Jasper Smith

Commentary on politics, economics, culture and sports.

Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

Iraq policy: just how crazy?

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Matt Yglesias talks about possible motivations behind US policy in Iraq:

…while the absence of political reconciliation is probably Iraq‘s biggest problem, it’s not a particularly large problem for the American military presence. On the contrary, a unified Iraq — especially one swayed by Iraqi public opinion — might be very likely to give the US the boot. By contrast, in a divided and chaotic Iraq one can easily imagine the main players resenting the US presence but preferring it to anarchy. Indeed, Bush seems to have convinced both the Maliki government and the Anbar Salvation Front that they need American troops to protect them from each other. Meanwhile, the Kurds want us to defend them from the Turks, and the Turks want us to keep the Kurds in line and there’s really no sign of an end to the tensions and violence. From one point of view it looks like a quagmire, but from another point of view it’s more-or-less ideal.

It’s really really really hard for me to believe that even some of the certified crazy people running US foreign and defense policy these days think our current situation in Iraq is “more-or-less ideal.” Unless they’re a whole lot more fucking crazy than I thought.

First, the meat grinder that is Iraq without question is putting enormous stress on the US military, and is surely negatively impacting its effectiveness. How the hell would would the US be able to respond to an outbreak of trouble in, say, East Asia? How can that be “ideal”? Moreover, the Iraq debacle is costing the Treasury over ten billion a month, if you believe the wildly conservative, unrealistic estimates (which fail to properly account for things like medical costs for rehabbing vets, etc.). Even for a country as rich as the US, writing an eleven figure check every freaking month ain’t chicken feed. What’s so vital about Iraq’s geography that couldn’t be emulated a lot more cheaply by bases in Kuwait or the UAE?

I’m personally no longer able to perceive any rational basis whatsoever behind US policy in Iraq. It’s now all about George Bush’s worries with respect to the history books.

Written by Jasper

September 16, 2007 at 7:29 am

Choose your battlefields

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Here’s a thought: we continually hear that we must stay in Iraq in order to wage the War on Terror, and that al-Qaeda in Iraq has materialized as a deadly foe. Hence retreating from Iraq would be synonymous with being handed a major defeat by al-Qaeda.

But since when do astute wagers of war allow the enemy to dictate the terms of battle? Sure, perhaps al-Qaeda would like to use Iraq as a battleground against the United States. But why should the United States want to use Iraq as a battleground against al-Qaeda? It hardly seems obvious that just because it makes sense for your enemy to favor a particular location for use as a battlefield it likewise makes sense for you.

America clearly has good reasons for wanting to fight the enemy called al-Qaeda. But likewise there pretty clearly exist some major disadvantages for America in wanting to do that fighting in the country known as Iraq

Written by Jasper

September 13, 2007 at 7:26 pm

Public relations and perfect storms

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Kevin Drum is impressed by the efforts of General Petraeus to market America’s surge strategy in Iraq:

Five months ago Petraeus was guaranteeing to wavering Republicans that they’d see progress in August, precisely the month when the PR campaign was scheduled to go into high gear. Today he’s issuing dire warnings about al-Qaeda hegemony and nine-dollar gas if we leave, circulating bio pages that let his staff know whether they’re dealing with friend or foe among visiting congress members, and insisting repeatedly that violence is down in classified briefings where he doesn’t have to publicly defend his figures. If these don’t sound like the actions of an honest broker to you, they don’t to me either. They sound like elements of a campaign with one overriding purpose: to convince politicians and opinion makers that we’re making progress in Iraq regardless of whether we are or not. We’re only seeing the results of Petraeus’s PR blitzkrieg now, but it’s obviously been in the works for months and it’s been a smashing success. The general has profoundly outplayed the amateurs on their home turf. Bravo, general. Well played.

To which Jasper replies: if Kevin’s correct then surely Petraeus must be working for the Democrats.

For some time now I’ve thought the GOP’s only hope at avoiding a blowout in November of ’08 was to have the military at least begin a substantial withdrawal by, say, the spring of ’08. Voters could then go to the polls in November, and, even if they mostly held the Republicans responsible for the Iraq debacle, they could nonetheless be legitimately hopeful that the light at the tunnel’s end was finally shining. Petraeus’s PR success makes this scenario much less likely. You can only avoid paying the piper so long, and for the Republicans, the bill is going to come due uncomfortably close to election day. A similar dynamic tends to be observable with economic bad news: recessions tend to be very unkind to incumbent parties. The Republicans would be better off having one in ’07 than ’08.

It’s looking more and more like the GOP is facing a perfect storm of political misery in 2008.

