The Screaming Pen

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The Final Battle

Iraq at Home (Part 2): Realizing the New 3rd Rail of American Politics

“Congress and the American people will continue to support and protect the members of the United States Armed Forces who are serving or who have served bravely and honorably in Iraq.”House Concurrent Resolution 63 (2/10/07)

“You know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”John Kerry (11/1/ 2006)

The most crucial factor – in terms of the domestic political battle over Iraq policy – is neither geopolitical nor about precedent and signaling (see the background to this article). The Republicans have owned the concept in recent years and have invoked it time after time in the debates in the House this week; Democrats are trying to wrest it away. It defines the parameters of U.S. policy in Iraq and both parties are grappling to invoke it with great fervor. It’s the first half of H Con Res 63 (stated above): support for our troops.

Literally, speech after speech after speech in Congress the past three days has centered on this concept. Democrats have begun every statement about Iraq along the lines of “I firmly support our troops” before making a segue to an appeal for reason, sometimes citing a concern for preventing the future loss of troops’ lives to reinforce this assertion. In a realm of dodged questions and shifty statements, it’s the new social security, the sole inviolable third rail of American politics. Just ask John Kerry, who found out about the danger of crossing this fine line in November 2006.

Across the aisle, Republicans claim that supporting the resolution undermines our faith in the troops and the job they’re doing. It’s inconsistent to oppose the surge and support the troops in the field, they say. Hearing of the debate back home, morale among troops in the field will be undermined (in truth, this is an unfortunate facet of America’s political system that makes the sustained, unilateral occupation of a country increasingly difficult for a democratic country). In the face of increasing radicalization and violence on the ground, endless months of waiting for Iraqis to “stand up,” and an increasing realization that victory doesn’t mean winning on the battlefield, the last bastion of argument in favor of the war in Iraq is support for the troops. As long as the GOP can link its policies to support for the troops the party ensures that the American people will not turn against them. Democrats are trying to disentangle the two.

The National Narrative
Although they differ as to the policy implications, supporting the troops is perhaps the only thing that the parties squaring off in Congress can agree upon. They do so solely because they know it carries the most weight with the American people. In fact, it cuts deeper than the current political landscape, past the flags waving on the bottom of the screen on MSNBC and FOX News in 2003 to America’s national narrative, which we are raised with and which embraces the sacrifice of our forefathers storming the beaches of Normandy, winning two world wars and the Cold War so that America, guided by liberty and democracy, could become the world’s guiding light and sole superpower. The sacrifice of our troops was integral to all of these, and it’s celebrated in pop culture (Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers), promulgated by our grandfathers, and complementary to our sense of pride and strength. As the amalgamation of many cultures and peoples, the one element shared by all Americans is the belief in this national narrative, which is inherently constructed upon the role of American soldiers.

Moreover, how could one have a friend, brother, sister, father or a mother in the U.S. military and yet oppose the war? Soldiers display a faith in their superiors that is central to the functioning of a hierarchical organization; how then, can you tell them that you don’t believe in the cause for which they are prepared to die? We can’t, of course, and we don’t. Many times it’s far from being so explicit, too; instead of consciously going through this thought process – and faced with a complex, fluid and divisive situation – people eagerly seek out reasons that comport with arguments supportive of their friends and family. Regardless of political ideology, people are likely to gravitate towards the policy consistent with their social relations. It’s the “us” versus “them,” it’s Palestinians versus Israelis, it’s Indians versus Kashmiris. This is a human condition, and is found in all nations.

Thus, opposing the troops would be akin to opposing the national narrative and repudiating our ties among each other. The country has been through this process before. After Vietnam the country went through the same painful process, and many people did turn against the troops, spitting at them and leaving them to beg on the streets after returning home.

We cannot make the same mistake this time. The troops are not to blame. Clearly, opposing the troops isn’t the point, and can’t be. But when support for the troops is linked inseparably to failed policies, how do we separate them without violating our bond with our brothers and sisters?

