The Retreating Tide at the End of the Week

Saturday, August 25, was quiet in Hollywood, and still and sticky warm.  A high cloud shield had edged in off the Pacific and teased at the idea of rain, but only few drops at noon made it to the surface – whatever was up there tuned into hazy vapor a thousand feet up, and there was fitful sun now and then for the rest of the day.  Saturday morning here is coffee and the morning paper, then running a few errands and grabbing the weekly botanical shots for the photography site.  The rest of the day is for sitting back and wondering what the heck happened with the week that was.  Dim and hazy Saturdays are good for that.

 

Many do that, the retrospective thing – or they wash the car and play with the kids, and get together in the evening with the neighbors for whatever one does these days with the neighbors.  Out in the political world, where the national dialog about who we are as a nation and what we do, don’t do, should do and shouldn’t do rages – the stuff most people don’t care about that much – the “look backs” pop up in the Saturday columns.  As Spock used to say on Star Trek – fascinating – but following it all is an acquired taste.  Still, people do rethink things.

 

There was the Saturday news from Huntington, Utah – Faith Remains as Mine Search Nears End – and the Associated Press tugged at the heartstrings –

 

People here believe in miracles. Small ones, where a kind word or a soft touch can make all the difference. Big ones, too – like finding six men in a collapsed mountain mine nearly three weeks after they were trapped.

 

That’s not going to happen.  There’s a reason this week’s quotes are about pessimism and hope.  The one from Vaclav Havel is instructive – “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” 

Mark Kleiman at “Same Facts” works on that, noting that elections have consequences and some of them are deadly.  He notes that the Mine Safety and Health Administration under the Bush administration has been headed by one coal-industry executive after another.  That is what we as a nation decided we wanted from the first “CEO President” – on the presumption that business always knows better than government, and performs better as they are concerned with profit and not some vague wastefully inefficient do-good-things-for the-people idealistic claptrap.  We all believed that, and no one said much about all the appointments.  But Kleiman points to this item on how the Mine Safety and Health Administration allowed Robert Murray, the operator of the Crandall Canyon mine, to carry out the risky maneuver called “retreat mining.”  That would be mining the supporting columns of an almost played-out mine “on the way out the door.”   The mine’s previous owner had decided that retreat mining was too dangerous at a depth of eighteen hundred feet and wouldn’t do it.  The Mine Safety and Health Administration decied to approve it in this case, even with Murray’s long record of mine-safety violations.  It seems another of his companies was fined fourteen grand when a miner died after his arm was cut off by a conveyor belt because the company hadn’t made adequate first-aid preparations.  Hey, what could go wrong?

 

But Kleiman is onto something else – Murray’s campaign contributions to the Republicans – George Voinovich, Sam Brownback, James Inhofe, Bob Corker, Steve Chabot, Deborah Pryce, Mike DeWine, Pete Ricketts, Rod Grams, Richard Pombo, and Joy Padgett.  And there was the ten grand to the Republican Senate Campaign Committee – and miscellaneous checks to Political Action Committees on the “keep government out of things” side.  And the guy has his own PAC, the Murray Energy Corporation Political Action Committee – that would be two-hundred grand paid to the list above, and to George Allen, Chuck Blasdel, Shelley Moore Capito, Geoffrey Davis, John Ensign, Craig Folitin, Katherine Harris, John Isakson, Tom Kean, Mark Kennedy, Joh Kyl, Gregory Parke, Rick Santorum, Jean Schmidt, Michael Steele, Jim Talent, and Patrick Tiberi.  Yes, there are no Democrats anywhere to be seen, but this is to be expected.  It’s greasing the skids – the cost of doing business.

 

There was something creepy about seeing Robert Murray on Fox News, saying global warming was a hoax and that Hillary Clinton was un-American for suggesting miners should have a strong union to keep them safe from crappy conditions and unsafe practices.  Now it all fits together.

 

Kleiman has the notion that it would be cool if some reporter asked “the recipients of blood-money contributions” if they intend to keep them, considering the nine dead.  But he knows that is not how things work.

