Monday, March 24, 2008

Happy Anniversary

Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac. -- George Orwell

In this week's Sift:
Round Up the Usual Suspects. Five years into the Iraq disaster, we get commentary from the same people who caused the whole mess.

About That Surge. Did it work? Well, to paraphrase President Clinton, it depends on how the definition of work works.

The Speech. Obama talked to the American electorate as if we were adults. Are we? And what if Pastor Wright isn't as crazy as everybody says he is?

Self Promotion. Just in case you want to keep up with my non-political writing.

Short Notes. Senator Byrd's prescience. Calling a foul on ABC News. "Exporting" gays and lesbians. The poor die sooner. And the usual collection of randomly amusing stuff, including Stephen Colbert's plan to bring the unemployment rate down to zero.

Round Up the Usual Suspects
This week didn't just include my 24th wedding anniversary, but also the fifth anniversary of a much less fortuitous decision: the invasion of Iraq.

In a sane world, a disaster of this magnitude would be marked by a new set of experts reviewing what they learned from the mistakes of their disgraced predecessors. But our expert class -- not just the government, but the whole infrastructure of foreign policy and military and Middle Eastern specialists in think tanks, academia, and the media -- has changed not at all in the last five years. So instead listening to the people who were right in 2003, like Scott Ritter or Howard Dean (or Jim Henley's amusing parody), we were treated to a public game of hot potato, as one Very Serious Thinker after another explained why the blame belonged to someone else.

The most impressive collection of self-serving "experts" appears on the op-ed page of the New York Times.

Paul Bremer graciously admits that he was not forceful enough in demanding that other people fix their mistakes: "after arriving in the country, I saw that the American government was not adequately prepared to deal with the growing security threats. ... I should have pushed sooner for a more effective military strategy."

Richard Perle still thinks everything would have turned out fine if we had followed his original plan to set up Ahmed Chalabi as the new pro-American dictator: "The right decision was made, and Baghdad fell in 21 days with few casualties on either side." But then Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and George Tenet screwed it up, because they "did not turn to well-established and broadly representative opponents of Saddam Hussein’s regime to assume the responsibilities of an interim government while preparing for elections."

Kenneth Pollack (Brookings Instititution) wants us to forget his previous horrible advice and listen to his current horrible advice: "What matters most now is not how we entered Iraq, but how we leave it." Danielle Pletka (American Enterprise Institute) regrets that the Iraqis couldn't handle the great gift we offered them: "Looking back, I felt secure in the knowledge that all who yearn for freedom, once free, would use it well. I was wrong." Fred Kagan (American Enterprise Institute) has learned that you just keep proclaiming your own brilliance, no matter what the facts say: "I supported the 2003 invasion despite misgivings about how it would be executed, and those misgivings proved accurate." But as soon as we started using Kagan's Surge strategy "within a year, our forces went from imminent defeat to creating the prospect of success." (More about the Surge's "success" later on.)

Meanwhile, Slate held a symposium for (mostly) repentant liberal hawks. Some of them are just as bad as the NYT's sorry cast. Jeffrey Goldberg regrets not realizing that the Bush administration would screw the war up so badly. William Saletan regrets that we may never get to invade Iran now: "The problem with dumb war isn't that it's war. The problem is that it costs you the military, economic, and political resources to fight a smart war." Kanan Makiya fights back against war critics by blaming the Iraqis: "Would we have had a moral war in 2003 if there had arisen an Iraqi version of Nelson Mandela, and are we now saddled with an immoral one because he did not appear? I cannot think like that." And Christopher Hitchens yields nothing: "We were already deeply involved in the life-and-death struggle of that country, and March 2003 happens to mark the only time that we ever decided to intervene, after a protracted and open public debate, on the right side and for the right reasons."

A few at least try to learn from their mistakes. Jacob Weisberg resolves "if I'm going to advocate occupying another country, I'd damned well better learn something about its history and culture." Andrew Sullivan has learned to take war more seriously: "[Saddam] was a monster, as we discovered. But what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster."