A Painful Hangover
Doing so requires a national catharsis. Many find it inconvenient now, but on March 29th, 2003 over 70% of America supported the invasion; the figure jumped to 83% when the troops were mentioned (Gallup Poll “U.S. at War with Iraq 2). Compared with the close to 60% who now think the war was a mistake (Gallup Poll “February Wave 1”), resolving this massive shift involves overcoming considerable guilt. We feel shame toward the families of those who’ve died serving in Iraq and to the people of Iraq. We feel embarrassment at having to admit that we were wrong to the original opponents of the war in “old” Europe. Clear-consciences reward those who opposed the war for the right reasons from the start.

It requires absolving ourselves from a process (mobilization for the Iraq war) in which we had only implicit involvement. Catharsis will be painful and involve redirecting blame to political leaders (read President Bush and GOP members unable to scatter in time), under whose leadership the nation has been exploited. It should also involve the government contractors (Halliburton, Blackwater, AEGIS) who made billions in profits while U.S. soldiers had to choose between placing their one bullet proof plate on their chest or back and crucial infrastructure projects went under-funded. Probes into government contracts awarded without competition to private military contractors – along with greater oversight in the future – are in order.

There are clear signs that this is beginning to happen, after the Democratic takeover of Congress, rock-bottom poll numbers for the President and the welcome return of vociferous debate in Congress (and fiery defense of Democrats’ patriotism by Tim Ryan, D-OH), sorely absent in recent years. New members of the legislature (Democrat and Republican) were not on the record supporting the Iraq war in ’03 and can more easily denigrate it as the mistakes of the previous Congress. And we should not feel bad about this: the manipulation of social bonds by political leaders is perhaps the most heinous tactic of all.

The Final Battle
This is truly the “final battle” of the Iraq war. America’s last battle will not occur in Iraq, but the United States. It’s the battle of the national psyche to come to terms with the events of the past four years and the dreadful consequences of the Iraq war. For better or worse, the United States will not withdraw from Iraq unless the country comes to terms with this issue.

February 16, 2007 Posted by | Author: DML, Congress, Democrats, International Relations, Iraq, Middle East, Politics, The GOP, The War on Terror, United States | 4 Comments

The (ill) State of Iraq

Iraq at Home (Part 1): There’s nothing brave in writing about Iraq in February ’07. We’ll do it anyway.

In President Bush’s January State of the Union Address, he asserted – not for the first time – that the war in Iraq is indelibly linked (no pun intended) to the “war on terror.” He was right. Stop: that statement was not true before America deposed Saddam Hussein. The unfortunate reality is that this is a classic example of saying something enough that it becomes true. Hussein was a secular dictator and, according to available intelligence, had minimal contacts with al-Qaeda before the war in Iraq. Now, as the April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate declares, the U.S. invasion of Iraq:

“has become a primary recruitment vehicle for violent Islamic extremists, motivating a new generation of potential terrorists around the world whose numbers may be increasing faster than the United States and its allies can reduce the threat… The U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the insurgency that has followed, [is] the leading inspiration for new Islamic extremist networks and cells that are united by little more than an anti-Western agenda…Rather than contributing to eventual victory in the global counterterrorism struggle, the situation in Iraq has worsened the U.S. position.”


In Agreement?

Presenting this evidence in February 2007 is no bold statement. The administration botched the rebuilding of Iraq, Bush’s approval ratings are at all time lows, a majority of Americans think the war was a mistake (55% in February 2006, Gallup poll “February Wave 1”); the rest is familiar by now. What needs further examination is not a tired summary of the last few years but the motives and arguments behind the raging in Congress at present about how to proceed.

Iraq in U.S. Politics
Congressional debate is back today; since this morning House Republicans and Democrats have been firing blows at each other over House Concurrent Resolution 63, the proposed non-binding” Iraq resolution, which registers disapproval but does not block funds for the President’s “surge” proposal. For those of you without time for C-Span in your busy lives, the substance of the fiery debate has been predictably familiar. It was illuminating nonetheless.