 

But who does know how things work?  The president on the August 22 said we all learned our lesson with the Vietnam War, even if he and his vice president declined to participate – don’t leave before you get the job done:

 

If we were to abandon the Iraqi people, the terrorists would be emboldened, and use their victory to gain new recruits. As we saw on September the 11th, a terrorist safe haven on the other side of the world can bring death and destruction to the streets of our own cities. Unlike in Vietnam, if we withdraw before the job is done, this enemy will follow us home. And that is why, for the security of the United States of America, we must defeat them overseas so we do not face them in the United States of America.

 

Yes, may thought this odd from a man who avoided taking part in getting that particular job done, but the press were gracious enough not to mention that at all.  But James Wimberley hit upon the real oddness of these ideas

 

The mental picture is apparently that as the last Americans are choppered out from the Baghdad Embassy, al Qaeda take over. Bin Laden moves in, declares himself the heir of the Abbasid Caliphs, and, drawing on Iraq’s oil wealth, launches a new wave of attacks on the USA. Happy jihadist days would be here again.

 

Where to begin with this fantasy? If the US quits tomorrow, foreign Sunni jihadists could declare victory, but would then run for their lives: most Iraqi Sunnis would like to kill them fast, the Shias would rather kill them slowly. OSL could declare victory too, but so what? He would have lost his biggest recruiting message, and the feebleness, corruption and incompetence of the American government need no further evidence.

 

And there’s more –

 

There’s another likely consequence of this “victory” that would crimp OSL’s propaganda. The Sunni insurgency are crushed by the Shia militias, with unrestrained violence – as many Fallujahs as it takes. At best the Sunni Arabs would stay on in Iraq as a powerless, tolerated minority. At worst radical Shia ethnically cleanses central Iraq, and three or four million flee as refugees to neighboring Sunni states. This could spark a regional war, with horrible and unpredictable consequences. Even if it didn’t, the refugees would form a large constituency for revanchist political terrorism, like the Palestinians before them. They could attack the United States, but for a reason.

 

So getting the job done, that victory thing, is a bit counterproductive –

 

It seems to me the only attainable political objective left for the US in Arab Iraq is to prevent the ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis by Shia radicals. It’s a political, not a military one, and requires diplomacy, threats and promises, with Iraqi Shia leaders. Democracy? That’s achieved, sort of – on the Iranian model. The Kurds have already won their independence de facto; the US needs to mediate some face-saving not-quite-a-state formula to appease Turkey, like UN trusteeship.

 

But of course that’s just not very stirring.

 

Tim Rutten in his weekend LA Times “Regarding Media” column runs down who is saying what about all this, like Hugh Hewitt, the conservative Republican activist, blogger and talk-show host –

 

When I heard a radio interview with octogenarian Stanley Karnow (author of a Vietnam War history) last night … I knew the president had not just touched a nerve, he’d touched the nerve in American history: Complicity in foreseeable genocide is, after all, a big deal.

 

This is the ghost haunting the anti-war left, and the left shudders and screams whenever it floats into the room. All those millions of Cambodians didn’t have to die, and all those boat people didn’t have to sail into death or exile … And the Democratic Congress elected in 1974 didn’t have to abandon South Vietnam to North Vietnam. America’s Vietnam policy of intervention, manipulation, and then withdrawal represented a series of choices. The Democrats of those years, urged on by a hard left anti-war front, finally made a choice to leave, a choice with awful consequences.

 

This is the crucial point: The Democratic Party and their supporters made that choice, cheered on by the anti-war left. They own the consequences.

 

Rutten characterizes this as “bare-knuckle stuff, but serious.”  Yeah, it’s right up there with “I could ‘a been a contender.”

 

But he also quotes the liberal site whizbangblue.com –

 

Bush’s argument is a popular one among neoconservatives embittered by the disaster in Iraq and seeking to shame the American people into supporting a continuation of this debacle until a Democrat occupies the White House and can be blamed for losing the war. But it is historically inaccurate … We all know who eventually toppled the Khmer Rouge and put an end to the killing fields. Not the Americans. Not the French. Not the British. That’s right, it was the Vietnamese Communists who invaded Cambodia and toppled the Khmer Rouge, putting an end to that genocidal regime.

