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 ownership society has arrived!

On February 21, 2003, President Bush gave a speech in Kennesaw, Georgia. There he first talked about America becoming an “ownership society”. In those heady days of neo-conservatism, an ownership society meant power was going to trickle down to the masses. We would be in charge (own) our health care and drive down medical costs through the magic elixir of medical savings accounts. We would have more ownership over our children’s education by using government furnished vouchers to send them to the local charter or private schools, rather than the nearby public school. Moreover, we would “fix” the social security problem by empowering each citizen to own his or her retirement. We would do this by allowing them to invest at least a portion of their social security withholdings into the stock market. Over forty or so years in the workplace, the value of those assets would compound and compound. Thanks to the magic of our free market we would all retire, if not exactly millionaires, then comfortably indeed. You can easily see how much better life would be if we could just become owners of these things instead of, well, renters!

Good news Americans! We have indeed become the ownership society! Today, more and more of us cannot afford health insurance, so we now get to pay for all of our medical expenses out of pocket! This gives us a feeling of ownership over our health care we never had before in those horrid insured days. Now we have plenty of incentive to shop around although, admittedly it may be hard to drive a bargain with an emergency room physician at 2 AM, particularly when you are profusely bleeding or are unconscious. Many of us are choosing to own the problem of our health care by not seeking medical help at all. We hope that we can find relief in over the counter medicines or $4 generic prescriptions at Wal-Mart. For those of us who used to have health insurance, how can we claim that we are not owners? In the past, you were at the whim of your health insurance companies, who stipulated what they would cover in their expensive, take it or leave it contracts. Now you are unencumbered, free of the HMO and PPO bureaucracy to make your own informed health care choices and to shop around. Perhaps my family doctor will reduce my rate if I threaten to buy an over the counter medication instead.

Those school vouchers sound pretty good too. They do have a few minor drawbacks. First, your voucher probably will not be made up with additional revenue to finance our local public schools, but that’s their tough luck. That’s what they get for providing mediocre education. Second, it is likely that whatever voucher you receive will not cover the full cost of your children’s tuition. Maybe some cheap local charter school will not ask you for additional tuition yet will magically provide high academic standards. Anyhow, it looks like vouchers may involve significant extra out of pocket tuition expenses. When you write those tuition checks instead of putting the money away for junior’s college education, you should feel a sense of ownership. Perhaps you can get stock in the local charter school, and use your shares to vote for principals that you like.

And as for financing our retirements with gains from the stock market, good news there too! You may be asking, “Mark, haven’t you read the papers? The stock market is in the toilet because of the sub-prime housing mess! How could there possibly be any good news?” Well, you see it is good news because, citizens, now we are all going to be owners, whether we like it or not! As usual, our fine financial leadership leapt into action. After finally determining that our financial system had a severe case of constipation (due to consuming too much sub-prime mortgage backed securities of uncertain worth), the Secretary of the Treasury, working with the Chairman of the Federal Reserve and the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, decided that a pricey dose of Ex-Lax was in order for Wall Street. Apparently, the U.S. Treasury underwriting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was not enough. The government, already the insurer of last resort for floods, will now own eighty percent of the mega-insurance underwriting company AIG in exchange for providing it with a huge line of credit in order to ensure it stays solvent. In addition, our administration is readying to ask Congress to spend up to seven hundred billion dollars to buy these sub-prime and other securities that Wall Street cannot unload. We are told that this will solve Wall Street’s constipation problem for good since those Fannie and Freddie bail out suppositories did not do the trick. The good news, citizen, is that the federal government will now own all these properties, which means you are entitled to your share! No wonder the stock market finally roared back at the end of the week. Those traders were positively euphoric. You would be too if you went to Las Vegas and lost everything you own in the casinos, including your house and cars, only to find that your older brother, in his largess, was going to cover your reckless losses. In fact, you would probably head right back into the casinos to see if you could work some more of this magic.

So we the taxpayers are the winners here, see? Wall Street gets to go back to its business and we the taxpayers get to own all these properties, many of which are spanking new! I know I want my property. I know that soon the government will own all sorts of properties across the country. I want my sub-prime house! I was thinking about requesting my free house in Flagstaff, Arizona as a possible retirement house. That way I could sell my current house and keep the proceeds. Sweet!

There is the little problem that the government is not planning to raise my taxes to purchase all these sub-prime mortgage backed securities. Raising taxes of course is evil, even when completely necessary, which means that we will petition our creditors, most of who are foreign, to lend us seven hundred billion dollars so we can in turn buy these mortgage backed securities whose value no one can actually assess. I suspect our creditors will be accommodating because they have no idea what their investments in these sub-prime securities are actually worth either. Yet, they have an idea that the U.S. Treasury will still be in business in ten or fifty years when their U.S. Treasury bonds come due, with interest, of course.

So maybe I will not get my free house as I hoped. Maybe instead it will be our foreign creditors since technically it appears that they own the country, not me. My job as taxpayer is apparently mainly to cough up the interest on our federal debt.

Hmm. So perhaps I was premature to suggest that the Bush Administration succeeded in making us all homeowners, even those of us who rent. On the surface though it looks like, sure enough, neo-conservative principles have worked! We now have that ownership society they promised us! Who says we have a miserable failure as a president? He delivered on his ownership society in just five years!

And yet, this new ownership society just doesn’t quite look and behave the way we expected. It is like buying a Rolex watch only to find out it is a cheap rip off.

Well I am sure that by doing more of the same and electing John McCain and Sarah “I can dress a moose” Palin as our next president and vice president, during the next four years we can become even more of an ownership society. It’s funny though. This ownership society sure looks like an ower-ship society to me. From the greatly deflated value of my stock portfolio, it looks like I am already paying the price for other’s incompetence and malfeasance.

Conservatism’s harvest

It is not that, of course; if NATIONAL REVIEW is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.

William F. Buckley
November 19, 1955

Granted, the late William F. Buckley’s idea of conservatism as it should be practiced differs substantially from those of our current president, whose approval ratings are now at 28%. Based on ever-rising gas prices, a tanking stock market and increased unemployment his anemic approval ratings are likely to collapse even further before his term expires in January. Still, both Bush and Buckley, like many conservatives, based their conservative philosophy on the assumption that what worked before has value, so change should be resisted.

The problems with conservatism have been borne out in the last eight years and should be plain for all to see. Just because you want societal progress to stop, does not mean that it will. Human behavior is that way. We act like a stream. Sometimes it crests. Sometimes it ebbs. Sometimes the stream overflows its banks. Its currents will transform the land around it. The stream, like society, is ever dynamic and changing. It is only when its image is frozen in our mind that it appears static.

Based on many millenniums of observing our species, we can safely assume that we humans will continue to be irascible folk. We will continue to defy neat categorization. We will continue to do dumb and stupid stuff. We will increase our population beyond the planet’s ability to sustain us. We will fight bloody wars for ethnic, racial and economic reasons. We will also do amazing stuff, like putting our species on the moon, making scientific breakthroughs and generating visionary and inspiring leaders that transform nations and the world.

