The End Is Almost Near

Andrew J. Bacevich is a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran with 23 years of service in the U.S. Army. Today he is a professor of international relations at Boston University, and he has an op ed in today’s Los Angeles Times. He says there is no point asking presidential candidates about their plan for Iraq, because Iraq is irretrievably screwed.

Recall that Bush saw Baghdad not as the final destination of his global war on terror but as a point of departure. He imagined that liberating Iraq might trigger a flowering of Arab democracy. He was counting on Saddam Hussein’s ouster to jump-start a regional transformation. He expected a forthright demonstration of U.S. military might to enhance America’s standing across the Muslim world, with friend and foe alike thereafter deferring to Washington.

None of that has come to pass. Baghdad has become a cul-de-sac. Having plunged into a war he cannot win, Bush will not relent. Iraq consumes his presidency because the president wills that it should. He has become Captain Ahab: His identification with his war is absolute.

As a consequence, the “global” effort aimed at eliminating Islamic terror, launched back in September 2001, has narrowed in scope. Today the global war is global in name only. In reality, it has become a war for Mesopotamia.

For his part, the president increasingly preoccupies himself with tactics at the expense of statecraft. Much as Lyndon Johnson once reviewed lists of targets to be bombed in Hanoi, Bush now ponders how many brigades will be needed to impose order on a handful of neighborhoods around Baghdad.

Ritualistic allusions to freedom as the antidote to terrorism still occasionally crop up in presidential speeches, but rhetoric no longer translates into action. An administration that once touted its expansive and principled approach to preventing another 9/11 has abandoned principle. Now there is only Iraq and the effort to ensure that today’s news out of Baghdad isn’t any worse than yesterday’s.

Our political attention, then, needs to turn to whether the president’s would-be successors can do what Bush cannot: acknowledge our failure in Iraq and look beyond it.

First, I cringe every time Bush or some other politician says that “commanders on the ground” in Iraq must not have their “hands tied” by “artificial timetables” or other such “constraints.” The fact is that the commanders have their hands tied now by Bush’s determination to stay in Iraq as long as he’s president. The Dems’ timetables are no more a “constraint” than Bush’s stubbornness. It is not up to the generals “on the ground” to decide whether to stay or to go or what their mission is or what grand strategy their efforts are serving. That’s primarily the President’s job, yet he won’t do that job.

The generals are charged with the job of carrying out the mission they’ve been given, whatever it is. They don’t have the authority to say “this is a stupid mission” or “we really shouldn’t be here.” Even assuming the current crew of officers are good at their jobs, there’s not a whole lot they can do except make the best of a bad situation; try to do some good, try to achieve some tactical successes, guard flaming idiot senators who want to be filmed strolling through a Baghdad market. The decisions that need to be made are not up to them to make.

On the other hand — I think someday when the smoke clears we might find out that Bush, Cheney et al. have been micromanaging the war a whole lot more than they pretend to; probably increasingly so as time has gone on. And a whole lot of those “generals on the ground” will be writing books about Bush being a bleeping idiot who tied their hands every time they turned around. I have no proof of that; just intuition and long observation of human nature. People as driven as Bush and Cheney to make the war “work” are not going to be able to sit on their hands and let other people handle the job.

Finally, I think we have reached the “talking to the portraits” phase of the Bush II presidency. Frank Rich thought we had reached it last December, and he may have been right, but now it’s pretty certain.

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Sandbagging Pelosi

Paul Krugman today writes about the Little Lie Technique. You’ve heard of the Big Lie, of course. Krugman defines the “little lie” as

… the small accusation invented out of thin air, followed by another, and another, and another. Little Lies aren’t meant to have staying power. Instead, they create a sort of background hum, a sense that the person facing all these accusations must have done something wrong.

Little lies can be manufactured from trivial things, like the falsehood that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet or the Bill Clinton haircut story. These stories sometimes arise from sloppy reporting, but I think most of the time political operatives make them up and feed them to reporters. There’s little fallout when the story turns out to be false, because it was such a trivial matter. But the Little Lies add up. And, of course, the Little Lies get repeated by the political hacks doing commentary on CNN and Faux Snooze and MSNBC, and by bloggers. By the time the stories are debunked everyone’s attention has wandered somewhere else.

Krugman continues,

This is the context in which you need to see the wild swings Republicans have been taking at Nancy Pelosi.

First, there were claims that the speaker of the House had demanded a lavish plane for her trips back to California. One Republican leader denounced her “arrogance of extravagance” — then, when it became clear that the whole story was bogus, admitted that he had never had any evidence.

