“Let’s Not Worry About Who Killed Who…”

 . . . so famously spoke Homer Simpson in an anxious attempt to deflect too much scrutiny into his culpability in the death of next-door neighbor Maude Flanders.

The RTD has a similar message in branding Jim Webb’s pointing out that he was against the war in Iraq all along as not “constructive.” The RTD seems to be implying that Webb was simply trying to get in a partisan knock on the president.

This is exactly wrong, for two central reasons. First, pointing out that the Bush team had poor judgment and ignored the many expert warnings against the dangers of invasion and occupation is entirely fair, because we cannot divorce our judgments about the latest “surge” plan from our judgments about this administration’s competence and ability to make wise decisions.

The fact that the Bush team royally screwed up Iraq, and that many people who were not listened to in 2003 predicted such an outcome, has real bearing on whom the public should be more inclined to trust in discussing what to do about Iraq in 2007. That’s an entirely constructive point for Senator Webb to put before the public.

Second, at some point this country is going to have to have a thorough inquisition into not only the Bush Administration’s actions in creating this quagmire, but also the overall political and media culture which enabled the invasion to proceed so rashly, with so little foresight and planning for what would come next, and so little serious debate and discussion in either the halls of power or our mainstream media outlets. If Americans as a people want to avoid being pulled into future Iraqs, we have to ask the question of why smart, experienced people with military experience or with first-hand knowledge of Iraq had so much less influence in the military run-up than a handful of neocon intellectuals who thought re-shaping the Middle East would be as easy as shifting pieces around a chess board.

Yes, that’s a question with a critical tone, but it absolutely serves a constructive purpose, and indeed, a constructive purpose of the highest importance.

Implicit also in the RTD’s critique of Webb is that those who opposed the Iraq invasion had no “constructive” alternative for dealing with Iraq or prosecuting the war on terror. This too is false: typically, opponents of the invasion favored continued containment and monitoring of the Saddam regime, while concentrating American effort and resources on 1) going after Al-Qaeda directly and 2) continued diplomatic efforts to isolate Al-Qaeda and other terrorists from the mainstream of Arab opinion, such that they remained a fringe group.

That serious voices on behalf of this strategy were so little heard in mainstream media outlets speaks only to the broader failure of our political system (the media very much included) in preventing this disaster.

Published in: on January 25, 2007 at 2:23 pm  Comments (3)  

You Can Tell George W. Bush’s War is in Big Trouble…

…when the best spin the Richmond Times-Dispatch can put on Wednesday’s speech and the Bush escalation plan is this rather lukewarm offering from the editorial page on Friday.

It’s an odd piece. The RTD demonstrates more resignation than conviction in talking about the Bush plan, and doesn’t claim that the “surge” is going to work.

It’s as if the editorial writers realize Iraq has been a total failure, but can’t lift themselves out of the rhetorical frame Bush has provided for the last four years, and can’t bring themselves to admit that this was wrong all along.

Indeed, the editorial clings to the notion that Bush offered “just” reasons for the initial invasion. That’s an odd claim, because as I recall “justice” had little to do with it back in winter 2003–the invasion was supposed to be about disarming an immediate threat. The discourse about justice and democracy and building freedom in the Middle East was (at the level of public explanation) a post facto attempt to justify the war after the whole WMD thing turned out to be wrong. (Barton Hinkle of the RTD has deftly pointed out the shift in this posting on his blog.)

More importantly, the RTD’s claim that Bush had the right idea but executed it poorly–though clearly a significant advance over some previous statements, especially Ross Mackenzie’s intransigent refusal until late last year to entertain any criticism of the war at all–cannot stand close scrutiny.

Why not? Because when it comes to war, evaluation of the likely success of a plan must itself be part of any moral evaluation of the justice of a proposed war (especially a pre-emptive war of this kind).  You don’t get credit for nice tries or almost meeting your goals in war. You have to win and do so decisively if you are to achieve your stated goals; otherwise the entire enterprise is pointless, even on its own terms. (This was the wisdom of the Powell Doctrine, which somehow got thrown out the window on the road to Bagdhad.)

