Thursday, June 29, 2006

Why I Favor Negotiations with All Iraqi Factions

We have made many past attempts to bring peace and security to Iraq and all have failed. The January, 2005 elections did not bring security. The new Constitution did not bring security. Nor did the December elections under the new Constitution. The problem in all these cases, I believe, is that we were trying to impose our answers on Iraq instead of letting the Iraqis find their own. Joe Biden's recent proposalfor a de-facto partition is at least an honorable attempt to find an alternative to staying the course or abandoning Iraq, but it suffers the same shortcomings as the others -- it is an attempt to impose what we believe is best for Iraq instead of letting the Iraqis decide.

The Iraqis are now slowly and painfully groping toward their own answers, and this is a promising development but these, too, are attempts by one faction to impose its own solution on the others. Thus Prime Minister al-Maliki's proposed amnesty is a step in the right direction, but so long as he tries to set the terms of the amnesty he is unlikely to find many takers. If some insurgents are offering a truce if the U.S. agrees to withdraw, that, too, is a promising development but, again, they are offering a truce on their own term that is unlikely to be accepted. The trouble with these proposals are that they are ultimatums, proposals that say take it on our terms, or leave it. Not too surprisingly, the response is usually to leave it.

Far more promising are reports that some insurgent groups (seven, most sources say) are seeking negotiations. Negotiations, unlike ultimatums, are flexible. Negotiations do not insist on a pre-determined outcome, but leave that to be decided. Negotiations between the government and seven insurgent groups are a promising start, but not enough. They ignore the most elementary rule of war and diplomacy (that admittedly gets ignored all the time); you cannot negotiate a peace that excludes a major belligerent. If peace is what is wanted, all belligerents must take part in negotiations; otherwise, admit what is being negotiated is not a peace, but an alliance against the excluded parties.

In Iraq, it seems safe to say that all Iraqis ultimately want peace, albeit on very different terms. Neighboring countries want peace (violence and upheaval in one's neighborhood are always alarming). And we want peace. There is only one set of true irreconcilables, the foreign jihadis, who want to stir up as much violence and chaos as possible. Thus I fully agree that we should not negotiate with Al Qaeda in Iraq and other such groups; there is nothing to negotiate about. But we should work to bring together all Iraqi factions, as well as all neighboring countries to negotiate the future. No preconditions to negotiations, and no preconceptions about what the outcome should be (other than peace). If all other factions except the foreign jihadis make peace, the war will not end because the worst faction of all will still be fighting. But it will be greatly shrunken, and the much-shrunken jihadis can be defeated.

The biggest problem may appear to be that even excluding the foreign jihadis, many Iraqi factions are extremist and either will not want to negotiate, or will insist on unacceptable terms. That is where still having armed forces in Iraq can but used to good advantage. In offering all factions a seat at negotiations and a role in shaping Iraq's future, we are holding out a carrot. Carrots are always most effective when backed by sticks (and vice versa). Our military forces are the stick. Whoever refuses to participate in negotiations or participates but is being manifestly obstructionist should be penalized -- with stepped-up military pressure against insurgents, or with the withholding of military support for government forces. But that should be the limit to our role. Beyond insisting that the parties negotiate and make peace, we should not try to impose our own vision on Iraq. Rather, we should let the Iraqis work out for themselves their country's future.


Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A Radical Proposal for Iraq -- Negotiate

The debate over our options in Iraq always seems to come down to two alternative; stay the course or withdraw. Both of these have always struck me as spectacularly bad options.

Staying the course is a bad option for obvious reasons; we have been doing it for over three years, and it hasn't done any good. Time after time, we have been told that we have turned a corner, that things will get better soon, and they don't. When you keep turning corners, it means you are going in circles. We are not going to win by staying the course. Already it is generally agreed that our military is not large enough to sustain current troop levels indefinitelya. And this insurgency could last for a long time. Another hawkish alternative to staying the course is to escalate. Doubtless we could escalate the firepower and reduce Iraq to a charred heap of rubble. But that will hardly advance our stated goal of creating a democratic transformation of Iraq. Or we could in theory escalate our manpower, but that would mean enlarging our military, which would mean instituting the draft, which no one is ready to propose. The final reason I see no hope for victory is that we no longer even have a useful definition of victory. Is consolidating power in the hands of a pro-Iranian Shiite theocracy whose death squads kill men for no other crime than being named Omara victory? Because that is the Iraqi government that we are supporting.

On the other hand, neither can I support withdrawal. After destroying Iraq's functioning government and bringing the country to the verge of complete anarchy and civil war, to simply walk away and say, it's your problem now is the height of irresponsibility. Colin Powell is right -- you break it, you own it. I do also agree with the people who fear that a display of weakness now will embolden Al-Qaeda. We have Osama Bin Laden's own worda that he was emboldened by our past withdrawals from Lebanon and Somalia. Some people try to soften the withdrawal proposal by suggesting that we leave a few elite forces in place, or that we continue our air war, but if our influence is so limited with 136,000 troops in place, what is the point of a much smaller force?