While the Democrats’ opposition was initially characterized as opposing war for the sake of peace, there is now a tinge of realism to their arguments: the war is further radicalizing large swathes of the world and billions of dollars are being spent while many domestic issues need serious attention. They appeal to the historical democratic tradition of debate and the need for open discussion of policy, especially when it’s flawed. Crucially for the Democratic shift was their minority status during the Iraq war, (despite having largely supported it in ‘03) which makes them less politically tied to its future than the GOP. The Democratic takeover of Congress also brought fresh faces into politics with the luxury of not having gone on record in support of the war in ’03. The party is better able to make a pragmatic about-face (or stand by an initial decision against it) in light of unfavorable developments.

The GOP meanwhile is torn. Some members have rebelled against President Bush and opposed the surge. Conversely, those supporting the surge (and opposing H Con Res 63) wax eloquently but their statements are threaded by several clearly identifiable arguments. One centers on the resolution being non-binding. Opponents call it “political posturing” and “empty talk” that accomplishes nothing. This is insincere. Of course the resolution is politically motivated; everything in Washington is. More importantly, both sides know that symbols matter. Sending the signal that Congress opposes the increase is designed to isolate President Bush for posterity and influence the battle for public opinion and thus policy. Counter to their public declarations, Republicans tacitly acknowledge that symbols matter when they say, correctly, that terrorists will take note of domestic discord and be emboldened. And in case you have any further doubts, when was the last time that almost 400 representatives felt compelled (and were allowed) to make speeches on the House floor?


Quick! What channel is C-Span?

Secondly, they warn that if America withdraws from Iraq the country will ignite, Iran will capitalize, and the region will be engulfed by violence. While fears of a war erupting throughout the Middle East are easily overblown, it’s true that Iraq would likely devolve further into full-scale ethnic cleansing and massive displacement and forced migration. Iran would be further emboldened with first the removal of its neighborly nemesis Saddam Hussein and the failure of the United States to create a self-sufficient Iraqi state. As in past wars (i.e. Korea 1950 – 1953), the stronger power doesn’t have to be defeated in battle to lose the war. Stalemate works just as well if you’re able to outlast the other and wining a direct military confrontation was never a requirement for victory anyway.

President Bush offers a third justification for the war that is less often asserted by GOP members of Congress. On February 15th at the American Enterprise Institute, Bush restated that fighting terrorists in Iraq means that the United States won’t have to fight them at home. This is an attractive argument: a would-be suicide bomber from Saudi Arabia or Yemen finds it far easier to detonate him or herself in Baghdad than Boston.

Yet it’s common sense that the longer that the “war on terror” goes on – and it could be infinite – the more likely it is to happen. In the long run, terrorist attacks will occur regardless of whether or not America is fighting terrorists in Iraq. Both sides use this in support: Democrats ponder the question, “If we’re going to be attacked either way, why spend the blood and treasure in Iraq?” Republicans say that since the terrorists won’t let up if we withdraw, we need to take the battle to them.

An Accusation, Not an Argument
The GOP then asks, disingenuously, what the Democrats strategy is for Iraq. “If you oppose President Bush’s plan, why not propose your own? What is your plan?” they ask while asserting that the Democrats have none. These Republican critiques are accurate; the Democrats have no miracle strategy.

Before rushing to herald the Republican strategists, however, we should recognize that they’re simply making the best of a politically tenuous position, one that is likely to become increasingly unstable with time. And Republicans who are politically unable to distance themselves from their support for the war will – if the Democrats eventually withdraw the United States from Iraq – forever claim that it didn’t have to fail. They’ll be relieved of forging a solution and insist to the last that it could have been won, crowing that the Democrats “lost Iraq.”