Therefore, it’s not good enough to say “that sounds like a good reason to have a war, let’s do it.” You also have to ask, “can we really pull that off”, or more pointedly “Can we really pull that off given the resources we are willing to devote to this and the sacrifices that the American people are going to be wililng to bear for this cause?” And you have to ask, “Does the cast of characters in charge of carrying out this proposed war have the competence to do what they say they are going to do? Can this administration be trusted to follow through on its promises and carry out the war in the most conscientious possible manner?”

Those are all questions very few people asked in the run-up to the war, even though having persuasive, positive answers to those questions should have been an absolute prerequisite of undertaking this enterprise. Very few mainstream political actors can escape blame for that failure.

On the one hand, the Bush Administration actively discouraged such questioning, either by the public or even (and this is what is most shocking) internally; to ask such questions was to betray a lack of toughness or conviction in the need to fight evil or the goodness of the United States.

On the other hand, the vast majority of Democrats in Congress failed the public trust placed in them by refusing to ask the hard questions at the right time. They, too, bear some of the blame for what has been allowed to happen. So too, of course, does the mainstream media.

In any case, it is striking that Bush can no longer count on even conservative editorial writers to back wholeheartedly his prosecution of this war.

As for the escalation plan itself, the most serious analysis of its likely military and strategic effects can be found in this New York Times piece today by an analyst from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, which provides a highly informative annotated commentary on Bush’s speech.

Published in: on January 12, 2007 at 8:35 pm  Comments (2)  

The Rumsfeld Memo

It’ll be interesting to see how the hard-core apologists for the Iraq war at the RTD and elsewhere try to process/rationalize outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s memorandum, published today by The New York Times, on future policy options in Iraq. The memo is the clearest evidence yet that the people who have been in charge of this war have absolutely no idea what they are doing.

As Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich points out in a Washington Post article about the memo, the brief is simply a “laundry list” of future possible actions, with no serious analysis of the pros and cons of each or how the various strategies might work together. As Bacevich puts it, “The memo is a tacit admission of desperation and of impending failure.”

Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and author of the superb The New American Militarism, will be in the Richmond area at the end of January to give a talk on democracy and the military at UR.

For what it’s worth, perhaps the most intriguing suggestion in Rumsfeld’s memo is that of a massive program to combat unemployment among Iraqi youth, overseen by the U.S. military. Don’t expect President Bush to rush to embrace that suggestion, however much pragmatic sense it might make. The idea of a massive government program to actually provide jobs in a direct way flies in the face of free market ideology, and if the initiative worked people might begin to ask questions about why we can’t do the same thing at home.

Published in: on December 3, 2006 at 7:47 pm  Comments (1)  

An Exercise in Tautology: The RTD Endorses Allen

Stop the presses! The Richmond Times-Dispatch has shocked the world by endorsing Senator George Allen for re-election next month.

The paper’s reasoning goes like this: We have always endorsed Allen in the past. Allen supports George Bush “even in [his] most confunding moments,” and the paper has endorsed the President in the past. Because Allen supports the President, therefore we support Allen.

What’s missing in that circular logic is a strong independent reason why Bush should be supported in the first place. The editorial emphasizes Allen’s support for the President’s venture in Iraq, despite “the manifold difficulties.” In particular Allen is quoted saying that the goal should be an Iraq that “by their own backbone . . . does not become a safe haven for terrorists.” Webb, in contrast, says we should never have gone into Iraq in the first place.

Yet Allen’s statement and Webb’s opposition to the war are not in logical contradiction. Those who oppose the war in Iraq  and opposed going in in the first place don’t want an Iraq that is a safe haven for terrorists, either. Rather, they can cogently argue that the war has created a terrorist-friendly space in Iraq, and that the continued American presence there is  exacerbating the  ongoing  violence.

