Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

The Thinker

Iraq: what now?

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything about Iraq. Unfortunately, Iraq is very much in the news, since a Sunni fundamentalist army called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) now occupies most of Western Iraq, not to mention portions of Syria. Recently it captured the Iraqi city of Mosul and is now threatening Baghdad itself. The Iraqi Army doesn’t much resemble an army, as it is retreating quickly from combat. Many are concerned that ISIS will capture Baghdad and create a state in fact, not just in name. Life in this fundamentalist Sunni state is likely to be quite fundamental, as in crazy Muslim fundamentalist. Some here in the United States worry that this new state will sponsor international terrorism and bring it to the United States.

In that unfortunate event, well, mission accomplished I guess, since it is principally these same neoconservatives that pushed us to invade Iraq in the first place. (I predicted the debacle from all this back in 2003, as posts like this will attest.) We let this genie out of the bottle. Naturally many of these same neoconservatives are now arguing that we need to put U.S. troops back into Iraq to clean up this mess. Some are castigating President Obama for removing our residual troops in Iraq in the first place.

These people are great at selective memory, such as forgetting that they believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. More to the point though, if they are going to wag their fingers, they might want to wag them at Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who adamantly insisted that all our residual troops had to go since our presence was causing instability and he had a handle on the security situation. More selective memory: it was President Bush who before he left office set 2011 as the date when all our troops would come home. Yeah, whatever, it’s all Obama’s fault.

To his credit, President Obama has already said that U.S. troops will not be going back into Iraq. He has not ruled out other military options to assist the Iraqi government. Airstrikes are one option that Obama is seriously considering. It’s possible airstrikes might stop the advance of ISIS troops, but in the end this is a lost cause. That’s because, as I pointed out in 2006, Iraq is a nation is name only. (I noticed this post has been getting significant hits these last few days.) The Kurds have pretty much declared their own country, but cling to the political fiction that they are a semi-autonomous part of Iraq, mainly because it is easier to be ignored this way. No matter, al-Maliki has no time for the Kurds, who aren’t attacking him and simply want to be left alone. ISIS is his real problem.

The truth is Iraq has mostly always been a state in name only. Created by the British after World War One under a League of Nations mandate, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the British got tired of managing the place and let it run itself. The Ba’ath Party, managed to create a fractured state glued together mostly through tyranny. Its principle despot and tyrant of course was Saddam Hussein, who we imagined was training terrorists and creating stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons to lob at us. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein simply proved what historians already knew: Iraq wasn’t much of an autonomous country.

Curiously, we now seem to be sort of aligned with our enemy Iran at the moment, which is sending advisors to help in the battle against ISIS. Who knows how this will all play out, but if ISIS is smart it will control the Sunni parts of Iraq and stop there. This is because ultimately they have a losing hand trying to make Shi’ites in eastern Iraq follow their version of Islamic law. So most likely after many more battles Iraq will cease to exist as a country, unless the eastern and Shi’ite part of the country decides to go by that name.

There is no point in investing more money and blood to try to change these ethnic and religious dynamics. It’s as futile as building dykes and seawalls will prove to be to stop sea level rise due to climate change. What the United States can and should do is work to isolate whatever new nation emerges. To think though that through military force, or intelligence, or smart bombs we can really change the situation is delusional. Naturally, the neoconservatives promoting these insane ideas are as delusional today as they were eleven years ago when they started this whole mess. Regardless, something like this was bound to happen eventually. The United States turned out to be the catalyst of change, but at some point the Ba’ath Party would have lost control of Iraq anyhow, and something resembling these current problems would have arisen.

My belief is that another Islamic state in this area is inevitable. I also believe the fastest way to get rid of it is to let it come to fruition. I’m not saying the United States should actively help it happen, but that over time this state will go through a political process anyhow, much like Iran’s, most likely. With a few weird exceptions like North Korea or Zimbabwe, oppressive states don’t tend to have much staying power. Today in Iran, pretty much every house that can afford it has a satellite dish picking up illegal channels. The modern world is out there. Attempts to try to repress it won’t work forever. Resistance will eventually build from within and something more progressive will emerge. We can indirectly or covertly assist this process, but we should not risk life or limb to do so.

The truth is that the fundamentalist Islamic revolution sweeping much of the Muslim World is a Muslim problem. Yes, there is some remote possibility that it will result in real danger to our actual national security, which is not our “status” in the world but danger to our homeland and the economic order of the world. Many lives will be lost in these Islamic countries, and huge numbers of people in these countries will be traumatized and/or displaced. I obviously don’t like that this is happening and will continue happening, but I don’t think it can be stopped by external agents like us. I would argue that Israel’s national security is actually enhanced by these conflicts, providing they don’t spill over into Israel itself. Muslims killing Muslims have no time to kill Jews.

The 21st century is likely to be very messy. Most likely we will be occupied by problems closer to home: displacement due to sea level rise due to global change, not to mention the chronic problem of displaced and oppressed people coming into the United States, such as the heartbreaking influx of unaccompanied children escaping kidnapping and death in unstable countries in Central America. Arguably, simply keeping our nation together will be a huge challenge. Red America seems increasingly antagonized by Blue America and visa versa, and there are many in Red America anxious to start a new civil war.

We are fulfilling the Chinese curse of living in interesting times. We sure don’t have to make it more interesting, however, which is why we need to stay as disengaged in Iraq as possible and let this sad sectarian and religious conflict play itself out.

 
The Thinker

A bad dream realized: Iraq 10 years later

Sometimes you hate being right. Today on the 10th anniversary of our counterproductive invasion of Iraq, I looked back on my post dated March 17, 2003 are realized, tragically, I called this war right from the start.

Ideology is dangerous. If you have ideology, you don’t have to worry about whether an action is advised or ill advised. You know you are right because your ideology tells you that you are right. That’s the sort of immovable force that is George W. Bush. Morality has become a substitute for critical thinking. Circled by his coterie of advisers who only reinforce his inclinations, he does not feel dissent. When antiwar protesters come to town he is conveniently at Camp David.

If you have ideology you can pretend that our forces spread out across Iraq won’t be a target for every fanatical Muslim in the region, and there are plenty. You can pretend that because we can “liberate” Iraq, that the Iraqi people will love us, even though they hold us responsible for years of sanctions. You can ignore the minor problem that Muslims will consider our occupation something like a holy war, and that they will see us as Christians on a Crusade.