The immensely depressing reality, not only for the Democratic Party but for the whole country, is that America is so deep into the war in Iraq that no good option now exists. In the following article I make the case that the country is beginning to come to terms with this and that there is one last political issue, the resolution of which will determine the course of American policy in Iraq.

February 16, 2007 Posted by | Author: DML, Democrats, Dissent, International Relations, Iraq, Middle East, Politics, The GOP, The War on Terror, United States | Leave a comment

Pocahontas, Marlin Brando, and Me

Shakey Chimes In

 

In 1979, Neil Young and Crazyhorse released “Rust Never Sleeps”, an album held in high regards by both critics and fans alike. From the narrative “Powderfinger”, to the transcendant “Pocahontas”, Young, using rust as a metaphor for inevitable deterioration –see 1981's Re-ac-tor– proves that he possesses the tools to ward off rust, namely his creativity and ability to reinvent himself. Young’s newest album, Living With War, is a powerful indictment of the Bush Administration, addressing the current state of American politics, all the while placing his grievances in an emotional and historic context that is a breath of fresh air, especially considering the mostly sad state of dissent among the newest generation of popular musicians. The resulting album, although lacking lyrical depth at times, is a powerful effort that should remain relevant long after the current administration leaves office, in the same way that his 1971 classic "Ohio", written about the massacre at Kent State, remains relevant today.


Hey Hey, My My, Rock and Roll Will Never Die

While some songs on Living With War, namely “Lets Impeach the President” read like a moveon.org pamphlet or a University of Vermont sociology major’s away message, others such as “Families” and “Roger and Out” leave much more to the imagination, effectively conveying the justifiable discontent that many Americans are feeling right now. Powerful protest songs, which usually convey emotion without being terribly forward, seem to be rare these days, especially among the younger generation. Many of the newer anti-Bush efforts coming from Generation Y, examples being Bright Eyes "When the President Talks to God" and NOFX's "Idiots are Taking Over", are lacking in both lyrical content and accuracy. They also seem to lack the "Folky" appeal that historically has transcended age and class. For generally better efforts, see Steve Earle's The Revolution Starts Now, and selected tracks from Bruce Springsteen's excellent Devils and Dust.

Conclusions

Neil Young's newest album, while not flawless, serves as an effective protest album that is also an artistic success. Living With War's lyrical imagery, combined with Young's vocals, provides the listener with an original, experienced voice. It is apparent that it is this experience, gained through both songwriting and a lifetime of careful observation, is what seperates Neil Young from his younger counterparts.

June 24, 2006 Posted by | Author: JPL, Bright Eyes, Dissent, Music, Neil Young, NOFX, Politics, The GOP, The Media, The War on Terror, Uncategorized, United States | 1 Comment

In Shallah

What to Make of Somalia

Until recently, Somalia had been relegated to the depressingly long list of squalid, penurious places so depraved that no one much hoped for any sunny result. The international community largely disregarded Somalia, because hadn’t they tried to help the country before? That forlorn hope ended gruesomely with Black Hawk Down and the messy withdrawal of United Nations peacekeepers in 1993, which additionally helped dissuade foreign intervention elsewhere in Rwanda a year later at the cost of 1 million lives. Spurned and with no supreme interests at stake, the world gave up on Somalia.

In the meantime, Somalia’s capital Mogadishu continued to be one of the most violent and dangerous cities in the world. A prime example of a “failed state,” murderous warlords ruled the country and governmental institutions were non-existent; there was no central bank, foreign aid groups ran makeshift hospitals, and Islamists operated private schools. The international community’s half-hearted efforts to help out centered on propping up an interim government, led by Abdullah Yusuf, that is only nominally in charge of the country. When trying to return to Mogadishu last year he was shot at, and forced to flee in opprobrium. Moreover, as a former warlord many Somalis think Yusuf an Ethiopian stooge, which is hardly a favorable association in a country that’s long been at odds with its northern neighbor.