Even more tellingly, Allen’s call for Iraqis to “take control of their destiny,” if it is anything other than a nice-sounding rhetorical flourish with no substantive meaning, would seem to imply that American policy should 1) bow to the will of the Iraqi people and 2) turn over the work and responsibility of reconstruction to Iraqis, with the U.S. playing a supportive, not a decisionmaking role. The practical implication of both those maxims is that the U.S. needs to find a responsible way to get out of Iraq: the Iraqis certainly don’t want us there, and they certainly are not going to assume sovereign power (and the responsibility that goes with it) so long as America maintains continued military oversight.

Those are the logical conclusions of Allen’s own statement, yet it appears that he (and the RTD) are more interested in vagaries such as showing that the U.S. has “will and resolve” rather than dealing with the reality of the situation in Iraq.

The truth is, serious conservatives who care about the actual problem and not about rhetoric realize things have gone very, very wrong in Iraq and that continuing down the same path on the basis of very general rhetoric is both unhelpful and irresponsible. As George Will points out in a column on the opposite page, the Iraq study group led by Bush 41 wiseman James Baker is expected to recommend a major course change in Iraq in its report, conveniently timed to appear after the election.

On a side note, the RTD describes Webb’s concern about economic inequality and giving “a voice to people who have no access to the corridors of power” as “mishmash.” Since when is supporting equal democratic voice for all citizens mishmash? Does the RTD endorse an alternative theory of governance, in which it is right and proper that some people have access to power and others don’t, and if so what justification can they provide for that theory?

Published in: on October 22, 2006 at 2:53 pm  Comments (1)  

Four Pieces of Common Sense, a Soldier’s Mother, and a Great Laugh Line

The front page of the RTD’s Commentary section this Sunday is given over to a question-and-answer section with Senate candidates George Allen and Jim Webb.

Mostly boilerplate stuff there, though I’m impressed with Webb’s consistent focus on social inequality as a critical issue, and his willingness to associate himself with “Jacksonian democracy”–that is, the working class.

Even more interesting, however, are four bits of common sense which crop up throughout the rest of the section. The first three are letters to the editor:

Adele MacLean (of the Partnership for Smarter Growth) has a letter talking about the need for building communities oriented around people, not cars.

Vietnam veteran Robert T.E. Nash responds to a previous letter-writer who had questioned the patriotism of critics of the Iraq war, saying an intelligent patriot would have favored focusing resources on catching Osama Bin Laden rather than going into Iraq.

Fairfax resident Peter Banks criticizes clergy who are lobbying for the (anti-gay) marriage amendment by invoking George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights and its legacy of toleration.

Fourth, the RTD itself picks up some bonus points for good sense in critiquing plans to market a dashboard figure mocking the Prophet Muhammed. (Sadly, however, I fear the paper’s decision to further publicize the availability of such a figure will persuade some percentage of its readers to go and pick one up.)

The most moving item in the RTD today, however, is a letter from a local mother of a soldier in the Iraq War. Donna Shell describes how inadequate equipment caused needless loss of life in her son’s unit, and goes onto call the war a “$300 billion fiasco.” Shell says she’s voting for Jim Webb, and if the Webb campaign has any sense at all they’ll get in touch with her and see if she might want to join him on the campaign trail.

It’s a shame, by the way, that Shell’s letter was run beneath the generic, misleading headline “Issues, Candidates Dominate Debate.” This was a letter primarily about Iraq and should have been labeled as such.

Finally, a great laugh line from the paper today: Ross MacKenzie, amidst a column opposing any tax increases to address transportation problems in northern Virginia, manages to refer to Tim Kaine as a “leftist governor.” Engels, Luxemburg, Chavez, Kaine… you see the pattern, don’t you?

Published in: on October 8, 2006 at 4:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

Torture Forum Report

We’re going to take a break from the usual format and report briefly on the public forum “Torture and the War on Terror” held Wednesday night at VCU, co-sponsored by Amnesty International and the Richmond Peace Education Center.

