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

The Set-Up

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

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

The Big Event That Wasn't - The Death Sentence

Here's a fine video of Miles Davis in 1958 playing his famous piece "So What?" from the seminal Kind of Blue album. That album, and this piece, defined cool back then. Click on the link and it will open in a separate window, so you can have it playing in the background for what follows.

The Sunday before the midterm elections in the United States - Sunday, November 5 - we got the news - "Saddam Hussein was convicted and sentenced Sunday to hang for crimes against humanity in the 1982 killings of 148 people in a single town, as the ousted leader, trembling and defiant, shouted 'God is great!'"

So he shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is great!) and "Long live the Muslim nation!" (Ashat al-ummah!) The Middle East scholar Juan Cole points out that as a secular Arab nationalist, Saddam at one point kept out of the Iraqi constitution any mention of Islam, but since the Gulf War "he has mugged for the camera with such slogans." They may have some resonances in Sunni Arab regions, though, as well as in the Muslim world more generally. And Saddam's defense team said that the court was constituted under an American military occupation and therefore could not be impartial, and that the verdict made a mockery of justice.

This may be trouble, but the White House says this is a great triumph. And it comes at just they right time, or so they think.

Tim Grieve, at the time, thought not -

    A five-judge tribunal in Baghdad today declared Saddam Hussein guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to death by hanging.

    Do you feel better about the war now? More confident about the president's "strategy for victory" in Iraq? Are you more likely to vote for a Republican on Tuesday?

One would guess not. Of course there will be those who feel now the man who caused the 9/11 attacks will finally be hanged, but they know he didn't. That may be a case of "close enough for government work." It "something," when we've been getting a who lot of nothing

The sentencing was supposed to have happened back on October 18, but the tribunal last month rescheduled it for the Sunday that fell just two days before the 2006 midterm elections in the United States.

A spokesman for the Iraqi High Tribunal insists here that it's just a coincidence - the timing belonged "100 percent" to the tribunal, and that the judges who serve on it care "nothing about American midterm elections." Maybe so, and Karl Rove is just one lucky guy.

Of course Vice President Cheney has repeatedly said all the turmoil over there is for one reason only - the terrorists in Iraq are focused on November 7, as he says they want to make things look bad so his boss loses face and the nation turns away from the Republican Party. They're very clever - killing each other by the hundreds and knocking off our troops, all to help the Democrats. Has he ever been wrong?

Saddam's lawyers have accused the court and the Bush administration of conspiring to time the verdict and sentence to coincide with the elections, but those lawyers who weren't assassinated are probably just in a bad mood.

Others have pointed out some odd things - curious events in Iraq that looked timed to political problems over here. Many have noticed such things - including an odd delay on insurgent strongholds in 2004 until right after the presidential election so that Americans wouldn't read about significant casualties before they voted. Or maybe things just fell out that way. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow keeps saying that the administration isn't doing that now, and never did such things.

One senses the administration is all exasperated with how suspicious and untrusting the American people have become. It doesn't seem to occur to them that finding no WMD and then all the confirmation that Saddam Hussein had no ties at all to al Qaeda made some think them somewhere between tragically gullible or nastily manipulative. That "Mission Accomplished" banner didn't help either, followed by all the turning points - we killed Saddam's two awful sons and displayed their mutilated and decomposing bodies for days, and invited the world press to take lots of pictures, and things didn't get better; we pulled Saddam from his hole in the ground and published photos of a medic inspecting his teeth and other slyly humiliating shots, and things didn't get better; we killed any number of "Number Two" bad guys in Iraq, and finally the Number One, and things didn't get better (the bad guys seem to have a deep bench). Saying this death sentence is a big deal and will change everything is fine. The administration can say what it likes. So can used car salesmen.

Is Miles Davis still playing in the background?

And there's an additional problem. The man just doesn't matter any more. As Tim Grieve notes, he's old news -

    Sixty-four percent of Americans now say they "oppose" the war in Iraq. Fifty-six percent believe the United States "made a mistake" when it invaded Iraq in the first place. Saddam Hussein may loom large in the minds of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, but those poll numbers suggest to us that Americans aren't all that focused on him anymore. Americans know now - or at least they ought to - that Saddam wasn't much of a threat to them before the war; sentenced or not sentenced, he's certainly no threat to them now. This isn't a scary new tape from Osama bin Laden, let alone news that a terrorist leader has been captured or a deadly plot foiled. It's a mopping up of an old mess, one handled so badly that it has created a much bigger one in its wake.

