Keep Lowering Expectations and Assign Blame

In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the character Arthur Dent says it best – “This must be Thursday.  I could never get the hang of Thursdays.”  A few minutes later the planet Earth is destroyed.  It’s a comedy.  Well, it’s one of those black comedies.  But for a UK radio drama for the seventies, then a book, then, finally, a movie, it has persisted.  It must contain some universal truths.  Thursdays are bad – the only day when the world could end.  Think about it.


Thursday, July 19, was like that – the feeling in the air that things were going to end badly and you wouldn’t know precisely when, or exactly how, and you certainly would not know why, ever, but you knew there wasn’t a damned thing you could do about it, as this bit of dialog from the Adams thing sums up –


Barman: Did you say the world is coming to an end? Shouldn’t we all lie on the floor or put paper bags over our heads?

Ford: If you like.

Barman: Will it help?

Ford: Not at all.

[Ford runs out of the pub]

Barman: Last orders, please!


Okay, scotch it is, with a bit of the news of the war we cannot win in any sense most people use the word “win,” and we cannot abandon, as walking ways would provide a good share of disaster, chaos, economic ruin and the rest – and a war we cannot continue as we now have consolidated and authoritative analysis (our own) that the war is making things worse, creating enemies, and putting us in greater danger than ever.


The Thursday news was this


Iraq is a nation gripped by fear and struggling to meet security and political goals by September, U.S. officials said Thursday from Baghdad, dashing hopes in Congress that the country might turn a corner this summer. One general said not to expect a solid judgment on the U.S. troop buildup until November.


“If there is one word, I would use to sum up the atmosphere in Iraq – on the streets, in the countryside, in the neighborhoods and at the national level – that word would be ‘fear,'” Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


“For Iraq to move forward at any level, that fear is going to have to be replaced with some level of trust and confidence and that is what the effort at the national level is about,” he said by video link from the Iraqi capital.


In briefings to the news media as well as members of Congress, officials warned that making those strides could take more time than first thought.


Most everyone in Congress had hoped Iraq would show more signs of stability this summer – long before the 2008 elections here.  So much for that – those folks are on their own.  For months now, Republicans in particular have been saying September was pivotal.  If substantial gains could not be found by then, then, they say, the president would just have to rethink his military strategy.  The 158,000 troops there now are impressive.  So is a dog that plays violin.  It would be time to change our approach.  Now, we’re talking much later.  Oh well.


Senator Susan Collins, the worried woman from Maine, said “I’m not optimistic.”  Someone offered her a paper bag.  No, not really.  The administration appears quite confident that congressional Republicans will continue to stick by the White House, to prevent a pullout of any sort.  But something else is in the air.  It’s a Thursday thing.


The administration is working on minimizing the importance of the September progress report General Petraeus will give.  Now they say that will not be the final judgment, and early Thursday morning, fifty House members and forty senators took buses to the Pentagon for separate question-and-answer sessions with Ambassador Crocker and Petraeus.  They were told that the political process in Iraq was “slow moving” and that it would be very difficult for Iraq to meet its eighteen reform goals in the next forty-five days, so deal with it.


Later in the day, in congressional testimony, Crocker played down the importance of meeting major changes right away.  He said less ambitious goals – restoring electricity to a neighborhood here and there – can be just as beneficial.  Those benchmarks were silly, as they “do not serve as reliable measures of everything that is important – Iraqi attitudes toward each other and their willingness to work toward political reconciliation.”  So, get over it.


On the military front, where there is no real front, Petraeus told members of Congress in the private meeting that he had seen some “tactical momentum” since we poured in a few more brigades, but at the same time his deputy in Iraq, Odierno, told reporters he would need beyond September to tell if improvements represent long-term trends.  So don’t expect much.


Then it got sticky –


According to a senior defense official, Petraeus also was asked by members of Congress about challenges if he were told in the fall to begin withdrawing one U.S. brigade per month. Petraeus said he has to plan for such possibilities, taking into account how each move would impact other U.S. forces and the Iraqis.


Crocker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he was not engaged in any contingency plans.


“The short answer is, I’m not aware of any effort and my focus is implementation of ‘plan A,'” he said.


The general is no dummy – you always have contingency plans.  The ambassador, on the other hand, is a team player – Plan B is to make sure Plan A works, as the president famously said a month or two back.  He probably said that on a Thursday.


But the day had its moments –


At one point during the hearing, the video link lapsed, prompting chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., to ask: “Baghdad, can you hear the U.S. Senate?”


An anti-war protestor shouted: “Senate, can you hear the American people?”


It must be one of those absurdist black comedy things.  Douglas Adams passed away, but someone has to keep things going.