Law, morals, ethics and governments exist to try to bring order and predictability to human affairs. These artifacts though work only to the extent that they fit within man’s current condition. When they do not they are easily overcome by our natural human behaviors, which on a mass scale can rarely be controlled for long. Moreover, when you try to counteract these natural human forces, the effect is invariably counterproductive. The damage of trying to fit the square peg of the past into the round hole of the present over these last eight years is all around us.

We are witnessing the train wreck of a principled but unworkable ideology called conservatism. Giving tax cuts to millionaires did not raise the boats of the middle classes, any more than it did in the robber baron age. Funding abstinence-only sex education has not reduced teen pregnancy. Voluntary cuts in carbon emissions have not reduced pollution. Freeing the free market further means fewer people are watching for foxes in a much larger and more complex financial henhouse. Proactive wars fought with 20th century tactics make us more insecure and prove financially ruinous. Less government, while potentially emboldening freedom, also means less oversight and exploitation. Its result is a nation that today more resembles a patch of weeds than a garden. What we are witnessing today is simply the natural consequence of conservative government refusing to give any ground to modern realities. We are witnessing that the tactics that worked for us fifty years ago are now foolish and counterproductive.

Why? Because we are not the same people that we were fifty years ago! For one thing, we have roughly doubled the number of us on this planet. This has affected how we think and behave. Increased travel and trade have mixed us up more, allowing us to live less insular and more connected lives. At least in the first world, we are much better educated than previous generations. We are less industrialized and more technology based. We have moved on from the past because the past no longer fits us.

Consequently, when conservatives govern we get huge disconnects. The Supreme Court tells us we have the constitutional right to own a gun even though we have no need for militias and the Indians are unlikely to attack. Today, most of us have a neighbor within shouting distance, not miles away. Not surprisingly when you put more of us closer together and you allow us to have guns, more of us are going to be victims of gun violence.

Effective government must adapt to fit the context of its times or it proves counterproductive. It must address today’s issues with tactics likely to work within the current environment, not with solutions that worked for a different age. Some like to call progressivism a philosophy. It is not. Liberalism is a philosophy. Progressivism is not the least bit ideological. Progressivism is pragmatic. It comes down to this: deal with the reality of what is before you by working with its dynamics rather than against it. As you might expect, I am a progressive.

William F. Buckley spent a career eloquently articulating the case for conservatism. Yet conservatism works only to the extent that its constituents do not change. Feudalism kept society stable and worked for centuries. Modern day feudalism, such as practiced by the Taliban or the Bush Administration, no longer works. One size no longer fits all.

In my fifty years, things have changed enormously. There are times when I too pine for the way things were. The order I perceived in the past provides a feeling of comfort. This is probably because I had few cares. I had my parents to worry about the real world for me and for them it was likely as messy as mine is today. I also know that time has passed forever. I would not now give up my computer, or my cell phone, or my unleaded gas, or my hundreds of entertainment choices to feel this way again. As I age, my world will continue to morph just as it always has.

Conservatism at its roots amounts to the desire to revert everyone to a myopic and unrealistic view of the past that was always more image than reality. Life was simpler for me in 1957 when I was born. However, to get that feeling of simplicity I would not want to return to the era of the Cold War. I would not want the pervasive racism that our country had back then. Nor would I want its pervasive conformity. I would not want my spouse to be a Stepford wife who had few career opportunities beyond that of mother and housewife. I would not want homosexuals to live in shame and in the shadows. I would not want just three television stations (all in black and white) and a few commercial radio stations. I would want the feeling of neighborhood and family connectedness that I had back then. I think we are recreating these for the times that we live in. In today’s world, these feelings are extended toward a larger community in cyberspace. My wife is one of many people whose social circle dramatically expanded with the Internet. Now they are very much her real friends. Fifty years ago, she would never have met any of these people.

We need to realize that while huge changes have occurred in our lifetimes, there have also been huge amounts of progress, much of it for the better. Fewer of us live in poverty. Our health care is better and we live longer and more meaningful lives. Most of us will not spend our final years in poverty. There is less discrimination in the workplace and in society in general. It is easier for us to be, as Martin Luther King prophesized, judged by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin. Barack Obama is a modern manifestation of King’s progressive vision.

We should want the best of both the past and the present, not just the past, and be mindful that what is new can be good as well as bad. I hope that by creating a better present, the future will unfold to be a happier and more enriching experience for all of us. I do know, as you should know also from the past eight years that trying to go back to the way things were done, is very damaging. Like communism, conservatism is one of these great ideas that stimulate the imagination but just do not work in execution. My hope is that after these last eight years, we will, like its great proselytizer William F. Buckley, give it a civil burial and move on.

The Rudest Man on Television

If the political right is wondering why Americans are abandoning it in droves, it is not just because of our catastrophically bad president. It is also because of the number of extremely annoying people that populate that side of the political spectrum. I have seen and heard enough to make one judgment: Fox News Commentator Bill O’Reilly is without a doubt the rudest person on television.

Image of Bill O'Reilly

It is unlikely that Bill O’Reilly will call me on the phone and invite me to be on his show. However, if he did I can tell you my answer in advance. I would attempt to politely decline the offer but perhaps because my brain has been tainted by watching him, more likely I would utter something extremely rude into the receiver. Something like (you fill in the blank, I know you can), “No way. No ____ing way. Absolutely NO ____ING WAY would I be caught DEAD being on your CRAPPY, MEAN and HURTFUL show!” I do not care how many people I might have a chance to influence by being on his “show”. I do not even care even they offered me a million dollars to debate him. Money cannot buy some things, like my integrity. I would rather spend a day in a vat full of poisonous snakes wearing nothing but my skivvies than spend even thirty seconds on his show. It is not because I am afraid of Bill, it is because I know I would never be heard in the first place. Instead, I would be slimed. So Bill, don’t call me. I will not take your call and even if you did, I would have to hang up on you. I certainly would not let my daughter within a mile of you; some of your vitriolic toxic personality might rub off on her.

Naturally, I do not bother to watch his show The O’Reilly Factor on the Fox so-called “News” Channel. At this point when I am channel surfing, if I even see his ugly mug, an autonomic finger jab moves me to the next channel even before his face registers in my brain. Before I knew better though I did watch his show, each time with my mouth hanging open in shock and disbelief. When he invites someone he does not agree with the format is always the same: they “debate”. Debating, according to Bill O’Reilly means being mean, smearing and constantly interrupting guests. Except for the first thirty seconds or so and in the last five seconds when he makes a slight feint of politeness, he goes for the jugular the same singular way your dog goes for the dish of Alpo when you put it down.

