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

No Changes Ahead

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

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

No Changes Ahead - Time to Blame Someone

Not that it mattered, but it should be noted -

    AMMAN, Jordan, Nov. 30 - President Bush delivered a staunch endorsement of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Thursday morning and dismissed calls for U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq as unrealistic, following a summit meeting in which the two leaders discussed speeding up the turnover of security responsibilities.

Maliki said the Iraqi government would take over security by June 2007 - and all this sectarian nonsense would stop. They'd be an impartial army and police force, beholding to no side, than would have things in hand. Bush smiled.

Later in the day, this should be noted -

    Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faced a widening revolt within his divided government as two senior Sunni politicians joined prominent Shiite lawmakers and Cabinet members in criticizing his policies.

    Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi said he wanted to see al-Maliki's government gone and another "understanding" for a new coalition put in place with guarantees that ensure collective decision making.

    "There is a clear deterioration in security and everything is moving in the wrong direction," the Sunni leader told The Associated Press. "This situation must be redressed as soon as possible. If they continue, the country will plunge into civil war."

    Al-Maliki's No. 2, Deputy Prime Minister Salam Zikam Ali al-Zubaie, also a Sunni, argued that the president's government failed to curb the spread of sectarian politics.

    A boycott by 30 lawmakers and five Cabinet ministers loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was in protest of al-Maliki's meeting with President Bush in Jordan on Thursday. The Sadrists said the meeting amounted to an affront to the Iraqi people.

At the press conference the president, asked about the upcoming recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, did say - "I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq. We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there."

What if there's no government? Then what?

And the Washington Post has its eye on the Saudis, who seem to be signaling we'd really better not even think about withdrawing in any way, or the Saudi monarchy will take things into their own hands. The word comes from Nawaf Obaid - "an adviser to the Saudi government" - and of course his opinions "are his own and do not reflect official Saudi policy." Of course they don't. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

And this is the word -

    Saudi leadership is preparing to substantially revise its Iraq policy. Options now include providing Sunni military leaders (primarily ex-Baathist members of the former Iraqi officer corps, who make up the backbone of the insurgency) with the same types of assistance - funding, arms and logistical support - that Iran has been giving to Shiite armed groups for years. Another possibility includes the establishment of new Sunni brigades to combat the Iranian-backed militias.

    ... Remaining on the sidelines would be unacceptable to Saudi Arabia. To turn a blind eye to the massacre of Iraqi Sunnis would be to abandon the principles upon which the kingdom was founded. It would undermine Saudi Arabia's credibility in the Sunni world and would be a capitulation to Iran's militarist actions in the region.

    To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks - it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse.

And he also adds a warning to Iran - Saudi Arabia might also try to drive oil prices into the ground by increasing production and cutting its own prices in half. So much for their leverage. Regional war, and economic chaos, would be just fine. We'd just better not get too chummy with Maliki and the Shiites. And one has to assume the Saudis speak for our "allies" in the region - Jordon, Egypt and so on. Cheney's little trip to Saudi Arabia the weekend before - they seem to have summoned him there to read him the riot act - must have been nasty. Things are spinning out of control, and the our major Sunni allies aren't happy. There will be no "peace" if the Shiites control Iraq - sandwiched between their allies Iran and Syria. Our "allies" won't stand for that.

This is not good. The only government Iraq has at the moment is Shiite, holding onto tenuous power because the radial Sadr block - who want to wipe out the Sunnis - holds the thirty seats in parliament that allow Maliki to hold office. We've gotten ourselves into a fine mess.

The president says it will be all better. Maliki will fix things. It's not our business, really. We're just there to help him out, if he asks. Otherwise, we'll stand back. We did our part. It's a bit of a joke, but not particularly funny.

As for the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group offering the solution to this multi-faceted mess, both the New York Times and Washington Post got the inside scoop on what that panel will recommend when they released "the answer to everything." The Times says it will be pleasantly vague (or "mostly harmless" as Douglas Adams would say) - a gradual pulling back of our combat forces in Iraq, just what the president rejected out of hand at the Maliki press conference. The group will call for some sort of diplomacy with Syria and Iran, which the president says we will never try. As for the troops, the panel apparently won't be saying anything specific about when a pullback should start or what the pace of it should be. That's the president's call. And the Times says the group's report "leaves unstated whether the 15 combat brigades that are the bulk of American fighting forces in Iraq would be brought home, or simply pulled back to bases in Iraq or in neighboring countries." But even as combat troops are pulled back the plan will be to add additional forces to serve as advisors for Iraqi security forces.