But you have to let them crow about it, and shrug. Whether the man is hung or not is of some interest, in an historical way, but he's an old problem and doesn't matter much now. What's happened since needs attention, not this.

And the whole thing put Iraq back on the front page - when the Republicans were talking up the economy and ranting about the evils of women being able to choose to have and abortion, and the pure evil of stem cell research, and how gay folks want to ruin everyone's marriage and destroy America, and how the Democrats want to raise the taxes of the extremely rich and ruin everything, and… and all the rest. In-your-face crowing about this triumph could, however, get people refocused on the war - thinking about the almost twenty-nine hundred troops we've lost, and the half-trillion dollars we've spent, and how we've quite purposefully thrown away the respect of most of the world, and wonder whether this one guy choking on the end of a rope, eyes bulging until his neck breaks or he chokes to death, was worth it.

We're told he was worth it all.

On the other hand, Max Hastings in The Guardian (UK), the day after the sentencing, suggests Bush and Blair have forfeited the moral authority to hang Saddam -

    There can be no doubt about the moral justice of yesterday's Baghdad tribunal judgment on Saddam Hussein. He was directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, chiefly Kurds and Shias, and arguably for many more killed in the Iran-Iraq war.

    Yet it is quite another matter whether it is right or politically prudent to execute him, after the shambles of a trial that he has undergone. Washington was always determined that Saddam should die - but at the hands of his own people rather than those of Americans. George Bush's handling of this issue restores one's respect for Pontius Pilate. The president has achieved the almost impossible feat of generating some sympathy for Saddam, at least in Muslim societies.

    The Iraqi judicial system is incapable of conducting a plausible hearing. Instead it staged a farce: judges changed, defense lawyers murdered, interminable rambling orations from prosecutors and defendants. Bush should have got some old Soviets to advise the locals about how to run a proper show trial.

So the verdict is just, but everything stinks about the process.

Actually, Hastings argues that the biggest American mistake was to capture Saddam in the first place -

    In the House of Commons in 1944, the foreign secretary was asked what instructions had been given to British troops on what to do if they encountered Hitler. Amid laughter, Anthony Eden said: "I am quite satisfied to leave the decision to the British soldier concerned."

    Among the allied leaders, only Stalin wanted Hitler alive, for the pleasure of hanging him. Everybody else was appalled by the prospective perils and complexities of trying and executing a head of state in partnership with the Russians. Hitler's suicide came as a relief.

    Almost everyone involved in the Nuremberg trials of his subordinates felt uncomfortably conscious that they were administering victors' justice. The proceedings proved valuable, however, in placing on record for all time some of the monstrous crimes of the Nazis. Also, in 1946 the Nuremberg judges possessed a critical advantage. Even if the wartime allies did not represent absolute good - how could any such partnership that included the Soviets? - few people doubted their overwhelming moral superiority over the Nazis.

    By contrast, the moral authority of the Iraq coalition led by the US has been blown to rags since 2003. President Bush's achievement has been to convert an almost impregnable American position in the world after 9/11 into a grievously damaged one today. It is believed that more Iraqis have died since the US invasion than were killed by Saddam Hussein. Most have fallen victim to fellow countrymen rather than to American fire. Yet this seems irrelevant, since Washington chose to assume responsibility for the country. The dead have perished on Bush's watch.

So we have no standing? That seems to be the idea.

But there are pragmatic arguments for executing the guy - the nut jobs who worked for him, some of whom are behind the Sunni insurgency, could be hoping one day their old leader will regain power and restore Sunni dominance over there. Offing him might help there.

But if our job is actually "to promote the restoration of order," then we might want to think this thing through carefully.

Sure, lots of folks there want him dead, and we're all about "empowering" the Iraqi people to do what they want. But it's not that simple -

    Real power in Iraq today rests in the hands of the Americans or those of local factions on the ground. The so-called national government and its institutions are almost impotent, because they face such physical and political difficulties in exercising their functions.

    The verdict on Saddam is just. Yet everything stinks about the process by which it has been reached. Sentence on the condemned tyrant will probably be carried out before the trial of his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majeed, known as Chemical Ali. It is widely expected that the execution will be rushed so that Saddam cannot give evidence at Majeed's trial about collusion between Washington and the former tyranny, which could grievously embarrass the US.

