Listening to Other Voices

Of course we have a professional class of pundits – from Bob “The Prince of Darkness” Novak to the crew at the Washington Post – think of the excruciatingly shallow David Broder – to the crew at the New York Times – from the earnest , conservative and often puzzled David Brooks, to the snippy Maureen Dowd, to Thomas Freidman, now widely mocked for those “Freidman Units” (his columns for the last three or four successive years regularly let us know that in the “next six months” we would know whether matters were settled once and for all in Iraq).  Freidman is a particularly odd duck – the fellow who said we needed to go to war in Iraq because we needed to lash out, we had to show the Arab world, in fact the whole world, that we just wouldn’t put up with being attacked, and even if Iraq was not the right target exactly, it would do, for demonstration purposes.  He said that more elegantly, but that’s the gist of it – and he stands by it still.

 

One could go on and on, and perhaps single out the voice of the neoconservative movement, William “Bill” Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, who thinks the Iraq War was such a good idea we should now take out Iran’s nuclear sites with our own nuclear weapons, as the Iranian people would then rise up, overthrow the mullahs running the place, and thank us – the world would thank us, we’d have a new secular free-market ally in the region.  You could look it up.  Presumably Syria would be next, then North Korea, then Cuba.  He thinks big.  See his latest – Why Bush Will Be A Winner.  The president had everyone at the White House read that.

 

All these people are paid relatively handsomely to tell us how things really are, and what policies and actions our government should take.  Everyone reads them and they appear on television, on the cable “analysis” shows, and the Sunday morning broadcast talk shows, and on PBS and all that.  That the events of the last few years have proved almost all of them to have been wrong on most everything they assured us was so doesn’t seem to matter.  They are the establishment “opinion makers” – they get endless free passes to try again, because they “know things.”  But they may be dinosaurs.

 

There are other voices, and more and more people are turning to writers who said things that turned out to be, if not right, at least closer to reality.  You find yourself turning to them.  The “big guns” may know things, but sometimes you want to know what’s really going on, and what the realistic options actually are – just for the fun of it.  The newspapers and opinion magazines, the cable news folks – and the columnists themselves – think paying heed to these other voices is frivolous at best, but really irresponsible if you are civic minded at all.   They rail against the rise of all the “amateur” political analysis.  Such stuff will turn political discourse into shallow ranting, unedited and without fact-checking (or even spell-checking).

 

Much of that analysis is on the web, which accounts for maybe a tenth of one half of one percent of the market for those looking for some clear thinking.  It’s a matter of media penetration – there’s not much of a threat to civilized and solemn and careful discourse when you consider the numbers.  Hardly anyone jumps on the web for political insight – the web is for eBay and oddball videos.  And no one is making money at doing “amateur” political analysis on the web – that is what the word “amateur” means after all.  And, yes, there is a lot of ranting (see BartCop for example).  But sometimes you want to hear from someone who previously got things right.  They might be right again.  You never know.

 

But there are other voices, people with day-jobs who jump into the national discourse when they can, who do say things that make sense, even if they’re not supposed to know a whit about anything outside their nine-to-five work, where one presumes they might know a thing or two, there at least.  And one of those is the noted contemporary composer Richard Einhorn – at Hullabaloo Einhorn blogs under the name Tristero.  He’s a good read.

 

In fact here you will find him commenting on the New York Times’ review of the new movie “No End in Sight” – and that bother him because it repackages the “received wisdom” about the Iraq war: Who lost Iraq?

 

Here’s what he says –

 

Let’s get this straight. Again.

 

The Bush/Iraq war wasn’t merely a bad idea. It was screaming yellow bonkers. It had no chance – none – of creating a positive situation. Ever. It is complete nonsense to claim “the invasion could have succeeded” if only competents had been in charge. Why? Competent people would never have invaded Iraq in the first place.

 

The tragedy we see today was a foregone conclusion. It was predicted again and again, by genuinely sober, reasonable people. The war supporters – all of them – were the hysterics. They weren’t “idealists.” They were naive, pie-in-the-sky types. After all, it was Richard Perle and David Frum who penned a book called “An End to Evil” – an utterly insane notion, as Anatol Lieven noted.

 

It is ominous to note the congealing of conventional wisdom around the “great idea, incompetent execution” meme (this review is hardly the only place it has appeared recently). It means that the public discourse remains monopolized by genuine clowns. Until more serious people are permitted to address the American public on a regular basis, the US will continue to blunder into future Bush/Iraqs, with catastrophic consequences.

