Monday, April 28, 2008

Reflections on McCain and Conventional Wisdom

I really want to avoid the subject of the election for as long as possible, but with all the saturation coverage going on, it is really hard. With coverage focusing mostly on Clinton v. Obama, I will address another aspect -- the extent to which the primary in general and McCain in particular are not sticking to conventional wisdom and the accepted script.

Conventional wisdom about elections used to be that a candidate should appeal to the party "base" to win the nomination and then head center and appeal to swing voters in order to win the general election. It was assumed that once a candidate had secured the party nomination, more hardline ideological elements in the party could be ignored because they had no other option.

Somewhere along the line, a new conventional wisdom replaced to old. This one held that the party's "base" did have another option if their candidate did not meet their standards of ideological purity -- they could stay home and not vote at all. New conventional wisdom held that there were too few swing voters to really matter, and the real secret to winning was to "rally the base." Later on (and no doubt with some prodding by the Karl Roves of the world) this conventional wisdom was replaced with a modified version. Republicans had a larger base than Democrats. The secret to victory for Republicans was to hew right to rally the base, while the best strategy for Democrats was to hew center to attract moderates. In recent elections, Democrats have chosen their candidates based on who was most "electable," while Republicans pandered to the Christian Coalition.

This conventional wisdom turns out to have its limits. The Christian Coalition, after all, is a distinct minority of the population. When Republicans consistently treat them as the only constituency that matters, sooner or later everyone else is going to take offense. Urging Republicans to steer right and Democrats to steer center has the obvious effect of steering ever further and further to the right. This process is also self-limits; keep ever farther right and sooner or later your wheels will end up in a ditch. That is where the Republican Party finds itself now.

The reversal of the latest conventional wisdom in this election is striking. This time, the Republicans chose their candidate based on who was most "electable." And the Democratic base is mobilized as never before and refusing to play it safe.*

But even more striking is how McCain is defying the old conventional wisdom of running to the wings in the primaries and the center in the general election. So far his approach looks like the exact opposite. During the primary he ran as the moderate candidate whose main selling point was his "electability." Since securing the nomination, McCain has moved in the opposite direction, moving to the right and shoring up support with the party base. Trying to appear to swing voters and shore up the base at once puts McCain in awkward position. He has to simultaneously distance himself from George Bush and be as much like him as possible. Presumably when the Democratic nomination if finally settled and the general election starts in earnest, McCain will veer center again to appeal to the swing vote. But in the meantime, watch him stand conventional wisdom on its head.

*Part of this may be the realization that there is no "safe," that no matter who the Democratic candidate is, the slime will be just as thick and fast. Sadly, in this election the slime will be flowing in both directions and McCain will be treated just as vilely as the Democrat. I am sorry to see it happen because I do consider McCain to be an honorable man, but elections these days leave no choice but to fight fire with fire and woe to the innocent.

PS: Hillary has also been defying conventional wisdom and channelling her inner Republican in the primaries. Presumably if she could somehow win the nomination, she would make some attempt to distinguish herself from McCain.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Most Shocking Theory on the Battle of Basra

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's sudden attack on the Mahdi Army in Basra and Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr's equally sudden agreement to a truce have puzzled many. There have been several theories proposed now for why Maliki decided to launch the attack. But none explain the biggest mystery of all -- how he could possibly have expected it to succeed. Consider the theories:

(1) Forced to hold provincial elections, Maliki was moving to eliminate his most popular rival who was expected to win. This has been the most widely-held theory. What it fails to explain is why the government of Iraq employed such obviously inadequate force and apparently expected to sweep away the Mahdi Army within a few days.

(2) Corollary to (1). Many people have noticed that the offensive took place a week after Dick Cheney visited Iraq and suggest a quid pro quo. Cheney insisted that Maliki hold provincial elections that the Sadrist were expected to win but agreed, in exchange to allow him first to eliminate Sadr's organization by force. The US knew of the offensive in advance, but did not expect the Iraqi government to act so soon (or, presumbly, so ineffectually).

(3) Maliki saw himself at a disadvantage because his own Dawa party, unlike the Sadrist or the SIIC, did not have its own militia. He was therefore attempting to turn the Iraqi Army into the Dawa militia. If so, he is got off to a poor start, attacking an entrenched rival with woefully inadequate force and wildly unrealistic objectives.

