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


 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

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

Motivation by Primal Reaction

The day after the president's big speech explaining the escalation, or "surge" - or as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she preferred to call it, the "augmentation" (women out here in Hollywood mean something else by that entirely) - the question is still why this, and why now?

Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of the National Interest, and Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in the International Herald Tribune argue the war is over - it's just that the administration won't concede that.

    Saddam Hussein is dead and any remnants of his WMD program are utterly dismantled. But the United States has proven incapable of achieving any of its other lofty objectives.

    For nearly four years, America has tried to reconstitute a kinder, gentler Iraq, ignoring the fact that Iraq has always been an artificial entity - an incongruous collection of sectarian groups cobbled together by the British empire and then sustained by Sunni terror.

    The American invasion has irrevocably unraveled that arrangement, as the empowered Shiites, embittered Sunnis and secessionist Kurds have little desire to concede power to their sectarian foes.

    Yes, a loosely partitioned Iraq with a degree of wealth sharing among its provinces may come into existence. But such an arrangement will likely follow only after a protracted and bloody civil war, and it is this civil war that American forces - augmented or not - can no longer prevent.

    Nor can one find justification for the president's claim that the battle of Iraq will "determine the direction of the global war on terror."

    The sad reality is that Iraq is already the epicenter for anti-Western terrorism. Iraq is the only place in the world where prospective jihadists can engage in live-fire exercises with the U.S. military and hone their skills in battle. It is not accidental that techniques pioneered in Iraq, like "improvised explosive devices" (IEDs), have been exported to other battlefields, like Afghanistan.

There are not a finite number of potential terrorists in the world.  The whole idea that we can use Iraq as "bait" to lure them for destruction is silly - "The emotive picture of Arab suffering at the hands of Occidental powers has already generated countless volunteers and recruits for Al Qaeda. The American occupation has provoked a narrative of struggle and sacrifice that will radicalize Arab youth for decades to come."

And on it goes.  We could declare the mission, the original one, is over - and actually was accomplished - and go home.  But we persist. Based, as Andrew Sullivan notes, on some odd logic -

    A key premise of the president's speech is that the alternative is so horrifying we have no choice but to press on. But this assumption, like the fixed WMD assumption before the war, risks freezing our thought and immobilizing strategy. The assumption deserves close examination. I've argued that withdrawal to Kurdistan, allowing the Sunni and Shia forces in Iraq to reach their own settlement through a real civil war with a real outcome, is something we need to think through. It may be less damaging to our interests than the surge. Its most important aspect is the way it changes the narrative of the war from Osama's "Islam vs the West" to "Islam vs itself." I think that's a strategic game-changer that may redound to our long-term advantage.

And one of his readers adds this -

    We are not going to be able to win the argument on the war until we enter into a real, cold-eyed discussion of what the alternative to direct military engagement would likely look like.  Up to now our collective thinking has revolved around a choice between more of the same versus giving in to inevitable chaos.  It's the "inevitable chaos" alternative that needs to be challenged and analyzed.

    Would Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda in Mesopotamia based in Anbar hold a lovefeast to celebrate our departure, or would the Sunnis immediately commence a hunt-down of the alien, troublesome jihadis?  (Maybe the Taliban can push around the disparate Afghans, but I don't think that the Iraqi Sunnis would put up with that shit.)  Would Iraqi Shia, having finally gained control of their own destiny, be inclined to throw open the door to the Persians next door?  Would the Shia majority be interested in occupying the oil-less sands of the Sunni Triangle and would the Sunni minority be interested in a never-ending war against the overwhelming Shia majority if a real deal on oil revenue could be put in place?  Would the Kurds be paranoid about an Arab invasion, and would the Turks be paranoid about a Kurd invasion if there was an American rapid response force in place in Kurdistan?

    I'm just an ignorant slob sitting way back in the bleachers, but I think I know enough to be aware that these and other topics that can define the probabilities of an alternative to Bush's war are not being rationally and thoughtful discussed. It's past due.

Maybe it is, but even with the "out" provided by the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group - massively ramp up the Iraqi training and get our guys out of there in an orderly fashion, and talk with Iran on the east and Syria on the west to get them to see we do have mutual interests in things settling down - we will plow on.