 

No “big gun” professional columnist would write that.  It’s not that it’s not true, and it’s not that it’s too lively and vivid.  Any “big gun” professional columnist who wrote that would lose his or her access to those key sources in the government, those oft-quoted “senior officials” with all the inside information.  You just cannot say what’s obviously so.  Yes, that does mean that public discourse remains monopolized by genuine clowns, if you will.  But they get inside information, as Judy Miller of the Times did, and that is something, after all.  Of course her inside information – the details on all the WMD’s she assured us were in Iraq – was crap, but it was inside information.  It just goes on and on.  Now those who “know things” say we could have won easily but for all the incompetent decisions made by the administration.  Can we cut the crap?

 

From the same review –

 

It is important to note that Mr. Ferguson’s principal interlocutors were not, at the time, critics of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq but rather people who had, often at considerable professional cost and personal risk, committed themselves to fulfilling those policies. They include Barbara Bodine, a diplomat with long experience in the Middle East…

 

Einhorn –

 

NO.

 

The people at most risk were the innocent Iraqis that were bombed and the soldiers who were gulled into fighting this awful war. And they have all endured terrible things. By comparison, it seems callously crazy even to mention that those of us who early and loudly protested the war found our careers damaged and our opinions marginalized.

 

But Bodine? Jay Garner? Wha??? Remember when Michael Moore was booed at the Oscars? To state that those who enabled Bush/Iraq took risks with their reputation and careers is ludicrous. They’re all doing fine. Hell, even Judith Miller still gets on television, according to her website.

 

There is something wrong with the national discourse – at least the mainstream part of it.  We were told we had to take these clowns seriously.  Perhaps we still do take them seriously.  We know it is of civic duty to do so.  We’re supposed to be “informed citizens” and all – and they are the ones who we have been told really do inform us.  But there are limits.  Reality and logic are funny that way.

 

Another one of the amateurs of note is Mark A. R. Kleiman.  He has a real job of course – he’s a Professor of Public Policy at the UCLA School of Public Affairs.  Kleiman’s field is crime and drug policy, and he’s the author of Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control and Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results.  In his spare time he’s a research fellow at the Program for Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, an adjunct scholar at the Center for American Progress, and he was Thomas C. Schelling Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland (2006-2007).  He’s a busy guy – from 1979 to 1983 he worked for the Office of Policy and Management Analysis in the Criminal Division of Justice, and in 1982-83 he was its director and a member of the National Organized Crime Planning Council.  He’s also the editor of the Drug Policy Analysis Bulletin.

 

So what could he know about Iraq and our foreign policy?  He saves that for his blog, The Reality-Based Community (“Same Facts”).

 

You decide.  See his piece Steel versus Gold in Iraq

 

The only serious argument offered by those who want to maintain U.S. military presence in Iraq is that terrible things will happen if we leave.

 

Terrible things might also happen, of course, if we stay. And there’s no good reason to think that the terrible things that will happen when we leave two years from now would be any less terrible than those that would happen if we left by next summer.

 

So, unless you’re willing to contemplate a permanent U.S. presence in Iraq, the argument for sticking around depends on the plausibility of the claim that the aftermath of withdrawal will be less hideous if the withdrawal date is pushed back. That claim may be true, but I haven’t seen it convincingly argued. Instead, what we get from the opponents of a fairly quick withdrawal is wishful thinking: maybe if we keep buying time for al-Maliki at the cost of our soldiers’ lives, he’ll eventually figure out something useful to do with that time.

 

He suggests being practical –

 

One factor that ought to enter into the equation has been largely ignored. Our current activity in Iraq costs a ton of money: roughly $200 billion per year. That’s nearly $7000 per Iraqi, or about five times Iraq’s GDP per capita. Imagine that instead of spending another two years occupying the place, we were willing to spend $200 billion on multi-national reconstruction efforts and give the other $200 billion away on a per-capita basis. The intolerable population transfers required for a “soft partition” option would be much more tolerable if every family that had to move could build itself a nice house and finance a small business in its new location. At worst, those payments could finance emigration on the part of those afraid to remain in Iraq.