This is what “your either with us or against us” gets us as a nation: virtually the whole world is against our preemptive war. Close to half of the American people are against it too. This sort of attitude causes only further polarization, making compromise impossible.

I am deeply ashamed of our president, and aghast at what our country is about to do in the name of peace. We will not have peace, we will only be throwing more gasoline on the fire. Why do they hate us? We will be giving them plenty more reasons, rest assured.

Please tell me this isn’t happening. Please tell me this is all a bad dream.

To the people of Iraq: I am so ashamed by what we did to you and your country. Some of us tried really hard to stop this counterproductive war. Sadly, we were drowned out by an overwhelming chorus of “if you are not with us, you are against us” so-called patriots. Still we marched, we hollered, we wrote our representatives, we petitioned. It was just not enough.

 
The Thinker

Iraq and Afghanistan: the folly slowly winds down

The end result will be a gradual deterioration and failure of both endeavors [Iraq and Afghanistan] as casualties and costs go through the roof and as Americans grow tired of a conflict with no clear exit criteria. Eventually we will declare a weak victory and leave, but no one will be fooled: we will have had our hands burnt and will be unlikely to indulge in such reckless military adventurism for the foreseeable future.

Occam’s Razor
November 3, 2003

It won’t be like the final episode of M*A*S*H. When the final helicopter with U.S. soldiers flies out of the Green Zone by the end of this month, there will be no “Goodbye” spelled out in rocks on the ground below. For the vast majority of Iraqis, if anything were to be written to express their feelings about our war and occupation, it would be “Good Riddance”. It took us eight long years, at least a trillion dollars in direct costs and likely three trillion or more dollars in final costs, not to mention at least 4,483 casualties just in Iraq to do what exactly? Do we even remember why we invaded Iraq in the first place?

Most Americans have forgotten. We tuned out the Iraq War around 2007 and to the extent we focused on our soldiers overseas, we turned our attention to Afghanistan instead. Just in case you forgot, we had to invade Iraq because it had weapons of mass destruction that it was getting ready to unleash against our allies and us. You knew it was true because in front of the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed to satellite photos of railroad cars that he said contained portable chemical laboratories that made nerve gas and other internationally outlawed chemical agents. Those weapons of mass destruction were right there!

Except of course they were not but once invaded for a mistake we found it inconvenient to quietly leave. We had won an unnecessary war in Iraq, but almost immediately lost the peace. Iraq, held together by Saddam Hussein’s terror, quickly split into its ethnic factions that quickly got back to doing what they used to do when there was no strongman: wage religious and ethnic war on each other. To enforce something resembling peace, we compartmentalized much of Baghdad into ethnic enclaves complete with two story concrete high separation walls and what feels even today like a billion checkpoints. It never stopped the violence. Nothing really did, although it was curious that violence seemed to at least ebb the more our soldiers stayed on base.

Yes, by the end of the month we will be out, except for the 16,000 or so Americans who will be attached to our embassy in the Green Zone. It’s unclear to me why we need 16,000 Americans in the Green Zone, particularly after talking with a former ambassador to Iraq in the 1980s (who happens to be a member of my church) who oversaw what was then the doubling of staff in Iraq, to 32 people.

Supposedly we are leaving behind a peaceful and stable Iraq, but of course this is a lie. Bombings continue regularly, but rarely make the news these days because they have become so routine. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to be imitating the dictator we toppled. Security in Baghdad and elsewhere, to the extent it exists, is handled by troops sworn to loyalty to him. al-Maliki also takes after Saddam Hussein because he has no problem with torturing his fellow citizens, although perhaps he is less egregious in it than Hussein was. One major change: al-Maliki is a Shi’ite where Hussein was a Sunni. Just as Hussein found it convenient to keep a few trusted Shi’ites on the staff, al-Maliki seems to have found it convenient to keep some Sunnis on the staff as well. It’s unclear if democracy has really taken hold in Iraq or not, but it there is plenty of evidence, like with recent elections in Russia, that there is mucho ballot stuffing. Maybe this is a sign of progress.

In any case, our American soldiers leave with a whimper, not a bang, and we will be lucky if our last soldiers only have shoes thrown at them as we exit. President Obama can at least take credit for getting us out of Iraq. We leave behind a country still very much at civil war, but with a shell of a democracy and a three trillion dollar price tag.

Over in Afghanistan, things are not that dissimilar. The government of president Hamid Karsi is thoroughly corrupt, and we don’t like it, but largely choose to do nothing about it. Corrupt Afghani governments are as Afghani as apple pies represent the taste of American, so there is not much new here except that the Taliban, at least for the moment, are not in charge, at least not in Kabul. It seems likely that they will be shortly after we make our own Goodbye, Farewell and Amen episode. Thanks to our largess, they might be able to be bought off, at least for a while, buying us a few years of the illusion of leaving Afghanistan as a stable democracy. Most likely the Taliban are more religious than idolaters of American manna. The good news is that the Taliban probably have learned one lesson: don’t let al Qaeda and their affiliates set up shop, or out come our cruise missiles and special forces. Otherwise, we won’t care if they oppress their women and decapitate errant sinners in their public squares again. Well, we will certainly denounce it, but we won’t do anything to stop it. The bottom line: sponsoring terror is okay, just not against our interests or us.

But American troops can’t leave Afghanistan quite yet. Obama first has to wind the conflict down in stages, and leave it just stable enough for us to skedaddle out of there as well without too many mortars hurdled at us as we exit. All bets are off, of course, if a Republican wins the presidency in 2012. Republicans seem pathologically unable not to flex military muscle, except for maybe Ron Paul, which might be a reason to vote for him.

Within a few years we should have wound down both conflicts. The cost of our adventure proved ruinous, as I predicted, but did plenty to keep the defense industry alive. What have we won? Arguably we succeeded in wiping out al Qaeda, now a shadow of its former self. This likely could have been done without invading Afghanistan, and certainly without the folly of invading and occupying Iraq. If we take as a lesson learned to stop invading foreign countries that annoy us, perhaps that will justify the cost in the long run. Our history since Vietnam though suggests we won’t retain our lessons for long, so we are probably doomed to repeat the lesson. Perhaps next time though our creditors will just say no. The perhaps we will learn to make peace instead of war. Here’s hoping.