I fear that Anne-Marie Slaughter (Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton) is more typical of our entrenched expert class. In a Huffington Post article, she resents that people keep bringing up her mistakes: "The debate is still far too much about who was right and who was wrong on the initial invasion ... until we can fix the mess we are in, everyone who cares about what happens both to our troops and to the Iraqi people should force themselves to face up to the hard issues on the ground rather than indulging in the easy game of gotcha." In other words, she and all the other "experts" should keep functioning in their expert role at least until the disaster they caused has been resolved. (Glenn Greenwald points out that we would never accept this logic from a surgeon.)

Here's how much Slaughter has really learned: She judges any plan for bringing the troops home by "the goals that the administration stated publicly as a justification for invading in the first place" even though she admits that "No policy can possibly achieve all of those goals." So we stay forever, in other words. Matthew Yglesias (answering to a Washington Post editorial based on similar assumptions) gives the correct response:
One gets weary of pointing this out, but over and over again we see withdrawal plans being judged by worst-case scenarios whereas staying scenarios are judged by best-case scenarios. The truth of the matter is that no matter what we do with the American military, the course of events in Iraq will ultimately be determined by decisions made by Iraqis. If we leave, they might choose poorly with disastrous results. But that can happen if we stay, too.
Of all Slate's experts, only Timothy Noah asks the right question: "Why should you waste your time, at this late date, ingesting the opinions of people who were wrong about Iraq? Wouldn't you benefit more from considering the views of people who were right? Five years after this terrible war began, it remains true that respectable mainstream discussion about its lessons is nearly exclusively confined to people who supported the war, even though that same mainstream acknowledges, for the most part, that the war was a mistake."

I wait breathlessly for the New York Times to call in a panel of the usual experts to discuss this issue.

About That Surge
Another ex-hawk, Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, notes what he calls a paradox: "We are told that the surge has worked brilliantly and violence is way down. And yet the plan to reduce troop levels—which was at the heart of the original surge strategy—must be postponed or all hell will once again break loose."

Let's review: President Bush announced on 10 January 2007 that we would send more troops to Iraq temporarily: "
If we increase our support at this crucial moment, and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home."

What has actually happened is more modest. The Surge slowed the RPMs on the cycle of violence, and the only troops coming home are the extra ones that were part of the Surge -- and they're only coming home because we don't have enough soldiers to maintain that level. American casualties rose initially, then dropped, and have stayed fairly steady since November: Around 30-40 American troops die each month now -- about 2/3 of the rate we had in early 2006. Iraqi deaths also declined, then leveled off: One (admittedly low) count places them in the 500-700 per month range since September, down from 800-1200 in early 2006 and a peak of around 3000 per month a year ago. The NYT summarizes a GAO report: "the conflict has drifted into a stalemate, with levels of violence remaining stubbornly constant from November 2007 through early 2008."

One thing we should have learned from 2003: Keep your eyes on the facts. Don't get carried away by endlessly repeated spin like: "The Surge has worked."

The Speech
If you've got about an hour, try this: Watch Barack Obama's speech on race back-to-back with as much as you can stand of President Bush's Iraq anniversary speech. ("The battle in Iraq is noble, it is necessary, and it is just. And with your courage, the battle in Iraq will end in victory." My link takes you to the text; from there you can click "video".)

Look at the president we have, and then look at the president we could have. What more is there to say?

Here are some reactions to Obama's speech. Frank Rich: "what impressed me most was not Mr. Obama’s rhetorical elegance ... the real novelty was to find a politician who didn’t talk down to his audience." Time: "Obama is taking a substantial risk. ... He is asking something from Americans rather than just promising things to them." Glenn Greenwald: "[the speech] eschewed almost completely all cliches, pandering and condescension, the first time I can recall a political figure of any significance doing so when addressing a controversial matter." Jon Stewart: "And so, at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults."

Imagine what it would be like to have a president who, when a real issue appears, challenges us to face it, and doesn't just wave red flags to stampede us in the direction he wants us to go.

Meanwhile, some bloggers are starting to take a better look at those constantly-replayed Jeremiah Wright clips. If you want to do it yourself, Mr. Furious has posted links to much longer clips (about ten minutes each) that give some context. On FireDogLake, David Neiwert critiques the media's handling of this issue: "Their entire preoccupation, indeed, was with how Wright's remarks might discomfit whites -- while never examining the deeper questions of whether white complacence about race might be something worth challenging."