(3) Iran was really behind the offensive, urging its proxies to eliminate the overly independent Mahdi Army. The offensive, after all, also took place shortly after a visit to Bagdad by Ahmadinejad. This theory lost a great deal of plausibility when Iran then brokered a cease-fire. Maybe the Iranians changed their mind when the offensive did not go so well. But it still leaves unaswered the question of why they would have expected a quick and easy victory.

(4) Maliki fell for propaganda that the Mahdi Army was weakened and would be easily defeated. This accounts for the inadequate force and unrealistic expectations, but really!

The inadequacy of Iraqi forces to defeat the Mahdi Army in a densely populated urban area, and the absurdity of expecting such an operation to take as little as 48 hours have, to me at least, always been the greatest mystery of the whole operation. This commentator explains just how absurdly inadequate that force was:

During the Second Battle of Fallujah, the US attacking forces were composed of a composite division as six battalions led the main attack, another battalion as a diversion force, and two battalions as local reserves. . . . The defending forces would have been the equivlant of two or three battalions of light infantry and local insurgents/neighborhood militias. Fallujah was a city of roughly 300,00 residents before the assault. And this assualt was supported by theatre level artillery and air support. And despite this large armored and heavy infantry force with excellent air support, plenty of helicopter mobility and firepower, superior logistics, the defending force was able to inflict heavy absolute and proportional casualties --- roughly 10% of the US force was wounded or killed, and many infantry companies saw 30% to 50% casualty levels.

The Iraqi Army force in Basra is a single division of lightly supported infantry with some US/UK locally controlled air support, minimal artillery, minimal aviation support. Basra is a city of 2.6 million people (2003) and it is overwhelmingly Shi'ite. If one assumes that one half of one percent of the male population are available to be called up for Mahdi Army fighting units, the defenders have numerical parity with the attacking force. That is never a good thing, especially when the defenders are on their own grounds, fighting from prepared positions in dense urban networks and have higher morale and more firepower than the attackers.
In short, expecting the Iraqi Army to prevail, let alone quickly or easily, was sheer madness.

Well, now a provocative, if rather paranoid new theory has been proposed. Apparently based on British sources, this theory holds that the initiative for the Basra offensive rested with the United States and the Iraqi attack was intentionally botched to thwart US plans. According to this theory, General Petraeus, who had no illusions about what it would take to defeat the Mahdi Army, had planned a summer offensive. This operation would have deployed thousands of Marines and was expect to last for months.

The purpose of Cheney's visit was to pressure al-Maliki to go along with this offensive. Unable to prevent an offensive altogether, Maliki agreed to an attack, but only on his own terms. The Iraqi Army would attack Mahdi forces in Basra with a few brigades, but no British or American forces. The operation was planned to last only a week to ten days. Naturally Petraeus warned that the scale of the operation was not large enough and that the proposed time frame was unrealistic. And, of course, events proved him right. When the Iraqi Army offensive failed to capture Basra, Iran negotiated a cease-fire. "That ploy move . . . raised the possibility that al-Maliki intended from the beginning that the outcome of the Basra operation would be a new agreement that would prevent the deployment of U.S. and British troops to fight the Mahdi Army during the summer."

This interpretation, if true, could explain some of the principals' odd behavior. It would explain why Maliki launched such an obviously ill-conceived attack; he did not intend for it to succeed. It would also explain why Sadr was so amenable to a ceasefire; presumably the government delegation explained that they were launching a mere token offensive, designed to prevent a more serious attack by the United States. But it raises an even bigger question. Why on earth would Maliki believe that launching a mock offensive prematurely would prevent a real US offensive later on?

PS: I should note so far serious experts such as Juan Cole and Marc Lynch have not taken this theory seriously enough to link to it. See also this article suggesting that the Basra offensive, although not militarily successful, may be the start of a slow reassertion of government power over Basra.


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Groucho Marx and Hedging One's Bets

Many people are asking since the US and Iran claim to be arch-enemies, how did we end up supporting the same faction in Iraq? The best answer, I think, is that it is a particularly bizarre example of the Groucho Marx syndrome.

The Groucho Marx syndrome is named for Groucho Marx's famous quip that he wouldn't want to belong to any club that would accept him as a member. In the context of international politics, the Groucho Marx syndrome means that any government or faction that is too friendly with a foreign power almost never has much support with its own people. The syndrome works in several ways. One is that a weak government or faction lacking popular support may seek a foreign patron as an alternate source of power. Another is that foreign powers seeking allies tend to choose unpopular governments or factions because they are the most compliant. Finally, even an originally popular government or faction will tend to lose legitimacy to the extent that it becomes too strongly associated with a foreign power.

