Sunday, October 28, 2007

Iraq: We Won, Now What? (In Iraq)

News coming back from Iraq has been encouraging lately. Casualties (military and civilian) are down for the second month in a row. This is especially significant because violence usually peaks in the fall. Suicide bombing are becoming rarer and less deadly. Fewer corpses are showing up on the streets of Bagdad. Some members of the military are going so far as to declare Al-Qaeda in Iraq to be defeated. Assuming that AQI has been defeated, the next question is, now what? That question applies both to Iraq and to the US.

The defeat of AQI is an excellent development for Iraqis of all factions. Though all participants in Iraq's civil war have atrocities to account for, only AQI followed a program of pure nihilism, with an agenda of nothing but kill, kill, kill, kill, kill. But the defeat of AQI is not the same as the return of peace. There are still rival armed factions out there with a lot of grudges against each other. Since the leaders of these factions show now inclination to resolve their differences, the US Army is instead pursuing a policy of "reconciliation from the bottom up." I see three possible outcomes from the attempt:

(1) Reconciliation from the bottom up works. The factions settle down into an uneasy truce that gradually becomes stronger as reconciliation works its way up.

(2) Reconciliation from the bottom up fails. Sunnis rebel against the Shiite dominated government when it refuses to share power. Or, the Shiite dominated government sets out to crush the strengthened Sunni militias by force. Sectarian war continues (with power struggles and internal wars within each side).

(3) Reconciliation from the bottom up stagnates. Rival factions stop shooting each other, but do not reconcile. Instead, Iraq devolves into a highly fragmented society with different factions controlling different regions or even neighborhoods, in a more-or-less stable equilibrium, but with minimal central authority. This will almost certainly be the case in the short run. Although Iraq is theoretically experiencing a sectarian war between Sunni and Shiite, both sides are extremely fragmented. The question is what direction the factions will move in. The goal of reconciliation from the ground up, presumably, is to work a reconciliation first between local warlords, then between factions within each side, and finally between the recognized "sides" in the civil war. In other words, moving from patchwork of warlords to "soft" partition to central state. Failure could mean either fragmentation worsening into complete anarchy, or reconciliation within the Sunnis or Shiites so they can more effectively pursue sectarian war.


Saturday, October 27, 2007

Five Minutes of Fame that No One Knows About

Okay, I now have had my five minutes of blogospheric fame, but no one knows about it.

It all began with John Cole of the blog Balloon Juice, posting his disgust at the Republican Presidential debate with all the candidates competing to show their love of torture (to stop terrorist attacks, of course). In the comments section Sirkowski a/ka/ Miss Dynamite proposed to ask the Republicans, "Would you have sex with a man if that would stop a terrorist attack?" Our host loved it and followed up with a post asking his readers for the most offensive questions we could think of to ask at the next debate. (One of my favorites: "Would you say something nice about Hillary Clinton to stop a terrorist attack?") I proposed two questions, first, "If you had a time machine, would you travel back in time and abort Bin Laden?" Then, after reading another poster ask if they would torture and kill Jesus to stop a terrorist attack, I asked, "Would you torture and kill Jesus to ensure the salvation of mankind? And how does that work?" (Yes, I know, that one really went too far).

Our host chose his favorites, including the sex with a man, if cutting taxes raises revenues, would cutting tax rates to zero make revenues infinite, and both of my questions! That post generated many links, the most prominent being Andrew Sullivan. (His comment: "Just beat Jesus repeatedly and put him in a stress-position for several hours. That's not torture, according to John Yoo. Oh, wait ..."). Andrew Sullivan has now appeared on HBO with Bill Maher. Maher aked Sullivan about "his" questions, especially liked the ones about aborting Bin Laden and sex with a man.

So now (along with Miss Dynamite and one other) I am a ghost writer for John Cole, who is ghost writer for Andrew Sullivan. Like all ghost writers, we remain hidden in the shadows. I must confess, however, that the idea of traveling back in time and aborting Bin Laden did not originate with me. Unfortunately I cannot remember where I heard it, so this ghost writer of a ghost writer cannot give credit to the true original source.

Iran -- A New Definition of Chutzpah

Do our leaders know how ridiculous some of their excuses for war with Iran are? Their arguments about protecting Iraqi sovereignty from outside meddling deserve some sort of prize for chutzpah. Consider, for instance, Vice President Cheney's recent and much-quoted speech:

Iran's real agenda appears to include promoting violence against the coalition. Fearful of a strong, independent, Arab Shia community emerging in Iraq, one that seeks religious guidance not in Qom, Iran, but from traditional sources of Shia authority in Najaf and Karbala, the Iranian regime also aims to keep Iraq in a state of weakness that prevents Baghdad from presenting a threat to Tehran.

Perhaps the greatest strategic threat that Iraq's Shiites face today in -- is -- in consolidating their rightful role in Iraq's new democracy is the subversive activities of the Iranian regime.
Consider, seriously, what Cheney and others in the Administration are saying. We have the right to invade Iraq, a country on the far side of the world that poses no threat to us and impose our will by armed force. But for a neighboring country to attempt to influence events there is an intolerable infringement on Iraqi sovereignty. We can back anyone we want in Iraq's civil war, but Iran (sitting right next door) has no right to back anyone (even though, in fact, the Shiite factions Iran is supporting are mainstays of the government we also support). Furthermore we have the right (which have repeatedly and broadly hinted we will use) to preemptively attack Iran. But Iran has no right to preemption against our forces forces in Iraq, even as we hint that attack is at hand.