Perhaps he would almost be tolerable if most of his arguments were not non-sequiturs. For example, he will pull some quote by his guest from five years ago, which has no relevance to the topic at hand, and try to use it to prove he is a slime ball. It may be one sentence or phrase from a couple paragraphs. It is likely the sentence must be understood in the context of the entire argument. That does not matter. Anything is fair game for him. All he really cares about is sliming those he does not agree with. If you once shook Jane Fonda’s hand, he will use it to insinuate you were burning American flags.

In front of a “debater”, he does not know how to shut up. In fact, he does not even know how to debate. To debate you must discuss an argument on its merits. Debate is supposed to consist of point and counterpoint, not to be entirely one sided. O’Reilly’s idea of debating is to invite you into his sandbox, immediately start throwing sand in your face, then kick you and beat you over the head until you leave or cry uncle or until the first commercial hits. O’Reilly is not a debater. O’Reilly is simply an emotionally abusive bully who is paid top dollar by his employer, Fox News so the sick voyeuristic tendencies of his audience can satiated. If he pulled this kind of crap in public school, he would have been expelled for the semester.

I read today that Michael Moore is planning to go on The O’Reilly Factor to promote his new movie about health care, Sicko. Perhaps “interviews” like this come with the territory when you have to promote a documentary. I would urge Michael to cancel his appearance. Michael, your “interview” may generate some heat, but do not expect it to generate any light. It is not as if the viewers of The O’Reilly Factor are going to be going to see your movie. Instead, you will just be more red meat for this crowd who, let’s face it, already hate you because (a) you are liberal, (b) you are fat, (c) you hate President Bush and (d) you believe in gun control.

The same goes with anyone else who shows up on Bill’s show from the left side of the political fence. The odds are not just stacked against you, you are guaranteed to be verbally abused and bullied. You would probably divorce your spouse if he did this to you. Why put up with it in public? Except for the first thirty seconds or so, you will be unlikely to get out a coherent sentence. Whatever the alleged reason for your appearance on the show was, Bill will quickly steer it in a completely different direction that will be designed to make you look foolish. The alleged topic for discussion is merely a means to promote his ideology, which seems to be that the right is always right, and the left is universally wrong.

Are you tired of Bill O’Reilly? Do you want a civilized alternative from the other side of the political spectrum? Why not listen to The Diane Rehm Show instead? If it is not syndicated on your public radio station, you can listen to it live online from 10 AM to Noon Eastern Time on, or download the latest podcasts of her show. Here is an interviewer with manners who asks thoughtful and probing questions. Here is someone who even if she does not agree with you will give you the opportunity to get your point across in a coherent manner. She will never denigrate you for your beliefs. In short, Diane has been house trained. Guests do not leave the studio feeling slimed; they leave the studio feeling like they had a chance to be heard. What an idea!

I would have thought that O’Reilly would have crossed the line a decade ago, but like the Energizer Bunny, he just keeps going and going. There does not appear to be anything he can say on the Fox “News” Channel that will get him kicked off the air. As a cable network, Fox knows the FCC will not be coming after them, so I guess anything goes. In addition, there must be quite a market for his bilge. Two millennium ago, his viewers were the kind filling Roman coliseums to cheer on the gladiators.

So unfortunately, unless his ratings go through the toilet, or the right wing totally implodes (not impossible given our current president) Bill will continue to be haunting the Fox “News” Channel. However, I suggest that even if you agree with him, you have better things to do with your time. If you have children, keep them away from the TV when Bill O’Reilly is on. If you ask me, his “show” should be rated at least TV-MA (Mature Audiences Only). The only problem is that if you were truly mature, you would not touch his show with a ten-foot anaconda.

Instead, I will channel Nancy Reagan and “just say no” to Bill, just as I have said no to Wal-Mart and Circuit City. I have taken the “No more Bill O’Reilly ever” pledge. I pledge not just to not watch his show any more, but also to do my utmost to avoid even the possibility of seeing or hearing him. Even if my favorite blog suggests watching a guest tussle with him on YouTube, I will wisely decline.

Like a Buddhist, I envision a more peaceful and gentle planet. Ideally, Bill O’Reilly would not be on it. If he has to be on it, people should be smart enough not to give him a microphone, because when someone like him gets a microphone it adds a couple centuries to our quest.

In any event, I do not need any more of his bad karma leeching onto me. Bye bye Bill.

Delusional Paranoia on Iraq

While I was driving home from church today, I was listening to a rebroadcast of NBC’s Meet the Press on CSPAN Radio. NBC reporter Tim Russert was interviewing Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The topic, of course, was our War in Iraq and President Bush’s controversial strategy to add tens of thousands more American troops in Baghdad.

Senator Graham was strictly towing the party line. Of course, he thought President Bush’s strategy deserved a chance to succeed. He decried Congress for trying to micromanage the war. He kept reiterating the same points. If we leave Iraq now there will be a bloodbath. The Middle East will explode into a regional conflict. Al Qaeda will have a new base for the training and recruitment of terrorists. He also said Iraq would become a puppet regime for Iran, Turkey would invade Kurdistan and neighboring Sunni states would support the Sunnis cause in Iraq’s civil war. He implied that all this would lead to the same paranoid conclusion shared by President Bush and many on Capitol Hill: the terrorists would follow us home. They assert that failure to confront the terrorists today in Iraq could then mean goodbye United States of America and hello Islamic Republic of America. Goodbye internets, hello burkas.

Senator Graham needs a reality check. No one knows for sure what would happen if America precipitously withdrew from Iraq. I will grant you that a couple scenarios are more likely than not. If we withdrew, I think you could count on more Sunni vs. Shiite violence in the short term, although arguably there is plenty enough of it going on right now. The de facto partitioning of Iraq, already well underway, would accelerate dramatically. Many of the other scenarios he posed sound dubious at best. I would call some of them ludicrous and ultra paranoid.

With much of Iraq in turmoil and ungovernable, I doubt the Iranian army would want to join in the fray. I also doubt that if a Shiite state emerges from the civil war that it will want to be at any other nation’s beck and call. Iraqi Shiites have lusted for a nation of their own for too long. At best, their army could only partially protect the Shiites. In any event, there are many Shiites in Iraq and armed militias like the Mahdi Army have proven they can fight effectively. Like the United States, Iran has a finite number of soldiers available for messy occupations, and occupying a large part of Iraq would be a tall order. In addition, Iranians are Persians, and Shiite Iraqis are Arabs. Iraqi Shiites speak Arabic and Iranians speak Farsi. This introduces both language and ethnic differences. They may all seem like towel heads to us outsiders, but it is very unlikely that Shiite Iraq could ever successfully work as a client state of Iran. Iran and Iraqi Shiites have religion in common and not a whole lot else. In fact, there is likely quite a bit of animosity that still lingers. Twenty-five years ago, Iran and Iraq were engaged in a bloody war that killed at least 875,000 people.