This creates an inherent problem for any government looking for foreign allies. The more loyal a regime is to its allies, the less loyalty it is apt to command from its own people and the more tenuous its grip on power. Strong governments are rarely reliable allies; they insist on placing their own interests first. The same phenomenon applies to intervention in a civil war. The factions most eager for foreign support are, almost by definition, the ones that would otherwise lose. (Why look for foreign backers if you are winning anyway?) And too strong a foreign association undermines any faction's domestic support.

Iraq's ruling coalition of the Dawa Party and the SIIC suffer from the Groucho Marx syndrome. The leadership of both groups spend the years of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in exile in Iran. The SIIC (formerly SCIRI) was founded under the auspices of the Iranian government. The SIIC's paramilitary, the Badr Brigades was founded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and fought on the side of Iran in its war with Iraq. Is it any wonder that many Iraqis look upon them as Iranian stooges? Partly to lessen their dependence on Iran, the Dawa and SIIC are more than happy hedge their bets by accepting help from the United States as well.

The Iranian-backed Dawa-SIIC coalition was not the US government's first choice as an ally in Iraq. Famously, neoconservatives favored Ahmed Chalabi, as extreme an example of the Groucho Marx syndrome as one could ask for. He had been an exile from Iraq since 1956, when he was only 12 years old. Not surprisingly, then, he had no base of support in Iraq whatever and was therefore willing to do whatever he US backers wanted. However, his complete lack of support inside Iraq meant that his party failed to win even one seat in parliament in the 2005 elections. This was a little too Groucho-Marxist for the Bush Administration, which was forced to hedge its bets and support the Dawa-SIIC coalition. In the meantime, Chalabi has apparently decided to hedge his own bets, and has become friendlier and friendlier with the government of Iran.

The Sadrists and their paramilitary, the Madhi Army, have no such foreign associations. It is the boast of the Sadr family that they stayed in Iraq and endured Saddam's persecution with their fellow countrymen while other opponents went into exile. (Yet, interestingly, Muqtada al-Sadr is in exile in Iran now under the guise of studying. We will see whether this weakens his legitimacy). The Sadrs built their organization under the nose of Saddam Hussein, The Madhi Army is entirely Iraq in origin; it is often the only one to provide security and services to the Shiite poor; it is fiercely nationalistic and proclaims its opposition to American forces and also to Sunnis as fellow countrymen (even as the Madhi Army committed the bulk of ethnic cleansing and the worst atrocities against Sunnis). The Madhi Army does take Iranian arms, money and assistance. They need what help they can get, after all, and the US is arming their rivals. And the Iranians know enough to hedge their bets and support what may be the winning faction.

Meanwhile, the US Army, recognizing the weakness of the Dawa-SIIC coalition, has chosen to hedge our own bets by supporting Sunni Awakening Councils. Any power, whether the US or Iran, hedging its bets by backing rival factions runs into trouble if the rival faction come into open war with each other. Open war will undermine the hedging game and may force the backer to take sides. The whole logic of the Groucho Marx syndrome encourages a foreign power to side with the weaker (and therefore more compliant) faction. This creates a choice between bloody intervention to prop up a weak and unpopular ally or losing altogether. To avoid such a dilemma, the United States is desperately trying to bring about reconciliation between the ruling coalition and the Awakening Councils and the Iranian government is trying, with even more dubious prospects, to maintain a cease-fire between the ruling faction and the Madhi Army.

And if the cease-fire fails, then what? Will Groucho get the last laugh?
The irony would be thick, if rank: the Bush administration and the Iranians finally come to some accord on the situation in Iraq, with the compact formed over the decision to crush a popular indigenous movement, likely killing tens of thousands and disenfranchising millions.


Thursday, April 03, 2008

Real-World Insights into Terrorism and Wiretapping

When it was first reported that the Bush Administration was engaging in warrantless surveillance, the President offered two seemingly contradictory defenses. He claimed at once that the warrantless surveillance involved only a few US citizens, "people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations," and only numbers actually captured from Al-Qaeda documents, laptops and cell phones. But at the same time, he also said that there were so many numbers to wiretap that FISA could not accommodate all of the requests. Another argument some supporters made was that a number's presence in Al-Qaeda's database did not constitute probable cause; it might just be the number to a felafel stand.

