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Archive for March, 2009

In the New Republic, William Galston compares Barack Obama’s “too-long wish list” with FDR’s way of doing things and comes up with a bleak conclusion:

The key analogy between today and 1933 is the centrality of the financial crisis, which makes it hard to understand why the administration has not yet moved as decisively to fix it as FDR did on the first day of his presidency. This issue could not have come as a surprise to Obama and his chief financial advisors. Their failure thus far to restore financial confidence raises two equally depressing possibilities: Either they do not know what to do, or they do not believe they can muster the political support to do what they know needs to be done.

There’s one crucial difference, though. Obama simply has more to do. Roosevelt may have inherited a depression, but he didn’t inherit two wars. The country’s reputation wasn’t in tatters, nor had civil liberties been under attack for eight years. FDR didn’t have to fix a justice department that had been reduced to churning out CYA memos for the president; or an intelligence agency that had been greenlighted to torture its detainees. Global warming wasn’t an issue, so there was no reason to re-examine misguided policies. Stem cell research? Abortion? Forget about it. Oh, and I don’t think there was anyone clamouring for a truth commission, either.

I’m not saying Obama shouldn’t get his priorities straight. In fact, I share Galston’s alarm. But it’s not simply a case of an inept administration fumbling in the dark. We just want so much more.

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So let me get this straight: throwing your shoes at the president of a country that attacked yours is only five times less serious than serving as the right-hand man of a genocidal dictator?

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The Washington Post’s inimitable Anthony Shadid has been to Abu Ghraib — not the prison but the town — to assess the atlal, or wreckage, from Tuesday’s bombing that killed 33 people. The story is brilliant.

The atlal were the orphaned boy who had been selling plastic bags for a few cents. They were the vegetable seller whose 18-month-old daughter was ripped from his grasp as he was hurled to the asphalt. They were the relatives standing at a morgue that housed the remains of their families together with the remnants of the bomber who killed them.

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Michael Hanna has some wise words for those of us who think the U.S. is leaving Iraq hanging out to dry by committing to withdraw its forces regardless of the consequences:

I shudder to contemplate genocide in Iraq or even wide-scale sectarian/ethnic war, and the possibility of regional instability is not something to be taken lightly. So there are valid concerns about our withdrawal on national interest and purely ethical terms. But I wonder what we could do to stop such a war if it actually broke out. In 2006-2007, we were not able to halt the civil war; many Iraqis believe we simply sat on the sidelines and dealt with the consequences once the sectarian fighting had sorted things out for us. Would we be able to exert our will in the future with decreased troop numbers? I have serious doubts on that front.

Fair enough. Let’s for the sake of argument say that even if it would save lives, an open-ended military commitment is ultimately unwise because it’s costly and it’s bad for everybody. Surely, then, the U.S. must be helping Iraq in some other way? Trying to facilitate refugee return? Speeding up reconstruction? Working with the UN to solve the Kirkuk problem? Making sure that when American troops depart, an international effort to stave off another civil war will kick in? You know, as in “when we stand down, they will stand up”?

That’s right, I’m being facetious. And the reason is that while I can see a strategy for a military pullout, I don’t see any sign of a “civilian surge”, or, in fact, anything resembling a concerted effort to give Iraq a hand. Maybe it’s because after the U.S. military re-made itself into a soft power counterinsurgency force in 2007 and basically took over post-conflict clean-up duties from the civilians, no one thought to come up with a plan for what to do when the soldiers eventually leave.

Or maybe there is such a plan, we just haven’t seen it yet.

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“When I was on book tour in California last week,” Tom Ricks writes, “some people attending one of my signings were arguing for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and said that they understood that a genocidal civil war might break out there — but didn’t care.” Ricks wonders: “Do a lot of Americans see it that way?”

I don’t know about ordinary Americans, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they felt pretty confused. After all, many of those who should know better — the wise, the educated, the influential — are calling for a swift withdrawal regardless of the consequences. Here’s how Andrew Sullivan sums it up:

The place will go to hell when we leave. Which is not a reason to stay.

What puts Sullivan in a class of his own is that unlike many other pullout advocates, he acknowledges the likelihood of disaster yet flaunts his callousness shamelessly. This is particularly presumptuous coming from a man who supported the stupid goddamn war.

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How do we know when a war ends? Judah has a point when he calls for “a consensus on a good working definition of peace”:

That’s what will ultimately determine when we actually leave the wars we’re currently engaged in. So far, no one has really gotten around to identifying exactly how we’ll know there’s no more job left to be done. Depending on the criteria used, Mexico might not meet the definition. For that matter, a number of American cities during my lifetime might not have either.

Here’s the thing, though: The stated goal of the international coalition in Afghanistan, and of the U.S. in Iraq, is not peace but victory. Let’s not confuse one with the other. Victory is not a prerequisite for peace, nor does it necessarily lead to one. Wars have a tendency to produce victors yet go on for years after morphing into other conflicts. Sixty years of bloodshed in the Middle East have not brought peace despite glorious victories. And in Afghanistan, war has followed war even when one side has prevailed over another. Victory smells like napalm in the morning.

The American obsession with winning has caused nothing but trouble for us all. In Iraq, the U.S. has apparently settled for being able to say it won and skipping town before everything unravels. In Afghanistan, despite all the fancy talk of ending the conflict by non-military means, the aim still is first and foremost to beat the Taleban, while peace slips further away. In Pakistan, victory over al-Qaeda is so important it does not seem to matter that the whole country might go down as collateral damage.

Scoring a victory is easy compared to the herculean task of actually ending a war. In Iraq, for example, ultimately the question is “whether the civic culture required to sustain democracy has taken root in society”, David Smith writes in the New Atlanticist:

People must respect the outcome of elections, letting the government govern until the next constitutionally appointed election.  During the interval, citizens have a right to express themselves, even to show their strength and ardor in orderly public demonstrations.  Moreover, they should build the institutions of democracy—effective political parties, alternative programs, meaningful local elections and articulate non-governmental organizations. However, democratic culture must distinguish between freedom of expression and the political immaturity of street action purportedly in the country’s interest, but simply aimed at toppling the elected government.

In The Gamble, the dissident generals, desperate for a change in strategy, fret over and again how the U.S. is close to “losing”. Disappointingly, Ricks never challenges them to define defeat. What exactly was the U.S. losing in 2006 that it isn’t losing now? As long as victory, not peace, is the overriding concern, Iraq — and all the other countries where the West is waging war — will remain just as close to the abyss as they were when things were supposed to be worse.

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Things will definitely get worse in Iraq before they get better. Today, the country’s parliament voted to cut the 2009 budget by 7 percent — nearly $4,2 billion — due to plummeting oil prices. Anyone who has bothered to venture out into Iraq’s cities knows that the situation is desperate, with infrastructure in ruins, unemployment rampant and people generally at the end of their tether. What little flicker of hope there is has focused on the government’s pledge to use oil revenues to make things more bearable, but that now seems increasingly unlikely.

The repercussions will be grim. The SoI will go unintegrated, the army won’t be paid, returning refugees and IDPs will be left to fend for themselves, reconstruction will grind to a halt, and before long, we’ll see the Kurds and the Arabs battling over Kirkuk’s oil.

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