Saturday, May 29, 2004

CROSS AND DOUBLE-CROSS

What exactly is it that happened in Iraq with the announcement by the IGC that Iyad Allawi will be the next Prime Minister? It is obvious that, whatever the murky process that the parties were supposed to follow, this was not it. Both the UN and the US government were caught off guard. The rest we have to guess at, but some pretty good guesses can be made by first considering the people who make up the IGC.

We know that the IGC will disappear when the new Iraqi government is formed, and from that simple fact we can deduce much. If you have never been in a position to see US diplomats forcefully shape events and policy in a third world country, it is an eye opening experience (I witnessed much of this in Outer Mongolia when I lived there). Diplomats know how to carry the power and wealth of the US in their dealings. If the diplomats want something to happen, they have a wide variety of sticks and carrots to choose from, and they can be both charming and persuasive while using them. When the IGC was being put together, it is very reasonable to assume that more carrots than sticks were used when convincing candidates to join the IGC. Thus, with collective high expectations for gains at both the personal and national level and with the full faith, credit, and armed might of the US behind them, Iraqi exiles and nationals joined the IGC.

Whatever the newly minted members of the IGC expected, it was probably different from what they got. Being a member of the IGC was probably good for several months, even though Bremer made almost all the real decisions. For both those IGC members who wanted lucre from their positions and for those who wanted stability and justice for Iraq from their positions, it was probably a disappointment to be less influential than they had expected. After a few months, however, sharper disappointments were probably felt when the personal security of IGC members degraded. Instead of Iraq becoming safer and safer with time, it was becoming less and less stable and attempts on the lives of IGC members were becoming more and more professional and coordinated. IGC members who expected to play a key and respected role in a transition period and probably expected to play a key and respected/profitable role in a longer-term government found themselves the object of derision and aggression among Iraqis.

Look at these IGC members for a moment in the context of the normal humans that they are: They expected much, and were probably promised much by the US during the formation phase, but those expectations were dashed and it became very apparent that they were all going to be cut loose when a new government was appointed, and their expectations of power and wealth would be replaced by very real worries about what would happen to them when they were no longer powerful, no longer guarded, and no longer living in the green zone. Understandably, they were worried about the consequences of being seen as the tools of the US after the US no longer had any use for them. Thus, we can see the IGC is a group of talented, intelligent, worried people who are very, very motivated to keep power. And by engineering a solution among themselves and announcing one of their own as Prime Minister, they have implemented a plan that will, they hope, result in assuring their security and meeting their other longer-term goals, however noble or ignoble.

If the above informed speculation is anywhere near the mark, we can make some guesses about what is to come:

1. Brahimi’s job will get more and more complicated as the IGC tries to control the process and put their own people into positions of power.
2. The new government will coalesce quickly, and will demand a continuation of high levels of US troop support and project funding. At the same time, the government will work against US objectives in order to begin building their political base among the people.
3. Many people in the new government will be pursuing many different and often conflicting agendas, and a huge amount of energy and resources will be spent on misdirected efforts, personality conflicts, and deliberation. In sum, the new government will function as a collection of individuals and not as a team and will be very weak and opportunistic.
4. The US will not be happy at all with the progress in Iraq or the cost attached to it.

So, there you have it: My guess as to what went on and what will happen next. Time will tell.

-Scott Christiansen

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Are You Safer Now Than You Were a Year Ago?

The idea that there are thousands and tens of thousands of emergent but dedicated terrorists around the world that want to kill us is not an idea that most Americans can easily grasp. The idea that a loose-knit group hates us sufficiently to seek both to kill us and roll back our global cultural reach is not an idea that we can readily take to – it simply does not fit with the image we think we have in the world.

Because we cannot imagine that we are so reviled by so many, we have almost automatically accepted the Bush administration message that the attacks of September 11 were primarily the work of one evil leader – Osama bin Laden – and that by simply killing bin Laden and his upper-tier management we could eliminate most of the terrorist threat we now live under. But in accepting the wishful thinking that our problems are rooted in a few men, we make the fatal mistake of not understanding our situation or our enemy. The truth is, Osama bin Laden was the inspiration and leadership in 2001. Today, thousands and thousands of newly minted, radicalized terrorists-in-training have taken his place and they need only the actions of the Bush administration for their inspiration.