As a mere Enlightened Layperson with no inside knowledge, I cannot possibly know the scale of numbers captured from Al-Qaeda, or what the FISA court considers probable cause. But a few educated guesses seem reasonable. First of all, only numbers inside the US would need a warrant to wiretap. Second, telephone numbers have international codes, so it should be easy to determine which captured numbers are or are not in the United States. Third, out of all telephone numbers captured from Al-Qaeda, persumably only a small percentage are US numbers. Finally, although Al-Qaeda operatives may, indeed, keep the numbers of their favorite felafel stands, it seems unlikely that a laptop captured from a terrorist in Afghanistan or Pakistan would have numbers of US felafel stands. (A terrorist arrested in the US might have such numbers, of course).

But I can now offer more than just educated guesses. Glenn Greenwald offered this link, which provides most revealing information of our pre-9/11 intelligence on Al-Qaeda, including that is highly suggestive about the scale.

The NSA apparently traced Osama Bin Laden's phone, broke his codes, and monitored his calls since the early 1990's (when he was in Sudan). In November, 1996, an operative in Virginia, using a British credit card, purchased a satellite phone which was sent to Bin Laden (then in Afghanistan) by way of Khalid al-Fawwaz, his unofficial press secretary in London. US intelligence was aware of this purchase from the start and and monitored Bin Laden's satellite phone until he stopped using it in August, 1998. In 2002, billing records for this phone were made public. They are highly revealing as to where the most Al-Qaeda contacts were.

Out of 1,100 calls, the destination of 100 is undetermined. Of the remaining 1,000 calls, the largest number, between 238 and 260, were to Britain. These calls went to 27 phone numbers (hardly an unmanageable number a FISA-like court). Approximately half (143) went to Khalid al-Fawwaz, and many went to a colleage of al-Fawwaz. Most of the others were to pay phones near al-Fawwaz or his associates. Yemen received the next largest number, with 221. Yemen had a major communications hub to Al-Qaeda operations the world over. Sudan, Bin Laden's old host, was next, with 131 calls. Next was Iran with 106. (Iran is believed to have assisted terrorists in transit in and out of Afghanistan). Other destinations receiving a relatively high numbers of calls included Azerbaijan (67), Pakistan (59), Saudi Arabia (57) Kenya (scene of one of the US embassy bombings, at least 56), Egypt (number unknown), and an unknown ship in the Indian Ocean (13). A total of six calls went to the United States. None at all went to Iraq.

Several things here are significant. One is that clearly there were Al-Qaeda operatives in the United States from 1996 through 1998, including the one who purchased the satellite phone. Second, the scale seems to have been small. Bin Laden made a total of six calls to the United States in nearly two years (possibly all to the same person), hardly an unmanageable number for FISA. Of course calls from Bin Laden himself are only the tip of the iceberg. Calls from all other Al-Qaeda sources, including numbers captured in Afghanistan, will presumbably add up to something much larger. Still, Bin Laden's contacts with the US were a small portion of his total, about six out of a thousand.

Assuming a similar ratio, 6 US phone numbers for every 1000 numbers captured from Al-Qaeda documents, laptops and cell phones, this would mean that if 10,000 numbers were captured, only 60 would be US numbers. If 100,000 numbers were captured, 600 would be US numbers. Sixty warrants all at once might seem like a large number, but presumably captured numbers trickled in in batches smaller than 10,000 at a time. Sixty warrants over a month or two does not seem like an unmanageable number. Admitted, requests for 600 warrants to wiretap US phone numbers might be overwhelming, but it seems most unlikely that our forces have captured anything close to 100,000 telephone numbers from Al-Qaeda sources.

Would the presence of a US number in a captured Al-Qaeda document, laptop or cell phone be sufficient probable cause to issue a FISA warrant? That information is not public. We do know, however, that during the Millenium Crisis when Ahmed Ressam was caught crossing the Canadian border with a bomb in his trunk, the FBI was able to get warrants to wiretap to "hundreds" of conversations. These warrants including a co-conspirator linked to Ressam because his phone number was on a business card in Ressam's wallet. It seems likely, then, that any US number in possession of a terrorist in Afghanistan or Pakistan, would be enough for a warrant.

My (admittedly speculative) opinion, therefore, is that out of the total telephone numbers captured from Al-Qaeda members, it is most unlikely that there are so many US numbers as to overwhelm the FISA court (or that such requests would be denied). Non-US numbers do not require a warrant to surveil.

On a final note, the link cited has a great deal of other interesting and potentially explosive information that I hope to discuss in the near future.

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