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

When the News Broke

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

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

Late Christmas Presents

The week between Christmas and New Years is supposed to be a slow news week. And the day after Christmas we got two conflicting milestones and a new war, or a new proxy war, as we are a bit short on war resources. Maybe people won't notice.

The first was the surprise news that Saddam Hussein would hang soon -

    Iraq's highest appeals court on Tuesday upheld Saddam Hussein's death sentence and said he must be hanged within 30 days for the killing of 148 Shiites in the central city of Dujail.

    The sentence "must be implemented within 30 days," chief judge Aref Shahin said. "From tomorrow, any day could be the day of implementation."

This appeal was, we were told, going to take some time. This is a surprise. It's a bit like the original death sentence, announced a day and a half before the midterm elections across America. These Iraqi judges are quite cooperative. The actually hanging, which some thought would be televised locally (in Iraq of course), and some thought it might also just take place as the president announces his "new way forward," scheduled, tentatively, for sometime in January. Or that it could take place during the president's State of the Union speech next month. Either would be fine, the hanging providing great visuals of the "see, I got the bad guy" sort - and we could watch Saddam Hussein's eyes bug out and his neck snap as the president - split screen - tells us all we're winning, and have really won, while the other man jerks about and chokes to death. The calculation would be that Americans would cheer and all the mess-ups - the chaos in Iraq, the unsaved New Orleans, the business with the vice president shooting his good friend in the face with a shotgun and all the rest - would be forgotten. The lifeless body swinging slowly from the rope would rally us all. It's an interesting ploy, a bookend to the "Mission Accomplished" address on the aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego - this time getting it right. But that was not to be.

Of course the propitiously announced Saddam Hussein death sentence didn't save Republican control of the House and Senate. But that doesn't mean the concept isn't workable. It just wasn't dramatic enough. The president's political advisor, Karl "Bush's Brian" Rove, is said to be a genius on such matters. This sounds like something he has arranged, whatever the timing, judging what would sate the blood lust of the American people. He may be right, or he may be surprised that good numbers of people actually can and actually do differentiate between Saddam Hussein, who finally didn't have any weapons of mass destruction and both feared and hated al Qaeda (and the feeling was mutual), and Osama bin Laden, who we all saw on videotape saying he was glad his very own 9/11 plan worked. Early on the president said "you can't really differentiate between the two," but he was only saying you "shouldn't." It seems people did anyway, in spite of the effort to conflate the two. When Saddam Hussein did hang, more than a few American's wondered what's going on here - the major bad guy was never found and this looks like cheap theatrics regarding a secondary problem with a brutal thug, a secondary murdering fraud. He may deserve his punishment, but it's rather beside the point now, isn't it? Rove may just have to hope folks don't think this through too carefully.

And as for the blood lust of the American people, that is hard to gauge. We are one of the very few nations in this world who still eagerly practice capital punishment - and it's not just the western nations who have walked away from that. We're pretty much alone. But is the Rove calculation right, that we would all cheer and another man's painful death? That may depend on how much visual and auditory detail we get. It may be that we like the concept of capital punishment in the abstract, without the details, like the criminal's bowels suddenly discharging and that sort of thing. But who knows? It may also be that we have moved on, want to close the book on this war and deal with healthcare and jobs and education and who pays whatever is a fair share in taxes, and with what the government can actually do to fix things and make things fair for everyone. In short, a public execution might be of far less than secondary interest. Fine, hang the man, but what about what we all face in the day-to-day, in the here-and-now? Pointing to the lifeless body swinging at the end of the rope might be counterproductive, or even worse, just beside the point. The public death of Saddam Hussein was a PR gamble. In the end, it was handled "tastefully."

Of course we'll be told is will be the real turning point in Iraq, bringing closure (a quite useless concept, but quite popular these days). Things will settle down, unless they don't. Sorry about all the other turning points that turned out not to be turning points at all - but this one is the real deal, as is obvious. And the Sunnis, feeling cut out of the current government and in open rebellion, in spite of not having particularly fond memories of Saddam and his sons leading them, will react with shrug and a big "whatever" - or go full out to mess everything up until they get at least a little power back, and the Saudis and Egyptians and Jordanians will fund and supply them. Which is more likely? Your answer depends on how optimistic you are. One should have a positive attitude. One should also prepare of alternative outcomes. Unfortunately preparing for alternative outcomes is considered a sign of weak will and insufficient manliness with the people who have run our country for the last six years. This could be a bumpy ride.

