Thursday, June 29, 2006

Iraq: Drug War Analogies and Mutation Metaphors

It's difficult to articulate a comprehensive perspective on the Iraq War. The Bush administration certainly has many accomplishments, but it has proven difficult to measure the extent to which the American mission in Iraq is making progress in relation to the many and serious setbacks. The accomplishments include capturing Saddam Hussein and bringing him to trial, holding three successful elections, inaugurating a new elected government, and eliminating much of the al-Qaeda in Iraq leadership. Yet, the accomplishments have a frustrating transience about them. There was a lot of optimism following the capture of Saddam, but that was irrevocably lost after the Mahdi army uprising in Najaf and Sunni uprising in Fallujah. Likewise, the elections of last December were a monumental event, but momentum was lost when Iraqi politicians took six months to form a government and the accomplishment almost forgotten when the death squads accelerated their murderous work this spring. In fact, the Bush administration's accomplishments in Iraq are quite a bit like the accomplishments of American governments for the last forty years of the Drug War. State and federal governments capture important drug dealers and make big headlines, but new drug lords always appear to replace them. The French Connection was replaced by the Medellin Cartel which was replaced by the Cali Cartel which seems to have been replaced by Mexicans. Likewise, drugs like marijuana and cocaine was displaced by crack, ecstacy, methamphetamines, and OxyContin. Despite the best efforts of the mammoth American law enforcement apparatus, the drug business is as big or bigger than it ever was. That's because the structural foundation of the drug business in American demand for drugs never changes. As long as there is an enormous American demand for drugs, there will be always be ambitious criminals eager to make gigantic amounts of money in the drug business. In a similar way, the Bush administration holds elections, captures or kills terrorist leaders, and takes and retakes cities like Fallujah, Ramadi, and Haditha. All of these accomplishments involve a lot of American ingenuity, resources, effort, and constant hard-slogging. But the headlines from these victories barely fade before the insurgency moves to the Baghdad area, death squads begin massacring Sunni and Shiite men, and the situation starts to deteriorate in Basra. Like the drug trade, the daunting problems of Iraq just seem to change personalities, change locations, or morph into new shapes despite the determination and resourcefulness of the American personnel in Iraq. In some ways, there doesn't seem to be the rock-solid structural basis for the difficulties in Iraq that American drug demand represents for the illegal drug business. Instead, what often seems to happen is that some events seem to mutate unexpectedly into a severe worsening of the situation. Most recently, the bombing of the Samarra mosque by Sunni insurgents was certainly a traumatic event guaranteed to exascerbate sectarian tensions. However, the enormous escalation of death squad activity that has been going on in Baghdad for more than three months was something that no one outside the death squads themselves could have predicted. As a result, the situation in Baghdad is now so unstable that 75,000 American troops have only been able to slow rather than eliminate the attacks. As a result of the burgeoning violence in Baghdad, all of the patient work of the Americans in organizing elections, promoting compromise between the sectarian factions, and training Iraqi troops has been overshadowed by the onset of a Hobbesian nightmare of a war of all against all. There have been similar mutations in the difficulties faced by the Americans before. Raiding the offices of the Mahdi army in 2004 triggered an uprising by the Sadrists in Najaf, Karbala, and the Sadr city slums of Baghdad. These uprisings took months to put down while American focus on the Sadr and the Mahdi army allowed Sunni insurgents and foreign jihadis to entrench themselves in Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, and other cities north and West of Baghdad. In this sense, the dramatic expansion or mutation of the Sunni insurgency of 2004 created a new structure that American occupation forces still had not been able to take apart before the equally dramatic expansion of death squad activity in Baghdad this spring. The reason why the Iraq sitation looks so bleak to most people in the United States is that mutating crises like the expansion of the Sunni insurgency and the death squad nightmare in Baghdad have run far ahead of the "drug war" accomplishments of the American occupiers and their Iraqi allies. Why is this the case? I would argue that the mutating crises like the current anarchy in Baghdad have several structural foundations that the American occupiers and our Iraqi allies have not been able to counter. First and most important is the escalating religious sectarianism of both the Shiite and Sunni populations. Outside Kurdish controlled areas, Iraq is a much more religiously motivated society than it was before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the intensity of sectarian passion on both the Sunni and Shiite sides has made much of the country into an ethnic and religious tinderbox ready to explode over events like the Samarra bombing. The second foundation for mutating crises is the hostility of the Iraqi Arab population to the occupation. From the grieving relatives of those killed by the occupation armies, to teen-agers cheering the destruction of American vehicles, to Prime Minister Maliki complaining about the frequent murders of Iraqi civilians, the occupation is wearing on the host population and creates conditions for more setbacks even as it makes progress. The third foundation for mutating crises is the inexperience of Iraqi politicians with governing which makes the infiltration of the government by insurgents and sectarian militias easy, corruption an appealing first choice, compromise extremely difficult, and concerted action apparently impossible. The Iraqi government has not been able to exercise control over its own personnel. As a result, the main thrust of the death squad activity that has so destabilized Baghdad this summer has come from within the government itself. Finally, there is the lack of effort by the Bush administration. The failure to commit enough troops and seriously pursue economic reconstruction has meant that the occupying forces do not have enough troops to finish off the insurgency in Western Iraq or the resources to provide a counter-weight to the crisis so that people can have hope. It would be a lot easier for the Americans to deal with the Baghdad death squad crisis if people in Baghdad had 24 hours of electricity, readily available gas, stable employment, and security from the jihadis. Because the American occupiers haven't been able to bring any of these things about, the Baghdad population has been in a permanent state of crisis, a state of crisis that mutated into something much more dangerous after the Samarra bombing. Put together the drug war transience of our successes with the mutating expansion effects of our setbacks and you have a recipe for both short-term and long-term failure. And right now, we are failing in Iraq.

