is."

But there's actually more detail, as told by Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz -

    PELOSI: He's tried this two times - it's failed twice. I asked him at the White House, 'Mr. President, why do you think this time it's going to work?'

    BUSH: Because I told them it had to.

    PELOSI: Why didn't you tell them that the other two times?

This is not good.

And that New York Times report on clearing a neighborhood wasn't a stand-alone.  There was the CBS report they wouldn't air on television - they put it on their website. "CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan reports on the intense battle, nearly two weeks old, to wrest control of Baghdad's Haifa Street from the insurgency."  Too many people got shot on air.  Too many ordinary Iraqis say we make things worse and live in fear.  Given what's in that report, the notion that the war for Baghdad is winnable, given the resources and tactics we are planning to confront it with, seems far-fetched. The folks who used to be Knight-Ridder News, now McClatchy, also cover this latest effort to retake Haifa Street in Baghdad.  Bummer. As Kevin Drum says - "Petraeus sure has his work cut out for him." The general was unanimously confirmed in his new position as the week ended. He's the best we've got. Can he do the impossible?

Then there's this unsettling video - United States soldiers watching as their Iraqi Army colleagues - Shi'a in this case - gleefully beat Sunni civilians to near-death.  Our guys hoop and holler in support. As Andrew Sullivan notes below the clip -

    It shows what this president is now risking: that the U.S. will become a party to one side in a sectarian civil war. It is happening already. It must be stopped. However grim things are in Iraq, this president's policy could make things far, far worse.

Ah, it cannot be stopped.  As the Associated Press reported -

    President Bush, on a collision course with Congress over Iraq, said Friday "I'm the decision-maker" about sending more troops to the war. He challenged skeptical lawmakers not to prematurely condemn his buildup. "I've picked the plan that I think is most likely to succeed," Bush said in an Oval Office meeting with senior military advisers.

And unless you have any better ideas, buzz off - in the meeting with Petraeus and other military leaders, the president said that he has "picked the plan" that he thinks is "most likely to succeed" in Iraq, and he complained that members of Congress are criticizing his new way forward "before it's even had a chance to work."

He's said that before.  Now it's "I'm the decision maker."  No one else had any plan at all and "I had to come up with a way forward that precluded disaster."

The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group had a plan.  Jack Murtha had a plan. Senator Levin had a plan.  Others have plans.  But he thought they all lead to disaster (his own, no doubt).

Well, things are different now.  His grammar improved. Last summer he said he would never fire Donald Rumsfeld, and no one could quest that as, "I'm the Decider and I Decide What Is Best" -

    I say I listen to all voices but mine's the final decision and Don Rumsfeld is doing a fine job. He's not only transforming the military, he's fighting a war on terror - He's helping us fight a war on terror. I have strong confidence in Don Rumsfeld. I hear the voices and I read the front page and I know the speculation but I'm the decider and I decide what is best and what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the Secretary of defense.

Yes, "decision maker" is a bit more polished than "decider." That's about the only thing that changed.

You might remember six years ago - long before 9/11 and all that -

    I told all four that there were going to be some times where we don't agree with each other. But that's OK. If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator.

The signs were there.  It seemed charming in a Texas kind of way back then.

One of Josh Marshall's readers puts it this way -

    President Bush has never been very strong on the stuff most of us learned in 7th grade civics - namely, that there are three branches of government that share power. Of course, part of that is because he's always had a rubber-stamp congress. His comment that "I'm the decider" on Iraq shows that view remains. No surprise there. But now there's a congress with a mandate to oppose him. If I were Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi, I'd take that as a sign that I have to show SOME sign - any sign - that I have the power to say no. Bush is showing he really doesn't think Dems will take any action - in fact, he's basically daring them to rein him in, even though that's exactly what Americans charged them with doing last November. And you know what the saddest part is? He's probably right. The congressional Dems probably won't do anything other than pass non-binding resolutions, which he'll shrug off as meaningless suggestions from folks who don't have any real power, anyway. And sadly, he's kind of right. If you never exercise your power, isn't that the same as being powerless?

    The whole show is quite pathetic, don't you think?

Marshall - "Yes, I do think."

Another of his readers chimes in with this -

    Future historians may draw some contrasts between President Bush's declaration that he's the one who decides troop levels in Iraq with his earlier and oft-stated insistence that commanders on the ground were asked what they needed and always got what they asked for.

    I suppose he just decided to let someone else decide, and now has a new strategy. More likely, of course, he's just insisting now that he'll decide rather than let Congress do it, an easy enough point to hold when Congress doesn't want the job. It shouldn't get it, either; better to forego resolutions in favor of extensive oversight of reconstruction accounts, procurement, O&M, operations and other aspects of the war. The President won't like this either, but will have scant grounds to object.

    Incidentally, Josh, you must have noticed that Bush's very expansive claims of executive authority are being made by the first President in our history to delegate to his Vice President anything close to the authority over policy and personnel that he has ceded to Cheney. Back in 1980 the GOP Convention audience was kept amused by an effort to establish a "co-Presidency" with Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, who'd have been given extensive authority if elected. Reagan decided then that it was a stupid idea; he wasn't running to be half a President. And now we have a President weak enough to make the "co-Presidency" a reality.

    A weak President claiming vast powers is, if not unique in our history surely unusual.

Marshall - "That really does capture him: a weak and essentially cowardly man with great pretensions of power."

But the man does have the power, as long as no one says he doesn't.