Is this tragedy or farce, Euripides or Georges Feydeau?  Sidney Blumenthal says it’s shaping up to be a bit of both


Gen. Petraeus is promised as the dramatic hero who will stride to triumph in the last act. The author of a recent study of counterinsurgency who has not previously fought such a war, he has been thrust into the spotlight partly because his halo is yet untarnished. Bush’s unpopularity disqualifies him from the “Mission Accomplished” moment. So he pushes out his handpicked general and walks behind his chariot, hoping the cheering of the crowd will be also for him. In his July 12 press conference, Bush mentioned Petraeus 11 times, his name flourished as a talisman for “victory.” The generals with the greatest experience with the Iraq insurgency, who opposed Bush’s surge, such as Gen. John Abizaid, an Arabic speaker, have been discharged or reassigned. The burden on the ambitious general to produce a military solution is unbearable and his breaking inevitable. But for now, Petraeus’ tragedy foretold is being cast as the first dawn of a happy ending.


Josh Marshall had it figured out weeks ago.  The president just wants a parade


According to Secretary Chertoff, we’re entering a new period of lurking terrorist danger this summer. In other words, a period of danger similar to every other summer since 2001 and like most periods of low popularity for the president and before elections as well. But perhaps it is a period of increased danger. It really well might be. We’ve known for some time a mix of sagging tide of the war in Afghanistan and the mounting impotence of the Musharraf regime in Pakistan has allowed jihadist groups a relative safe-haven in the lawless Pakistani borderlands like they have not had since prior to 9/11. And if they can train they can act.


And that leads to the obvious –


It all brings into a rather fierce relief the question of what the hell we are doing in Iraq, a conflict that has made the war we are fighting against jihadism vastly more intractable and dangerous. We can’t leave Iraq apparently because al Qaeda will be emboldened and will do much better at fundraising – a revealing perspective on the part of the White House. But al Qaeda is vastly emboldened in as much as they are actively regrouping in the Afghan-Pakistani border, where all the trouble came from the in the first place. And groups all over the Middle East, who have little if any actual connection to al Qaeda, are adopting the name al Qaeda in vicarious support or sympathy or, perhaps mostly and most damningly, because we’ve managed to make it a strong brand.


And the parade thing goes like this –


And here we are, again, with the president introducing yet another new direction in Iraq. Yes, the stakes of ‘defeat’ in Iraq are very high. And that’s why so many people are so upset with this president because the whole thing is quite obviously a disaster and we are going to pay a very big price for it on many levels. And it’s his fault. But let’s not pretend that these are grave hypotheticals off in the future. They’re here. It’s a disaster. And we have to deal with it. Not pretend.


People ask what we’re doing in Iraq. And you can answer in a hundred ways and in a thousand shades of literalism to metaphor. But at some level we’re in Iraq because President Bush wanted a parade. It’s not hard to imagine how he must have imagined it. A withdrawal of most American troops from a staunchly allied pro-American Iraq. Waving flags. Heartfelt thanks and vindication for the president who had the guts and character to see it through.


And Marshall says that’s why we stay – because somehow if he just keeps at it someday he might get his parade, maybe –


Or rather if he just keeps us there forever he doesn’t have to really deal with what a disaster he’s created and fundamentally what a failure he is.


He really wants that parade.  There are no parades on Thursdays.


He screwed up, and there’s not much chance we can salvage anything from all this.  Shouldn’t we all lie on the floor or put paper bags over our heads?


Andrew Sullivan says, no, not at all


What we desperately need right now is less recrimination – can we all agree that the current crew is simply unhinged? – and more imagination with respect to exploiting the opportunities opened up by the moral and strategic catastrophe of the Iraq occupation.


Ah yes, any setback is really, rightly considered, an opportunity, or some such thing.


Josh Marshall answers that


I agree to the extent that the dangers we face because of the Iraq catastrophe are so great and the long term consequences so vast that we can’t afford score settling and jockeying for advantage. This isn’t rhetoric. Completely setting aside the lives we’ve lost and the money we’ve squandered I don’t think this country has really taken stock of the damage we’ve done to ourselves or the prices we’re going to pay for this folly for decades to come. As it is with a family so to with a country, when catastrophe strikes everyone has to pull together to help find a way out, a way back.


But that’s not where we are. A faction in this country, and it doesn’t merit a loftier label given its quickly diminishing size and its focus on loyalty to a single man, is still focused on perpetuating the catastrophe – continuing it, expanding it and perhaps most importantly denying its very existence. One might say that denial and refusal to come clean on how we got into this mess is actually the least important element. But that’s not the case since it is these that make the continuation of the policy possible.


We can agree that the current crew is unhinged. But they still control the US military and all of US foreign policy, until 60 senators agree to bring them to heel.


Here in the land of Rodney King’s famous, “Can’t we all just get along?” we know that those that have the big flashlights you can use as a club really don’t think that way.  When you’re in control, getting along is for the other people.


A case in point, in the current mess, is something that hit the press the same Thursday.  Just as the conservative hawks of yore and the “give elective war everywhere a chance” neoconservatives now say, that we would have won the Vietnam War, decisively, but for one person – Jane Fonda – so the State Department has suggested we are in trouble now, and the problem is Hillary Clinton.  You just don’t talk about things going badly, and you certainly don’t talk about alternative plans, like withdrawal.  That reinforces enemy propaganda and betrays the people we’re trying to help, and so on.


Well, he didn’t call her Jane Fonda, but he came close


The Pentagon told Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton that her questions about how the U.S. plans to eventually withdraw from Iraq boosts enemy propaganda. In a stinging rebuke to a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman responded to questions Clinton raised in May in which she urged the Pentagon to start planning now for the withdrawal of American forces.