Looking for a New Career?

Frustrated by rapacious warlords, anomie, and political impotence, Somalis turned to the Islamic Courts Union. The Union began as a collection of local courts settling routine grievances and grew as militias turned out to enforce decisions, eventually coalescing to challenge and defeat the warlords.

So far the judgment is mixed. The ICU’s militias are imposing order and making the streets safe for the first time in memory. Optimistic stories abound of shops reopening and citizens venturing outside without bodyguard or arms. Yet others fear the introduction of Taliban-style theocracy and extreme rectitude. Indeed, there are already rumors of movie theater closings and beatings dealt out to young lovers for frolicking in public. Ultimately, there are more questions than answers at the moment.

Outsiders’ main concern is, unsurprisingly, with terrorism. Yusuf for one is claiming that the ICU is filled with foreign jihadists, although doing so also favors his own agenda; ICU gains are wresting control of territory from his grip. Long before recent interest in the country it was rumored that the CIA was channeling aid to the warlords so long as they kept al-Qaeda out. The ICU does appear to have a varied makeup, ranging from moderate to opportunistic and extreme.

The next concern centers on intervention. Such thoughts are premature, however, because despite recent media interest in the country there remains no legitimate party capable of effective governance that is therefore worthy of support. Unfortunately for Somalis, intervention may come from Ethiopia, which reports indicate has been moving contingents towards the town of Baidoa where Yusuf is holed up.

More promisingly, the ICU and the interim government recognized each other today and signed a cease-fire mediated by the Arab League. Surprisingly perhaps, Somalia’s kismet may not be entirely gloomy: breakaway regions of the country – Puntland and Somaliland – are already safe by comparison. Reassuringly, the concession with Yusuf wouldn’t have occured were al-Qaeda running the ICU. If moderation prevails Somalis may at last be able to affect how their country is governed.

Other peoples are itching for the day when this opportunity is afforded them. In Egypt, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the oil monarchies and beyond, volatility and years of conflict are likely to pass before extremism’s inability to build a healthy society is exposed. No matter others’ prior experience with this, oppressed peoples throughout the Islamic crescent can’t be told that currently oppressive regimes are better than an alternative they’ve never tried, especially when it claims to have all the answers and promises eternal salvation. Once given the chance extremism will be shown for the failure that it is, people will tire of listlessness, and they’ll search for a sensible alternative. Let’s hope Somalia has already reached that point.

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

June 23, 2006 Posted by | Africa, Country Profiles, Intervention, Politics, Somalia, The War on Terror | 2 Comments

Still the Shining City on a Hill?

Human Rights in the Pursuit of Terrorists

For twenty years after 1979, the U.S. Congress annually passed “Most Favored Nation status” with China. The legislation gave China access to the American market – and vice versa – under the same preferential tariff regime as many other counties. Chinese and U.S. business groups lobbied hard for its approval, and during the summer of 2000 they secured an even greater goal: passage of Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR), which locks in MFN status for good and precludes the need for yearly review of U.S.-trade relations with China.

Because the PNTR debate was fought largely between two groups, its codification crystallized an important development in U.S.-China relations. Groups critical of China, many of which railed about human rights, used the MFN debate each year to shed light on China’s treatment of political prisoners, ethnic minorities, and Falun Gong members. PNTR’s passage, however, was a clear victory for business. Witness Chinese President Hu Jintao’s April visit to America that focused almost entirely on trade and security problems like Iran and North Korea. Business and war may disturb ties, but bickering over rights between the two powers will not: tellingly, mention of human rights is found reluctantly only after phrases like “also on the agenda.”


Doing America Few Favors

Indeed, advocates for human rights must be a grim lot these days. From a United Nations report calling for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, the Abu Ghraib scandal, rumors of secret detention facilities, handing terror suspects to other countries for torture, and extrajudicial renditions, the United States has seen its image as the international standard-bearer of human rights and justice slip away.