But what was the problem with the Baker-Hamilton set of ideas? Who knows? But Sidney Blumenthal, who talks to far too many people, suggests that a key player saw that idea that what we were doing so far wasn't working as a quite personal provocation -

    Informed correspondents of the Washington Post and New York Times related in conversation that Bush furiously called the report "a flaming turd," but his colorful remark was not published. Perhaps it was apocryphal. Nonetheless, it conveyed the intensity of his hostile rejection.

So we got the opposite - we got the "surge" no one wants.

The misunderstanding here is that the Baker-Hamilton group did not take into account the way this administration deals with issues, and in fact, with how it gets things done (when it now and then, but not very often, gets things done). It provokes reaction.  On the domestic political front that Karl Rove's sole method of operating - be outrageous and never compromise.  That forces your opponents into errors and makes you look strong.  And that seem to be the Cheney method on international matters.  You need to be bold, and wage wars most everyone thinks are crazy.  Call it diplomacy by provocation.

The Baker-Hamilton didn't anticipate "up yours" action-reaction worldview at play these days in the White House. They thought they were helping - being reasonable and logical and all that.  No.  They were goading.  They just didn't seem to know that they were. When everything is seen as a challenge, you need to be very careful - joke around and do a bit of "ah shucks" jive disarming of the issues, so you're not seen as a threat - just say you really don't know jack about the issues.  Massage some egos - they expect that as their due.  Anyone who's been in a college fraternity dealing with the senior cool guys knows the drill.  It's not rocket science.  You need to set things up right if you want to make any sort of point.

And of course we all know the whole "new way forward" depends on the Iraqi Prime Minister, Maliki, doing what looks to be impossible - meet our demands that he use his forces, with our guys embedded, to shut down the Sadr militias - his main Shiite support that keeps him in power. He's on a short leash. You don't reason with him - you provoke him -

    The president put it far more bluntly when leaders of Congress came to visit Mr. Bush at the White House earlier today. "I said to Maliki this has to work or you're out," the president told the Congressional leaders, according to two officials who were in the room. Pressed on why he thought this strategy would succeed where previous efforts had failed, Mr. Bush shot back: "Because it has to."

This has to work - even if it really can't - or someone down the chain will pay for the embarrassing failure.  As in any college fraternity, you know what flows downhill. The pledges wash the cars. It's an alpha-male thing.  And it's not so secret, as in the hearings Thursday, January 11 - "US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki is living 'on borrowed time,' but that she is confident he can give Iraq security."

We created that government, and we can certainly un-create it and set up a new one.  You get things done by provoking others.

In the same headings it was clear everyone knows the drill now -

    "You're going to have to do a much better job" explaining the rationale for the war, "and so is the president," Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, told her. He said Bush could no longer count on his support.

    "I've gone along with the president on this and I've bought into his dream and at this stage of the game I just don't think it's going to happen," Voinovich said.

    …Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., the committee chairman, told her, "Secretary Rice, to be very blunt, I cannot in good conscience support the president's approach."

And Robert Novak reports Rice is getting a bit of her own medicine - 

    Republicans in Congress who do not want to be quoted tell me that the State Department under Condoleezza Rice is a mess. This comes at a time when the U.S. global position is precarious. While attention is focused on Iraq, American diplomacy is being tested worldwide - in Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Korea and Sudan. The judgment by thoughtful Republicans is that Rice has failed to manage that endeavor.

There's a reason John Negroponte quit as head of all Homeland Security and moved over to State to become her deputy - she too is "living on borrowed time."

But this "provoke" and "it all flows downhill" approach actually works, as, late the same day we see Al-Maliki Gives Mahdi Army Blunt Choice: Disarm Or Face An American Onslaught.

This is fairly straightforward -

    Iraq's prime minister has told Shiite militiamen to surrender their arms or face an all-out assault by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces, senior Iraqi officials said Wednesday, as President Bush said he will commit an additional 21,500 American combat troops to the war.

    Under pressure from the U.S., Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has agreed to crack down on fighters controlled by his most powerful political ally, Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric, according to officials. Previously, al-Maliki had resisted the move.

    "Prime Minister al-Maliki has told everyone that there will be no escape from attack," said a senior Shiite legislator and close al-Maliki adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak for the prime minister. "The government has told the Sadrists: 'If we want to build a state we have no other choice but to attack armed groups.'"