Speaking as someone who preaches a couple sermons a year, here's my reaction to watching the ten-minute clips: Wright's 9-11 sermon was damn good. It was based on one of the Bible's most disturbing texts, the conclusion of Psalm 137: "happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us; he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks." Wright used that reading to make a very good and timely point about the cycle of violence. If every minister in the country had preached a similar sermon after 9-11, we might have avoided Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
Self Promotion
Mostly I try to keep my philosophical/religious writing separate from the Sift. But I do tell you where to find it. Today my bi-monthly column appeared on the UU World web site. This one is a meditation on the lingering effects of Christianity, both in my personal life and in Unitarian Universalism as a whole. And on my Free and Responsible Search blog I have a new piece called "Ego and Western Common Sense" where I claim that Eastern philosophies about transcending the Ego make more sense from a modern evolution-of-consciousness view than from the old Cartesian view that still underlies our "common sense" beliefs about self-consciousness.

I keep looking for space to include this book review on the Sift. But it has been squeezed out two weeks in a row, so I think I'll just link to it. Short version: Bad Samaritans is most down-to-Earth revolutionary book you're going to find. Speaking both theoretically and from his own experience growing up in South Korea, Cambridge econ prof Ha-Joon Chang explains in very simple terms why the dominant neo-liberal consensus in economics is totally wrong.

Short Notes
You don't have to be a Hillary supporter to call this foul: The first thing ABC News did after Clinton released her schedules from the White House years was to verify that she was in the White House on "stained blue dress day". The news value of those schedules is that they help us assess her claims of experience -- was she just cutting ribbons and doing photo-ops during those eight years, or was she a policy heavy-hitter? But answering that question would require work, and who wants to do that?

A few Iraq-anniversary moments were worthwhile: Salon reminds us of Senator Byrd's speech against authorizing the war. And the Daily Show once again does the best news coverage on TV with Iraq: The First Five Years.

Stephen Colbert knows how to bring the unemployment rate down to zero "without the time-consuming step of creating jobs." If all the unemployed would just give up hope, they'd soon be counted as "discouraged workers" rather than as "unemployed." Colbert also shows up in Huffington Post's run-down of the week's best late-night TV jokes along with Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, and Conan O'Brien.

A song parody that just had to be made: Remember Hey There Delilah by the Plain White T's? (I didn't know it by name, but as soon as the parody started I knew I had heard it a million times.) Well, the FUnny Music Project (FUMP) claims that PWT front man Tom Higgenson wrote the song about an actual Delilah who, in fact, never went out with him. That leads to Robert Lund's parody, a song to be sung by Delilah's lawyers -- Re: Your Song About My Client Delilah.

The Onion News Network has two new fake-news clips about Iraq. The first reports on the 3rd annual Bring Your Daughter To War Day, and in the second ONN's talking heads discuss how to make the Iraq War more eco-friendly. The Onion Radio Network reports that President Bush accidentally signed someone's cast into law. In their print edition, the Onion reports that "a loud black man approached a crowd of some 4,000 strangers in downtown Chicago Tuesday and made repeated demands for change." The story quotes a witness' response: "The last thing I need is some guy on the street demanding change from me. What he really needs is a job."

Here's the worst thing about leaving our immigration policy unresolved: Having an illegal underclass corrupts our system. Look at this story of immigration officials demanding sex from immigrants afraid of being deported.

People sometimes argue that the growing gap between rich and poor doesn't matter for one reason or another. Well, here's a stat that's hard to rationalize away: The rich live longer than the poor, and the gap is growing. So it's not just whether you can buy a Lexus or afford a vacation home on the beach -- it's how long you're going to live.

What's the sexual-preference equivalent of ethnic cleansing? A VP at the Family Research Council (founded by James Dobson) says he'd "much rather export homosexuals from the United States than import them into the United States." See the video online, because you won't see it on CNN -- our media elite knows that it's much more important that we focus all our attention on truly dangerous religious radicals like Jeremiah Wright.

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