For a long time I have stewed in silent frustration, opposed to the war in Iraq but unwilling to lose it, displease with how things are going, but unable to think of anything better. But I believe at last that I have a contructive suggestion -- let's bring all parties involved except for Al Qaeda in Iraq -- government, militias, death squads, Iraqi insurgents of all stripes, and all neighbors, friend or foe -- into negotiations. No preconceptions and no preconditions, just open-ended negotations among all beligerents or people who have influence with the beligerents. In the end, that is the only real way to end a war (or, if you do not believe Iraq is in true civil war, to prevent one), by negotiations among the actual participants.

This is a proposal of an enlightened lay person. The fact that no serious person appears to have made it may perhaps mean that it has insurrmountable obstacles to success. But I will explain in my next post why I believe that unconditional negotiations and only negotiations, are the best hope for the future.


Saturday, June 10, 2006

Myths of the Baby Boom and the Vietnam War

One common theory on why the United States is so bitterly divided and angrily partisan these days is that the Baby Boom generation is now in charge and they deeply divided over the Vietnam War and the Sixties in general. I hope that this is true, because it means that when a new generation takes over, maybe some sanity can prevail. But I fear it is not so. A generation that grows up on today's talk radio can hardly be expected to be moderate and civil. Nonetheless, given all the fuss over the Baby Boom generation and its supposed importance, it is worth while laying to rest at least three myths about Boomers.


This is the oldest and by now most discredited myth, generally promulgated by people who took part in anti-war protests. It amounts to saying that the anti-war protestors of the Sixties were the Baby Boom generation, presumably in its entirety. This one is hardly even worth refuting. If all members of the generation were out protesting the war, then what generation was fighting it? In fact, only a minority of the Baby Boom generation either protested or fought the Vietnam war. The anti-war protestors need to face that fact that they were distinct minority of their generation.


This version is promulgated by people who supported the war. It says, in effect, that the elite -- people like Bill Clinton or John Kerry -- opposed the war while the great silent majority of ordinary, blue collar Americans -- steel workers and construction workers like George W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney, or Newt Gingrich -- supported it. This should not be worth refuting either. A little common sense reveals that George W. Bush, Dan Quayle and the rest were not ordinary blue collar Americans, steel workers, construction workers, and the like, but were every bit as elite as the Clintons, Kerrys, etc. What was happening, in short, was not a divide between ordinary Americans who favored the war and an elite who opposed it, but a divide within the elite between supporters (like Bush or Quayle) and opponents (like Clinton or Kerry).


Myth number three does seriously need to be refuted because, though false, it is widely accepted today. It is the view that, although people like Bush, Cheney, etc. were members of an elite, they were an embattled minority of the elite who supported the war while most of the elite opposed it. This embattled minority, though members of an elite, spoke for the silent majority of ordinary, patriotic Americans who supported the war. In other words, the divide was still between an anti-war elite and pro-war ordinary Americans, these groups were simply not monolithic. The current Republican leadership can acknowledge that it was just as much an elite as the current Democratic leadership, but it was the elite that spoke with the voice of ordinary Americans.

But it still isn't true. The myth that opposition to the war was the preserve of an elite while a "silent majority" ordinary, patriotic Americans favored it is false and needs to be exposed. In fact, THROUGHOUT THE VIETNAM WAR SUPPORT FOR THE WAR CORRELATED POSITIVELY WITH INCOME AND EDUCATION LEVELSa. In other words, more "elite" a segment of the population, the greater a proportion of it belonged to Nixon's "silent majority."

The belief that opposition to the Vietnam War was the preserve of an elite while ordinary Americans supported it is, when one seriously considers it, illogical. After all, it was the elite who were primarily responsible for policy decisions on the war in the first place. If the elite opposed the war, they would have had the simple recourse of not fighting it. To believe that ordinary, decent Americans favored the war and only an elite opposed it also raises the troubling issue of race. Everyone knows that black people were both disproportionately non-elite and disproportionately opposed to the war. Does this mean that only whites qualifed as ordinary, decent Americans?

What is true is that the more flamboyant acts of opposition to the war, the demonstrations, the burning of flags and draft cards, the counter cultural behavior, the whole "hate America" attitude was the product of an elite, and it offended the great silent majority of (white) Americans, even as that great silent majority was increasingly turning against the war. And this, in turn, allowed the pro-war portion of the elite to proclaim themselves champions of ordinary decent Americans, while the anti-war protestors turned against ordinary Americans as not enlightened enough to support their protests.

And so it remains to this day. The conservative, pro-war elements of the elite, many of whom (the chick hawks) supported the war only so long as someone else was doing the fighting, continue to this day to use the language of populism and proclaim themselve the champions of the common man, even as they show great enthusiasm for placing common men in harm's way. The liberal, anti-war elements of the elite continue to patronize ordinary Americans and treat them as too dumb to know their own interests, and too unenlightened to support fashionable causes like abortion on demand, gay marriage, and the National Endowment for the Arts. This vital bit of history, that ordinary, decent Americans were more inclined to oppose the war than the elite, is long forgotten.