The other day after Christmas surprise was a bit artificial, a curious milestone -

    At least 36 Iraqis died Tuesday in bombings, officials said, including a coordinated strike that killed 25 in western Baghdad. Separately, the deaths of six U.S. soldiers pushed the American toll beyond the number of victims in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

So the military deaths, rising steadily in the last three months, now officially exceed the number killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington. One would guess this is something some who think the Iraq war was a useless and almost criminal diversion from the real task at hand - dealing with fanatical terrorists who want to make their points with mass killings of our citizens - finds telling. We doubled the number of dead and what do we have to show for it all? And that doesn't even account for the nearly twenty-thousand of our troops maimed - limbless or brain-damaged. But the matching figures mean little in and of themselves. It's just a bit of statistical ammunition for those who ask what we think we're accomplishing. Within a week we will be at three thousand combat deaths. That too is just a number, and will be used to ask the same question. What are we accomplishing? It's a morbid cost-benefit thing.

That's exactly how Condoleezza Rice sees it -

    This is a country that is worth the investment because once it emerges as a country that is a stabilizing factor, you'll have a very different kind of Middle East. And I know that from the point of view of not just monetary costs, but the sacrifice of American lives, a lot has been sacrificed for Iraq, a lot has been invested in Iraq.

That's from an Associated Press interview, December 21, 2006. And Merry Christmas to you too, Ms Rice.

Bill Montgomery comments -

    I once made the analogy that in the imperialism business troops equal money, so perhaps I'm not in the best position to criticize. But I was trying to sound cruel and heartless for sarcastic effect, while Condi appears to have been utterly sincere - every bit as sincere as when she described Israel's air assault on Lebanon as the "birth pangs" of the new Middle East. (How's the baby doing, Condi?)

    Maybe the simplest explanation is also the most accurate. Maybe Condi is just a cold, heartless bitch - as morally numb and sociopathic as her office husband. But these kinds of comments could also simply reflect the incredibly sheltered life Madame Supertanker appears to have led, especially since she entered the pampered, intersecting worlds of the academic, national security and corporate elites.

    There's a story from her childhood of young Condi practicing the piano in her comfortable middle-class home in Birmingham's "black bourgeois" neighborhood as her father - himself no great friend of the civil rights movement - stood guard over the house with a shotgun while Bull Connors' men blasted the demonstrators with fire hoses downtown. I have no idea whether the story is true or not, but it certainly resonates with Condi's current public persona, which is - not to put too fine a point on it - detached to the point of catatonia.

    Does Condi understand how many deaths, mutilations and wrecked lives lie behind her "investments" and "birth pangs"? Undoubtedly. Does she care? I don't know. But, from a public diplomacy point of view, it would behoove her to show some sign that she has an emotional connection to the rest of the human race - or, if she doesn't, to at least pretend that she does.

Well, she's not even pretending. And you might want to check out that noted Middle East scholar, Juan Cole on The Top Ten Myths About Iraq in 2006. It's not a pretty list.

Here are a few -

    1. Myth number one is that the United States "can still win" in Iraq. Of course, the truth of this statement, frequently still made by William Kristol and other Neoconservatives, depends on what "winning" means. But if it means the establishment of a stable, pro-American, anti-Iranian government with an effective and even-handed army and police force in the near or even medium term, then the assertion is frankly ridiculous. The Iraqi "government" is barely functioning. The parliament was not able to meet in December because it could not attain a quorum. Many key Iraqi politicians live most of the time in London, and much of parliament is frequently abroad. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki does not control large swathes of the country, and could give few orders that had any chance of being obeyed. The US military cannot shore up this government, even with an extra division, because the government is divided against itself. Most of the major parties trying to craft legislation are also linked to militias on the streets who are killing one another. It is over with. Iraq is in for years of heavy political violence of a sort that no foreign military force can hope to stop.