The 289-seat lecture hall overflowed with students and adults from across the generations; organizers estimate that well over 300 people attended in all.

Attendees first witnessed a video clip featuring Abdullah Almalki, a Canadian citizen who was arrested in 2002 on a visit to Syria and tortured for nearly two years as a suspected terrorist. (Almaki in fact was completely innocent.) In the video clip, Almalki discussed some of the milder forms of torture he personally experienced.

The first live speaker was Tony Lagouranis, a former U.S. Army interrogator in Iraq. Lagouranis reported on some of the interrogation practices he both utilized and witnessed while in Iraq. Lagouranis strongly feels that we should oppose torture on purely moral grounds, though he added that the practice of torture is helping inflame anti-American insurgents. He also stated that while some interrogators were gung-ho about torture, many others were not and that in general a policy change to clearly forbid torture and return to the Geneva Convention would be welcomed at the field level. Lagouranis comes across as a highly intelligent, principled person who clearly still is processing the significance both of his own past role in conducting interrogations and his new role as a leading whistle-blower and critic of current interrogation practices. He has a book coming out from Penguin Press in 2007 which is sure to be a must read.

The next speaker was Jameel Jaffer, a staff atorney in the New York offices of the ACLU. Jaffer is responsible, among other things, for getting some 100,000 pages of torture-related government documents publicly released under the Freedom of Information Act. Drawing on examples of these documents presented via Powerpoint, Jaffer provided a brilliant and compelling overview of the torture issue.

The dominant portrayal of the torture issue in the media and by government leaders relies on two narratives, argued Jaffer. The first narrative is that of an interrogation of a known terrorist who is known to have knowledge of an imminent attack on Americans or others; in this circumstance, it is suggested, failing to use any means necessary to get the information to stop the attack would be irresponsible. The second narrative is that Abu Ghraib-style torture is the work of lower-level rogue officers, has nothing to do with higher-level policy, and is confined in nature.

Both narratives are patently false, argued Jaffer. The vast majority of persons held for interrogation in Gitmo, Iraq and Afghanistan have no real intelligence value at all (an assessment strongly shared by Lagouranis), let alone the kind of detailed knowledge of an imminent attack that it is often argued torture can help us unearth. Lagouranis noted that most of those detained in Iraq weren’t guilty of anything at all.
Moreover, thousands of documents and scores of testimonies and eyewitness accounts from Gitmo, Iraq, and Afghanistan suggest that abusive torture by U.S. interrogators is widespread, and that it is directly related to the Bush Adminstration’s insistence that the Geneva Convention ought not apply to non-U.S. citizens held in these settings.

These initial comments sparked a full hour of questioning from the audience, covering various legal, moral, and political aspects of the torture issue. A representative from Amnesty International and moderator Adria Scharf pitched in with ideas on how attendees could stay involved in the issue and help build a grassroots movement to eliminate the growing culture of torture in the U.S. military.

By any reasonable standard, this was a spectacularly successful and informative event on one of the weightiest issues of our time; I only wish the Richmond Times-Dispatch had been there to cover it.

Published in: on September 28, 2006 at 5:36 am  Leave a Comment  

International Day of Peace

You probably didn’t know it, but Thursday September 21 was declared by Governor Kaine as a Day of Peace in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Virginia thus joined the nearly 200 nations around the world which commemorated the International Day of Peace, initiated by the UN.

The Interfaith Council of Greater Richmond had an event to mark the day Thursday night; attached is a copy of the talk I gave during the event which may be of some interest. (It even includes a reference to the RTD.)

Published in: on September 22, 2006 at 3:35 am  Leave a Comment  

Is There an Argument in That Column? (Iraq, III)

Ross Mackenzie penned his first new column in some time for Thursday’s edition of the Times-Dispatch. After some preliminaries, the veteran editorialist launches into what is intended to be an attack on critics of the Iraq War.