And there will be no timetable for anything. In the Post we learn that a source "familiar with the panel's recommendations" tells them that the committee's recommendation "wasn't as specific as that, and it was a lot more conditional." The whole item is here, a not very encouraging. No one really can say what "the conditions" are. It's more of the "make it up as you go along" way of doing things. It worked for Indiana Jones, didn't it?

The president was asked whether he had talked with Maliki about any "time limits" on the Iraqis' taking control of their own security at that press conference. His reply - "As quick as possible I've been asked about timetables ever since we got into this. All timetables mean is that it - it is a timetable for withdrawal. You keep asking me those questions. All that does is ... set people up for unrealistic expectations."

We're not going anywhere. The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group seems to have been just for show, a bit of theatrics - to give the impression that "wise men" had looked this all and rally, there are no radical options. We just have to keep going on doing what we're doing, whatever that is. So being unhappy about it all is pointless. The "wise men" say so.

But people are unhappy, and thus it is time to assign some blame for this mess.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has been keeping score - kind of like the line score some keep at a baseball game. It's a way to know what's going on.

First up is Stanley Kurtz at the National Review with this -

    The underlying problem with this war is that, from the outset, it has been waged under severe domestic political constraints. From the start, the administration has made an assessment of how large a military the public would support, and how much time the public would allow us to build democracy and then get out of Iraq. We then shaped our military and "nation building" plans around those political constraints, crafting a "light footprint" military strategy linked to rapid elections and a quick handover of power. Unfortunately, the constraints of domestic American public opinion do not match up to what is actually needed to bring stability and democracy to a country like Iraq.

That's interesting. We just didn't have the will to do what was the right thing to do.

Marshall's analysis -

    It may be a form of literary grade or concept inflation to call it irony. But the irony of this ludicrous statement is that from the outset it has been the American political opposition (the Democrats) and the internal bureaucratic opposition (sane people in the US government and military, not appointed by George W. Bush) who've pushed for a much larger military footprint in Iraq and much more real nation-building. These weren't 'domestic political constraints'. These were ideological constraints the administration placed on itself.

    I would say Stanley should go back and familiarize himself with the debates in 2002, 2003 and 2004. But of course he was there.

    We're now down to the Iraqi people or the American people as the primary culprits behind George W. Bush's disaster.

That's the key - it wasn't George Bush's fault that this unraveled - it must be the Iraqi people or the American people. Neither is worthy of him.

Marshall adds this -

    For what it's worth, I think substantially more troops would have made a big difference earlier on. Now, however, the Army and Marines are too worn down for any more troops to be available. And, more importantly, the sectarian chaos in the Iraq has taken on far too much momentum on its own for more troops to bring it under control. Would the 400,000 troops Gen. Shinseki wanted have led to a successful occupation? Probably not. But there are a thousands gradations of worse. And I think it wouldn't have been nearly as bad as it is now. The truth is that so many things were done so wrong in this disastrous endeavor that it's inherently difficult to pick apart the relative importance of each screw up to the eventual result.

    I know there are a lot of people who either think that Iraq was a doable proposition that was botched or a project destined for failure no matter how it was handled. There are, needless to say, fewer and fewer in the former category. And I'd basically class myself in the latter one, if pushed. But both strike me as needlessly dogmatic viewpoints which make it harder to learn from the myriad mistakes that were made while telling us little about how we extricate ourselves from the mess.

    Watching the president snap back to his usual state of denial, what I've been thinking about recently is how much of a difference it would have made if the White House had publicly recognized, say back in 2004, that Iraq was on a slow slide toward anarchy and started rethinking things enough to stem the descent to disaster. Let's say early 2005. Earlier the better. But let's give the benefit of the doubt and say it would have been hard to make the course correction in the midst of a presidential election. How much could have been accomplished? How much of this could have been avoided if the White House hadn't continued to pretend, for political reasons, that things were going well? And since the president now seems inclined to continue with his disastrous policy for the next two years, should we ask in advance what could have been avoided over the next two years if he'd only had the courage to confront reality today.

That's a thought. Reality may matter.

One of Marshall's readers adds this -

    the Bush Administration knew it could never make that case, so it deliberately concealed (possibly from itself, even, but certainly from the outside world) how costly it would be. Simply put, if they were honest about the potential costs, they never, ever would've gotten enough political support to invade. Only by grossly exaggerating the danger of Saddam and grossly downplaying the difficulty of the mission could they get the political support to do what they did.

    It was a stupid idea from the beginning for that very reason, and to treat it now like that's some little miscalculation in planning is disingenuous in the extreme. Or delusional.