The “war on terror,” say America’s leaders, will last for many years, even decades. This is because an individual’s ability to attack the country will remain no matter what political developments occur. As such, it is worth asking whether – with no end in sight – the persistence of the conflict should cause the United States to turn its back on the ideals that won the support of people everywhere for decades, and therefore helped achieve foreign policy objectives that may have otherwise been unattainable.

True, the nature of terrorism poses new challenges that will require novel solutions. The catastrophic potential of terrorist attacks will sometimes require harsh preventative measures and there are certainly terrorists (among an unknown number of innocents, as evidenced by the fact that the Pentagon has released some of the detainees) in Gitmo. The way out of these challenges is not easy or obvious; yet it is vital that America’s leaders make a vigorous effort to stop terrorist attacks in a manner that is more consistent with the country’s professed values. A solid first step would be legal proceedings against those being held at Guantanamo and closure of the prison camp there. Fortunately, President Bush himself announced such sentiments in early May.

The Stakes are High

Like it or not, if America cannot better handle the balance other peoples will continue to find America morally indistinguishable from less savory characters like Chavez, Ahmadinejad and Putin. Therefore, leading by example – while immensely difficult – is thoroughly essential because U.S. behavior has implications not only for potential terrorists but everyone living under brutal regimes that benefit from a lax international human rights environment. Demonstrating proper behavior is in fact the only way to advance the cause, as aggressive promotion of rights in other countries can help justify misguided movements (see “neocon”) and cannot be allowed to engender conflict among major powers (i.e. U.S.-China relations). It’s time for the country to overcome the conservative-liberal divide and recognize that upholding human rights at home is in the U.S. interest; if it doesn’t, anti-Americanism will become endemic, American soft-power weakened, and U.S. influence in the world debilitated.

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

May 30, 2006 Posted by | Author: DML, China, Human Rights, International Relations, Politics, The War on Terror, United States | 5 Comments

Germany’s New Popularity

A Dangerous Precedent: The Price of Paying Ransom for Hostages in Iraq

German nationals in Iraq have reason to be both comforted and disturbed by reports (in Der Speigel magazine and on ARD public TV) that Berlin broke precedent and paid ransom money directly to insurgent groups to secure the release of two engineers this week. German ex-pats can take solace in knowing that, if captured, there may be a monetary incentive in not beheading them on camera. At the same time, Germans are likely to become increasingly prized targets, potentially leading to a spike in abductions.

 
But next time?

At that point, will Germany continue the payments, furthering the crisis, or will the policy’s lack of efficacy lead to a reversal and the bloody sacrifice of future hostages? Will the government consider paying ransom only in Iraq, or in other global hotspots as well? Whatever the answers to these questions – and although this would be difficult to explain to the released captives – the strategic outcome looks gloomy for both German citizens and companies with interests in Iraq and beyond: in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and every other place where restive groups may look to cash in.

Cruel but Vindicated

Against this backdrop, the U.S. government’s long-standing declaratory policy of refusing to negotiate or barter with terrorists over hostages – however cold-hearted and unfeeling – appears justified. While the sentimental and PR value of capturing an American will remain an impetus to their abduction, at least they can know there is no additional financial motivation in doing so. No matter, some will say: simply being American is enough in some parts of the world.

– DML

Of note: In 2003, German companies spent 190 million Euros of FDI and imported 675 million Euros of products, much of it petroleum, from Nigeria. While imports “dropped sharply” in 2004 (the latest year for which figures were available) according to the German Foreign Ministry, firms doing business in the Nigerian delta – where much of the country’s oil is found and where MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Nigerian Delta), among others, has recently ramped up kidnapping and extortion efforts – should be acutely aware of the risks engendered by claims of ransom payments in Iraq.

 2006. All rights reserved.

May 6, 2006 Posted by | Author: DML, Europe, Germany, Iraq, Middle East, The War on Terror, United States | Leave a comment