Written by Jasper

September 1, 2007 at 2:26 pm

Posted in Election 08, Iraq, Terrorism

A lot like forty summers ago

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I don’t write much about Iraq (nor a great deal about foreign or military affairs in general) for a very good reason: I’m simply not much of an expert. Fortunately, other people seem to know what they’re talking about. Kevin Drum, for instance, has these sobering words for us:

Anbar is good news despite the long-term risk of arming Sunni tribal leaders. Petraeus seems to be doing a good job on the counterinsurgency front (though it’s frankly hard to say how much of this is good PR based on a limited number of success stories and how much is genuine widespread progress). And it’s possible that violence is down in Baghdad, though I’d rate the odds of that at no more than 50-50. On the downside, most of the evidence suggests that violence is following seasonal patterns and is going up, not down. The insurgency seems to be getting worse in the north. Civil war is breaking out in the south. Anecdotal reports of progress are undercut by suggestions that we’ll need to stay in Iraq for another decade. The Iraqi police force is a disaster and the army doesn’t appears to be much better, despite the usual Pentagon claims of improvement. Kirkuk is a timebomb. Iraqi infrastructure is in a ruinous decline. And the insurgency is apparently bigger than it was a year ago. The conventional wisdom this summer, after a steady round of dog-and-pony shows from the military, says that although political progress in Iraq is nil (or even in reverse), at least we’re finally making some tactical progress on the security front. And maybe we are. But I’m trying to be as honest as I can be here, and it looks to me like the balance of the evidence suggests that this is more hype than reality. As near as I can tell, we’re not making much progress on either front.

Read the whole thing. It’s not a pretty picture. As much as I wish he were wrong, my fear is he’s very likely right. It’s time to get out.

Written by Jasper

August 27, 2007 at 6:54 pm

Posted in Foreign Policy, Iraq

Defining down the war

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Matt Yglesisas on John McCain’s take on the situation in Iraq:

“Any rational observer would say that if the war’s lost, then someone won the war,” according to John McCain, “Al Qaeda will win that war.” This is very insightful if you’re dumb. By the same token, if buying my MacBook was a smart idea for me, I must have been ripping Apple off. Similarly, again, if Japan got rich by exporing goods to the West, the United States and Europe must have gotten poorer during Japan’s great expansion.

In the real world, interactions between human beings are often other than zero sum (see Bob Wright’s book). The Iraq War is, at this point, far beyond matters of “winning” and “losing.” Saddam Hussein certainly lost the war, so does that mean we won? No, it means that both Saddam’s regime and the American people are worse off than we might have otherwise been.

Quite So. Thing is, much of the pain being suffered by all parties right now is a result of overambitious war aims, and indeed, war defining.

I tend to see the conflict with totalitarian Islam as being eerily similar to the Cold War. It will undoubtedly take a long time. And undoubtedly much of the “fighting” will be accomplished via non-military means (i.e., economic development, diplomacy, propaganda, intelligence, etc.). Occasionally military intervention by the West may be called for (as in Afghanistan).

With respect to Iraq, I find myself belonging to the (no doubt dwindling) camp of persons who still believe the impetus for the original action — ending the regime of the mass murderer Saddam Hussein — was both morally justifiable and consistent with long term US geopolitical interests — but that the whole project was mismanaged with a shocking and genuinely tragic degree of incompetence. We should have, in other words, gotten in and gotten out, quickly.

Anyway — getting back to the Cold War analogy — I’ve always thought it very much an overstatement to say that the United States “lost the Vietnam War.” I state this not out of some warped sense of jingoistic American gunghoism. Rather, I state this because it’s simply insufficiently accurate to say the US lost “the war.” The right way to describe what happened to the US is that she suffered a series of bloody, tactical defeats in a single large-scale campaign (The Southeast Asian) in an ultimately successful war (The Cold).

So, I think, needless to say, Senator McCain has gotten his geopolitical sums wrong by forgetting his history lessons. The War itself is winnable, and indeed must be won. But the campaign has now become a deadly albatross, and needs to be disengaged from.

Written by Jasper

May 6, 2007 at 10:28 am

Film review: Fahrenheit 9/11

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Well, I finally had the good sense to sign up for Netflix. It’s. The. Best. Thing. Ever. My queue tops out at about seventy films as of right now. Make that seventy DVDs, for a good number of my requests are from the world of television (I just finished season II of HBO’s incomparable The Wire, for instance, and eagerly await season III this week).

Anyway, this afternoon I caught a movie I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time, Fahrenheit 9/11. Now, I don’t see eye to eye with Michael Moore on every single issue, but even when I disagree with him, I’ve generally found the director to be a talented storyteller and compelling polemicist. Bowling for Columbine, for instance, was a film I genuinely liked. Moore still had an air of “underdog” about him — and it was therefore easy to sympathize with his narrative, and the case he was trying to make.