 

No doubt the details would be complex. But the details of the current effort are surely no simpler. It is easy to believe that Iraqis as a group would derive more benefit from the money we’re currently spending there if we spent it in forms other than maintaining an occupation force.

 

That’s also true in retrospect; if we’d made sure that the paychecks kept flowing to the Iraqi military and civil service in the first months of occupation – a matter of a few billions – we might well have saved ourselves hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of fighting, and a couple of thousand lives and countless disabling injuries.

 

He does, really know that’s a non-starter, even if logical –

 

Of course, it is precisely those most eager to spend American blood and treasure on imperial adventures who are most reluctant to spend money alone on doing good in foreign lands. A mere $50 billion a year spent on easing the transition to a post-Soviet Russia (e.g., by providing housing for retired Red Army officers) might well have avoided the resurgence of Russia as a threat to its neighbors, and potentially to us, but the Bush the First administration never gave that idea any serious consideration.

 

It’s hard to avoid the inference that, for our conservative hawks, the blood-and-guts aspect of warfare is a feature, not a bug. Otherwise the preference for steel over gold as a multiplier of diplomatic force doesn’t really make logical sense.

 

As to the immediate problem, though, I think the best answer to the “bloodbath” argument is that we could prevent a bloodbath much more cheaply by flooding Iraq with dollars than we can by continuing to feed it our young men and women.

 

Such logic is not “playing fair” – it makes too much sense.  That’s why he’s an amateur, even if quite rational.  He doesn’t have that Freidman touch of madness.  Dick Cheney and Bill Kristol would tell him to keep his day job.  You don’t solve problems by throwing money at them.  You send troops, with guns.  Real men do that.

 

Okay – do you want a professional?  How about Peter Woodard Galbraith, the former diplomat and son of John Kenneth Galbraith – Harvard, Oxford and Georgetown University Law Center – who served on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1979 to 1993, where he published a load reports about Iraq and was all hot and bothered about Kurdistan.  In 1993, he was appointed Ambassador to Croatia by President Clinton and later served as United Nations ambassador in East Timor.  And he taught at the National War College (1999, 2001-2003).   He might know something, even if he resigned from government service after twenty-four years in order to be able to criticize our Iraq policy more freely.  That may make him an amateur now.

 

He did, last year, write that book The End of Iraq – with its subhead, “How American Incompetence Created a War Without End.”  He’s long maintained our “main error” in Iraq has been “wishful thinking” and advocates acceptance of a “partition” of Iraq into three parts as part a new “strategy based on the reality of Iraq.”  You can see why he’s fallen out of the mainstream.

 

In the current New York Review of Books he has some second thoughts, or even less mainstream thoughts, in Iraq: The Way to Go.  There has been a lot of talk about this item, among those not satisfied with the nine-hundred-word-twice-a-week pundits in the Post and the Times.

 

Fred Kaplan in Defeat Without Disaster calls it “the least bad plan for leaving Iraq.”  He says it presents a “provocative but logical case” for a withdrawal (though not a total withdrawal) that “still manages to achieve a few of the war’s original goals.”  That’s about all we can hope for now.

 

Here’s Kaplan –

 

Back in the spring of 2004, when Galbraith first proposed splitting Iraq into a loose federation of three ethnic enclaves, I criticized the idea. He did have a point. “Iraq” was an artifice from its outset, the product of a scheme to widen the British Empire in the wake of the First World War. When the American-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, it also imploded the artifice of a unified Iraqi nation, and there was no way to put the monster back together. It would be better, Galbraith argued, to let the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds govern themselves in autonomous regions, with a central authority doing little more than equitably distributing oil revenue.

 

At the time, and a few times since, I expressed serious problems with Galbraith’s plan. First, Iraq’s ethnic divisions were not clear-cut geographically: Many cities, notably Baghdad and Kirkuk, had mixed populations. Where should the ethno-regional lines be drawn? Second, since the central authority would be weak by design, it wouldn’t have the power to make, much less enforce, decisions on divvying up revenue. Third, the plan would have the effect of creating three “weak states,” which would likely spawn civil wars and possibly a regional conflagration, as the neighbors felt tempted or compelled to fill the power vacuums.

 

My objections remain, but the context has changed. Amputation seems a terrible idea when one’s limbs are still flexing. It’s a bit more palatable when the alternative is death, and, in Iraq, the gangrene is spreading.

 

What Galbraith says now tips the scales – “The Iraq war is lost.”