    The United States cannot "win" in the sense defined above. It cannot. And the blindly arrogant assumption that it can win is calculated to get more tens of thousands of Iraqis killed and more thousands of American soldiers and Marines badly wounded or killed. Moreover, since Iraq is coming apart at the seams under the impact of our presence there, there is a real danger that we will radically destabilize it and the whole oil-producing Gulf if we try to stay longer.

    2. "US military sweeps of neighborhoods can drive the guerrillas out." The US put an extra 15,000 men into Baghdad this past summer, aiming to crush the guerrillas and stop the violence in the capital, and the number of attacks actually increased. This result comes about in part because the guerrillas are not outsiders who come in and then are forced out. The Sunni Arabs of Ghazaliya and Dora districts in the capital are the "insurgents." The US military cannot defeat the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement or "insurgency" with less than 500,000 troops, based on what we have seen in the Balkans and other such conflict situations. The US destroyed Falluja, and even it and other cities of al-Anbar province are not now safe! The US military leaders on the ground have spoken of the desirability of just withdrawing from al-Anbar to Baghdad and giving up on it. In 2003, 14 percent of Sunni Arabs thought it legitimate to attack US personnel and facilities. In August, 2006, over 70 percent did. How long before it is 100%? Winning guerrilla wars requires two victories, a military victory over the guerrillas and a winning of the hearts and minds of the general public, thus denying the guerrillas support. The US has not and is unlikely to be able to repress the guerrillas, and it is losing hearts and minds at an increasing and alarming rate. They hate us, folks. They don't want us there.

    … 8. "Iraq is the central front in the war on terror." From the beginning of history until 2003 there had never been a suicide bombing in Iraq. There was no al-Qaeda in Baath-ruled Iraq. When Baath intelligence heard that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi might have entered Iraq, they grew alarmed at such an "al-Qaeda" presence and put out an APB on him! Zarqawi's so-called "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia" was never "central" in Iraq and was never responsible for more than a fraction of the violent attacks. This assertion is supported by the outcome of a US-Jordanian operation that killed Zarqawi this year. His death had no impact whatsoever on the level of violence. There are probably only about 1,000 foreign fighters even in Iraq, and most of them are first-time volunteers, not old-time terrorists. The 50 major guerrilla cells in Sunni Arab Iraq are mostly made up of Iraqis, and are mainly: 1) Baathist or neo-Baathist, 2) Sunni revivalist or Salafi, 3) tribally-based, or 4) based in city quarters. Al-Qaeda is mainly a boogey man, invoked in Iraq on all sides, but possessing little real power or presence there. This is not to deny that radical Sunni Arab volunteers come to Iraq to blow things (and often themselves) up. They just are not more than an auxiliary to the big movements, which are Iraqi.

    9. "The Sunni Arab guerrillas in places like Ramadi will follow the US home to the American mainland and commit terrorism if we leave Iraq." This assertion is just a variation on the invalid domino theory. People in Ramadi only have one beef with the United States. Its troops are going through their wives' underwear in the course of house searches every day. They don't want the US troops in their town or their homes, dictating to them that they must live under a government of Shiite clerics and Kurdish warlords (as they think of them). If the US withdrew and let the Iraqis work out a way to live with one another, people in Ramadi will be happy. They are not going to start taking flight lessons and trying to get visas to the US. This argument about following us, if it were true, would have prevented us from ever withdrawing from anyplace once we entered a war there. We'd be forever stuck in the Philippines for fear that Filipino terrorists would follow us back home. Or Korea (we moved 15,000 US troops out of South Korea not so long ago. Was that unwise? Are the thereby liberated Koreans now gunning for us?) Or how about the Dominican Republic? Haiti? Grenada? France? The argument is a crock.

Click on the link for the other six. It won't make you happy.

But then, the third item from the news the day after Christmas was that, using our advisors, combat aircraft we provided, munitions we provided, the Ethiopian government suddenly bombed the crap out of Somalia in what looked like an all-out proxy war for us - just one more effort by our government to teach us the geography of obscure places. Was this a minor matter? Maybe.

Jeffrey Gettleman in the New York Times opens with this - "Islamist forces in Somalia beat a hasty retreat today to their stronghold in Mogadishu, Somalia's battle-scared capital, crumbling faster than anyone expected after a week of attacks by Ethiopian forces."