 
The Thinker

Our Afghanistan folly

So General Stanley McChrystal has been fired by President Obama for remarks to a Rolling Store reporter that disparaged he and top officials. General David Petraeus will assume his duties as the top commander in Afghanistan. Obama is expecting that Petraeus will succeed in Afghanistan like he “succeeded” in Iraq.

There is no question that Petraeus made a bad situation much better in Iraq. However, it is premature to call Iraq a success. Bombings, ethnic and religious-driven murders continue daily in Iraq, albeit at a reduced level compared to the height of violence in 2006 and 2007. Its government remains shaky at best, corrupt and unable to provide many basic services, including dependable electricity. With luck, something resembling a real and stable government may eventually emerge.

We won’t care. Once the last American troops leave Iraq, it will become just a bad memory. Of course, we don’t really plan to wholly exit Iraq. The 50,000 troops that remain are there primarily as catastrophe insurance. Fifty thousand troops won’t help much should Iraq devolve into a large scale civil war, but if used strategically they might prevent a fragile country from devolving back into a civil war. At least the level of violence is down in Iraq. However, this is largely due to our withdrawal. It’s harder to work up a dander when the people you hate the most are no longer patrolling your neighborhoods and killing your friends and neighbors.

Iraq and Afghanistan have vastly different cultures and climates, but they do share some similarities. Both have a history of corruption, shaky governments, foreign occupations and playing pawn in larger superpower conflicts. The success of the otherwise reviled Taliban was in part due to their ability to inject something like rule of law in a country that rarely had it before. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan quite qualifies as countries because there is not enough commonality to bind together the ethnic factions into something resembling a nation. Nationhood seems only possible during dictatorships like Saddam Hussein’s or when inflicted by repressive local powers like the Taliban. Resistance to foreign occupation is the major uniting factor among these disparate tribes. Loose federations are a more natural fit than strong centralized government, when they work at all.

So given this history, what can we expect in the way of accomplishments in Afghanistan from the wonderful General Petraeus? It’s not hard to figure out and we are seeing it unfold already. First, the government (to the extent it exists) will continue to be corrupt. Petraeus really cannot do anything about that. Second, the level of violence and our casualties will be directly proportional to the number of our troops in the country. Third, and this is really what matters the most, anything we do to bring about a stable government will at best have a very temporary effect.

Since the country has no history of strong and effective central government, in all likelihood the Afghanistan we imagine will never evolve into it. Yet, without an effective central government, any hope we have that its government will, by proxy, control the Taliban for us is just not possible.

Petraeus will try strategies similar to those he used in Iraq. Those strategies have had mixed success. Some of the local Sunni militias that he sponsored felt betrayed when the U.S. withdrew, leaving them outnumbered by larger groups of Shi’ites out to wreak revenge. Expect Petraeus to say that we cannot start to bring troops home in 2011. President Obama seems to already be tacitly agreeing, saying that people are getting too wrapped up around dates. In short, the groundwork is being prepared for an even more extended American occupation. On the surface, this is kind of nuts because our war in Afghanistan is now our longest war. In a few months, we will be beginning our tenth year of war in the country.

This strategy is something akin to making a basket from center court on a first try. It is theoretically possible, but the odds are maybe one in five hundred. Why is our strategy doomed? There are too many risky variables.

  • First, the vast majority of Afghans see us as hostile occupiers, not friends. Why would you take advice from your enemy?
  • Second, corruption is everywhere and deep seated. Our military is contributing to it by giving payola to warlords there to move supplies in.
  • Third, the strong central government we crave has never really existed in Afghanistan before. If it can be created at all, it will take decades to achieve, not eighteen months. Still, this throw from center court might be worth taking if it could be attempted at a reasonable cost, but it is already proving ruinous. Since 2001, we have spent around $280 billion just on our war in Afghanistan.
  • Fourth, the Afghan army is even less coherent than Iraq’s army, rife with the usual corruption and frequently absent if not wholly indifferent soldiers.
  • Fifth, the American people already realize the war is lost, and don’t support it.
  • Sixth, if it can work at all, it will likely take decades and trillions more dollars. We have neither the money nor the time.

At best, Petraeus will stabilize the situation for a short while. However, in the end he cannot possibly achieve the goals Obama laid out. He will be exceptionally lucky if he can succeed just to the extent he did in Iraq. No general, no matter how committed and brilliant, can lead a people or a country to a place they do not want to go.

President Obama is a smart man so he should be smart enough to realize his strategy is doomed. Afghanistan has trapped many a political leader in a box. He will be just another and it may in retrospect be seen as his most unwise action as president.

We need to cut our losses and just get out.

 
The Thinker

Iraq’s holding pattern

On the fifth anniversary of our invasion,it is hard to escape the fact that most Americans are busy tuning out the Iraq War. The Iraq War is old news. Yesterday, it was hard to muster even a few dozen war protestors for a demonstration in front of the Internal Revenue Service. While more sectarian death in Iraq is hardly news, reckless philandering by a call-girl happy governor is news and so much more interesting.

I do not mean to suggest that Americans have forgotten about the Iraq War. By large margins, Americans agree that going into Iraq was a mistake and want us to withdraw. Only the fools who instigated this war like President Bush and Vice President Cheney remain in denial. President Bush said yesterday that the surge “opened the door to a major strategic victory in the war on terror”. I want whatever he is snorting; it must be pricier than Elliot Spitzer’s call girls. Also yesterday, Vice President Cheney took time from his busy schedule to sneer at the American people. Asked by ABC News for a reaction to polls that consistently show two thirds of the public oppose the Iraq War he rejoined, “So?” A small majority of Americans now think that we could ultimately succeed if we stayed in Iraq long enough. Yet the public does not want to hang around long enough to see if it can happen. Maybe the ten billion dollars a month that our occupation is costing has something to do with our calculus.