The president said al-Maliki had promised him that our forces would have a free hand and that "political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated." So - The big man said this has to work, there's no choice, and he pressed me, and I didn't like that much at all, so you guys are on the spot now as I'm not going to take the fall here - shape up or face the "American onslaught."

The last part is interesting - the Americans will get you, and not really your buddy Maliki. That's very clever. The man's no fool.

So we're not talking some "let us sit down and reason together" thing on any level here. It's "provoke and challenge." You're in trouble because you screwed up, and it looks like everyone will think you're a fool, or worse, so you slap someone below you. They slap someone below them.  They in turn slap someone below them. Finally things get done. No one is happy - the resentment runs deep - but things get done.  The trick is to be the guy on the very top. Even if things don't get done, it's not your problem.

That was clear in the "apology" in the president's speech. He said, flat-out, that "mistakes were made" in this whole Iraq business. And he said that he takes full responsibility for them.  Bully for him - but note he used passive voice - mistakes were made - where the subject-verb-object order is inverted. Who made the mistakes? That would come first in active voice - "Fred made mistakes." In passive voice you start with the verb, turning it into the subject of the sentence - "Mistakes were made."  Fred magically disappears.  The man's no fool.  Well, his speechwriters are not fools.

And then there was the real provocation in the speech that got attention a bit late -

    Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenge. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.

    We are also taking other steps to bolster the security of Iraq and protect American interests in the Middle East. I recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier strike group to the region. We will expand intelligence sharing and deploy Patriot air defense systems to reassure our friends and allies. We will work with the governments of Turkey and Iraq to help them resolve problems along their border. And we will work with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region.

What?  Did he just say we're going to war with Syria and Iran too? How else do you interpret that?

Gregory Djerejian offers this -

    Folks, this is really either (more likely) a bunch of hot air (additional carrier strike group, destroying "networks", etc), masquerading as resolve (as Teheran and Damascus will likely smell out), or the beginning of a colossal blunder of epic proportions well beyond the very significant fiasco and disaster we've already witnessed in Iraq. With this team one can't really ever know, of course, a fearful reality indeed as we run out the clock until January '09.

    Given political realities, however, not to mention capacity constraints (putting it mildly) I'm still putting my chips on hot air rather than 'go wide.' Still, there are real risks here…

Well, you give control of the whole theater to the Navy guy with his background in air strikes, you toss in some missiles, and say you'll disrupt things and seek out and destroy other things - one would assume you have something in mind. Unless you're just doing the "provoke and challenge" thing to get people to realize they'd better get in line.

There's this odd item too - Did the President Declare "Secret War" Against Syria and Iran? -

    Washington intelligence, military and foreign policy circles are abuzz today with speculation that the President, yesterday or in recent days, sent a secret Executive Order to the Secretary of Defense and to the Director of the CIA to launch military operations against Syria and Iran.

    The President may have started a new secret, informal war against Syria and Iran without the consent of Congress or any broad discussion with the country.

Can he do that?  It hardly matters if he has.  The original AUMF (Authorization to Use Military Force) said he could go after Saddam Hussein and rid the world of those WMD, and force Saddam Hussein to comply with all those UN resolutions, and go after anyone who supported Saddam Hussein or any al Qaeda terrorists. You just have to think "big picture" here. It's all in how you look at things.

The buzz was fueled by this incident - Report: U.S. Troops Raid Iranian Consulate in Iraq  - "US troops raided an Iranian consulate in northern Iraq late Wednesday night and detained several people, Iran's main news agency reported today, prompting protests from Tehran just hours after President Bush pledged to crack down on the Islamic Republic's role in Iraqi violence."

That's the Washington Post.  The BBC gives us this -

    US forces have stormed a building in the northern Iraqi town of Irbil and seized six people said to be Iranians, prompting a diplomatic incident.

    Iranian and Iraqi officials said the building was an Iranian consulate and the detainees its employees.

    The US military said it was still investigating, but that the building did not have diplomatic status.

    The troops raided the building at about 0300 (0001GMT), taking away computers and papers, according to local media.

    AFP news agency quoted Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman as saying he did not know the nationality of the six but said they were "suspected of being closely tied to activities targeting Iraq and coalition forces".

    "I can confirm for you through our forces there that this is not a consulate or a government building," he said.