We are fighting Islamist forces everywhere, even when we're not. And the UN, again, isn't pleased -

    The top U.N. envoy in Somalia urged the U.N. Security Council to call for an immediate cease-fire between Ethiopian forces backing Somalia's weak government and the powerful Islamic militia that controls most of the country, saying talks are the only way to solve the conflict.

    Qatar, which holds the council presidency, circulated a draft presidential statement calling for an immediate cease-fire and the immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces, specifying Ethiopian troops.

    But other council members - including the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and African members Ghana and Tanzania - objected to singling out Ethiopia and calling for an immediate withdrawal, saying an urgent resumption of talks between the parties and a political agreement are essential to achieve stability before foreign forces withdraw.

In short, it's a mess. We used Ethiopia to clean out the bad guys, but the Ethiopians were only doing what they should do, or something like that. It's war, everywhere.

Via a good discussion of this by Matthew Yglesias, relying heavily on the Washington Post coverage of the new Somalia-Ethiopia war, much of this can be untangled. It has to do with the premises of our policy in the Horn of Africa -

    … Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia "along with the United States, has accused the [Islamic Courts] movement of harboring terrorists" but this is "an allegation it has denied." Neither Ethiopia nor the United States is prepared to provide names of any terrorists who are being harbored. Meanwhile, "Opposition groups inside Ethiopia say that Meles, an increasingly authoritarian leader, has shrewdly played up the terrorism charges to win U.S. support." We're going along with this because "based in part on intelligence out of Ethiopia, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi E. Frazer has asserted that the Islamic movement is now under the control of an al-Qaeda cell, a claim that regional analysts believe is exaggerated."

    … In other words, we're backing Ethiopia's war against Somalia because intelligence provided by the Ethiopian government suggests we should back Ethiopia. But what else would the intelligence say? The US government's conflict with the Islamic Courts began because "the United States financed warlords in Somalia who described themselves as an 'anti-terrorism coalition' but who mostly terrorized local Somalis, who came to despise them." This "anti-terrorism coalition" was nothing other than the exact same warlords who ruined the country in the 1990s renaming themselves for the post-9/11 era.

    … Can someone ask Tony Snow or George W. Bush or Condoleezza Rice or Steven Hadley to name the terrorists the Islamic Courts are harboring? To explain what we've tried to do to secure their custody short of backing a full-scale Ethiopian invasion of Somalia?

There's also the State Department's counterterrorism country report on Somalia, which doesn't make things sound "al Qaeda dire" all that -

    Somalia's lack of a functioning central government, protracted state of violent instability, long unguarded coastline, porous borders, and proximity to the Arabian Peninsula made it a potential location for international terrorists seeking a transit or launching point to conduct operations elsewhere.

    Regional efforts to bring about national reconciliation and establish peace and stability in Somalia are ongoing. Although the ability of Somali local and regional authorities to carry out counterterrorism activities is constrained, some have taken limited actions in this direction.

    While numerous Islamist groups engaged in a broad range of activities operate inside Somalia, few of these organizations have any known links to terrorist activities. Movements such as Harakat al-Islah (al-Islah), Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa (ASWJ), and Majma Ulimadda Islaamka ee Soomaaliya (Majma') sought power by political rather than violent means and pursued political action via missionary or charity work. Missionary Islamists, such as followers of the Tablighi sect and the "New Salafis" generally renounce explicit political activism. Other Islamist organizations became providers of basic health, education, and commercial services, and were perceived by some as pursuing a strategy to take political power.

    In the 1990s, members of the Somalia-based al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI) periodically committed terrorist acts, primarily in Ethiopia. AIAI rose to prominence following the collapse of Somalia's central government in 1991, with the goal of creating a pan-Somali Islamic state in the Horn of Africa. In recent years the existence of a coherent entity operating as AIAI has become difficult to prove. At most, AIAI was highly factionalized and diffuse, and its membership difficult to define. Some elements associated with the former AIAI are sympathetic to al-Qaida and maintained ties with it, and may continue to pose a threat to U.S. and Western interests in the region.