    Once again it matters less whether this is true than that so many people around the world believe it to be so. It is dismaying to be obliged to acknowledge that Americans, British, Ba'athists, militiamen, national government representatives and insurgent suicide bombers in Iraq are all today perceived as coexisting on the same moral plane.

    Rationally, we know that Bush and Blair want virtuous things for the country: democracy and personal freedom. Yet so incompetent has been the fulfillment of their policies on the ground that the leaders of Britain and the US now possess no more credible mandate than that of Iraq's local mass murderers.

    To justify hanging Saddam, Bush and Blair needed moral ascendancy, which they have forfeited. His execution will appear to be merely another dirty deed in the endless succession that have taken place in Iraq since 2003, backed by our bayonets.

Yep, people will only remember the president's record in Texas, ordering far more executions than any governor in history, and laughing about it. He may get his jollies when Saddam swings, and that may have been the whole point of the war in his own world. But there is a wider world. And it's complicated.

As for the election, Paul Krugman the day before the voting said this -

    President Bush isn't on the ballot tomorrow. But this election is, nonetheless, all about him. The question is whether voters will pry his fingers loose from at least some of the levers of power, thereby limiting the damage he can inflict in his two remaining years in office.

    There are still some people urging Mr. Bush to change course. For example, a scathing editorial published today by The Military Times, which calls on Mr. Bush to fire Donald Rumsfeld, declares that "this is not about the midterm elections." But the editorial's authors surely know better than that. Mr. Bush won't fire Mr. Rumsfeld; he won't change strategy in Iraq; he won't change course at all, unless Congress forces him to.

    At this point, nobody should have any illusions about Mr. Bush's character. To put it bluntly, he's an insecure bully who believes that owning up to a mistake, any mistake, would undermine his manhood - and who therefore lives in a dream world in which all of his policies are succeeding and all his officials are doing a heckuva job. Just last week he declared himself "pleased with the progress we're making" in Iraq.

    In other words, he's the sort of man who should never have been put in a position of authority, let alone been given the kind of unquestioned power, free from normal checks and balances, that he was granted after 9/11. But he was, alas, given that power, as well as a prolonged free ride from much of the news media.

Yeah, well, maybe so - but don't you want to make him happy? Saddam will swing, and the president will grin, even if to the rest of us it's a big "so what?" We already gave him the lives of nearly three thousand of our sons and daughters, and let him spend our money like a drunken sailor, and let him nearly destroy the military and our reputation as a fair and just nation, and gave him the right to lock up anyone he'd like and throw away key - no charges, no trial, no nothing. Why not let him swoon in orgasmic delight at the hanging of a guy he's always hated? What difference does it make now?

You know nothing is going to change. See the White House transcript of Vice President Cheney's interview with ABC's "This Week" - the election is quite irrelevant -

    George Stephanopoulos: So will the vote on Tuesday have any effect on the president's Iraq policy?

    Cheney: I think it will have some effect, perhaps, in the Congress, but the president has made clear what his objective is, it's victory in Iraq. And full speed ahead on that basis, and that's exactly what we're going to do.

    Stephanopoulos: So even those Republican candidates calling for a change of course are not going to get that on Wednesday?

    Cheney: No, you can't make ... national security policy on the basis of that. These are people running for Congress. They're entitled to their own views, on both sides of the aisle. But I think there's no question but what when we get into the global war on terror, when we get into the measures that are needed to go on offense and take the fight to the enemy, if you will, that the support that we've had and continue to have is primarily on the Republican side, and I think the Democrats have come up weak on it.

So that's that. Nothing will change.

The Monday, November 6, joint editorial in the Army Times, the Air Force Times, and the Navy Times is here -

    Time for Rumsfeld to go

    "So long as our government requires the backing of an aroused and informed public opinion ... it is necessary to tell the hard bruising truth."

    That statement was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Marguerite Higgins more than a half-century ago during the Korean War.

    But until recently, the "hard bruising" truth about the Iraq war has been difficult to come by from leaders in Washington. One rosy reassurance after another has been handed down by President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: "mission accomplished," the insurgency is "in its last throes," and "back off," we know what we're doing, are a few choice examples.

    Military leaders generally toed the line, although a few retired generals eventually spoke out from the safety of the sidelines, inciting criticism equally from anti-war types, who thought they should have spoken out while still in uniform, and pro-war foes, who thought the generals should have kept their critiques behind closed doors.

    Now, however, a new chorus of criticism is beginning to resonate. Active-duty military leaders are starting to voice misgivings about the war's planning, execution and dimming prospects for success.

    Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, told a Senate Armed Services Committee in September: "I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it ... and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war."

    Last week, someone leaked to The New York Times a Central Command briefing slide showing an assessment that the civil conflict in Iraq now borders on "critical" and has been sliding toward "chaos" for most of the past year. The strategy in Iraq has been to train an Iraqi army and police force that could gradually take over for U.S. troops in providing for the security of their new government and their nation.

    But despite the best efforts of American trainers, the problem of molding a viciously sectarian population into anything resembling a force for national unity has become a losing proposition.

    For two years, American sergeants, captains and majors training the Iraqis have told their bosses that Iraqi troops have no sense of national identity, are only in it for the money, don't show up for duty and cannot sustain themselves.

    Meanwhile, colonels and generals have asked their bosses for more troops. Service chiefs have asked for more money.

    And all along, Rumsfeld has assured us that things are well in hand.

    Now, the president says he'll stick with Rumsfeld for the balance of his term in the White House.

    This is a mistake.

    It is one thing for the majority of Americans to think Rumsfeld has failed. But when the nation's current military leaders start to break publicly with their defense secretary, then it is clear that he is losing control of the institution he ostensibly leads.

    These officers have been loyal public promoters of a war policy many privately feared would fail. They have kept their counsel private, adhering to more than two centuries of American tradition of subordination of the military to civilian authority.

    And although that tradition, and the officers' deep sense of honor, prevent them from saying this publicly, more and more of them believe it.

    Rumsfeld has lost credibility with the uniformed leadership, with the troops, with Congress and with the public at large. His strategy has failed, and his ability to lead is compromised. And although the blame for our failures in Iraq rests with the secretary, it will be the troops who bear its brunt.

    This is not about the midterm elections. Regardless of which party wins Nov. 7, the time has come, Mr. President, to face the hard bruising truth: Donald Rumsfeld must go.

And it doesn't matter. So what? Saddam will hang. And we'd better like it all, because there's nothing else.

And was Rumsfeld's war plan so wrong, really?

Maybe it was -

    A series of secret U.S. war games in 1999 showed that an invasion and post-war administration of Iraq would require 400,000 troops, nearly three times the number there now.

    And even then, the games showed, the country still had a chance of dissolving into chaos.

    In the simulation, called Desert Crossing, 70 military, diplomatic and intelligence participants concluded the high troop levels would be needed to keep order, seal borders and take care of other security needs.

    The documents came to light Saturday through a Freedom of Information Act request by George Washington University's National Security Archive, an independent research institute and library.

    "The conventional wisdom is the U.S. mistake in Iraq was not enough troops," said Thomas Blanton, the archive's director. "But the Desert Crossing war game in 1999 suggests we would have ended up with a failed state even with 400,000 troops on the ground."

So General Shinseiki didn't pull that "300,000" number out of his ass that congressional hearing - he was lowballing the actual figures, as he must have known from this study. And Rumsfeld and the rest forced him into early retirement. They were pissed off. At least Shinseiki didn't tell congress the other part - that there was no way to win this thing. The joke's on us. But Saddam will hang.

And it least Afghanistan was a success. No one argued about that war.

And now this - Ronald E. Neuman, our ambassador in Kabul is saying we are facing "stark choices." Averting failure there will take "multiple years" and "multiple billions."

Failure? But we did that one right, didn't we? That's why it's called the "forgotten war" - bitterly by our troops there and with relief by news editors.

But it seems President Hamid Karzai - who is called the "mayor of Kabul" for a reason - continues to have little if any authority or control beyond the capital. And the CIA says increasing numbers of Afghans view his government as corrupt, failing to deliver promised reconstruction and too weak to protect the country from rising Taliban attacks.

So it's not just Iraq that has become a "cause célèbre for jihadists" - Afghanistan is contributing to the mess. You've got you're sharp increase in suicide attacks and roadside bombings over the last few years, and over the last few months you have your tactics that have "migrated from Iraq." Until now "there's not been a tradition of suicide bombers" in Afghanistan, one official says, and suggests that such tactics arrived by way of the Internet and people traveling between the countries. "Psychologically," the official says, "this has had a major impact."

Great. The one thing we might have done right, and the one thing where we had the world's support, has been lost because of the other thing we did.

But Saddam will hang. The president has says the verdict and his death sentence is a milestone. But milestones are becoming tiresome. What do they really mark? Or as Miles Davis would have it - so what?

This item posted November 12, 2006

[The Set-Up]

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