My purpose here is not to morally defend the Iranian government, merely to point out that as a matter of realpolitik, any government in their position would do much the same. No government wants civil war and chaos next door; civil war and chaos tend to be contagious. But many governments would nonetheless prefer civil war and chaos to a hostile army camped out on their doorstep, especially if the leaders of the hostile army keep dropping hints that they will attack as soon as the civil war and chaos die down. Under those conditions, what government would not want to keep the civil war and chaos going for a long time? And what country does not have a strong, indeed, legitimate, interest, in influencing its neighbors? As Anonymous Liberal puts it:

The truth is, of course, that Iran has an enormous interest in the outcome of our Iraq experiment, and it is perfectly rational for Iran's leaders to attempt to influence events there. Remember, this is a country that invaded Iran in 1980, leading to a bloody eight-year war in which nearly a million people died, the majority of them Iranian. It's probably fair to say that nothing is more important to Iran's national security than the character of the regime that eventually emerges in Iraq. To expect that Iran would just sit back and not try to influence events there is profoundly naive.
What our government is asking of the Iranian government, in effect, is for them to sit quietly while we invade a neighboring country, make no attempt to influence events, and then refrain from acting even as we prepare for a new attack on Iran. Old definition of chutzpah: killing your parents and then throwing yourself on the mercy of the court because you are an orphan. New definition of chutzpah: Invading a country on the other side of the world and then starting a war with its neighbor on the grounds that it is not respected the invaded country's sovereignty.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

What Became of the Declaration of War

As everyone knows, WWII is the last declared war the US has fought. Since then, we have fought wars involving 300,000 troops in Korea, 500,000 in Vietnam, and now 160,000 in Iraq, without a single declaration. Presidents have usually sought some sort of approval from Congress, but it has never been much more than a rubber stamp. Why? Why have Presidents been able to go to war without a formal declaration since 1945? I have heard several explanations, sucha as that the practice is outdated or that people are afraid of so drastic a step in the nuclear age. But I believe the main reason Presidents since 1945 have gone to war without seeking a formal declaration is simple. Because they can. The President, given a military, will use it without consulting Congress. This has been so from early on in our history, although it was not part of the original plan.

At the original Constitutional Convention, the powers given to Congress initially included the power to "make war." On August 17, one of the delegates pointed out that the legislature is a poor war-waging body. The Convention changed the word to "declare." This would leave the executive the power to repel sudden attacks. So, in all probability, the original plan was that the President should be allowed to deal with "sudden attacks," whether cross-border invasions or Indian attacks, without consulting Congress, but not to initiate wars.

It never really worked that way. Presidents regularly fought Indian wars, aggressive as well as defensive, without consulting Congress. They have been fighting undeclared overseas wars since Jefferson sent the Marines "to the shores of Tripoli." And they repeatedly intervened in Central America and the Carribean as they pleased. Congress objected to some of these adventures, but it was not able to stop them.

But before 1945 Presidents' undeclared military actions were all small-scale. They sought a declaration from Congress before starting a major war. And the reason is simple. They did not have a large enough army to start a major war without the approval of Congress. A President who wanted to wage war on any significant scale had to approach Congress, hat in hand, in order to get an army large enough to wage it. The President's power to wage war was checked, no so much by legal restrictions, as simply by a lack of resources. Since WWII, Presidents have had large peacetime armies at their disposal and, like their pre-WWII predecessors, they have used them. Only the scale has changed.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

Iran: Beware the Plural Casus Belli!

It is hard to tell how seriously to take Seymour Hersh on the subject of Iran. After all, he has constantly been sounding the alarm that bombing is imminent, but so far he has been wrong every time. His articles so far have been more useful as insights into the mindset of the Iran warhawks than of their actual power. Nonetheless, his latest article on the subject is significant, if only to show why we must NOT listen to the hawks.

It is true that neocon pundits and the Cheney faction within the Bush Administration have long been urging us to bomb Iran. Up until now the argument for such an attack has been that Iran is close to getting nuclear weapons and would pose an intolerable threat. But this argument is running into a serious problem; anti-proliferation experts such as UN Inspector Mohammed El-Baradei are finding Iran to be years from that goal -- and their track record on that subject is a good deal more reliable than the Bush Administration's. So now the Cheney faction is finding a new reason to go to war; the threat Iranians pose to US troops in Iraq:
The focus of the plans had been a broad bombing attack, with targets including Iran’s known and suspected nuclear facilities and other military and infrastructure sites. Now the emphasis is on “surgical” strikes on Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities in Tehran and elsewhere, which, the Administration claims, have been the source of attacks on Americans in Iraq. What had been presented primarily as a counter-proliferation mission has been reconceived as counterterrorism.