    Other shadowy groups that have appeared in Somalia are suspected of having committed terrorist acts against Western interests in the region, or considered capable of doing so. Very little is known about movements such as al-Takfir wal-Hijra (al-Takfir), but the extremist ideology and violent character of takfiri groups elsewhere suggest that the movement merits close monitoring.

These are local bad guys. We've decided they're in league with the top bad guys and must be taken out, but the wimpy State Department says they're really not that organized or even connected to anything much.

Yglesias -

    So to be clear, unless I'm reading this wrong the number of individuals who've organized, planned, or committed terrorist attacks against the United States of America now being sheltered in Somalia is… zero.

    There are Somali groups who've carried out attacks against Ethiopia. And "some elements associated with the former AIAI are sympathetic to al-Qaida and maintained ties with it, and may continue to pose a threat to U.S. and Western interests in the region."

    Now ask yourself how many Somali Islamists are going to sympathize with al-Qaeda once US-backed Ethiopian forces have shattered the closest thing to an effective government that country has had since 1991.

We like to make enemies, don't we?

And there's Major Kelley Thibodeau, spokeswoman for the task force of American military personnel based in nearby in Djibouti protesting we didn't do anything, really - "Officially, we haven't put anybody in Somalia. The Americans don't go forward with the Ethiopians. They are training Ethiopians in Ethiopia."

One is reminded of Kennedy sending "advisors" into Vietnam. They were just advisors. The rest is history.

See Salim Lone, who was the spokesman for the UN mission in Iraq in 2003, now a columnist for The Daily Nation in Kenya, in the International Herald Tribune with In Somalia, A Reckless US Proxy War -

    Undeterred by the horrors and setbacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, the Bush administration has opened another battlefront in the Muslim world. With full U.S. backing and military training, at least 15,000 Ethiopian troops have entered Somalia in an illegal war of aggression against the Union of Islamic Courts, which controls almost the entire south of the country.

    As with Iraq in 2003, the United States has cast this as a war to curtail terrorism, but its real goal is to obtain a direct foothold in a highly strategic region by establishing a client regime there. The Horn of Africa is newly oil-rich, and lies just miles from Saudi Arabia, overlooking the daily passage of large numbers of oil tankers and warships through the Red Sea. General John Abizaid, the current U.S. military chief of the Iraq war, was in Ethiopia this month, and President Hu Jintao of China visited Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia earlier this year to pursue oil and trade agreements.

    The U.S. instigation of war between Ethiopia and Somalia, two of world's poorest countries already struggling with massive humanitarian disasters, is reckless in the extreme. Unlike in the run-up to Iraq, independent experts, including from the European Union, were united in warning that this war could destabilize the whole region even if America succeeds in its goal of toppling the Islamic Courts.

    An insurgency by Somalis, millions of whom live in Kenya and Ethiopia, will surely ensue, and attract thousands of new anti-US militants and terrorists.

He goes on, unhappy, but we have our foreign policy - stir things up everywhere. And this may not even be good for the home team - "Ethiopia is at even greater risk, as a dictatorship with little popular support and beset also by two large internal revolts, by the Ogadenis and Oromos. It is also mired in a conflict with Eritrea, which has denied it secure access to seaports."

One wonders how much of the world we wish to throw into turmoil, with new raging regional wars. That cannot be the plan. But there you have it.

And it was to be a slow news week.


Readers here might note that Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, the base of our new Ethiopian effort, has come up before in these pages - July 11, 2004, Djibouti and the July Surprise. It has come around again. See Stanley A. Weiss, the founder and chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, with After Iraq, A New U.S. Military Model, 26 December 2006, in the International Herald Tribune. This is a discussion of how Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, the brainchild of General John Abizaid, is the new model of "light footprint" US military operations - no massive bases to offend the locals, just "lily pads" for quick operations. Abizaid knows his stuff, and he knows how to work with local cultures. The item was written before Abizaid resigned, as he was one of those generals who opposed the upcoming big surge of tens of thousands of more troops into Iraq right now, as he thought, and said, that would make things worse. There was no longer room for him in the Army as the president saw its role - overwhelming force and swaggering intimidation to get folks to do what we want. Abizaid will be fine on the lecture circuit.

This item posted December 31, 2006

[When the News Broke]

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