Socialist Girlie Men in Iraq

When the Bush administration invaded Iraq, they thought that they would be able to put big-talking swindler Ahmed Chalabi in charge of the new Iraqi government. What they got in Nouri al-Maliki was something more in the European/ Democratic Party mode--more than willing to criticize the U. S. military, more interested in reconciliation than killing the enemy, and pushing amnesty for insurgents. From the point of view of the macho cultists in the Bush administration, this is all the kind of soft "girlie" stuff that they thought they were leaving behind when they invaded Iraq. Who knows, maybe Dick Cheney will be start calling for a military coup to overthrow al-Maliki next week. Today, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki offered a 28-point plan for national reconciliation. As is often the case, the political sub-text of the plan is more interesting than the text. A Newsweek report yesterday indicated that the Iraqi government was giving serious consideration to setting a deadline for American withdrawal. The report also claimed that Iraqi negotiators assumed that amnesty would be offered to nationalist Sunni insurgents while foreign jihadis would still be seen as terrorists. None of this found its way into al-Maliki's speech today because of American objections. However, the implications of this thinking are severe for Bush policy-makers.Putting withdrawal and amnesty together comes out of the John Murtha/ anti-war playbook. In developing these ideas, the Iraqi government assumes that it is the presence of American troops that is stimulating most of the Sunni insurgency. Not global jihadis, not Saddam dead-enders, not war lords--the AMERICAN MILITARY. If American troops withdraw, then most of the insurgents will lack direct motivation to keep up the insurgency. The most recent estimates I've seen are that local insurgents are 90-95% of the total Iraqi insurgency. If there are 20,000 Iraqi insurgents, that means that 18,000 to 19,000 would be nationalist insurgents with one to two thousand foreign jihadis. The Iraqi idea was that getting American troops out of the country would reduce the insurgency to a couple thousand guys and make it much less of a problem.The Iraqi government's thinking is so much like that of the Europeans and American anti-war spokespeople that you would think they were being tutored by Jacques Chirac rather than the American ambassador, Khalilizad. Hey, maybe they are in touch with the French. Bush, Cheney, and Rice are never tired of claiming that American troops are the only force preventing Iraq from becoming a global terrorist sanctuary. The Iraqis seem to think the exact opposite, that it would be the presence of the Americans inspires the insurgency and that the departure of the Americans would be a crippling blow to the insurgency. This is pretty much what John Murtha claimed last year when he joined the anti-war side. Maybe Ann Coulter will want Maliki arrested for treason as well.In this context, amnesty for insurgents would be designed to address most of the remaining motivation for staying in the insurgency. Given that nationalist insurgents would have killed American and Iraqi troops, attacked civilian Shiite targets, participated in death squads, and the like, one motivation for continuing the fight after the departure of American troops would be to avoid being punished. Giving insurgent fighters amnesty would be one way to take away the "escape punishment" motivation for keeping up the fight. The Bush administration wants amnesty even less than it wants a withdrawal deadline and they got their way today. According to Newsweek, however, amnesty is "almost taken as a given by Iraqi negotiators." By the same logic, the Iraqi government wants to compensate Sunni families for family members killed by American or Iraqi troops. John Bolton expressed the spirit of the Bush administration and the blood-lusting American right when he proclaimed that "I don't do carrots." To the contrary, the Iraqi government thinks that they can suck the air out of the insurgency by offering the carrots of American withdrawal, amnesty, and financial compensation. Then, they could use the stick of military force themselves to clean up the remnants. The fact that al-Maliki's already beginning to think like a war opponent after only a month in office must be deeply discouraging to a Bush administration that's isolated at home and abroad. Who knew that socialist girlie men would be taking over so soon in Iraq?