 

We sort of sensed that, but Galbraith frames it logically – “Defeat is defined by America’s failure to accomplish its objective of a self-sustaining, democratic, and unified Iraq. And that failure has already taken place.”

 

Galbraith has in fact given up on his big plan for a sort of partitioned federation, at least regarding the southern two-thirds of Iraq.   Things down there, the areas dominated by Shiite and Sunni Arabs, are actually hopeless.  The best we can do now is withdrawing our troops from those areas and redeploy some of them to the northern sector.  We can protect the Kurds.  That will have to do.

 

Yes, if you dig down, Galbraith has long been a consultant to the Kurds and an advocate for their cause. But Kaplan notes “an objective case can be made that the United States has a moral and strategic interest in Kurdish independence.”

 

Galbraith argues that redeploying troops to the Kurdistan north actually accomplishes four goals, if you think about it –

 

It “secures the one part of Iraq that has emerged as stable, democratic, and pro-Western.”

It deters “a potentially destabilizing Turkish-Kurdish war.”

It “provides U.S. forces a secure base that can be used to strike at al-Qaida in adjacent Sunni territories.”

It limits “Iran’s increasing domination.”

 

That’s nothing to sneeze at, and he says all these goals really are worth pursuing – they are worth some sacrifice, and oddly enough, unlike other goals of this war, they are achievable.  That would be a nice change in things.

 

Kaplan argues he’s forgetting just one thing.  That would be the people in the rest of Iraq –

 

Galbraith no longer describes Iraq as consisting of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. Rather, he calls it “a land divided along ethnic lines into Arab and Kurdish states with a civil war being fought within its Arab part.”

 

At one point in his article, he writes that his redeployment plan “discharges a moral debt to our Kurdish allies.” Fine, but if we’re talking morality, have we incurred any such debt to the Shiites – who were also oppressed by Saddam and whom the United States (specifically, President Bush’s father) abandoned in the endgame of the first Gulf War? Do we, for that matter, owe anything to the non-Baathist Sunni Arabs – who are also residents of this country that we destroyed without rebuilding?

 

Galbraith’s plan reflects a blindness – or perhaps indifference – toward the plight of those still trapped in the crossfire. “We need to recognize … that Iraq no longer exists as a unified country,” he writes. “In the parts where we can accomplish nothing, we should withdraw.”

 

He is probably right on both counts, but in those parts – by which he means the Arab parts – there are still millions of people who once called (or still do call) themselves Iraqis. And for them, can we really “accomplish nothing?” Before we withdraw from the Arab parts, can we at least try to limit the sectarian bloodbath that – even Galbraith acknowledges – will likely follow?

 

That may be impossible.  Maybe we should stick with the thought of Freidman and Kristol.  They don’t make things so complicated, as they’re edging toward the “kill them all and let God sort them out” way of dealing with all this.

 

Kaplan has his own ideas, riffing on Galbraith –

 

Back when he advocated a tripartite federation, he noted (correctly) that Iraq was already moving in that direction – only violently. Now, more each day, sectarian militias are ethnically cleansing neighborhoods, even whole towns, where Shiites and Sunnis once casually mixed.

 

Before they withdraw, U.S. troops could try to help minorities relocate into areas where their ethnic brethren are in the majority – providing the means of transportation and, to the extent possible, safe passage. Iraqi troops and police may be very keen to assist, if not lead the way, in this mission—at least if Shiite forces are called on to help Shiites, Sunni forces to help Sunnis.

 

It’s extremely discomfiting to abet ethnic segregation – but less so when the alternative might open the gates to mass murder.

 

That’s a thought, but then that too is not conventional wisdom as received from the approved list of pundits.

 

As before, there are other voices, and more and more people are turning to writers who said things that turned out to be, if not right, at least closer to reality.  You find yourself turning to them.  The “big guns” may know things, but sometimes you want to know what’s really going on, and what the realistic options actually are – just for the fun of it.

 

But what does it matter?  The dinosaurs still walk the earth.

 

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Foreign Policy, Political Theory, Press Notes, Reality and all that..., What Can Be Done. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Listening to Other Voices

  1. Chaos says:

    What a delightfully boring bunch of bullshit.

    I’ll stick with the soldiers over in Iraq who say we’ve got the initiative and are running with it than your laughable bullshit.

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