    However, Tehran said the attack violated all international conventions. It has summoned ambassadors from Switzerland, representing US interests, and Iraq.

    A spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry described the raid as an attempt to sabotage Tehran's relations with Iraq. One Iranian MP said it showed America's cruelty and meanness.

We're mean people, or something big is up.

    One Iranian news agency with a correspondent in Irbil says five US helicopters were used to land troops on the roof of the Iranian consulate.

    It reports that a number of vehicles cordoned off the streets around the building, while US soldiers warned the occupants in three different languages that they should surrender or be killed.

    In December, US troops detained a number of Iranians in Iraq, including two with diplomatic immunity who were later released.

Josh Marshall is thinking something is up -

    I'm getting some hints that this raid on the Iranian consulate in northern Iraq may be part of something much bigger. Is there a classified presidential directive to the CIA and DOD to take down Syrian and Iranian operations inside Iraq, even so far as operations into Iranian and Syrian territory? And is the aim here to provoke a conflict with one or the other of these states? To provoke an attack from Iran perhaps? The plan from the neocons was always to build the chaos outwards. Never too late, I guess. Watch this. Something's up.

He points back to his 2003 his April 2003 analysis -

    … to the Bush administration hawks who are guiding American foreign policy, this isn't the nightmare scenario. It's everything going as anticipated.

    In their view, invasion of Iraq was not merely, or even primarily, about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Nor was it really about weapons of mass destruction, though their elimination was an important benefit. Rather, the administration sees the invasion as only the first move in a wider effort to reorder the power structure of the entire Middle East. Prior to the war, the president himself never quite said this openly. But hawkish neoconservatives within his administration gave strong hints. In February, Undersecretary of State John Bolton told Israeli officials that after defeating Iraq, the United States would "deal with" Iran, Syria, and North Korea. Meanwhile, neoconservative journalists have been channeling the administration's thinking. Late last month, The Weekly Standard's Jeffrey Bell reported that the administration has in mind a "world war between the United States and a political wing of Islamic fundamentalism ... a war of such reach and magnitude [that] the invasion of Iraq, or the capture of top al Qaeda commanders, should be seen as tactical events in a series of moves and countermoves stretching well into the future."

    In short, the administration is trying to roll the table - to use U.S. military force, or the threat of it, to reform or topple virtually every regime in the region, from foes like Syria to friends like Egypt, on the theory that it is the undemocratic nature of these regimes that ultimately breeds terrorism. So events that may seem negative - Hezbollah for the first time targeting American civilians; U.S. soldiers preparing for war with Syria -while unfortunate in themselves, are actually part of the hawks' broader agenda. Each crisis will draw U.S. forces further into the region and each countermove in turn will create problems that can only be fixed by still further American involvement, until democratic governments - or, failing that, U.S. troops - rule the entire Middle East.

Well, it is a plan, and it seems to be on schedule.  "Whacking the hornets' nest" causes no end of woe, but that doesn't matter -

    If the Bush administration has thought through these various negative scenarios - and we must presume, or at least pray, that it has - it certainly has not shared them with the American people. More to the point, the president has not even leveled with the public that such a clean-sweep approach to the Middle East is, in fact, their plan. This breaks new ground in the history of pre-war presidential deception. Franklin Roosevelt said he was trying to keep the United States out of World War II even as he - in some key ways - courted a confrontation with the Axis powers that he saw as both inevitable and necessary. History has judged him well for this. Far more brazenly, Lyndon Johnson's administration greatly exaggerated the Gulf of Tonkin incident to gin up support for full-throttle engagement in Vietnam. The war proved to be Johnson's undoing. When President Clinton used American troops to quell the fighting in Bosnia he said publicly that our troops would be there no longer than a year, even though it was widely understood that they would be there far longer. But in the case of these deceptions, the public was at least told what the goals of the wars were and whom and where we would be fighting.

    Today, however, the great majority of the American people have no concept of what kind of conflict the president is leading them into.

No, we're now getting the idea.

Steve Clemmons -

    … what is disconcerting is that some are speculating that Bush has decided to heat up military engagement with Iran and Syria - taking possible action within their borders, not just within Iraq.

    Some are suggesting that the Consulate raid may have been designed to try and prompt a military response from Iran - to generate a casus belli for further American action.