But instead of mounting a reasoned argument which shows he has wrestled with the serious criticisms mounted at both the decision to invade and the subsequent conduct of the war, Mackenzie adopts an unusual rhetorical method: He lists no fewer than 26 different supposed anti-war claims, stripping them from their context, and stating them in his own words.

The point here, of course, is to make the antiwar arguments look ridiculous. This is attempted in two ways: first, specific anti-war claims are stated in their most extreme terms, i.e. “It’s all the fault of a demonic America.” Second, highly pertinent and credible claims–about torture, creating more terrorists, administrative competence–are mixed in with more far-fetched claims about 9/11 conspiracies, as well as seemingly random statements such as “We all voted for the war before we voted against it.”

(Anyone tempted by the 9/11 conspiracy theories, by the way, should have a look at Alexander Cockburn’s useful retort in The Nation this week, which appears in long form here.)

In short, Mackenzie wants to tells us that because some criticisms of Bush appear far-fetched, all of them must be invalid. Therefore, we should trust the leader unconditionally.

Such logic hardly even rises to the level of a slippery slope argument.

What we have here is a simple refusal to take seriously and make the effort to offer an informed response to criticism, largely driven by what is no doubt a sincere belief that it’s not the role of citizens and observers to judge presidents’ actions in conducting war. The logic of that belief, of course, is at odds with the notion of democracy itself; as long as “the jihadists hate us, want to destroy our freedoms and rights,” we should support whatever our leaders claim is necessary.

If there’s any comfort to be found, it’s that Mackenzie’s view is an increasingly lonely one even on the right. A much more honest and even insightful assessment of President Bush and his leadership can be found in this New York Times column by prominent conservative David Brooks.

By the way, if you haven’t noticed, the Richmond Times-Dispatch has (coincidentally or not) moved aggressively into the blogosphere in the last few weeks, including this blog from columnist Barton Hinkle.

Published in: on September 14, 2006 at 2:06 pm  Comments (1)  

Letters to the Editor on Iraq, II

The RTD must be getting a barrage of mail about Iraq, because it today printed not one but three letters critical of the Iraq war. Reader tolerance for nonsensical arguments about the war seems to be declining.

Published in: on September 9, 2006 at 1:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

Letter to the Editor on Iraq

We’ll get rolling on the substance of the blog with a letter to the editor I penned last week regarding a column by Ross Mackenzie which approvingly cites Norman Podhoretz’s view that “Iraq has gone not badly but well.” Three days have passed so I’m assuming RTD is not going to run the letter.

In reference to Ross Mackenzie’s latest column (August 17): Perhaps the reason honest conservatives like George Will and William F. Buckley are (like the majority of Americans) increasingly troubled by the situation in Iraq is that they are actually paying attention to what is going on. In addition to the near-daily reports of widespread violence, there is now an overwhelming body of evidence documenting just what has gone wrong and why.

A good place to start is respected Pentagon reporter Thomas E. Ricks’s book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. That book, based largely on detailed interviews with military officials who participated in the war effort, documents in excruciating detail how the Bush Administration trumped up evidence and ignored internal skeptics on the way to war and embraced wildly over-optimistic scenarios about the cost and ease of pacifying post-war Iraq. And as Ricks shows, the Bush team also utterly failed to prepare for, let alone carry out, the task of reestablishing a functional, secure regime capable of winning over the Iraqi public and quelling any insurgencies.

The result is a protracted, nightmarish quagmire that has cost American lives, damaged America’s position in the world, created a magnet and rallying point for terrorists, and called the future viability of Iraq as a nation into doubt. Three years after “mission accomplished,” the only truly secure place in Iraq remains the Green Zone. This is not what the American people bargained for.

Is it too much to ask that Mr. Mackenzie trouble himself to read the work of Ricks and other close observers of this tragedy before again blithely reassuring readers that all is well?

Published in: on August 20, 2006 at 9:09 pm  Leave a Comment