Now there’s Ms. Pelosi’s fact-finding trip to Syria, which Dick Cheney denounced as “bad behavior” — unlike the visit to Syria by three Republican congressmen a few days earlier, or Newt Gingrich’s trip to China when he was speaker.

Ms. Pelosi has responded coolly, dismissing the administration’s reaction as a “tantrum.” But it’s more than that: the hysterical reaction to her trip is part of a political strategy, aided and abetted by news organizations that give little lies their time in the sun.

Josh Marshall wrote late last night, “From the start of this sub-controversy over Speaker Pelosi’s comments in Damascus I’ve suspected a tampering hand from the White House.”

You may have heard the story that Pelosi said she had conveyed a message from Israel to the Syrians, but Prime Minister Olmert’s office issued a statement that seemed to contradict what Pelosi said. “With admirable diligence,” Josh snarked, the Washington Post took the Olmert statement at face value and blew it up into a big bleeping deal. And ever since news stories and commenters have repeated this story that either showed Pelosi was lying or didn’t know what she was doing.

Josh quotes a Ha’aretz article that straightens out what actually happened, and of course this vindicates Pelosi. Josh also writes,

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) is the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a Holocaust survivor and very close to AIPAC. He was with Pelosi in the key meetings in Jerusalem and Damascus and he says “The speaker conveyed precisely what the prime minister and the acting president asked.”

Josh also quotes an article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency by Ron Kampeas. This is Kampeas:

If that was the case, why did Olmert need to make a clarification, as Israelis were not speaking on the record. Lantos suggested there was pressure from the White House.

“It’s obvious the White House is desperate to find some phony criticism of the speaker’s trip, even though it was a bipartisan trip,” said Lantos, a Holocaust survivor who is considered the Democrat closest to the pro-Israel lobby. “I have nothing but contempt and disdain for the attempt to undermine this trip.”

Pelosi was sandbagged? And get this —

Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talked Olmert into a 48-hour cease-fire during the war with Hezbollah to allow humanitarian relief, but within hours Israeli planes were bombing again, to Rice’s surprise and anger. Olmert had received a call, apparently from Cheney’s office, telling him to ignore Rice.

These people so creep me out. Anyway, Josh just posted a YouTube video about this.

TPM TV: April 9, 2007

And get this, from Think Progress

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), who traveled last week with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as part of her delegation to the Middle East, said this morning on C-Span that Pelosi told Bush of the trip to Syria a day before they left, and Bush did not object.

Rahall said, “The Speaker had met with President Bush in the halls of the U.S. Capitol just the day before we left and mentioned to him that we were going to Syria. No response at all from the President.” …

… Despite the White House’s public rhetoric that the trip was a “bad idea,” President Bush “did not tell her not to go, nor did the State Department tell us not to go,” Rahall said. “The State Department was certainly aware of our traveling to Syria and our full itinerary. And there were State Department officials in every meeting that we had on this codel. So that is all hogwash as far as I’m concerned.”

She was sandbagged, people. The Bushies must be scared to death of her.

Update: The little lies fabricated about Barack Obama are a tad feeble.

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Support the Troops

My nephew in Iraq says that these dogtags are a big hit with the troops. A little donation can bring a lot of good cheer.

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You Can’t Please Some People

Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for an anti-American occupation rally in Baghdad yesterday, which was the fourth anniversary of the coalition takeover of Baghdad.

The ever-accommodating Associated Press emphasized that the rally was a celebration of the fall of Baghdad. The first sentence: “Tens of thousands draped themselves in Iraqi flags and marched peacefully through the streets of two Shiite holy cities Monday to mark the fourth anniversary of Baghdad’s fall.” There are variations on this article drizzled about the web; this one doesn’t mention the anti-American aspect of the demonstration until the third paragraph. If you want to study how the AP has revised this story today, go to The Huffington Post and check out the “compare other versions” feature.

Then compare the Associated Press story to how other news bureaus reported it. For example, the Chicago Tribune headlined its article “Sadr stokes anti-U.S. fervor / Thousands head to rally; 10 GIs killed.”

Calling the United States the “great evil,” powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr on Sunday ordered his militiamen to redouble their effort to oppose American troops and argued that Iraq’s army and police force should join him in defeating “your archenemy.”

The cleric’s verbal assault came as the U.S. military announced that 10 American soldiers were killed over the weekend, including six Sunday in attacks north and south of Baghdad. At least 69 Iraqis also were killed or found dead across Iraq.