    If this is the case, the debate about adding four brigades to Iraq is pathetic. The situation will get even hotter than it now is, worsening the American position and exposing the fact that to fight Iran both within the borders of Iraq and into Iranian territory, there are not enough troops in the theatre.

    Bush may really have pushed the escalation pedal more than any of us realize.

But it is bold, and provocative. And if we're dealing with a secret Executive Order to the Secretary of Defense and to the Director of the CIA to launch military operations against Syria and Iran, it has its historical echoes -

    If this is true, we're in very big trouble. Or, if the rumor was sparked by an order 'only' authorizing clandestine operations (or, worse, bombardment) as a form of provocation, this is serious stuff. But even if it's not at all true in any way, we're in pretty big trouble, as the spread of this rumor means we've reached a point in our politics when sober, quite moderate, people like Steve Clemons are starting at shadows.

    I can only remember one time that felt like this: when Nixon was in the last weeks of his Presidency, and people - including the then-Secretary of Defense - got worried that Nixon might try to start a war to distract the country from his troubles, or even stage some sort of coup. People in DC even began to speculate as to what military forces could be assembled as a counterweight in the event that Nixon, rumored to be drunk and unstable, chose to subvert the Constitution.

    According to reports published after Nixon resigned, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger even went as far to tell some of the highest-ranking military officers to inform him if any 'extraordinary orders' went out from the White House and to refrain from carrying out any orders which came from the White House outside the normal military channels. (An action, incidentally, of dubious formal legality on the part of both James Schlesinger and his generals.)

    Those were not good times.

    Any time there is serious speculation by ordinarily sober people that the President has launched a secret war against one - or two! - countries, well, those are not good times either.

    I think this is true whoever you think is at fault - the administration for being Hell-bent for lunacy, or the DC Democrats (or if you prefer the DC Establishment), for being a bunch of strategic cowards. Whenever the level of trust within the governing class has so broken down, we are in for hard times indeed.

Yep, that's true.  But what can anyone do?

And was it an act of war?  Alex Koppelman in SALON works on that -

    Accounts of what exactly happened at the consulate, in the Kurdish town of Irbil (also transliterated as Arbil or Erbil) differ: Iranian reports say it was a full-out raid, complete with helicopters on the roof, the disarming of the consulate guards and the breaking down of its doors. An unnamed U.S. official, however, told CNN that "no shots were fired. No altercation ensued. It was a knock on the door and 'Please come out.'" U.S. officials have also said that they believe the building was not a real consulate or diplomatic building. Iranian officials dispute that claim.

    Speculation has abounded in the blogosphere about the international law implications of this action; Salon spoke with Rick Kirgis, a professor emeritus at Washington and Lee University, who is the secretary of the American Society of International Law, for his perspective on the matter. Kirgis himself noted the difficulty in determining the legality of the U.S. operation because of the ambiguity in the reports. He said that "one preliminary question would be whether this outfit, whatever it is, was established as either a diplomatic or consular mission with the consent of the Iraqi government." Iranian reports do seem to indicate that this is so. One says that "under an agreement between Baghdad and Tehran, Iran set up its consulate in the city in 2006 to facilitate cross-border visits of their citizens."

    Kirgis also said that since this appears to be a consulate, rather than an embassy, restrictions on incursions into its space are somewhat less stringent; but, he says, "there's a provision in the Consular Convention that says consular officers shall not be liable to any restriction on their personal freedom, except in execution of a judicial decision." He says, however, that there is an argument to be made that those provisions would be suspended in times of an armed conflict, especially if the consular officers were active participants. Still, all told, Kirgis believes that "if it really was a consulate ... This looks like a violation."

    Still, Kirgis said, this may not be the decisive stroke some have made it out to be, or at least not an "act of war," which is not a real term in international law anyway. Iran does have some options: It can protest - which it has already done, to some degree, by calling in the ambassadors of Iraq and Switzerland, who serve as America's emissaries to Iran -or it can claim the right of self-defense. If it does claim that right, though, any military response would need to be "proportional," Kirgis said.

But then we're told that Andy McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, sees the matter differently. In a post on the Corner, the conservative magazine National Review's blog, he lauded the raid as "welcome news," then wrote, "We would certainly regard [the raid] as an act of war if the tables were turned."

It's all falling into place. Call it diplomacy by provocation. We've got at least two more years of it.

This item posted January 14, 2007


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