The Iraq War has become the crazy old grandmother in our nation’s attic. We find it convenient not to talk too much about it. Our reaction is understandable if not childish. Just as Germans found it was hard to talk about the Holocaust after World War II, so we find it hard to stay engaged on our folly. In some ways, it was easier to stay engaged when things were getting worse. For the price of his surge, Bush at least bought himself at some relief from the incessant questions of his decision to invade Iraq. Instead, we find ourselves focused on some of other catastrophically bad decisions his administration made which are much closer to home, like skyrocketing gas prices, a falling dollar and our plunging stock market.

President Bush of course wants you to believe his surge is not just working, but will actually bring peace to Iraq. Here is what is working for sure in Iraq: ethnic cleansing. Before our invasion, ethnically mixed areas in Iraq were commonplace. Few cared whether a Sunni married a Shi’ite. Now, only a handful of mixed neighborhoods remain. The result is that Baghdad has been transformed into hundreds of smaller cities all but a handful of which are either Shi’ite or Sunni. Mini cinder block Berlin walls separate these enclaves. Within its citizens are generally safer than they were when they were ethnically mixed. The dubious success of ethnic cleansing (which we did not succeed in preventing earlier in the war) is responsible for much of this reduction in violence. Our forces have also been blessed by decisions of some militias, like Moqtada al-Sadr’s, to refrain from violence.

Unquestionably, considerable violence was quelled because of the surge. Bush and General Petraeus can take credit for this. In itself, it is not too surprising. It is hardly a novel strategy. When crime rates spike in the District of Columbia, police go on overtime and saturate crime prone areas with cops until crime levels drop. With enough force, you can win a rough peace anywhere. The problem is it is a faux peace. The thorny political problems remain. Only three of the eighteen political benchmarks we laid out for the Iraqi government has been achieved. Meanwhile, the Iraqi parliament is planning another two-month vacation. They might as well go on vacation since they seem unable to agree on much of anything. In truth their parliament is quite representative. Their inability to agree on much of anything shows that the country of Iraq is simply a fiction.

What about those “concerned local citizens”? These small police and military forces are in primarily Sunni areas of the country. It is true that they have largely gained the upper hand against al Qaeda. Al Qaeda though remains a tiny fraction of the unstable forces in the region. What is less reported is how such cooperation was achieved. Sunnis are cooperating with American forces for two important reasons. First, Shi’ite militias were succeeding. Sunnis were losing their civil war and needed help anywhere they could get to survive. They found it convenient to make the Americans their friends. Cooperating with us became better than extinction. Second, they were bribed. Those concerned local citizens did not spontaneously come together, but found common cause only when we started handing them money and arms.

The Iraqi Army remains largely ineffectual. For all practical purposes, it can be considered a Shi’ite militia, and not a very good one at that. They show all the sterling qualities of the South Vietnamese Army, only they are not nearly as good. Few of their battles are waged independently. Most are done in cooperation with American forces. The surge has helped “concerned local citizens” deal with their own security problems by providing the necessary guns, ammunition and training needed to control behavior. All factions seem to tacitly agree on one thing: they do not want to agree to solve their thorny problems. Their real loyalty is to their ethnicity, not their country.

The reality is that Iraq has already self-segregated into three ethnic states, only its boundaries are still fluid, particularly within Baghdad. As I predicted, in areas where our military forces were densest, terrorists and insurgents relocated to areas that are more favorable. Currently these are cities like Karbala, Kirkuk and Mosul. 160,000 troops is a lot, but it cannot pacify all of Iraq. The civil war, well underway before the surge began, has at best been postponed. However, no occupation force can stay forever. The Iraqi government shows no willingness to actually govern their nation. They cannot even come to consensus on some of their most basic problems, like the division of oil revenues. This means of course that the country of Iraq is dead and cannot be resuscitated. It existed as long as Saddam Hussein ruled. It was doomed to fall apart when he was overthrown.

Force of arms and infinite patience will not force the shards of Iraq back into a coherent shape. The surge has helped to reduce the level of violence. What is needed now is an imperfect end to our occupation. It will not come from this president, but I expect the next one will implement a withdrawal strategy similar to what I penned last September. For a limited time, we should facilitate the desire of Iraqis who want to move safely from one ethnic area to another. We should do our best to police the boundaries of these new states. Then we should withdraw a few divisions every month until we are gone. With luck we may find some other international forces to take our place.

On one thing, I am certain: a year from now under a new president we will at least have begun a real withdrawal from Iraq.

 
The Thinker

The war taxes you are already paying

Doubtless, you have noticed rising oil prices. At closing today, a barrel of light sweet crude oil was selling at $105.15 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. In my neighborhood, this translates to a price of $3.15 to $3.25 a gallon for unleaded gasoline. Diesel was priced at $3.95 a gallon at a gas station I passed today. In fact NPR reported today that gasoline is now more costly in constant dollars than it ever has been, including during the first Arab oil embargo in the 1970s.

Some investors are seeing crude oil as the new inflation hedge. An NPR analyst estimated that these investors are driving up the cost of oil by about $20 a barrel. Whether their investment will be the inflation hedge they are looking for remains to be seen. These investors may be fooling themselves. At some point, oil may become so overvalued that the price of oil returns to what now seems like reasonable levels, $80 a barrel or so, or even less. I will not shed too many tears for these speculators, but $80 a barrel oil still strikes me as expensive, since it typically results in gas prices of about $2.60 a gallon.

One thing is clear, as these graphs in today’s Washington Post point out. A good portion of the cost of oil is not because the commodity is in greater demand, but because its price is tied to the price of the dollar. If the demand and supply of oil are relatively constant as is currently the case and the value of the dollar diminishes, oil will cost more dollars per barrel.

In case you have not paid attention, the U.S. dollar is reaching record lows too against most major currencies. Last September for the first time since 1976 when we were in the midst of a stagflation epidemic, the Canadian dollar and the U.S. dollar were worth the same amount. Oil prices went up 75.6% since the beginning of 2007, according to the Washington Post. Because the Canadian dollar is in better shape than the U.S. dollar, oil prices went up a more modest 46.6% in Canada. If you bought your oil in euros, prices rose 49.6%. The price of our relatively weak currency means that we pay considerably more for oil than some of our closest trading partners with better-managed governments and economies. As you can imagine, we pay extra for many other things because of our fallen dollar. Oil is an easy one to quantify because it is tied directly to the dollar.