Even so, the comparatively mild Associated Press story drew the wrath of the rightie blog Newsbusters.

The Associated Press reported rallies celebrating the fourth anniversary of the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein — without ever mentioning Saddam Hussein. Lauren Frayer’s article makes it sound like the American forces deposed a city, not a dictator: “Tens of thousands marched through the streets of two Shiite holy cities Monday to mark the fourth anniversary of Baghdad’s fall.” Nowhere in the article is Saddam even mentioned. The headline was also “Rally marks anniversary of Baghdad’s fall.”

Like I said — there’s no pleasing some people. If one were trying to be accurate, calling yesterday the “anniversary of the fall of Baghdad” should be perfectly acceptable, since it’s a bit hard to pin down exactly when the Iraqi dictator was officially deposed. Taking a capital city doesn’t automatically depose a dictator. Hussein still had some protection and influence in part of Iraq for a few more days, maybe weeks, even though his attempts to rally support for his dictatorship didn’t go anywhere. I would argue that he wasn’t officially deposed until July 2003, when the Iraqi interim council began meeting. But that’s a meaningless technicality, IMO.

Anyway — how ’bout that surge, huh?

The New York Times reports that the “new security push” is changing patterns of violence, and reducing it in some places, but the “push” doesn’t seem to be reducing violence overall. We’re just moving it around, in other words. And the rate of American deaths has gone up. See the BooMan and Paul Kiel for commentary.

See also yesterday’s Frank Rich column, “Sunday in the Market With McCain.”

It can’t be lost on those dwindling die-hards, particularly those on the 2008 ballot, that if defending the indefensible can reduce even a politician of Mr. McCain’s heroic stature to that of Dukakis-in-the-tank, they have nowhere to go but down. They’ll cut and run soon enough. For starters, just watch as Mr. McCain’s G.O.P. presidential rivals add more caveats to their support for the administration’s Iraq policy. Already, in a Tuesday interview on “Good Morning America,” Mitt Romney inched toward concrete “timetables and milestones” for Iraq, with the nonsensical proviso they shouldn’t be published “for the enemy.”

As if to confirm we’re in the last throes, President Bush threw any remaining caution to the winds during his news conference in the Rose Garden that same morning. Almost everything he said was patently misleading or an outright lie, a sure sign of a leader so entombed in his bunker (he couldn’t even emerge for the Washington Nationals’ ceremonial first pitch last week) that he feels he has nothing left to lose.

Incredibly, he chided his adversaries on the Hill for going on vacation just as he was heading off for his own vacation in Crawford. Then he attacked Congress for taking 57 days to “pass emergency funds for our troops” even though the previous, Republican-led Congress took 119 days on the same bill in 2006. He ridiculed the House bill for “pork and other spending that has nothing to do with the war,” though last year’s war-spending bill was also larded with unrelated pork, from Congressional efforts to add agricultural subsidies to the president’s own request for money for bird-flu preparation.

Mr. Bush’s claim that military equipment would be shortchanged if he couldn’t sign a spending bill by mid-April was contradicted by not one but two government agencies. A Government Accountability Office report faulted poor Pentagon planning for endemic existing equipment shortages in the National Guard. The Congressional Research Service found that the Pentagon could pay for the war until well into July. Since by that point we’ll already be on the threshold of our own commanders’ late-summer deadline for judging the surge, what’s the crisis?

The president then ratcheted up his habitual exploitation of the suffering of the troops and their families — a button he had pushed five days earlier when making his six-weeks-tardy visit to pose for photos at scandal-ridden Walter Reed. “Congress’s failure to fund our troops on the front lines will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines,” he said. “And others could see their loved ones headed back to the war sooner than they need to.”

His own failures had already foreordained exactly these grim results. Only the day before this news conference, the Pentagon said that the first unit tossed into the Baghdad surge would stay in Iraq a full year rather than the expected nine months, and that three other units had been ordered back there without the usual yearlong stay at home. By week’s end, we would learn the story of the suspected friendly-fire death of 18-year-old Pvt. Matthew Zeimer, just two hours after assuming his first combat post. He had been among those who had been shipped to war with a vastly stripped-down training regimen, 10 days instead of four weeks, forced by the relentless need for new troops in Iraq.

