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

Reasonable Despair

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

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

Voices of Reasonable Despair - We May Have No Choice but to Become French

Everyone seemed to agree the big story of Tuesday, November 14, was this -

    Suspected Shiite militiamen dressed as Interior Ministry commandos stormed a Higher Education Ministry office Tuesday and kidnapped dozens of people after clearing the area under the guise of providing security for what they claimed would be a visit by the U.S. ambassador.

    Witnesses and authorities said the gunmen raced through all four stories of the building, forced men and women into separate rooms, handcuffed the men and loaded them aboard about 20 pickup trucks.

    Shortly afterward, authorities arrested six senior police officers in connection with the abductions - the police chief and five top subordinates in the Karradah district, the central Baghdad region where the kidnappers struck, Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf said.

Things aren't going well, and the newly elected Democratic Senate and House have no plan to fix it all.

The election had been seven days before, and people were getting upset. Of course the new Congress doesn't get sworn in until January 20 - more than two months from the first Tuesday after the election - but no matter. They're not doing their job, damn it. Did the nation make a mistake? Why have the Democrats trapped us in this quagmire in Iraq, with no plan to fix things?

Yep, that's a little absurd - but no one seems happy with the idea there are no solutions to tough problems. We don't like having no solutions. We just don't think that way. Unlike the dour French existentialists of the fifties, we know there's always a solution, no matter what the problem. Otherwise, life would be as absurd at Sartre and Camus said, and that's an absurd idea to us. We're Americans, and we, not those long-dead Frenchmen, know what absurd really is. Absurd is thinking that some problems just cannot be fixed. Thomas Edison didn't think that way, nor did the Wright brothers, nor did Robert E. Lee (even if George Allen went down to defeat in the recent election, the South will rise again, and all that).

But even if the war is no longer the responsibility of the current administration at all, or something like that, they are looking for the solution, that magic bullet, that rabbit they can pull from the hat. That's what the Baker-Hamilton commission is all about, the Iraq Study group the will fix everything. Yeah, the commission is five Republicans and five Democrats, all retired politicians and not one Middle East expert in the mix at all, but they will find the solution to everything, or set of solutions.

It has, of course, occurred to more than a few people that having no one on the commission who knows jack about the region speaks volumes. They're looking for a domestic political solution - something the American people will accept and won't make the president go ballistic (literally).

No one knows what they will recommend. The dynamics of "the acceptable" is a puzzle, and everyone is waiting for the report, in what Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly calls a kabuki dance -

    What will they recommend? The betting favorite is talks with Syria and Iran, which is a fine idea with one wee drawback: talks would likely have almost no effect on the violence in Iraq even if they were successful. Iran may be causing trouble in Iraq, but at this point the vast bulk of Iraq's trouble is homegrown. Iran could help in only a limited way even if it wanted to.

    The other crowd-pleaser getting airtime these days is "One Last Push," the idea that we can surge in another 20,000 troops or so and end the Iraqi violence once and for all. John McCain is one of many running this idea up the flagpole, but it's a suggestion so puerile and reckless it boggles the mind. It's unlikely that 20,000 troops would have made a difference three years ago, let alone now, and he knows it.

And everyone really knows that this commission won't come up with any magic solution. Drum contend that liberals play along with this game anyway - it helps them avoid the real truth, that the conservatives are pretty much correct when they say that a pullout would be a disaster for Iraq.

But then -

    War supporters may have only themselves to blame for this state of affairs, but that doesn't make them any less right: A pullout now would almost certainly touch off a full-scale civil war, the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and the eventual establishment of a Shiite theocracy.

So no one wants to face up to the fact - there is no solution. We're not French, after all. But Drum seems to think "that our continued denial only makes the situation worse with every passing day, virtually guaranteeing a higher body count and an even more brutal end game."

It seems the choice is to stay, and things get worse and worse, or to leave, and things get worse and worse. If that is so, we might want to choose the latter. Either option being dismally equal, in producing the same net result, the latter saves American lives. But we pretend there's some third option. It's the pretending that's killing us - and our troops, and the Iraqis.

The logic here is clear, if you accept the premise that some problems - and this one in particular - admit no solutions. The nation is still working on that concept. It's a new one for us.

But what about talking with Iran and Syria?

Simon Jenkins argues, in the November 15th Guardian, that this is absurd.

Look at it from Iran's point of view - "Why stop the Great Satan? He's driving himself to hell. Tehran can sit back and watch its tormentors sweat."

First there's the irony -

    Help from Syria and Iran? Surely these were the monsters that George Bush and Tony Blair were going to crush, back in 2003? Surely the purpose of the Iraq adventure was to topple these terrorism-sponsoring, women-suppressing, militia-funding fundamentalists in favour of stability, prosperity and western democracy? Can the exit from Iraq really be through Tehran and Damascus? Was that in the plan?

    I remember asking a western intelligence officer in Baghdad, six months after the American invasion, what he would advise the Iranians to do. "Wait," he said with a smile. Iran has done just that. If I were Tehran I would still wait. I would sit back, fold my arms and watch my tormentors sweat. I would watch the panic in Washington and London as body bags pile up, generals mutter mutiny, alliances fall apart and electors cut and run.

Reality has not yet replaced denial, of course. For the moment, denial still rules -

    In America last week I was shocked at how unaware even anti-war Americans are (like many Britons) of the depth of the predicament in Iraq. They compare it with Vietnam or the Balkans - but it is not the same. It is total anarchy. All sentences beginning, "What we should now do in Iraq…" are devoid of meaning. We are in no position to do anything. We have no potency; that is the definition of anarchy.