Perhaps you are thinking that our government is doing something to stem the drop of the dollar. If you think this, you are sadly naïve. No, the situation is quite the opposite. Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, told Congress recently that the Fed would drop interest rates again to stimulate the economy. This will undoubtedly drive the dollar even lower. It will also put more upward pressure on the cost of oil and cause inflation to rise, likely adding to the likelihood of the stagflation we saw in the 1970s. In addition, sometime around May you will get a fat check from the government. The government wants you to go out and spend the money to stave off a recession that looks like it arrived in the end of 2007. Where is the money coming from? The government is borrowing it. Who is loaning their money to the government? While many of us do this by buying bonds and treasury bills the bulk of this money will come from foreign governments and creditors. To make sure we have the money now we will raise interest on U.S. treasury bills until it becomes worthwhile for creditors to buy all the bonds we need to sell. Not surprisingly, rates on treasury bills are up.

When the time comes to pay creditors for loaning them their money, the government will not pay them in assets like military aircraft or wheat surpluses. No, it will pay them off in dollars. The problem is that the government has no spare dollars sitting around in a teller’s drawer to give them. The government will not hold up an investment group like Vanguard Securities until they cough up $100 billion. Instead, they will print more money. They are doing this today to pay off creditors who bought securities years ago. Because the economy is not growing fast enough to keep up with our spending, this means there is more money in circulation chasing the same relative assets. Creditors know what this means: their investment is worth less. Thus, the dollar loses value against other currencies and investors require higher interest rates. Prices for everything become comparatively more expensive but the effect is worse for prices pegged to the dollar, like oil.

In short, deficit financing drives down the value of the dollar and is inflationary. Granted sometimes it is hard to tell. When the economy is doing well it may seem that there are no inflationary effects from deficit financing. This is an illusion. Of course, there are times when you have to borrow for an important need. I borrowed money recently to replace the windows on my house. I did receive some value from it. My house is much more energy efficient, our rooms are less drafty and we use fewer kilowatt-hours of power. Unlike the government, I have been paying off my debt. The way our government works, it only very rarely pays down the principal. Instead, it keeps borrowing more and more money. All that matters is whether the government can meet its interest payments. If it can, creditors keep loaning us money. As Dick Cheney reputedly said, “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” Oh, but they do. They do.

While there were many reasons for the prosperity of the 1990s, I think that it was mostly due to the government living within its means. Steadily decreasing deficits gave investors confidence that government was being run by rational people. No recession stimulus could provide that kind of boost. Like a savings account, the interest started compounding, resulting in true wealth that affected all income levels.

If we can stop our addiction to deficit spending, real prosperity is likely to reemerge. However, it will not be easy. Deficit spending cannot be cured by trimming the fat in a few government departments. I do not believe we will have real prosperity again until we end our War in Iraq. It is paid by foreign creditors, many of whom do not have our best interest at heart. It is like a chest wound to the national body. We are losing a lot of blood. We must stanch the wound. Waging a hundred year war, like John McCain has suggested, will simply bankrupt the country. If the country is bankrupt then in some way the terrorists have won because whatever is left of our country will sure not resemble the America we know today.

We should not throw good money away on a bad investment. Iraq not only a bad investment, it is increasing your costs of living. The Iraq War costs us about three billion dollars a week. Those are the short-term costs; the long-term costs of the war are truly frightening. When you factor in costs like caring for our disabled soldiers, paying interest on the debt (but never the principle) the real cost of the war will reach at least three trillion dollars.

If you think you are not already paying a war tax, you are mistaken. If you are applauding President Bush for not raising taxes, you are naïve. You pay the war tax every time you go to the gas station and fill up your gas tank. You pay it in $3 a gallon milk. You pay it in high credit card interest rates and in huge tuition costs. You pay it every day but you do not necessarily associate these costs with the war because the money is not going through the U.S. Treasury. The falling dollar and the inflation it brings is the price of a country living way beyond its means. It is the price of financing a war that we cannot afford but chose to start anyhow. These indirect taxes though do not buy you any additional prosperity. It goes to oil companies and foreign governments, many of whom we do not like. In fact, much of this war tax simply provides the financial means for us to become embroiled in more wars, because we give the money to states that do not like us. It gives them more capital to carry on their animosities. This money does not build new bridges. It does not improve the educational standards of Americans. They are in effect squandered dollars, and squandered wealth — your wealth.

We will leave Iraq and sooner than we think simply because we cannot afford to finance it must longer. What point do gas prices have to reach for us to pull the plug? My guess is about four dollars a gallon. Perhaps at that threshold we will reach national consensus and end this pointless and foolish war.

 
The Thinker

Wrong Target

Somehow, I could sense that Benazir Bhutto would not survive the year. Maybe subconsciously she had a death wish. Martyrs often live larger in death than they did in life. On October 18th, when the exiled former Pakistani Prime Minister triumphantly returned to Pakistan after years of exile, 145 of her supporters died from targeted suicide attacks during her welcome home rally. Yet she was not deterred and either fearlessly or recklessly continued campaigning to win power again. Today we learn of her assassination, which quickly escalated into yet another mass murder triggered by a fanatical suicide bomber probably linked to al Qaeda. At least twenty others were killed in today’s attack.

From our distant perspective ten thousand miles away, her assassination is more sad evidence that Pakistan and Afghanistan, not Iraq, should have been our real front in the war on terrorism. Sadly, it has all the right ingredients to be its front line. It is a sometimes democratic nation still without firm roots in democracy. It has known as much totalitarianism as democracy. It is a country that now has to grapple with whether it will be secular or theocratic. The Pakistani military rarely fights outside its borders. Instead, it spends much of its time unsuccessfully containing an emerging a civil war.

Unlike either Iraq or Iran, Pakistan has nukes. Their nuclear weapons are outside of our ability to control them. Should Islamic extremists gain control of Pakistan, they could be leveraged against us. To preclude that possibility, we may end up having to support its many totalitarian regimes. Democracy is a nice idea, but keeping nuclear arms from being used against us requires sane people in command. Dictators believe foremost in clinging to power, so they are unlikely to do anything too rash. This was why I was not surprised that we found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after we invaded.