Most of the United States is no longer talking about whether to withdraw military from Iraq, but when. The real debate these days — everywhere but in the White House, anyway — is whether to withdraw all military personnel from Iraq or leave some sort of non-combat personnel to advise and train Iraqi security forces. I say that anyone who wants to carry out the second option had better get behind pulling combat troops out asap. I suspect the longer we’ve got combat troops patrolling the streets in Iraq the more likely it is that, someday, Iraqis will chuck us out of their country entirely.

Update: See also —

Juan Cole (at Salon) “John McCain’s Iraq Problem

Mark Benjamin (at Salon) “Injured troops shipped back into battle

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Bloggers Behaving Goodly?

The front page of the New York Times today features an article by Brad Stone titled “A Call for Manners in a World of Nasty Blogs.” In brief, some techie bloggers have thought up code of conduct rules intended to make the web a little less hostile.

It strikes me that many of their supposedly brand-spanking-new recommendations are things that I and other political bloggers started doing a long time ago. The techies need to catch up.

One of the techies, Tim O’Reilly, summed up the recommendations thus:

    1. Take responsibility not just for your own words, but for the comments you allow on your blog.

    2. Label your tolerance level for abusive comments.

    3. Consider eliminating anonymous comments.

    4. Ignore the trolls.

    5. Take the conversation offline, and talk directly, or find an intermediary who can do so.

    6. If you know someone who is behaving badly, tell them so.

    7. Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say in person.

The first two items already are in effect here and on many other leftie blogs. As you know, I keep a pretty tight lid on comments here. Some hostile commenters take offense when I delete their comments and accuse me of “censorship.” But as I see it, this blog is not a public utility; it is my personal property. I pay for the bandwidth, and I’ve worked damn hard for nearly five years to build up a readership. I feel no obligation to allow anyone to piggyback on my work to publish smears, vulgarity, lies, or anything else I find offensive. Anyone who is deleted or banned from this site can start his own blog.

This policy has paid off, IMO. I love it that you regulars often write long, thoughtful comments, whereas comments on some other blogs are mostly one-liners. There are plenty of other places on the web in which to indulge in flame wars, if that’s what you like.

There are many blogs on Right and Left that don’t allow comments at all, or hold comments in a moderation queue for approval, or that don’t allow comments without prior registration. I think that’s fine; individuals need to do what feels best for them. If I’m getting a lot of hostile traffic from a link on a right-wing site I sometimes suspend comments on a particular post, or I’ll turn on the moderation queue for a while so that nothing gets posted until I approve it. Usually in three or four days the flamers get discouraged, lose interest, and go away.

I think if I allowed flamers to post here freely they would have taken over the comments a long time ago. Allowing a pack of bullies to dominate comments is not “free speech.” It’s “mob rule.”

Regarding #3 — I don’t mind if someone is anonymous if his/her comments are within comment guidelines. I require commenters to provide an email address (which could be bogus, I suppose), but this is mostly to discourage spam. I get thousands of spam comments every day, most of which are filtered out automatically without my having to deal with them. Sometimes legitimate comments get caught in the spam filter and are not posted, and I’m sorry about that, but without the spam filter I’d have to turn off comments altogether. Technically, I wouldn’t know how to ban anonymous posters. I could require registration, but lately there have been many new registrants that I believe to be bots. I assume this is part of an attempt to circumvent the spam filter.

Regarding #4 — I don’t ignore trolls. Trolls are disruptive. If I conclude a commenter is a troll, I ban that commenter.

Regarding #5 — No, sorry, I don’t like to take conversations offline. I’ve got other things to do with my life that carry on ceaseless email arguments. I respond to emails about my posts once in a blue moon, but mostly I ignore them. I want all comments and discussions about my posts to be in the comments. If someone’s arguments are so offensive I delete them from the comments, this is probably someone I don’t want to waste time arguing with, period.

Regarding #6 — Occasionally I do caution people they are skating on thin ice and risk being banned. Or sometimes I just ban people outright; it depends on how nasty the comment is, what mood I’m in, the weather, the phase of the moon, etc.

Regarding #7 — That I do not do; I am much snarkier on the blog than I am in person. Good blogging is being gut-level honest about what one really thinks. Face-to-face discussion has a bigger element of social interaction that must be respected.

I do wonder why the New York Times thought this story was so important it deserved being on the front page. I guess the (formerly) Gray Lady just couldn’t pass up a chance to wag her finger at us unwashed peasants and tell us to mind our manners. ‘Twould be nice if the Times and other news outlets showed as much concern for the quality of their own work.

Update: While we’re talking about blogging — why I’ve got no respect for the TTLB Ecosystem.

What Digby says.

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