The Bush administration rushed opportunistically to war in Iraq, trampling on truth, honor, and principle to do so. In the very many things they failed to take into account in this rush, we can add that they failed to – or refused to – understand how and why we are so hated and who it is that hates us. This was a critical error, for gaining this knowledge would have and should have informed strategy and that strategy doubtless would have tilted toward a war that was primarily diplomatic in nature and focused on long-term goals. Instead, America got a war that gave us an opportunity to strike – and strike hard – at someone we really didn’t like who also happened to live in the same general continent as our perceived enemies. This smack-down has already cost us more than $150 billion dollars and close to 5,000 dead and wounded Americans. By all counts, the costs will be much greater before we are done. With an investment on this scale, we really should be asking one critical question: Are we safer today than we were a year ago?

Measuring our safety can be tricky, especially if we try to factor in such things as the ability of Homeland Security to discover and foil attacks, progress in developing bio-shields and the number of missile defense systems installed on commercial airliners. However, there is an easier way to measure our safety and it is this: Are there more or less people in the world today who hate us? There is also a useful follow-up question: Are there more or less people in the world who are our devoted and loyal friends and defenders?

One measure of security is trying to define the number of people who are actively working to kill Americans. But there is much, much more to defining our safety than numbering those who openly hate us. If we are to try and calculate our current situation and the work it will take to return our level of safety merely to where it was one and two years ago, we must take into account the massive yet subtle shift in world opinion toward us. This is because our security is derived not from our armed forces and satellites, but from the daily sum of opinions and interactions between the more than six billion people on this earth. For instance, when we compare the prevailing attitude of, say, the French toward us now and toward us in late September of 2001, it is obvious that there has been a very significant cooling. When an entire country swings from ardent sympathy for America to exasperation and resentment in two years, it effects our security. The effect might not be obvious, but it might be significant. For instance, law agencies in France and other countries might be incrementally less willing to share data with us or turn suspects over to us, fearing a politicized application of their data or torture of the suspects. The net effect is a subtle erosion of security. What is true on a nation-to-nation level is true on a person-to-person level. Take, for instance, a Muslim cab driver in Indonesia who three years ago would not have dreamed of countenancing talk of terrorism or aggression toward the United States by, say, his nephew. But now, after the systematic efforts at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere to humiliate Muslim men, the taxi driver has shifted his position be a degree or more away from the United States. Now the taxi driver is silent when his newly radicalized nephew denounces America and calls for revenge and thus the first life of defense for America has fallen The taxi driver shifted his opinion marginally away from America and marginally toward revenge. Now multiply that shift by at least 500 million Muslims that the Bush administration has made a determined effort to offend and radicalize.

A neo-conservative would here swagger a little and point out that we have the ability to project force and we can easily kill taxi drivers in Indonesia. Then, after a little chest-thumping, the neo-conservative would probably also add that we have an unparalleled ability to intercept communications and monitor people all over the world. This line of reasoning proves exactly why neo-conservatives miss the point: We shouldn’t want or need to monitor people all over the world. It costs money to track them, and more money and lives to capture or some of them kill them. And when we do kill them, it can create sufficient sympathy and outrage that three will stand up where the one fell down. The neo-conservative Bush approach and attitude thus essentially advocates unending war – a hawks dream and the sure sign of an empire’s decline.

The effect of opinion shift on a global basis does not just impact on physical security – it also impacts financial security. Do you really think that American cultural exports (music, movies, books) and commercial exports (machinery, goods, electronics, etc.) are not impacted by a shift in opinion away from things American? When we lose some fraction of export markets and lose jobs, we lose some fraction of security.

The points I am trying to make here are pretty simple: 1: We improve our security when we improve our respect in the world. 2: It is worth our while to understand our situation and understand our enemy, and use that understanding to formulate a long-range plan that restores our security. 3: It is better to be respected than to be feared, and respect only comes to those who are truthful, those who sincerely seek and give justice, and those who are transparent.