Turkey could invade Kurdistan, but it would come at a great cost. First, they desperately want to become part of the European Union. Invading another country is not a great way to go about it, particularly since the invasion would be unprovoked. Second, the Kurds are hardly helpless. While the rest of Iraq has descended into anarchy, they have used their relative tranquility to increase their armed forces and readiness; an invasion would hardly be a cakewalk. If Turkey did try to occupy Kurdistan, it would probably devolve into a bloody occupation like the one we are seeing in Iraq. Third, even if American forces did leave Iraq, most likely they would relocate to Kurdistan anyhow. It makes a convenient base to keep track on elements of al Qaeda in Iraq, check Iran’s influence, and dissuade Turkey from invading. At least initially, the Kurds would welcome our presence as a stabilizing influence. In short it is hardly a given that our withdrawal would cause the whole region to explode into conflict.

Why do Senator Graham’s warnings sound so familiar? Tim Russert nailed it: this line of thought is peculiarly reminiscent of the Domino Theory so popular and proven so incredibly wrong that existed during the Cold War. The theory was that if we did not check communism in South Vietnam, it would creep all over South Asia. President Lyndon Johnson himself figured we might have to surrender the Pacific Ocean to the forces of communism if we failed to contain it in Vietnam.

Then as now, we got it mostly wrong. At least that is the opinion of the noted late historian Barbara Tuchman. I am in the final part of her book, The March of Folly (1984). It concludes with a long hard look at the waste of time, lives and resources trying to keep South Vietnam from falling to the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. It is painful reading, and not just because tens of thousands of Americans needlessly lost their lives there. It is also painful because here we are forty years later and we are repeating the same stupid mistakes. Ironically, the people who put us in Iraq were the very same people who harbored so much resentment that we let Vietnam fall in the first place. Iraq became their ideological battlefield that would prove we could do a Vietnam situation again, only do it right this time.

Of course, many on the right will say that Iraq is not Vietnam. In some respects of course they are right. However, you do not have to get too far into this part of Tuchman’s book to realize that when it came to how the war was executed many of the same strategies were used. These included candid intelligence assessments that were ignored by politicians and trumped up incidents used to justify unilateral escalation of the conflict. Both conflicts also had numerous attempts by the U.N. to keep the solve the conflict before armed force was used, and in both cases we found we would rather fight and prove our manliness than use diplomacy. In both conflicts there was amply warning that we would be entering a Pandora’s Box, yet we let our fears and hubris dictate our actions. In both conflicts, we studiously chose to ignore the history of the region, assumed the best case and supported anemic and corrupt leaders on the assumption that it was better to support the devil you know.

In Vietnam, for example, Tuchman notes that China gave weak support to the Communist North Vietnamese government and the Vietcong. This was because historically the Vietnamese and the Chinese have not gotten along. The USSR’s support of North Vietnam was far more in the moral support area than in advisers and money. Vietnam was just one of many areas of influence around the world that interested them. (One of them was Iran, which led to our engagement in Iraq and providing Saddam Hussein with intelligence and munitions.) Moreover, communism in Vietnam was a logical response to the times. As Tuchman makes clear, France’s interest when Vietnam was its colony was simply to exploit its people and devour its natural resources. The French ruthlessly suppressed any dissent. Little thought was given to bridging the cultural differences between the western and eastern culture. Communism in Vietnam was a generally recognized pragmatic means by the residents of Vietnam to bring about their fondest goal: genuine Vietnamese nationalism and sovereignty.

The result of our hasty exit from Vietnam in 1975 was a united country that had been artificially split in two. The communist menace hardly leached across South Asia. It ended with Laos and Cambodia, and all our massive secret bombings failed to bring stem it. Today Vietnam, like China, is more communist in name than in ideology. Thirty years later, we have diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Cambodia is no longer communist. Laos remains a socialist state with a communist underpinning, yet remnants of the Hmong still wage occasional insurgent strikes to try to end the socialist state.

To me the lesson of Vietnam means we that should now exercise some perspective. Most likely, our worst fears are a result of our own paranoid delirium. For them to be realized depends on many really improbable ifs being executed. It allows for no possibility that other natural events and forces in the region might counteract these forces. It assumes, for example, that groups like al Qaeda can wield more power and influence than historic ethnic forces. Moreover, it assumes that by using our own force there that we can truly achieve our aims. One thing we should have learned to date from this conflict is that our presence (and in particular our use of armed forces) exacerbates the situation and provides much of the animus to keep the conflict going.

What is needed now is exactly what we should have done before we invaded Iraq: a cold, clinical and dispassionate assessment of the likelihood that our imagined risks will play out, as well as a comprehensive understanding of the historical forces at play in the region. Yes, I think further bloodshed is likely if we leave Iraq. I doubt strongly though that the terrorists will follow us home. As I mentioned in another entry we were the domino that fell on 9/11. We acted predictably and precisely the way that al Qaeda wanted us to act to effect a one time aim: inflame the Muslim world when we retaliated. At its heart, the violence underway today in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East is the result of the same thing that drove the conflict in Vietnam: the desire of a people to direct their societies consistent with their own culture and values. Instead, the Arab world is rife with oppression, hopelessness and poverty. “Moderate” states that we support like Egypt are actually secular states where human rights exist on paper, but not in practice. Al Qaeda is a sad example of the effects that extreme oppression can cause over many decades. Al Qaeda though is just one force at work. There are many others. They are already moving their chess pieces. The movement will continue whether we stay or go. It is folly to think that we can contain or redirect the energy of these forces. They must be expressed and they will be expressed whether we wish it or not.

Just as the USSR eventually collapsed under its own bloated weight, so must these oppressive Arab regimes. It is this oppression and not our occupation that is causing the kettle to boil. Our presence simply stirs the cauldron. I am convinced though that although the path to resolution of these feelings in the Middle East may be bloody and messy, it will be resolved most quickly and with the most finality when we come to our senses and allow these natural forces to play out.

Neoconservative Weasels

Today’s Washington Post has a lead story by reporter Peter Baker. In it, he quotes a number of prominent neoconservatives who are now openly sour on the way the Bush Administration conducted its war in Iraq. For example, Kenneth Adelman, who was part of the original Iraq War brain trust, now acknowledges that the Iraq War has turned into a debacle. “This didn’t have to be managed this bad. It’s just awful.”

Richard Perle, head of the Pentagon’s Defense Advisory Board and one of the predominant cheerleaders for the invasion now says “If I had known that the U.S. was going to essentially establish an occupation, then I’d say, ‘Let’s not do it,’ and instead find another way to target Hussein. It was a foolish thing to do.”

Joshua Muravchik, a neoconservative at the American Enterprise Institute reportedly told the Post’s Baker, “There’s a question to be sorted out: whether the war was a sound idea but very badly executed. And if that’s the case, it appears to me the person most responsible for the bad execution was Rumsfeld, and it means neocons should not get too angry at Bush about that.”