The shift in targeting reflects three developments. First, the President and his senior advisers have concluded that their campaign to convince the American public that Iran poses an imminent nuclear threat has failed (unlike a similar campaign before the Iraq war), and that as a result there is not enough popular support for a major bombing campaign. The second development is that the White House has come to terms, in private, with the general consensus of the American intelligence community that Iran is at least five years away from obtaining a bomb. And, finally, there has been a growing recognition in Washington and throughout the Middle East that Iran is emerging as the geopolitical winner of the war in Iraq.
In otherwords, superhawks remain as determined as ever to have a war with Iran. Having failed in one rationale, they are simply seeking another. (The war is to take the form of bombing only because even superhawks can see that our ground troops are tied up in Iraq; if we had ground forces to spare, we would also invade). That should, in itself, be sufficient reason NOT to go to war. Beware the plural casus belli!

When a war is truly justified, there is usually one simple, straightforward reason for us to fight. Nothing else is needed. We fought the first Gulf War because Saddam had invaded Kuwait. We fought the Korean War because North Korea had invaded South Korea. We fought WWII because Germany and Japan had invaded most of Europe and Asia. And we invaded Afghanistan because their government was harboring the culprits responsible for the September 11 attacks. No one had any doubt why we were fighting any of these wars.

But why did we invade Iraq? Because of Saddam's ties to al-Qaeda? His arsenal of WMD? The danger that he would give such weapons to terrorists? The threat of what might happen some time in the more distant future? As a humanitarian intervention? To transform the Middle East? Supporters of the Iraq War have offered all these explanations. When one is refuted, they move on to the next. As a last resort, they can always argue that no one reason was adequate to go to war, but the combination is adequate. Nonesense! There may, indeed, be wars with more than one justification. The Korean War was fought, not just against agression, but against Communist aggression. WWII was justified not only because Germany and Japan were the invaders, but because of their unprecedented atrocities. The Civil War was both a war to preserve the Union and a war against slavery. But in all these cases there was at least ONE justification for the war that could stand on its own with no other needed.

Wars with a plural casus belli are much less likely to be seen as just than ones fought for simple and straightforward reasons. Was the War of 1812 about freedom of the seas? British support for Tecumseh? A second War of Independence? Conquering Canada? No one knows to this day, but the war was so controversial in its own time that the New England states nearly seceded.

Leaders who offer a plural casus belli are, most likely, concealing their true motive for going to war, sometimes even from themselves. When Woodrow Wilson called for the US to join WWI, he offered as justifications the sinking of the Lusetania, Germany's resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, the Zimmerman telegram, and a grand crusade "to make the world safe for democracy" and a "war to end all wars." Most likely he believed his own grand vision. But, seen realistically, what WWI was about was that the Germans were threatening the balance of power in Europe as it had not been threatened since Napoleon's day. One can argue whether the US should have gone to war to maintain the balance of power in Europe. But in asking us to do so, Wilson was going against a longstanding American tradition going back to George Washington's warning against "entangling alliances" that the balance of power in Europe was none of our business.

Something similar is happening in the call to war with Iran today. We were previously urged to bomb uranium enrichment sites to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program. When that failed to elicit a response, the call came to bomb Revolutionary Guard sites because they are behind attacks on our troops in Iraq. Some warhawks are even trying to enlist liberals in the cause by pointing out the Islamic Republic's presecution of homosexuals. This constant shifting of ground is a good indication that our leaders are not being honest about their real reasons for wanting to attack Iran. The most charitable explanation is the mentioned by Seymour Hersh, "[T]here has been a growing recognition in Washington and throughout the Middle East that Iran is emerging as the geopolitical winner of the war in Iraq." If correct, the Cheneyites' reason for wanting to attack Iran is similar to our real reason for joining WWI. Iran's growing influence is threatening the balance of power in the Middle East, and is dangerous enough to justify preventive war. Most Americans, for good reason, are unlikely to see that as adequate grounds for fighting.

The least charitable explanation is a three-letter word that begins with O.

On Iraq: Stay Tuned

Iraqi deaths in September have fallen by nearly half as compared to August. The question, of course, is whether this is significant, or just a fluke.

I am inclined to find it at least somewhat significant. Violence in Iraq has long been cyclical, having its ups and downs, but generally trending upward. Optimists have long had a habit of proclaiming victory with every lull in violence, only to be proven wrong with the next upswing. So it is a mistake to read too much significance into a one-month decline in violence. On the other had, fall has historically been the most violent season, with spike ocurring particularly during the month of Ramadan. In 2006, for instance, September was the most violent month of the year, with deaths reported by news agencies (admittedly only a fraction of the total) peaking at 3,539, the bloodiest recorded month to date. (In 2005, killings hit their highest point in August). So if the usual fall spike in killings has failed to materialize this year, that is very good news indeed.

Nonetheless, it should go without saying that even without the usual fall spike, the general rate in violence is up. Even if the September decline in violence holds, it merely brings killing down to the rates that occurred in 2005 or early 2006. And an one-month decline, even if that month is September, is not enough to make a trend. We have had too many declarations of victory that failed to materialize to be calling an end to the civil war now.

My analysis in short: Stay tuned.