Its old news, but we took our eye off the real target. Instead, President Bush squandered the last five years chasing an illusionary Axis of Evil. By invading Iraq, he unbottled its repressed sectarian forces and put our troops in the crossfire. Troops that might have gone into Afghanistan where our real enemies lied went instead into Iraq to try to contain a bloody sectarian civil war. Meanwhile, since we elected to distract ourselves, al Qaeda’s leadership moved into the relative safety of lawless northwestern Pakistan. The area may be lawless, but Pakistan still considers it part of its territory, so it prohibited us from actually sending in our forces to engage al Qaeda there. There is irony that our greatest enemy found relative sanctuary and new strength from our erstwhile ally. That new strength was on display yesterday with Bhutto’s assassination.

According to the latest National Intelligence Estimate, Iran ended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Despite having access to this intelligence, our administration chose instead to rattle sabers with Iran and thus inflame our diplomatic row with its leaders. Fortunately, with the release of this NIE we can at least rule out a preemptive war with Iran. You would think Bush and Cheney might have learned something from the Iraq debacle, but apparently not.

The irony is that if we really want to solve the war on terrorism, we need Iran’s assistance. It appears that it is reducing the number of arms smuggled into Iraq. Iran also helped us early in the war by lending its support to forces that undermined the Taliban. Iran is overwhelming Shi’ite. Al Qaeda is a force of Sunni extremism. Iran may be a quasi-democratic theocracy, but the last thing its rulers want is to be surrounded by states associated with al Qaeda. That was in part why they were providing arms to Shi’ite militiamen in Iraq; they saw it in their own self-interest.

Iraq may appear to be our quagmire, but it is unlikely that our national security would be undermined if we left. The people who live there might have to fight a protracted civil war, but they consider our presence counterproductive. Surveys of Iraqis consistently show they want us out.

It is hard to see though what we can now do in Pakistan to defeat Islamic extremism. A few surgical strikes against the leaders of al Qaeda might be effective but it might also inflame anti-American passions and thus prove counterproductive. Following the Vietnam model and placing hundreds of thousands of our troops there will not solve our problem either for the same reason the British lost the Revolutionary War: there is too much terrain to occupy. It is ruinously expensive to occupy any territory indefinitely, as we are finding out in Iraq. Just as Vietnam endured a civil war, so Pakistan is grappling with what looks like its own internal war. Foremost, we would like to ensure that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons never get into the wrong hands. However, it is unlikely that the Pakistani government will trust them to our safekeeping.

Thanks to Bush Administration bungling, our short-term options are now bleak. We may have to support Musharraf even though he is likely to continue to give democracy the short shrift. We would do so on the assumption that a dictatorship is preferable to wholesale anarchy. We can also keep pushing for democracy but it is tacitly understood that we will only be cheering for it from the sidelines and will not do anything meaningful to allow it to flourish. As we have learned in Iraq and Palestine, we have to be careful what we wish for. A democratic government in Pakistan may not be aligned with our national interests. However, it is likely that an enduring democratic government in Pakistan would promote long-term peace in the region.

As I have mentioned in other entries this war on terror cannot not won on the battlefield. It is a generational war that fades into gradual irrelevance by uplifting lives. The real causes of Islamic terrorism are not religious, but are a result of the persistent and pervasive feelings of hopelessness and the miserable living conditions within much of the Islamic world. To some extent, these conditions are fed by not embracing Western capitalistic values. (Note that few people in prosperous Qatar want to see the regime replaced.) Until governments there change to embrace the needs of the people, radical clerics will find they have a ready audience.

The United States must look long term. It is in our interest to quietly facilitate and fund as much humanitarian aid for the disenfranchised as possible in the Islamic world. This does not mean giving billions to Halliburton, but it does mean working discreetly with non-governmental organizations in the region and funding organizations like the Red Crescent to ensure they have the capital to change conditions on the ground. We also need to make our foreign aid conditional on meeting benchmarks for improving the living standards of people in a country. This conflict is about how Islam will fit into the 21st century. Right now, we are being used as proxies to inflame the conflict. We must change the dynamic and Pakistan is likely its front.

 
The Thinker

The Rise of Soft Power

When I first read this story in the Washington Post this week, I felt the need to check my glasses. Surely, I needed a new prescription because I read that our Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates was promoting soft power. Poor Donald Rumseld must have had a heart tremor when he read this story. Surely, Gates’ speech this week at Kansas State University, was one of those “unknown known” threats that Rumsfeld had rambled about when he was Secretary of Defense. Gates’ words must have risen the hair on his head and the heads of everyone in the Pentagon’s E corridor. Say it ain’t so, Mr. Secretary!

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called yesterday for a “dramatic increase” in the U.S. budget for diplomacy and foreign aid, arguing that al-Qaeda does a better job than Washington of communicating its message overseas and that U.S. deployment of civilians abroad has been “ad hoc and on the fly.”

In a speech that emphasized the importance of “soft power” to prevent and end conflicts, Gates suggested beefing up the State Department’s foreign affairs budget of $36 billion, even as he acknowledged that Pentagon observers might consider it “blasphemy” for a sitting defense secretary to make such an appeal for another agency.

What is shocking is that in the insular world of the Pentagon, where the mantra has always been that all national security problems can be won if necessary by wielding the Pentagon’s vast military and intelligence machine, its top man was saying this was no longer true.

“One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win,” said Gates, delivering the annual Landon Lecture at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. The wars of the future, he said, are likely to be “fundamentally political in nature” and will not be solved by military means alone.

I think inside the Pentagon, on Monday a paradigm shifted without a clutch. For many of the rest of us though, this is hardly news.

Yes, of course future wars cannot be solved by military means. I mean, duh! We did not need to invade Iraq to find this out. It is just now, 65 years after the Voice of America was created that the Pentagon has finally acknowledged the obvious. Wars are political conflicts. In today’s world, using military might to achieve political results is by far the least effective way of getting the results you want. It is also the most expensive way, if it can be done at all. War as we practice it today is the manifestation of the late Isaac Asimov’s belief, embodied in his character Hari Seldon that “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

When the dogma no longer fits the real world, we need better dogma. Soft power should be our new dogma. Soft power, typically exercised through diplomacy does not always work. Rarely do all parties in a dispute come out victorious when conflicts are resolved diplomatically. However, diplomacy does have some advantages. First, diplomacy does not kill anyone. Second, it costs pennies on the dollar (if that) compared to warfare. Third, since wars are the military manifestation of political conflicts, until the political issues are resolved the war does not really end. It may have the appearance of ending but instead it will eventually return. Adolph Hitler understood this. That is why he instigated genocide as his “final solution” to the perceived problem of the Jews and others. It is why the Huns and the Mongrels left no survivors when they pillaged Europe. They may have been bloodthirsty, but they were not stupid.