 

President Bush, because of his ignorance of the actual history of Vietnam, has clearly drawn the wrong conclusions with respect to Iraq. The conclusion we should draw is that civil wars in foreign countries are best settled by the people in those countries themselves. In Vietnam, our meddling greatly extended the conflict and increased the number of casualties on both sides … By perpetuating our involvement in Iraq, we are only increasing the final death toll of this misguided and unnecessary war that didn’t have to happen.

 

Rutten knows these two sides will never agree –

 

But if it seems as if the argument is less about an impending tsunami of Iraqi blood than it is about who should be blamed for it, it’s because one of the things this week’s exchange demonstrates is how divided politically engaged Americans remain by competing historical memories of Vietnam.

 

On the right, Vietnam remains an example of defeat snatched from the jaws of military victory by an ideologically motivated defeatist fifth column on the home front.

On the left, Vietnam is a morality play involving the horrific consequences of imperial hubris and political mendacity.

 

About the only thing on which red and blue agree is that the Southeast Asian war was a historic tragedy compounded by bad American decisions.

 

Perhaps the president should not have brought it up at all.  But then the influential Jonah Goldberg argues that the Vietnam comparison was good

 

The mainstream media and a lot of liberal-leaning analysts seem to think it’s politically foolish or reckless for Bush to compare Vietnam to Iraq because they have one very specific narrative in mind when it comes to that war: America shouldn’t have gotten in, couldn’t have won, and then lost. What they have long failed to grasp is that’s not the moral of the story in the hearts of millions of Americans who believe that we could have won if wanted to and it was a disaster for American prestige and honor that we lost (whether we should have gone in is a murkier question for many, I think).

 

Who are these people who think that we could have won if we wanted to – the president’s thirty-seven percent?  And as for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, see this assessment

 

The Right’s sudden, tender compassion for Cambodians reminds me of the concern that materialized in 2002 for the poor gassed Kurds. American right-wingers brushed off the gassing of the Kurds when it happened, in 1988. Attempts by liberals in Congress to address the issue were squelched by the Reagan administration, which continued to support the perpetrator, Saddam Hussein. Years passed without the poor Kurds being given a second thought. But suddenly, in 2002, when the Bush Administration needed to paint Saddam Hussein as the new Hitler, the Right seized upon the gassing of the Kurds as an unforgivable atrocity – which, of course, it was and always had been. And just as suddenly American wingnuts were beside themselves with anguish over the Kurds, and they insisted another second could not be lost in coming to their rescue, even though the gassing had occurred 15 years earlier and the Kurds had been protected from Saddam Hussein by U.S. flyovers since 1991.

 

Vietnam and Iraq are similar in that they present the same paradox – that victory could equal defeat. By that I mean using enough military force to utterly crush the warring factions would amount to throwing away our political objectives. The operative phrase, I believe, is “Pyrrhic victory.” To those who continue to complain that we could have “won” in Vietnam, and could still “win” in Iraq, I say, of course. But this isn’t a game. Get over childish ideas about “victory” and “defeat” and see the bigger picture, for once.

 

Instead of talking about winning and losing, we should clearly understand what our objectives are in Iraq and then consider how those objectives might be achieved. Military “victory” and “defeat” are abstractions that don’t apply to the reality.

 

Vietnam and Iraq are different in that, once out of Iraq, I doubt we will be able to shove it out of our minds as we did Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. The Middle East is far more strategically important to us than Southeast Asia was. How we withdraw really does need to be given serious thought and planning. Just because we Americans could ignore what happened in Southeast Asia in the late 1970s doesn’t mean we will be able to ignore what happens in Iraq after we leave. Matters could get worse there. On the other hand, they could get better. There are so many variables I don’t think anyone can know with certainty how events will play out. However, the argument that we can’t leave because the situation might get worse if we do does not wash.