Unfortunately, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a different sort of film altogether. For starters, the humor that has helped make Moore’s criticisms so biting in the past is used less frequently, and often comes across as heavy-handed. Indeed, the entire film is pervaded by a sense of “heaviness”; Moore’s doesn’t utilize the light, delicate, and richly humorous touch he’s employed in the past. Rather, his technique is to pound the viewer into submission with a relentless barrage of accusations and insinuations targeting the Bush administration. While few would argue against the proposition that said administration deserves plenty of criticism, ninety minutes of this fare doesn’t exactly lend itself to something called entertainment. Not unless, of course, it’s handled very deftly. But Michael Moore doesn’t display much of the deftness or artistry he has in the past.

One of the biggest problems with the film is the director’s frequent, but less than compelling use of his own narrator’s voice as the prime engine moving along the “story.” But this is highly problematic, because an hour and a half of hearing Moore’s voice-over accompanying news footage of this or that Bush outrage simply doesn’t provide the same level of effectiveness or entertainment available in previous Moore efforts, where we were treated to the often hillarious, moving, and searingly effective spectacle of the overweight, slightly disheveled “everyman” giving the high and mighty their comeuppance as he relentlessly stocks them with his camera and microphone.

In Fahrenheit, there’s precious little of this “stocking” (indeed we seldom see Moore at all), and far too much of his voice droning on and on and on as he comments on montages pulled from the news. As a film making technique, it’s simply doesn’t provide the same effectiveness or entertainment value as viewing Moore’s dogged attempts to stick his microphone in the faces of the ethically and morally challenged empty suits he has targeted in the past. Indeed, Moore finally does treat us to one such scene in Fahrenheit as he attempts — to hilarious effect — to sandbag various members of Congress while eliciting their opinions about the desirability of urging their own children to sign up for duty in Iraq. It’s a very funny, highly effective scene. But alas, we’re treated to very little of this highly entertaining vintage Michael Moore.

Another flaw with Fahrenheit is its simple lack of cohesiveness. There’s lots of insinuating and not-so-subtle accusing going on, but we’re left wondering just exactly what is the central point Moore is trying to make. Is he claiming that Bush stole the 2000 election? Or that Bush was behind the September 11th attacks? Is he claiming that Bush is incompetent? Does he contend that US troops are war criminals? The unfocused accusations and insinuations, in other words, sprawl so broadly and touch upon so many different topics, they frankly lose their bite and their sharpness. Mr. Moore could truly have used the services of a competent script editor, and perhaps even an accomplished and skilled assistant director.

Regrettably, the finished product packs neither as strong a punch as Bush critics would want, nor provides the general viewing public with much in the way of entertainment value. Thus, this flabby, unfocused, and poorly edited film doesn’t really work that well even as a fiery polemic against the presidency of George W. Bush. And as a feature film designed to entertain, it fares even worse. I was disappointed by Fahrenheit 9/11.

Written by Jasper

April 1, 2007 at 7:39 pm

Posted in Culture, Iraq, Politics, Reviews

Excusing the neocons

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Kevin Drum, writing about Iraq, takes the neocons to task:

David Rose’s Vanity Fair interview with the neocon elite is getting plenty of well-deserved attention this weekend. For one thing, it’s fun to play the “which quote is the most damning?” game. Is it Michael Ledeen (the most powerful people in the White House are “women who are in love with the president”)? Kenneth Adelman (“They turned out to be among the most incompetent teams in the post-war era”)? David Frum (George Bush “just did not absorb the ideas”)?

…What’s more, despite their conveniently-timed hand wringing about incompetent execution, there’s little evidence that the apologists would have done anything very different — in fact, little evidence that they cared very much about anything beyond “bringing down Saddam.”

Emphasis mine. I tend to think that if Kevin is right, he actually bolsters the validity of the neocons’ excuses. After all, bringing down Saddam wasn’t itself problematic. It was accomplished competently, and was a goal that was in keeping with US advantages (military power). Moreover, there was at least an arguable case, both from a geopolitical/legal standpoint (numerous violations of the ’90-’91 UN resolutions, failure to fully cooperate with the inspections regime, the regime’s previous, well-documented attempt to acquire WMD, its penchant for making war on its neighbors, etc.) and a moral one (Saddam’s habit of committing mass murder), for using force to eject Saddam from power.

The problem has been in the quixotic, bungled, and probably doomed from the start effort at nation building. Colin Powell is looking wiser and wiser by the minute. The US should have resisted the temptation to make Iraq safe for democracy via an extended and large scale occupation, and instead confined its role mainly to financial assistance. We should have handed over the keys to the Iraqis and begun withdrawing promptly — within, say, 90 days of Saddam’s downfall. I believe Kevin Drum himself has expressed the opinion that the presence of US forces exacerbates the situation in Iraq. He’s very likely correct.

Still, it’s a shame a credible case can be made that Iraq is worse off for Saddam Hussein’s removal from office. It needn’t have turned out this way. Perhaps if the administration had been more strongly guided by neoconservative principles, it wouldn’t have.

Written by Jasper

November 14, 2006 at 9:57 am

Posted in Foreign Policy, Iraq