Now of course the world is much more populous and multiethnic. The atomic bomb was a neat trick but really, you could use it to win a war just once. To win conflicts in today’s world, you have to win hearts and minds. You do not do it by bombing people back into the Stone Age. It is good that our brave troops in Iraq have stemmed a lot of violence there, but do not mistake a lessening of violence with success. The political quagmire in Iraq is as confounding as even, with few signs that it will be resolved any time soon. Our invasion of Iraq merely allowed the centuries old animosities to resume. It is highly unlikely that anything that this country can do can resolve these political conflicts, although we should try.

The new reality, as I mentioned in an earlier entry, is that the United States alone cannot dictate the order of the world. It is folly for us to try. We squander more than half a trillion dollars a year annually on a defense budget in an attempt to ask the military to do for us what it cannot. Essentially, the military can blow up stuff and kill people. At great expense, it can hold land and the skies. It is most effective in a defensive role, such as keeping incoming missiles from hitting the United States. Our power will be based on our willingness to join up with other states and organizations of like mind. We will win through collaboration and negotiation. However, winning will not mean surrendering our goals. Instead, it will mean understanding that partial winning is okay because mutual accommodation in win-win, and win-win fosters a long term collaborative climate. At best, victory will be getting 80% of what we want. We will never get 100% again.

Secretary Gates is right. We need to become adept at exercising soft power again. It is a skill we lost sometime in the early Reagan years, but it is one that we can acquire again. We saw its manifestation after World War II in the Marshall Plan and in alliances that kept the Cold War from exploding into a real war. Frankly, in our new reality we need only a fraction of our armed forces. Much of our armed forces are engaged in futile work: preparing as best they can to win types of wars we are unlikely to win again. Instead, money should be redirected to keep small problems from exploding into larger problems. We could use some of our defense money to stem the tide of AIDS in Africa and improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians. To the extent we can win, we will win through a strategy of prevention and international cooperation.

The United States will never again win a conventional war. However, we will “win” through preventing wars from occurring in the first place. Robert Gates understands this. If only our other leaders would too.

 
The Thinker

MoveOn.org is betraying the progressive cause

Back in July 2004, I took MoveOn.org to task for what I thought was a serious lapse in judgment: pressing the Federal Trade Commission to go after Fox News for promoting itself as “fair and balanced”.

I agreed with MoveOn that Fox News was neither fair nor balanced. What disturbed me was the group’s attempt to use the power of the government against Fox News. Frankly, its attempt gave me the willies and was very Big Brother-ish. Had they succeeded what ghoulish precedent would this have set? Would some future FTC go after the New York Times for, in its judgment, not serving all the news that it thought was fit to print? Would the government assume it was now permitted to decide whether any media outlet was covered by freedom of the press? I thought MoveOn “got” liberal values. We liberals welcome a diversity of opinions and perspectives, even when they do not agree with us. The last thing we want is the government mucking up our freedom to hear different points of view.

Somehow, Eli Pariser, the current executive director for MoveOn, read my little blog entry and left this pithy little comment:

Liberals like to think that ABC, NBC, etc. are in fact ‘fair and balanced’ while citing Fox as the source of distortions. Emphasis on one bit of information while ignoring other salient bits is the hallmark of the liberal media and something you are obviously unable to admit. Pundit my ass!

More recently, MoveOn published its now infamous “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” ad in the New York Times. The good news is that the ad succeeding in garnering a lot of attention. The bad news is that the ad was very counterproductive. It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. No less than the Senate of the United States, when it could have been doing things like ending the war in Iraq, instead overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning the advertisement. Rather than helping to facilitate an end to the war, it caused Republicans to circle the wagons. It also gave moderate Democrats a reason to be very wary of embracing change.

It did not have to be this way. The ad could have been just as effective without being inflammatory. For example, it would have shown President Bush next to General Petraeus and asked, “President Bush: Why are you making this patriot a scapegoat for your failed policy?” The ad was factually correct. Unfortunately, it pinned the tail on the wrong donkey. MoveOn does not appear to have anyone in charge with sufficient political shrewdness to know when they it has stepped over the bounds of good taste and decency. In doing so, it undercuts both our desire to end the war and gives pause to moderates who might be leaning toward progressive causes.

Has anyone on the MoveOn staff actually served in the military? I have not, but I have spent nine years in the Pentagon working with soldiers from airmen to four star generals. One thing I know without a doubt: while the military is overall a conservative group of folks, they faithfully and slavishly follow orders. As much as MoveOn would like to paint him as such, General Petraeus is not a politician. He is a military officer. He was directed by his chain of command to implement a policy. His job is to salute and do the very best he can to make the policy work. One can quarrel with his methods, but not his patriotism. Policymakers should be taking the rap for a failed policy. Generals can and should be held accountable for failing to properly execute their mission. They should not be tarred for the policy itself. Failure for the policy belongs squarely on President Bush, not General Petraeus.

At the time, I said:

This campaign with the FTC is just mean spirited harassment and worthy of Bill O’Reilly at his worst. MoveOn.org in this case should just shut up. In fact, it should do more than that. It should admit this campaign was a mistake and a serious lapse in its judgment. And then it should, well, move on.

MoveOn did not take me up on my suggestion. This latest ad three years later shows they have learned nothing in the intervening years.

Since I wrote that first blog entry, I have given an additional $350 to MoveOn and its political action committee on the hope that cooler heads were prevailing. No more. If MoveOn is still not savvy enough to know when certain lines should not be transgressed they deserve neither my money nor my support.

Instead, I will give my money to organizations that, in my judgment, have the maturity of vision to know how to promote solid progressive candidates and causes and know how to persuade people rather than inflame or antagonize them. If I have any spare cash left over, I will be giving it to organizations like Progressive Majority and Emily’s List rather than MoveOn. Perhaps some day saner heads will prevail at MoveOn and I can give money to them again. Right now, that day appears to be far off.