My advice to any liberal who wants a political future: Drop the stereotypes, drop the patronizing and get to know the real silent majority, then and now.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Advise to a Future President on Getting a Program Passed

The paralells between Bill Clinton's attempt at universal healthcare and George W. Bush's attempt to modify Social Security are striking. Both initiatives addressed a real problem that nearly everyone would like to resolve (making health care affordable to everyone, keeping Social Security solvent as the population ages). In both cases, however, to actually address the problem would require some unpopular action. (To make healthcare affordable to all, we will have to introduce some form of rationing that means not everyone will get everything they want. Keeping Social Security going as the number of retirees keeps rising relative to the number of working people will inevitably mean paying in more or paying out less). Furthermore, there are people or organizations with a vested interest in preserving the status quo (insurance companies, the AARP).

This makes enacting necessary reforms difficult under the best of circumstances. But both Clinton and Bush made mistakes that doomed their attempts, and their mistakes were strikingly similar. I do not, on the whole, regret, that either Clinton's health care plan or Bush's private Social Security accounts were defeated; neither plan was a very good one on the merits. In both cases, however, the defeat was such as to poison all discussion on the subject for a long time to come, and both subjects really need discussing.

Both Presidents at least started right, by inviting public debate. Certainly any such dramatic initiative calls for public debate. But both men invited public debate on terms they were certain to lose. They began by proposing something much tom complex to be easily explained. Clinton, who went first, did the worst, calling a blue ribbon commission that proposed a plan that went for thousands of pages. How can there be reasonable public debate on a plan that runs for thousands of pages? Bush learned a little from his predecessor's experience and was not as complicated, but his plan of phasing in personal accounts and phasing out payment, with references to trust accounts and investment portfolios, was confusing enough. This made it very easy for people with a vested interest in the status quo (whether insurance companies or the AARP) to launch all sorts of inflammatory attacks that grossly misrepresented what was being proposed. Neither Clinton nor Bush was able to defend his proposal effectively because both plans were to complex to explain in a 30-second commercial.

Both Presidents confused the larger goal (making healthcare available to all, saving Social Security) with the narrower goal (adopting my pet program). By offering only their only complex and dubious proposals as alternatives to the status quo, both Clinton and Bush made it easy for people with a vested interest in the unsustainable status quo to conceal that fact. People attacking the plans did not have to argue for the status quo or even discuss it at all; they simply had to denounce the President's plan, and the status quo would triumph by default. Once again, Bush learned a little from Clinton's mis-steps. When it became clear that his plan was not going to pass, he said that he would be open to alternatives, so long as they did not raise taxes, but by then it was too late.

In both cases, the defeat of a dubious plan by upholders of the status quo so frightened politicians that the subjects of health care and Social Security reform appear to be off the table altogether, although both really need to be addressed. There is no shortage among think tanks of plans for reforming either health care or Social Security. I do not, at present, pretend to know which of the many plans out there is the best. But I can offer a future President some procedural advice on how to get some sort of reform passed:

1) Do not convene a blue ribbon commission to come up with an elaborate plan that crosses all the T's and dots all the I's. Get together with a few trusted advisors and assemble all the plans that are out there. Crunch some basic numbers to figure out which are feasible and affordable. Narrow them down to a reasonable number (I favor three as a good reasonable number, with the status quo as option four, but it does not absolutely have to be three). Do not flesh out the details of the plans; just keep the basic idea.

2) Preempt a suitable block of television time to announce your plan. Devote the bulk of that time to explaining why the status quo is not acceptable or sustainable. Put a human face on it. Then end by saying you are proposing these alternative approaches to the status quo and invite public debate on which one to adopt. Set each proposal forth in a sentence or two, a paragraph at most. Keep it simple, stupid. If you favor one proposal, it is okay to say so, but make it clear that this is just one person's opinion. Do not put the prestige of your office behind any one plan or make it a test of party loyalty. Do put the prestige of your office behind adopting something.

3) Buy up a huge raft of 30 second commercials explaining over and over again what your proposals are (this means the proposals must be simple enough to explain in a 30 second commercial). Throw in a few commercials reminding the public why the status quo is not acceptable. (If the President, in his public capacity, is not allowed to buy up commercials, then have your campaign fund or political party do it instead).

4) Allow a few months of public debate, but ask Congress for a vote for one plan or another before the current session adjourns. (Do not attempt to pass your proposal in an election year). Again, put the prestige of your office and party behind adopting something, but do not be dogmatic about insisting on one pet proposal. Remember, it is more important to acheive the broad overall goal of making healthcare affordable to all or saving Social Security than to have your way on all the details.

There are numerous advantages to this approach. Keeping the proposals simple permits actual public debate. Having more than one proposal means that people who are opposed to a particular proposal do not automatically default back to supporting the status quo. It is easier to attack one proposal than two or three. People wanting to uphold the status quo will have to come out and say they support the status quo, rather than just attack one proposal. (You need to constantly remind the public why the status quo is not acceptable). And, finally, constantly reminding the public of what you are actually proposing makes it much harder for opponents to misrepresent it.