 

And here is Jim Henley on how the war will eventually play out

 

Most civil wars eventually end, so the Beltway Consensus intends to ride the Iraqi one out. Assuming it concludes, whoever’s in charge can declare victory, as if the whole point of invading Iraq was to eventually “end” the civil war that would break out as a result of the invasion. The whole course of events will have made a mockery of every public justification for the war in the first place. The only way anyone could declare it a “victory” would be if, after all, the aim of being in Iraq was simply to be in Iraq. Which is to say, if we end up with a basing agreement after an eventual armistice, the real purpose of the war will have been served. It just happens that they could never have convinced the country to waste thousands of American and millions of Iraqi lives (counting the refugees) and hundreds of billions of dollars on building some new forts where they’re not wanted. Which is why they didn’t sell the war on that basis.

 

That’s pretty cynical, and also rings true.  The civil war has to end eventually, and as Kevin Drum notes, George Bush’s plan seems to be to hold on and hope that maybe it burns itself out on his watch. You never know, after all –

 

But while it’s true that all civil wars end eventually, “eventually” can be a very long time. If we’re lucky, this one will end when the ethnic cleansing is finished and every region in the country and every neighborhood in Baghdad is fully segregated. That might only take a couple more years. If we’re unlucky, the war will continue until the Sunni minority is obliterated and one of the Shiite factions has gotten a firm upper hand. That might take more like five or ten years.

 

The latter is more likely, but in any case the final resolution hardly depends on the U.S. presence. The Iraqis are going to do whatever the Iraqis are going to do. As Jim says, the only thing we get out of staying – aside from the certainty of increased instability and at least a decent chance of a wider regional war – is the possibility of owning two or three gigantic bases once the fighting stops. Pretty good investment, eh?

 

And if we’re really unlucky? Let’s not even go there this evening. The idea that an American withdrawal could lead to increased bloodshed is conventional wisdom, but for some reason, the idea that America’s continued presence could be the thing that turns an Iraqi civil war into a regional conflagration seems to be beyond most people’s imagination. They should think harder.

 

And that is what quiet Saturdays are for, and for the ongoing stories.

 

Tina Susman in the Los Angeles Times – GIs’ morale dips as Iraq war drags on – “With tours extended, multiple deployments and new tactics that put them in bare posts in greater danger, they feel leaders are out of touch with reality.”

 

Steven Hurst, Associated Press – Iraq body count running at double pace – “This year’s U.S. troop buildup has succeeded in bringing violence in Baghdad down from peak levels, but the death toll from sectarian attacks around the country is running nearly double the pace from a year ago.”

 

And there is William Kristol’s latest column in the Weekly Standard –

 

All honor to George W. Bush for following in Reagan’s footsteps, grasping the nettle, and confronting the real lessons and consequences of Vietnam. The liberal media and the PC academics are horrified. All the better.

 

As the left shudders, Bush leads.

 

No, not exactly so, on either count.  Steve Benen puts it this way

 

I naively thought I could no longer be surprised by Kristol’s columns, but his latest gem pushes the envelope to new depths. Did you know, for example, that American liberals were not only responsible for Khmer Rouge’s crimes, but our withdrawal from Vietnam also created the conditions for the Islamist revolution in Iran in 1979?

 

… There isn’t even an argument to refute here; it’s just childish cheerleading and empty sloganeering.

 

Yes, sometime back Kevin Drum said this

 

The Bill Kristol phenomenon is a stellar example of what a nice suit and a sober tone of voice can do for you….

 

He’s smart enough to talk in more soothing tones. As a result, he gets columns in Time magazine, edits his own widely-read magazine, and shows up constantly on television.

 

But those “soothing tones” are gone. As Benen puts it –

 

He’s just a sycophant, blithely touting a dangerous policy that doesn’t work, and bashing those who dare to disagree.

 

Does Kristol actually believe his own fluff? I’m inclined to think so, but as Jonathan Chait explained this week, it may not matter: “Kristol’s good standing in the Washington establishment depends on the wink-and-nod awareness that he’s too smart to believe his own agitprop. Perhaps so. But, in the end, a fake thug is not much better than the real thing.”

 

Maybe next week will be better.

 

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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 Political Posturing, Political Theory, Power Struggles, Press Notes. Bookmark the permalink.

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