… “Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq, much as we are perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia,” Edelman wrote.


He added that “such talk understandably unnerves the very same Iraqi allies we are asking to assume enormous personal risks.”


Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines called Edelman’s answer “at once outrageous and dangerous,” and said the senator would respond to his boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates.


… The strong wording of the response is unusual, particularly for a missive to a member of the Senate committee with oversight of the Defense Department and its budget.


Digby says it beyond unusual


It’s almost insubordinate, if you ask me. The Pentagon is not supposed to involve itself in electoral politics and it is supposed to be respectful of the Congress, especially the committee that oversees them. To call her out specifically is outrageous. People all over the country are loudly and publicly saying the same thing, including many Republicans and all of the other Democratic candidates. I think the enemy has already sized up the domestic political situation here in the U.S., and if they haven’t then we really don’t have to worry about them because they really are living in caves. Hillary Clinton’s rather restrained call to make some contingency plans is hardly going to change the situation on the ground.


They may try to claim that her allegedly dangerous statement means something more coming from a member of the Armed Services Committee, but there are a whole bunch of other members of that committee saying it too. No, the Pentagon is injecting itself into the presidential race and the debate in congress in a thoroughly inappropriate way and they should be reprimanded for it.


(Yes, I know. And people in hell want ice water…)


And so it begins.  See Keith Olbermann’s “special comment” on the matter here (with a rush transcript) –


A country – a government – a military machine – can screw up a war seven-ways-to-Sunday… it can get thousands of its people killed… it can risk the safety of its citizens… it can destroy the fabric of its nation.


But as long as it can identify a scapegoat, it can regain… or even gain power.


The Bush Administration has, tonight, opened this Pandora’s Box, about Iraq.


Thursdays are like that –


The lies and terror-tactics with which it deluded this country into war – they had nothing to do with the abomination that Iraq has become – it isn’t Mr. Bush’s fault.


The selection of the wrong war, in the wrong time, in the wrong place – the most disastrous a geo-political tactic since Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia in 1914 and destroyed itself in the process – that had nothing to do with the overwhelming crisis Iraq has become – it isn’t Mr. Bush’s fault.


The criminal lack of planning for the war – the total “jump-off-a-bridge-and-hope-you-can-fly” tone to the failure to anticipate what would follow the deposing of Saddam Hussein – that had nothing to do with the chaos in which Iraq has been enveloped – it isn’t Mr. Bush’s fault.


The utter, blinkered idiocy of “staying the course” – of sending Americans to Iraq, and sending them a second time, and a third, and a fourth, until they get killed or maimed – the utter de-prioritization of human life, simply so a politician can avoid having to admit a mistake – that had nothing to do with the tens of thousand individual tragedies darkening the lives of American families, forever – it isn’t Mr. Bush’s fault.


The continuing, relentless, remorseless, corrupt and cynical insistence that this conflict somehow is defeating, or containing, or just engaging the people who attacked us on 9/11 – the total “Alice Through The Looking Glass” quality that ignores that in Iraq, we have made the world safer for Al-Qaeda – it isn’t Mr. Bush’s fault!


Nope, it’s the new Jane Fonda.  Sigh.  But Olbermann will have none of that –


This, sir, is your war.


Senator Clinton has reinforced enemy propaganda? Made it impossible for you to get your ego-driven, blood-steeped win in Iraq?


Then take it into your own hands, Mr. Bush.


Go to Baghdad now and fulfill, finally, your military service obligations.


Go there and fight your war…yourself.


Man, it was a bad Thursday.  The same day Timothy Garton Ash had this to say


The U.S. has probably not yet fully woken up to the appalling fact that, after a long period in which the first motto of its military was “no more Vietnams,” it faces another Vietnam. There are many important differences, but the basic result is similar: The mightiest military in the world fails to achieve its strategic goals and is, in the end, politically defeated by an economically and technologically inferior adversary.


Even if there are no scenes of helicopters evacuating Americans from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, there will surely be some totemic photographic image of national humiliation as the U.S. struggles to extract its troops.


Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have done terrible damage to the U.S. reputation for being humane; this defeat will convince more people around the world that it is not even that powerful. And Bin Laden, still alive, will claim another victory over the death-fearing weaklings of the West.


In history, the most important consequences are often the unintended ones. We do not yet know the longer-term unintended consequences of Iraq. Maybe there is a silver lining hidden somewhere in this cloud. But as far as the human eye can see, the likely consequences of Iraq range from the bad to the catastrophic.


Looking back over a quarter of a century of chronicling current affairs, I cannot recall a more comprehensive and avoidable man-made disaster.


Nope, for a bigger disaster you need the creatures from the Adams book, the ones who, one Thursday, blow up the whole planet, the Vogons – “They are one of the most unpleasant races in the galaxy. Not actually evil, but bad tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous.”


This must be Thursday.



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.
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One Response to Keep Lowering Expectations and Assign Blame

  1. Pingback: Getting the Hang of Thursdays « Just Above Sunset

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