 
The Thinker

Here is how to really end the war

According to an email I received today from ImpeachBush.org, approximately a hundred thousand antiwar protesters descended on Washington on Saturday in a mass protest to end the Iraq War. Most likely, the actual number was half this but it is hard to say for sure. While the crowd was undoubtedly large, it did not exactly fill the Mall. In addition, as usual the main targets of their protest were out of town. Bush was likely at Camp David. Cheney was at his usual undisclosed location. Most of Congress had vacated by Thursday anyhow, which is when their weekend usually begins. So the antiwar crowds demonstrated peacefully with largely only police and a small collection of noisy counter protesters to hear them. A few hundred protesters were arrested for sitting of the front lawn of the Capitol. While press articles about the rally were plentiful, they generally appeared well inside the A section. The demonstrators themselves apparently felt a little let down by the lack of a larger turnout.

Where were the Vietnam War era crowds? Yes, there was noise. Yes, there were speeches. Yes, there was Cindy Sheehan and Ramsey Clark at the podium. There were people from International ANSWER who had organized the protest and many mostly preprinted protest signs available for protesters to hoist and wave. Yet somehow, rather than seizing the nation’s attention the event was felt more like a footnote.

I did not to attend. I retrospect I should have, but frankly it dropped off my radar. I probably get a dozen emails like it a day and for some reason this rally did not stand out. From the sound of it, the protest was somewhat smaller than the march I did attend nearly two years ago. Many of the same speakers were at both rallies. Cindy Sheehan, then someone brand new to the protest movement, spoke passionately about the pointless loss of her son Casey in an unwinnable war. Ramsey Clark spoke eloquently about the need for Bush’s impeachment for his war crimes. There was certainly energy in the crowd on that day two years ago. I suspect the same was true during Saturday’s rally. Yet two years later, this and other rallies are not enough. While the tide has turned in the court of public opinion, the war drags on. It continues even though the people who want to end the war now control Congress.

Perhaps that is how these things go. Large antiwar protests during the Vietnam War did not materialize in size until 1968 or so. While I was too young to attend these rallies, I did watch them on the news. By the standards of that era, Saturday’s protest was simply anemic. Perhaps as a consequence today’s protests seem to have less impact.

Why is that? Is it that people are less upset with the Iraq War than the Vietnam War? Is it because the movement still has not developed a full head of steam? Vietnam did not involve troops in any sizeable level until 1963 or so. In that sense today’s antiwar protesters are faster and more agile. They are able to mobilize sizeable crowds much more quickly. Tools that were unavailable back then, like the Internet, no doubt have helped.

Still, the antiwar protests to date have paled in comparison to those of the Vietnam War. It is not as if some Iraq War protests have not come close. A protest shortly before our invasion nearly filled the Mall. Downtown Manhattan was overwhelmed with protesters during one major antiwar protest. These rallies though were the exception rather than the rule. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, campuses were regularly overtaken over by protesters. Protesters barricaded the Pentagon. Workers literally had to step on them to get to work.

The Vietnam War though had a few crucial differences compared with the Iraq War. Draftees largely fought the Vietnam War. This war is being fought entirely by volunteers. Moreover, these recruits come disproportionately from rural and conservative areas. During the years of the Vietnam War, people you knew personally died over there. Mostly people who did not want to serve fought the war.

When only those who choose to fight a war are sent, it is harder to feel the pain. I read in the newspaper of people in my county who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan, but they are rare. I do not know one of them personally. Of the people I encounter regularly, I know of only two who have sons serving in these theaters. Although the more than three thousand American soldiers killed in over four years in Iraq in a sobering number, these numbers are relatively small compared with the number of soldiers who died in Vietnam. Thankfully, today we are better at saving the lives of the wounded.

While there are exceptions like Cindy Sheehan, most of those who are marching to oppose the war are doing it on ideological grounds, and not because they have been personally affected by the war. While polls show that a majority of Americans want the war to end, feeling this way and actually by taking action to end it are two different things. Because I live near Washington, attending that rally two years was not that big a deal. Had I lived a bit further out I am not sure that my outrage would have been large enough to find the energy to attend.

The downside of fighting a war with volunteers is that you do not necessarily have enough soldiers to fight the war on the scale needed to accomplish the mission. Yet there is an upside. Aside from likely having a better class of soldier, because citizens are less vested in the war it can be harder to stop. When the War on Terror started, President Bush told us not to change our habits. He told us to spend and act as if the terrorists had never hit us. We took his advice to heart. The images of the burning Twin Towers soon faded. The War on Terror become more of an abstraction that a reality. Supporting the troops meant putting stickers on the back of your car and of course not raising your taxes to pay for the war. If you had to pay additional taxes for the war, you might have felt more attached to its outcome. Instead, only the patriotic or desperately poor had to actually put their lives in danger.

This war can be stopped, but it will likely require much more direct engagement from those of us who are against it. Contribute what you can in money. Regularly write your senators, representatives and newspaper editors to let them know how you feel. When they are in your district, take time to attend events where you can question them. Speak to power.

These things, however good, are simply not enough. Take the time to attend antiwar rallies. You need to feel vested in changing the course of the war, and you will not feel that way writing checks to MoveOn.org. Not all of you can make it to the nation’s capital, but there are likely rallies closer to home that you can attend. By attending rallies, not only will you find strength in numbers but also you will find motivation to keep fighting to end the war. You will understand that there is strength in numbers.

Only our politicians can end this war. Politicians will not end it until they believe they must end it or they will be voted out of office. An opportunity to vote them out is about a year away. In the meantime, they can demonstrate right now that they are willing to end the war. There are three ways this can be accomplished. First, Congress can rescind its war authorization. Second, it can pass a bill specifying a date by which all combat troops must be withdrawn from that theater. Or third, it can refuse to fund the war. Any of these actions can be thwarted by a presidential veto. Regardless they demonstrate real commitment from those who can do something about it. Sorry, but passing a bill requiring the president to come up with a plan for withdrawing troops indicates spinelessness, not commitment.

In short, the war will end when we hold accountable those who keep it going. No matter how much you may like your representative or senator here is what you have to tell them: I will vote you out of office unless you end it.

 

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