It is worth noting that the Bush administration disdains and has trampled on all three points above. The very predictable result? Six billion people have shifted ever so slightly away from us and we are far, far less safe now than we were a year ago. We cannot stay this course.

-Scott Christiansen


Tuesday, May 11, 2004

TURNING POINTS

King Canute The Great (r. 1016-1035) had his sumptuous throne carried to the seashore and placed just above surf line. With his entourage surrounding him, he sat on his throne and solemnly held his hand aloft, commanding the tide and waves to cease. To the dismay of his advisors and flunkies, the next wave licked at the King’s boots. King Canute held up his hands and again ordered the sea to stop. Not persuaded, the tide kept coming in until the king, waves breaking in his lap, decamped with his court. It was a turning point.

George W. Bush, another son of privilege and another leader in a time of war and projection of power, turned to his Secretary of Defense and solemnly said, “Mr. Secretary, thank you for your hospitality, and thank you for your leadership. You are courageously leading our nation in the war against terror. You’re doing a superb job. You are a strong Secretary of Defense, and our nation owes you a debt of gratitude.” It was another turning point.

The odd thing is, though, these leaders were turning in different directions. King Canute had ordered his chair to the seaside to make a point with his deceiving and sycophantic court, who insisted on flattering him and attributing to him intellect and powers and influence that he did not possess. They claimed he could do anything, and, in doing so, forced themselves to give false and twisted advise that resulted in false and twisted policy. According to the legend, King Canute forced his court to stand in the water with him and concede that he was only a man and, as such, could not stop the sea by command. Apparently, it took a while for all advisors to admit to their folly. When they got out of the water, the King used the foundation provided by the object lesson to drive home a point: No more lies, no more exaggeration, no more running the kingdom based on a perverse fantasy.

George W. Bush is, I think, not a student of history or legend. When he used the term “superb” to describe the performance of his Secretary of Defense, he was explicitly choosing to extend his administration’s use of fantasy and deception as a foundation for policy and planning. This choice is far more than disappointing; it is wrenching.

The systemic abuse and torture in Iraq is a logical end of the policies the Bush Administration has crafted and pursued. We got into Iraq through a series of fabrications that convinced most Americans and almost every member of Congress that there was a direct link between Osama bin Laden and Iraq, and that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction poised to use or pass on to terrorists. Then we sent in a small, light force to topple the government of Iraq and turn the country into a democracy. Our military did a great job toppling the country, but they were grossly undermanned and untrained for the task of nation building – and this was completely due to Secretary Rumsfeld’s desire to use Iraq as a scale demonstration of his “leaner,faster” military model. At the same time, our media and government demonized Islamists and swept away the Geneva Convention limits that try to keep men from turning into beasts. In the end it was untrained, unsupervised enlisted personnel under the sway of Military Intelligence, CIA, and mercenary interrogators that acted on the platform of Bush lies, demonization, and misplaced blame. They tortured, raped, and killed Iraqi’s –apparently in most cases totally innocent Iraqi’s- for two reasons: They could, and, the environment created by the Bush administration said they should. Ironically, the result of their actions, which is to say, the result of the Bush Administration’s prosecution of the “war on terror” is the birth of ten thousand Osama bin Ladins throughout an outraged and newly radicalized Islam. Americans will be dealing with the fallout from George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld for decades to come, and we will be doing it without the advantage of high moral ground or the sympathy of the world.

When faced with the reality of utter policy failure, George W. Bush had an opportunity to roll back the lies and sweep away his determinedly evil –some say treasonous- counselors and advisors. Instead, he chose to revise and extend the lies and fabrications that have clothed his actions. In front of the world, he has praised the architect of tragically failed US policy and the Iraqi torture system as “superb”. Unlike King Canute, George W. Bush clearly needs advisors who tell him lies, who prop him up, who tell him smooth things that mesh with and sustain the untenable beliefs he holds and thus dispel the threatening facts the world is thrusting at him with increasing urgency. Thus it is that, when the President sees Iraq aflame and pictures of torture at the hands of Americans, he has to praise his team all the more loudly.

King Canute demonstrated he was a wise man and is remembered as “The Great”. George Bush has demonstrated he is a weak, amoral, and craven man. History will remember him as well.

-Scott Christiansen