    This is a central, perhaps the central issue in the whole shambling, tragic, dingbat debate. But we don't return to it often enough. Saying the American people don't have what it takes to finish the job, or come up with a new job or, really, figure out a way to help George W. Bush keep his job in Iraq amounts to blaming the public for the lies this White House told to get the country into the war. It's really that simple.

Is it that simple? Marshall speculates -

    Consider a thought experiment. Let's go back to late 2002 and early 2003. Assume that the buildup on the WMD front is more or less as it transpired. But assume, for our counterfactual, that the costs of what we were getting into had been made pretty candidly clear. Half a million troops to secure the place, maybe years of occupation and nation-building. Then you get to early 2003 when it was clear that even if there was some mustard gas hidden away somewhere, that beside those lamo rockets the inspectors found, there really weren't any big WMD programs or stockpiles. Remember, that was clear, before the war started. Once that was clear, and if people knew the costs of what we were getting ourselves into, is there any way the president would have had any support for still going to war, pretty much just for the hell of it?

    This is the key. Yes, the American people probably won't support what it takes to make this happen. That's because they make a perfectly rational calculation that so much blood and money for no particular reason just isn't worth it. They're only in this situation because President Bush and his advisors gamed the public into this war on false pretenses knowing that once they were it would be almost impossible to get back out.

And that's where we are now.

Got your scorecard? Next up is Morton Kondracke with a column in Roll Call with this -

    All over the world, scoundrels are ascendant, rising on a tide of American weakness. It makes for a perilous future.

    President Bush bet his presidency - and America's world leadership - on the war in Iraq. Tragically, it looks as though he bit off more than the American people were willing to chew.

    The U.S. is failing in Iraq. Bush's policy was repudiated by the American people in the last election. And now America's enemies and rivals are pressing their advantage, including Iran, Syria, the Taliban, Sudan, Russia and Venezuela. We have yet to hear from al-Qaeda.

We don't like to chew our food? Is that the problem?

Marshall -

    Let's first take note that the 'blame the American people for Bush's screw-ups' meme has definitely hit the big time. It's not Bush who bit off more than he could chew or did something incredibly stupid or screwed things up in a way that defies all imagining. Bush's 'error' here is not realizing in advance that the American people would betray him as he was marching into history. The 'tragedy' is that Bush "bit off more than the American people were willing to chew." That just takes my breath away.

    Now come down to the third graf. Bush gets repudiated in the mid-term election ... "And now ..." In standard English the import of this phrasing is pretty clear: it's the repudiation of Bush's tough policies that have led to the international axis of evil states rising against us. Is he serious? The world has gone to hell in a hand basket since the election? In the last three weeks? The whole column is an open war on cause and effect.

    This is noxious, risible, fetid thinking. But there it is. That's the story they want to tell.

Well, maybe, as a people, we aren't worthy of George Bush. That seems to be the new talking point these days.

If you don't want to blame yourself, you could, as Timothy Noah notes, join everyone else in Blaming Iraqis.

This is a discussion of the November 29 Washington Post article by Thomas Ricks and Robin Wright surveying all those who are say such things, as discussed here in Trying New Things Is Always Awkward.

It's really about the future -

    When we think about an exit strategy for Iraq, we are really thinking about two things. Most obviously, we're thinking about when and where to move U.S. troops, whether and how to replace those troops with Iraqi soldiers or an international force, and other material concerns. But we're also thinking about something less tangible. We're thinking about what we're going to tell ourselves in the future about this fiasco, to borrow the title of Thomas Ricks' disturbing book about the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. We're thinking about who or what to blame. No troop withdrawal can occur until this narrative has been assembled.

    That work has now begun.

    The Bush administration has yet to endorse this paradigm shift publicly, but a blame-Iraqis spirit certainly informed National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley's eyes-only memo criticizing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

    In the Post story, Ricks and Wright point out that blaming Iraqis for their country's near-disintegration will likely poison relations between the two nations. But it's probably too late to stop. Perhaps it isn't too late, though, to point out some logical deficiencies.