Cheney's Distorting Mirror

People often see highly distorted images in mirrors. Many anorexics see their bony physiques and portruding ribs as grotesquely fat when they look at themselves. There are also lots of obese people who see an image of perfectly thin health reflecting back to them. In both of these cases, the distorted self-images are part of the disease that is ruining their health. Vice-President Dick Cheney looks at the war in Iraq through a lens that is just distorted as that of the anorexic or obese. In today's interview with CNN's granite-jawed but painfully mediocre John King, all Cheney saw was American commitment, American "will", and American progress. In response to Kerry/ Feingold's call for a withdrawal deadline, Cheney emphasized that al-Qaeda would take American withdrawal as a sign that the U. S. did not have the "will" to fight a war on terrorism. Withdrawal would also become a cue for terrorists to be more aggressive in carrying the fight to the U. S. But this is all Cheney's distorted self-image. In fact, it was the U. S. invasion that was the cue for terrorists to become more aggressive. Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq became active in Iraq where they had not been active before. The ranks of these groups were swollen by recruits inspired by the Iraq invasion. The recruits receive outstanding training while fighting American troops before going back home to launch terrorist operations there. Cheney sees the presence of American troops in Iraq as deterring global terrorism. However, all of the evidence suggests that global terrorism was inspired to reach new heights by the invasion.The same is the case with the perception of weakness. Cheney claims that terrorists would see the U. S. as weak if we withdrew from Iraq. What he doesn't seem to see, however, is that the global terrorists already view the United States as weak because of the half-assed nature of the Bush administration's effort in Iraq. Not putting enough troops into Iraq to stay on the offensive, the Bush administration has turned American troops into heavily armed targets in places like Haditha. Lacking troops, the Americans have the situation in Baghdad to deteriorate dramatically and haven't been able to provide security for pro-American Iraqis. The terrorists interpret all of these things as signs of weakness and redouble their efforts to plant roadside bombs, assasinate politicians, and intimidate ordinary Iraqis. Unlike Dick Cheney, the terrorists are seeing American weakness for what it is and attacking accordingly. Dick Cheney sees nothing but progress because the U. S. has held three elections in Iraq over the last two years. But is it progress? There is a new government, but the new government is adding to American problems rather moving to a solution. The worst problem is the sectarianism which makes Shiite police, commandos, interior department police, and army units into death squads that are a grave danger to any Sunni Moslem living in Baghdad or the surrounding area. Likewise, Iraqi politicians and officials are focusing on stealing money rather fighting the war. I imagine that Iraqi politicians now have more cash than they can fit into their freezers. Stealing also seems to be the only thing that Iraqi politicians can decide on quickly. It took them a full six months to put a government together after the last election. In the meantime, the terrorists gained ground, sectarian death squads became a daily fact of life, and living conditions deteriorated dramatically in the Baghdad area. Only somebody with a highly distorted view of themselves and the world would see this as "progress." The U. S. went into the Iraq War following a typical American cultural template. The Bush administration dangerously over-hyped the threat posed by Saddam, dangerously under-estimated the difficulties of occupation, and even more dangerously ignored the intense difficulties of reconstructing a post-Saddam Iraq. Dick Cheney still views the current Iraq situation in terms of the same distortions that led the Bush administration to invade in the first place. As a result, we Americans may have to change our culture in order to deal effectively with the situation in Iraq and global terrorism. We may have to decide that cooperation is more effective than going it alone, that walking away is more courageous than pouring more billions of dollars and more thousands of lives into a bad situation, and the soft skills of understanding other cultures, negotiating with neutral parties, and building cultural ties are more important to winning this war than force and intimidation. Right now, the distorting mirrors of Dick Cheney and the rest of the Bush administration are sinking us deeper and deeper into trouble.