It is natural to see things clearer in hindsight. It is also natural (though shameful), if your forceful advocacy for an unnatural policy like a preemptive invasion of a foreign country goes awry, to try to salvage your own reputation. You can bet the officers on the S.S. Titanic did not want to go down with their ship and its captain either. It may be late in the voyage. There may not be much above the water than the stern of this ship, but these neoconservatives are now jumping into the lifeboat anyhow. In their mind, just because they were cheerleading this war, that does not mean they are partly responsible for it.

These same men were in a position to directly influence policies and strategies for this war. For example, they could have insisted that their support and employment was conditional upon a well thought out security strategy. However, since many of these men were raising a glass with Dick Cheney right after the invasion toasting its success, apparently they let themselves be caught up in euphoria the moment. If they had criticisms, they largely kept their lips buttoned and went with the crowd.

If they truly had misgivings prior to the war, it was their duty to speak up. If they had them but did not share them with those in authority, then they acted cowardly. If they were more concerned about their own careers and being properly positioned within the levers of power than looking out for the best interests of the country, then they did not deserve to have been entrusted with their positions in the first place. To express misgivings and cry wolf now so many years later suggests they are simply weasels.

We should not waste our time listening to anything they have to say anymore. Peter Baker should have done us all a favor by not even bothering to print their pathetic mea culpas. No more trees need to be turned into pulp so the public can learn their discredited opinions and turncoat mutterings.

Unquestionably, President Bush has ultimate responsibility for the debacle in Iraq. Nevertheless, all those who sat on the sidelines and urged him and his top cronies on are also permanently tainted. No amount of public regrets after the fact changes the fact that they were key players in an action that was cataclysmic for Iraqis, lethal to our country’s hard-earned international reputation and devolved into folly of the most egregious kind. If it were possible to impeach, convict and then send Bush to prison for this disaster, men like Aldeman, Perle and Muravchik should be doing time also in nearby adjacent cells. They should be allowed their once a week phone call home to family. Just please do not let them near a reporter!

The Illusion called the State of Iraq

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride
If turnips were swords, I’d wear one by my side
If ifs and ands were pots and pans,
there’d be no need for tinkers’ hands

Scottish Proverb

Sometimes the most obvious things are the hardest to discern. So here’s a dose of reality: Iraq as a nation no longer exists. Moreover, arguably it has not existed for some time. You do not have to look very far for evidence. From yesterday’s New York Times:

The Shiite militia run by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr seized total control of the southern Iraqi city of Amarah on Friday in one of the boldest acts of defiance yet by one of the country’s powerful, unofficial armies, witnesses and police said.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dispatched an emergency security delegation that included the Minister of State for Security Affairs and top officials from the Interior and Defense ministries, Yassin Majid, the prime minister’s media adviser, told The Associated Press.

The Mahdi Army fighters stormed three main police stations Friday morning, planting explosives that flattened the buildings, residents said.

About 800 black-clad militiamen with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers were patrolling city streets in commandeered police vehicles, eyewitnesses said. Other fighters had set up roadblocks on routes into the city and sound trucks circulated telling residents to stay indoors.

This event yesterday is the boldest action to date by an Iraqi militia. It demonstrates the impotency of the so-called government of Iraq. With very little effort, a militia working under the instructions of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was able to take control of this city of approximately 340,000 people in Eastern Iraq. His militia did so with apparent impunity. While later reports suggested the militia has withdrawn at the request of an envoy working for the Iraqi government, no doubt the point was understood inside the Green Zone: focused militias of sufficient size can control not just towns, but major cities, and the Iraqi Army is largely incapable of stopping them.

Even the Bush Administration grudgingly admits that the security situation has simply spun out of its control. The result is a toxic mixture of anarchy and civil war. The influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr understands that Iraq really is no more. That is not to say the “government” of Iraq is wholly impotent. However, from a tactical level it is just another militia. Since it is backed by the United States, it is one of the more powerful ones. Yet even with the powerful assistance of tens of thousands of American troops in Baghdad alone and aggressive block-by-block efforts to clear neighborhoods of arms and insurgents, the violence has intensified. The carnage is clear from many statistics: deaths of American soldiers in Iraq are reaching a two-year high, there are an average of 100 Iraqis murdered on a typical day, the ethnic cleansing of whole neighborhoods continues largely unchecked, and 914,000 Iraqis that have relocated since the war began.

Al Sadr’s militia will be one of many already trying to establish dominance over various regions of Iraq. For now, the conflicts are mostly between Sunni and Shiite militias. In Baghdad, the sectarian war seems to be one without clear boundaries. Yet competing militias are still working within the city to control territory, despite the heavy presence of Iraqi and American troops. The Iraqi Army and Police have proven to be mostly useless there, and some elements inside it are working for sectarian interests. North of Baghdad we recently read about Sunni militias killing more than 100 Shiite residents of the city of Balad. In Western Iraq, our military admits it cannot improve the political or social situation there, and its ability to control territory is very limited.

Here in the United States the average voter now understands that Iraq is embroiled in a civil war, and it has spun out of our ability to control it. Nevertheless, we are still largely in denial that the state of Iraq has ceased to exist. We think that because it has a parliament, it is a state in fact. For a state to be one in fact, and not just in name, it must control its territory. Paramilitary groups control much of Columbia, and consequently those areas are really no longer a part of Columbia until the Columbian government can control them. Aside from the Green Zone and scattered neighborhoods and cities, government forces do not control Iraq either. In fact, the Green Zone is starting to eerily resemble Hitler’s bunker at the end of World War Two. That few of those who control Iraq will venture outside the safety of the Green Zone speaks volumes.

Today’s reality is that Iraq is stateless. It is rife with competing militias each attempting to gain the upper hand. Who controls a given territory largely depends on which force or militia has dominance over an area at a given time. With no clear boundaries, increasingly Iraqis are choosing to relocate to be with their own clans. A de-facto partitioning of Iraq has been underway for some time. People are expressing the reality with their feet. Those who can, such as the oppressed Christian community, are emigrating and ending up in nearby states like Syria.

At the White House, the disconnect between the reality in Iraq and official policy continues to become more surreal and now has entered the realm of the bizarre. An Iraq Studies Group has returned from Iraq. Headed by Bush’s father’s well-respected Secretary of State James Baker and former congressional representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana (who also vice chaired the 9-11 commission) the group is reportedly putting together a list of recommendations to deal with the Iraq mess. While its conclusions are unknown, Bush stated just yesterday that he is only amenable to changing tactics, not strategy. He still operates under the illusion that Iraq can be a free, democratic and contiguous state. His inability to acknowledge reality is doubtless fueling the animus that suggests that voters will allow Democrats to retake the House of Representatives in November, and possibly the Senate as well.

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” Just as Humpty Dumpty could never be put back together, there is no way to put Iraq back together either. At this point, it is beyond even Saddam Hussein’s ability to reform the Iraqi state. The Iraqi civil war is well underway. Clerics like al-Sadr are making their own reality. They are forging the sad new turbulent reality that was the country of Iraq.