The curious thing is that while no one here wants to do anything but complain about the man who says he doesn't care what the public thinks, or the "wise men" with their Study Group, or the generals he relieved, our friends the Canadians know he's a shallow power freak. Publicly rebuking the United States, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper took the rather extraordinary step of publicly apologizing to Maher Arar as the week ended.  Maybe with his popularity sinking and possible elections there in February, conservative (Tory) Harper just doesn't want to be "Bush-Lite" any longer. That's a loser.  Maybe he just knows right from wrong -

    Canada's prime minister apologized to Maher Arar on Friday and announced the government would compensate him C$10.5 million (US$8.9 million) for its role in his deportation from the U.S. to Syria, where he was tortured while held in prison for nearly a year.

    "On behalf of the government of Canada, I want to extend a full apology to you and Monia as well as your family for the role played by Canadian officials in the terrible ordeal that you experienced in 2002 and 2003," Harper said. Arar and his wife, Monia Mazigh, and their young son and daughter now live in Kamloops, British Columbia.

    "I sincerely hope that these words and actions will assist you and your family in your efforts to begin a new and hopeful chapter in your lives," Harper said, adding the compensation package would also pay for his estimated $1 million in legal fees.

What legal fees? (And who but the Canadians would name a town Kamloops, or Moose Jaw, or the vaguely flatulent-sounding Thunder Bay?)

That would be these legal fees, regarding being wrongfully abducted and tortured by our government for almost a year -

    Two lawsuits challenging the government's practice of rendition, in which terror suspects are seized and delivered to detention centers overseas, were dismissed after the government raised the secrets privilege.

    One plaintiff, Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian, was detained while changing planes in New York and was taken to Syria, where he has said he was held in a tiny cell and beaten with electrical cables.

    The United States never made public any evidence linking either man to terrorism, and both cases are widely viewed as mistakes. Arar's lawsuit was dismissed in February on separate but similar grounds from the secrets privilege, a decision he is appealing.

The other guy was the German car salesman we had tortured by others, who turned out to be nobody in particular, just unlucky too.  We let him go, hoping no one would make a fuss. In both cases the suits were stopped - on the grounds that revealing what happened would reveal military secrets, specifically new super-duper interrogation methods we'd devised, and new and awfully clever ways to get people to them, and might cause diplomatic problems that the courts had no business stirring up.

And now we won't take the Canadian fellow off the Terrorist Watch List - and we won't say why. Perhaps it's because we'd have to admit we were wrong. We decided something, and once it is decided, that's that.  The Canadians with all this "do the decent thing" business are messing everything up, kind of like the Baker-Hamilton Group and all the rest, suggesting that not all things that are decided are decided right, no matter what the "force of will" of the decider, or his (or her) manliness or whatever. 

But think about it.  Forcefulness and scorn for any questioning of the implications of a decision don't make the decision any more right, or any more wrong. That's just all ambient noise, or more precisely, theatrics. "I must be right because I'm being so decisive" is sort of like saying you must be a great pianist because you hit the keys so hard.  Of course that approach fools a lot of people - they think Dave Brubeck was (or is still) a great jazz pianist.  And so many think Bush makes the right decisions because he makes them so dramatically, or really theatrically.  But just as music is not good simply because it is very loud - gee, that Mahler thing was awfully loud, Gladys, so it must have been good, I suppose - so with decisions.  Only the childish think boldness is the same thing as being right. The two may occur together.  They may not. There's no necessary relationship. Why are people so often fooled into conflating the two?  Who knows? 

But when you grow up you generally figure it out - you ignore the showmanship. It really is entertaining, but not to the point.  One would guess a lot of "growing up" has been going on in the last several years, and those who grew up tipped the recent mid-term elections - one reason the Democrats found themselves in control of the House and Senate. Let the administration bluster - they're like that and there's not much you can do about it - but there's work to do and things to fix.

And that leads to James Webb's Democratic response to the State of the Union, where he sounds, well, grown up, and almost Canadian -

Regarding the economic imbalance in our country, I am reminded of the situation President Theodore Roosevelt faced in the early days of the 20th century. America was then, as now, drifting apart along class lines. The so-called robber barons were unapologetically raking in a huge percentage of the national wealth. The dispossessed workers at the bottom were threatening revolt.

Roosevelt spoke strongly against these divisions. He told his fellow Republicans that they must set themselves "as resolutely against improper corporate influence on the one hand as against demagogy and mob rule on the other." And he did something about it.

As I look at Iraq, I recall the words of former general and soon-to-be President Dwight Eisenhower during the dark days of the Korean War, which had fallen into a bloody stalemate. "When comes the end?" asked the General who had commanded our forces in Europe during World War Two. And as soon as he became President, he brought the Korean War to an end.

These Presidents took the right kind of action, for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world. Tonight we are calling on this President to take similar action, in both areas. If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way.

Did Webb just tell the president to grow up? As Greg Saunders notes - "This wasn't the standard pathetic plea for bipartisanship that we're used to seeing with the Democratic response, this was a warning. We're in charge now, and this is how we expect you to behave."

Yep, the kid in this case was given the car keys (the office of the presidency and the agreement by both houses of congress to anything at all he wished, and Fox News to mock the skeptics), and that made him the "decision maker" - he got to decide where to drive and at what speed, for the past six years.  But the grown-ups may have to take the car keys away. It's a matter of public safety, metaphorically of course, and in reality. Webb just says the obvious.  And he implicitly asks all the adults to join him.

No wonder "the decision maker" as become all defensive.  It seems, in what is now being decided, the quality of the decisions might now mean more than the cheap theatrics.  If so, the days of Karl Rove are over - the administration will reluctantly have to deal the public as if they are adults.  Getting is right just might become an issue.  Things are changing.

This item posted - in its final version - January 28, 2007

[Making Decisions]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik