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..."

One tries to keep up on things, browsing who's saying what. It's just that listening to all the voices can spook you.

What to make of it all? We're in for it.

As mentioned previously, there seems to be a war coming with Iran. It's not just Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker - William Arkin in the Washington Post reported that in his Early Warning column. The cover story of the week's Time Magazine tells us the plans are finalized and units are on notice. And the reporters who used to be Knight-Ridder - now McClatchy - here tell us there's the new the Iranian directorate at the Pentagon - getting the "real" information on the building of nuclear weapons there - bypassing the CIA and other agencies again, relying on Iranian exiles in America who want their old Iran back. That worked so well the first time with Iraq of course. And yes, Knight-Ridder alone was the news outfit that got the run-up to the Iraq war right - pointing to the holes in the information about the actual threat Iraq posed, and being skeptical, in a reasonable way.

And here we're told we are already on the ground in Iran, conducting operations there -

1.) "The evidence is overwhelming, from both the Iranians, Americans, and from Congressional sources."

2.) "The plan has gone to the White House. That's not normal planning. When the plan goes to the White House, that means we've gone to a different state."

3.) "I would say - and this may shock some - I think the decision has been made and military operations are under way."

That's from Colonel Sam Gardiner, the retired colonel who taught at the National War College, the Air War College and the Naval Warfare College and who famously found more than fifty instances of demonstrably false stories planted in the press in the run up to the war, back in 2003. The link is to a television appearance - he's one of CNN's military analysts. Maybe he's wrong.

But then his white paper is now available, a report for the Century Foundation - The End of the 'Summer of Diplomacy': Assessing U.S. Military Options in Iraq, September 2006 (in PDF format).

And it contains this gem -

    When I discuss the possibility of an American military strike on Iran with my European friends, they invariably point out that an armed confrontation does not make sense - that it would be unlikely to yield any of the results that American policymakers do want, and that it would be highly likely to yield results that they do not.

    I tell them they cannot understand US policy if they insist on passing options through that filter. The "making sense" filter was not applied over the past four years for Iraq, and it is unlikely to be applied in evaluating whether to attack Iran.

The italics were added to emphasize the obvious. This isn't supposed to make sense. Something else is going on.

In any event, Gardiner says the preparations for war "will not be a major CNN event."

This will be subtle, sort of, as it "will involve the quiet deployment of Air Force tankers to staging bases" and "additional Navy assets moved to the region." He also adds that while nobody's talking about a land invasion of Iran - as there's no resources left for that - "significant elements in the government" do have much more ambitious goals than straightforward surgical strikes at Iranian nuclear facilities. You see, such strikes are very unlikely to actually resolve the perceived Iran issue, and there are administration figures who have convinced themselves that a sufficiently wide "air target set" will prompt regime change in Iran. We bomb them and the angry populace rises up and cheers us. Well, many have reported that's the current thinking.

Another voice - Matthew Yglesias here - "One should note that the curious thing about air power is that the professionals involved in managing it have a longstanding, cross-national, and incredibly pernicious habit of massively and systematically overstating its efficacy in accomplishing all sorts of implausible things."

Yep, ask the Israelis about that. But over at SLATE, Fred Kaplan here is wondering if the "prepare to deploy" order that's "been sent out to US Navy submarines, an Aegis-class cruiser, two minesweepers, and two mine-hunting ships" means we're going to war with Iran.

But Yglesias then adds this -

    At this point, I think I need to bring up what one might call the Craziest Goddamn Thing I've Heard In a Long Time. This story came to me last week from an anonymous individual who I would say is in a position to know about such things. According to this person, the DOD has (naturally) been doing some analysis on airstrikes against Iran. The upshot of the analysis was that conventional bombardment would degrade the Iranian nuclear program by about 50 percent. By contrast, if the arsenal included small nuclear weapons, we could get up to about 80 percent destroying. In response to this, persons inside the Office of the Vice President took the view that we could use the nukes - in other words, launch an unprovoked nuclear first strike against Iran - and then simply deny that we'd done so. Detectable radiation in the area of the bombed sites would be attributed to the fact that they were, after all, nuclear facilities we'd just hit.

    Now I rather doubt that's going to happen. Typically, Bush dials down the crazy factor a notch or two relative to what comes out of the OVP [Office of the Vice president]. Nevertheless, it's a sobering reminder that we have genuine lunatics operating in the highest councils of government at the moment. It's an extremely dangerous situation.

The italics there come from Yglesias. He wants things to make sense, so he doesn't think we'll launch an unprovoked nuclear first strike against Iran. The first voice, Colonel Sam, argues the other way.

Another voice, from the SALON review of Frank Rich's new book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold, there's this -

    It is now widely accepted that the Iraq war is one of the greatest foreign policy blunders, if not the greatest, in US history. Some have gone further: The respected Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld argues that it is "the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C. sent his legions into Germany and lost them." Not a few regard Iraq as spelling the beginning of the end of American dominance in the world.

The review goes on to discuss what seems to be Rich's thesis - the Iraq war was waged to get Republicans elected again and again. That's the "sense" that the Europeans who talked with Colonel Sam seem to have overlooked.

Another voice?

On Tuesday, September 19, reporters asked General John Abizaid, the top US military commander for the whole Middle East, whether the United States is currently winning the war in Iraq. The Washington Post dutifully reported his answer - "Given unlimited time and unlimited support, we're winning the war."

That's not very reassuring and not particularly realistic. It makes little sense. But it is an answer, and an honest one.

And here's another voice, from August 25, retired General John Batiste, the former commander of the First Infantry Division in Iraq - "Donald Rumsfeld is still at the helm of the Department of Defense, which is absolutely outrageous. He served up our great military a huge bowl of chicken feces, and ever since then, our military and our country have been trying to turn this bowl into chicken salad. And it's not working."

You can see the video of that here. (There are words you can't say on national television.)

And from the New York Times item of September 20, on how our government is really unhappy with current premier of Iraq - he's not doing much of anything but visiting Iran and getting chummy with them - we get this - "To bolster Iraqis' confidence, American generals are spending money on quick reconstruction projects like trash pickup as the military goes through troubled neighborhoods of Baghdad."

Compare and contrast - Condoleezza Rice in a Times interview from October 21, 2000 with this - "We don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten."

But that was Kosovo, of course.

Those two contrasting gems were brought up by Bill Montgomery, at his site Whiskey Bar, where he is either the editor and sole writer, or proprietor - or the barkeep, if you will. And his voice comes next with this -

    From crossing guards to trash collectors seems like a demotion to me - especially when the trash includes things like dead dog carcasses with IEDs stuffed inside them. But, hey, be all you can be.

    We'll never know if this kind of stuff - nation building as an exercise in court-ordered community service - has made any difference in Iraq, or could have made a difference if more of it had been done more competently. I tend to doubt it, but then in the failure-was-inevitable vs. we-coulda-been-contenders debate, I tend to come down firmly in the inevitability camp.

    The question is empirically indeterminate, since we don't have another Iraq to use as a control -- one where the post-conflict reconstruction process goes flawlessly, the U.S. Army is a model of counterinsurgency tact and wisdom and the entire process is guided by the kind of people who gave us the Marshall Plan and the long telegram [see this - AMP], instead of the cast members of a Three Stooges short feature.

    However, at least some evidence for the inevitability argument can be found in record of the non-fantasy Iraq occupation.

    In his book Fiasco, Tom Ricks lavishes praise on Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the 101st Airborne division, which was originally given the job of occupying the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. According to Ricks, Petraeus and his officers did everything the counterinsurgency textbooks told them to do. They established unity of command, worked with local leaders, avoided excessive use of firepower, tried not to antagonize or humiliate the locals, were selective in their arrests and interrogations and spread a lot of money around in small, local projects.

    Whether it was because of these tactics or for some other reason, nobody contests that Mosul was relatively calm through the early months of the occupation - even after the 101st rotated out. But when the replacement force had to be drawn down to send reinforcements to Fallujah in October 2004, public order in Mosul promptly collapsed, with the police deserting in droves and insurgents taking over whole neighborhoods in the Arab quarter of the city. So much for hearts and minds.

    Likewise, we heard a lot in the first two years of the war about the vastly superior counterinsurgency training and tactics of the British Army, and how this was the key to their success in keeping southern Iraq happy and docile. We don't hear nearly so much of that talk these days.

    You can certainly argue that Petraeus's effort in Mosul and the British Army's work in the south were both undermined (stabbed in the back, so to speak) by the general incompetence of the CPA, the Cheney Administration, the military bureaucracy in Baghdad, etc. etc. Or, conversely, you can claim the successes were never as successful as they were cracked up to be - that what Petraeus and the Brits really were better at was media relations, not counterinsurgency.

    Like I said, it's a counterfactual argument, one that historians no doubt will still be having long after you and me and Gen. Petraeus are all in our graves. But if you think Iraq was doable - that the Cheneyites snatched defeat from the jaws of victory instead of just making a miserable situation even worse - then you need to explain why virtually every other recent nation-building exercise has been as complete or almost as complete a failure : from Somalia to Afghanistan, Sierra Leone to Columbia.

    Under the circumstances, nation building in the Middle East might best be compared to sand castle building - on the beach in the face of a rising tide. We'd probably all be better off if our imperial strategists could come up with a strategy for managing the transition to a more decentralized, fragmented and at times chaotic world, instead of trying to turn back the clock to an earlier day. But, of course, if they were comfortable doing that they probably wouldn't be imperial strategists.

    Oh well. It certainly doesn't hurt that the Army is picking up the trash in Baghdad, and it may even help, a little. But if I were them I wouldn't expect to get any tips - non-explosive ones, I mean.

But then, if Frank Rich is right (and not just rich), the whole idea is really to win elections here - by appearing tough and strong.

Eric Boehlert notes how that is going here -

    Here then, is some much-needed historical perspective to put Bush's standing in context:

    • According to Gallup, on the eve of President John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination, he was suffering the worst job-approval ratings of his presidency - 58 percent.
    • In 1968, when the war in Vietnam was claiming hundreds of US casualties each week, President Lyndon Johnson was considered so unpopular that he didn't even run for re-election. Johnson's average Gallup approval rating for that year was 43 percent.
    • When Reagan's second term was rocked by the Iran-Contra scandal, his ratings plummeted, all the way down to 43 percent.

Oh well. You do what you can.

And something that came up before, in these pages - Monday, August 21, The Hedgehog Is Back - a discussion of Jim Baker's little group with this -

    A Bipartisan commission quietly started work last spring with a mandate to help the Bush administration rethink its policy toward the war.

    [W]hat makes this particular commission hard to dismiss is that it is led by perhaps the one man who might be able to break through the tight phalanx of senior officials who advise the president and filter his information. That person is the former secretary of state, Republican insider, and consigliere of the Bush family, James A. Baker III.

Who knew? And the Washington Monthly item ends with this -

    "The object of our policy has to be to get our little white asses out of there as soon as possible," another working-group participant told me. To do that, he said, Baker must confront the president "like the way a family confronts an alcoholic. You bring everyone in, and you say, 'Look, my friend, it's time to change.'"

That's most curious. Everyone knows it's time to do something.

Wednesday, September 20, the New York Sun reports this Iraq Study Group has met with its subgroups - the working committees - and we get this -

    According to participants in that meeting, the two chairmen received a blunt assessment this week of viable options for America in Iraq that boiled down to two choices.

    One plan would have America begin its exit from Iraq through a phased withdrawal similar to that proposed this spring by Rep. John Murtha, a Democrat of Pennsylvania and former Marine. Another would have America make a last push to internationalize the military occupation of Iraq and open a high-level dialogue with Syria and Iran to persuade them to end their state-sanctioned policy of aiding terrorists who are sabotaging the elected government in Baghdad.

    ... The Iraq Study Group is likely to be as influential as the 9/11 commission, which Mr. Hamilton cochaired with a former governor of New Jersey, Thomas Keane. While the Iraq panel is not charged with assigning blame on past policy failures, as the 9/11 commission was, it does have the ability to give new legitimacy to a withdrawal strategy and force the administration's hand on policy.

And that leads to another voice, Kevin Drum, with this -

    So: Bush should either plan to withdraw from Iraq or else open up talks with Syria and Iran. It's hard to know which of those two options he'd loathe the most, and even with Baker delivering the bad news it's hard to see Bush agreeing to either course. By the time the Iraq Study Group delivers its recommendations officially, though, he might not have much of a choice.

Maybe so. Or maybe than why a war with Iran is necessary. It would provide cover for either unpalatable alternative.

How'd we get here? The final voice is Digby at Hullabaloo, from right out here in Santa Monica, with this -

    Virtually none of the foreign policy establishment were concerned that invading Iraq was a bad strategy in light of the threat of terrorism. It was obvious that we would inflame the Islamic radicals and create more of them - an American occupying army in the Mideast at a time of rising extremism and anti-American fervor was about as provocative an act as could have been imagined. This argument was glossed over as some sort of appeasement when, in fact, it was extremely salient. Why on earth would you go out of your way to aid the recruitment of your enemy unless it was absolutely necessary? The administration may need to play to its base with useless strongman preening but there was no excuse for liberal hawks not to care about this argument.

    But the greatest strategic error was dismissing the possibility that by occupying Iraq it would empower Iran in the process. This was undoubtedly seen as pessimism or immoral realpolitik by the neocons and liberal hawks, but it was a very serious consideration that we are now seeing played out before our very eyes. It's quite clear that the most successful beneficiary of our Iraq policy has been Iraq's longtime rival, Iran. Had Iraq really presented the existential threat the administration claimed, it might have made sense. But nobody but the most deluded of neocons believed that Saddam was planning to launch drone planes filled with nukes and chemical weapons at the US. There should have been more attention paid to the ramifications of empowering Iran before we invaded Iraq by people who should know better. (The great irony is that the administration is now recycling the same fear mongering to use against Iran - instead of "gassed his own people" it's "denies the holocaust." SOS)

    So, in the months before we went into Iraq the situation was this:

    • The Bush Doctrine was morphing before our eyes into a permission slip for unilateral aggression based on nothing more than guesswork about a possible future threat, degrading our moral authority before the war even started.
    • Many of our allies were balking which meant that we would potentially lose valuable cooperation on terrorism and would have a much harder time coalition building in the future.
    • Saddam had been successfully contained for more than a decade and could have stayed contained for some time, even if the hyped up threat assessment had turned out to be correct.
    • The evidence for terrorist ties between Iraq and al Qaeda was virtually non-existent and there was no reason to believe that they would ever have the same goals. Conversely, invading Iraq was likely to empower Islamic extremism in Iraq and elsewhere.
    • We rushed into it as if it were an emergency when Saddam had done nothing for years. This meant that planning (which never happened anyway) would have had to be done on a crisis basis, increasing the chance of mistakes and missteps.
    • We were committing our military to a non-urgent long term operation at a time when we needed them to be flexible for the emerging threats of the new era of Islamic extremism.
    • We knew that upending the structure of the middle east before we had a chance to fully assess the situation could result in empowering the actors we wanted to marginalize, both state and non-state.

    For all those reasons one could see not just that it was an impossible task or that the Bush administration would mess it up, but that it was simply a bad idea when the circumstances after 9/11 dictated that we be smart about national security. 9/11 didn't change everything but you'd think the threat of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare would have changed the neocon and liberal hawk's longtime assumptions about the efficacy of traditional military power. If there was ever a time for realism - in the pure sense of the word - it was then. Instead, we had the right lashing out incoherently at their ancient demons and the liberal hawks naively believing that it was a good idea to express our goodness and greatness through a military action that was quite obviously unnecessary at that moment and for which the risk far outweighed the benefit.

    We all know that the result was even worse that we feared. We couldn't know they did no planning at all for the occupation. It didn't occur to us that they would literally bring in twenty-something college Republicans to run the reconstruction. I couldn't imagine they would botch it so thoroughly on every level that we have now exposed ourselves as something of a paper tiger when it comes to such unilateral actions. It's weakened us considerably. (And it's also brought us to a very frightening point...) The abandonment of moral authority with aggressive war and torture, the lost opportunities in Afghanistan, the empowering of Iran are all fall-out from this terrible decision and while we couldn't necessarily know exactly what would happen, there was NO DOUBT that the outcome was unpredictable. Great powers can't afford to run dangerous military experiments with unpredictable results unless it's absolutely necessary. Blowback tends to be rather extreme.

    The administration dazzled the nation with a big show and the media was chomping at the bit to have a "real" war that they could cover. But when you stripped away all the hysterical rhetoric it was clear then that even if the Bush administration had been capable of preventing Iraq from descending into chaos and achieving all its goals, liberal hawks should have known that rushing into war in the spring of 2003 was a bad idea anyway.

And now we're at it again.

And a quick summary from another voice, Stanley Kurtz, at "The Corner" - the daily commentary section of the now hyper-neoconservative and Bush worshiping National Review, with this -

    On the one hand, we are faced with a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, nuclear blackmail and terrorist chaos at the heart of the world's Persian Gulf oil supply, and terrorist-planted nuclear weapons in America's cities. On the other hand, we can choose an economically disruptive war with Iran that will alienate us from the world, push us to and beyond our military limits, and that even then may not even succeed. The by now stock phrase, "there are no good options" doesn't quite do justice to the awful choice we face.

Even there?

In any event, those are the voices out there. Make of them what you will.


This page originally posted on Sunday, September 24, 2006


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