There remains some small sliver of hope that Iraq will balkanize into a federation of states. Bush should be embracing this outcome. While it remains highly dubious, it still exists within the realm of the possible. The free, prosperous and democratic Iraq he envisions was always just a neoconservative fantasy. If a federalist state emerges, it will not last long. Its purpose will be to give us an excuse to withdraw our forces, and then it will collapse. I do not think federalism will take root in Iraq. Instead, I see continued civil war with the eventual creation of loose Sunni and Shiite states, and a stronger Kurdish state to the north. Within each state, there will be considerable bloodshed as competing militias fight for control. The real fight, of course, will be for whom controls access to the oil resources.

It remains to be seen whether the sectarian violence in Iraq will spill over outside its borders. When all the bloodshed finally ends, will this be the new map of the Middle East?

Potential future map of the Middle East

America’s real enemy is from within

While in Boulder, Colorado last week, my brother and I stopped by Boulder Books. There I found on the rack a new collection of Tom Tomorrow cartoons. His latest book is Hell in a Handbasket. On the cover, it depicts our president, Dick Cheney and political adviser Karl Rove. Each has devil horns coming out of their foreheads. It is subtitled, “Dispatches from the country formerly known as America”.

I am a big fan of Tom Tomorrow and his weekly strip This Modern World. Looking back on this collection of strips though, which begin in late 2002 as the Iraq War was being sold to the American public, it is as easy to cry as it is to laugh. In fact, it is hard not to laugh and cry at the same time. Not all of us were deceived by the lies coming from the Bush White House at the time. For me, the Iraq War was nothing more than a simpleton’s paranoid fantasies fully realized by 150,000 American troops. I raised holy hell at the time. I attended peace marches. I wrote letters. I called senators. This preemptive war to remove a despotic dictator with delusions of grandeur (but zero influence outside his own country) to me symbolized everything that was wrong with my country. Tom Tomorrow got it right. The day we invaded Iraq, my country lost its soul. I no long live in the United States of America.

As Sparky the liberal penguin put it in this cartoon from 2002, “Um – here’s a scenario for you: what if the invasion of Iraq turns out to be a complete catastrophe – costing thousands of lives, setting off other wars in the region, and ultimately doing far more harm than good?” To which the two Republican clones start worrying if Saddam Hussein is training an army of giant mutant lizards who can shoot deadly laser beams out of their eyeballs.

As a country, we lost our minds and our souls on March 18th, 2003, the day that we invaded Iraq. Just about all of us were hornswoggled. You would expect neoconservatives, with their Neanderthal and schizophrenic vision of the world, to lose a sense of perspective. But Colin Powell? The same man who warned Bush that when it came to invading Iraq, if we broke it, we owned it? The same man who cautioned us never to go into a war without a sound exit strategy? I remember at the time debating his presentation to the U.N. Security Council with friends online. Most were wholly convinced. Fuzzy satellite shots of railroad cars and dubious intelligence reports from second hand sources were sufficient to them for us to start a war. Gosh, we knew where those WMDs were: smack dab in the middle of the Sunni Triangle. Rumsfeld knew it for a fact.

It was all so clear to me back then, but I was mostly alone among my peers. They treated me with either disdain or condescension. Bush and his fellow yahoos could try, but they could not yank my chain. Yet it was clear that as Bush was yanking most of our chains, his chain was also being yanked. The neoconservatives played our simpleton and puffed up fool of a president like the puppet that he is. In turn, it is tempting to think that Saddam was pulling the neoconservatives’ chains. However, I do not think that was the case. Saddam simply could not conceive of someone even more deeply paranoid than he was.

See, here is the thing. Why were the neoconservatives so convinced that Saddam was acquiring weapons of mass destruction? It is clear to me: because subconsciously they identified with Saddam. I know he would do it because I would do the same thing, was what was coming from their id. Something must have gone very wrong with them while growing up. Perhaps Dad had been too handy with the belt. Perhaps they had been picked on too much during recess at school. They were full of repressed anger and anxious for a suitable form of revenge. Unfortunately, those who hurt them had disappeared. So they found others on whom to turn the tables. They convinced themselves that they really were smarter and better than everyone else. Moreover, they would prove it by slowly, over many years, gaining power. They would suck up to simpletons like Bush and use them as their means to an end. For one-dimensional people like Bush had an uncanny ability to latch onto the millions of other simpletons out there. It required leveraging the same faith that these voters had in their religion into candidates who emulated their values, but who could be manipulated. Bush was a convenient toady, but there are still plenty of them around. Bill Frist is the next George W. Bush.

For all the neoconservatives’ protestations about wanting to spread freedom, their real aims were duplicitous. What they really wanted was to control us so they could remake us into a stronger sort of mongrel super-race of uber-Americans. While many of Bush’s supporters are creationists, the neoconservatives are pragmatic social evolutionists. Social Darwinism is their most basic core value: Americans must become meaner and nastier than every other country, because in their paranoid minds the world was an incredibly nasty place. Only by becoming as ruthless and single minded as the enemy could we triumph. To save our way of life, it must first be destroyed, then remade into a new, more militant and less tolerant image.

A trumped up war with Iraq gave them the means to their end. Their vision of America had us citizens goose-stepping to their beat. Just like Adolph Hitler, they cravenly hit us at our most vulnerable spots: fear, paranoia and rabid patriotism. Fear: if you vote for the Democrats then you are helping terrorists, because they secretly want the enemy to win. Moreover, we need color-coded alert levels so we are always aware of just how precarious our happy suburban lives are. Paranoia: be suspicious of everyone who does not act patriotic. Pass something called The Patriot Act, which makes everyone markedly less free. Patriotism: you are either for us or against us. They knew we would fall for it, because it worked wonders for the Nazis too. Human nature is constant and the masses are malleable with the right leverage. For Bush, the rule of law became inconvenient to a nation’s new challenges. Therefore, he invented the most dubious of rationales: a “unitary executive theory” that he interprets as no law can touch him if he does not want it to. He can do anything he wants as long as he thinks his actions protect the country from its enemies. Just to make sure it lasts for the foreseeable future, he made sure that fellow conservatives who subscribe to the unitary executive theory filled two Supreme Court vacancies.

Now finally, the country is sobering up. It would have been much better had the country been fully sober last November. Nevertheless, as I pointed out back then, karmic forces cannot be held in check forever. Bush’s poll numbers hover in the mid thirties and Congress’s numbers are even lower. Dick Cheney’s approval rating is 19%. Cheney was booed today throwing out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals’ season opener.

In reality though we still live in dangerous times. The biggest threat though is not from al Qaeda. For Osama bin Laden is the real puppet master. He was shrewd enough to realize exactly who our president was: one big dumb ass easily manipulated domino. His goal was not to convert America into devout Muslims, although that may be a long-range fantasy. No, his real goal is to convert the Islamic world into one conservative Islamic caliphate. To accomplish it, he needed a force bigger than he could muster. The United States military was the first domino, and he just needed the President of the United States to tip it. His goal could be done on the cheap. Just hijack a few planes using some misguided religious martyrs with box cutters. Have them fly a few airplanes into our most prominent buildings. Do it and we would respond more predictably than Pavlov’s dog. We have been masterfully played for the fool, but bin Laden was also fortunate to have his evil stars so perfectly aligned. Such a grandiose mistake like the one we made in Iraq was only possible with the neoconservatives in positions of power and a complete fool in the Oval Office.

Therefore, the dominoes fell one by one. Many gave the illusion of progress on the war on terror, while actually exacerbating it. It remains to be seen whether those Americans who still remember the blessings of freedom and liberty can stop this chain of dominoes before the world slowly devolves into an eternal set of religious mini-wars lasting generations.

However, forces are lining up to limit further damage. It is already beginning. To work, it simply must be manifested by a return to power by the Democrats in both houses of Congress this autumn. With a change in Congressional power, our new leaders will then have to summon the courage to impeach and convict Bush for his clearly illegal high crimes. It is unclear though that even if Bush is impeached and convicted, that he would actually vacate his office. It is also unclear whether the 2006 elections can be conducted fairly. There was enough voting fraud in 2000 and 2004 for even the mildly paranoid to be disturbed. Diebold controls many voting machines and they sure enough delivered Ohio for the Republicans as promised with a last minute Republican vote surge. Republicans also control most supervisor of election positions. I do not think they will go peacefully; having power is just so intoxicating.

The November elections may turn out to be a time to manifest real patriotism. It will require our supervisors of elections simply to do their duty and let the voting be free and fair. For our biggest enemy is no longer hiding in caves in northwestern Pakistan. He and his cronies occupy the White House and all positions of power in the government. They have shown an unwillingness to listen to reason and an affinity for using whatever means are necessary to affect their desired ends, legal or illegal. We will need every tool at our disposal.

Until now, losing an election was enough to remove someone from power. It may take massive demonstrations that will dwarf recent immigration protests to remove the neoconservatives. It may take massive civil protests with demonstrators lying down blocking access to public buildings, like during the Vietnam War. It may take ordinary citizens standing in front of tanks like in Tiananmen Square. Let us hope a sane head or two in the neoconservative power circle can persuade the rest that their time is over.

Let us also hope that Tom Tomorrow’s next book of cartoons comes from the United States of America that we grew up in, not the grotesque and sick parody that is currently foisted on us. We must stare down these paranoid schizophrenics and firmly show them the door. We may have to push them out. We may have to haul them out one by one and throw them onto the streets. However, they must go if we want to live in the United States of America again.

Good intention wreak unintended consequences in the Middle East

Hindsight should always be 20:20. Strangely though, we seem to be unable to learn lessons from our attempts at nation building, particularly in the Middle East. Why is this? Let us ponder the wreckage and see if we can learn the lessons that seem to escape our current leadership. Then let us examine how we might do things differently in the future.

So Iran, which claims that its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes, may be building the bomb. This seems a rational assumption. After all, its latest president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not exactly firing on all cylinders. For example, he thinks the Holocaust is a myth. Even though Iran is a signatory to the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, he feels Iran can give lip service to it. Perhaps channeling the spirit of Saddam Hussein, he is quite comfortable throwing out inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency whenever he finds it convenient. Never mind that by doing so he is violating the treaty.

Meanwhile, a leading Iranian newspaper is sponsoring an international cartoon contest on the Holocaust. Reputedly, this is being done so that Jews will know how it feels to suffer the gross sacrilege Muslims are going through with the publication of imprudent cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad. I have to wonder why Jews would feel offended if indeed the Holocaust were truly a myth. Do they think that Israelis are not aware of the many virulently anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish cartoons already routinely printed in Middle East newspapers? Moreover, there is the wee problem that it was not Jews but a Danish newspaper that published the offending cartoons. Meanwhile the rioting over these cartoons continues unabated across the Muslim world. Nine Muslims died today alone in Libya. These Muslims seem to think that by accidentally killing more people (all fellow Muslims so far) and destroying more property that the Prophet Mohammad and Allah are pleased. Somehow, I doubt it.

Over in Iraq voters in a recent parliamentary election, rather than voting for secular candidates, voted for sectarian and religious ones instead. The majority Shi’ites, at the insistence of their firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr, nominated Ibrahim Jaafari as the new prime minister. Jaafari is the current ineffectual interim prime minister. Sadr, of course, wants closer ties with the Shi’ite country of Iran and wants nothing to do with a national unity government promoted by the United States, or for that matter the United States.

In addition the Palestinians have elected Hamas into power. As you probably know, this is a political party whose professed aims include the destruction of the state of Israel. The many suicide bombers that have killed Israel citizens demonstrate the sincerity of their beliefs. Palestinians voted this way quite mindfully of the implications. Although unhappy with the outcome, even President Bush complemented Palestinians on how well they followed the Democratic process.

So perhaps democracy is spreading all over the Middle East. Arguably, even our current nemesis state Iran is a democracy. (It would flunk our test of being a real democracy, since clerics have the final say on whether a candidate gets on the ballot.) Unfortunately, Americans are not getting the desired outcome for the billions of dollars we invested. We assumed that democracy would to lead naturally to pro-Western, pro-American governments happy to sell us oil. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests (with Kuwait perhaps the exception) that in the Middle East people will vote for those with virulently anti-American, anti-Israeli and pro-Islamic state positions. For the most part, they are democratically saying, “Bring on theocracy!”

This should not surprise us. From interpreting the Quran, a theocracy should be the natural form of government in a predominantly Muslim country. Values we cherish like pluralism and secularism are much harder to instill when submission to the will of Allah trumps all.

Where did our good intentions go wrong? How did Iran become such a problem for the United States? Why are Iraqis voting for religious and sectarian parties? Why would the Palestinians, whose better relations with Israel are now finally bearing some fruit, suddenly prefer a religious government with murderous impulses toward Israel?

I see two overall reasons. First, our government has engaged in short-term thinking and ignored the long term likely consequences. Second, we projected our worldview on the Muslim worldview and assumed it would be a natural fit.

Case Iran. How did Iran get to hate us so much? It is because during the Cold War, we used Iran like a ten-dollar whore. It was just another pawn in our international chessboard. We wanted to deny the Soviet Union access to warm water ports. Therefore, it made sense for us to promote an Iranian king, the Shah of Iran. It was convenient for us to overlook his excesses and his oppression of his people. He was a means to an end: containing the Soviet Union. We discounted the ill will that would result if the Shah were overthrown. We assumed we could contain Iran so this would never happen. Our outcome in Iran though was partly a result of bad timing. Islamic fundamentalism was sweeping across the Middle East at the time. Iran was the first place in modern times where it would be tried as a form of government. Perhaps in the context of those Cold War times our choice was unavoidable. On the other hand, perhaps instead of allowing Iran to become a monarchy, we should have promoted real democracy. Had we done so perhaps its current clerics would not be associating us with the Great Satan. Perhaps instead of hearing regular chants of “Death to America” they would be peeling the bells for their democracy day.

Our tactics were similar in Iraq: contain the Soviet Union with what you have to work with. Consequently, we promoted Saddam Hussein, the very man we revile. Why did we help him? We aided him because our plan for containing the Soviet Union using Iran collapsed when the Shah was overthrown. In Iraq, we took big risks, including looking the other way as we did in Iran when Saddam ruthlessly oppressed its citizens. Saddam became too powerful and his ambitions became too imperialistic, resulting in a situation we could not contain.

As far as the needs of the Palestinian people, we have been unabashedly pro-Israel since its creation. We came late to the table in recognizing that the Palestinian people had legitimate needs. We looked the other way or offered the mildest protests every time another Jewish settlement was established in occupied Palestinian territories. We often aided Israel in the Security Council. We made sure that virtually no resolution against it would pass. We should have been cutting our aid to Israel as it expanded its settlements. More often, we simply increased our aid. The more Israel whined, the deeper we dug into our pockets.

This is what hindsight should show us if we were to look back on the past objectively. It should also inform us that democracy is not always the solution. Even if we are able to install a democratic government in a Middle East country, the odds are that its citizens will elect leaders opposed to our interests. Should this surprise us? For the culture of the Middle East is much different than our own culture.

Fostering democracy in the Middle East may or may not take wings, but it will not necessarily lead to a world more aligned to America’s interests. Neither is democracy in the Middle East a panacea for our nation’s long-term security. Perhaps President Bush is finally sobering up. In his latest State of the Union address, he said our nation is addicted to oil. Unfortunately his policies did a lot to increase our addiction. However if we were to follow through on his suggestion to dramatically reduce our need for oil from volatile spots like the Middle East, in the process we should also increase our national security. For whether democracy or more totalitarianism results in the Middle East in the future, the outcome is less likely to affect our national security.

The view from the bubble

Am I the only one who blanched at President Bush’s speech at Coretta Scott King’s funeral today? I hope not. Granted I blanch a lot when this president talks. No one will ever accuse Bush of being eloquent. Three out of four Republicans would probably agree too: when Bush talks he sounds insipid and vapid. Like he is not quite there. I find it particularly irksome to hear him speak when he is trying to pretend that he shares values he clearly lacks. His sermon about this wonderful woman named Coretta Scott King was yet another high water mark of discontinuity. The words may have been lofty, but they were delivered in a voice that gave a much different speech. We all know what the speech said. However, here is what we picked up.

“You know, I just really don’t care about this woman. I’m sure she was a nice lady to these folks, but I don’t care because, well, she isn’t my kind. I am just here being nice and because it’s expected. I am the president. I really haven’t a clue how this woman motivated millions of these people. She sure didn’t motivate me. And the people here to say goodbye, goodness, what a sad and lost bunch of people. They just don’t get it. If she really wanted to help them, she’d have been getting them off welfare. These Negroes here, boy their values are all wacked. They need to follow ladies like Condoleeza. They gotta lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. If they act a lot like me I’ll hardly notice that they are black.”

In many ways Bush is a Martian. He does not experience the world you and I live in. He can mouth the words but he simply lacks the empathy (and consequently the ability) to make us believe that he believes them. He is a man comfortable being stage-managed. And why shouldn’t he be? This is the way his life has always been. He has always been told what to do and what to say. He doesn’t rebel when it happens. He likes it. The staff always keeps the riff raff out. Someone is always smoothing the path for him or taking the fall for him if necessary. In Bush’s world, this is normal. This is the way things work. There is always money to pay your rent, because even if I didn’t have any, Dad does. While he talks the talk about self-reliance, he has never been self-reliant himself. Instead, he relies on connections. Connections got him into Yale and the Texas Air National Guard. His father or his father’s friends set him up in the oil, baseball, and governor business.

Of course, he has never known poverty. In fact, he has never come close to it. His has lived a life of undeserved privilege. No wonder when he stands in front of a crowd of African Americans he hasn’t a clue where these people are coming from. No wonder he can go to a devastated New Orleans, make noble speeches about how the full resources of the federal government are going to bring it back to life, and then blithely forget it. Living to him is about being stage-managed. The butler lays out your clothes in the morning. The cook has a breakfast ready. That’s the way things are. No doing dishes ever. No need to take the car to get the oil changed. No need to figure out whether you will either pay your rent or buy your medicines this month. Days are merely events to get through. You follow the script and get many pats on the back from the many yes men around you. Then you go home. Bed by ten p.m. Your presidential pajamas will be laid out on your bed next to the chocolate on the presidential pillow. The staff will see to it. They’re good folks.

Lacking grounding in the real world, and because he only makes friends with those in similar situations, it is not surprising that he is hopelessly inept managing the government. Lacking any grounding in the real world, the otherworldly becomes routine. He is like The Buddha before he ventured outside his father’s estates. Tax cuts for the rich? Sure, why not? I can identify with rich people. Gosh, we pay too many taxes. Health care savings accounts? It works for me, so it will work for anyone. Surely poor people will put money into them too and then use it to shop around for their own doctors. After all, they may be poor, but they should have enough money left over from my tax cuts to throw a couple hundred a month into their MSA. War in Iraq? Everyone knows Saddam is guilty, so let just topple him and hang those prissies at the U.N. It won’t be a problem. After all Dick says we’ll be greeted as liberators. Global warming? It’s always hot on my ranch in the summer. I don’t see the problem and it’s no big deal anyhow. Most people hate winter anyhow. Deficits going out of sight? Cut more taxes and tax revenue will spout out of the ground like a Texas tea. Yee haw! Liquid gold; it will be more than enough to pay for costly new entitlement programs and keep more than a hundred thousand soldiers in Iraq for decades to come. Need to do some domestic wiretapping? The law is for gentlemen, not for us Texans. We do not wait for prissy politicians to pass bills giving us the authority. We go for it and never look back.

I can see the attraction of the presidency to Bush. It is the perfect job for him because win or lose reelection he gets to stay in the bubble for the rest of his life. The Secret Service will be there for the rest of his life too, even guarding him on his deathbed. The presidential pension will ensure he has health care for life. He will never have to drive a car again, unless it is for fun. In addition, he won’t have to account to anyone again either. It is the perfect retirement plan for a man whose life has always been on a silver plate.

The bubble is perfect for him. The bubble is home. In a few years, there will be no more of the tedium of attending funerals for people he does not care about. It will be nothing but clearing brush and mountain biking for the rest of his life, at taxpayer’s expense.

Ah, the joys of living the surreal life.