This is followed by a status report -

    From all available reports, Iraq south of the Kurdistan border is beyond central authority, a patchwork of ganglands, sheikhdoms and lawlessness. Anbar province and most of the Sunni triangle is controlled by independent Sunni militias. The only safe movement for outsiders is by helicopter at night. Baghdad is like Beirut in 1983, with nightly massacres, roadblocks everywhere and mixed neighborhoods emptying into safe ones. As yesterday's awful kidnapping shows, even a uniform is a death certificate. As for the cities of the south, control depends on which Shia militia has been able to seize the local police station.

    The Iraqi army, such as it is, cannot be deployed outside its local area and is therefore useless for counter-insurgency. There is no central police force. There is no public administration. The Maliki government barely rules the Green Zone in which it is entombed. American troops guard it as they might an outpost of the French Legion in the Sahara. There is no point in patrolling a landscape one cannot control. It merely alienates the population and turns soldiers into targets.

If this is so, the argument goes, all this talk that Iraq will collapse into civil war if "we leave" is to "completely misread the chaos into which that country has descended under our rule."

The reality is that something else is going on there, perhaps worse than civil war. Civil wars have their own logic - and this is just Darwinian "survival of the fittest" - or of the best armed and most ruthless. We had a sensible civil war here in the nineteenth century - with uniforms and massed armies and all the rest. What is happening in Iraq has not "risen to the level" of civil war. They just skipped that step and went for total anarchy. They're far beyond civil war.

And it is hard to see what we can do about it -

    It is possible that a shrewd proconsul, such as America's Zelmay Khalilzad, might induce the warring factions to agree a provisional boundary between their spheres of influence and assign militias to protect it. But my impression is that Iraq has passed beyond even the power of the centre to impose partition.

But then our ambassador, Khalilzad, a Sunni born in Kabul, is quitting, leaving at the end of the year. Maybe he's secretly French, one of those who know some problems have no solution, and you need to get out before the "why didn't you fix it" crowd starts circling, looking for someone to blame.

Ah, maybe it's all just a language thing. The word problem is naturally linked to the word solution, in a "clang test" sort of way. I say a word and you say the first word that pops into your head. Problem! Solution! No one usually blurts out - "Oh well." We're kind of hard-wired to think anything can be fixed. We never drove Citroëns.

Jenkins concludes with this -

    Bush and Blair are men in a hurry, and such men lose wars. If there is a game plan in Tehran it will be to play Iraq long. Why stop the Great Satan when he is driving himself to hell in a handcart? If London and Washington really want help in this part of the world they must start from diplomatic ground zero. They will have to stop the holier-than-thou name-calling and the pretence that they hold any cards. They will have to realize that this war has lost them all leverage in the region. They can insult and sanction and threaten. But there is nothing left for them to "do" but leave.

But we won't do that. That's no solution. And so it goes.

Then too there are domestic issues that may have no solution, as Garrison Keillor notes here, regarding the recent elections -

    … the election is over, so let's all relax and quit irritating each other. OK? Nancy Pelosi, the she-wolf from Sodom, is about to become the madam of the House, so you Republicans just get over it. Cash in your blue chips and invest in gold ingots and maybe real estate in Costa Rica. The black helicopters have landed. Live with it.

And he says Democrats intend to bring reform to Washington, so deal with that too.

And he suggests starting reforms with the United States Senate, sorely in need of reform for a century or so - "Two senators per state is a good idea in theory, assuming they are half smart, but then you look at George Allen, a lumbering frat boy from the state of Madison and Jefferson, and you think, whoa, something is wrong with this picture."

What we are offered is a solution where there is no problem, or there's a problem no one thought about.

He suggests fewer states -

    First of all, is there a reason for Wyoming to exist as a state? I have often wondered about this. Why give two Senate seats to a half million dimestore cowboys while California gets two seats for 34 million people? (Wyoming has roughly the population of Sacramento.) It's OK if Wyoming sends somebody with brains and an independent streak, but when they send a couple of Republican hacks, then it makes no sense.

    The idea behind the Senate was to create a sheltered body of wise counselors who, because they don't have to shill for money perpetually, can rise above the petty tumult and think noble thoughts and do the right thing in a pinch. Can you think of a time when Wyoming's senators have done this? No, you can't. So let's bite the bullet and make Wyoming a federal protectorate and appoint an overseer. This would be a good assignment for Halliburton. It's done a heck of a job in Iraq, so let's give it Wyoming and, while we're at it, Alaska. A wonderful postcard place, but what have its congresspeople done other than grub for federal largesse for Alaska? Change the name to Denali and put Halliburton in charge of it.

Other solutions -

    While we're at it, let's admit that Utah, Texas and Vermont have never been completely comfortable as part of the United States. They've tried to fit in, but it just isn't working, so let's allow them to pull out and find their own path. You could attach Nevada to Utah and make a lovely little desert nation out of that, and let Vermont join Canada, and make Texas a republic. Add Oklahoma to it. They really are part of the same thing. This leaves us with 43 states, which we could reduce to 40 by joining Rhode Island and New Hampshire and making Idaho part of Montana and combining North and South Dakota into one state called West Minnesota. It's called consolidation, folks. It goes on all the time in corporate America and also in local school districts, so let's make it work for America.

Obviously, he should be on the Baker-Hamilton Iraq commission. He thinks outside the box. He didn't even know there was a box.

The Baker-Hamilton Iraq commission isn't like that. Don't expect much. And pretend you're French.

This item posted November 19, 2006

[Reasonable Despair]

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