And those deficiencies have to do, curiously, with Vietnam -

    It's their war. They're the ones who have to win it or lose it. President John F. Kennedy famously stated this in a TV interview shortly before he died. He was referring, of course, to the South Vietnamese. It was undeniably true - truer, in fact, than Kennedy knew. The Post story has retired Army Col. Andrew J. Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran, observing that the current Iraqi-bashing parallels the Vietnamese-bashing that occurred as the United States prepared to pull out of Vietnam. But there's a crucial difference between the Vietnam War and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In Vietnam, we backed a weak but indigenous military force that was already battling the North Vietnamese. In Iraq, there was no indigenous military battling Saddam's regime, and none emerged after we got there (unless you count the Kurds, who've enjoined relative success in stabilizing and governing their corner of Iraq). Overthrowing Saddam Hussein wasn't the Iraqis' idea; it was ours. Americans expected Iraqis to be grateful for ridding them of a bloodthirsty dictator, and for a brief time, they were. But it somehow doesn't compute that Iraqis, following the same logic, now blame the United States for the civil war we unleashed.

    Iraqis aren't ungrateful. They're scared. Of us.

They are? The evidence -

    To those who endure it, the United States occupation does not feel benign. This was especially true in the early days of the occupation. In Sunni villages, it was routine for U.S. troops to round up all the men and take them prisoner; it was assumed, wrongly, that the Army would be able to determine quickly who the innocents were and set them free. Iraqi vehicles were fired upon if they drove too close to U.S. convoys. Soldiers thought nothing of holding a gun to the head of an Iraqi from whom they were trying to elicit information, pulling the trigger, and letting that Iraqi learn only after the fact that the gun wasn't loaded. To round up certain wanted men, the Army would sometimes threaten harm to their families.

    U.S. troops did these things not because they were evil. They did them because they lacked sufficient numbers to feel safe, because many of them were poorly trained, and because, Ricks suggests, the vagueness of Bush's case linking Iraq to 9/11 encouraged grunts to think all Arabs were the enemy. But the Army's rough treatment of Iraqi citizens led Iraqis to think Americans were evil, or at the least very dangerous. Even those who took a more benign view had to recognize that the Americans weren't up to the job of keeping them safe from the armed thugs among them.

Still there's all the talk that Iraq is ungovernable because the Iraqis turned out to be backward and pathologically unable to get along with one another, or some such thing. As Noah notes - "Ingratitude is a common theme among embittered reformers, because it's usually too painful to blame oneself."

So we get all sorts of crap.

Maybe the press will save us from buying into it. Ernest Hemingway started his professional career as a reported for the Toronto Star and once famously said, "Every good writer needs a foolproof, shockproof crap detector." Good reporters have those, right?

Maybe not. Maybe they should have one of those, as Dan Froomkin, who blogs for the Washington Post, explains in On Calling Bullshit -

    Mainstream-media political journalism is in danger of becoming increasingly irrelevant, but not because of the Internet, or even Comedy Central. The threat comes from inside. It comes from journalists being afraid to do what journalists were put on this green earth to do.

    What is it about Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert that makes them so refreshing and attractive to a wide variety of viewers (including those so-important younger ones)? I would argue that, more than anything else, it is that they enthusiastically call bullshit.

    Calling bullshit, of course, used to be central to journalism as well as to comedy. And we happen to be in a period in our history in which the substance in question is running particularly deep. The relentless spinning is enough to make anyone dizzy, and some of our most important political battles are about competing views of reality more than they are about policy choices. Calling bullshit has never been more vital to our democracy.

    It also resonates with readers and viewers a lot more than passionless stenography.

    I'm not sure why calling bullshit has gone out of vogue in so many newsrooms - why, in fact, it's so often consciously avoided. There are lots of possible reasons. There's the increased corporate stultification of our industry, to the point where rocking the boat is seen as threatening rather than invigorating. There's the intense pressure to maintain access to insider sources, even as those sources become ridiculously unrevealing and oversensitive. There's the fear of being labeled partisan if one's bullshit-calling isn't meted out in precisely equal increments along the political spectrum.

    If mainstream-media political journalists don't start calling bullshit more often, then we do risk losing our primacy - if not to the comedians then to the bloggers.

    But here's the good news for you newsroom managers wringing your hands over new technologies and the loss of younger audiences: Because the Internet so values calling bullshit, you are sitting on an as-yet largely untapped gold mine. I still believe that no one is fundamentally more capable of first-rate bullshit-calling than a well-informed beat reporter - whatever their beat. We just need to get the editors, or the corporate culture, or the self-censorship - or whatever it is - out of the way.

But then, as Duncan Black points out - "Let me add that failing to call bullshit doesn't just fail to inform readers, it also requires the reporter to internalize the bullshit, to continue to treat bullshit as if it might be true."

So no help there. Nothing will change, and the media will tell us the Iraqis failed George Bush, and we did too.

This item posted December 3, 2006

[No Changes Ahead]

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

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